A Pedagogy of Conversation
This study is not about writing. This study is about dialogue, multilogue, and the social construction of knowledge. It is about people, students and teachers alike, engaged in what Gregory Clark has called the most basic form of cooperation: communication (1). It just so happens that this communication we are studying takes place in writing, but I will insist that writing exists as an artifact of the conversation, and that it is the conversation itself, the fundamental communicative act between people who are striving with common purpose to define their beliefs, to negotiate meaning, and to make practical decisions through the use of language that we should emphasize in our pedagogical practice. Thus I would say that the subject of this study is the pedagogy of textual conversation, and I will argue that traditional approaches to the teaching of writing will continue to fall short of their goals as long as conversation is allowed to function only as the background, the chaos, or the noise from which the stylized monologue as site of knowledge is inevitably expected to emerge.
It is critical for an understanding of this study, I think, to come clean about the particular "goals" of teaching writing to which I refer, especially since consensus among compositionists on this as well as many other issues finds its primary expression in oral, conversational transactions of lore. Only rarely does one find clearly articulated goals for writing programs expressed in departmental or university policies, and where they may exist, few teachers in these programs are aware of them. This is odd, indeed, especially when one considers the fact that some sort of composition requirement exists for all incoming undergraduate students in most institutions of higher education in the United States. In light of the near universality of such a requirement, one may reasonably assume that faculty and administrators both feel that something of value accrues to students who know how to write well, that this value can be broadly applied across the institutional spectrum, and that since it can be so broadly applied there exists a relationship between the value of writing and the socio-cultural goals espoused in university mission statements. That this relationship has only rarely been left to anything much more concrete than inference seems remarkable, particularly when one considers the diverse theoretical backgrounds and practical competencies of those who serve as instructors in what are often the largest of academic programs at colleges and universities. Individual teachers' goals may run the gamut from something as specific as formal and technical mastery in the modes of discourse to self-expression and writing-as-therapy, any (and perhaps all at once) of the defenses for writing instruction as laid out by James A. Berlin in his history, Rhetoric and Reality.
Anxieties of purpose continue to be played out among leading scholars in the field. Most recently, the exchange between Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae in CCC serves to illustrate. Published as part of an ongoing "public conversation" that began at the 1989 and 1991 CCCC meetings, these two articles provide a textual platform from which the authors enter the dialectical space between two conflicting positions: writing as an academic enterprise and writing as a self-expressive enterprise.
Bartholomae is a strong advocate of writing as an academic enterprise, one inescapably fraught with the power discrepancies between students and teachers. Especially in institutional settings, he says "there is no writing without teachers. . . . there is no writing done in the in the academy that is not academic writing." Because the focus of this conversation about writing is student writing, he feels secure in asserting what is apparently a tautology. But, he goes on to note that "thinking of writing [in the academy] as academic writing makes us think of the page as crowded with others" and of the writing space (the classroom, the academy itself) as "a busy intertextual space" (63-64). Therefore, in the first few pages of Bartholomae's textual turn we see advanced the Bakhtinian notions of intertextuality and heteroglossia; the texts (the ones we read, the ones we write) are crowded with the textual contributions of others. Academic writing, like the discourse of the novel, is dialogical; specifically, the students' textual "dialogue" happens in a space that has "been defined by all the writing that has preceded [theirs]" (64). Although the academy gathers together the textual voices it deems important (the canon), dismissing others as less worthy or as less significant sources of academic knowledge, what we are invited to attend to consciously is the "conversation" that has preceded us; what we are invited to do through our writing is to join that conversation, to add our two cents worth so to speak; and if our contribution is worthy enough, perhaps someday the academy will gather our text into the fold as well. To me, Bartholomae's position on academic writing is strongly informed by social-constructionism, the theory advanced to some degree by scholars like Fish, Rorty, Lacan, Vygotsky and others who maintain that who we are and what we know have been negotiated collectively by complex life-long relationships with family, caretakers, teachers, church, community, local and national politics, and the media.
