Since accepting my role as a teacher’s assistant, I have given much thought to how I want to set up and run my class. When teaching first-year composition, there is a paradox wherein you want to teach universal writing skills, but the more you understand writing and writing instruction, the more you know that writing is influenced by genre. This issue is compounded by the fact that I will be teaching hybrid classes, and thus will have to adapt my teaching skill for both physical and digital audiences.
If I need to know how to approach genre, medium, and audience, I want my students to learn how to do so as well. This means that I want to teach them both traditional forms of writing (for example, the rhetorical analysis or personal narrative) as well as nontraditional forms of writing (for example, blog posts and discussion board posts with comments). In accordance with CCCC Position Statements, I would spend more time on the composition aspects of those assignments and less time on technology. In the case of the blogs, they might have to be more theoretical than practical, although I want to give students an introduction into writing and analyzing multimodal works, as per the NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies. It’s important to me to break students out of certain thought patterns like the five-paragraph essay and to think of writing in terms of efficacy. When I took creative nonfiction in undergrad, we talked briefly about how the word “essay” comes from the French word for “to try.” Writing is an effort, writing is hard work, and simultaneously, writing is not scary. It seems scary because it is frequently amorphous, but I want to teach students to embrace that creative freedom instead of running from it.
In the current concept of my first-year composition course,
I would start with a personal introduction (likely spoken with a required
written component, say, an index card with talking points), then transition
into digital and informal forms of communication, emphasizing discussion board
posts. Next, I would like to have students interview a professor or other
non-related adult and write a reflection about the experience, move into a
personal narrative, and work towards literature reviews, rhetorical analyses,
and research papers. I want reflection to be a consistent component in the
course, pushing the students to consider what language they use when and why (WPA
Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition). At no point do I want students
to wonder why I required a certain assignment or a certain element of an assignment;
the point should be clear from the improvement in writing quality and
communication in class.
The line I have trouble walking with designing a first-year composition course is the perfunctory nature of enrollment. I suspect (although I do not know) that students will be there less out of personal interest and more out of a course requirement, and each student who walks into the class has different needs and motivations. I want it to be a useful, preferably even enjoyable, experience, but I am concerned that I will care about student outcomes more than the students themselves.
Time will tell.
“CCCC Position Statements.” Conference on College
Composition, 22 October 2018, cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions.
(Title taken from a Joyce Carol Oates short story of the same name)
I recently described my educational background to someone who had a hard time reconciling my BA in Psychology with the fact that I am getting a Master’s in Professional Writing. How does someone go from a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with minors in Chemistry and Criminal Justice to spending her time writing, especially writing poetry? To me, the connection is clear: writing is all about cognition.
Well, cognition and metacognition, which are not the same thing (Tinberg 75). When I work with student essays, I often ask them to identify what they know and how they know it. What they know is the cognitive aspect of writing, a process that begins before the writing itself, from the very moment the student begins reading (Tinberg 76; Dryer 72). How they know it is the metacognitive process (Tinberg 76)—the student must consider how the information is presented and how it structures its message.
Writing, as we know, reflects aspects of an individual’s life and personality. What might not have been evident from that post is that writing—and, by extension, cognition and metacognition—is also a shaping process.
A common method for mental health treatment is called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
I’ve been in CBT a couple of times, and two exercises I completed as part of the treatment were self-esteem affirmations and cognitive journaling.
The long and the short of it is that you engage with the ideas that you write. The physical writing, the words and grammar and syntax, are all part of cognition. The ideas, the notion that you are worthy of love and mistakes do not decrease your value or right to existence, are part of metacognition. When you are asked to journal about your good features or the day’s positive events, you are forced to place more emphasis on these positive characteristics. Thereby, you get used to considering them, and you wind up seeking out those ideas even when you aren’t writing. Have you ever spent a long time reading and started thinking in terms of narration and dialogue? It’s like that. The more you become accustomed to certain thought patterns, the more likely you are to repeat those patterns, and so on.
This process is neutral; recurring cognitive patterns have both positive and negative repercussions. When your thoughts are healthy and self-affirming, they lead to a healthy and self-affirming outlook. When they are unhealthy and self-destructive, they lead to an unhealthy and self-destructive outlook. Similarly, when you write, becoming accustomed to patterns can be useful to learning citation styles and genre conventions, but they can also ensnare you in them. In English: if you don’t want to write a single genre for the rest of your life, it is important to experiment early and often.
