Sunday, October 31, 2010

An Ethics Question: Student Writing in the Public Arena

The Pedagogical Practice

I truly believe that, as an educator, I have a responsibility to break down the barrier that students believe exists between school and the "real world." I believe that educational settings should be microcosms of the world at large, a place where diversity exists, views clash, and there is the possibility for collaboration. In my particular case, most of the students who step into my writing classroom will never be English majors, and I don't want them to feel that writing is only something that is performed for an English teacher.

I believe that breaking down this barrier not only enables students to see writing/learning as a social transaction/process, but hopefully removes some of the pressure that keeps students from writing, which I feel is especially derived from writing to the test. I also think it gives purpose to their writing, makes them more aware of the role they wish to play and the audience they wish to address in their writing, and removes the idea that student work is only practice and never of any real value to the community (social or scholarly).

With that belief in mind, I assigned several "real world" writing activities this semester. They include:

  • posting to public blogs (not class moderated)
  • posting drafts of their essays to Blackboard so that all of the classmates' can read one another's work
  • submitting essays to NPR's This I Believe archive
  • doing an activist writing project (some of these will be in the form of blogs, photojournals, letters to senators, newspaper editorials, etc.)
  • using Wallwisher
  • submitting to our class's gallery of writing at NCTE's National Gallery of Writing Gallery (Writing from the Core)
  • encouraging them to submit their work to literary journals

The Ethics Question

Though, I believe I am doing something good by blurring the boundaries between the safety net of school and the contact zone of the world outside our classroom, I also see questions of ethics coming into play. 
Some of my students do panic when they learn that their writing will be viewed by others outside of the safe house of classroom. They fear judgment of their writing and of their beliefs. I also worry that somebody who is merely out to rage against others (especially in blog comments) will attack one of my students and leave them feeling shut down, shattering the confidence that I have been working hard to build all semester. I want to encourage growth, not stifle it. 

So, I am left wondering:
  • How ethical is this teaching practice? 
  • Is it wrong to force my students to write for public audiences? 
  • Am I doing them more harm than good by removing the safety net? 
  • Should my students be allowed the option to write for my eyes only?
Furthermore, specifically in regards to the Writing as Activism project:
  • Is it a good thing to ask students to write to create change?
  • What if I my students aim to support a cause through writing and harm the cause instead by writing poorly or not putting any effort into their projects/reasearch?
  • Is it unethical to ask students to expose their beliefs and let those beliefs be judged and criticized by people who may not agree with them?
  • Are there other, greater risks involved in doing this sort of assignment of which I am unaware?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wallwisher Update: A First Time User's Review

Wallwisher actually ended up making its way into my classroom today. Students thought it was a cool tool. They were excited about using it, and one sutdent even asked if I would leave it up for them to see for years after they were done with the class.

Today, I used it to segue into our final Writing as Activism project. I asked students to write stickies about all of the things they thought were going to be problems in the future. Many of them foresaw war, disease, obesity, and financial hardship in our future. Since they were all stuck in clusters, it was easy to see where ideas overlapped.

The one problem that we did have was that with 23 people trying to access the same board at once, things were running slow. For many of my students, error messages bogged them down and left them unable to participate immediately, or at all.

My students said that they are going to continue posting their ideas, as well as using Wallwisher in place of our Open Forum anonymous discussion board on Blackboard. This week, they are going to share their Halloween costume ideas and pictures! I promised I would share mine too.

I also think this will also be useful as place for them to share links, video, pictures, and research with one another for their final projects, as many of them are concerned with similar issues, such as government policy and public health.

Finally, I encouraged them to create their own walls, if they enjoyed using it in class, and link them up to our class wall. I'm curious to see who will do it and how active the wall will become.

I'm excited to see where this program takes classroom discussion, and I think I will be incorporating it more my future classes.

Wallwisher: An Awesome Digital Take on the Classroom Bulletin Board

So, I just stumbled upon Wallwisher thanks to Twitter user, TeachaKidd. What a neat program, and it's FREE! Wallwisher is something like Twitter combined with the look of computerized post-its or a digital scrapbook. You can add short messages and include links to audio, videos, and pictures. The text boxes stay where ever you click, so that you can layer them, move them into clusters, and see multiple messages all at the same time, unlike other programs, such as Twitter and Facebook, which push old text down the page and out of the way.

