Friday, April 27, 2007

"Make Me Sound Like Mark Twain"

See larger version.

The last couple of Dilbert comic strips have been about blogging. You can check them out here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How Users Read on the Web

I found this article on writing on the web and thought it was relevant for two reasons:
  1. It deals with communication in a specific context
  2. It deals with how to structure your writing on the web (such as in blogs or wikibooks).
I've included a link, but here is an excerpt as well:

How Users Read on the Web

They don't.

People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word. (Update: a newer study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.)

As a result, Web pages have to employ scannable text, using

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
More on this at


In response to Amy's comment about the rather "old-school" source for this post (circa 1997)), here are a few other links on reading on the web (much more current):

"F-Shaped Pattern..." From the same site, but from 2006.

"Eyetracking..." From a site maintained by USC (March 2007).

There's a video released March 2007 by Poynter Institute explaining the results of their study.

Feel free to leave additional links in the comments if you stumble across other new research.

Knock knock. Who's there? Basic Writing Teacher. Basic Writing Teacher Who?

Sorry, I don't have a punch line for my title. Feel free to leave on in the comments section. What I do have is a few thoughts on the article "Constructing Teacher Identity in the Basic Writing Classroom" by Jacqueline Jones Royster and Revecca Greenberg Taylor. The premise seems to be simple enough: “we are all racialized, gendered, and political subjects in classroom space” (213). The greater concern, however, seems to be that “while the issue of student identity permeated every facet of the scholarship, explorations of teacher identity seemed almost absent” (216). They argue that “basic writing scholars must cease to concentrate so intensely upon the act of defining these communicative ‘others,’ objectifying them and claiming all of the power that comes with the act of naming itself” (217). The article refers to Jerrie Cobb Scott’s challenge to “‘flip the marginalization coin’ in order to allow themselves to be described, discussed, defined, or named (217). At its best, the article could incite teachers and academics alike to reflect on their own approach to the field, but if nothing else, this process might make basic writing teachers and scholars slower to generalize, realizing that their basic writing students are bound to be just as diverse as the field of basic writing teachers and theorists.

I especially enjoyed the journal entries (allusive puns and all) and think they raise some very interesting questions, including the following:

“What experiences if any will my students and I share? Do we have to share experiences I order to work together successfully?” (219)

When students ask me to justify my grading “who will I turn to? Bartholomae’s work? Mike Rose’s books? How should I answer such a question?” (220).

“When should I speak, and when should I remain silent?” (222).

Even more interesting questions are posed within the material in the appendix, and the activities seem to provide a great starting place for reflecting on one’s own teaching practices (even though some of it applied only vaguely to my experience as a high school teacher). The fact that the majority of the questions are left unanswered is somehow refreshing as well (I certainly can’t imagine Bartholomae or Lu exercising such restraint), and I think this is a case where asking the right questions proved more effective than attempting to provide the right answers.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Rebecca Greenberg Taylor. “Constructing Teacher Identity in the Basic Writing Classroom.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Redefining literacy and changing attitudes about Basic Writing

Jerrie Cobb Scott complains of “the recycling of deficit pedagogy in basic writing,” citing two key factors: “traditional, technocratic definitions of literacy” and “attitudes that pervasively but persistently resist change” (205).

According to Scott, diversifying our definition is imperative if we are to successfully improve basic writing pedagogy. For Scott, literacy is ultimately dependent on context, cultural or otherwise. In these terms, no basic writer enters the classroom wholly illiterate. Every individual is literate in their own way—even it if is only within one’s own family or perhaps revolves around a personal interest or hobby. This can be very important to remember when planning lessons and interacting with one’s class. I’m afraid teachers of writing suffer from an especial tendency to be naturally pretentious upon entering a classroom, imagining their position to be one of omnipotence and quite simply forgetting that the students might serve as authorities in other areas of which the teacher is his- or herself essentially illiterate. In other words, because one’s students have been labeled illiterate in the context of academic discourse, they are by no means ignorant in all fields. Scott encourages the reader to consider his definition of literacy: “ways of knowing, accessing, creating, and using information” (207). (Notice that ways is plural.)