Bartholomae criticizes his fellow conversant, Peter Elbow, and those who view writing as personal and expressionistic, those who argue for "the open classroom; a free writing" (emphasis mine). He sees this open writing classroom in which students engage in exercises of personal expression rather than academic meaning-making as a utopian space where students are invited to conceive of themselves as "free from the past," as transcendent agents whose language is "a common language, free from jargon and bias, free from evasion and fear" (64). Bartholomae maintains that to invite students to think of themselves thus as free agents above and beyond their own cultural mediatedness is simply to deceive them about the real, practical nature of the world, especially the academic world. This kind of free writing space, he tells us, is informed by goals best expressed in statements like "`I want to empower my students' or `I want to give my students ownership of their work'" (65). Ultimately, such goals require students to step outside of time, to dehistoricize themselves, to dissociate themselves from their cultures and their pasts.
The goal that Bartholomae embraces, however, requires what he calls a "real" space rather than a utopian space. His goal is to "make a writer aware of the forces at play in the production of knowledge" (66) and to do so requires
a class in time, one that historicizes the present, including the present evoked in students' writing. Inside this linguistic present, students (with instruction -- more precisely, with lessons in critical reading) can learn to feel and see their position inside a text they did not invent and can never, at least completely, control. Inside a practice: linguistic, rhetorical, cultural, historical (65).
In his closing remarks, he makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with writing pedagogies that would perpetuate what he calls the utopian "American myth" of rugged individualism, the rough-writer on the frontiers of expression going his own way in order to find his own way. What he prefers to promote is the kind of writing environment where students can "master the figures and forms, learn to produce an elegant, convincing, even professional quality narrative" (70). I may be so bold as to say that what Bartholomae advocates are goals closer to mastering the modes than to mastering the art of having something to say. Having something to say is here too cavalierly reduced to writing in the expressive genre which Bartholomae believes he does not need to teach:
I don't think I need to because I don't think I should. I find it a corrupt, if extraordinarily tempting genre. I don't want my students to celebrate what would then become the natural and inevitable details of their lives. I think the composition course should be part of the general critique of humanism. For all the talk of paradigm shifting, the composition course, as a cultural force, remains fundamentally unchanged from the 19th century. I would rather teach or preside over a critical writing, one where the critique is worked out in practice, and for lack of better terms I would call that writing, "academic writing" (70).
I would at least agree with one thing, the composition course, as a cultural force, has remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century. But, is Elbow's version significantly different? To what goals does he speak?
In his response to Bartholomae, Elbow admits to feeling a deep conflict between what he sees as the role of the writer and the role of the academic. Yes, he concedes, this conflict reflects a kind of binary thinking that is perhaps unnecessary; he would like, he says, to be convinced that one can serve both roles well and at the same time. But, still he feels forced to choose between the two, and his choice is clearly the role of the writer. At the heart of the conflict for Elbow is what he feels to be a somewhat contentious relationship between readers and writers, and his feeling that academics have come to identify more closely with, or valorize, the act of reading:
to put it bluntly, readers and writers have competing interests over who gets to control the text. It's in the interests of readers to say that the writer's intention doesn't matter or is unfindable, to say that meaning is never determinate, always fluid and sliding, to say that there is no presence or voice behind a text; and finally to kill off the author! This leaves the reader in complete control of the text (75).
This ungenerous opinion of readers more than suggests that Elbow believes meaning can be determinate, that it is not subject to negotiation, and that the site of meaning is the author; he alone exerts control of the text. What we see reflected in this position is a struggle for power, for control -- not merely for control of the text, but for control or ownership of meaning itself. But, this struggle is one-sided somehow; it's the reader who's the control freak. In Elbow's view, the writer instead of seeking control seeks understanding. In his text, the writer struggles with language, trying to use words for self-expression. But he can't do it alone; he needs readers. He needs readers, not like the academic reader, but those who are "interested in what was on [his] mind, what [he] intended to say." If the writer's struggle fails to make his intentions clear, the reader needs to extend a certain generosity of spirit and faith that the intended meaning can be found. "It helps to listen caringly," Elbow tells us (75). Yes, writers too care about ownership of the text, but it's the writer whose spirit is more generous. Academics, according to Elbow, deny to writers any part in discussions about the texts' meaning.
