Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Brooks, Shamoon and Burns

While the readings for today may seem at odds, I think we all recognize the value in each and the fact that (in the world of mortals) we operate, as tutors, more on a continuum between nondirective and directive approaches than exclusively through on approach or the other. Accurate? I wholeheartedly agree with much of Brooks' argument. At times he waxes a bit "one-size-fits-all" in point, but the underlying theme resonates: keep the onus on the student. But keeping the onus on the student does not preclude directive approaches. I've never bought into the line of argument that equates directive approaches with usurping ownership. That's just too damned naive. Is ownership so fragile that at the slightest intrusion by the tutor's pen it will slip away from the student and the student, suddenly, will lose all interest in owning their work and become a rhetorical moocher trolling for handouts and free ideas? Absolutely not.

When I distill Brooks, the strongest liquor I take away is the advocacy of questioning. By couching our comments and suggestions as questions, we do keep the onus on the writer to ferret out how our comments and suggestions and alternatives will affect the meaning of their discourse. Likewise, when I distill Shamoon and Burns, I take away the importance of modeling. I particularly appreciate their use of master musicians as exemplary of their notion of directive tutoring. As a musician, I did not learn to play and improve my technique by nondirective tutelage; I learned, largely, by imitation, by watching a more skilled musician and copying his technique. Fortunately, I'm good friends with many skilled musicians. And this is an important note. If you want to be good at something, surround yourself with people who are good at that thing and do what they do. Isn't this what a writing center is: a place where more accomplished writers hang out and offer lessons? Shouldn't we model the processes we use?

Each tutorial is unique, and perhaps each student writer pushes us to a different place on the continuum depending on their needs and on their involvement with their writing.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thoughts on Grimm and New Literacy Studies

Having conducted a year-long literacy study for my dissertation research and following the ideological and conceptual framework proposed by many of the researchers in the New Literacy Studies group, I find Grimm's application of NLS to Writing Center research relevant and inspiring. Of particular interest to me, in light of our class discussions about mission statements (not to mention the fact that I'm now in a position to revisit/revise our mission statement), is Grimm's belief that "an ideological model of literacy requires a fundamental renegotiation of writing center purpose" (46):

"It asks us to serve students better by achieving a better understanding of how literacy works as a social practice. It suggests a discovery approach to research rather than a prove-it approach. It insists on paying attention to linguistic and cultural diversity. An ideological understanding of literacy also changes our understandings of what counts as data and how one interprets data. It encourages us to look at relationships, identities, cultural understandings, and more. It includes as data stories, interviews, case studies, and ethnographic observations."

An ideological approach to literacy research understands the intersubjectivity of the tutor/student relationship, and rather than seek out ways to negate the influence of the researcher (tutor) on the research context (an objectivist objective), it embraces that relationship, sees it as vital and enriching and intrisically connected to the purpose for inquiry: understanding literacy as a social act. The types of research and methodologies associated with NLS have the potential to reinvigorate the types of reporting we do about what we do. As Lerner's article makes clear, the institutional organs that pump life-blood funds into Writing Centers expect hard and fast numbers--quantitative proof of effectiveness (or at least evidence that money's not being stuffed in a hole), and it would be foolish to supplant completely the basic number crunching, i.e. number of tutorials, hours of tutorials, etc., with the kinds of qualitative data that NLS and Grimm advocate. But, as Thomas Kuhn might agree, if you want to shift a paradigm, you must begin to write the new way along side the old; that is, supplement the hard and fast number with the compelling stories, cases, anecdotes observations. Perhaps this is naive of me. Perhaps the yearly report to the provost is not, at least initially, the ideal place for more ethnographic types of data. But generating and reflecting and regenerating that data is an important way to form a clearer, more complete picture of the students we serve--a picture that might help us begin to re-educate, over time, faculty AND administration about what it is we do and how a writing center can play an important role in re-envisioning, or to use the catch word of the day, re-positioning ourselves for the future.

