Thursday, March 31, 2005

Why Theory Failed Me Personally

I entered the world of writing center work in the fall of 1988. Newly hired to teach African-American and American literature at Francis Marion University, where English and the writing center were integrated operations, I gave director Philip Gardner six weekly hours of my service to complement nine hours of comp and lit duties.

Briefly, my career seemed integrated.

But my position had me straddling two disciplinary areas. One was my traditional career in teaching literature and freshman composition. The other was the world of writing center work, a world at that time beginning to define itself in strong contradistinction to my English teaching.

According to the writing center theory, my classroom practices in composition instruction were everything the writing center community should be resisting. In some very provocative rhetoric, theory asserted that in my teaching I was enforcing the university’s most regulatory, hierarchical, and oppressively mass template form of education. Only in the writing center, where one-to-one encounters could be intensively dialogic, could I be truly educating my students—liberating them from institutional assaults on their minds and selves.

Where did that leave me? In effect, theory was defining me as a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll, Ph.D., that benign, professionally certified, classroom teacher, was actually Mr. Hyde—a morally twisted monster who, allegedly, through deposition of facts by directive teaching, was snuffing out the life of the mind.

So not only was my dedicated career a delusion, it was a snuff film.

I am sure you see my point. By virtue of my being both a classroom teacher and a writing center tutor, theory was branding one half of me a villain and the other half an angel.

As Philip Gardner likes to insist, theory must explain all of what one does, not part of it. Yet, the last twenty-five years of theory has foregrounded the more resistant, counter-hierarchical impulses in our work while obscuring the educative mission that we have in common with the larger academy.

In short, theory did not work for me because it failed to describe me coherently. It made me an enemy to myself, labeling more than one half my work duties as something educationally shameful. It suggested that, while walking from my composition classroom to the writing center, I should be preparing to undo all that I had just accomplished in my classroom session.

Worse, theory was needlessly marginalizing the writing center profession. True, the material circumstances of writing center professionals in the academy were at times truly abysmal and marginal; but that was no need to base theory predominately on such negatives. What Phillip and I argue is that for twenty-five years writing center theory has driven a wedge between our work and the academy, dividing instead of joining, thus contributing to a deep, self-willed professional marginality. In our embrace of a sometimes doctrinaire discourse laden with what we term “values of autonomy,” we have ascribed to a metanarrative that suppresses some important “values of sociality”—by which we can be seen as vital contributors to legitimate social reproduction.

“Polyvalence” is our way of conjoining these mutually excluding valences into a discourse of professional wholeness.

For no matter how one may try to define the writing center’s “essential” mission, there is no such pure essence. The “contrarian model” of the last two to three decades purports to articulate a foundational, revolutionary purity of mission that actually was socially constructed out of ideologies as well as institutional and cultural conditions of the 1970s and 1980s. Philip and I do not reject that noble effort. It has yielded magnificent results. We wish, however, to explain and participate in equally important, collective practices of the wider institutional setting.

My hunch is that you might as well.

Bill here

Spies Coming In from the Cold

In a tensely weary, jaded style of gritty alienation, Richard Burton gave perhaps his most convincing performance in John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a film astutely made in the bleakest black and white during the reign of gaudily saturated Technicolor. I recommend the film to anyone in the writing center movement itching to come in from the cold of our professional margin. Over in Berlin, at least, the Wall has come down.

This film connection struck me one day as Philip Gardner and I were collaborating on our essay “The Polyvalent Mission of Writing Centers.” We had finished our year-long discussion of writing theory, much of it saturated with a rhetoric of alienation and marginality that we saw as expressive of the profession’s determined refusal to feel at home in the big, bad cold war of institutional instructional practices.

“Phil,” I observed, “what we’re saying seems to be that it’s time—really time—for spies like us to come in from the cold.”

I still feel that way. Moreover, I think a great many of us have reached a point of exhaustion. Because it’s tough—really tough—to spend a whole career resisting the institutionalized practice of writing; subverting the academy’s hierarchical, hegemonic will to coerce and inscribe upon its clients; and relentlessly opposing the efforts of classroom professors whose hope, like ours, is to help young people toward productive futures. All while casting ourselves into monochromatic, rain-drenched exile.

The appeal we make in our essay is for professional assimilation. The way we see it, we work in the academy, we are paid by the academy, and we enable both students and professors in the academy. So inescapably we belong in their enterprise. Theory, however, has been telling us otherwise, insisting that the mission of writing centers is to create an alternate and oppositional anti-space, to favor contrarian identities, and to fear that dreaded bugaboo—cooption by the academy. Resistance is as sacred as free-world democracy, says theory, because the mainstream is tyranny.

In the concept of “polyvalence” we have tried to find room for both resistant and assimilative impulses of the writing center movement, room where we may embrace without guilt the hybridity of a more central presence in the academy. It is untenable, we think, to regard ourselves as perennial, underground double agents in the academy’s intellectual enterprise. Many things that the academy values are things that we too value and practice. Our essay therefore urges a broadening of theory, arguing that the wondrous critical inquiry occurring in a writing center’s “quality-time” sessions (bowing here to Anne Ellen Geller) binds us to, rather than separating us from, the curriculum and thus the academy.

Have you, too, felt an itch to come in from the cold?

Bill here

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

“Tastes Great! Less Filling!”

What we do is mind work. And mind work can build a bridge as well as take one down. It can regulate. It can liberate. Harvard University produced a JFK and a Ted Kaczynski, The Unabomber. A writing center session may be wave; it may be particle; it may be “tastes great!”or it may be “less filling!”

