I have gathered in this post some excerpts from my blog posts throughout this semester that I believe show my thinking about teaching and give insight into my pedagogy.
In Berlin’s ideal classroom, students are free to critique ideas presented by the instructor and they are encouraged to engage in a dialogue that includes the professor, rather than is directed by her. This requires an intentional step back on the part of the instructor. She must commit to letting go part of her authority in order to enable students to begin to think for themselves about these subjects. In forwarding this position, Berlin is aware of the problems that might arise. He recognizes that students might be uncomfortable with a professor who does not embrace his role as Prime Giver of Knowledge, and push the prof to give them the answers rather than happily engage in a Dialogic Classroom.
But what Berlin does not do is give us a solid sense of what this classroom looks like, what techniques will be successful, what strategies to avoid. His focus is on presenting the idea that students learn better in this sort of environment, and he leaves it to others to figure out the details. This is where Fleckenstein picks up the torch. While she doesn’t follow directly in Berlin’s footsteps, she presents one way to conduct peer-review that allows students an element of responsibility and authority that would mesh well with Berlin’s Dialogic Classroom. Fleckenstein’s process is guided enough to help students who might have no idea how to read a paper give helpful feedback, but also loose enough to work in practically any scenario, which places the power of editing in the hands of the students. Her strategy is simple, but effective. She mentions that a student was able to use it on her own paper even when her peer-reviewer did a sub-par job (86). At the end of the day, having been introduced to this particular strategy, these students will have it in their tool bag for future use: they will be better writers after this exercise.
On the other side of the spectrum, David Batholomae seems to argue that students have no power and that they do not have authority to speak on any subject in a specialized field of discourse. While I can understand Batholomae’s point (that first year students don’t know as much on a given topic as someone who has spent years of their life studying the same topic) he seems to imply that any act of writing by first year students is “appropriation” and that they have nothing to offer any reader. As I read his comments, I could only imagine that they would work to silence students and others learning how to engage in academic discourse. As he says, “to speak with authority [students] have to speak not only in another’s voice but through another’s code; and they not only have to do this, they have to speak in the voice and through the codes of those of us with power and wisdom” (610). It is likely that Bartholomae intends these arguments to help teachers understand the uphill battle facing their students. They must work extremely hard to enter a field of discourse that is entirely alien to them. However, when read in light of Berlin, I found Batholomae’s points to be restricting rather than empowering. While both want to help their students to become better writers, I find myself gravitating towards the dialogic classroom of Berlin over the approach of Bartholomae that is obsessed with an “academic” voice and level of polish to the thoughts rather than the quality of the thoughts themselves.
Scott Stevens’ “Serious Work: Students Learning From Students,” although perhaps misleading in it’s title, was at least useful for me in that Stevens was able to articulate what I could not when reading Bartholomae. Stevens points out the paradoxical requirement that Bartholomae seems to uphold in “Inventing the University.” Bartholomae states that “writers take their place in a community through discourse before they are ever extended membership” (Stevens 319), but Stevens appropriately shows that this is a problematic statement, as it “offers an unreassuring logic of inevitability: successful writers become successful by making the moves successful writers make” (319). Combine this with the fact that the assertive behavior that is required to make these sorts of bold moves is typically viewed as only acceptable when coming from a man, Bartholomae’s argument begins to lose force.
I was unable to state this while reading Bartholomae, but something in his article did not sit well for me. I’m all for the “fake it ‘till you make it” mentality that is often required, but when it is stated in a way that might put students off from even attempting to write at all (as I stated in my previous post), this becomes a problem. We must all be free to write, knowing that with writing also comes failure. We must also be free to discover the sort of writer that we want to become, whether this takes a similar path to other writers or not. I think that is what is at the heart of Stevens’ article, as it discusses the ways that Iris and Sharon differed from the rest of the class (and all other problems I might have with this article aside), and the way that they were able to turn to each other and find a willing reader and collaborator. Even though their path to writing was different from that of their (mostly male) peers, they found their voice and their readership eventually.
Another problem with simply condemning students for not being of a high enough caliber to satisfy our personal standards is that it might simply be that their passions do not mirror those of the instructor. Gold cites Mark Edmundson, who was extremely bitter about the fact that his students, “alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance” (qtd. 86). However, a response from one of these students complicates the picture: “Edmundson, with his obvious contempt for undergraduates, wasted my time and my money, and then used his experiences in front of the classroom as fodder for a sardonic critique of my generation’s intellectual incompetence” (qtd. 86). If students believe that the professor has no genuine desire to help them learn, if they feel marginalized and looked down on, they will respond by refusing to engage with the class. Why should they do any work to engage when they expect their responses to be shot down and mocked? This is not a fruitful learning environment. This is not how teachers should behave.
I believe that Gold hits the nail on the head when he says “instead of longing for a nonexistent past, perhaps we should simply admit that eighteen-year-olds frequently write poorly, and consider it our job to take it from there” (85-86). It does no good to lament or find out who is to blame for the “problems” that we see in our classrooms (that might not even be real problems, just evidence of a changing society), and instead we should work on finding ways to get these students to engage with the class concepts, to learn how to communicate clearly, and to adopt a “pedagogy of charity” (91) that understands that students are people with value and as such works to view them complexly as more than just a body in our classroom.
If we are to actually uphold the CCCC’s resolution on the “Student’s Right to Their Own Language,” then we ought to value these various forms of communication and language. Instead of stigmatizing and labeling and dismissing as “other” and “less than,” we ought, as Vershawn Ashanti Young points out in “Should Writer’s Use They Own English,” to try to “know everybody’s dialect, at least as many as we can, and be open to the mix of them in oral and written communication” (111).
I’m not saying this will be easy. Breaking down stigma never is. But it is so necessary and so worthwhile. As Adam Banks stressed in his CCCC Chair’s Address “Ain’t No Walls behind the Sky, Baby, Funk, Flight, Freedom,” composition’s “best work happened when we dedicated ourselves to the students the rest of the academy didn’t want” (271). He stresses the way that the discipline needs to grow and adapt and stop clinging exclusively to one mode of communication (the essay) and branch out into more diverse and multimodal ways of expression (embrace technology and all that it has to offer). He wants composition to “free ourselves from . . the set of handcuffs the same old theory and the same old theorists and the same old scholarship put upon us” (276). He understands that technology is changing the world, and that composition must change along with it in order to remain relevant. I would argue that this should include our perception of “other” as well. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, our standards must change so as to include as many individuals as possible in the conversation. We have so much to gain from inviting previously silenced voices into the conversation, and continuing to exclude minority voices will only make the academy even more out of touch with reality than it already is. Technology has changed the world, and no longer is academic publication the only way to “have a voice.” We must find ways to adapt and include these voices and individuals and technologies, or we find ourselves left behind.