Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Just Another Case of History Repeating: Thoughts on Thomas Newkirk’s “Looking Back to Look Forward”

Hello again, my possibly imaginary readers! Long time, no…blog. Well, Spring Break is now officially over (and whose idea was it to call it a “break,” anyway?), and I am officially back in the game! What game, you may ask? Now remember, being imaginary, you can and will ask pretty much anything I want you to. But I digress. Now, where’s that pesky response? Ah, here it is! Frankly, I’m not really sure what game I’m playing. I never am. But if it is anything like Candy Land or Monopoly, I’ll probably manage to bumble through and figure out the rules as I go.

Moving on…

A little while ago in English 612, we were tossing around the idea of using tales, stories, and narratives as a way of framing, analyzing, and understanding past and present concepts and conditions. It was suggested that the narrative, or story, might be the most appropriate framework for examining the state of writing instruction and learning throughout history, and that along with hands-on, multi-genre, interdisciplinary research, the resulting narratives could be used to help us engage in and explore the pedagogical differences between various eras in education. Coincidently (or perhaps not so coincidently), just a few weeks after that conversation, we were given a short handout by Thomas Newkirk entitled “Looking Back to Look Forward.”

In “Looking Back,” Newkirk discusses his own “historical excursion” into “the ideas of educators…at the beginning of the twentieth century who were trying to chart a new direction for teaching writing” (1). After painstaking hours of basement research and original document exploration, Newkirk came to the realization that all our talk of modern, groundbreaking pedagogy versus stodgy and restrictive traditional writing instruction is, frankly, a lot of BS. Educators at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s were striving for the same thing that the majority of us are striving for now, at the beginning of the 2000s: “to cut through the sheer curricular clutter that causes us to lose sight of the real goal of writing instruction – to truly engage students in purposeful acts of composing” (2). Exactly.

For most actively-involved English instructors living and working a century ago, writing was a central focus of the classroom. The goal of composition pedagogy was to make writing a natural, healthy, and internalized process, rather than something ruled and dictated by prescriptive rules and paint-by-numbers formatting. It was understood by those “in the know” that students needed to be actively interested and engaged in the topics they were writing about, a concept echoed in every grad course I have participated in.

The main challenge to this sort of enlightened pedagogy was the concept of “normal schooling,” that is, the typical (then and now) classroom stereotype in which the teacher lectures at the students, the students recite the material back at the appropriate time, and very little real learning takes place. This top-down, banking method of schooling works well with the American educational system’s intense focus of standardized testing and dictated performance, a focus Newkirk refers to as a “pernicious confusion of standards with standardization” (5) What the normal schooling/banking method doesn’t do, however, is actually benefit the students in any way. Sound familiar to anyone?

So, there we are! In just a few paragraphs, we have a narrative tale of writing instruction as it existed in another time, and with this framework set up, we can easily see that things really haven’t changed all that much. Everything old is new again.

The only question that remains: what next?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Computer Flubs and Bruffee Pinch Hitters...

So, I have been out of town for the past four days, and as a result have been working off of a different computer, in this case one with no internet access. Anyway, I wrote up a lovely lil' commentary on Sawyer's "Improvisation and Teaching," but lo and behold, the file I saved it to won't open on THIS computer. So it looks like I might have to explore my options and post that above-mentioned blog later on tonight or tomorrow. Argh. Oh, well. Anyway, in order to keep you, my imaginary readers, from becoming too cross with me, here's an analysis of a Bruffee piece that I had sitting around from last semester. And you say I never get you anything. Tsk, tsk.

Bazermanian Perspectives:

A Short Analysis of Kenneth Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind”

through the Lens of Charles Bazerman’s “What Written Knowledge Does”

In the article entitled “What Written Knowledge Does,” Charles Bazerman employs the concepts of genre and analysis in order to discuss the relationships inherent between different types of knowledge and the ways in which said types of knowledge are presented as written text. Because knowledge and language are social artifacts, their usage is highly contextualized, and for an author to accomplish a particular goal it is necessary for the structure of the written information conveyed to be deliberate and appropriate to the context. Form, structure, and context affect meaning, and the “force of written language only maintains to the degree that contextual factors are properly aligned and the text is able to capitalize on these factors” (Bazerman 23).