I could see this being a useful tool to enhance class discussion. You could post something like "race" or "gender" and have students to do short free associations. You could create a wall of your students favorite links, books, music, etc. You could even just make small talk. I think there are endless very cool possibilities for this program.

I'm going to give it a test run with my class this week, following TeachaKidd's example and asking my students to share their Halloween costume ideas. If they can figure out how to use it, I will consider using it for bigger and better things, and evaluate whether or not it is something I would consider incorporating regularly in my future courses.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Twitter Grammar Nazis on Grammar

I'm still very curious as to why people feel so strongly about grammar. Not to say that grammar is useless or unimportant, but when the content is good, is it necessary to badger people that they have misapplied punctuation or used the wrong verb tense-- especially in Twitter tweets? Obviously, I'm opposed to badgering of any sort (not just about grammar), but should we be pointing out others' errors? Is it constructive?

I tweeted the other day, "Why is grammar so important?" Here are a few of the responses I received:

@ Correct grammar is what separates us from the animals. It also says a lot about who you are. And how much you read.

@ people don't always communicate effectively, should writing suffer just the same? Different medium require different rules.
@ sentences need a form. Subject verb and adjective, at least in English. If the sentence doesn't have this it is incomplete.

@ Its important to me! One of my pet hates. I thought it was grammar, cos its not the spelling, its the wrong use?
@ I don't know really, maybe because I've always been good at it but since leaving school, its gone down the pooper!
@ I never ever know which "its" to use. I gave up trying with that one. =P
@ Lol, I thought it was - it's = ownership and its = it is. If its a put an ' Sally's phone. =/

I use the responses of these three individuals because they were all self-professed "Grammar Nazis." I  had to laugh a bit, though, because they were using incorrect grammar to tell me about the importance of proper grammar usage-- especially alenka-m, who tells me that bad grammar is one of her "pet hates" but  doesn't know how to use "its" and "it's." 

For alenka_m, though, the importance of grammar seems to be less about performing a rigid strucutre of proper usage and more about a safety net, latching onto something she was good at in elementary school perhaps instead of the bigger, scarier parts of writing (ideas, revising, analysis, etc.). Not that alenka_m is an ELL, but I think this is a common trend in ELL students. They come to the Writing Center often asking for grammar checks, not worried about content. This is possibly because in taking the tests to prove their English proficiency, they have learned that grammar is the top concern. If their grammar is bad, they cannot pass. If their grammar is good and their ideas are bad, however, they may still pass as proficient in English. This really goes for any kind of testing that requires writing: SATs, Regents, HESPAs.

For JaykeisBrutal, the conversation starts off being about grammar, but winds up being about different mediums requiring different approaches. Though he is a "Grammar Nazi," he recognizes that the reason grammar is important is because it allows effective communication

Finally, I shared with saradobie that bees have a dance language that has its own (very simple) grammar, and therefore, grammar/language isn't really what separates us from the animals anymore. saradobie, however, expresses something very important-- the face-value of grammar. The way we use our words and language often defines us, whether accurately or not, and in a culture obsessed with self-presentation, grammar then becomes a way for us to create a face. Good grammar = higher in the class system. Bad grammar = lower in the class system. Again, though that may not be true, it is often how our society interprets it. 

So the questions I leave you with are these: Is the tech. generation really "ruining" writing, or are we evolving and leaving the traditionalists behind? Is grammar important?

Friday, October 22, 2010

One Note on OneNote

So, I was debating spending a cool $200 on LiveScribe's Pulse SmartPen to bring to graduate school and my FYW composition class until a good friend recommended that I try Microsoft OneNote. That good friend deserves a huge hug because Microsoft OneNote is AWESOME!

Microsoft OneNote allows you to create new notebooks, new pages, and new tabs, and chock them full of text, pictures, links, documents, etc. Now, instead of lugging around four different notebooks and textbooks, I have all of my notes neatly stored in OneNote (and my PDFs and eBooks on NOOKstudy). I never have to fumble through sheets of paper to find my class notes, and I can actually keep up with the rate of lecture speed.

This is a screen shot of my class notes from one of my graduate courses:

Click to see a larger view.

As you can see, I was able to take notes, separate them into subjects, and even draw diagrams.

