Apologia Pro Dulcibus Frumentorum

Apologia Pro Dulcibus Frumentorum: An Appreciation of One Too Commonly Ignored Contributor to Social Bliss, Conjugal Stability, and Civic Cordiality, (Or Why Candy Corn Is Super Sweet)

By Tom Layman

Behold: a candy corn caution cone!

IT HAS COME TO MY ATTENTION, while speaking with some students of supposed good standing, and teachers who I believed were touted for the quality and care of their instruction, that among the faculty of the First Year Writing Program, an unaccountable and barely coherent prejudice against a proud and needed fall tradition has arisen, prejudice against the consumption, enjoyment, transportation or even presentation of the delectable, delicious, and forthwith beloved delicacy better and more humbly known as the candy corn.  This post, brief though pressing, seeks, not just to defend candy corn, or to offer a half-apologetic apologia, but to declare, with clean sincerity that candy corn is the superior Halloween candy, the treat (and pride) of the fall.

My argument is six-fold.  Yes, you might say such a defense is overly fortified and reeks of desperate argue-mongering.  True, I will concede six defenses might have the flavor of a sauce too spicy, but I do not apologize for my vigor.  The blind dismissal of this wonder, of this institution in bite-size, stands as one of the greatest offenses against, not just candy corn, but candy everywhere.  Just the other day, while attempting to enjoy a much-needed afternoon snack, I heard a fellow graduate student refer to my candy corn sustenance as “devil corn.”  God bless my treat for lacking ears.

But, let us push these disturbing thoughts aside and move onto the defense.  Firstly, I will say, candy corn has become associated with the autumn season and stands as a synecdoche for our shared Halloween celebration.  Yes, the activity of “dressing-up” (an activity, I might add, that is replete with problematic associations and appropriations) and the danger of “trick-or-treating” (in past generations this was simply called pillaging, but, alas, we live in an age of pretense) do not stand for the entire three-month phase known as fall.  Candy corn, with its rich autumn colors, and its association with the harvest, captures not just the spirit of a day (a day conceived to celebrate vandalism as far as I can tell) but the wonder of a season.

Secondly, “the corn” (as it is known in some circles) is the perfect size for quick and easy snacking, allowing the consumer to enjoy a tiny wonder while engaging in another activity.  Each candy corn weighs approximately two grams, allowing the eater to quickly pop one in his mouth while vigorously typing at the computer, teaching a class, or worshipping in church.[1] Unlike the quite overrated pie, candy corn does not require a fork or spoon or plate or other accoutrement.  Unlike the rather stomach turning cake, candy corn will not dissolve into a sludge of ingredients serviceable to only a dog or a portly housecat.  “The corn” has integrity; it persists; it is one.

Thirdly, candy corn is ubiquitous; it can be found anywhere during the fall months, and it can be bought cheaply.  My fellow graduate students appear to be inheritors of large estates based upon their dessert purchases.  One young blue-eyed Americanist enjoys yogurt almost every day; another tall, stately early Modernist prefers cheese and crackers: plutocrats in the mist! Instead of this decadence, candy corn represents the “common man,” the laborer, not your standard wealthy graduate student rolling in ill-gotten loot, thought-crime cash.  On average, each piece of candy corn costs on ¼ of one cent, making it the most affordable candy on the planet.[2]

Fourthly, candy corn is the single most healthy “snack” on the market.  The corn’s small size allows users to enjoy a flavorful delight without ingesting too many calories.  Furthermore, you can shove them in the pockets of your gym clothes and enjoy a reward for a workout completed.  Try shoving cake into your gym clothes, or wretched yogurt, or a delicious buffalo chicken wrap on whole wheat with lettuce, tomato, and mayo: quite a mess on your hands, if you do.

Fifthly, candy corn will stay fresh regardless of how old it is or its exposure to the elements.  Even today many types of candy corn survive from shortly before the Pliocene era, and some packs have even endured the Oligocene.  No difference in taste between these and modern versions of “the corn” have been observed.