Bill and I call this polyvalence.

We believe that the regulation/liberation question that has dominated the writing center conversation for so many years has worn out its usefulness, has trapped us, and that we have to get unstuck. In earlier times when we were finding ourselves, articulating our feelings of dislocation and isolation was a natural part of our discipline’s development. That period that Terrance Riley accurately labeled “frustration” gave us reason to vent and represents a predictable phase in our growth.

But how we feel is not the same as what we do. And let’s face it, outside our community, nobody cares how we feel. And they shouldn’t. (Do we really care how car mechanics as a group really feel? Or accountants? Or, you name it.) We can’t define ourselves for others (who want and need to know what we do) by saying how we feel.

My guess is that nothing of this comes as a great surprise to most of you, but my guess, too, is that we have not replaced most prevailing, oppositional theory because we haven’t had anything to replace it with. Bill and I argue that writing center work is rooted in critical inquiry, that ours is a discipline of methodologies, and that our work in the academy is equivalent to the plaster that holds together a mosaic’s tiles. That’s our perspective (both less filling and great taste!).

Every theory is a work in progress, a part of an evolving conversation, so rather than write about what our theory is (We hope you’ve read it) I want to propose criteria for a useful theory, yours or ours. We’re interested in what you think.

I truly feel that we are on the cusp of a very promising future. But that future begins with a theory that we can turn to when we get stuck.

That theory in my mind must do these things. First, it must be comprehensive; it
must serve the need we’ve not been able to fill: It must give us a framework for the argument that we have to make, that every academic constituent player on a campus is asked to make. To do so, it must break down the binaries that characterize prevailing theory, the us-against-them framework that unifies most of the past twenty years. In other words, we have to accept the obvious—that we can’t continue defining ourselves by what we are not.

Second, theory must embrace the polyvalence of what we do, acknowledge that at times we serve the powers that be and at other times we liberate students from those same powers. We have to accept and explain in logical terms that we often work toward uncertain ends. If physicists can accept the uncertainty that light is sometimes wave and sometime particles, I think we ought to be able to accept that the work we do might serve the status quo or it might help to one day overthrow the status quo.

That theory must be a descriptive discourse, not an expressive discourse. We have to, as Jo Koster from Winthrope University has written, find a way to describe what we do and how and why we do it to those people and agencies that need to know, whose job it is to administer to the whole of campus life.

On a day-to-day basis, that theory should guide and reflect our everyday practices by describing those things we know work for students and by feeding our imaginations to discover new methods.

What I’m getting at here is a unified theory that is consistent, one that holds things together and guides us, one that describes a tutorial event, one that explains why we use the methods we use and why those methods work, a comprehensive theory that provides us with inventive and useful assessment devices that accurately describe what we do and that are relatively easy to present to faculty and administrators.

In the end, our theory should give us a way to openly and honestly display our very important contributions to the collective endeavors of the institution, principally the intellectual and personal growth of the students it exists to serve. Hopefully that theory would embrace the skeptical sensibilities of the outsider and retain the revolutionary spirit that nurtures creative thinking.

Finally, I would say a new theory must also account for the theory it replaces, taking preceding theory into the fold of the new and retaining what it has given us that is useful and sustaining. For like Terrance Riley, I do believe that we have to look at our past and our future by way of a developmental model.

Isn’t writing center work essentially “mind work”? Isn’t a tutorial event essentially an exercise in “critical inquiry”?

On Friday, I’ll play around with some possibilities for how a shift in perspectives might help us get unstuck.


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Some Like It Hot

I’ve had a bitterly cold winter this year. First, there was an electric power loss about a month ago, which only a kerosene heater made bearable. Second, I must teach a MWF morning literature class in dreaded Leatherman Science Facility 107, the most frigid classroom on campus. Third is the circulation in my legs—it ain’t what it used to be. Even on warm June days, at home, I wrap a blanket around my legs to keep them from turning blue. In short, unequivocally and emphatically, I am tired of being COLD.
So imagine my surprise yesterday evening when a little green alien from Neptune stopped by for a visit. It was below freezing outside and I hastened to invite him in from the porch. “Hey, man,” he said in a tremulous, counter-tenor squeal, his breath condensing into a visible stream of vapor as soon it touched the cold air; “it’s bloomin’ HOT here on earth.”

Just as hot and cold are not fixed essences but slipping and sliding terms relative to each other, writing centers are neither this nor that.
First the hot and cold. They are poles of the same binary construction, not separate essences. Other than absolute zero, I suppose, there is nothing that, in its “essential nature,” is definitively (and fixedly) cold or hot. To communicate the idea of cold, one must construct the idea of hot, and if you lack one term you lose the other. The linked concepts cold and hot are socially constructed, produced in a signification system that defines through binary differentiation.
Now on to neither this nor that. Is the writing center’s high mission this: to be contrarian and liberatory, enabling students to maintain subject positions vis-à-vis the regulating academy? Or is it that: to legitimate and transfer the culture’s values through social reproduction? The former view has received extraordinary emphasis during the last twenty-five years. The latter (a traditional view that colleges exist to help shape citizens) is reconsidered by Philip Gardner and me in our article “The Polyvalent Mission of the Writing Center” and found to have vital relevance to our deeply marginalized professional situation.
We conclude that these two apparently incompatible perspectives are linked valences in the binary of writing center work. Our mission is not foundationally pure but unavoidably mixed—neither this nor that, yet actually both. As my friend from Neptune illustrates, 30 degrees Fahrenheit can partake of both hotness and coldness.

