Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I spent a while pondering what to write about for the blog today, because my thoughts on the World English articles have been nicely articulated already below, and we are forbidden from talking about Williams' "Phenomenology of Error." What brilliant insight or hilarious anecdote could I relate in lieu of a reading response? Well, I didn't get very far with that thinking, but a moment from one of my recent classes has been replaying itself in my mind this week so I thought it would be useful for me, at least, to articulate a response to it. It's not an exciting story of crazy classroom hijinks, but a far more common and mundane story of student-teacher communication taking its time to find purchase.

My students were discussing their Extended Synthesis proposals in groups of three when one my students called me over with a broad question: "What are we meant to be doing with the Extended Synthesis essay?" Upon further probing she rearticulated the question to be about how the students were meant to go about, well, synthesizing their Primary and Secondary Source essays to make this final essay. She introduced her classmate's topic as an example, and following her lead we talked as a group about the ways in which student B's previous work was going to inform her final essay. "Does that help?" I asked. But student A still had questions, and they were still broad – she didn't understand what the relationship between the three essays was supposed to be. I took this to be a question about the point of the assignment as a whole. That is, why, if I've already written about these issues in my other essays, would I be asked to write about them again? And so I answered by offering a rationale for the assignment that highlighted the importance of drafting, revision, and taking on feedback, thinking that this might clear the matter up. It didn't. What finally got us some traction was talking about the student's own proposal. She told me what she was thinking about focusing on for her Extended Synthesis, and how she got there via her previous work. It sounded great. She was on the right track, and that was all she needed to know. Problem solved, then. But it took a lot of class time and a lot of...I don't want to say miscommunication here – was it bad communication? Meaningless communication?

Anyway, this is getting long, so I suppose this is the part in that good ol' genre of teaching narratives for me to offer an epiphany that's going to change my life and teaching style forever. I'm not sure that's really possible here, but the lesson I took away from the exchange was that focusing on her specific work as the origin of her broader questions earlier on in the conversation would have been much more beneficial for both of us.

There was also a second issue here, which I'll leave as a question. Part of the problem, I think, for student A was that when she saw that student B's essay was coming together in a different way than her own she thought her own approach must be wrong. She had the ingredients (her two previous essays), but all of a sudden felt like she had been using the wrong recipe. What she wanted from me was the recipe (how do I combine my ingredients to make an Extended Synthesis pie?). The reason this was a problem was that part of the assignment is to make your own recipe – ie. figure out what you're arguing and decide how to use your previous work in the way that is best going to support your argument. I guess I'm wondering how common this problem is. I'm sympathetic; it's hard to make these decisions on your own. But what do you do when you've spent a semester trying to give students the tools they need to make these decisions, and they still want the recipe from you?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Untitled post, followed by Bruce Willis and some general grumpiness

So, it’s not that I disagree with the entire notion of Zamel’s article; it’s just that, once again, I feel like the article’s vision (and perception of teachers who don’t naturally or immediately subscribe to its vision) is terribly utopian, to the exclusion of some very real factors which contribute to the challenging climate Zamel seeks to redesign. Although the Unhelpful Art History Professor (as Ceridwen put it) doesn’t do herself any favors by adopting a haughty, dismissive tone, I couldn’t help but wonder if said Art History professor was not a professor at all, but a grad student, unceremoniously strapped with the responsibility, not only of learning to teach period, but with the added, daunting, sometimes impossible-seeming task of teaching English learners in an atmosphere not necessarily tailored for their success. I feel frustrated by this all the time. Do I think my life is the worst because of it? No. Do I think there are lots of things that are far more unpleasant than the uncomfortable, difficult-to-negotiate task of learning to teach, and then teaching, in less than ideal situations? Of course. And I absolutely agree with the notion, as I did last week, that there are myriad ways of measuring what a student has learned in a class, beyond conventions of composition, classroom format, and testing. But man, what am I supposed to do—and I mean this seriously, because I don’t know the answer—with an essay that doesn’t begin to complete the assignment, written in such a way that I am unable to follow the author’s argument on a sentence level? My only qualifications for this job are that I like to read and write, and I have a diploma that says I liked to read and write in an official capacity for approximately four years. I’m certainly not of the mindset that I can wash my hands of a student who makes life difficult for me in this way, but if this is a comp class and I am only just getting my feet wet here, how am I going to do the best job for this student, who lacks the requisite skills to communicate with me as a writer?
I obviously don’t think my students are at fault in this scenario, anymore than I am. And I want to do the best I can for them. So far I’ve had two very different experiences with the international students in my class: one student is eager to communicate with me as often as possible, to make sure he is getting the assignments and doing what’s been asked of him; the other has been rather aggressive and disrespectful about the feedback he’s gotten whenever we’ve had the opportunity to talk face-to-face. I don’t think I’ve ever been dismissive or callous about the fact that these guys are struggling and are at different places in their English development than their peers who grew up speaking the language. But I do wonder what tactics or methods I am failing to use, that might be more helpful to them, as well as more comfortable for me, to guide as well as instruct them through the course. How much training do I lack to do this as well as I would like to? (I’m guessing the answer is: TONS. Zamel-level training.)
Beyond that, I have seventeen other students who have their own issues with the course material and who also require my attention. It’s not enough for me to wipe my hands of the issue and say that I’m not paid enough for this, and I’ve tried—as I know everyone has—to do the best I can in this situation. But the fact is—learning on the job or not, I’m not as ready for this as I should be, nor as ready as they deserve for me to be. I genuinely wonder how Zamel’s argument might be altered if she considered, not only instructors who have had the full breadth of professional training to teach in their respective fields, but the zillions of TAs as well, who are let loose into this rather bewildering landscape, to teach the classes no one else seems to want to teach once they’re on the tenure track.