If nothing else, such a view of a text (from either the position of the writer or the reader) reduces text to an object, something over which humans can struggle for property rights. There is little concern here for the function of a text. Clearly, it is important to Elbow that his student writers be able to say, in writing, what they know, to celebrate the details of their lives. He seems to care less for the formal characteristics of any genre than he does for the writers' having something to say, thus situating his goals at odds with those of Bartholomae in practical terms. Both men have their eyes, after all, on the text itself and not the function of the text as a meaning-making tool or meaning-making artifact of any ongoing conversation. Bartholomae is more aware of the conversation, but wants students to polish their tools in specific, institutionally acceptable ways. Elbow is less concerned with the polish, and although he is aware of the conversation, he dismisses it:
In short, I should try to enact and live out in my classroom the Burkean metaphor of intellectual life as an unending conversation. This is what we academics do: carry on an unending conversation not just with colleagues but with the dead and unborn.
But the truth is . . . I don't give this dimension to my first year writing classroom. I don't push my first year students to think about what academics have written about their subject; indeed much of my behavior is a kind of invitation for them to pretend that no authorities have ever written about their subject before (79).
I have to ask though, is it ethical for teachers to promote such a pretense by inviting students to engage in this kind of monological writing exercise? Elbow attempts to cloud the ethical issue at hand by redefining dialogical writing itself -- ". . . I do invite monologic discourse . . . but I invite and defend dialogic discourse just as much. That is, I encourage students to situate what they write into the conversation of other members of the classroom community to whom they are writing and whom they are reading." Specifically, this re-defined dialogue is dialogue only by metaphor and it has its existence only in the "regular publication of the class magazine [that] does more for this dialogic dimension than any amount of theoretical talk." Thus, the classroom becomes the site of conversation and this conversation is well-insulated from any larger civic or scholarly, current or historic conversation in order to promote students' self-absorption and discoursal solipsism (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and protect them from having to feel "personally modest and intellectually scrupulous;" as Elbow concludes this feeling goes hand-in-hand with being "at the periphery" and feeling "skeptical and distrustful" (79).
For Elbow, dialogue (conversation) is a published analog of talk; for Bartholomae, it's "theoretical talk." Notice that in neither case is it really talk. Ultimately, both scholars invite students to think of writing, whether as monologue or dialogue, as an object in and of itself. Bartholomae's idea of the object is a polished and institutionally acceptable form; we can see it looming large in our memories now: the research paper, the academic essay. Elbow's idea of the object is less formal, less institutionally legitimate: the expressive narrative, the personal essay. For both scholars, conversation really takes a backseat, deserving only of lip-service (Bartholomae) or outright dismissal (Elbow). These men are arguing about what form of object best serves a larger goal. Elbow's goal, by inference, is self-discovery and heightened self-esteem. Bartholomae's goal is the production of academically acceptable writers.