That is good news.

Writing centers, by engaging clients in critical inquiry through their texts-in-progress, elicit “mind work.” Such work is compatible with the academy at large. We therefore belong, unavoidably, in the Academic Country Club. Indeed the work performed by writing center workers is a form of scholarship—it is both an enacting and eliciting of intellectual inquiry.
Polyvalently, therefore, the “mind work” that writing center workers induce always has liberatory potential, even if rooted in the authority of an institution. In conferring with our tutees, we unavoidably enforce the regulatory constrictions of an assignment, and thus are complicit with a professor’s projection of institutional authority. Yet, we ask questions. Good probative questions. These, we hope, stimulate the tutee’s perspective and thought. Small cognitive shifts (even very small ones) may happen, carrying the writer forward to a new cognitive stance. We might not see the final paper, but in our best moments we sense that the tutee has experienced a useful critical inquiry.

Phillip and I are now curious. What sorts of questions do you ask, either intentionally or in free play, that sometimes shift a tutee’s thought or affective disposition?

Bill here

Monday, March 28, 2005

Free Play: Bouncing the Ball in WC Sessions

In the two pleasant years that Phillip Gardner and I spent collaborating on “The Polyvalent Mission of Writing Centers,” the best moments were sitting together just to bounce ideas back and forth with unguarded abandon. It was in much the same spirit of free play that I had known way back in grade-school days, when I liked to stand in the parking lot throwing a blue rubber ball at the gymnasium wall. I could hardly miss that huge brick wall, and the ball always came conveniently back—though at times with perversely odd bounces. Snagging it in shortstop style was fun and, as a boyhood Brooklyn Dodgers fan, I fancied myself the next scrappy little Pee Wee Reese.

In my chats with Phil, some of our ideas had lots of bounce, and that felt great. If others did not, it hardly mattered. The fun with Phil was in throwing the ball, in the spontaneity. If ideas came out only half-formed and tentative, or if they died, or if they morphed into curious new shapes, our egos hardly suffered. Gradually and subtly, our collaborative perspective shifted, grew, and matured. And to Phil I say, “Thanks for the ride, my friend.”

Of course, what I describe here also describes what can happen in writing center sessions—free-flow dialogue, unpredictable bounces, serendipity, and spontaneous discovery. Indeed I’ve never found a protocol, template, or fixed heuristic schema that survives more than a minute of writing center work. What little I can predict of a session might take this shape: (1) The client asks questions prompting the session’s agenda; (2) There is some probing, some getting onto the other’s wave-length, some settling into personas that will socially guide the interaction; and (3) Then—well, things start moving, trundling, stumbling, creaking, or zigzagging along in no way I could have foreseen. The sum total of what I know about writing center sessions is this: when the ball bounces—one goes for it.

Writing center theory in the last twenty-five years has strongly implied that writing instruction in the academy denies students their autonomy and freedom. Students are perceived as being written or inscribed upon by the very texts they write, these reflecting the institution’s hierarchical, top-down will to suppress individual agency. Through the written discourse required of them, students are victims of systems, ideologies, and other incursions into the unitary self. For such reasons, it therefore is argued, writing centers must take the contrarian way, helping to emancipate writers from the negative, regulatory forces of social reproduction.

Phillip and I believe that freedom and spontaneity occur in not just the writing center but the academy as well, happening any time that students are asked to think for themselves, or to perform critical inquiry. We do not want to sound Pollyannaish about this. We concede that all individuals express their will through socially mediated contexts, and that a student’s desire often is in tension with institutional forces. Yet, within our many constrictions there are freedoms. How do we know this? From how, in any good interchange of thought, even if the ball bounces within gravity’s constraints—it also happens with serendipity.

Because critical inquiry in the academy is a shared ideal, this value should link writing centers at the hip to their universities. For too long the writing center profession has been trying to construct an anti-curriculum or academic anti-space, to develop exile into an art form. Though some of our practices may differ from classroom teaching (one-to-one exchanges are inherently more dialogic than any other kind of teaching), the educative mission of writing centers and the general academy are vitally connected.

One way to see our shared educative mission better might be to analyze the writing center session as an event in critical inquiry. Is not the unpredictable train of questions popping up during a session a free, spontaneous give-and-take of thought? Are not the tutor and the tutee creatively adopting for that session personas and social roles? (True, these roles may have implicit, socially determined rules, but can’t such codes be chosen, improvised with, and discarded by the players?) And does not a tutee’s affective disposition sometimes shift unexpectedly with the impact of a positive writing center session? Looked at holistically, isn’t good, hard critical thinking in any context an unpredictable course of discovery?

Bill here

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Darker Side

While the two examples of historical precedent for writing center work that I brought up in my previous two entries seem well worth emulating, not all early writing centers were so enlightened. One of the more frightening places was the Writing Clinic at Dartmouth College, which was created in 1939 and existed until 1960. Here's the 1939 college catalog description of the Writing Clinic, a description that wouldn't change for twenty years:

Remedial work for students whose writing in any College course is seriously deficient either in organization and sentence-structure or in such matters of usage as spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Any student in the College may apply to the Clinic of his own initiative or at the suggestion of any instructor. Individual conferences and exercises. No credit.