Reflection is part of that experimentation. Where I ask students what they know and how they know it to engage in cognitive-metacognitive processes, reflection asks students to consider where they are going and where they have been. This reflection is also a metacognitive process, but it is more focused on the individual than a rhetorical analysis is. Reflection asks you the cognitive question of “what did you write?” as well as metacognitive questions about who you are and what you seek to accomplish. I write in part due to my mental illnesses, because they shape how I view and interact with the world. Both psychology and writing help me to understand who I am and what I want.
So, I leave you with this: where are you going? Where have you been?
Dryer, Dylan B. “Writing Is (Also Always) A Cognitive Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 71-74.
Taczak, Kara. “Reflection Is Critical for Writers’ Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 78-79.
Tinberg, Howard. “Metacognition Is Not Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 75-76.
I’m starting a podcast! It has the same title as this portfolio (Violet Prose) and can be found on Buzzsprout or under the “Podcast” page nestled under “Additional Content.” Please feel free to leave comments, reviews, etc. and spread by word of mouth! The first full episode will be about imagery.
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
During my first writing-based class in undergrad, I made a B on the first essay I turned in, even though I was not predominantly a B student. My reaction then, as I have seen many students react to assignments since, was “but I’m a good writer.”
The icky, uncomfortable truth is that there is not necessarily such a thing as a “good writer,” because it is difficult to impossible to define “good writing” (Rose 60). Some traits carry over, like clarity and concision, but application varies from genre to genre and from audience to audience. How do you decide what is clear and concise in a legal journal or case brief as opposed to a newspaper article about a trial? Same source material, completely different expectations. What is clear and concise to a lawyer is not necessarily going to be clear and concise to a kindergarten art teacher.
Jenna Moreci created a video about writing tips, incorporating some tactics which translate to different types of texts (reading aloud for clarity and to check for errors, outlining and visual outlining, and writing sprints), but she writes for an audience of fiction writers, most of whom write novels. Thus, most of her tips are geared towards novel completion and publication rather than a generalized writing audience, which is everyone.
After a student finds appropriate mentors (Rose 59-60), there is a benefit to experience. In psychology, there is a term called practice effects, which refers to the phenomenon that the more participants become accustomed to being asked certain questions, the better equipped they become to answer those questions.
I wrote in an earlier post that I want students to learn that it is okay to fail, and I stand by that. “We often forget […] that successful writers aren’t those who are simply able to write brilliant first drafts; often, the writing we encounter has been heavily revised and edited and is sometimes the result of a great deal of failure” (Brooke and Carr, 62). Speaking of writing techniques, Randy Ingermanson developed the snowflake technique for writing a novel, which is based on the mathematical concept of fractals. The basic idea is to start with the simple basis of your project and to expand on it systematically, but even then, Ingermanson says that your project (again, probably a novel) will require multiple drafts.
The next time you or one of your students think “but I’m a good writer,” say, “Yes, maybe you are—but that doesn’t mean you stop learning, and it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer if you make a single mistake.”
“[L]earning to write effectively, especially in different contexts or communities of practice, takes different kinds of practice, and such practice takes time and effort” (Yancy 65). Writing requires instruction and practice and cannot be perfected overnight. The sooner we and our students can understand that, the better. If Jackson Pollock can get away with his paintings, you can survive a misplaced comma, dangling modifier, or split infinitive. Get messy, get creative, get loud. Just remember to return to the page and be ready to work.
Beglinger, Leigh J., et al. “Practice Effects and the Use of Alternate Forms in Serial Neuropsychological Testing.” Archives Of Clinical Neuropsychology: The Official Journal Of The National Academy Of Neuropsychologists, vol. 20, no. 4, June 2005, pp. 517–529. doi: 10.1016/j.acn.2004.12.003
Brooke, Collin and Allison Carr. “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 62-64.
Rose, Shirley. “Writers Have More to Learn.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 59-61.
Yancy, Kathleen Blake. “Learning to Write Effectively Requires
Different Kinds of Practice, Time, and Effort.” Naming What We Know:
Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and
Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 64-65.
