Friday, March 30, 2012

A Local Public: The Importance of Context

(just for the record, I really don't care for the new Blogger layout)

Tomorrow is a big day for me. I will be presenting at the State University of New York Council on Writing (SUNY COW), which will be held at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan. While I don't want to give away my entire presentation, I do want to take some time to reflect on the reading and thinking I've been doing lately about public writing and engaged Composition programs because I think this is the way that Composition is headed or should, in some ways, be headed.

At the conference, I will presenting on a panel called "Radical Ideas for the Composition Classroom." My piece in particular is "Ethnography and Activist Writing: Sustainable Inquiries for First Year Writing," which I hadn't considered being very radical, but now I suppose it may be. My pedagogical philosophy really aims at giving writing meaning beyond a tool for academic assessment.  I have seen the power that writing and other forms of composition-dependent products (film, photography, painting) can have in our 21st century society when made public. This blog, for instance, started as a class project. I was positive that only my professor and I and, maybe if I was very a lucky, a few select classmates would ever read. Today, since just under two years ago, I've had over 14,000 views here. I know that some of my posts have directly influenced the ways that other think about language and writing issues or helped shape their teaching practices. On a much larger scale, there are campaigns like KONY 2012, the backing behind the documentary, Bully, and the Interet Blackout to stop SOPA from being passed. These public works all started small, just a single individual or a group, but because of their powerful messages, managed to spread via the media and influence many.

Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." His words are important ones. They remind us that change starts with one; it is a ripple effect. We spread change through example. In other words, if I do something small, but powerful, others will be affected, and those who are influenced by me may carry the cause forward and find new people to influence, and so on and so forth. When we consider trying to change the entire world, it can be overwhelming, even overwhelming enough to stop us from ever trying. Bringing it down to the micro level, however, as small as the individual or the community, can make the task of creating change more tangible and easier to conceptualize. This is how ethnographic writing can help students approach activist writing. As they learn the culture and the needs of a community, they can start to develop the writing tasks that can best advocate for those specific needs. They see activism in a specific context rather than a broad stroke.

In reading Christian Weisser's Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere, my thoughts on the importance of local activism were clarified. Weisser makes it clear that "public" doesn't always have to mean a large, general audience, and that defining it as such is a mistake that professors who aim to teach activist writing often make. He writes:

Students' public writing can have significant, tangible, immediate results if it directed toward publics where both debate and decision making are central goals. As facilitators of public writing, it is important that we help students locate strong publics where their voices can lead to action (111).

Weisser thinks that by bringing the activism to the local level, one can encourage students to perform writing that has a chance to make real change, whereas writing a letter to the editor of the New York Times, for example, is unlikely to produce results. As professors, our job is to help these students make publics and create audiences.

Of course, there are challenges to this. As I am reminded by Nancy Welch's book Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World, many of these public spaces have been privatized and are no longer accessible to students who wish to speak their mind. Depending on the form they choose, real world consequences may also come into play. Protests can lead to arrests. If they share a less-than-popular view online, it may influence how peers or employers perceive them. There are real dangers, ones that I don't always feel equipped to handle as a First Year Writing instructor.

In addition, Michael H. Norton and Eli Goldblatt's essay, "Centering Community Literacy: The Art of Location within Institutions and Neighborhoods" points out that task of ethnographically-linked public writing can be a difficult one because the community does not always want to help growing writers to learn their craft. People outside of academic, for instance, don't always respond with useful feedback that First Year Writing instructors try to develop in the classroom. It may even goes as far as being confidence-crushing angry feedback from someone who simply wants to troll and make others angry online.

Academic standards can clash with activist writing, as well. As Amy Goodburn explains in "The Ethics of Students' Community Writing as Public Text," evaluating activist writing based can be an especially difficult task. What is considered proper in an academic setting isn't always proper in a community setting. The language, the rhetoric, the writing process, and the form are all susceptible to change when the writing leaves the sheltered classroom audience and goes out into the real world.

As Babe Ruth's famous quote goes, though, "Don't let the fear of striking out hold you back." I think despite the risks, students need to be performing writing in a way that is useful to them. Our world is scary: wars, global warming, natural disaster risks, bullying, the American desire for material success, family pressures, gang violence, etc. If I don't give them the tools to deal with these issues, I believe I am doing them a disservice.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

When Your Dad Knows the Gunman... and Says He Was Really Smart

My dad came home on Thursday and told my family some pretty disturbing news: a man who used to work for him, one he called "a kid at the time," went on a shooting rampage at a mental health clinic in Pittsburgh and was shot and killed by police.