The Writing Clinic was created by Peter Cardoza, a fairly recent graduate of Dartmouth and an aspiring writer. Cardoza lasted only one year in his post, starting a trend that would continue throughout the life of the Writing Clinic. No director lasted more than three consecutive years on the job (many were English faculty members with half-time release to run the Clinic), and by 1958, the Clinic was run by a faculty member with a full-time appointment in another department and who thus could only devote one-sixth of his time to Clinic duties (essentially one afternoon a week).

The Dartmouth Writing Clinic was offered as an unfortunate, but necessary element in the messy business of ensuring high standards. As described in a 1954 report, “students prone through ignorance to write badly, illiterately, can have their ignorance dispelled by the Writing Clinic." How about that line for your next PR campaign!

By 1960, the Writing Clinic seemed to have outlived its usefulness. That year, Albert Kitzhaber was in the midst of a three-year, Carnegie Foundation-funded study of the Dartmouth Writing Program, and for Kitzhaber the Clinic represented an identity that would potentially tarnish the reputation of an elite college like Dartmouth. In his final report, Kitzhaber concluded that “it seemed clear that the great majority of students referred to the Clinic for poor writing were quite capable of remedying their own deficiencies without special help from the Clinic. All that was needed was to convince them that they had to.”

In the work I've done on writing center history, I often try to dispel contemporary notions that our historical past was a dark time of basement locales and drill-and-kill worksheets. Still, some of those places certainly did exist--just as they exist now. That, too, is our history.

Neal Lerner

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Writing Lab I Like

Clint in a comment to one of my posts made reference to my upcoming research at the University of Minnesota. That project, partially funded by an IWCA grant, is to delve into the archives of the University of Minnesota General College Writing Laboratory, which was created in 1932. I know a fair amount about this place based on some of the research I've done so far, and I'm eager to know more. Here's the scoop:

The General College was started in 1932 as means to provide two years of college education for students who didn't make it in or dropped out of the four-year system. The purpose of the General College, according to its first dean, Malcolm MacLean, was
not to “eliminate the unfit,” not to “divide the sheep from the goats, the dumb from the bright, the college material from the non-college material,” but instead to direct each student, so far as we were able, to that curriculum, that job, that other training institution, wherein he would find the most use for his powers, whatever they might be, and the deepest personal satisfactions and social usefulness.

This populist mindset extended easily to what the founders of the General College had in mind for teaching students to write. Rather than create a required composition course, they created a Writing Laboratory, a voluntary class that provided a mix of one-to-one tutoring, peer feedback, and whole-class instruction. More important, the Writing Laboratory wasn't established as only for the least-prepared writers, the kind of house o' remediation that has haunted us all. Instead, the first director of the Writing Laboratory, Francis Appel, took exception to the idea of creating a remedial lab:
We have no “remedial” English because we feel that if there be such a thing, then from the common-sense point of view people from the most illiterate to industrial or university administrators and many authors would need some so-called “remedial” English.

Another of my favorite quotes from Francis Appel is his position on teaching grammar through the use of the ubiquitous workbook. Here's what he said:
At first, feeling that good writing depended largely upon a knowledge of grammar, we assigned a self-instructing, self-testing manual of grammar; but when it became apparent that there was but little demonstrable correlation between a knowledge of grammar and the ability to write, the manual was discarded.

And that was in 1932! Was that a cool place, or what?

Well, not all was perfect for the General College Writing Laboratory. It was usually staffed by just Appel and his assistant, and with as many as 35 students showing up at the lab at a time, it's hard to imagine lots of one-to-one interaction. Structurally, then, the Writing Laboratory was operating at cross purposes to its purpose and intent. Now that seems like a familiar story.

Still, I'm fascinated by the ideals of the General College Writing Laboratory. It's a place that could teach us all a great deal about how to align our work with a larger social purpose. As Malcolm MacLean described, the General College strove “to awaken in its students a social and civic consciousness, a sense of community responsibility, and a willingness to participate actively in the solution of common problems for the common good."

How's that for a noble purpose?

Neal Lerner

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Picture This

Writing center history truly intrigues me. I feel compelled to know where and how the first writing center was created. Part of this compulsion is simply my need to draw connections, to show that writing centers have long been part of conversations about teaching and learning, even if those were just muttered asides.

One of the first mentions of a true writing center--outside of class writing support--comes from a national survey completed by Warner Taylor of the University of Wisconsin in 1929. Near the end of his report, Taylor briefly lists a series of "innovations" in the teaching of writing, including the creation of "Writing Clinics" at six institutions (he unfortunately didn't identify those places). Taylor, however, noted that “in theory the project is excellent; in practice it may prove of little value through the lack of cooperation accorded by departments other than English.”

Hmm. That might sound familiar to many contemporary writing center directors (though the cooperation from English departments themselves isn't necessarily guaranteed at many places).

As I muck around in writing center history, I've begun to collect photographs that were printed with an occasional article. Here's one from a 1914 book on The Batavia System of Individual Instruction, a method of classroom organization that put in the classroom an extra teacher who would conference individually with students while the "regular" teacher conducted lectures and recitations.

You can see the conferencing teacher on the left, meeting with one student while the rest of her charges revise their essays. On the right, the regular classroom teacher drones on and on, pointer in hand. Somebody tell her to be quiet; I'm trying to write here!

These next two pictures come from a 1935 article by Frances Ross Hicks, “Laboratory-Recitations in English Composition,” which appeared in The Nation’s Schools, and described the English laboratory at Murray State Teachers College in Murray, KY.

Here's a student diligently working away in the English Laboratory. I'm concerned about the distinct lack of books on the shelf behind her.