As for fixed attitudes, I think Scott has helped the readers of this article take the first step toward confronting this issue in their own classrooms simply by making the readers conscious of their own attitudes and helping them begin to think about how and why changes in those attitudes need to be made. Scott seems to recognize that so much of what teachers think they believe about their subject area or how a class should be taught is less a matter of personal philosophy than tradition or habit. (I think this is one reason why so much time is spent in the College of Education working on the concept of one’s philosophy of education—a document that is written and revised numerous times over the course of attaining one’s degree.) Getting teachers to simply stop and ask themselves not only “what” they believe, but also “why” they believe it, will often cause significant changes to a teacher’s approach. In some sense, by merely reading the article the reader has begun the “deep restructuring…not only at the level of content, but also at the level of attitudes” (208).

Scott, Jerrie Cobb. “Literacies and Deficits Revisited.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Personal vs. Academic Writing

It was a welcome break to read an article where the most difficult part was figuring out how to pronounce the author’s name.* However, that’s not an entirely fair characterization of Mlynarczyk’s treatment of the controversy between two schools of thought in the field of basic writing theory. Although her own rather limited observations seem somewhat insignificant when nestled between the two giants, Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae, her summation of the ongoing debate about personal and academic writing is concise, clear, and worthwhile—particularly for those who were not exactly on the basic writing scene in the 1990s. As she points out, “teachers are still facing the question Elbow and Bartholomae considered in the 1990s: What types of writing (and reading) [should one] assign in the first-year composition or basic writing course?” (5). Indeed, this is a question that must be answered by anyone who approaches the basic writing classroom. This article provides an opportunity for explicit reflection on the issue, and though she adds little to the conversation other than in her reflections on her own qualitative study, she does well by drawing on the work of Bruner, Britton, and others to present what seems to be a fairly sound overview of an issue that is still as relevant today as it was a decade ago.

For instance, Mlynarczyk highlights Bruner’s thoughts on the goals of each type of writing. According to Bruner, Elbow’s personal writing tries “to be evocative, to convince by being true to life, to achieve verisimilitude…[and] often takes the mode of stories” (6). In contrast, Bartholomae’s academic writing “seeks to transcend the particular in order to make valid generalizations...[and] often takes the form of arguments” (6).

Mlynarczyk also presents Britton’s perspective on the two schools of thought. For Britton, personal writing is concerned with producing “‘expressive language,’ exemplified by everyday speech,” while academic writing is concerned with producing “‘referential language,’ exemplified by scientific discourse” (6).

One contrast that I found particularly interesting was the difference in the way Elbow and Bartholomae thought about the role of authority in writing. Elbow focuses on setting up contexts in the classroom where student writers are truly experts on their topics. Usually this means assignments revolving around personal opinions and experiences. Bartholomae on the other hand, seems content to provide an assignment which requires the vantage point of an expert, expecting them to rise to the task by, first, researching the topic and, then, emulating the style, tone, and points-of-view used by true authorities in the field. Bartholomae seems to view Elbow’s approach as too much of a compromise whereas Elbow seems to think of it as meeting the students halfway, introducing them to writing in a way that, if not academic per se, is at least more liberating and less stressful. I, personally, tend to agree with Elbow when it comes to initially approaching the basic writer, but agree that students should also be helped to develop the academic persona in their writing that will eventually be required of them.

*Yes, I am actually nerdy enough to care. In fact, I googled it and at least one source suggests mi-NAR-chik.

“I don’t read anything from the 20th Century.”**

**FYI: That quote doesn't really have anything to do with the article. It's just something Chaz said before class. So don't hurt yourself trying to find the connection. Also, I could not find a picture of Chaz on the web, but I was able to find a picture of his hair and beard before they first met Chaz and became part of what is now known down certain dark alleys of the blogosphere as beardedfury. According to legend, Chaz found his beard in the personals section of The Standard: “Beard seeks head of poet. Likes knock-knock jokes, Chuck Norris movies, dogs, and long walks on the beach. Brunettes only please.” If you want to know more, you’ll have to wait for the E! True Hollywood Story.

(I had another version of this in mind where St. George rips the beard off a dragon and gives it to Chaz in appreciation of his verse, but there was a time machine involved, and I hate time machines. They're so darn implausible.)