What makes it different than writing in a notebook or typing them in a word processor is that OneNote acts like a digital scrapbook. I can paste in pictures, links, tables, documents, etc. Plus, when I copy and paste information from the web, it automatically adds source information to the bottom. On top of all of those cool features, you never have to hit a save button. It automatically saves everything at every step, so that you can never lose your work. Once it's typed, it's stored.

The best feature though is its link to WindowsLive (you can create an account for free). I can have all of my work automatically uploaded to my account so that even if my computer crashes all of my notes are stored. I also have sharing capabilities with networks and friends.

I use OneNote for everything now! I keep my class notes there. I keep my story notes for my creative work there. I have my lesson plans stored there, as well as my class roster, student-teacher conference notes, and a teacher log.

Some great possibilities for students using OneNote:

  • use it to take notes in class
  • share notes with classmates or get notes when you're absent
  • keep a class notebook (something like a private wiki) where everyone can add text, pictures, links, etc. 

Some great possibilities for teachers using OneNote:
  • create student reading journals or class scrapbooks using OneNote that can be uploaded and shared via WindowsLive
  • outline units and lesson plans, linking in readings, websites, pictures, etc. (automatically backed up)
  • keep a teacher journal
  • have your notes linked to WindowsLive so that you never lose them
  • share your plans and research with other teachers via WindowsLive

Some great possibilities for writers:
  • create a wiki for your work that can be easily shared with publishers via WindowsLive (plus, no one can erase your information or add their own incorrect information)keep all of your research in one place
  • copy and paste blogs, articles, documents, stories etc. from the internet and have the source information automatically saved so that you don't have to initially cite every source, but can cite them properly as they are used instead
  • treat it like a scrapbook for sources of inspiration
  • keep all of your research in one place (rather than napkins, scraps of paper, and t.p.)
  • keep a publicity journal once you become a published writer
  • have your story notes automatically backed up on WindowsLive

Voice and Normativity

Yesterday, in one of my graduate courses (Composition Theory and Teaching Writing), we were talking about the work of Brodkey, Grimm, LeCourt, Port, Denny, and Villanueva. Some really interesting critiques/theories arose. For me, the most compelling idea-- given my interests in voice, authenticity, and grammar-- was the notion that one can only have a (writing) voice if she/he is close to the center/the norm. As a middle-class, well-educated, white woman, I am very close to that norm, which means I have been granted access to my "voice," and I never considered that the language of education might deny others their own.

I have since begun to understand that when students are far from that normative ideal, their voice is denied, labelled incorrect. Instead of embracing these different voices, education seeks to mold it into the language of the white middle class. Furthermore, in order to do this, students are forced to give up their accented language, which is ripe with their ethnic, cultural, and familial ideology and identity.

This idea is frightening. As a composition teacher, I unconsciously enact this middle class ideal all of the time. How many alternative voices am I squashing by saying, "This is a bit too conversational," or "This is a sentence fragment" or the dreaded "This sentence reads awkwardly"? On the other hand, when we have a society which functions primarily on middle class capitalist/consumerist ideals, is it right to dismiss these notions of middle class correctness and accept all voices as correct in my classroom? Should students be forced to make that choice? Is it ethical to teach them code-switching, or is that teaching them to lie about their identity? 

Furthermore, once they have given up those working class ideals, it seems that students (or any one for that matter) can never truly go back. In my own life, my friends would certainly look at me funny and even think that I was pretentious if I began to talk about Foucault's theories of inscribing power in Discipline and Punish and their relationship to democratic education. It is something I simply cannot do if I want to remain an accepted member of our group. I must stifle my educated voice because it is incorect. If I wanted to fully embrace my scholarly identity, I most likely would have to give up my childhood friends. It seems that in order to enact one class role, I must give up the other. For me, these are minor denials of self, but for someone far from the center, they are forced to give up much more. 

Fan Shen's "The Classroom and the Wider Culture" is a perfect example of this. Shen came from China and was taught that the use of "I" was bad. He should never be concerned with the personal, the "I'; he should only be concerned with the collective "we." In American composition and culture, however, we are obsessed with the "I," and so to write well for school, Shen had to embrace the "I" and leave behind the "we." It wasn't just a shift of language, but a shift of ideology. He had to give up his Chineseness to become Americanized.