These two goals in particular are born out again and again in traditional debates in the field of composition. On the surface, they seem to stand somewhat in opposition to one another with individualists/expressionists manning one end of the tug-of-war rope and institutionalists/formalists manning the other. But what strikes me as odd is that adherents to both positions seem to agree, at base, that the goal, which is really only the means to their different ends, is this artifact called an "essay." It is in fact this tacit assumption which in effect allows academics such as Elbow and Bartholomae to be such chummy rivals. At bottom, they are playing the same game. The presentation in CCC of their two essays as "conversation" is ironic: even though the editors allow other voices to respond, monologically, to the primary soliloquies of Bartholomae and Elbow, no one seems to get the picture that what really ought to be happening is a shifting of pedagogical practice from the production of monological artifacts (including those which claim to participate in metaphorical "conversations") to the production of conversation itself. To do so would mean that scholars on both sides of the great divide would necessarily have to give up old (or perhaps have to envision new) indices of validity and authority at a time when the institutional imperative to "publish or perish" has never been stronger. Despite all that Peter Elbow says he values, the fact remains that he's a well-published scholar. In other words, he's a expert text producer, and the texts he produces are institutionally acceptable as sources of authority and sites of knowledge. The fact that he has readers and that readers regularly cite his work (for example, in my text at this precise moment) may indeed suggest that there's a good analogy with conversation to be had, but the fact also remains that this conversation is strictly carried out between academics looking for admission into the inner circle of academe through the acceptance and publication of their own monologues. Very little is going on here in terms of true conversation (as Bartholomae would have us believe); very little is going on here of an educative experiential nature which Dewey would insist is the only gauge of good pedagogical practice.
Philosopher and educator John Dewey may seem an odd touchstone here considering the fact that his "conversational turn" is dated by contemporary standards. However, I find much of true common sense value in his theory and a remarkable degree applicability to the issue I'm trying to address. As a matter of fact, Dewey tells us in The Child and the Curriculum that theoretical oppositions such as those presented here between Elbow and Bartholomae are duplicated in many pedagogical situations and can be variously generalized to terms like "discipline vs.interest" (with Bartholmae's position in this instance being an example of discipline while Elbow's would be an example of interest) and "guidance and control vs. freedom and initiative" (Bartholomae advocating the former, Elbow the latter) (9-10). A "logical" position, one like Bartholomae's, Dewey says "neglects the process and considers the outcome. It summarizes and arranges, and thus separates the achieved results from the actual steps by which they were forthcoming in the first instance" (19) while the expressive position would stand at the opposite pole showing little concern for outcome or product. Furthermore, Dewey claims as I have here that in either case there is a basic "prejudicial notion that there is some gap in kind (as distinct from degree) between the [student's] experience and the various forms of subject matter that make up the course of study" (11). What we need to work towards is bringing to life for our students the fact that experience and the "subject" of writing, indeed of all learning, are intimately connected one to the other.
Unfortunately, texts seem to be one of our primary pedagogical tools in education and in composition especially. Students read texts that we assign and write texts in response or, in Elbowesque fashion, they write their own texts without having to give much thought to anyone else's. In any case, it's the artifact of the text itself upon which we focus our attention. "The ear, and the [text] which reflects the ear, constitute the medium which is alike for all," Dewey asserts (The School and Society, 33) and the hearing-mode medium is inherently a medium that requires a degree of passivity that is not natural because it fails to take into account the interactive characteristic of experience and life itself. Rather than teaching in such a medium
It is a development of experience into experience that is really wanted. And this is impossible save as just that educative medium is provided which will enable the powers and interests that have been selected as valuable to function (The Child and the Curriculum, 18).
At this point, we find it necessary to revisit our "mission" as teachers of composition in our universities' writing programs. Why are we engaged in this endeavor in the first place? Again, I would reiterate my claim that there must be some connection between the university's mission statement and the act of writing that warrants the near universality of composition requirements across the board. The mission of The University of North Carolina at Greensboro approved by the Board of Trustees in 1993 states: "the University fosters knowledge, intellectual skills, and the joy of reasoned inquiry in its students so that they may become thoughtful and responsible members of society." Clearly, the Board sees citizenship and social interactivity as a central concern. While we may argue at length about precisely what might constitute a "thoughtful and responsible" citizen, my main point remains that the relationship between those who are educated and the larger society of which they are members is apparently highly valued here. So much so that it constitutes the heart of the institution's practical purpose and, therefore, the practical purpose that should inform in some way the way we teach within that institution. I would assert that we teach writing as a means of social engagement with others, as a means of learning good rhetorical skills that will enable us to judge the rhetoric of others and respond to that rhetoric responsibly, and as an intellectual tool of inquiry that will help us develop our common sense in community. In short, we are in the business of teaching language skills to our students because language is the living medium which gives us access to the meaning inherent in our own experiences and connects our experiences with those of others both historically and contemporaneously. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, then, Dewey remarks that
. . . it hardly needs to be said that language is primarily a social thing, a means by which we give our experiences to others and get theirs again in return. When it is taken away from its natural purpose, it is no wonder that it becomes a complex and difficult problem to teach language (The School and Society, 55).