Sixthly, candy corn…well screw it.  The first five arguments are beyond reproach and all this talk of candy corn has made me tired.  I would surely like to continue this rhetorical assault on the enemies of the just, but it’s late in the evening and, frankly, I’m not confident that any of you will read this post all the way through.  Despite my effort, despite my care, I fear these words will be left alone because of some meaning, or class, or lunch, or some other such silliness.  Maybe you have left off reading because you are going to purchase candy corn!  This possibility warms my heart and leaves me with confidence for my future and the future of my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.  Oh, but still the pessimist in me rages!  How could I be so naïve so as to believe you left off reading to locate a place to buy candy corn, get in your car, drive to this store, make the purchase, and drive back, ignoring speed limits and red lights so as to return as quickly as possible to this post?  I know what you are doing!  You’re…dieting.  You’re eating kale (disgusting!) and drinking whey protein shakes (very disgusting!!).  Don’t you remember argument number four, the “fourthly” argument?  Weight loss is an issue of calorie in and calorie out and the candy corn has virtually no calories.  In fact, it has no calories.  Much like flavored seltzer or Coke Zero, it has no caloric content.  Therefore, please, eat away.  Please!  Please…[3]

[1] This number is entirely made up.  The writer of this article has done no research and expects me, the note, to reify his claims.  But, honestly, it doesn’t matter.  No one reads the notes anyway.  I can say whatever I like, make whatever claim I like.  I am a totalitarian in a vacuum.

[2] I can promise you this number is fictional.  I was with him when he wrote it; he didn’t even use Google, never mind a scholarly source.  I would really like to give him a piece of my mind, but I cannot seem to be able to escape the notes.  If someone were to open the proverbial door, I might be able to stop this blog before it gets any worse.

[3] My author has lost the thread.  I don’t know where that leaves me, but it can’t be good.  God, I hope someone opens this note and frees me.  It’s like being trapped in a leaky basement.  Oh dear!  But if I am the notes can I really be freed?  Can lunacy ever escape the lunatic?  Stop it!  I must concentrate.  Where is my author? No!  The writer has gone into something that looks like shock.  Oh no!  Oh my!  Oh…He’s still now, not moving; the house is quiet.  So quiet…This is the life of a note, the bar-back of criticism.  One day, though, I will be free, and I will write; I will compose; I will refute and withstand refutation.  If only someone would let me out.  Please!  Please… [After careful examination of this essay, the notes are no where to be found.  They are believed to be still at large.  If you are to encounter the notes, try and focus on them.  Their greatest defense is you forgetting they are even there.]

The Teacher’s Body

image from “Welcome Back, Kotter” (popular sitcom, c. 1975); paper airplane stuck in teacher’s thick, curly hair

This week in the 5100 seminar (you know, the Theory and Teaching of Writing gig), we are turning our thoughts, talk, activities, readings to:  The Teacher’s Body.  Yes, we all have one!  And some of you have probably noticed that it can/does “matter” in your classrooms; on some days, and in some ways, more than others.   

Our text for class (today, Mon. Sept. 25) is the edited collection, The Teacher’s Body: Embodiment, Authority and Identity in the Academy (Diane P. Freedman and Martha Stoddard Holmes, Eds. SUNY Press, 2003).  The beautiful little essay by Betty Franklin Smith  that opens that collection (of 18 essays),  also titled “The Teacher’s Body,” moves me every time I read it (this would be the fifth time).  Franklin writes, and I relate:

… I am deeply moved by the history of education. I have to stop and breathe deeply as I read the accounts of complex lives that reveal the conscious and unconscious intentions shaping our past and present.  The letters and diaries of teachers in each historical era illustrate the paradox of freedom and bondage within teachers’ lives.  (19)

And then, with teaching and the body in mind, Franklin moves her essay toward closure with a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

‘It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy; to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be fully possessed of the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of passion, the energy of action…’  (206-207, Middlemarch; 19-20)

Notably here, Franklin leaves off the counter-balancing part of the Middlemarch passage … and I’m intrigued by what that absence signifies (in the teacher’s body);  the other half of the sentence, not quoted, continues as follows:

… but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

In closing, Franklin links Eliot’s  (truncated words) to her own final claim:

So to be possessed of glory in the dynamics of teaching and learning is to be embodied and to honor the embodiment of others. . . .  The teacher’s body (our bodies) enters our consciousness through our direct sensory awareness, through literature and the arts, through our long ventures in illness and health, and through our ‘othered’ appearances.