The next image from that same article is certainly more vibrant, kind of a train station approach to tutoring writing. Is that guy in the back smoking a cigarette?

Finally, I'll jump ahead three decades to offer a picture from a 1952 NCTE publication.

It's not necessarily from a writing center, but the older tweedy professor with pen poised over the younger female student's paper seems particularly emblematic, if not problematic. And what's with that stain on the wall?

Have any pictures of writing conferencing back in the day? I'd love to see them.

Neal Lerner

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Searching for Search

On the Friday of the C’s, I escaped the 20-ring circus for a short while by making my way over on the BART train to UC Berkeley. My interest was in two boxes of archival materials held in the UC Berkeley Music Library: the papers of Preston W. Search.

Here’s a picture of Search from his career as a public speaker:

Search was the Superintendent of Schools in Pueblo, CO, Holyoke, MA, and Los Angeles, CA, from around 1888 to shortly past the turn of the 20th century, and, as far as I can tell, was one of the first proponents of the idea of classroom as laboratory. Here how Search described the Pueblo, CO, schools:
The work is now conducted largely by what may be called laboratory methods. . . . Every room is a true studio or workshop, in which the pupils work as individuals. The province of the teacher is not to line up the pupils and to consume time by entertainment, lecturing, and development of subjects; but to pass from desk to desk as the inspiring director and pupil’s assistant.

I’m intrigued by Search because of his writing-centered way of thinking about teaching and learning all the way back in the late 19th century. He was part of a general movement that criticized “mass instruction”—namely the same old lecture and recitation to numbed students—as completely bankrupt, if not harmful. Here’s another quote:
Man’s highest possibilities in achievement must demand individual opportunity. There must be elimination of much of class method, the passivity of the many while listening to the few, the marking of time, and the substitution of the teacher’s effort for the child’s. The greatest thing a child gets from his teacher is not subject matter, but contact with a great personality.

I think if Search were alive today he’d be directing a writing center or a writing program. Instead, few have heard of him, an all-too-familiar story in our educational system that looks ahead far more often than it looks back.

Monday, March 21, 2005

After the C's

Well, friends of Writing Center Journal, another CCCC has come and gone, and it's my opportunity to add some context to those photos from Michele that fill her last entry. Let this year's 4C's be known as the "Year of the Circus." Yes, my friends, it was a veritable three-ring affair at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.

Here's a shot of the arrangements:

Well, actually, I understate the scene. In reality, around 20 rings were operating simultaneously, each surrounded by tasteful curtains in white and purple alternating panels. The overall effect was akin to listening to someone shouting from the back of an airplane hanger while a 757 was revving its engines. Or perhaps like listening the public address announcements at one of Boston's underground MBTA stops. Whatever the analogy, after a day of such joy, I was sapped.

Things weren't made any better by the relative crowds who turned out to hear my talk and Michele's talk.

Here's Michele's audience:

Here's mine:

Hmm. And you would have thought that my title, "A Post-Hermeneutic Alternative to Hegemonic Practices, Colon, Taking the Shake out of Shakespeare," would have generated some excitement. Apparently not.

Well, friends, there's always next year.

Neal Lerner

Friday, March 18, 2005

X-Citing Times in Frisco

View from the cable car running up Powell St.

Wednesday night, very late for those of us from other time zones. The games had not offically yet begin, but we had two comp celebrity citings at the pre-game show, sponsored by Maker's Mark.

Kirk Branch, Montana State University (Michele has cited Kirk)

Michael Spooner, Director, Utath State University Press
(Michele has cited him too)

The breakfast joint your correspondents wished we had gone to.

On Thursday, our man in San Fran, whose initials are Neal Lerner, made his way through the crowds in search of wireless coffee.

Waiting for the blog to upload . . .

We almost knocked Carol Mattingly over when we cited her on the streets. (Neal, only three points because you hugged Carol.)

And again, lost points because Neal and Michael Pemberton hugged.

Yes, Michele was nearly crushed in the hug from Melissa Iannetta. Michele and Melissa cancel each other out on points: they have cited each other.

With Deb Burns in the thick of the 4Cs floor show.

International Writing Centers Association board members, Frankie Condon and Paula Gillespie. They are not playing the game. They just like each other.

IWCA board member, Allison Holland taking pics while board member Clint Gardner mugs it up.

IWCA pres Jon Olson, signing autographs.

Meg Carroll and Carol Haviland showing off their shoes.

This correspondent claims: "There is nothing like a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, on tap, in California."

The annual writing center breakfast hosts, John Tinker and Wendy Goldberg, from Stanford.

Here, now, is the comp celebrity citings score update:

How many points do you have, Michele?

Well, the scoring system is getting very complicated. We failed to account for the variety of physical manifestations of greeting. For instance, how many points for air kisses as opposed to real hugs? How about teepee hugs? How about if you shake hands with someone whom you've cited but they don't know who you are? And, finally, how about escalator citings (we have, after all, accounted for elevators)?

But, Michele, how many points do you have?

6805. How about you, Neal?

I think I'm in the negative, Michele. Too many hugs and too many handshakes with people who had to stare long and hard at my nametag. I think I have three points.

The contest ends tomorrow at noon, so get your scores in, notarized by your hotel concierge. See you at the Rock and Roll Dance tonight, Neal.

Rock on, Michele.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The San Francisco Treat

Here we are in Starbucks, your Friends of the Writing Center Journal 4Cs correspondents.