Mlynarczyk, Rebecca Williams. "Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate." Journal of Basic Writing 25:1 (2006): 4-25.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lu: "Don't Throw Out Shaughnessy with the Bathwater!"

In her article “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence,” Min-Zhan Lu sets out “to critique an essentialist assumption about language that is dominant in the teaching of basic writing,” specifically that “the essence of meaning precedes and is independent of language, which serves merely as a vehicle to communicate that essence” (57). Her approach is clever enough, if not entirely fair, claiming that: “According to [the aforementioned] assumption, differences in discourse conventions have no effect on the essential meaning communicated” (57). Words and punctuation are little more than symbols used to construct meaning, so it is only logical that the influence of discourse conventions on the writer’s choice of symbols and the way in which they are combined would change the meaning somewhat. By first taking the liberty of defining the essentialist position in her own words and then presenting her argument reductio ad absurdum, she presents the essentialist viewpoint as not merely inferior, but illogical.

She also spends a considerable amount of time discussing Mina Shaughnessy, playing a bit of tug o’ war with her legacy, wanting neither to condone Shaughnessy’s adherence to the essentialist view that language can be taught independent of meaning and politics, nor surrendering the legacy into the hands of Hirsh and his cronies.

Lu’s approach to Shaughnessy is revisionist, and she is ultimately interested in claiming her rightful portion of Shaughnessy’s legacy on her own terms. She seems to assert that Shaughnessy’s adherence to the essentialists assumptions were not fully conscious or entirely purposeful, stating: “If…some of [Shaughnessy’s] own pedagogical advice indicates that an essentialist view of language could impede rather than enhance one’ effort to fulfill these tasks, then the only way we can fully benefit from the legacy of Shaughnessy is to take the essentialist view of language itself task” (58).* And that’s just what Lu is attempting to do here. She is salvaging what she finds useful from Shaughnessy’s pedagogy, which when left in its original context, she believes “enacts a systematic denial of the political context of students’ linguistic decisions” (65). This is inexcusable to Lu who is not only interested in improving students’ writing but also wants to change “their thinking and their relationship with home an school” (63). So she spends a good deal of the article confronting, in her words, “issues that need to be addressed if we are to carry on [Shaughnessy’s] legacy: a fuller recognition of the social dimensions of students’ linguistic decisions” (66).

Overall, Lu reminds me a bit of the churches that synchronize their Bibles with their modern beliefs by literally cutting out or marking through certain passages.** Lu has the benefit of approximately four decades of additional research, yet she seems desperate to reconcile her own personal philosophy to partially outdated theory. Despite her own strides in the field of basic writing theory, Lu seems hesitant to surge ahead and forfeit her explicit communion with the ever-divine Mina Shaughnessy. However, I assume that this need to maintain this connection in order to feel validated says as much about the strength of Shaughnessy’s legacy as it does of Lu.

*Isn’t this an example of the logical fallacy of false dilemma? It is not a way or the best way, it is "the only way.”

**Disclaimer: I sincerely mean no disrespect to those congregations, nor to those who wish to view ancient religious texts as "living" documents, nor to any other religion for that matter. But I think the comparison is valid and illustrates my point about Lu quite well. Hopefully, I haven't offended anyone out there in cyberspace.

And now E.M. Forster provides the answer to that burning question:

Which came first, the meaning or the language?

"How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"
E.M. Forster

Stay tuned next week when Forster answers:
Who's the father of Anna Nicole's baby?

Lu, Min-zhan
. “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tips for Setting Up a H.S. Writing Center

I think I have convinced my fellow English teacher in my district to work with me to organize and set up a writing center for next year. Great, right? The only problem is we're not really sure where to begin. I thought if I posted this here some of you might have some great tips. (A particular concern is how to train tutors from among the student body and how to attract tutors. We could do the tutoring ourselves--it might be easier--but everything I've read so far suggests that this is sort of missing the whole point. What do you think?) I intend to read a few books on the subject over the summer and do a lot more digging around on the internet, but any feedback or advice in the meantime would be greatly appreciated.

