Before WID, I was wandering in the desert.
There were a bunch of pedagogical issues I’d be chewing on, by myself, all alone in my office. I had some ideas about how I wanted to change my courses and make writing exercises—and my teaching life—a lot more fun. But I had no one to talk to, and I wondered if these kinds of changes were even allowed. In short, I was descending into mid-career professorial madness.
The main thing I wanted to change was student essays. I was tired of grading them because I was tired of reading them. The writing was awful and ugly. And I want to be surrounded by beauty.
I was also thinking about how, despite the lamentations of lachrymose literary types, reading and writing are alive and thriving—on the internet. There is an explosion of writing, and a wildly democratic proliferation of publishing possibilities. Would essays be more fun if I let go of some of the academic genre? Would it be more useful for students to learn to write for different genres and media?
I did a few experimental assignments, which made me happy. In one, I sent students out to explore the city: go to a metro they’d never been to before, find a piece of public art, and then talk to 3 strangers about the art. They could write however they wanted to: first person, swearing, jokes, whatevs. I gave them the green light to write however they wanted to. They just had to relate the experience to Hannah Arendt’s concept of the public realm. Students went into the village and talked about homophobia; they talked about art with immigrants; they went to the Tam tams, smoked pot, and connected to strangers. They connected their experiences to theories of the public sphere.
The students killed it. First: they were fun to read. Unshackled from the academic genre, they had way more writing talent than I anticipated. They aren’t terrible writers at all! Second: I noticed that new groups of students started excelling. I saw how less privileged students started getting A’s when they wrote more colloquially. Different students—and different kinds of intelligence—started shining. Third: I liked my students more. In these unfettered writing assignments, they almost seemed like real people.
I had a bunch of inchoate ideas—ideas that I would impose randomly on people at cocktail parties, as I gesticulated wildly (is there any other way?). Ranting about how teachers need to deconstruct our institutionally-produced super-egos, I was careening toward my seemingly inevitable fate as a drunken crackpot.
And then I stumbled upon WID. With the help of regular meetings, I admitted my problems. I read a bunch of articles, and saw that smart, kind, and sober people had been thinking about these issues for a long time. Jeff, who runs the program really knows his stuff, was an amazing resource. It was great to have people to talk to instead of just spinning my wheels alone at home. This was before Covid, which definitively refuted Sartre’s idea that ‘Hell is Other People’.
Here are the ideas that really affected me, prompting me to shift my pedagogy and change my writing assignments.
One of the fundamental ideas in the WID textbook, Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean (hereafter The Bean), is that critical thinking can be promoting by a new model of writing. In this model, writing involves situating your own perspective in relation to others: “writing means joining a conversation of persons who are fundamentally disagreeing with each other… or jointly seeking answers to shared questions”. In this view, the production of knowledge becomes a social process with contesting voices, and requires engaging multiple perspectives. Groovy, baby. (Of course you can apply that model to ye olde academic essay too.) So for my new assignment, I’m going to have students address issues that are a part of “public conversations”—I want them to engage debates in the contemporary public sphere, to understand different positions, and to add their singular voices to larger conversations.
The Bean continues: “writing involves intellectual and often emotional struggle.” The chapter doesn’t talk more about this “emotional struggle”—but I’ve definitely felt it when I’ve written articles about contentious political topics. There’s a moment, while writing, when you all of a sudden have no clue what you think. Especially if you actually listen to other people. When this happens, writing becomes a way of figuring out who & how you want to be in the world—that’s when shit gets real, as Foucault puts it. To write is to wrestle with strangers until they become angels that give you their blessing. As academics, we value rational objectivity, but The Bean gave me the green light to make writing assignments emotional and messy! As opposed to providing “opinions,” I want students’ writing to be personal, emotional, and engaged. So my new essay assignment has students address “difficult conversations”—relevant contemporary debates that can at times be uncomfortable. As The Bean puts it: “Good writing assignments produce exactly this kind of discomfort: the need to join, in a reasoned way, a conversation of differing voices.”
To encourage students to engage in conversation with one another on these topics, I’ve re-structured moodle assignments so that half the class comments on the other half’s posts.
