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The Witness (High Resolution Version)

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Huot – What is (and isn’t) the business of the writing instructor/respondant?

I – Let’s not stop talking about literacy narratives

I’ve been thinking a lot since the class completed and discussed their literacy narratives.  Huot (and especially the sections on context in reading and ideology) have made me consider returning to this experience again.

I didn’t do a great job with my literacy narrative, and I didn’t share mine with the class. I did want to articulate (through Huot) some of the problems I have with the conceptualization we use of literacy in writing instruction today (and of “writing,” even)–and consider the degree to which these issues may or may not be universal, specified, etc.

While I was thinking through these issues, I created a social media post where I talked about why I don’t like to personalize writing experience for my students:

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To my great surprise, I received largely very supportive and positive responses from over a dozen past and present writing instruction colleagues, several of whom shared deeply personal stories about either their own literacy or having remarkably similar experiences with their own students’ narratives.  I’ll not share specifics or name names here, but writing instructors recounted dozens of instances of student writing addressing traumatic experience–often in very unplanned (and unproductive) ways–across topics including domestic abuse, bullying, sexual assault and trauma, shame, mental illness, suicide…

A few instructors shared stories of their own trauma and how being asked to write about it opened wounds and unearthed past pain.  For their openness, friendship, and mentorship, I’m eternally grateful.

Both in comments and private messages, I heard from writing instructors at almost all levels–and from a half-dozen contexts from basic writing in the two-year college to professional communications training in corporate workplaces.

Most said they avoid personal narratives entirely these days.  Most are in the same place that I am, and most noted that they are uncomfortable with sharing these conclusions and the choice to stop using these genres because they’ve all been taught that “writing” == “expression” and “literacy” == “progressive.”

But what, I’m sure you’re asking, does any of this have to do with Huot, or the general content areas we’re currently inspecting?


II – What do we mean by personal? What do we mean by ideological?

There have been various periods of writing studies that have reconstituted writing as a deeply personal, intrinsically expressionistic, and inherently narrative act.  There have been many reasons for this, and we can theory-bomb (for instance) the 1980s’ strain of activist language instruction from space at this point (Faigley (1989, 1992), Romano (1987), Rose (1989), Freire (1985, 1987a, 1987b), Giroux (1988), Berlin (1988)–the critical pedagogy/New Rhetoric theory wave of the mid- to late-80s was quite consistent if nothing else) who view writing literacy and theories of language as necessary foundations for progressive democracy.

And so, when Huot (2002) notes Nancy Sommers’ (1982) argument that “teachers’ written comments were more concerned with students’ ability to write correctly than to make any kind of meaning” (110), I couldn’t help but immediately wonder who the field at that time believed determines the value of meaning in that relationship.  I remember that Sommers famously argued that many students “think that personal writing is writing about the death of their grandmother. Academic writing is reporting what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has written about death and dying” (“I Stand Here Writing” 425).  And I remember that she argues that writing is about “having the courage to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, even doubt” (428).

I can’t think of anything less fair to students than to label the act of skills acquisition a product of necessary courage.  Students shouldn’t need to be courageous to perform to spec in a writing class.  If they do have such needs, then what is being taught to them is no longer writing, but confession.  I don’t teach confession.  And many of my students express more courage than I’ll ever know simply getting on the bus to school in the morning.  It seems unfair to demand further emotional and intellectual “courage” simply to meet basic course requirements–especially when the discipline has defined itself for the last thirty years along a politicized epistemology which is in direct conflict with many students’ personal beliefs.

In this context, the question quickly becomes one of how we can fairly and productively respond to student writing when we’ve declared writing a product of courage and right-speaking meaning-making practices.  Huot explores in significant depth the challenges of contextual situation for writing assessment, and I think this is a very valid concern (and one that we must continue to attempt to resolve at both personal and institutional levels).

This concern is not separated from the questions of feedback and writing response, either.  In fact, Valerie Shute’s definition of formative feedback includes “information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behavior to improve learning” (“Focus on Formative Feedback,” 153).  Wow.  No thanks.  “Feedback.” “Indoctrination.” To-may-to. To-mah-to.

Of course, we could look at the facilitative/directive/corrective/evaluative model, which I tend to use without preferencing one over another for any ideological purpose.  But there’s that nasty weasel language of – I tend to manage it.  That’s better than many, but worse than I’d like from myself.  And many instructors are quite simply taught that “facilitative” == “good” and “directive/corrective” == “bad”; so at least some of us likely do not even tend to try.


III – What do we mean by responding?  What is the business of the writing instructor?

So that’s the question.  What do we mean by “responding,” and how do we think about “right thinking” and “right learning” behaviors?  Huot outlines Zebroski’s modeling of different responsive approaches (which largely parallel my own feedback model)–but Zebroski presents each approach as discrete:  as literally emanating from a different mind and a different ideology (115).  And so, I have a problem with Zebroski; under his model, when we have an ethic of cultural influence (116), or an ethic of ideological consequence (120-122), or an ethic of expectation (117-119), we have chosen to be of a singular mind because we’ve chosen to be a single person with an uncontrollable impulse towards preferentialism.  But that model demands that we make student’s cultural, ideological, and situational lives of the mind “our business”–and that we reckon that business through the lens of a constructed identity driven by an ideological (rather than pedagogical) goal.

I remain completely unconvinced that 95% of what the field of writing studies claims is the business of the writing instructor is anybody’s business at all.  Huot would label this as a “context” of feedback, if Huot recognized its validity.  The choice to make students’ personal lives, personal ideology, personal goals for their writing, personal paths to literacy, personal needs as humans the business of writing instruction is to invade the personal and demand doctrinaire “courageous” writing practice without foundation or pedagogical benefit.

A final note–I was happy when Huot cited Halliday’s (1978) arguments that language as communication demands context as “the key factor” of meaning-making and meaning-sharing… only to see context reappear within every facet of successful student writing response in his “theory of response” (Fig 2.)–which is, effectively, a model of response, but not a theory–but I digress, pick hairs, and equivocate.

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This is why I’ve always had a problem with the question of how we teach response–because I was largely taught by established writing researchers in the field who strongly believed you can’t.  I tend to agree.  Response/feedback models are inherently… well… responsive.  They can’t be taught, because empathetic response can’t be taught, only learned through practice (and, hey, empathy).

Of course, the first step towards that empathy is to not believe that your business as a writing instructor is to know what is best for your students.  Which is… still a problem in the field?  I don’t know a more charitable way to say it than that.