Neal, you aren't doing any wearin'of the green, lad. Well Michele, I have a green backpack.

Listen here about the real lasting contribution of the Irish.

So Neal, should we tell our readers about the new special feature? Sure, Michele.

Comp Celebrity Citings!

Whoa! There goes Harvey Kail just outside our window!

What are the rules again, Michele?

You can build a portfolio of points based on multiple genres of comp celebrity citings. If you have cited someone in your work and see them from a distance, that gets you five points. If you hug the person you cited it only gets you three points. Finding yourself in an elevator with someone you cited gets you 20 points--no eye contact, sweaty palms, and no verbal exchange gets you a bonus 50 points.

Ok, any points for you yet, Neal?

I hugged you Michele, but I have never cited you...
But I did see David Russell, said hello.

Good start. Five points.

I saw John Bean, Michele!

Wow! A full 20 points.

And I hugged Joan Mullin and I also have cited her.

Ok, Neal. That looks like about 28 points so far.

I don't have as many points. I did too much hugging with those I have cited. But I did see Chuck Schuster on the airplane. We did very minimal eye contact since we have met before and I have cited him.

That's okay Michele, take the full 20 points on that one. And let's split the points on citing Harvey Kail.

Thanks, Neal. You are a pal.

-------------------------------to be continued---------------------------

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Yet knowing how way leads on to way

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco.

Arrived Tuesday in California and did a little road too much traveled by thousands of SUVs to visit family. Driving back into San Fran today. When I travel, I tend to think about writers who lived where I am visiting. I like knowing the regional ties to writers dead or alive. I know we won’t make to Big Sur, but the California writer I thought of as we landed was Henry Miller.

“In Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Miller treats his years living on the California coast as a sage of human liberation, expressed in a combination of anecdotes and ruminations.”

Written in 1957 (the year I was born).

Even though we flew to California from Kansas, most trips I take still feel like road trips. While living back east I took many road trips, a few deliberately to see as many of Robert Frost’s homes as possible. In my town now, we have the house that William S. Burroughs lived in for many years before he died in 1997.

One year before we moved to Lawrence Kansas, Burroughs died.

From the Web memorial for Burroughs:

Although Burroughs first struck my consciousness through Kerouac's writing, it was in 1980 that I first met him -- he was sitting on my couch smoking a thick joint, wearing suit and hat and holding cane -- I was startled to see this elderly man smoking pot, but he introduced himself and shook my hand as a friend...

Burroughs made Lawrence his home. I remember him walking at
dawn in the Mass. St. Dillon's grocery store parking lot
as I drove to work...him waving at me from a car downtown...
him reading from his books at the Kansas Union and at Beat literary
fests at the Lawrence Opera House.

S.Arthur Kelly

And speaking of road trips, I am amazed by the magnetic ribbons on all the cars. I heard someone on the radio joking that he was worried about getting pulled over, fined, or possibly arrested for not having a magnetic ribbon on his vehicle.

I went out and bought a ribbon that says GO JAYHAWKS

“Audrey” will sit for days at the 6,000 acre economy parking at the Kansas City airport. Home on the range.

Need more ribbons? Want to mix it up a bit, try new ribbon messages? Please don’t write and tell me I am not being patriotic. The ribbons themselves need support since they were once yellow and belonged to Tony Orlando and Dawn.


Monday, March 14, 2005

The Streets of San Francisco

Does anyone else remember that TV show?

While I am supposed to be doing the final fussing on my 4Cs presentation I am thinking about which flavor toothpaste I will pack and of course I am looking ahead, via the World Wide Web, for fun in San Francisco. The TechRhet listers have it going on: those high tech types were talking about "geeky fun" things to do in San Fran.

Since I am a fan of all things two-wheeled (see my scooter on another blog), I might have to check out the Segway, although they do make you wear a helmet.

"Training takes about 25 minutes. The Segway tour starts at the Wharf then moves out to Fort Mason and the marina. Stops for a warm coffee.You can take great pics from all along the bay. They had to pry me off the Segway at the end – it was too much fun. My kids had a blast, too. Our guide, Carla, was great. It was worth the tour price of $65. You get to play on a Segway for 3 hours and learn a lot about San Francisco."

Segway in the City by the Bay

Bracketology: Ranking, Evaluating, Liking

The seeds are set; the bracket announced. Kansas at #3 seed. Those OK Cowboys at #2. Congrats to Melissa Iannetta at Oklahoma State. Rival writing centers? NCAA and IWCA rankings?

The Bully Bracelet: LiveStrong to make it to the final four

Yes, bracketology is on the minds of college basketball fans today. What does this have to to with teaching writing? Do we imagine we don't rank, evaluate, and like? Even with a complex formula for determining the seeds in the bracket, after all the mathematics it comes down to the subjective. If you listen this week to sports pundits, you will hear it: "You know, I like Vermont." "Yeah, I really like Gonzaga in this match up." "I can't believe she likes Wisconsin for the final dance."

Tamara Miles wrote a comment to this blog just this morning: "Will it come as a big surprise to anyone to hear that I HATE GRADING PAPERS? Looking at the papers, talking about them, offering help, teaching --- I like that part --- but the grading I can do without, not just because of the work but because of the emotional entanglement."