Discussing various articles, our WID group had great conversations about ‘Democratizing the classroom’, and levelling out some of the forms of privilege that exist at Dawson. An article by Irvin Peckham bends it like Beckham and brings a British footballer’s understanding of class—and bars—to academic writing. The ‘multiple perspectives’ needed to think critically are in fact located in social diversity—something students encounter for realz in Dawson. “Working class writers write ragged. Their words spew out, an eruption of thought and emotion… perhaps the consequence of being raised in a primarily oral culture…” In my experience, this holds true with some racialized groups as well. Peckham critiques upper/middle-class pseudo-objectivity, and undoes the hierarchy that puts that objectivity (coded as “masculine”) above subjective, particular, emotional discourse. He shows how literary culture hides (middle) class biases that might alienate working class kids.
This resonates with my teaching experience—and applies to racialized students too. I want to keep an eye on the students who have NOT been encouraged to argue and to dissent. I want to find ways to get them in the game. So, in order to level out the playing field a bit, and democratize the classroom, I’ve started assigning more writing exercises that are NOT graded in terms of grammar or literary quality. I encourage students to write however the hell they feel like. I have been experimenting with assign word counts for different grades—400 words for a C; 500 words for a B; 700 words for an A. I don’t evaluate the quality of the writing—just the amount of work put it.
And tonnes of students are loving it—as the term as gone on, I’ve watched some of them slowly developing their voices and becoming more creatively confident. I’ve seen more of the under-privileged students thriving by expressing themselves more freely.
What WID readings propose has been working in my classes: it’s good for students to get a chance to write in ways that are unstructured and NOT graded. Letting them do whatever the hell they want, and screw grammar, seems to open up all kinds of creativity, personal reflection, and free thought. It can also be empowering—cuz they aren’t scrambling to get it “right” according to some vaguely defined criteria set up by invisible authorities somewhere in academe. Letting go of “right” may just be required for the development of individual voice. Students can just use the space (of non-graded writing exercises) to be their own selves, experimenting and thinking about the world in whatever way is natural for them. Pedagogical value aside, these exercises have produced some of the most entertaining and readable writing I’ve gotten from students. ‘Pleasure’ may not be a conventional pedagogical outcome, but I find reading these assignments more fun.
And I’ve started liking my students more.
“Good writing teachers like student writing (and like students)” says Peter Elbow, the author of “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment.” This runs counter to a certain trend in academia: “Academics are sometimes proud of their tendency to be bothered by what is bad.” YES! We take it as a badge of honour to be critical, to be unsatisfied, to point out what is missing, flawed, or ‘problematic.’ Whether leaving a lecture or a dinner party, it’s easy to turn to your companion and start complaining about what was wrong. “His understanding of dialectics was sophomoric at best.” “The over-cooked fish was definitively suburban.”
As Elbow points out, it ALSO requires a discriminating eye to see the sparks of what is good in something. Liking student writing may just require a jewel-cutters precision vision. This feels like the deepest insight into good teaching that I’ve encountered in WID yet: train your eyes to see the beauty in student writing. (And in students.) So what if I start designed writing assignments that make it easier to see the beauty? Liking student work may be a cutting edge art form.
In another WID reading, Mike Rose argues that the old way of teaching writing focused on listing and correcting grammaticalistic errors. This arose from an attempt to “apply to education the principles of industrial scientific management.” So teaching writing as a rote memorization of grammar rules is something akin to Fordism (Heinrich Ford, a big fan of Hitler and writer of anti-Semitic pamphlets, was also into the assembly-line, and so presumably would have been a grammar Nazi.) In this perspective, students’ writing must fit the standardized mould of correctitude, and a teacher’s job becomes policing every single goddam instance where the students fall short of the perfectly homogenous uber-model. UGGGG. The opposite of pleasure. Rose proposes a different model: “Writing seems central to the shaping and directing of certain modes of cognition, is integrally involved in learning, is a means of defining the self and defining reality, is a means of representing and contextualizing information, and is an activity that develops over a one’s lifetime.” BLAMMO! Teaching writing is teaching the art of living. And re-writing the self while re-defining reality is critical thinking.
So–I’ve started re-writing my writing assignments. (It just now strikes me that, inasmuch as this will shift my teaching life, this is also a way of re-writing myself and re-defining my sense of the reality of students’ capacity to write!)
These are really drafts in progress—I modify every term, based on how it works with students, and the questions they ask. Here’s what I’ve got so far. For the final essay, I’ve given them the (sometimes challenging) freedom to choose their own topics. And to help guide them through the process, I’ve used the WID suggestion to “scaffold” the assignment. It takes a little more work, but really helps the students break down essay-writing into manageable tasks.