Wow! Impressive title, right? Kind of intimidating to look at? To understand what it means, a little context. In high school, I was a super nerd. I went to a magnet school for the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) and was co-captain of Envirothon, an environmental science academic team. One of the fields of environmental science I studied for competition was forestry, and amongst other things, I learned how scientists use tree rings to study the history of trees, which is referred to as dendrochronology. The short version is that weather, presence of parasites, age, and other factors affect how a tree grows. You can dissect a tree’s entire life if you know what to look for.
Literary anthropology, on the other hand, is the study of humanity through the lens of literary texts. According to Kathleen Blake Yancy, “[w]riters’ identities are, in part, a function of the time when they live: their histories, identities, and processes are situated in a given historical context” (52). So, people—individual people and people as representatives of their respective cultures—can be studied and analyzed based on what they write, which is essentially antithetical to the Death of the Author theory and supportive of auteur theory.
At its core, literary anthropology maintains that literature is a mirror with which we can see our identities and cultures reflected.
Nevertheless, identity is rarely that simple; “[w]riting provides a means whereby identities are discovered and constituted. Yet those are never clear cut” (Villanueva 57). I had the fortune of attending a reading for fellow Mercer University alum and published poet Sara Pirkle Hughes. When asked if she considered herself a Southern poet, she replied that that was for the historians to decide.
Warning for racist language—a Chinese American poet tweeted the following:
“the 1st time i heard the word ‘chink’ was from a white boy i liked in 8th grade. he said he liked me too, liked that i didn’t have ‘really chinky eyes.’ i took it as a compliment. it took years for me recognize the racism, including the racism i’d internalized. words matter.”
Chen Chen felt alienated enough from his identity as an Asian man that he was willing to accept the backhanded, racist compliment from a boy if it fed him a scrap of validation. “Our identities are the ongoing, continually under-construction product of our participation in a number of engagements, including those from our near and distant pasts and our potential futures” (Roozen 51); at one point, his participation in racist culture caused him to internalize anti-Asian racism, and later on, his experiences allowed him to overcome that prejudice and gain pride in his identity.
Meanwhile, Sara Pirkle Hughes considers herself ill-equipped to define herself or her place in the contemporary literary scene. This uncertainty comes from a different source, owing less to insecurity and self-hatred than to the fact that “identities are, in part, a function of the time when they live: their histories, identities, and processes are situated in a given historical context” (Yancy 52). She cannot determine whether she is a Southern poet or not because that historical legacy has yet to be set.
What we can learn from all these facts—dendrochronology, literary anthropology, and the commentaries of Sara Pirkle Hughes and Chen Chen—is that while writing is useful as a way of determining and expressing identity, this tool is only useful in retrospection. Because we change and our writing changes alongside ourselves, our writing can only be analyzed for clues after we die and/or after we stop creating. Until then, we can only do our best to stay vigilant, self-reflect, and consider what our words say about us.
Students, writers, and people in general should know not just the value of their words and understand that while their writing reveals a lot about them, they are not married to whatever identity they espouse. There is always room, and time, for change.
@chenchenwrites. “the 1st time i heard the word “chink” was from a white boy i liked in 8th grade. he said he liked me too, liked that i didn’t have “really chinky eyes.” i took it as a compliment. it took years for me recognize the racism, including the racism i’d internalized. words matter.” Twitter, 13 Sep. 2019, 2:45 p.m., https://twitter.com/chenchenwrites/status/1172627325252505607.
Gisriel, Jim. “What is Auteur Theory? | Deep Focus.” YouTube, uploaded by Jim Gisriel, 11 September 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzTRjsefTXc.
Nicholas, Tom. “The Death of the Author: WTF? Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author Explained.” YouTube, uploaded by Tom Nicholas, 3 April 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9iMgtfp484.
Poyatos, Fernando. Literary Anthropology: A New Interdisciplinary Approach to People, Signs and Literature. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1988.
Roozen, Kevin. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 51.
Villanueva, Victor. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 57.
Yancy, Kathleen Blake. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 52.
Many students like to think of writing as something that
springs into existence fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. If you read
my previous post about writing as a social activity—the etymology of and
history contained within language—you know this is not the case. Just as words
themselves didn’t simply emerge into existence, writing systems and genres were
created by people. “Writing […] addresses social situations and
audiences organized in social groups and does so through recognizable forms
associated with those situations and social groups” (Bazerman 35). Basically,
audience informs genre.