Look at and possibily like: Elbow, Peter. "Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking," College English 55 (1993)

And "Should Teachers Comment on Drafts of Student Essays? or Making Time for Peer Review" by Michael Kischner


Friday, March 11, 2005

Sincerely Yours

A few days ago, I mentioned that I am an advocate of “sincerity in teaching.” What I mean by that (not that anyone asked) is that I tend to acknowledge a political position during a class discussion or openly identify as a feminist, for example. I’ve also admitted to my classes that grading writing can be quite subjective. This last statement probably causes more trouble than any of the more overtly political stuff. Because once I'm out about the grading topic, I inevitably get evaluations that say things like, “Her grading is too subjective” or “She only wants students to write what she agrees with” (this is so far from the truth). I was having lunch with a colleague recently and complaining about this. I started to articulate an explanation I can give to students about how grading as an act is subjective, that teachers can often agree on a grade but will have different rationales for that same grade, and that the subjective nature of grading doesn’t mean I’m only approving positions I like. My thoughts were that if I am even more "sincere" and up front about my beliefs it might help keep these complaints at bay.

My friend interrupted me and said, “No, Julie, you’ve got it all wrong. They don’t want to hear that. You’re not going to like this, but what you need to do is invent a scheme of grading that looks objective, so they feel like there’s a science to what you’re doing. Then they’ll feel good about it. They crave authority and direction. They don’t want to think anything is ever subjective. Never say that!”

She’s right--I don't like it, but I think she's also right about the emotional message students crave. Well, if you read Cicero, you see that students have always craved clarity over ambiguity. But how do others handle this? Is there a groupthink at your school that leans toward authority? Does anyone work some place where students exhibit other groupthinks? What schemes, scientific or otherwise, have worked for your grading activities?

The week is almost done and I am tired. It has been a long one and I didn't get to nearly half the things I intended. I did, however, have a conversation about caskets today.


Thursday, March 10, 2005


Well, I am humbled by Rosie O'Donnell's blog, featured in the NY Times
today. I only read the most recent entry, but it was actually touching.
I love that she loves her shrink, and I really like the image of being
in the therapist's office while she takes calls from her kids, and
instead of being annoyed Rosie feels priveleged to watch her mothering
her child.

I have been mulling over this genre, this blog thing, and struggling
with its odd sense of audience. Who am I writing to? Only one official
comment, one additional one came directly to me, yet I'd guess at least
three other people are reading. But for once the question of who is
listening is not the one gnawing me. Instead, it's why am I writing. And
I confess I have treated these entries like a chore. Dare I say it: an
assignment. I was assigned. I like the idea of having a forum to talk
about a journal and having the authors pitch in. Journals are such dead
entities, often, and it's a wonderful gesture to make it more alive. I
like the idea a lot. But I'm not sure the blog genre can withstand
assignments. The writer has to really want to express, like Rosie does.
It's "just another totally artistic thing," she is quoted as saying.

I have been trying hard to stay "on topic" when what's really been on my
mind this week is my nanny. I continue to struggle with how to be in a
role I hate--an employer of someone in my home, a participant in an
employer/employee relationship that cannot gloss over America's (and my
own) classed condition. I am an employer of an immigrant resident who
wants more money after only two months, even though we both
acknowledge she is getting market rate. And we both know market rate
is unfair, inadequate. She wants to be taken care of by me, her
employer whom she wants to see as "family," from whom she wants an
emotional, financial, paternalistic caretaking. I want boundaries and a
businesslike relationship. This all surfaced when I handed her a written
document of our agreement--a crisis triggered by a literacy "event."
The very act of writing our relationship, which I saw as a stabilizing
relief, made her shiver with discomfort.

As a member of our profession committed to promoting literacy and social
justice, and as someone who writes about and teaches people like her
daughter, how do I deal with her requests, her desires? How do I treat
her equitably but not submit to manipulation? How do I treat her
equitably and hear what she has to say but not feed a class system I
abhor and roles that make me enormously uncomfortable? I've wandered far
afield in order to place this back in the center of my thoughts.


Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Listening--Awkward? Glib? Other?

In my tutor training course syllabus I write about how I anticipate that my assignments in which tutors listen to one another’s sessions will be awkward: “Over time we’ll get better at listening to listening and talking, and perhaps even learn to do it gracefully at times. But I’m pretty sure we should also all expect—and accept—some awkward moments.” A few years ago I wrote about how Tom Snyder (remember him?) epitomized the awkward listening rhetor. As talk show host—another professional listener—he would stumble over his delivery, make it very apparent that he was telling jokes to an empty studio, for example, not allowing his viewers to forget they were listening to spontaneous, live discourse. (See:

I confess I’m enamored with the awkward rhetor. And yet, Frank Abnegale makes himself strategically naïve in order to soon become seductively glib. What other stances can the listener take? What kind of listener is most appealing to most of our students/tutors? Have you labeled your listening today?


Monday, March 07, 2005

Faking It

I’ve been thinking about listening for quite some time, and I’m always excited to find a new way to think about listening in rhetorical contexts. In the November 2004 College English, Julie Lindquist writes about the impostor Frank Abnegale from the book (and movie) Catch Me If You Can, and how he learned by listening. (I should confess right here that Julie Lindquist and I went to grad school together, though we didn’t know each other well.) Abnegale was so successful at faking people out because he was able to listen to the people whose groups he was trying to join and quickly learn how they spoke and what he needed to know. “In essence, he convinces others to teach him things by listening to them,” Lindquist says (199). His listening led to such persuasive rhetorical performances that people believed he was whoever he said he was (an airline pilot, a physician, a sociology professor, etc.). Lindquist writes about listening as a kind of performance, and suggests that we don’t need to be impostors like this guy, but that we might benefit by doing some faked listening, becoming “strategically naïve” in order to learn from students by more effectively hearing what they have to say.