My dad talked a little about it, but of course, I'd like to respect his right to privacy. He hasn't spoken to reporters who called to ask him about the man and his past, so I don't feel that it's my right to speak on his behalf. What I will note, however, is that much like other sources are reporting, my dad said the man (who he kept calling a "kid" because he was only about 23 at the time) was very smart. He meant it in the bookish sense.

As the reports have come rolling it, it's apparent that my dad's assessment is one that others shared. He had a B.A. in chemistry from Carleton and B.S. in engineering from Columbia and had recently become a graduate student in biology. According to a quote from a former professor of his in the Huffington Post, he was a "good, hardworking student." In other words, a student like me.

It's these sorts of stories that really hit home for me. This man was surrounded by academia, its pressures and its protections. How is it possible that no one sought to reach out and help him? How is it possible that no one noticed? I think about my own students. I think about students I have met in past encounters as a student myself, as an intern for one of the academic advisement departments at a university, and as a teaching assistant. Would I be able to spot a student who needed help like this? I've been trained to spot distressed students, but am I really prepared?

What I also think about is the fact that he was so brilliant. A chemistry degree. An engineering degree. Part of a Master's complete. All in prestigious programs. Yet, he couldn't deal with real people or real problems. He couldn't make sales. He couldn't teach. He couldn't handle his personal problems, so he turned to prescription drugs. In all that time with all of those degrees, what was he learning? Why wasn't he learning to relate to the world around him? It seems to me that for all of our emphasis on the importance of an education, the importance of going to a good school and getting into a good program, the importance of having an impressive degree, we lose so much when we continue to tell people "gosh, you're so smart" and give them no guidance when it comes to social interaction or skills that are useful beyond passing exams and doing research. Maybe someone should have asked him why he wanted to learn about chemistry, engineering, and biology. Maybe someone should have asked him what he enjoys doing in his spare time. Maybe someone should have asked him whether or not he liked himself or his life.

It makes me think back to Richard Miller's Writing at the End of the World and Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time. Miller would say that reading and writing is not transformative. There's no book that this man could have been made to read, no story that he could have been made to write that would have changed him if he was truly a sociopath. Fish would say it's simply not our job to fix people. I can't believe that I have no impact on people, though, in my class and otherwise. I won't believe it. I think something could have been done to stop this act of violence, and I wonder what I can do to stop another from happening.

For the medical worker that he killed and all of those whose lives are now shattered as a result of his thoughtless action, I feel immense sympathy. There's nothing that can be said or done that can make the pain of loss feel better, especially one as senseless as this. For those surviving their wounds, there is nothing that can remove the trauma they experienced. At the same time, however, I grieve for this man because I believe he is one that we let slip through the cracks, one who tried to fulfill the American image of success and failed, one who was told to be smart was enough when it wasn't. No more empty educations, please.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Public Writing

(This was posted to my course blog that I do alongside my students, but I thought it would make a nice addition here.)

As some of you may know, I am a doctoral student. I’ve finished all of my coursework, and I am now preparing for the daunting task of comprehensive exams. To prepare for these exams, I must put together three lists of 20+ sources on different areas of interest that, in theory, will get the ball rolling on my dissertation research. While previous classes had to take a written exam, I was given the option to take the oral examination, so for two hours, I will have to speak on my three lists, which are are Composition and Rhetorical Theory: A General Overview, Digital Literacy and New Media Studies, and the Politics of Writing Spaces.

In particular, I’ve been working hard on the Politics of Writing Spaces list. It’s the one that I touched on the least in my coursework, but is the foundation of what I think will be my future dissertation. I am interested in how writers classify spaces: public versus private; “real world” versus “for school”; collaborative versus individual; business versus pleasure; creative versus academic. I can see how these little labels greatly influence the way that writers compose their work, and to me, that is simply fascinating!

Lately, I’ve been tapping into the public versus private vein. There are so many definitions of these spaces. I never realized how slippery or affected by social constructs they were. For instance, in his book Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere, Christian Weisser explains how some theorists consider the public as a space that includes everyone while others consider it simply a place where voices that debate political issues can be heard. In the classroom, this means that some teachers think that public writing needs to address huge, diverse audiences while other see it as simply going beyond the classroom to a place where voices come into contact with one another. That’s a big difference. According to Weisser, it's the difference between what he sees as empty public writing assignments, such as letters to the editors of big newspapers, and public writing that affects change, which seem to take place on a more local level.

I wonder, though, how my own students and other writers define these spaces. When do you consider your writing a public thing, and when is it private?