I Will Not Know

Close to five this afternoon, I was waiting for a ride home from D., and I
had a few minutes to pass in my office. I’d already booted down the laptop
and stowed it in my backpack. I didn’t have the gusto to continue readings (for
next week already) from the two seminars I had today, and I was feeling somewhat
blaze after a full day on campus overflowing with six hours of intense
discussion. So I straightened up one of my office shelves and got to
leafing through a few odd journals casually handed off to me by a colleague last
year. There were five or six yellowed issues of Composition Studies
and JAC; I fixed on JAC 8 (1988), specifically David Foster’s
"What Are We Talking About
When We Talk About Composition?"
, which ends

As informed readers and deliberately inclusive thinkers, we
must be the measure of our discipline. Science cannot claim ascendancy in any
area of human knowledge, particularly in that complex blend of
knowledge-streams we call composition. We must be wary of those who,
uncomfortable with the ambiguities of discourse and complacent with the
quantitative, empirical perspective, would have us assume that perspective
alone. As informed readers, we must juggle and juxtapose the claims of
different modes of inquiry, recognizing what each contributes and what each
lacks. To ref use this invitation to an intellectual pluralism, to settle in
its place for a single perspective, is to invite the punishment we all hated
in grade school: having to write the same sentence one hundred times. In this
case, it would be “I will not know. I will not know. I will not know…"

Stimulating find, I thought, and then I started to wonder
whether what we are talking about when we talk about composition in 2006 is so
radically remade from what we were talking about when we talked about
composition in 1988. And then my ride was waiting.

Why blog?

Earlier this afternoon, I stepped up front for a brief talk about why I blog
(framed as "Blogging as a Graduate Student").  The session was part of SU’s
featured Gateway Focus on Teaching Luncheon
; the broader theme for the event: "Technology to Support Student
Motivation." I decided that it makes sense to share a few small details about
the talk, including my list of five motives/motifs on grad student blogging. 
It’s testimonial for the most part, and perhaps it’s well-worn terrain for you
who have been keeping a weblog, but it’s also useful for me to flesh out my
talking notes and to write through some of the fuzz, the un- or under-answered
questions, and the relative merits–from my perspective–of keeping a weblog
throughout a graduate program of study.  I should also be clear that these
are conversation starters and supple categories for organizing such
conversations rather than some rigid and deterministic boxes.

Continue reading →


I was at the front of the room–staring into the light from the projector
bulb–for most of this morning’s Writing Program TA orientation session on Quick
& Dirty Research.  What put the Q&D in today’s talk?  Aggregation and
RSS.  Everyone going along with it now has a fresh-fed Bloglines account
and 67 subscriptions.  For more, here’s
and the

accompanying screencast
.  I welcome any suggestions; the screencast is
a bit rough in spots (and longer than I’d like).

Basically, the talk hinged on these few thoughts:

  • Aggregation as Q&D (not slow and clean) is applicable for students
    working on projects and also for your work as a teacher, writer, scholar and
  • It leads with questions about the inventive and generative activity rather
    beginning with a hierarchy predicated upon licensed sources (credible if it’s from the library only, myth debunked).
  • It dislodges the material orthodoxy in composition (what materials are
    appropriate for composition, what counts as writing…it’s unbothered by
    intermittent junkiness in feeds).
  • It exonerates us from narrow or unnecessarily constrained reading habits. 
    Qualification: this isn’t meant to disparage book-reading.
  • It productively complicates (or steadies, if you’re into efficiencies) our
    information ecologies and personal knowledge management systems.

Continue reading →

Palm Caked Hard

Quick and Dirty research (really just wanted to see Q in drop caps).  I
accepted an invitation to participate in (talk/click)-ing through a few minutes
of a session for incoming TA’s on Q&D.  A few others will give brief
pitches, too, so I can’t hog the floor (not that I would).  Thinking for
now that I’ll emphasize the D–dirty, as in the perpetual grubbing aligned with
aggregation and a few other must-use sites.  The ‘Dirty’ in research not
only identifies with the hands-dirty dig-dump-sift set of metaphors, as was so
eloquently introduced to me by a memorable professor at my MA alma mater what,
six years ago; it also drops the point of a spade into composition’s material
orthodoxy.  Unsifted presumptions about the material suited to composition
research preserves the orthodoxy (straight phenomenological knowing), avoiding
the deep down griminess, and instead digging materials delicately, troweling
with too much propriety.  Worry-free and proven: Spray-n-Wash. Library
databases: Quick and Clean research–different work involved in plucking a
clean-authorized article (scrubbed by peer review), patching it into an essay.  

Continue reading →

Odell, 1980, “Needed Research in Discourse Theory”

Lee. “Teachers of Composition and Needed Research in Discourse Theory.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 84-92.

