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:


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.


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.


A singular problem – applying “Speculations and Hypotheses” to the student-assembled curriculum

This week, we’re talking assessment in my pedagogy and instructional design course in a run-up to a visit from Dr. Louise Phelps (my personal hero and accidental stalking victim – she and I have haunted many of the same haunts, and it was not uncommon at my previous job(s) to find handwritten Phelps notes and Phelps assessment folders hiding in old drawers and in banker boxes throughout the department).  I’m stoked to hear from Dr. Phelps on this topic this week, so this blog may end up being a little more fangirlish than is usual for me, and a little less topical.  I’ve done assessment readings and work under her previously, but in the context of WPA, and not teacher-level practice.

Also, returning to assessment is always such a treat for me.  I think about it as being one of the questions in the field where there’s still real, hard work left to be done (and where there will always be more work, because feedback and assessment must necessarily be so contextual and responsive).  It’s fun to be elbows-deep (or Elbow-deep! Ah, puns) in the assessment quagmire.

But I know we’re going to spend a lot of time on assessment in class, so I’m going to focus on an issue I noticed elsewhere that I’m hoping to discuss during Dr. Phelps’ visit.

A lot of the readings people are grappling with in blog posts this week are old standards for the returning Phelps student.  I’m happy to revisit them and see what new stuff I can glean from them–and to spend more time in assessment–but I’m especially excited for the early draft of Dr. Phelps’ new “Speculations and Hypotheses.”  (Ed. note: I’m not sure from what we were offered of Phelps’ work that it’s yet appropriate to quote or share any content from this work-in-progress document, so I’m going to be careful and just broadly make references here).

Louise’s argument that the rhet/comp field has neglected curriculum in the face of alluring pedagogy approaches is one that strikes me as necessarily and inherently true.  I have shared her concern for some time that the “ethical commitment” to teaching students may be misconstrued under the ideological frames of current pedagogies which decentralize the curriculum and the work of curricula (Phelps 1).  I’m excited for her active CFP on ideological transparency and classroom practice in Pedagogy–and I’m thinking about submitting a proposal this week.

I’m intrigued by the concept that “curriculum […] designs are typically written and diagrammed” indicating something “systematically structured,” something which exists in a paradoxical linearity which is in conflict with a non-temporality of design (3).  I think one place that Louise fails to expand on this (yet) is the question of student course/trajectory selection–I hope to address this with her this week, but I think one of the great unspoken challenges of broad curriculum design is that we must design a trajectory of learning for unaware students (and sometimes uncaring scheduling advisors) who doggedly insist on signing up for a disciplinary WAC class in the first semester and push their Comp requirement back to the spring to accommodate late sleep schedules, or extracurricular activities, or four day weekends (or legitimate things, I don’t know.  I can be charitable).  I think of curricula as puzzle pieces that are often all shaped exactly the same with different picture faces.  You may have an idea what the final puzzle should look like.  But it’s all too easy to understand how a student perhaps ended up with something different.

It is here that I think we can highlight Louise’s analytic granularity to understand the challenge of “verticle curriculum” design (6) in sequence.  How can we address the modularity of these spaces, even where such modularity is not necessarily “intended” by the original designer?  How can we address the linear temporality, and non-linear non-temporality, at the same time?  When we–given a box of building blocks–see a skyscraper, but our students see a racecar, is anyone right or wrong?

Who, in short, is curriculum “for” in such cases?  I find it to be a fun and impossible question that struggles in the face of much of what Louise offers in terms of development, assessment, value, design, and stakeholder needs.  In this we can also look to Phelps on agency (8-10), but I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to be found.

How do we find “emergent” curricula?  How do we mediate (or advocate for better) student assembly in any meaningful way in the institutional contexts of student success and university-level advising and First-Year Experience and all that jazz?

And when we realize, as Phelps notes, that pedagogy and curriculum are not nearly the same thing, how does our pedagogy have to change to address this?

See you all in class!