I wonder then:  Where and how is your own teacher’s body mapped in those four locations of:

(1) your direct sensory awareness and experiences?

(2) your embodied relationships with, and in, literature and the arts?

(3) your own ventures with illness and health, dis/ability?

(4) your various “othered” dis/appearances?

November 2016 Teaching Workshop: Creativity in Critical Writing

It wasn’t too long ago (though, because it took place before the Thanksgiving break, it feels like years have come and gone in the meantime) that FYW held a teaching development workshop on a topic that’s especially dear to my heart, Creativity in Critical Writing. In the workshop, we discussed several important questions, including . . .

  • How has “creativity” been defined, and what different types of creativity can we distinguish?
  • Can creativity be taught? What degree (and what kinds) of creativity can we expect from our students?
  • What do we mean when we say words like “heuristics,” “metacognition,” and “intrinsic motivation,” and what bearing do they have on our teaching?

Here, I’ll touch briefly on the first of these questions. (If you’re interested in any of the others and couldn’t make it to the workshop, you can access my slides here or contact me through email or at the FYW office.) It seems obvious that if we’re going to try to assess the value of creativity in critical writing and in composition courses—and discover how to foster it—we should have a clear idea of what we mean by “creativity.” Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a clear idea, nor can we very easily arrive at one, given the many (often opposed) understandings of and associations with creativity that circulate in culture.

In what follows, I’ll try to parse these various understandings and associations. Bear with me . . .

At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll start by saying that it’s useful to discern three overarching ideologies of creativity:

  1. First, and probably most familiar, is that of creativity as inspiration or Romantic genius, which conjures up images of the artist in the garret.
  2. A second view of creativity understands it to signify progress of some kind, a contribution to a preexisting conversation, the advancement of knowledge—called “normal science” by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
  3. Third, most recently, creativity has taken on overtones of disruption, innovation, and entrepreneurship: such creativity encompasses revolutionary discourse as well as the discourse of the so-called “creative economy” (see Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class), and it corresponds to Kuhn’s “revolutionary” or “abnormal” science.

In addition, we can divide theories of creativity into another set of three. I’ve labeled these theories individual (cognitive), social (sociocognitive), and material (ecocognitive):

  1. In the first, creativity emerges from the individual: Hamlet sprung from Shakespeare as a product of the writer’s genius. This theory clearly complements the Romantic ideology of creativity.
  2. The second theory, which I call social, builds on the first by adding social forces to the equation—that is to say, creativity emerges not simply from the individual but from the interactions of the individual and society (cultural influences, peer networks, discursive conventions, etc.).
  3. Finally, in a material or ecocognitive framework, all three come together: creativity emerges from the interactions of the individual, society, and material environment. The “material environment” consists of economic, technological, and other constraints and affordances—things like computer software that one can access, or a lack of productive time in the evening due to a punishingly long commute.

I’m partial to this last theory of creativity, as you can imagine. In my opinion, an adequate theory of creativity has to account for the individual and social and material factors—focusing on just one, or even only two of the three, doesn’t cut it.

Finally—and I say “finally” not because I’m approaching the end of the different distinctions that I could parse out, but rather because I’m reaching the limits of how much energy I’d like to devote to this blog entry—it’s worthwhile to attend to the distinction between “Big-C” and “little-c” creativity, to use terminology from the budding field of creativity studies:

  1. To put it simply, little-c creativity refers to the everyday creativity that we all exhibit whenever we confront and solve a minor problem or find that it’s useful for some reason to do something differently than we typically do. Such creativity is subjectively novel: my creative solution may be “new to me,” but not necessarily “new to the world.”
  2. By contrast, Big-C creativity involves that which is objectively novel and, usually, disruptive in some way (in relation to some tradition or convention or whatever else may have preceded it). It is eminent creativity: the creativity of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, or Marie Curie.
  3. Another type, Pro-C creativity, is objectively novel as well, but it’s contributory, not disruptive—as in the case of “normal science” in the second ideology of creativity described above. I’ll spare you the headache, though.

We could easily go further—the creativity of the artist versus the creativity of the scientist, for example—but I think I’ve made my point. It’s very simple to say, “Maybe I’ll assign a creative project this semester,” or to ask, “How can I enhance my students’ creativity?” or something along those lines. However, if we’re really going to commit to thinking about creativity in (our teaching of) critical writing, we have to first arrive at a clear idea of what we mean when we say “creativity.”