It's All in Translation

Dark and foreboding view.

Yet again, our Pro. Sem. Reading has left me feeling conflicted and inadequate.

Based on my own experience in a French Literature class (not to mention the maze of puzzling acronyms in these articles), I imagine that it’s incredibly bewildering and frustrating (but sometimes possible, or at least not entirely unrewarding) to take a freshman composition class as an ESL student. I have students in my class who seem to be struggling to understand instructions and class discussion. Sometimes they struggle actively and sometimes they just sort of disengage from the class dialogue. Occasionally (and this will make me sound like Zamel’s Unhelpful Art History Professor) I wonder if students are deliberating misinterpreting things they don’t want to hear (for instance the fact that they may not use Google to find secondary sources). But I don’t have any background or training in ESL instruction and I’m not sure how to help these students. If I were an Ideal Superteacher, I’d be fluent in all of my students’ languages and I’d facilitate a multilingual discussion about the ways that language ideologies shape rhetorical practices and then they’d all write brilliant papers that I would grade and return immediately. Sadly, I’m working with a more limited skill-set and I feel more like I’m struggling to herd a varied group of students through the assignments on the common syllabus before the semester ends.

In some ways, though, I already feel like a translator; I’m helping my students interpret and master academese. We spend a lot of class discussion time taking apart terms that the e-text explains only briefly. We brainstorm synonyms for analysis, argument, discipline, and rhetoric. They’re gradually starting to use these words (and mean and understand them) when they talk about their own work. But sometimes I’ll use a word for weeks before I realize that I’m confusing them with it (for example, I’ve just decided we should talk about ‘conventions’ on Friday). I feel a bit like a diplomat trying to convey messages from the Common Syllabus/Rhetoric Department/Big Scary World of College Writing to my students. It’s a big responsibility and I’m not sure that either side would think I’m doing a good job (and I feel guilty because I don’t seem to have a way to convey my students messages back to the People In Charge). So, yes, I agree with Zamel’s assertion that a pedagogy designed to benefit ESL students (one that encourages students to explore and reflect on new meanings/concepts) would benefit all students, but I don’t feel we have the time or know-how to implement one for Rhetoric 105.[1]

[1] Zamel, Vivian. Strangers in Academia: The Experiences of Faculty and ESL Students Across the Curriculum. CCC 46.4/December 1995. p.519.

I don't want to be a grammar Nazi

Wow. I really like this idea of writing in one's on version of English, "Taking ownership of English, or appropriating the language by confidently using it to serve one's own interests according to one's own values, helps develop fluency in English" (Canagarajah 592). It made me think that in low stakes assignments, like this blog, I tend to use my own way of speaking and talking about things and often, they're very rambling and roundabout and weird and probably confusing (and I apologize for this) but they resemble my thoughts more rawly, more closely, than academic writing. In my academic mode,  I take pains to avoid idioms or other odd figures of speech, even metaphor or anything 'overly poetic,' (AS IF!) and they tend to be very planned out (contrived, perhaps) and straightforward (and thus, many of you readers of my blogs are probably thinking, OK. So maybe he deserves to be in grad school). Anyway, I'd like to discuss here my own experience of a phenomenon I have observed in the classroom regarding English language learning students who seem to want to be normalized.

Beat my papers! Beat that non-standard shit out of them! Maybe not in those specific words, but I have been explicitly asked by two of my English language learning students to point out more grammar and syntactical problems in the paper and I am quite reluctant to do this for several reasons. 1) I don't like to focus on grammar and syntax but their argument, it's rhetoric and logic. 2) Many of the conventions are essentially arbitrary and I can't really explain them in a manner that feels, well, factual or honest. Also, they're continually changing. For instance, split infinitives (and I never understood this term --the infinitive is already 'split' --it's two words, for Heaven's sake, unlike infinitives in most other languages) are lately receiving more acceptance. It seems to be a matter of style --a writer's individual style.

Few things irritate me more than when some cretin points out that one of the most famous lines in cinematic history contains a split infinitive. Shut up. Because Star Trek is awesome.
 3) I can't. I simply don't have the time to mark all the missing commas, misplaced articles, hanging prepositions, and split-infinitives, although I have actually tried it and realized, HOLY CRAP! How can my student even read his paper under all my ink (err, word document comments)?!

