Monday, April 18, 2005

One Best Thing: Community

We’ve all had them – distasteful jobs we’ve done just for the money. My last such gig was fifteen years ago, but it’s still vivid. I cluck regretfully over lost years of mind-numbing work, but there’s fresh trauma in the flashbacks of cranky customers, underhanded managers, and back-stabbing co-workers. To these who are best forgotten, I say, “Azoy fil ritzinoyl zol er oystrinkn!” (He should drink too much castor oil.)

Writing center folk make me wonder what took me so long to get here. What a remarkable bunch! Take the group of 140 I was with last weekend at the PNWCA conference. We come from K-12 schools, small academies, two year schools, and universities. We are administrators, alums, authors, deans, directors, faculty, grads, rhetoricians, and undergrads. And some of us are, blessedly, Canadian. Despite our differences, we are a cohort of colleagues who share common values – learning, listening, literacy – and a sense of wonder that we get to do what we do with whom we do it.

Daughter of a carpenter and a store clerk, college drop-out, skeptical of hierarchy and politics, I came late to the academy. I chafe here. I’m neither properly credentialed nor respectably published, neither faculty nor tenured. Being with the usual academics makes me a sweaty-palmed blitherer. But being with writing centered people feels like a Kjesrud family reunion. I may not know them all (Kjesruds number in the hundreds), but I know we are all related. We share a bloodline, a heritage, a pedagogy, a vision, and a future. These are not just good people; these are my people. I’m grateful to and for them, my community, today’s One Best Thing.


At 6:03 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

I've had my own "lost years of mind-numbing work" --- only to end up this year with a fabulous, freeing job as the director of a writing studio at a technical college. Who would have thought I could ever be free from teaching 5-7 composition classes at a time and grading papers 24-7, week after endless week, year after endless year? This is the life. I have only one class now, and I can handle that. Like everybody else, I guess, I love the teaching but hate the overwhelming amount of grading that composition classes require. Has anybody read Alternatives to Grading Student Writing, by Stephen Tchudi? I ordered a copy for our library, and it has just arrived. I've assigned the preliminary reading to one of my consultants. Tchudi is chair of NCTE's Committee on Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. He writes in the introduction, "The committee is convinced by the research presented in Part I of this book, which shows quite clearly that grading writing doesn't contribute much to learning to write and is in conflict with the new paradigms for writing instruction. As a committee, we would unanimously love to see grades disappear from education altogether so that teachers and students can focus on authentic assessment, but we realize that in the current educational climate, that's not likely to happen" (xii).

I'm inviting responses to what constitutes "authentic assessment."

At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me, "authentic assessment" is a vital part of teaching writing--or more importantly, teaching the writing process. I taught English for the better part of 30 years, left teaching for 5 years, and am now tutoring with Tamara in the writing center of a technical college. My methods of teaching writing changed so much over the years. At first I taught the way I had been taught: assign a paper then grade it. It was frustrating to me and, I'm sure, to many of my students. But gradually, with the guidance of "the best writing teacher on the planet," my department head, my methods changed. A paper always receives a grade, but I believe that grade is fair--as objectively determined as possible through holistic scales and sometimes rubrics (if we did in-class essays to practice for the AP English exam). But to start at the beginning, students need a carefully designed writing assignment so that they know what their goals are and how the paper will be evaluated. They need to participate in a variety of prewriting activities so that they are comfortable using them, they need to understand the importance of multiple drafts, peer evaluation, and what I enjoyed most, conferences with me--a time for a completely non-threatening discussion of their paper's strengths and weaknesses. I think all of these are "authentic assessment," where students are actively involved and are assuming responsibility for their writing. I could go on and on, but the point I want to make is that I have no problem with grading a paper as long as the ultimate goal is to teach the writing process--to teach a student to "own" his writing and feel confident in his writing ability for the rest of his life.

At 6:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It took me a long time to figure out that the WC community is a real community. I used to think that the purpose of conferences was to credential the participants. (When I was an adjunct, a full time colleague told me that my resume had just a little life to it -- it fluttered a bit above some resumes that were like dead flies on the desk.) Big conferences like the Cs or NCTE were pretty lonely for me -- even the smaller ones felt anonymous.
That all changed when I became a WC director and subscribed to WCenter. Now I know that conferences are a place to talk with really terrific people about issues that matter to us. It's been wonderful.

I read that faculty members are most loyal to their discipline -- administrators are loyal to their institution. WC directors are neither fish nor fowl (nor flies), but right now I'd say I'm mostly drawn to my discipline and the community it provides for me.

Mary Wislocki

At 5:06 AM, Blogger Su said...

Okay Tamara, I had an hour drive and a good nights sleep to think about this issue. I do agree that placing a grade on a students writing can be detrimental to that students desire to write, and/or their desire to improve their writing. But I believe this to be true of an 'A' as well as a 'C', 'D', or 'F'. If a student consistently recieves an 'A' on writing projects, what need do they have to improve their writing? On the opposite end, a student receiving a low grade may automatically consider themselves bad writers, or unable to wright at all, so why try?
Some of the alternative grading formats do address these issues, but I think it needs to go farther than that. I like the concept that Mr. Bauman applies to English Composition. Composition is writing, therefore the class should be about writing. But I think it should start smaller than brainstorming and pre-writing. Not that Mr. Bauman isn't a great teacher, but at our college, it seems like a lot of students slip through the cracks because no one addresses the issues of why they don't like to write, or what it is about writing that frustrates them. "How do you workshop that?", Mr. Bauman would ask. Just like that. I understand a semester is a short period of time in which to impart all of the knowledge teachers feel students need to be able to progress in life, but a few classes spent in a circle discussing the intimidations of writing, writer's block, and the idea that anybody can write if they want to, could motivate some (not all, you are never going to reach them all) students to acheive more in writing then they ever thought possible. Giving students a chance to discover that everyone, even 'A' writers, faces similar struggles when facing a formal writing project could prove to lower the number of students who think they are not and never will be good writers. Anyone can write. It's just a matter of showing someone that they can. This, in and of itself, will motivate more students to strive for an 'A'.

At 5:57 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

Well said, SuQ. I'll just share with the blog something you alluded to. Yesterday, three of the consultants/peer tutors did a "Listener and Listenee Exercise" that I found in one of my old grad school books. How it works:

Part 1: The Victim Speaks

A tells B all her (or his) worst fears about writing and details her very best tactics for procrastination. She refers to writing in general or centers her remarks around a particular writing project that she has been avoiding. For 3 solid minutes, she has the floor and the listeners' rapt attention. Since she is coming at this part of the exercise from a victim's position, she is to use the vocabulary of a victim --- to incorporate the words and phrases as much as possible into her monologue. Examples: "should," "ought," "can't," "not my fault," "I'm an awful person," etc.

During this 3 minutes, B is allowed only to listen. He or she may make an occasional affirmative "uh-huh" or the like but must bite the old tongue before saying anything more.

Act 2 is a switch-up.

More on this later. I have a student arriving for consultation.

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