End ramble.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Riffing on Summerfield's Fear

Summerfield expresses fear that "process" has become static because it has been institutionalized. She worries that "workshops" will follow a similar fate. A quick survey of composition texts seems to bear out her fears.

Frank Smith, noted literacy researcher and scholar, in Joining the Literacy Club (1988), cautions that "the most misleading metaphors are those that we do not think are metaphors at all" (p. 94).

He identifies five such metaphors, all of which bear some relation to process approaches and pedagogies. The first, "information," is frequently invoked as the primary purpose for writing and learning. The information metaphor transforms all of our activities into what Rosenblatt would call "efferent" activities. Smith suggests that a better alternative would be a metaphor that "speaks to the creation and sharing of experience--the generation of possibilities of knowing and feeling" (p. 97) Next, he points to the metaphor of "process" itself as one that has over-saturated education. Seeing various activities of the brain as processes gives the impression of order and confidence in our abilities, as educators and researchers, to understand finally what is complex and largely hidden. Teaching process, coincidentally, lends itself to the production-line model for schooling, parceling out the constituent pieces of the whole, learning these individual pieces, or in the case of writing, stages, and reassembling the pieces into a cohesive whole, finished product. The danger of this static metaphor, according to Smith, is that it takes "a global enterprise, like writing...stretches it out, breaks it up into parts, and makes it particularly susceptible to programmatic instruction, removing all the sense from what is to be learned and making learning difficult if not impossible" (p. 101). Third, the "skills" metaphor is so often uncritically used. To hear educators speak of improving their students' reading or writing skills conjures up images of athletes practicing for the big game, with coaches looming over, drilling them on ball-handling or free throw shooting. Harste, Woodward, and Burke (1984), in Language Stories and Literacy Lessons, point to the most disturbing implication of such an image: it posits "a behavioral model of language learning by suggesting that a particular environment--a subskills approach--is unquestionably the base from which one begins to study "higher" forms of reading [and writing]" (p. 54). The brain, unlike muscles in arms and legs, does not improve through this kind of repetitive practice, and neither does literacy. Minds grow and literacy expands as a result of meaningful contexts, interactions and opportunities.

The last two metaphors Smith calls out can be lumped together: "levels" and "stages." Each denotes the relative position of a student's ability, or if I may mix misleading metaphors, "skill" in relation to some fixed standard of performance. These terms, like the others, connote deficit. The goal of most writing and language classes is to move the learner from level to level, stage to stage, toward greater proficiency and fluency. The danger, of course, is that this kind of talk might encourage more of us to teach to levels and stages rather than teaching to make learning meaningful to individuals.

Riffing on s

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

More on Moore and Carino

Moore's article comes at a time of shifting social structures, particularly within higher education. Universities were experiencing an influx of students from demographics that, in previous decades, had been excluded from the college experience. This is post-war America, and the G.I. Bill has opened the ivory gates to a throng of first-generation college-goers, many veterans of WWII and Korea, many underprepared and all together unfamiliar with the expectations and norms of academic discourse.

So Moore's reaction is typical of those in higher education who were used to the "old ways and days" when only upperclass, prep-schooled, white boys attended college. The response to this influx of new students was 1)to sound the tocsin of literacy crisis and 2)to cultivate Writing Clinics and Writing Labs to treat the masses.

Literacy crisis is a recurring theme in American educational culture, and it typically accompanies times of economic, social, or political uncertainty. When there's a threat to the social order, those who are privileged by the status quo are called to arms in order to defeat the boogie man of social change. Unfortunately, the boogie man usually happens to be the people who have been systemically victimized by the prevailing social order; victims are blamed for this or that deficiency that threatens the very survival of our civilization (i.e. "you're threatening our way of life because your too stupid to get a job or join the army; therefore, we'll bifurcate our educational system in order to provide you with basic skills and safeguard our customary way of doing business against infection--which is you!")

I know this sounds cynical, and perhaps it's overly simplified, but the pattern is basically accurate. Systems are threatened by glitches; historically, glitches have been war, recession and depression, civil strife, etc. I don't mean to single out Moore; Moore is a product of his time, and no doubt, he probably genuinely sought to help students and shed light on current developments using the tools and language at his disposal.