It may be observed that teaching language/writing from either the perspective of Bartholomae (logical, formal) or that of Elbow (expressive) does indeed remove the use of language from its natural give-and-take communicative purpose, especially when that purpose is to be conceived in a genuine and experiential way. Neither the metaphor of conversation between historical texts and student texts nor a dialogue that takes place only in a classroom publication is genuine conversation. Dewey himself remarks that language taught in schools "is unnatural, not growing out of the real desire to communicate vital impressions and convictions" and thus, over time, "the freedom of [students] in its use gradually disappears" (The School and Society, 56). Most of our students have had at least twelve years of experience in school, twelve years of experience using written language not in genuine give-and-take situations, but as performances or demonstrations of skills and knowledge. Feedback from teachers is generally limited to assessments of skills with little or no regard being given to the communication itself. Feedback from peers is virtually non-existent, and where it does exist it is generally of the same ilk as teacher assessment. The conversation, therefore, is taking the backseat in a long bus, so far from the front as a matter of fact as to disappear into obscurity. I maintain that the conversation is what needs to be taking the front seat and that, with guidance, the "skills" will naturally follow. What we need to do, then, is to see that "the language instinct is appealed to in a social way" (The School and Society 56).
Ultimately, the means of teaching in any discipline should be Deweyan: both experiential and social; interactive between students, teachers, family, and community; contiguous between the individual and the corporate, between formal objectives and internal desires. There should be room, in other words, for Bartholomae as well as for Elbow in regards to their differences on expressive writing vs. academic writing -- continuity between individual concerns and corporate concerns. This is a difference in degree rather than in kind. But, what it says to Bartholomae and Elbow is that this is not the whole picture; you're arguing over the flavor of the pie while you fail to address why you should have pie in the first place. Dewey is concerned with the whole pie and with the process of cooking it. The means of teaching, which recognize both social and individual needs, should reflect the goals of teaching -- providing good educative experiences that will promote, beyond the educative moment, the development and exercise of democratic skills based on our humane assumptions that
. . . democratic social arrangements promote a better quality of human experience, one which is more widely accessible and enjoyed, than do non-democratic and anti-democratic forms of social life[.] [That] the principle of regard for individual freedom and for decency and kindliness of human relations come back in the end to a higher quality of experience on the part of a greater number than are methods of repression and coercion or force[.] [This is] the reason for our preference that we believe that mutual consultation and convictions reached through persuasion, make possible a better quality of experience than can otherwise be provided on any wide scale (34)[.]
In the long run, the goal of writing instruction (if we share a common ideological framework as citizens of a democratic nation) ought to be social and democratic, keeping in mind that we, as individuals as well as our students as individuals are part of the social, democratic fabric of life. An educative experience ought to involve us (yes, I include teachers as well as students) in communicative relationships with one another that allow an interplay of the personal and the cultural, relationships that help us learn, through action, how to engage in mutual consultation and public persuasion in decency and kindliness, affording participatory equality and respect for all. As Berlin says in the conclusion to Rhetoric and Reality, "writing courses prepare students for citizenship in a democracy, for assuming their political responsibilities, whether as leaders or simply as active participants" (the corporate, social goal), while yet enabling "students to learn something about themselves, about the often-unstated assumptions on which their lives are built" (the individual goal). In the long run, the goal of our course should be to "[empower] students as it advises in ways to experience themselves, others, and the material conditions of their existence -- in methods of ordering and making sense of these relationships (180, emphasis mine). Experience and relationship. I maintain that these particular goals are not best served by asking students to engage in the writing of the monological essay, expressive or formal. To do so in effect removes them from a direct experience of the public conversation wherein cultural and personal knowledge is transmitted, interpreted, and applied anew to contemporary situations. To do so shifts the emphasis of education from authentic learning to the production of artifacts. And I want to emphasize that I'm talking about what best serves the purpose; in other words, I'm not arguing that we should have students stop writing essays. I'm arguing, however, that the essay should no longer be the centerpiece of our composition practice. Conversation should be the centerpiece in its stead.