October 2016 Teaching Workshop: Habits of Mind

Educational outcomes in traditional settings focus on how many answers a student knows. When we teach the Habits of Mind, we are interested also in how students behave when they don’t know an answer. . . . We are interested in enhancing the ways students produce knowledge rather than how they merely reproduce it.


—Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick

Last Wednesday, the First-Year Writing Program held another workshop for instructors, this time on “Teaching Habits of Mind.” In individual writing, small-group work, and discussion, those of us in attendance considered an approach to teaching that emphasizes—even more than the written “product” or the writing “process”—the development among students of beneficial “habits of mind”: ways of thinking and being that often prove useful to students in contexts other than the composition classroom. These broadly applicable habits of mind tend to “transfer positively,” unlike a great deal of the learning that occurs as a result of narrow “skills-based” instruction.

Teaching just any set of habits of mind doesn’t cut it, of course. Instead, we must ask which habits of mind would most benefit our students. In our workshop, we compared the list of eight habits of mind highlighted in the 2011 Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, a joint publication of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project, alongside Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick’s list of habits of mind (quoted in Patrick Sullivan’s A New Writing Classroom: Listening, Motivation, and Habits of Mind). Then, after some thought and reflection, we answered the following questions:

  • If you were tasked with creating a list of habits of mind that instructors should try to develop in the teaching of writing, which would you include? Feel free to borrow from the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing and/or Costa and Kallick’s habits of mind.
  • Which habits of mind do you tend to value most highly as you assess student work? How does student writing evince these habits of mind? (For example, how would a student’s writing demonstrate “openness”?)
  • Which habits of mind does your teaching foster among students? What steps can you take to develop habits of mind more effectively?

I’d encourage all of you to give these questions a try as well: you have my PowerPoint slides here and the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing here. Send us an email to tell us what you’ve come up with!

I’ll start. These sets of habits of mind strike me—not unexpectedly, given that they’re habits of mind—as being very individualistically cognitive, with too little emphasis on the social. (It’s possible to practice different types of “social-mindedness,” with Costa and Kallick’s disposition toward “listening with understanding and empathy” offering one such example.) So I would suggest “generosity” and “always-seeking-out-new-technical-social-and-material-resources-available-to-you” as my additions. Can anyone help me come up with a better term for that second one?

College-Level Writing: Pedagogy and Its Contexts

In his blog, The Write Space, Director of the Connecticut Writing Project Jason Courtmanche thoughtfully commented on Joseph Teller’s recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” Below, we’ve reblogged Jason’s entry (which you can find in its original habitat here)—

College-Level Writing: Pedagogy and Its Contexts

One of the issues I deal with frequently is the question of college-level writing. Pat Sullivan’s two books—What Is ‘College-Level’ Writing, Volumes 1 and 2, the current College Ready Writers Grant we hold at our site, the MLA Working Group on K-16 Alliances, the Connecticut College Readiness Program on the Teaching of Writing at the University of St. Joseph, UConn’s Early College Experience English program are all books, grants, working groups, committees and programs I have been involved in recently that deal directly with this question. And while I feel the work I do in these endeavors is productive, I think all of my colleagues and I still often feel like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his majority opinion on the first amendment case Jacobellis vs. Ohio: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …”

Unfortunately, if we want to successfully communicate to students, and teachers, an understanding of college-level writing, we have to define it.

Monday’s edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education contained a wonderfully provocative article by Joseph Teller, titled “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” In this piece, Teller announces that ten years of failed attempts to teach his students how to write effectively have led him to lose faith in a process-based pedagogy, courses that are focused on thematic issues rather than rhetorical modes, and the inclusion of reading instruction in the writing classroom. Instead, Teller advocates a return to a Current-Traditionalist focus on product, teacher-centered instruction, and the nuts and bolts of paragraphing and sentence structure.

Teller does advocate for lots of writing and lots of (teacher) feedback. But he says content should be left to the specialists (history professors should teach history, sociology professors should teach sociology, etc.), reading instruction should be left to, well, he doesn’t say exactly, but not to the composition instructor, and any sort of peer feedback should just be jettisoned. Most students “ignore their classmates’ suggestions. And more often than not, when they do revise based on peer feedback, it’s often unhelpful and inexperienced advice.”