Truly, there are so many questions I am left with. How can I ethically teach when my views are clouded by classed ideologies? How can I advocate a "good use of voice" when it's clear that by invoking standards of grammar and English, I am pushing a certain voice on my students? After all, grammar is a set of rules for the most unruly thing-- language. While it sounds like a good idea to have a standard middle ground, whose middle ground is it really? Is it fair that some people are coming in closer to that "middle ground" than others and yet all being held to that same standard? And finally, if grammar is all about normativity, is it productive to enforce it, especially in a cultural that proclaims its appreciation for diversity and individuality? 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why Stephen Fry Thinks There Should Be More Anglophones... and Fewer Grammar Fanatics

From RogerCreations, the creator of this video:

Using the wonderful words of acclaimed writer, actor and allround know it all (I mean that in the best of ways) Stephen Fry I have created this kinetic typography animation. If you like what you hear you can download the rest of the audio file from Mr. Fry's website. and then go to the audio and video section at the top of the page and look for the file entitled language. You can also find the file on iTunes by searching the name 'Stephen Fry's Podgrams'.

I loved this particular essay on language and I thought it would be the prefect opportunity to make my first kinetic typography. I hope you like it and even if you dont I would like to heard what you think in the comments section. Also I know that at point the audio does not match the text so you doesnt have to write that. It is because I copied the transcript off of Stephen's website and it was not 100% exactly what he said and i did not notice until I was well underway. However these cases are few and far between.

Just incase you were wondering the programs I used to make this were all by adobe. Mostly after effects but also flash and illustrator. Flash for the changing background colour transitions and illustrator for putting the words in to the shape of 'language' before loading it into after effects to animate.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Green Writing

In his book, Sustainability and Composition: Teaching for a Threatened Generation (2001), Derek Owens writes about the absence of sustainability discourse in composition and writing studies classrooms (and in many other academic fields, as well). Composition courses often allow space for consciousness-raising; however, more of than not, the consciousness-raising pertains to what Owens calls "the triad of race/class/gender." Sustainability-- one of the biggest issues we face in the modern world-- is missing from the curriculum.

I am often intimidated by notions of "green" or "ecofriendly" because as a middle class consumer, I feel hypocritical talking about "tree-hugger" issues, but Owens really puts the power for change in the hands of the teachers and students. He reminds us that to take some action is better than to take no action at all.

Owens believes that the absence of sustainability, both in academia and the world at large, has the potential to be devastating, if it hasn't already done irreversible harm. A society that does not plan for the future cannot expect to survive for long. The problems of unsustainable culture can be seen every day. Aside from the scientific evidence of global warming, the harmful effects of pollution and overcrowding, our consumer culture (consumer being a word that suggests a lack of sustainability) suffers "workpain" and "hyperboredom." We hate our jobs, and yet, we want to work. Furthermore, the lack of social space created by poor city planning creates extreme ennui in teenagers and seniors, who need "common space" most (and, I would argue, in adults and children, as well). According to Owens, in general, we are both unhappy and not meeting the needs of the future. We are creating an impact with no regards for consequences. In effect, we are destroying our world and ourselves.

Some of the pedagogical practices Owens suggests for composition courses that deal with sustainability are:
  • "lower education": writing about the material or from the ground up, rather than only in or about abstract concepts
  • local/location-centered and ethnographic writing: writing about the places and communities from which students come
  • future-oriented inquiry: students literally write about the future as they instinctively believe it will unfold and are conscious of the future
  • interdisciplinary work
  • an appreciation for the work of generalists and specialists, not just the latter
  • collaboration
  • "think globally, act locally, and plan regionally"
Overall, I actually found Owens' book to be a page-turner, which rarely happens with book-length works of theory. My post probably does his work little justice. Whether an English teacher or not, "green" or not, I'd recommend that every teacher read this book (or at the very least, the first two chapters)! It will truly make you reconsider the world and the classroom.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What constitutes a "real writer"?

On Twitter, I've been following all sorts of writers and teachers, trying to see if these issues (of grammar, voice, authenticity, etc.) are coming up in the real world. Today, I saw a tweet that asked followers to check out a new blog post, "Are you a real writer?" on Corey Mandell: Professional Screenwriting Workshops. 

The blog talks about advice from screenplay writers to novice writers. The big skills are apparently having a unique, original, authentic voice and telling a story no one's told before. 