Of the most basic of human desires, the desire for relationship with others, informs our drive for communication. It's the communication itself, not any specific outcome of communication, that counts. Communication and conversation, as understood by the Burkean metaphor of the parlor, is the goal of human interaction, the simple need and desire to keep the talk going, not to arrive at final solutions. This conversational or dialogical stance toward one another, as Gregory Clark notes "is very different from the stance that most of us are taught to take when we write, one that allows us to objectify the people we address as uninformed beings we must attempt to inform with the truth" (3). Traditional composition instruction, whether of the Bartholomaic or Elbowesque variety, holds as its goals the acquisition of truth or knowledge, an insight into the real of either a personal or corporate nature that resides within the enlightened speaker/writer and which needs communicating to listeners/readers in order to have upon them some desired effect of understanding or learning. Martin Buber, too, speaks to this same kind of knowledge:
Knowledge: as he beholds what confronts him, its being is disclosed to the knower. What he beheld as present he will have to comprehend as an object, compare with objects, assign a place in an order of objects, and describe and analyze objectively; only as an It can it be absorbed into the store of knowledge. But in the act of beholding it was no thing among things, no event among events; it was present exclusively. It is not in the law that is afterward derived for the appearance but in the appearance itself that the being communicates itself. That we think the universal is merely an unreeling of the skeinlike event that was beheld in the particular, in a confrontation. And now it is locked into the It-form of conceptual knowledge. Whoever unlocks it and beholds it again as present, fulfills the meaning of that act of knowledge as something that is actual and active between men (90-91).
Here, Buber speaks to the differences between the object as the beheld knowledge, static and locked into the It-form, and opposes that to the mutuality of beholding itself as an activity in which one subject interacts with another subject in order to do knowledge. It is in similar terms that I think of the essay as an object, an artifact, of static and locked-in knowledge. Dialogue, on the other hand, involves active beholding. People engage with one another in the process of discovery, of meaning-making. Rather than there being an I and an It (the text), or an Us and a Them (the canon of knowledge), there is an I and a You mutually engaging in a process of discovery. Clark says that this dialogical stance, this I and You, "transforms communicating people into coequal collaborators who cooperate in the process of negotiating meanings they can truly share, meanings that do not embody the dominance of one" (3). The dialogue itself, if we focus on this in our teaching, becomes a Deweyan educative experience wherein communicative skills are learned because they must be practiced, and wherein knowledge comes as a result of reciprocal activity between members of the community sharing discourse.
What is democracy if not a community sharing discourse -- sometimes a large community, conceived of as a nation; sometimes smaller communities such as towns, neighborhoods, a school district, a club, or even two people talking with one another at the clothesline or over a cup of coffee. In any case, it's the act of sharing as coequals that opens the communicative experience fully to all participants. While we may ordinarily think of democracy strictly in public-political terms as a decision-making process that leads to some kind of policy or action, democracy is also at work in its most fundamental form whenever people come together to talk as equals and to share meanings. Meaning, as both knowledge and understanding, proceed from a natural process of telling stories, asking questions, elaborating points, checking understandings, challenging interpretations and assumptions, restating, and revising. People thus engaged in conversational interaction don't merely put their ideas into words. Rather they put their ideas into words, listen and respond. Together, they coordinate their conversational activities according to the social interest of interaction and maintaining relationship (Shotter 1).