Bruce Horner: Redefining and Rethinking

I thought Bruce Horner’s “Rethinking the ‘Sociality’ of Error” made some fine points about the way basic writing has been discussed in the past. I find it refreshing to read a growing number of authors who quote Shaughnessy without also breaking their arm patting her on the back—not that I don’t value Shaughnessy’s contribution, but conflict is a healthy part of discourse, I think. Horner also references Lu and a cast of others to essentially reiterate a lot of what has already been said in the readings for this semester (one of the disadvantages of being listed on the syllabus in March as opposed to January or February, I suppose). He emphasizes that just as history is written by the victors, so has the establishment of standards for language “favored the syntactic forms of dialects spoken by more powerful social groups” (172). He argues that the forms spoken by basic writers are just as valid in their own contexts, and therefore, colonial terms like “frontier” need to be replaced by terms that more accurately reflect the social situation that occurs in the basic writing classroom. Specifically, he recommends the term “borderland” be used so that the term no longer implies incivility, but the meeting or joining of two cultures for a negotiation of language. He explains that “definitions of error in writing must similarly involve what counts as an ‘error’ in some given social context” so that “the status of the form as an error depends largely on the relationship between a particular writer and a particular reader at a particular time” (174). Furthermore he points out that basic writers do not necessarily recognize their forms as errors and that an agreement on what constitutes an error must first be reached, not by “bully[ing] students into confessing the status of certain notations as errors” but “achieving” those notations as an “agreement reached between the writer and reader” (175). I think the most important point he makes about this negotiation process is that, although students may seem to have less power, power always works both ways. The teacher has the power to deny credit, but ultimately his or her job rests on his or her ability to teach, and therefore they must rely somewhat on their ability to negotiate with the students.

F.Y.I.: Other well-known Bruces: Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Willis, Bruce Lee, Bruce Banner, Bruce Almighty, Bruce Wayne, Bruce the mechanical shark, Lenny Bruce, and Robert the Bruce. Statistical analysis suggests that if all the Bruce's featured in this entry were involved in a celebrity death match style tournament--we'll call it the Battle of the Bruces--Bruce Horner would finish dead last. But his writing theory is still pretty good.

Above: Bruce Lee "negotiating" the martial arts with his students.
(I'm not sure, but I think that might be Bruce Horner on the left.)

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
-Bruce Lee

Horner, Bruce. "Rethinking the 'Sociality' of Error: Teaching Editing as Negotiation." Rhetoric Review 11:1 (1992): 172-199.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Spelling: How important is it reely?

Mina Shaughnessy, writing way back in the 20th Century before text messaging really got a foothold on our society, dedicates an entire chapter in her bible of basic writing to “Spelling,” but even today most elementary school classrooms across America still incorporate spelling into the curriculum as its own subject. So what’s the big deal? If I put e after i except after c, does it really matter? What’s the difference? Niece and neice—you can barely tell the difference. How about the email where you can read the whole thnig even thuogh the lettres are srcamlbed? In the not so distund passt minny peeple spelled wurds diffruntly and nobudy seamed to mind. Shakespeare has bene sad to sine his name morr than a dozen diffrint waz. Wasn’t it Andrew Jaxson who famously said "It's a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word"? Even Shaughnessy admits that “of all the encoding skills, spelling tends to be viewed by teachers and students alike as the most arbitrary” (161). So, aren't Shaugnessy and all these other English-teacher types just getting all uptight over nothing? I mean, who cares if Dan Quayle adds an e onto the end of the word potato as long as he doesn’t pronounce it?

THE READER—that’s who. It’s a matter of efficiency. If you stumbled even once over the spelling errors above—if it slowed you down even half a second per line—that’s unacceptable to most readers. Sure, creative spelling for text messaging is okay—extra letters take more time to enter and more money to send, so the reader agrees to do a little more work to decipher the message. And for individuals using chat rooms and instant messaging, speed is a major factor, so a system of shorthand was developed (“lol” for laughing out loud, etc.) and likewise its taken for granted that no one is taking time to run spellcheck. However, for the writer in the real world—as opposed to the world of digital conversations—the reader is typically a little harder to win over. If you’re texting a friend or emailing someone you know, the motivation to read is already there, but the author of an article or a book publishing to the public, whether in print or online, is essentially a stranger to their reader. If they don’t play by the rules, that means the payoff has to be pretty high in order to motivate the reader to keep digging and deciphering line after misspelled line. It’s true that wordprocessing has taken a lot of the guesswork out of spelling, but it is still an important skill that unfortunately many basic writer’s do not possess. Luckily for the teacher of the basic writer, this chapter outlines some very helpful strategies to help get spelling back on track a little at a time. I think there is a temptation to go, “Oh, Shaughnessy is writing from a caveman’s perspective—spelling doesn’t count anymore,” but I think that the problem is as serious as ever, particularly for the basic writer.