After reading theorists like Joseph Campbell, however, I'm not sure that such a thing exists. Everyone says, "you need to write original stories," but archetypal theory shows us that there are no original stories. We are simply repeating the same motifs over and over again. Even Harry Potter is essentially a mix of Cinderella and the boarding school novel. So are there any original stories? How can we be original if we're really just pulling from stock characters and stock situations that have been stuck in our collective unconscious since the dawn of humanity?

I think the big point Mandell tries to make is the argument that "bad writers copy." The clear mark of a novice is someone who obviously imitates. Then again, aren't we imitating all the time? I'm sure I didn't come up with my style of prose from sitting in a vacuum. The writing I read influences me, consciously and unconsciously. The other half of the coin is that "good writers steal."

Furthermore, I think Mandell's screenwriting pals also give a nod to this idea of authorship, that writing comes from the person who creates it and nowhere else. There are lots of great movies and television shows that riff off of other's concepts. For instance, Goodfellas, Casino, and Carlito's Way. They all tell a very similar story and were written in a space of only five years from one another. Clearly, they were all also influenced by The Godfather. Yet, they're all classics, despite imitation. Unoriginality didn't hurt them one bit. Can you truly consider yourself the author of something, though, if you're imitating or collaborating? Does it matter?

And in the end, especially in screenplay writing, what the heck does voice mean? Especially an "authentic voice"? If you're trying to give dialogue to characters who clearly couldn't be you and give them their own voice, does your voice even exist?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Voicing Concerns...

As a reader, I often look for work that gives off a unique voice. Good writers, I believe, have a fresh way of saying things, and from their work, you get the feeling that it is genuine and reflects their values.

As a teacher, I find myself commenting on student work, "Great work! I can really hear the real so-and-so coming through." I hate it when students sound like they are writing solely to appease a professor. I like it when I see a spark of their personality come through on the page.

The problem is that in this post-modern world, where we have begun to accept Cultural Relativisism as the basis for truth, is really possible for someone to have an "authentic voice" when it comes to writing? Since the role of the person is always changing in reaction to the forces around her/him (authority positions, venues, curent events, etc.), as are the writing situations (class, work, Facebook, etc.), is there really one unified voice, unified presence, or unified self that can truly come across in writing? If I'm shifting how I write for one audience as opposed to another, does that mean I'm changing my voice, that I have many voices, or that voice does not exist?

Furthermore, if this is what I believe, than how can I ask students to develop a voice as writer? Can I judge their work based on the voice they present? And as a writer, should I be striving to develop my own "voice"?

On the flipside, if I accepted that there was no such thing as authentic voice, would it be ethical for me to teach students that the only thing that really matters is the constructed self/voice? Isn't that giving my students the right to lie or to get to the end, regardless of the means?

The Face of comPOSITION

This is the kind of thing I do when I'm procrastinating real work on my day off...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A "Gooder" Look at Language in the Media

Watching late-night television, a certain ridiculous commercial caught my attention. The commercial itself was really mediocre advertising at best (I don't even remember the product it was promoting), but as someone interested in concepts of Englishes, grammars, signs and signifiers, and audiences, I couldn't help be struck by one simple word-- "gooder." Hearing that word, my head bobbed up from my laptop to catch the last 10 seconds of the clip.

In the commercial, a woman named Jane and a female friend are talking about (I think) a weight loss product, which her friend says is "gooder." Jane's initial reaction is to say, "gooder isn't a word."

Following shortly after Jane's remark, her friend notes enthusiastically, "Jane, you look gooder!" This time, Jane ignores the grammar trespass and agrees. Jane, of course, comes to accept "gooder" as a real word, when it conveniently describes her weight loss and makes it better than just plain "good" progress.

I think this commercial, as simple and silly as it is, acts as a metaphor for hierarchies of rhetoric. Jane, the current traditionalist grammar critic, is unable to accept "gooder" as a word, until it becomes a term that enhances her own authoritative position. It also makes clear that the thin woman (the social norm) is in a higher position of authority than her friend who has not yet tried the weight loss product. Thus, the silly, seemingly benign interaction between two gal pals evokes power structures and mainstream ideologies hidden in language.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just one of the guys... err, pals.

When people say "ignorance is bliss," they aren't kidding. Learning about language has totally ruined my life! Ok, so maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but really, taking Literary Theory and Composition Theory has completely changed my way of looking at the world. I can't do so much as go on Facebook without thinking about language and ideology-- which is how I was inspired to write this post.

