Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My Teaching Philosophy

My teaching philosophy and my course plan seem to be in a constant state of flux. I used to worry about all this change but recently Prof Hacker wrote that constant innovation is actually a sign of great teaching so I will stop worrying about that anyway.

I see myself primarily as a teacher of writing and so focus is on composition pedagogy. Of course there are many composition pedagogies and I find mine influenced by five schools of thought (at least) in my current incarnation. Is that something new to worry about?

I was first introduced to process pedagogy when I was a student in Lee Brooks' sophomore high school English class. The idea literally changed my life. I believe I would never have gone on to become a professional writer and writing teacher without that experience. As a result, process pedagogy continues to play an important role in the way I teach writing and my teaching is strongly influenced by the work of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray. As Elbow teaches, I encourage true invention such as freewriting, playing with words, etc. As Murray teaches, I encourage writing for discovery and exploration and a willingness to take risks. I teach writing to writers and believe everyone is a writer. While I believe strongly in the power of process, I loath the forced structure taught in so many textbooks and classrooms. I believe every writer should develop an individual writing process that is flexible enough to adapt to many writing tasks. I long resisted the idea of post-process but admit that while I continue to think process is key to developing as a writer my classroom is more post-process. While it includes some element of choice and follows a workshop model that includes iterations of drafting, feedback, and revision, I do limit the range of topics and utilize mini lessons.

I firmly believe in placing the writer and writing at the center of the classroom and every activity and assignment is focused on one simple goal – writing development – which is definitely influenced by expressive pedagogy. My classes have long included freewriting, journals, reflective writing, and small group work. I am strongly influenced by bell hooks' “engaged pedagogy” and Paulo Freire's “liberatory pedagogy” as well as the work of James Britton and the National Writing Project. I understand I am teaching the whole student and I strive to build a critical consciousness about thinking and writing (and thinking about writing).

Collaboration has long been an important part of my life as a writer. As a published novelist I worked with writing groups and as a newspaper reporter and editor writing groups were also key. I learned the power of peer response for myself and as a result have always made it a part of my writing classroom and then as I learned more about the work of Kenneth Bruffee, Anne Ruggles Gere, and Richard Rorty collaborative pedagogy became a central part of my teaching. I believe, as Charlotte Thralls and Patricia A. Sullivan write, that collaborative pedagogy mirrors the true nature of writing and this is another reason it strongly influences my teaching.

Like Ira Shor I often ask myself, and my writing students, what is good writing and how do you become a good writer. My recent move to a writing studies pedagogy for my composition classes is a good demonstration of my own commitment to critical pedagogy. As Freire, Henry Giroux, and Shor have taught, my classes are student-centered and focused more on questions that students ask and answer than questions and answers provided by the instructor alone. I believe greatly in the power of thinking and communication and hope to improve the skills of my students in these essential areas but realize they must be able to take the lead to do so.

Of course these concerns also lend themselves to feminist pedagogy. I strive to decenter authority in my classes as much as possible and place more emphasis on process than product. I hope my students will gain a better understanding of social justice and issues of power as we read, write, and think together to explore these important issues.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing About Writing

I'm not talking about Metawriting now but rather the strategy Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle propose for first-year composition (FYC) which focuses on improving students' understanding of writing, rhetoric, language, and literacy (see Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning "First-Year Composition" as "Introduction to Writing Studies"). The focus of this post is to explain what led me to experiment with this approach for my own FYC classes in the Spring 2010 semester.

The issue of transfer has increasingly bothered me as I planned my writing classes in recent years. This nagging concern has caused me to rebuild my classes based on the inquiry and genre work of David Jolliffe as well as the research of Anne Beaufort and work of David Smit. There are many others who influenced my recent efforts to refocus and restructure my FYC classes.

As a result of these influences I have been heading in the direction of writing studies pedagogy with each new semester's evolution of FYC and the Downs-Wardle model seemed to be the next logical step. This was confirmed as I began to study the syllabi, reading lists, and assignment sheets of others working on this approach.

The longer I teach writing and the more I study the research of this field, then the more I think that traditional goals and methods are not working. Downs and Wardle make this very point as they argue that more than 20 years of "research and theory" have "repeatedly demonstrated" that not only does "a unified academic discourse" not exist but that research and theory have also "seriously questioned what students can and do transfer from one context to another" (p. 552). In essence, FYC is making a promise it cannot deliver.

