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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: D 2 How Does Composition Matter? Attending (Again) to Student Writing
Reviewed by: Kathleen J. Ryan, kate.ryan@mail.wvu.edu
Posted on: April 6, 2004
Updated on: April 12, 2004

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Chair: James Seitz, University of Pittsburgh, PA


“How Does Composition Matter?  Attending (Again) to Student Writing” challenged audience members to return to close readings of student writing as pedagogical practice and scholarly research.  The strength of the panel presentation was in its performative quality and overall unity; each presenter enacted the call to “attend” to student writing through a close reading of a student text and the individual appeals coalesced around an overall argument that Composition Studies re-focus on student writing.    

In “Student Writing as Subject and Object” James Seitz used James Slevin’s Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition to recommend teachers re-envision the typical process of responding to student texts.  According to Seitz, practicing Slevin’s interpretive pedagogy means rethinking “gaps of communication” in student texts as differences not deficiencies.  To explain what it means to interpret deficiency as difference, Seitz did a close reading of a student’s paper on sources of violence.  Seitz demonstrated how he learned to understand deficiencies like limited descriptions and trite overgeneralizations as part of a student’s struggle to negotiate academic culture and new ideas about violence against women.  Seitz’s handout, which included the student’s essay as originally written and reformed as a poem, helped audience members understand and practice the notion of approaching student writing as different.  Conversational asides among audience members reinforced how the limited description of a rape that opened the essay gained depth and impact written as blank verse.  Seitz’s argument that teachers use Slevin’s work to name and approach perceived deficiencies of content and organization as differences effectively offered audience members a new strategy to read student writing as a way to value student attempts to negotiate academic inquiry.  

In “Reading Students, Reading with Students” Mariolina Salvatore presented on her difficulty reading a student’s writing about his theory of reading.  It quickly became apparent that Salvatore orally presented her own “difficulty paper,” which she defines in “Conversations with Texts” as “a detailed one-page description of any difficulty the text they have been assigned to read might have posed for them” (170).  Salvatori performed a close reading of a student’s text and her struggle to engage his theory of the reading process.  According to the writing sample Salvatori shared on an overhead projector, the student’s theory of reading is essentially a two-part process; he reads first for content and then to have a personal response.  Through an examination of her difficulty interpreting his text, Salvatori shows that she is able to overcome her initial resistance to the text and celebrate the student’s ability to express a theory of reading even though she’s not convinced it a good one.  Salvatori’s discussion of her trouble reading this student’s text effectively enacted the kind of reading practice I imagine she does with her students and which I’ve previously only read about.    

In “Student Writing as Student Writing,” David Bartholomae argued for Student Writing as a genre of writing that requires more close study.  He described Student Writing as generic, predictable, and inevitable and claimed that these descriptors aren’t marks of failure but features for teachers to respond to in order to help students recognize that reading is work.  His discussion of an example of Student Writing, rife with predictable and generic phrasings, demonstrated what happens when teachers focus on close reading and focused response.  Bartholomae’s handout included a first line of a student’s essay in response to Levine’s “Magpiety” and the revision the student submitted in response to his teacher’s comments.  Bartholomae shared with the audience how his small comment “Was it that quick?” written to challenge the student’s opening claim to have understood the whole poem from reading the first lines resulted in an important change in the student’s text.  According to Bartholomae, the student’s revision qualifies his reading of the poem, demonstrating that through his teacher’s brief query he came to understand his process of reading the poem was more complicated than he’d originally claimed.  Bartholomae used this example to argue that students need to learn to read texts closely (and, I’d add, represent that reading appropriately) and that teachers can help them do this by responding to small moments in student writing.  Bartholomae politicized the panel’s collective interest in “attending (again)” to student writing by concluding his presentation with an explicit call to return to the study of student writing and practice of close reading rather than delving into political issues beyond the scope of the writing class.  

I chose to attend this panel for a number of reasons, and my expectations for it were generally well-met.  First, I was interested in what new ideas these speakers--individuals whose research I’ve read--might have to offer on the topics of student writing and reading.  I enjoyed each of the presentations, although with the exception of Seitz’s discussion of Slevin’s text, the content wasn’t particularly surprising since close reading and its connections to writing are themes of Salvatori’s and Bartholomae’s work.  Nonetheless, I felt a renewed commitment to pay attention to the ways I respond to student writing and a desire to reflect on the ways I teach teachers about reading.  

Second, I had sensed from the titles of the individual presentations and overall panel title that it was likely to have an overall cohesion that I have come to appreciate in any CCCCs panel.  The theme of close reading, on the part of teachers and students, knit together the individual presentations and effectively satisfied my desire for a unified presentation.  The way each presenter used student writing to make his or her point also added a sense of stylistic coherence that I found pleasing as a listener.  

Third, I had recently read Carrie Leverenz and Ann George’s interview with Gary Tate in Composition Studies concerning his observation that journal articles didn’t address “the teaching of writing in action, inside the classroom, inside the office” which got me thinking about this issue of scholarly research in writing classrooms  (18).  I wanted an opportunity to put that interview in dialogue with a panel focused on student writing, and this panel definitely allowed me to do that.  While I value the need to write about what’s happening in our writing classes, I resist what I heard to be Bartholomae’s claim that working closely with student writing is separate from the exercising political impulses in the discipline.  I don’t view an interest in (re)turning to student texts and to asking what’s happening in writing classrooms as separate from my desire as an educator to challenge students to be civic participants in and beyond our writing classroom and university community.   The kinds of close reading Bartholomae and Salvatori teach are, to me, avenues to help students think more critically about the world around them which might lead them to participate in civic affairs more critically and reflectively.  In addition, the ways that all of the presenters explicitly and implicitly treated students as subjects with their own desires and interests has fairly political implications.  This recognition of student’s as agents was most evident in Seitz’s presentation.  To help me work out my response to this aspect of panel, I returned to Carrie Leverenz’s and Ann George’s “A Conversation with Gary Tate” to see if the interview took up this issue.  I found a line I hadn’t remembered that reflects my response to Bartholomae’s claim.  Towards the conclusion of the interview, Tate says:
“The one thing I would most like to see in the discipline in the future is some kind of coming together – and I think Harris suggests this indirectly – some kind of coming together of people who are interested in critical pedagogy and those people who are primarily interested in the craft of writing.  I don’t see why it has to be either this or that” (26).  
Like Tate, I have a both/add perspective on this issue.  I’ll be interested to see how this conversation continues to play out in our journals and at CCCCs next year, particularly since the call for papers reflects the very political location of the 2005 convention in San Francisco.

Works Cited

George, Ann and Carrie Leverenz.  “A Conversation with Gary Tate.”  Composition       Studies 31.2 (Fall 2003): 17-26.

Salvatori, Mariolina.  “Conversations with Texts: Reading in the Teaching of Composition.”  The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook.  Eds.  Edward P. J. Corbett, Nancy Myers, and Gary Tate.  4th ed.  New York: Oxford UP, 2000, 163-174.


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