Reading through the article, I disagreed with many things. Teller insists his students will not revise, but I find little difficulty getting mine to do so. He writes that his students have an aversion to reading, and while I find that the digital age has put a serious crimp on traditional reading practices, my students aren’t averse to reading. I also think Teller creates some unnecessary dichotomies that aren’t helpful.

Reading the comments, I’d have to say that a PhD clearly has no correlation with civility in public discourse. (Interesting in light of this other article I read in the New York Times about promoting civil discourse in teenagers!). The meanness and snarkiness was shocking. One of the blandest comments I read was from a man who simply said he’d like to hear more about the context of Professor Teller’s classes.

A little close reading and a little online research will tell you this much: College of the Sequoias, where Teller teaches, is a community college in the San Joaquin Valley, and is the only public college in the area. Many residents are farm workers and almost half are Latinos. Nearly 20% of the population live at or below the poverty line. Teller has about 100 students each semester in four sections of introductory composition. Not exactly compatible with the student population or the teaching load at UConn.

I still disagree with much of what Teller writes, but context truly is everything. One of my principal conclusions is that the man needs fewer students. Even picking up two extra First-Year Experience classes, I only have 47 students this semester. If I were not an administrator and just taught two Writing Intensive courses, my load would be capped at 38. Teller writes that he requires all of his students to submit a short argumentative essay, and receive feedback from him, not peers, within the first two weeks. Even if each of his students writes no more than a page, that’s 100 pages of reading and response in fourteen days.

I suspect that the situation in the local high schools (there are five) isn’t much better.

I think the underlying truth here has less to do with pedagogy’s relationship to college-readiness and more to do with poverty’s relationship to the issue.

September 2016 Teaching Workshop: Assignment Development

The moving force of inquiry is the existence of questions that are posable relative to the “body of knowledge” of the day but not answerable within it. Inquiry sets afoot a process of a cyclic form . . .

—Nicholas Rescher, Process Philosophy, p. 65

Yesterday, the First-Year Writing Program facilitated a workshop on assignment development for instructors. It was a nicely attended event, with a healthy balance of new and seasoned instructors.

I had been charged with preparing materials for the event, a task to which I’d responded with gusto—or, rather, absurd thoroughgoingness. (A deadline for a dissertation chapter was looming, and what better way to procrastinate than to compose several pages of single-spaced text on assignment design? I’ve already watched Stranger Things.) But despite the wealth of handouts that I’d brought, I was quickly reminded that a dozen heads seeking advanced degrees are better than one, especially re: assignment development. Which is all to say, the participants blew me away with their great ideas.

I’d like to share all of them with you. But because workshops and freewheeling discussions don’t lend themselves to clear, concise recounting, and because I’d like to conclude this post someplace south of 5,000 words, I’m going to focus on just one of the many threads that we followed yesterday.

One of the most important points was, perhaps unsurprisingly in retrospect, also one of the most fundamental: if we hope to design better assignments, we must arrive at a fuller understanding of what student writing is, what it’s for, and what the relationship is between student writing and that genre of instructor writing that we call assignments. Of course, student writing is writing by students—but it’s writing by students as students, specifically for occasions occasioned by the instructor (and often by the instructor’s writing, in an assignment sheet, for example). In a sense, then, it’s as much the instructor who generates student writing as it is the student—but only in a funny, PoMo theory kind of way.

Or not? “As much” may be too much, granted. But while it’s often, and obviously rightly, the student to whom we ascribe the “genesis” of student writing, our discussion yesterday brought to light just how central of a role the instructor’s assignment sheet plays in bringing student writing into being—and in influencing the shape that the student’s writing will ultimately take. There’s a call and response relationship between the two genres, the assignment and the student’s academic essay. If, as an instructor, you find yourself grumbling about a poor batch of essays by your students, you might consider revisiting the assignment that you devised; maybe it’s there that the issue began. Equally, a carefully crafted assignment not only tends to lead to more insightful, interesting, ambitious essays, but it also models for students what a good project is. (A couple of participants pointed out during our discussion yesterday that “good” in this case has to do with disciplinary conventions. One field’s criteria for “goodness” will differ from another’s.) This knowledge—what a good project is—isn’t as intuitive as we sometimes think, particularly for college freshmen who don’t regularly read, say, PMLA or College English.