I frequently compare writing to dancing, but here I’m going
to mess things up a little by discussing music and ethnomusicology. Essentially,
cultures arrange music in accordance with their language, values, and modes of
thinking, in much the same way that, say, citations reveal the priorities of a
certain discipline (Lerner 41). For more on how the relationship between
language, culture, and music develops as displayed by Disney movies, click here.
In clearer terms, “disciplines shape—and in turn are shaped by—the writing that members of those disciplines do” (Lerner 40). Consider Gregor Mendel. Today, we consider genetics as a strict and complex form of biology, and biology as a strict, firm form of science with an equally strict methodology; however, genetics was not always a biological discipline, and biology was not a “hard” science the way it is now. Mendel developed genetics in many ways, but most chiefly in his statistical analysis of observed inheritance traits, as opposed to the qualitative analysis used by, say, Charles Darwin. Mendel knew how to use Chi-squares where Charles Darwin drew pictures and wrote descriptions, and—once Mendel’s research reemerged—the ramifications were severe enough that every pre-medical student I knew in undergrad had a serious hatred of Chi-squares, Punnett squares, and general statistics.
That works neatly for genres where there are defined expectations, but what about genres wherein part of the expectation is flexibility? Ball and Charlton argue that all writing is multimodal, and that those modes are “linguistic, aural, visual, gestural, and spatial” (42), and no genre portrays this multimodality as clearly as poetry. Poetry, whether written or spoken, operates in multiple modes. View this clip of the video below to hear a student talk about the relationship between poetic meaning and line arrangement.
Now you understand that we have looped back around to my post on introductory writing—good writing, regardless of genre, is any piece of writing that clearly communicates its meaning to the reader. Disciplines gain specific formatting and citation techniques not spontaneously, but through the deliberate collaboration and contemplation of a series of authors. Mendel introduced statistics to biology, and e.e. cummings possibly ruined the use of capitalization and punctuation in poetry forever. Writing has evolved as we have gathered new knowledge and new methods of organizing said knowledge, and it will continue to evolve. Good writing is not necessarily afraid of experimentation with the five modes of writing but is an act of conscious and deliberate experimentation that seeks to add meaning rather than detract from it. I, for one, look forward to seeing what genres of writing develop in my lifetime as knowledge expands and barriers break down.
Bazerman, Charles. “Writing Speaks to Situations through
Recognizable Forms.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing
Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State
University Press, 2016, pp. 35-37.
Darwin, Charles. On theOrigin of Species by the
Process of Natural Selection, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1859, pp.
Lerner, Neal. “Writing Is a Way of Enacting Disciplinarity.”
Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by
Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016,
Mendel, Gregor. “Versuche über Plflanzenhybriden.” Verhandlungen
des naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn, Bd. IV für das Jahr 1865,
Abhandlungen, 1866, pp. 3–47.
In my last post, I claimed that writing is an art of
understanding how ideas travel through words and that dancing is an art of
understanding how one’s body occupies a space. What, then, is art itself?
As it seems to me, art is a process of building constructed
meanings. Bazerman says that “a writer’s meanings arise out of the expression
of internal thought, [but] the meanings attributed by the reader arise from the
objects, experiences, and words available to the reader” (22). I once had a conversation
with a friend of mine in which we discovered that she associates the word “prolific”
with “author” due to her experiences with literature, whereas I associate “prolific”
with “serial killer” due to my experiences with forensics and true crime.
In my undergraduate psychology program, we discussed how our brains process and interpret information. For example, how do we know if the way one person perceives a color (let’s say red) is the same way another person perceives it, barring colorblindness? In the face of individual differences, how can we ensure that the same meaning is conveyed across audiences?
My Greek professor mentioned the way a lowercase alpha (α)
resembles an ox’s head or capital gamma (Γ) resembles a shepherd’s crook.
These were common sights in Ancient Greece, so they made sense as universal
symbols of language. The more common a symbol or word is, the less likely it is
to be misinterpreted—which is perhaps why so many people find academia and academic
writing inaccessible and obtuse.