Just an afterthought in favor of standardized spelling: Can you imagine Googling the internet for information if spelling was not standardized? (There are actually sites and scripts for searching for misspelled entries because many collectors won’t see the auctions if the item is spelled wrong, so some people get great deals by looking through the misspellings.)

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. Oxford University Press: New York, 1977.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Basic Writer's Perspective

I found the chapters “Syntax” and “Common Errors” from Mina Shaughnessy’s Error and Expectations to be perhaps the most enlightening reading assingment yet this semester. Although I’ve been teaching writing in a variety of contexts in high school classes for five years now, I got a bit of a wake up call when I visited with a student from English 100 a few weeks ago. When I sat down for the tutoring session and began to look over his paper, I suddenly realized how inadequate my approach to basic writing has been. Sure, I could have shredded his paper like some kind of grammar ninja, but the truth was that 1) There were problems that went way beyond grammar and punctuation 2) I had no idea how to decode the complex system of errors he was making. Heck, at the time I didn’t even have a name for half of them. In other words, I didn’t really know what to do to help him because I couldn’t see beyond the chaos of errors. The result was a sort of generic session where I gave him tips that would help pretty much any young writer, but didn’t necessarily get to the heart of his problems.

These chapters presented me for the first time with a detailed look inside the mind of the basic writer. Shaughnessy not only details the types of errors that basic writers tend to make, she explains why they make them as well. On the one hand, it was all sort of overwhelming: that means not only teaching students the standard rules, but also disassembling the personal logic behind their nonstandard forms. On the other hand, it was reassuring because it showed a method behind the madness.

While Shaughnessy maintains that basic writers can be taught the rules to the system we call Standard English, she also does a good job of keeping teachers’ overall goals in perspective. Our goal is not necessarily to produce writers that write perfectly, but to “help students reduce their errors to a level that is tolerable to their readers” (128). Shaughnessy points out that “…many of their problems with written English are obviously linked to the accidents of transcription in an unfamiliar medium, others seem to be rooted in real differences between spoken and written sentences…” (51). So if it is “their inexperience with writing rather than with the language itself” that leads to many of the errors, naturally a lot of practice is going to be in order—so much so that the “new” standard system becomes an unconscious part of the writing process (90). She argues that “…composing requires the writer to forget about the details that a proofreader must scrutinize” (128). Therefore, not only must the new system be learned, but also it must eventually become so engrained that they are no longer inhibited by their “code-consciousness” as they write (45). This can probably not be accomplished in a single semester—definitely not in one afternoon tutoring session—but Shaughnessy seems to imply that it is the long-term goal that each basic writer should be working toward.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. Oxford University Press: New York, 1977.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The Refrain of the Basic Writer: "I lose again."

In this entry, I wanted to revisit Bartholomae’s handing of what he has called the “Fuck You” paper (I’ve bothered to type it below in yellow) and comment further on his assertion that in places it resembles something from Whitman or Ginsburg (173).

I suggested during the discussion in our English 621 class at Missouri State that I thought the paper, while obviously rejecting standard conventions for a beginning writing course, effectively and poetically conveyed the deep-rooted frustration of the basic writer in a situation where the teacher intended to merely enforce the status quo. Bartholomae clearly states his intentions: “I knew from the first week I was going to fail them; in fact, I knew that I was going to preside over a curriculum that would spend 14 weeks slowly and inevitably demonstrating their failures. This is what I (and my school) were prepared (by “English) to do” (172). The piece seems to recognize this--or more likely a larger trend--and responds in a way that indeed catches Bartholomae's attention. (In addition, the piece seems to reflect a fair understanding of Sartre, so far as I understand his work myself, which is admittedly not that well.)