A writing pedagogy based on a conversational model would focus neither on a subjective/romantic pole (as exemplified by Elbow) or on an objective/modern pole (as exemplified by Bartholomae); it would rather focus on the actual unfolding of discourse as it occurs naturally in continuous human interaction. Languaged interactivity thus replaces knowledge as a goal in and of itself. Antonio Faundez refers to this as the "becoming of dialogue" and claims that a pedagogy based on such a dialogical becomingness "put[s] forward the idea that that truth lies in the quest and not in the result, that it is a process, that knowledge is a process, and thus we should engage in it and achieve it through dialogue. . . " (Freire and Faundez 32). Denying to our students full access to the process as goal itself results in the kind of "banking" pedagogy attacked by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, a pedagogy in which students are "taught" by being filled with knowledge by teachers who own that knowledge; students are "taught" by listening and receiving rather than by actively engaging in the creation of knowledge themselves. What Freire suggests instead of banking is a "problem-solving education" which "regards dialogue as indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality" (58-71).
Process is, of course, a word us compositionists are very familiar with. Many of us, even those who remain interested primarily in the polish of the final product, acknowledge that we need to teach process-oriented courses, that we must have students become intimately engaged with the process of writing before we can expect their products to be of high quality. But, to echo the important question that Ann Berthoff asks in The Making of Meaning, what does it mean when we say that composing is a process?
For unless composing as a process is what we actually teach, not just what we proclaim, the idea cannot be fruitful. In many instances, the language of the new rhetoric is used when there is no correspondingly new attitude towards what we are teaching, to say nothing of how we are teaching it (68).
How we are teaching is really what's at issue here. Most often, how we teach is at odds with what we proclaim as fundamentally important because while we extol the virtues of process, the process is nevertheless seen as a means to and end, the end being the product, the essay. How we need to teach is anyway that lets the process remain central, that lets us acknowledge the process as an end it itself while seeing things like essays as by-products that spin off along the way. What counts is the conversation, the dialogue.
Shotter describes this dialogical or conversational interactivity as "diffuse, sensuous or feelingful activity, [the] unordered, hurly-burly or bustle of everyday social life" (7). The "everydayness" of such activity and its ubiquity places it squarely in a primary dimension, the activity-situation from which proceeds, as a natural by-product, both order and meaning (though perhaps not in the formal terms we've grown accustomed to authorizing). Compositionists have long recognized the importance of some chaos in the writing process, especially those who view writing in expressionistic terms, those who value, as does Elbow, free writing. Chaos in this model is the generative space from which we glean the pearls we later polish into prose. Unfortunately, even the chaos of free writing or other kinds of generative writing is conceived of and practiced monologically, and, at some point in time, the chaos has to take a rather messy backseat to the polished product which is simply a more coherent (less chaotic) monologue.
Berthoff's view of the uses of chaos seem more to parallel my own because she sees it as an ongoing affair, not as something we ultimately "solve." Chaos, for Berthoff, is a natural phenomenon, one from which we naturally and continually negotiate living, thus malleable and revisable., coherences. "I consider it the the most important advance of the semester," she says, "if a student moves from [knowing the answer or wanting the answer] to [acknowledging that] `what this situation means depends on how you look at it'" (71). And she furthermore values dialogue in the classroom as a means of dealing with chaos:
. . . if the composition classroom is the place where dialogue is the mode of making meaning, then we will have a better chance to dramatize not only the fact that language itself changes with the meanings we make from it and that its powers are generative and developmental, but also that it is the indispensable and unsurpassable means of reaching others and forming communities with them. The ability to speak is innate, but language can only be realized in a social context. Dialogue, that is to say, is essential to the making of meaning and thus to learning to write. The chief use of chaos is that it creates the need for that dialogue (The Making of Meaning 72).It remains the case, however, that a means for instituting a truly dialogical practice has not heretofore been found. As I have already pointed out, the Bartholomaic "practice" requires a metaphoric dialogue while an Elbowesque "dialogue" means making monologues public. Berthoff recommends talk and peer feedback in class in much the same way as many of us already use class discussion as a dialogical form -- first talking about issues, then talking about writing (critiquing monologues) -- along with things like having students look at the notebooks, rough drafts, and revisions of poets and novelists because these things record a dialectical growth and development of completed works from the chaos of ideas, jotings, and/or musings. One interesting variation she proposes is the "double-entry notebook" in which
. . . on the right side reading notes, direct quotations, observational notes, fragments, lists, images -- verbal and visual -- are recorded; on the other (facing) side, notes about those notes, summaries, formulations, aphorisms, editorial suggestions, revisions, comment on comment are written. The reason for the double-entry format is that. . . . the facing pages are in dialogue with one another (The Making of Meaning 45).