Dryer makes it a point that as part of the idea that writing
is a social and rhetorical activity, writing is inorganic, constructed, and
structural where speech is natural (27-29). The written word possesses a form
of intentionality and knowledge that verbal speech does not. For example, I
have heard people complain about the “b” in “doubt” (something someone illiterate
would be ignorant of). I took a course in etymology where it was explained that
the “b” was included to reflect an etymological relationship to the word “double,”
as they are both derived from the Latin word “dubitare.” This relationship,
though seemingly obscure, is reflected in such phrases as “double check” or “second
guess.” Though completely overlooked in verbal communication, this type of
shared history and meaning is implicit in our understanding of written
Furthermore, there is a universality to spoken language that
written language lacks. Particularly, most people (barring a physical or
psychological disability) are capable of verbal speech, making it a relatively
neutral form of communication. Written speech lacks this neutrality. Faigley notes
that written speech is political, from the intentionality and purpose of the writing
to the distribution and consumption of it (537-539). Just as spelling carries
historical relationships, writing platforms and genres carry their own
historical connotations. The more exclusive a form of publication, the more
likely it is to be revered while also reflecting the current systems of power. The
less exclusive, the more likely it is to be dismissible and countercultural
(picture the book or newspaper versus a pamphlet or blog).
No one creates meaning by themselves, and therefore no piece
of writing is individually created. One must consider audience, genre, and—in some
ways—the history of one’s language to produce a single piece of writing.
Bazerman, Charles. “Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to
be Reconstructed by the Reader.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of
Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle,
Utah State University Press, 2016, p. 22.
Dryer, Dylan B. “Writing Is Not Natural.” Naming What We
Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner
and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 27-29.
Faigley, Lester. “Competing Theories of Process: A Critique
and a Proposal.” College English, vol. 48, no. 6, 1986, pp.
527–542. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/376707.
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.’
If there is a flock of pigeons, a murder of crows, and a flamboyance of flamingos, I believe there must be a confusion of metaphors. I can—and have—described writing and writing instruction as an art, a web, and a form of dance. The latter, though, is my favorite. If writing had a physical expression, it would be dancing, although I am markedly better at one than the other.
Ballet has a variety of starting positions, and once the dance begins, the dancer must keep track of a multitude of factors: the position of one’s feet and legs, the position of one’s arms, the rhythm of the music, the strain in one’s muscles, balance, heart rate, breathing, the positions of the other dancers, and set design. Dance is an art of understanding how one’s body occupies a space.
In a similar way, there are multiple ways a student can begin a paper, but the initial angle and precision of the entrance can have repercussions for the entire performance. Once a paper begins, the writer must keep track of ideas, sources, grammar, syntax, the ratio of evidence to analysis, citations, limitations of the argument, counterarguments, pacing, and length requirements. A good dancer knows how their body moves through a space, and a good writer knows how their ideas move through their words.
Some people are born with more grace and spatial awareness than others, but everyone can take classes and learn basic choreography. They may not be able to perform with the Bolshoi, but they can participate in local pageants. Or, you might never win a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize, but you can always learn to write a decent rhetorical analysis, work grant, research paper, or whichever document is most relevant to your field.
I spent four semesters as a supplementary writing instructor, passing students at the bar and correcting their posture. One of the most common issues I noticed was that students would learn one type of choreography, but once they received a new assignment, they would stumble and lose confidence.
Some people believe that there is a secret to writing, but in truth, everyone is constantly learning and relearning the steps, learning to fit the turn of one paragraph to the entrance of another. Dancers have different rituals and superstitions, whereas writers have their own approaches to the writing process, labeling them as either pantsers or plotsers (plotsers being those who plan out their writing and pantsers being those who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants). Not one single approach or set of rituals works for each person, and no two performances are the same, even if the performers are presented with the same music and the same set of steps (in literary terms: the same prompt and background materials). That singularity is the beauty and the frustration of all forms of art—there are rules, but the rules are often so flexible and intuitive that they are difficult to learn except through trial and error.
Sometimes, though, that is what a student needs: experience. They need to be able to fail and come back from failure, to fumble the landing but keep practicing the routine. Everyone can write, and everyone can learn to write. Capability is mostly a matter of believing in one’s abilities, and everything else is practice, practice, practice.