Big Idea
Lee Odell argues for yet-to-be-done composition research as of 1979. 
He contends that we must not only be practical and pedagogically centered, but
we must also shape discourse theory and adapt it to benefit students.  His
premise rests squarely on the basic notion that theoretical investigations in
composition must always return to practical matters, to pragmatic application in
the classroom on Monday morning.  I’m not certain how long before Odell’s
1980 piece the Monday morning question became a fixture in composition
studies.  "How will you use this to teach?" was often
bandied about by some of the practice-heavy folks in my MA program.  It’s a
line of thinking that somehow characterized the useful and worthwhile
queries as ones that can be proven to funnel toward students’ proficiencies in
writing.  Unless it shapes student writing, it’s fluff, abstraction (or
that’s the script, anyway).  Odell’s brief article starts with a push away
from Kinneavy’s Aims of Discourse; he faults the aims for their overemphasis on
product at the expense of attention to the series of choices reflected in a
student text.  Odell thinks composition folks should investigate student
choices by engaging in comparative readings of drafts, redirecting student
projects through revisions toward "different purpose[s] and appeal[s] to a
different audience," and by enlisting students to explain–even through
tape-recorded narratives(!)–their own choices while writing. Odell suggests
advantages in comparing unassigned student writing (writing done for
non-academic purposes) to assigned student writing.  How, for example, do
styles vary when the writing is subjected to the forces inherent in the
institutional arrangement?  Because we can be sure student writing
performance varies, we must acclimate our evaluation methods. Odell’s case
aspires to getting inside why students do what they do when they
write and understanding full well how our own work affects what they do.

Wondering About
This is a brief little article, under ten pages.  It reminded me about
one of the research interests of a professor in my MA program.  He
contended that one of the first orders of business in teaching composition was
to come to terms with the thing that governs students’ sense of essayism.
He supposed a kind of accumulation of essayistic force compelled many students
to write mechanically, guided by their overpowering sense of what an essay is
(often conditioned by years of Thou Shall Not’s) rather than what the specific
language in the prompt asks them to do.  In these terms, students’ choices
aren’t always affected by consciousness, choices aren’t always
easy to articulate, decisions aren’t always precise or simple.  And
I wonder if the same is true for more experienced, even professional
writers.  Must we always be able to explain choices?  Is every
articulation governed by a choice?  Is it possible for unchosen (free,
unrestrained, accidental) articulations to achieve a desired aim or must the
entire writing process be underscored by choice after choice in pursuit of an
explicit aim?

Along these lines, Odell’s essay sent me reminiscing about a hard camp-line
in my MA program.  The line basically divided those who held that, in
fairness, instructors must account for the entire semester’s plan at the outset
of the term of study.  Students should be able to look ahead;  proper
planning by the instructor ensures a more organized semester and, as a result,
the course will come off as more polished, more coherent.  Over on the
other side (Me? Oh, back then I straddled.  Good MA students
avoid the wrangling, stick to the middle.) were folks who contended that we
cannot know where what the next assignment should be until we’ve read the one
before it.  It was more in line with responsive pedagogy–the kind that
accepts that we need to improvise, bend the curricula to our students who vary
from term to term, and allow for contextual factors to steer the course rather
than proceeding from an inflexible master plan.  How does this connect with
Odell?  I think his work here supports a version of the second approach,
the loose and responsive plan.  After all, he argues that we must get to
know our students and, in doing so, realize that effective pedagogies are
fine-tuned to specific students.  

It makes sense that composition instructors should care about un-assigned
student writing.  Digital media have given us greater access to unsolicited
writing done by students; we can read weblogs and participate in chats without
getting wrapped up in institutional dynamics.  But what other sources of
un-assigned writing are there?  Where might we look harder at writing done
by students outside of academia?  Why are they writing?  How might our
writing curricula navigate the assigned-un-assigned binary for the betterment of
everyone involved (including the assessors, accreditors–who unfortunately matter)?

Notably, several of Odell’s methods for getting to know the choices students
make when writing strike me as incredibly laborious.  Tape-recording? 
Reading multiple drafts and attempting comparative readings of multiple drafts
is challenging, but listening to students’ voice-recordings explaining the
choices they’ve made in a particular essay draft seems impossible.  Could
be my own sense of appropriate pace and workload, but I can’t imagine attempting
more than two essays in a sixteen-week semester if multiple stages and careful
interrogations of choices were part of the plan.  At times, I have used MS
Word’s document comparison feature to read revised essays against their
predecessor, and although it doesn’t come with a student narrative about
specific choices, it does reveal patterns and lend insight to the scope of
changes being applied between drafts.  I can also see the use of a
discussion of choices when conferencing with students.  I’ve never tried
it, but I am curious about the experiences of folks who have used voice-clip
inserts to comment on student writing (in the mix of text-based comments,
perhaps).  And I suppose this comes close to one of the recent discussions
on the WPA list about the writing assessments used by UPhoenix where, because of
the burden of responding to student writing, human readers are teaming up with
machine readers–layering computer and teacher–toward a two-part rendering of
response to student writing.  It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I
wrote about collaborative
a few months ago, but it churns up some interesting (disturbing,
exciting) possibilities.   

"One basic assumption in current discourse theory is expressed in James
Kinneavy’s claim that purpose in discourse is all important" (85).

"A second major assumption in current discourse theory is that different
writing tasks make quite different demands on writers" (86).

"The writing of our students represents a kind of information that is
almost impossible to obtain in any context other than a course that is primarily
concerned with students’ writing" (84).

"Whereas we once could use a single, widely-agreed-upon procedure for
evaluating all the writing done in a given mode, we may now have to use a
variety of evaluation procedures, most of which we have to create for
ourselves" (88).

"When our colleagues complain to us that we’re not teaching students to
write, they often mean that they’re tired of seeing misspelled words and
sentence fragments" (89).

"If it is true that students are likely to be more successful with one
sort of writing task than with others and if it is true that we must vary our
evaluation procedures according to the specific writing task at hand, we may
have to make substantial changes in the way we assign and evaluate writing"