Today, I was struck by something I say all of the time. A friend wrote about girls who are "one of the guys" in her Facebook status, and I thought, "Well, hey, I'm 'one of the guys.'" For most of my life, at least up until my sophomore year of college, my closest friends were predominately male. When I was younger, I would climb trees with the boys, ride bikes with the boys, hike in the woods with the boys, and light things on fire with the boys. When I got older, I watched football with the guys, drank with the guys, watched action movies with the guys, and talked "locker room" talk with the guys. To this day, of my three closest friends from home, two are male. When I'm feeling bummed, I can call "my boys" for a bar night, possibly followed by a diner run and Guitar Hero at 3 A.M. It's great being "one of the guys." They talk openly around me and never treat me like I'm a delicate lady, whose ears must be protected from curses, dirty jokes, and belches.

So what's wrong with being "one of the guys?" Aside from the fact that it assigns gender roles and puts women down as the weaker sex, annoying and overly-conscious of societal norms? I don't think I've ever heard a guy say he's just "one of the girls" (at least not seriously). Any guy who admitted to being "one of the girls" would undoubtedly be mocked for it. Why is it ok for girls to be "one of the guys," but not vice versa? In truth, I don't know many men, especially not straight men, who have mostly female friends, though I know many females who empathize with my situation as "one of the guys." That seems rather ridiculous.

I think this is a good example of how seemingly harmless language can really be quite harmful. "One of the guys" reveals quite a bit about our culture and about the dominating ideologies that circulate here in America. It suggests that women want to be men and that female friendships are somehow lesser than male friendships. While we think the gender landscape is evening out, small phrases like "one of the guys" are evidence that there is still quite a way to go. If we become more conscious of our language, however, we can began to shift the male-dominated language to one that is more gender-neutral and thus change the ideologies that privilege white heterosexual upper class males.

Can anyone think of other examples, or does everyone think that I'm completely out on a limb here?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lessons on Plagiarism, Authorship, and Invention from Fraggle Rock

The scene where Red finds her song. Image from The Muppet Mindset blog.
When I was younger, I really enjoyed watching The Muppets and Fraggle Rock, which, as most of you know, are Jim Henson creations. Lately, I've been trying to rediscover what it is I loved so much about Jim Henson's work by watching clips of the muppets on YouTube and Season One of Fraggle Rock on Netflix. Now that I've been watching them, I'm amazed by how much you can actually learn from Fraggle Rock. Though it's a children's show, it addresses many hard-hitting issues, touching on racism, ethics, religion, community, class, gender, and even slavery.

There is lots of writing that goes on in Fraggle Rock, as well. Uncle Traveling Matt leaves postcards about outer space (which is really our world) for the fraggles during every episode. Mokey keeps a journal that she writes in almost everyday. Doc, the human tinker, keeps a journal, too, about his ideas for future inventions. I didn't think, however, that the show would really offer anything about Composition, other than these brief glimpses of critters who write. Surprisingly, I was wrong; there was an episode that spoke to Composition, Episode 18 from Season 1, "The Minstrels."

In "The Minstrels," a mystic minstrel with a magic pipe and his posse come through Fraggle Rock with the intention of having the fraggles sing a medley. The medley is supposed to be composed of all of the fraggles' songs, stemming from the medley leaders' song. Red volunteers herself for the leader position. What she quickly finds, however, is that finding "her song" is not an easy task. She insists that her song is hidden in the magic pipe, which she later steals. When Red reveals that she was the culprit of the theft to the Minstel and explains that she stole it because she believed her song was hidden inside, the Minstrel tells Red, "The song is inside you. Without you, the pipe would be silent." It isn't until Red stops insisting the right song is out of her own control that she is able to produce her song.

For writers, this strange juxtaposition that Red experiences between ideas being in our control and out of our control is ever-present in the writing process. The power to write is always within us, but we don't always know how to make the words come forth. For Red, she must simply sit still a moment and listen. For humans, this simple remedy doesn't always work. We may have to wander in search of inspiration, freewrite until a kernel of truth presents itself, or aimlessly poke around the internet until something strikes out fancy. And when the ideas do come, it seems like magic, like they were there all along waiting to bubble  up to the surface. The way they come is somehow out of control and very much a part of us at the same time.