I also went so far as to suggest that one approach that may have been successful (at least as successful as putting it away in a file folder for 18 years without comment as Bartholomae did) would have been to present Pierce’s work for class discussion. (This drew a number of eye-rolls, gasps, and even a few half-stifled guffaws from some of my classmates—a hodgepodge of aspiring writers and teachers.) I further justified this strategy by pointing out that, while it would definitely be necessary to discuss the way in which the piece fails to meet the conventions of an essay and the expectations for such a class, the piece did poignantly respond to the assignment.

By failing to discuss the issue face to face with his student or at least validating his frustration with a few written notes on form, he ignores a young man who has likely had teachers looking the other way his entire academic life. As I said before, this reads as a farewell letter to the life of academia, yet he doesn’t even get the dignity of a reply. Likely, the young writer could have predicted his response (or lack thereof). Perhaps bringing this piece to the attention of the entire class would be unnecessary— even counterproductive if the praise didn’t come across as sincere or if the criticism came across as too harsh*—but one has to admit that the potential for a lively and frank discussion about the writing process is there—not to mention what is suggested about Sartre.

Furthermore—I’m preparing myself for the eye-rolling this time—I would argue that, while it clearly doesn’t surpass Whitman and Ginsburg at their best, it is at least as good as they are at their worst. (It certainly lacks the pretension that can pervade Whitman and stops far short of Ginsburg’s pedophiliac doggerel.) I’m not saying that it belongs in the Norton Anthology of Literature, but I am saying that, if—as Bartholomae seems to suggest—we view basic writers as a subculture created and kept down by the system, Quentin Pierce might have been their Langston Hughes. (To be fair, I should probably note that much of what "works" for me about QP's piece may very well have been unintentional--accident, rather than intent.)

As someone pointed out, there is also the possibility that if you did not make your expectations very clear, sharing the work could encourage others to emulate its style--vulgarity and all.

The following is Quentin Pierce’s response to the prompt "If existence precedes essence, what is man?" I apologize for any inadvertent corrections or other typing errors.

If existence precedes essence main is responsible for what he is.

This is what stinger is trying to explain to us that man is a bastard without conscience I don’t believe in good or evil they or meanless words or phase. Survive is the words for today and survive is the essence of man.

To elaborate on the subject matter. The principle of existentialism is logic, but stupid in it self.

[Then there is a string of scratched out sentences, and the words “STOP” and “LOSE” written in caps. Then there is this:]

Let go back to survive, to survive it is necessary to kill or be kill, this what existentialism is all about.

Man will not surivive, he is a asshole.


The stories in the books or meanless stories and I will not elaborate on them This paper is meanless, just like the book, But, I know the paper will not make it.


[Then there are crossed out sentences. At the end, in what now begins to look like a page from Leaves of Grass or Howl, there is this:]

I don’t care.

I don’t care.

about man and good and evil I don’t care about this shit fuck this shit, trash and should be put I the trash can with this shit

Thank you very much

I lose again.

(Qtd. In Bartholomae 172)

"[Grammar] is not defined by the number of its victims, but by the way it kills them.**
-Jean-Paul Sartre

**It may be of interest to some existentialist scholars that the original quote actually reads "Fascism is not defined by the number of its victims, but by the way it kills them." BTW, doesn't Sartre himself look a little confused in that picture? Either that or something smells funny.

Also, things Sartre really did say:
"A lost battle is a battle one thinks one has lost. "
"Words are loaded pistols."

As an afterthought, I’m half tempted to present this to my high school classes for their reactions, but the vulgarity (and their predisposition to despise poetry almost indiscriminately) makes me weary. I’ll let you know if I decide to carry through.