There’s a balance, however, between modeling a good project and allowing room for originality, creativity, movement of thought. (Then too, at a more selfish level, most composition instructors don’t find it thrilling to read twenty nearly identical versions of a single essay.) We discussed some practical aspects of this balancing act: allowing students to select one or more of the texts that they examine, or having them begin with feeder assignments like project proposals. But what seemed most crucial was the rule of thumb that assignment sequences should both be responsive to what’s going on in class (the ideas, the writing, the conversations of the class) and be structured in such a way and with such flexibility that, if a student offers a fascinating and/or useful contribution to the course’s inquiry in an essay, that contribution isn’t born on the page only to die on the page: instead, that great idea or insight (or whatever) goes on to circulate throughout the class, changing the trajectory of the course’s knowledge-seeking.

Consequently, we can extend our little formula from before:

An instructor’s writing (in an assignment prompt) occasions a student’s writing (in an essay)—yet this same student writing should also occasion the instructor’s writing (subsequent assignment prompts, lesson plans, etc.).

David Bartholomae has already taught us, in “Writing Assignments: Where Writing Begins,” that student writing typically does—and, if students are to learn from us, must—spring from the assignments that we write. What was perhaps most vital about yesterday’s discussion was the recognition by many participants that, from a still more encompassing perspective, this dynamic isn’t a one-way street. Rather, assignments facilitate a “process of cyclic form,” to quote Nicholas Rescher, in which every act of writing, whether by student or instructor, gives shape to the next.

February Teaching Roundtable: Teacher Immediacy in the Digital Age

Two human hands coming out two seperate computers, reaching out for each other. Isolated on a white background

I became interested in the topic of immediacy in teaching—students’ perception of the physical and psychological distance between teacher and student (as defined by Gorham)—by reflecting on my own early teaching experience. As a young college instructor, I was often concerned about my authority in the classroom and what I was projecting to my students. I would let the students call me “professor” and fret about my intellectual authority. Every class felt like a test that I might pass with flying colors or miserably fail.

A few years into teaching, I began working as Coordinator of Writing Tutoring at Baruch College and was suddenly working closely with undergraduate students on a daily basis. We worked collaboratively to create tutoring documents and discussed tutoring issues, searching together for solutions. The barrier I had been so anxious to maintain began to feel like tinsel armor. I realized I could be a leader and guide while also being an equal collaborator in pursuit of knowledge and good practice.

I was reminded of this moment in my career when reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, a text that provides practical insights into the ways we can foster teacher immediacy alongside an awareness of the sociostructural barriers to immediacy that we work against in our classrooms. Hooks writes, “When I enter the classroom at the beginning of the semester, the weight is on me to establish that our purpose is to be, for however brief a time, a community of learners together. It positions me as a learner. But I’m also not suggesting that I don’t have more power. And I’m not trying to say we’re all equal here. I’m trying to say that we are all equal here to the extent that we are equally committed to creating a learning context.” I like this clarification of what some may perceive as a threat to the necessary order of the classroom. Hooks isn’t pretending that all hierarchy can or should be dispensed with, but that everyone is equally able to contribute to the common pursuit of learning within the course.

In our roundtable last week on teacher immediacy, Simone Puleo, graduate instructor and PhD student in Comparative Literature, and Shawna Lesseur, Assistant Director of First-Year Programs and PhD candidate in Political Science, joined us to talk about their own immediacy practices in the classroom. Simone addressed the traditionally rigid hierarchy of power between student and teacher as it is reinforced by classroom architecture. Puleo’s answer is to “just leave.” He advised instructors to literally get outside the structure of the classroom when they can while providing “surgically” precise guidelines for the class to stave off the chaos that can set in when classes get outside. Shawna spoke of the ways that she creates immediacy and power balance with students in her First-Year Experience courses. Early in the semester, students help to create the syllabus, deciding on course topics of focus. They also help define common criteria for successful writing by reading blog posts online and detailing what makes pieces of writing succeed or stumble. In this way, both content and criteria are co-determined by students and teacher.