I really like this idea of faking for some reason. Which is funny because I’ve been a big advocate of sincerity in teaching. But, to be perfectly honest, sometimes I find it so hard to listen sincerely to some of my students. And they always seem to know this. Maybe if I went into the exchange openly (to myself) knowing I was faking my interest, I’d more consciously try to hear what was being said instead of silently and huffily dismissing it. Perhaps, if I fake it, then I won’t have to mentally spar with it.

Sidebar note:
One of my favorite student quotes ever: An undergraduate tutor
summarized David Bartholomae's message in "Inventing the University" as "Fake it, and fake it good."

-Julie Bokser

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Chamber of Laughter

Does laughter fill the hallowed halls of your institution? It certainly doesn’t at mine. In fact, I suspect the evolutionary process amongst academics has all but eliminated the giggle gene. Here, faculty governance bodies soberly debate the minutia of, well, everything that doesn’t really matter. One department on our campus is so divided that some faculty members haven’t talked to others for thirty years. Literally haven’t spoken. That’s just pathologically humorless.

But I guess it’s not just academics who are too serious. Today ABC radio announced the increasing popularity of laughter clubs. Laughter clubs? For real? For real! In fact, if you Google the World Laughter Tour, you’ll see them in most states and several countries. In fact, the WLT even has a certification process for leaders (only $319—also available by e-learning). I guess I shouldn’t be startled. Given the studies showing laughter’s role in reducing stress and extending health benefits, it’s not surprising that guffawing goes the capitalist way of Jenny Craig, yoga, Pilates, and oxygen. Next stop—infomercials.

Needing a certified laughter leader to help us laugh—how have we ended up in such a predicament? My mom and dad always jollied me out of my sulks. They would taunt, “You’re going to crack!” until I caved in, grinning. While their laugh tactics were strictly amateur, I’m tempted to try something equally unschooled on my campus. What would happen if I sent flowers from the Capulets to the Montagues? What if I staged a TP shortage when the Cs were in the bathroom with the Ms? Or what if I wore my PJs to a meeting of higher admins?

Are faculty and students on your campus cloaked with the same somber fatigue that they are on mine? Learning is FUN, dang it. Where’s the noise, the whimsy, the laughter in our classrooms?

What do you do to nourish the imp in your colleagues and your students?

Gigglepuss Kjesrud

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Enough Fun, Enough

When I was little, my mom regularly used to say, “Young lady, you’ve had entirely too much fun for one day. Get busy on X (insert name of repellant chore here)!” As an adult, I’ve come to question her philosophy. Even though I know that unremitting joy ceases to be joy at all, I don’t want to think it’s possible to have too much fun, too much play, too much flow. And yet, there are times when Life just says, “Enough fun, enough.”

Today my beloved Izzie, the sweetest guinea pig ever, passed away.

As Izzie began to fail earlier this week, I was grieved by the shit life shovels. Absorbed in my own misery, I looked down the block to see my neighbor’s car in the driveway even though it was during her normal work hours. I realized that she wasn’t feeling well enough to work. Now that she’s in her third recurrence of cancer, each day she struggles with the ill effects of chemo and radiation. I can’t miss the significance of her opting to stay home; since her husband is in the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis, she’s the sole support for her family. There’s just plenty of misery to go around in this life.

As I’ve been publicly struggling with end of life decisions for my pet, I’ve acknowledged more deeply to myself that my students battle their own griefs. Seeing as little of theirs as they usually do of mine, I often forget that. So even though I know it's right and good for me to have high expectations of them, I want to be sure those expectations don't amount to extra shit. Though it’s still too fresh to say where this line of reflection will take me, I do know that I feel a new determination to make sure my expectations are as fair, ethical, and pleasurable as I can make them. If I can help it, I do not want to be the person through which Life says “enough fun.”

In what ways can we, in our writing centered lives, be the ones who say, “More! More fun!”?

Roberta, Izzie's Slave

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Got Flow?

“Would you just check the flow?” We probably hear this request more than any other in our writing center. Do writers really know what “flow” means? Do I? I’ve always translated it as transparent logical connections that lead readers along and make the writing hang together as if sown through with a thread. But these days I’m wondering if the psychological term “flow” shouldn’t also be part of my consideration.

Even though I read Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s book _Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience_ about three years ago, I hadn’t till recently connected the writing term with the psychological one. For those unfamiliar, Csikzentmihalyi defines “flow” as the unconscious state of mind in which an individual’s talents are in perfect balance with the demands of the task being performed. If the task is too complex? Frustration. Too easy? Boredom. Sports players are said to be “in the zone” when they achieve flow. Artists find themselves at peak creativity. Chess players achieve focused absorption. Rock climbers are one with the mountain. In flow, time is not fungible nor is it truly epochal. Flow suspends time in pure, effortless enjoyment.

Although humans can achieve flow in a limitless variety of tasks including learning and work, I’m aware that, as much as I enjoy my work, I’m often too stressed to flow. I’m much more likely to flow while I play (especially with a kite), but, even in play, I can easily become consumed with my own performance. And sadly, I seldom achieve flow when I write (hence my venture into play/writing). I doubt I’m unique - I’ll bet most writers who visit the writing center don’t flow either. But when I conference with writers who need flow (both kinds!), I’m content to interpret the word in textual terms. Why?

How do you cultivate flow - in yourself and your students?

Floberta Kjesrud