This pattern repeats itself several decades later, during the Vietnam War, and much more drastic measures are taken: the advent of the open-admissions university, the creation of regular developmental/remedial courses, and the solidification of writing centers as a recognizable, normal feature of higher education.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Some Supplementary Thoughts on Moore's Clinics and Labs

Just finished a few supplementary articles on the history of Writing Centers. In Katherine Fischer and Muriel Harris' article "Fill 'er Up, Pass the Band-Aids, Center the Margin, and Praise the Lord," they mention Michael Pemberton's call for redressing the more malignant writing center metaphors (i.e. military, medical, penal) with ones that are benign. He suggests "workshops" and "studios" to accentuate the more artistic and craftlike nature of tutoring and writing. Vanderbilt University, I believe, refers to their center in "studio" terms.

According to Carino, in "Writing Centers and Writing Programs: Local and Communal Politics," present-day writing centers develop out of Clinics and labs which were conceived of as remedial "supplements" to composition programs, charged with providing "first aid to students" and assigned current-traditional pedagogy with its exclusive emphasis on grammar drills and (s)kills and product-based instruction.

If your interested, these articles appear in Nelson and Evertz's The Politics of Writing Centers.

In the opening chapter of Noise from the Writing Center, Bouquet (echoing Carino's article for class tomorrow) acknowledges the tendency for scholars to oversimplify Writing Clinics and Writing Laboratories and present them as monolithic emblems of the dark ages of writing centers. A more accurate picture is complicated. Yes, generally Writing Clinics functioned under a deficit, medical model: students are afflicted with sick literacies, need diagnosis and treatment. Yet the example of the Writing Clinic at the University of Denver (in the 1940s)employed graduate students who were advised to question and students out with "nondirective counseling," a progressive practice that mirrors methods advocated today. And the laboratory method of instruction advocated by Philo Buck in 1904 foreshadows the process-based approach to writing and tutoring that we still value today. The lab method sought to create a space where students were encouraged "to experiment, to pose questions, and to seek solutions."

The way any history is framed depends on the intentions and purposes of the framer, and as Carino points out, those who cast writing center history in the dim light of deficiency typically do so out of a desire to demonstrate dramatic progress. While the early configurations of writing centers and writing tutorials may have fallen short of our current ideals, they were not all together lacking some of the key characteristics we value.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

More Blabbering Disclosure Later; For now...

Folks, I'll get back to this riveting story of self-discovery later. For now, I'd like to share a few thoughts on our first reading, Moore's 1950 article on Labs and Clinics. What you'll notice early and often is his reference to the laboratory/clinic purpose of "removing deficiencies." He's writing mid-century, hightime for positivist thinking within education, marked by the adoption of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) language and method across the disciplines. The language, even in humanities, bows toward scientific method. Identifying a facility as a Writing Clinic or Writing Laboratory would seem to add an element of certainty to the work that's accomplished therein. As Moore's article demonstrates, we've been applying medical terminology and metaphor to our discussions of literacy for quite some time. In "Reconceptualizing the language of adult literacy," Isley and Stahl (1993) examine some of the more persistent metaphors and models for literacy and literacy education. One of the more odious examples is the medical metaphor, which understands illiteracy as a societal disease or an affliction. Sufferers are encouraged to check into learning clinics where their "symptoms are hypothesized during a triage-like intake interview" (p. 7). A follow-up diagnosis is made, and an individualized treatment plan is prescribed. This is the Writing Clinic that Moore is observing. The allure of the medical metaphor is the perception that literacy education--that writing instruction--can be scientifically precise. This model, however, is not very appealing to potential participants, and it situates the problem squarely within the individual--not the system or society. In other words, students needing treatment have writing deficiencies that are indicative of personal, mental, or learning deficiencies. The legacy of the historical manifestation of the Writing Center as clinic still works against our mission; the legacy is that the Writing Center is seen as a site of remediation and is the province of defective students.