Bartholomae, David. “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

(Added Sat., Feb. 10): Check out this post at Syrup of Wahoo for further discussion.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

My Start in the Pedagogical West

In the first chapter of Mina P. Shaughnessy's Errors & Expectations, she discusses her time pioneering the SEEKS program during the early years of open admissions at the City University of New York in 1970. However, the things she said kept reminding me of my own experiences as a beginning teacher of writing in a small* rural high school in the Midwest. When I began teaching in 2002, I was the high school English Department. I taught six different classes, including a college preparatory course that was to focus heavily on composition. Our superintendent was new as well and at the end of my first full week of teaching, his secretary came around and collected my curriculum guide for “revision.” It never came back. So there I was working alone and without a framework. If that wasn’t bad enough my students were little better than those Shaughnessy describes. I, too, after the first week thought to myself: "Nothing...short of a miracle [is] going to turn such students into writers...everyone [is] probably going to fail" (3). And the truth is that many of them did fail and a lot of it was owing to my attitude about basic writing. It pangs my conscious considerably to know that there were students in that first year who I could have approached with compassion and patience, who I instead alienated by defacing their papers with bright red academic graffiti. I had always had a natural talent for stringing words together on paper, so I didn't understand to what degree "the BW student both resents and resists his vulnerability as a writer" (7). The idea of leaving a trail of error never really occurred to me then—but how I would have hated the idea! In fact, I think sometimes I thought of unmarked errors in their writing as mistakes I didn’t catch. So what did I do? I marked them all. I was the Mussolini of English grammar. My overzealous proofreading took hours and hours. It sickens me to think that I could have put all that effort toward actually teaching them how to write if only I’d had a little guidance. My intentions were good, but in so many ways I was too insecure and too inexperienced to focus on the big picture. My classes may have been filled with students at the basic level as writers, but I was at the basic level as a writing teacher. It was a difficult time, but my students and I learned and grew together, though perhaps not as efficiently as we could have with a little more guidance.

*I know some people say "small" and they mean “just a few hundred students,” but I'm talking about graduating classes generally in the teens. Small and rural tends to imply so much, but I'm going to have to leave the rest to your imagination as I don't think further description of the students or the district would be prudent at this time.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. Oxford University Press: New York, 1977.

"[Grammar] is a religion."**
-Benito Mussolini

**It may be of interest to some historical scholars that the original quote actually reads "Fascism is a religion." However, that sort of spoils the joke, doesn't it? FYI, the photo of Mussolini was taken right after he finished his first reading of Strunk's Elements of Style. Look how smug and self-satisfied he is with all that grammatical Knowledge! I'll bet he's just dying to omit some needless words.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Akeelah and the Bee (2006) ****-

I recently watched the film Akeelah and the Bee (2006) in which an 11 year old girl from the inner city is coerced into participating in a spelling bee. The situation in the movie is a little different than what Rose is talking about, but not entirely. (She does poorly at school in general, but hardly begins as what one would call a struggling or "basic" speller.) The movie says a lot about recognizing potential in unlikely students, the failure of public school systems to cultivate natural precociousness, and the need for students to feel entitled to their place in the classroom. At one point her spelling coach requires her to read the following quote aloud: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” (This is an excerpt from "A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles" by Marianne Williamson). Basic writers need to understand that just because they have to work a little harder to get their ideas onto paper, the fact that they struggle does not give them the right to give up, and that moreover, what they have to say is worth the time to put on paper.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Basic Writing

Basic Writing means different things to different people, but for those who have been labeled “basic writers” it can be a self-perpetuating stigma. Not only do they often end up on vocational or remedial tracks, too often they begin to think of themselves as incapable—not as lacking instruction or practice, but simply “too stupid” to ever learn. Educator Mike Rose explains in an episode of A World of Ideas with Bill Moyers entitled "Invitation to Education with Mike Rose” that being labeled a basic writer can be an undue source of frustration for many individuals who already struggle with the skills involved. He describes some of the many ways in which this frustration can manifest itself: withdrawing, acting out, getting "stoned," skipping class. However, he suggests that the most fundamental problem revolving around basic writers is not their lack of actual writing skill, but their sense of deserved disenfranchisement. Whether working with inner city youth or illiterate Vietnam veterans, Rose finds that a major obstacle is getting them to understand that they are entitled to be a part of the conversation—that they have something valid and valuable to add to the discussion. Rose tells Moyers, “Any kid that has been written off...has potential that we just don’t see.” For those for whom writing has been a “distant, foreign, frightening experience,” learning to write is about more than learning grammar and punctuation. It’s about learning to relate one’s own ideas, emotions, and experiences to others—and that requires not only writing skills but self-confidence. Therefore, he looks at his work with basic writers not so much in terms of remediation, but as extending an invitation to enter the conversation of our society.