However, I remain committed to teaching writing and communication skills because I believe they are so important, essential in fact, to success in life. So how do we help our students improve if we cannot teach them how to write? Perhaps the answer, as Downs and Wardle posit, is to teach them about writing.

The Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) has adopted an Outcomes Statement for FYC that focuses on four major goals for writing instruction: rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading, and writing; processes; and knowledge of conventions. Downs and Wardle argue that students write for so many different communities in college and beyond it is an impossible task to prepare students, in one or two classes, for all the specialized rhetorical and convention knowledge necessary for each community -- especially when the student and instructor cannot know which communities the student will join in the future. The main crux of the Downs and Wardle argument is that "far transfer" is difficult and most FYC courses are not up to the task. My own teaching experience certainly seems to bear this out.

They instead argue we can make students "better writers by teaching about writing. "Instead of teaching situational skills often incorrectly imagined to be generalizable, FYC could teach about the ways writing works in the world and how the 'tool' of writing is used to mediate various activities" (p. 558). Downs and Wardle reimagine FYC as "Introduction to Writing Studies--a course about how to understand and think about writing in school and society".

While consisting of the same activities as the more traditional FYC classes -- reading, writing, research, and argument -- the focus is on understanding writing rather than other topics which typically vary widely and offer students no context. "In this course, students are taught that writing is conventional and context-specific rather than governed by universal rules--thus they learn that within each new disciplinary course they will need to pay close attention to what counts as appropriate for that discourse community" (p. 559). Through the reading, writing, and research students conduct in this course, both Downs and Wardle discovered in their pilot offerings of the class that students developed increased self-awareness about writing. I agree with Downs and Wardle that increased self-awareness about writing may be the best path to improving student writing.

Clearly there are challenges for this new pedagogy including the facts that it is intellectually demanding of students; as a new pedagogy there is not a solid infrastructure in place, such as a corpus of textbooks and assignments; students are more likely to generate imperfect work; and instructors must be knowledgeable about writing studies.

Critics have also argued that teaching about writing may not improve writing. Downs and Wardle respond that "writing studies pedagogy is also consonant with current understanding of transfer. Proven means of facilitating transfer include self-reflection, explicit abstraction of principles, and alertness to one's context" (p. 576).

I have used self-reflection et al in my FYC courses in the past and feel that strategy has been somewhat effective, but I have still felt something was lacking and that my students did not fully grasp how the abstract principles we discussed could be applied to future writing contexts. That is why I found the writing studies pedagogy to be such an interesting and challenging idea and why I was so eager to implement it this semester -- even if redesigning a course over Christmas break is not an ideal situation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Metawriting?

Quite simply that is what I plan to do in the blog -- write about writing.

Really, writing is probably only going to be a part of it as I will certainly be reflecting a great deal of the time about communication in general (as a technical communicator) as well as particular aspects of communication such as writing. In the interests of true accuracy I should have named the blog Metacommunication but I'm not sure I like that as much as I like Metawriting. Have to ponder I suppose...maybe see how things shake out? But enough blather about that.

The question is why metawriting -- why writing about writing? I used to think the main method to become a better writer was simply to write more. As I saw my students write more but not really progress and repeat mistakes, I began to question the old adage that practice makes perfect. This is because writing is more than a skill set or muscle memory -- writing is thinking. Yes, you need to write to become a better writer but that writing must be accompanied by thinking or you will not see the improvement you want. This is quite simply why metawriting is now a requirement in all my writing classes. I think the key to reflectively writing about your writing -- challenges, problems, successes, processes, etc. -- can help any writer at any level.

This blog is intended to focus on writing about writing (or communicating about communicating) in order to better understand writing as a writer, teacher, and researcher. I have worked as a professional writer for decades but I still sometimes struggle with certain writing tasks. I do not think you are ever DONE learning about writing or growing as a writer. Certainly I continued to need metawriting to help me learn and grow as a writer. Now my primary job is teaching writing to other writers as well as working with other teachers of writing to improve the teaching of writing. As a teacher of writing it is even more important that I understand how people learn to write and the problems and challenges involved in that process. Of course, while there is a growing body of research about how people learn to write, there are many questions remaining and that is why I am interested in conducting my own research on the subject as well.