In order to analyze the meaning of a given example of written text, as well as its contextual success or “force,” Bazerman outlines a system of scrutiny composed of four contexts for examination: 1) the object of study, 2) the literature of the field, 3) the anticipated audience, and 4) the author’s own self (Bazerman, 24). In “What Written Knowledge Does,” these lenses of context are employed in the analysis of three articles from three different genres to illuminate the ways in which topic, resource pool, audience, and author are utilized within specific rhetorical communities. This sort of multi-level analysis is clearly useful in the examination of written text, and it is with Bazerman’s article in mind that we employ his four contexts for examination on yet another text: “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind,” by Kenneth Bruffee.

The first and most obvious area to explore is the object of study. In the Bruffee piece, the topic is outlined clearly in the title and on the first page, in which the concept of collaborative learning is presented as a given, something alive and valid in the field. It is presented throughout the article as a topic of interest to educators and worthy of dialogue, and, while Bruffee does draw on a variety of developmental, social, and language-oriented learning theories to support his discussion, it is clear that he feels no need to argue vehemently for his cause. The author’s knowledge of his field is such that he can safely assume the “factuality” of what he is discussing, and can count on the comprehension of the Composition and Rhetoric community. In comparing this to the articles Bazerman analyzes in “What Written Knowledge Does,” it is interesting to note that the article most similar to Bruffee’s in the presentation of object of study is the scientific piece “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” in which the scientific factuality of the topic, as well as the understood body of knowledge functioning within the field, precludes the need for justification.

The second contextual lens, which Bazerman calls the literature of the field, refers to the discourses and references utilized by the author to construct the framework for the piece. In “Collaborative Learning,” Bruffee is able to insert references to various educators and developmental theorists, including Vygotsky, into the discussion of collaborative learning and community. By utilizing a framework of already-accepted theory, Bruffee structures his topic in such a way as to make it seem like a natural reality, which is similar to the technique used by Watson and Crick in “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”. Similarities can also be drawn between the Bruffee piece and Robert Merton’s “The Ambivalence of Scientists,” the second article analyzed by Bazerman, due to the very deliberate selection of which references and examples to include (and which not to include) in order to achieve the goal of convincing the audience, as well as the authors’ incorporation of personal theory into the text

The third of Bazerman’s contexts for examination involves the intended audience of a given piece. In this regard, the Bruffee piece is simple. The audience is composed of educators, individuals interested in English language pedagogy with a particular, defined focus on composition and rhetoric. With this clearly delineated audience in mind, Bruffee (an educator himself) is able to engage the reader using a combination of simple language and field-specific technical terminology, relying on a body of shared knowledge and an already established attitude of professional interest and belief in the topic. Bruffee’s intended audience most resembles that of the Watson and Crick piece in its obviously defined, field-savvy, professional audience. However, there are also similarities to be found between “Collaborative Learning,” the Merton piece, and Geoffrey Hartman’s “Blessing the Torrent,” due to the fact that each of these pieces mentioned seeks to lead the audience away from old ways of thinking and into new realms of discourse.

Finally, as the last step of the four-part analysis, we come to the issue of the author’s own self. In “Collaborative Learning,” the “I” is strongly felt, and it is this narrative voice that makes the work accessible to the reader. Bruffee, by using first-person language and personal reference, establishes himself as a credible professional, a fellow teacher, an educator dealing with the same issues as his audience, and a member of the “club.” This presentation of self differs from the presentations explored in the Bazerman article, in which the self was, respectively, a generic and passive voice subordinated to the object of study (Watson/Crick), an argumentative yet isolated voice relying almost entirely on the author’s own references to prove a point (Merton), and an entirely subjective, experiential voice (Hartman).

Taken together, these four segments of contextual analysis create a template for understanding the meaning and methodology of the article as a whole. The topic of the piece, collaborative learning within a classroom community of discourse, is presented as an obvious and important object of study, and although some support is drawn on, it is clear that the author knows his audience well enough to safely assume their understanding of key points. It is this knowledge of his intended audience as a group of professional educators that allows Bruffee to discuss the topic using field-specific terminology and theory, and to place himself (the “I”) in a position of academic comradery with his readers. Pertinent references are called upon, but much of the discussion is based on the author’s own theories, beliefs, and experiences in the field. This framework, while by no means extremely complicated, is fairly typical of many of the articles currently being published in the areas of composition, rhetoric, and pedagogy, and as a result functions as an excellent example of the ways in which context, or genre, dictates the form and meaning of a text.