I think the key lies in somehow having them re-evaluate their own sense of what English is --which English --whose English and what kind and  what time of English. One way of doing this is very inefficient and a bit unoriginal but I can't emphasize enough the fluidity of the English language in history. Old English is unreadable for most people! Middle English is one step closer in understandability (oh my God! I can't believe that's a word according to MS Word!) but even Chaucer, one of my all-time favorite writers, was torture for me in Middle English. Something that screams of hypocrisy is what happens when certain academics bitch about the language being corrupted by anything from 'non-standard' dialects ('Ebonics' or 'Spanglish') to text-messaging yet they teach Shakespeare, whose version of English no longer the 'standard!' And that's one of the reasons it's so important to read Shakespeare and other versions of English --to see the way the language changes --its fluidity and mutability and extendability (Hamlet) --and in many ways, these same bitching academics are cheapening the literary works they seek to uphold as super-texts (this status I don't support either). I think I may try to find an article which discusses the history of the English language which won't put my students into a coma.

But how else might I get them to rethink their own understanding of one, standard English through, for instance, my own evaluation of their writing? I can't help but feeling like they want me to 'fix' their 'broken English.' It's a weird reversal of what one of my beloved undergraduate professors once said, "We bleed their papers" with the red ink pen. But it's like these students want me to bleed their papers. It all feels very prescriptive/surgical/colonial, even. Even colonial. In a word, or a couple of them, Grammar Nazi. I don't know --I take it too far, perhaps, but it makes me feel very uncomfortable. Some of my ESL students seem to see their language as inferior and not a way in which they can access information and attain success in a Westernized world. I try to emphasize their creativity, their improvisation in their struggle to express themselves in this medium of the English language and I will continue to do so but I can't help but feel they are dissatisfied. "I want my writing to be professional," said a Chinese student on during conferences. "I want you to tell me what I need to do to make it professional." What does professional even mean? I don't really know how to teach this. And I don't want to. I want to teach them how to express themselves and to communicate with others creatively with their writing. AND THIS SOUNDS SO ABSTRACT AND TRITE! How do I explain this to a chemistry student who has already been inculcated into the doctrine of the primacy of the English language, one English language? Am I really setting him up for failure in a system in which the dominant system that often does not emphasize improvisation and other modes of creative expression --where his word choice would be strange or 'other'? Am I not really being hard enough on him? I feel like Batman --I want to give the students what they need (whatever that is), not just what they want. But they won't learn what they don't want to. And maybe like Batman / Christopher Nolan, I'm just confusing everyone:S

Aren't we all English Language Learners?

Yes, Tim, I agree. I want my students to use the Oxford Comma, but it's probably not going to happen just like I don't know how to teach them how to use commas without circling every comma in their paper and writing next to it "comma splice" or "no comma" with the hopes that they'll look up what a comma splice is.

"The acronym ESL (English as a Second Language) is used here because it is the commonly used term to refer to students whose native language is not English. Given the inherently political nature of working with ESL learners, it is important to note that at urban institutions, such as the University of Massachusetts at Boston, most of these students are residents of the United States. Furthermore, in the case of a number of these students, English may be a third or fourth language." -Vivian Zamel Notes for "Strangers in Academia" 

While I only have two international students, I would say that I have a lot of English Language Learners that are transitioning their writing from probably what they would normally use in texts, tweets, and Facebook to academic writing. While some of my students have  more of a grasp on the idea of academic writing, all of my students run into trouble here and there with comma usage, capitalization, sentence structure, and I really don't know how to go about addressing these issues without just shooing them to the Writers' Workshop and hoping a tutor there will explain what the Oxford Comma and the difference between a sentence and a fragment.

In some ways, I feel like I am failing my students because mechanics and grammar are a part of writing, but I'm not addressing it because I'm supposed to teach them composition. I wonder, if I don't do it, who will? I have been trying to focus on the strengths of my student writing, but isn't it a disservice to not address the numerous problems that are there? On the other hand, I don't have the time to go through every paper and circle every comma, capitalization, fragment, etc, and on top of all this, I felt like I was being discouraged from teaching little details of grammar during orientation. Yes these little things don't detract from their overall arguments, but not using commas correctly or writing in complete sentences distracts the reader from the strength of the overall writing.

Why yes 1779 pages will make you a better student by providing an amazing pillow with soft pages to sandwich your head in between so you can get quality sleep. Can I get this for free? I know I'll fall asleep better at night.

So what do I do? I have a month left in the semester, and I can quickly review A Comprehensive Guide to the English Language  and whip up some lesson plans about clauses and phrases that no one has heard of ever before. I bet $5 it won't make my students better writers, but they'll be able to spit out grammar jargon like a gorgon.

Oh that shrieking? She's just talking about adverbial clauses.
What I'm trying to say is that I see issues in the grammar and mechanics in all my students, and the whole notion of not addressing these topics is probably not benefitting anyone. Maybe giving them tools to talk about grammar might make it more accessible and give them more confidence in their own writing.