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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: H 2 Why Don’t We Just Study English: Composition as Orientation to Higher Learning
Reviewed by: Candace Stewart, stewarc1@ohiou.edu
Posted on: April 10, 2004
Updated on: April 12, 2004

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Chair: David Caithers

The presenters for this panel, all of whom were from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, offered a variety of perspectives on the first-year composition classroom, loosely organized under the focus given by their panel title: Why Don’t We Just Study English: Composition as Orientation to Higher Learning.” David Carithers, both chair and first presenter, whose title was “A Good Person Speaking,” described his interest and his investment in the speaking-intensive composition classroom. Carithers advocated this oral component for its function in the development of critical thinking skills and, specifically, for more active, as in more vocal, class participation. He briefly historicized the nature of an oral component, theoretically tying his practice to the classical oratorical tradition, stressing the connection between public speaking and invention. Carithers’ offered a list of possible organic practices tied to this tradition and connection, noting that practices such as requiring his students talk more during revising—through peer critiques, small group discussions and whole-group workshopping—as well as assignments requiring formal and informal individual presentations have all had positive effects on his students’ oral development, though Carithers had not yet done any formal assessment of such outcomes, relying on students’ comments.

In contrast to the speaking-intensive component of Carithers’ classroom, Joe Wagner’s paper, “Participate, It’s for Your Own Good,” critiqued the notion of pedagogical assumptions of vocal participation by students as an obvious positive behavior. While Wagner noted that he was not speaking out against student participation in classes, he was interested in investigating the problems, complexities, and outcomes of tying students’ participation grades to a specific definition of participation: as active, vocal, and frequent. In focusing on the issue of silence as articulation enacted differently, Wagner offered some ways to rethink our often-unquestioned pedagogies that support speaking out. He described possible reasons that students might not speak; first, citing Lisa Delpit’s work, Wagner reminded us of students’ discomfort with or inability to work with the power structure set up in the classroom, and then addressed the fact that many students are simply not ready for such a complex power dynamic that some composition classrooms designate themselves as or are not yet enculturated, through a history of practice, to have any authority or confidence to include themselves in the dynamic. Wagner then focused on the possibility that some students choose silence as a means of learning, as a participatory act that is simply left unshared or unvocalized. His shift here, towards the quiet, possibly more reflective students, reconceptualized them as active and engaged learners, for whom silence was representative of their internal cognitive work. Wagner moved then to another angle of his presentation by offering a set of narratives authored by other instructors who were questioning the politics of silence, politics that ranged from silence as a means of protection for an othered self or othered ideas; silence as “a politics of resistance,” which should not be punished; and, finally, silences in the classroom that often emerge as critically astute journal entries articulated as a written text, not an oral one. In the end, Wagner asked “are we privileging quantity over quality?” when we consider participatory acts, and “what constitutes participation?” How are we defining the term and how are we surfacing our own tensions there? Wagner ended with this quote from Cheryl Glenn, who has noted that “silence is a powerful form of discourse.”

The third presenter, Rod Spellman, investigated a question he had about the transferability of composition classroom pedagogical techniques and approaches to other classroom settings and to higher education in general. Spellman wanted to know if students used ideas and information from their composition courses in other disciplines and courses across campus. He described his qualitative research methods and sample (volunteers, ended up with 14 people returning his surveys, mostly women) and noted that his survey was looking at 3 outcomes: students’ perceptions of the benefits of the FYC classroom in terms of competencies and abilities; increases in perceptions of these benefits from the first part of the term and then again at the end; and perceptions of the comparative comfort levels in the classrooms tied to pedagogical approaches. Spellman noted early on that this study raised many questions and really answered none of his early ones, as early research tends to do. But he did have some data to back up a more intense study on students’ writing habits after their FYC course as well as students’ feelings of being valued in the course.

“The Democratic Composition Classroom,” was the title of Temeka Carter’s paper, which described and analyzed her experience with constructing a democratic classroom based on Dewey’s work in Democracy and Education. Carter ’s philosophy in framing her class this way emerged from her understanding of education as moving out from and leading to choices, which in turn emerge from and lead to positive, reflective awareness of the world. Carter noted that her attempts at collective decision-making in nearly every component of the class, including grading, learning objectives, and activities were often in process, and often ended in ways she had not been able to predict. Carter’s descriptions of the voting process, some of the outcomes, and the ways in which the class had to re-negotiate their own decisions along the way offered insights into the complexities of trying to attain some version of an ideal democratic community with students who hadn’t yet defined some of those terms for themselves. Carter mentioned that there was resistance to the framework, and that students did find some aspects of the course’s structure difficult to accommodate, and some were afraid of the collective teaching and learning format because it simply wasn’t traditional or what they had expected. Carter’s presentation ended on a hopeful note, stressing that she felt the course was marginally successful, though she also would like to try the course again with a different, more mature and liberal, student population.

The final presenter of this panel, Elizabeth Vogel, was investigating effects and perceptions of emotions in writing classrooms in her paper, “Can You Feel It?: The Effect of Emotions on Our Students,” particularly in terms of the ways in which students might be moved by their own or others’ words, in terms of the connection between passion and the personal text, and in terms of the (often negative or uncomfortable) responses to expressed emotion in the classroom. Vogel addressed a personal experience with the problem of expressed emotion in a graduate seminar in which the members of the seminar had intense negative and divisive reactions to one of the student’s emotional state. Noting that the seminar was totally female, including the instructor, Vogel drew some conclusions about the problem of emotion in the classroom in general, noting that though the members of the course were able to address and negotiate the issues at hand, that the problem emotion presents as a reality in the classroom has yet to be resolved satisfactorily.


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