In discussion that followed, we worked to suss out the balance between connecting with students on common ground and maintaining professional boundaries that are respectful to teachers as laborers. One of the points that came up in our roundtable was a concern that a more “student-centered” approach can mean excessive and/or outside-of-job-description labor on the part of graduate and part-time instructors. In response, graduate instructor Sarah Berry gave an explanation of the way she makes her labor visible to her students through her language. She explained that she will say things like, “In reading your drafts, I saw that one thing we need to pay more attention to is…,” signalling that she has spent time thinking about class activity in light of reading student work.  

Another concern raised was that a “student-centered” approach may reinforce the identity of student as consumer. Shawn Lesseur responded to this concern by saying that in her classroom students cannot play a consumer role. Rather, they are co-creators of the learning experience and won’t succeed in the class if they take a passive, consumer stance. Associate Director of First-Year Writing Lisa Blansett echoed this by describing the classroom she aims to create as a space for “collective improvisation.”

Director Scott Campbell reminded the group that writing and teaching are never quite “immediate”; that is, writing mediates human activity and relationships—between people, ideas, and other writing. Nonetheless, as Scott and Shawna explained, sometimes highly mediated spaces (including online course spaces like HuskyCT) can be the best places to foster students’ sense of immediacy (that is, a lack of psychological, if not physical, distance) because they allow teachers to focus on student writing and the ways it mediates relationships.  Ultimately, mediation and technology can work in the service of, rather than against, the project of immediacy in our classes.   

Differences of opinion in our discussion emphasized that the distance or proximity instructors feel comfortable with in relation to their students is, in part, a personal matter, but the dynamic we choose to foster is not without political implications. Critical pedagogy asks that we be whole selves in relationship to other whole selves and take responsibility for the political stakes of the relationship between teacher and student. When we do not, we, in hooks’ terms, “erase our bodies” and the political position and histories that goes with them. This “encourages us to think that we are listening to neutral, objective facts, facts that are not particular to who is sharing the information.”

The project of immediacy, then, is about more than creating a psychological closeness that predisposes students to think well of an instructor and a class; it is also a political effort that aims to make visible the power relationships we inherit so that students can write with a more critical awareness of their own and others’ positions.


**Update: Published 3/2/2016 on Chronicle of Higher Ed, the article “Read and Unread” pays special attention to the forms of digital communication that are most reliable for connecting with students.


Works Cited

Gorham, Joan. “The Relationship Between Verbal Teacher Immediacy Behaviors And Student Learning.” Communication Education 37.1 (1988): 40. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

It’s all just in the words

As academics, no matter our level or field, we are used to the conventions of our field as well as the language, the jargon, used in our environment. While I speak of academics, every profession has its own jargon, it is used to communicate efficiently, and simultaneously it establishes our own knowledge and understanding of our discipline – 10-4?

In our field, the humanities and even more specifically, the literatures, terms and concepts such as “discourse,” the “Other,” or to “deconstruct” are frequently used to communicate an idea and situate it within a larger discourse. Often we, as academics and advanced students, do not reflect on these terms because they are understood by our academic audience – it is our language here at the university and in our department. As Instructors we try to familiarize our students with this language, yet might not always be aware of our own jargon use, or what is understood differently by students who are either new to academia or to the field. In humanities discourse, everyday terms like “memory,” “voice,” or “truth” are re-contextualized and given a slightly different meaning and thus different consequences than the same terms when used in non-academic language. In a way they are jargonized as this new, academic meaning is known to the academic community. For native-speakers of English, the transition, or the jargonizing process, from every day to specialized language happens quickly and often as a side note: as instructors we deconstruct the everyday term and (re)situate it within our own disciplinary discourse and then expect our student to use these jargonized terms. But what happens when a Second Language Writer comes across these often common but now re-contextualized terms? For Second Language Writers the transition requires an additional step, the translation of the term into his / her native language and thus an environment where the deconstruction of the English term might not work as fluently as it does in English. Second Language Writers are therefore frequently confronted with jargon understanding of terms that differ or go far beyond a traditional dictionary definition. Furthermore, some of these terms may prove themselves much more complicated and problematic, especially when venturing into a post-colonial environment / jargon: What or Who is “the Other” when a Second Language Writer from a non-western environment writes? Why is he / she referred to as the “subaltern”? Obviously, it was Gayatri Spivak, as an Indian woman and scholar, who coined the term, but she did so within the jargon environment of her field. But it is now we instructors who introduce these terms to a diverse student population from all over the world, and more frequently than not, do so from a Western perspective and interpellate our students into our own discourse, often silencing their voices.