It may be an over-simplification, but when it comes to issues of context, genre, and meaning, the way something is communicated is just as important as what is communicated. In “What Written Knowledge Does,” Charles Bazerman argues that each of the articles analyzed “speaks to its own moment and own intellectual space; each actively realizes its own goals in that moment and space” (Bazerman 47), and this is true of any successful text. Language is a social artifact, and its usage and meaning is dependent on the community framework, the intended audience, and the deliberate and structured presentation of the discourse in question. As demonstrated in the previous paragraphs, Kenneth Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind” is a interesting and coherent example of context-based genre writing, and provides an excellent vehicle for Bazermanian analysis.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Musings on R. Keith Sawyer's "Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation"

In R. Keith Sawyer’s article, “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation,” the author addresses the concept of improvisation within the classroom. He starts, simply, by presenting the oft-utilized metaphor of teaching as performance, then problematizes things by exploring one of the most common and pedagogically dangerous assumptions that has arisen as a result of the adage: that is, that teaching is a scripted act in which a performer recites to a silent audience. He then presents his own modification to the metaphor, describing teaching not merely as performance, but as improvisational performance, a small paradigm shift with major repercussions in the areas of learning and creativity.

For Sawyer, this shift changes teaching from a performative and scripted act to an interactional and responsive collaborative exercise. The classroom becomes an inquiry-based environment of active participation in which students are treated as individuals rather than passive audience members. This constructivist learning flow, with its focus on improvisation, is much more in hand with the sorts of collaboration-based, intertextual - some would even say radical - pedagogical beliefs that are currently blazing trails across the educational frontier. As both a developing instructor and a long-time student, I can definitely appreciate this.

Having experienced a variety of different classroom techniques and practices from the student side of the fence, as well as a few from the first-hand perspective of instructordom, I can say without reservation that the overly-structured, obviously-scripted classroom exudes an atmosphere of stagnation, reticence, and discontent. Often, the professor becomes trapped in a quicksand of rigid scheduling, stiff and virtually unable to incorporate new material into the discussion, respond appropriately to deviation from the strictly-enforced daily template, or encourage any sort of creativity or real learning in the students. The students themselves become bored, frustrated, and resistant, chafing against the constraints of a lecture and a schedule that doesn’t acknowledge them as individuals. Reality is ignored in favor of a stringent and undeviating one-size-fits-all template, and both the students and the professor are done a disservice.

Improvisation-oriented classrooms present an alternative to that template. Open to new material and discussion, they allow the professor to direct the lessons according to interest and deal with students fluidly and naturally as individuals. Interaction and collaboration is encouraged, and both students and professor alike have the freedom to riff freely with the material. Of course, that is not to advocate for entirely improvised classroom learning, which could, I believe, result in an extremely unfocussed and messy tangle.

Sawyer feels the same way, and makes a point to clarify what he is referring to when he proposes the idea of teaching as improvisational performance. In the course of his discussion, Sawyer refers to work done by Berliner, Leinhardt, and Greeno, stating that “creative teaching is disciplined improvisation because it always occurs within broad structures and frameworks. Expert teachers use routines and activity structures more than novice teachers; but they are able to invoke and apply these routines in a creative, improvisational fashion” (p 13). That is, successful improvisation-oriented teaching takes place when it is both disciplined (the professor comes to class well-versed on his or her subject matter, and with frameworks, discussions, and examples in mind through which to elucidate his or her main points) AND improvisation-based (the professor welcomes and encourages active participation and collaborative, emergent learning, and is well-equipped and willing to, essentially, just roll with things). This balance between the structure of a script and the flexibility of improvisation is suitable to any classroom situation.

Disciplined improvisation, eh? I like it, Sawyer. I LIKE IT A LOT. (*enunciated Dumb and Dumber style.*)