What never works, however, is assuming that the answer is hidden somewhere outside of us and that we must wait for it to come to us. It is also faulty to assume that there is some magical tool/strategy/format that can make our writing awesome (for example, the perfect thesis statement or plagiarizing an "expert"). We must have confidence in our abilities, and give up the notion that others can do it better than ourselves. Red's fear of judgement is what leads her to steal and prevents her from true creation. As writers, we should be aware of audience, but that doesn't mean that we need to fear it. We must be courageous enough to put forth our own voices. Red can't find her song in the minstrel's magic pipe, and she can't handle the music that comes from it. She suffers because she isn't being authentic. When she is finally ready to accept the music of her own heart, the melody comes to her.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Composition and Accountability: Addressing the Side-Effects of Bullying

Composition, as a subject, seems powerful, though somewhat benign to many of us. What I mean by that is that we recognize writing's power to help students become self-aware and to help spark change, but we don't see how what we teach in our classrooms can also be hateful, hurtful, or ignorant.

I am sparked to speak of this because of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ), who took his life on September 22, just last week. Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and a female student, Molly Wei, taped two of Clementi's sexual encouters and broadcast them via the internet, exposing Clementi as a homosexual. Ashamed and troubled, Tyler jumped from the George Washington Bridge. Sadly, Clementi's story is horrific, but not entirely unique. Kids are bullied everyday, and many teenage suicides are linked to histories of being bullied. 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts comes to mind here. Harassed, especially online, by two boys she had dated and a group of girls dubbed "mean girls," Phoebe took her life. Asher Brown, only 13, came home and shot himself after being tortured at school. In the last incident before his death, happening only the day before, his mother recalls Asher telling her that the kids knocked him down the stairs and then kicked his books around.

Why does this become a Composition classroom issue, aside from the obvious response that we should have "Anti-Bullying Policies" in our classroom? Most of these kids were writing. Tyler Clementi kept a blog, which, according to ABC News, stated that he believed his roommate was spying on him, but also about that authorities couldn't stop it from happening. Phoebe was clearly writing on social networking sites, but she was also recording her pain in school essays. She wrote a book report on a book about cutting and expressed empathy for cutters. She also wrote about her desire to wash away the pain she felt with music.

This calls much of what we teach into question. Firstly, should we be asking students to write to the test, to prepare five paragraph essays about the exploits of the Iliad, if they are experiencing real and difficult things that they clearly have a desire and a need to write about? Should we give them the outlet to both speak to their traumas and to explore them instead? Secondly, if we do allow writing from trauma, what do we do to help them rise above these traumatic events? I don't want to use the term cope because I don't want students to think that they must "deal" with their trauma and get over it. If I'm going to make them write about trauma, I want them to somehow wrestle with these demons and own them. These kids show that expression isn't enough; they still killed themselves, though they had an outlet for ranting. They need empowerment, agency, action, and/or guidance.

Furthermore, if we recognize the effects of bullying or personal struggles in students' writing, we cannot ignore it. It is the feeling of isolation that, more than anything, leads a person to doubt themselves. We cannot allow our students to continue feeling that way if we read their calls for help.

I would also say, though, that this points to a need for addressing multiple literacies. Perhaps before the advent of email and social networking sites, it was not necessary to teach students how to write for many different audiences or mediums (video, internet, podcast, etc.). In their world, however, the multiple literacies/venues/audiences/mediums/etc. are a reality. If we aren't teaching students better ways to use these technologies to compose and communicate, then aren't we at fault as Composition "experts"? If they don't know that they can use writing to perfect a letter to congress to help prevent anti-gay legislation, that they can use writing to create content for a website supporting Muslim Americans, that they can use writing to compose lyrics to a song about racism in their community that they can post to iTunes, that they can use writing to create captions for a photojournal of the oil spill in the Gulf on Facebook, that they can use writing to script a podcast about their frustrations with bullies at their school, how can they be expected to use these outlets for anything more than peer-against-peer combat or overexposure of their personal lives?

Note: Most of the event-specific information I have in regards to the suicides of Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince, and Asher Brown is from ABC News, though I cross-checked these same stories across multiple sources. They have an incredible collection of video collection about these recent, horrific suicides. Ellen Degeneris also speaks about these tragedies, which she calls no longer a tragedy but a "crisis" (Click her name to see the video).