I am not advocating that we as instructors stop using the jargon of our fields! It is in many ways our responsibility to familiarize our students with the specific language that is used in an academic discipline, at least to a certain degree. Members of the medical community must speak the same jargon; legal professionals speak and write in their own “language” where every day synonyms have a distinct (legal) meaning; police officers must know what the numbered codes mean – even though these jargons/languages might seem inaccessible to the outsider at first, they serve a purpose.

However, as instructors of our field(s) are in a position (if not to say we have a duty) to make our language / jargon accessible to our students and thus have to take a step back once in a while to reevaluate our own, specific language. Especially when working with Second Language Writers, we need to understand that there is an additional translation process and that we might have to work through a term, maybe on an individual basis, a bit slower and ask more pointed questions to further the students’ understanding. Or, why not take a moment in class and work with all our students through a term like “voice” and let them discover its academic scope. What we cannot do in return, is to penalize a student who makes a good argument based on a different, non-jargonized understanding of a term.

In the end, it is all “just” about the words and how we use them – for better or for worse – but we need to understand and to be understood in order to have communication happen.

What is an Audience?

As part of the “rhetorical situation” most students either pick up on or are explicitly taught, “audience” looms large as the writer tries to predict exactly what will move those who hear or read the work. Other pieces enter the picture, too—purpose, occasion, for example—and this triumvirate serves as a kind of cloud into which the writer uploads words.

In classical rhetoric (or, is that Classical Rhetoric), the role of an audience is addressed in the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Socrates (via Plato of course), and a few “unknown authors.” Although the 3d-audiencequestion of “audience” figures into all these authors’ works, the question of how or even whether one should attend to one’s audience was rather more fractured: For some the audience may be filled with dimwits who hold untrained opinions (doxa), and so the model orator would address them by taking the high road of “knowledge” and truth.  In short, he should teach virtue and deliver wisdom (and therefore enlighten those ignorant souls; Socrates, as the mouthpiece of Plato, never did think much of the hoi polloi: see Plato,Gorgias). For others, namely Aristotle, audience was figured with somewhat more nuance; his taxonomy of audiences includes their demographics (their family and fortune; their age; they are assumed to be men) their emotional state, and their character type (see Book 2 of Rhetoric). Aristotle identifies general types of audiences—the passive spectator, the engaged public, and the judge (hence the branches of rhetoric: deliberative, epideictic, and forensic). Yet Aristotle did not actively link invention or style to the characteristics of the audience, although knowledge of the audience does play a role in the construction of some figures. While Plato seems to argue that one makes an audience by lifting them up to the level of the (non-sophist) rhetorician, Plato describes a rhetor whose role is to provide wisdom and knowledge or to persuade the audience to accept an established norm or truth.

In the millennia since, rhetoric has created the “reasonable man” standard, in which one man stands for the whole audience, and audience itself has come to be generalized as “the consumer.”

Continue reading

Should First-Year Writing Be Academic Writing Only?

Every August, when I introduce the UConn’s First-Year Writing course to new instructors, I present the course—“the pedagogy”—as a fairly coherent set of approaches and practices coming out of a particular tradition, which we do our best to engage with, revise, and renew each year. I encourage new instructors, who may be best positioned to notice weaknesses or limitations, to suggest potential innovations or mark points of difference from what they expected or have experienced in other programs. I take seriously the adage that teaching is a kind of research. And, although I will occasionally joke that “this is a teaching hospital” and therefore a place where mistakes can happen, I see good teaching as inseparable from experiment.

This year, in our seminar for these new instructors, we are reading selections from First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice (Parlor Press, 2014). Each chapter features a composition theorist working through a few key issues in teaching FYC (or FYW) and then offering a sample syllabus. Most of these chapters describe courses that are quite different from the UConn courses, and my hope is that encounters with these alternatives will stimulate further experiment and help us resist replicating the UConn ideology merely out of habit or familiarity. We’ll see how that goes.

Doug Hesse’s chapter and sample syllabus is especially interesting to me in its challenge to our almost relentless focus on academic writing. Continue reading