Let us say, however, that if we conceive of dialogue as something that happens to require the give and take of interpretive turns between people, then what we have in any of these cases is a simulation of dialogue, an analogy of dialogue. The double-entry notebook is actually a dialogue between the writer and herself, one that happens after a period of time ensues between the entry on the right hand side of the page and the left hand side of the page during which the writer can critically reflect upon her own personal process of meaning-making. At least in this instance the focus is on the process itself rather than on a critique of a monologue such as the kind of thing that goes on in peer review sessions. The double-entry notebook is a dialogue in which the writer plays two roles: conversationalist and respondant. And if the idea of the notebook could be taken to its ideal limit, the conversationalist, having been responded to by herself on the facing page, would then step into the role of respondant herself so that the conversation, the dialogue, would move forward in time. It is, in any event, an insular exercise even if carried to an extreme. The writer can never get outside of herself and her own interpretive framework; she never faces a challenge to her credibility or coherence.
Like Berthoff, many compositionists recognize the importance of dialogue to the composing process, to the acquisition of language skills. Unfortunately, there has just not been a great deal of real change in pedagogical practice, certainly not of the kind that would keep up with our changes in pedagogical theory. James Zebroski, in his recent book Thinking Through Theory, notes that nearly all current Anglo-American writing instruction continues to "[emphasize] the most unchangeable and static aspects of the communication process. The focus is on the sustained monologue; dialogue is reduced to the simple exchange of sustained monologues between sender and receiver" (179). The tacit assumption would seem to be that the polished pearl is then somehow a demonstration that we, as individuals, have digested our chaos and have assimilated it for appropriate presentation. We have made communicable knowledge that will then be consumed by our readers in a metaphorical conversation, such as the sustanined monologues of Elbow and Bartholomae, in which their confusion, assent, dissent, or understanding will happen only as a mental process. Dialogue will thus be ventriloquized for the writer (her voice thrown into the essay) and internalized for the reader.
In monological models, the rhetorical struggle is exclusionary, proceeding dialectically from argument to argument until a single, "correct" version of knowledge congeals, until the writer reaches, if you will, the "final solution." Conversational models, however transforms the exclusionary struggle into something "continuous, non-eliminative, inclusionary, [and] multi-voiced" in which the rhetorical aim is not to reach a conclusion or to reach the final solution but to "change the agenda of argumentation," "to `construct' new forms of social relation" (Shotter 9). And what emerges from this interaction is both social/public change and individual change. Our community changes as we, in mutuality share, re-vise, and create knowledge; we, as individuals, change as we learn through interaction new ways of being ourselves with others. On this note, the goals of the conversational model are coterminus with those of Freire's problem-solving model because both deal with the relationship between social interactivity and constantly emerging meanings -- both deal with "revolutionary futurity" as something always coming into being between those who engage in the process. Both affirm "men as beings in the process of becoming -- as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality" (72).
A good deal of the debate for compositionists takes place as if it's understood that knowledge as a finished reality is of course the goal of pedagogy and that being knowledgeable means being able to demonstrate our knowledge proficiency in specific, limited, ways. One group champions how much knowledge can be covered with an expressive/individualistic approach and another group decries how little knowledge is actually gained thus using such an approach. In both cases, however, the only way of being a knowledgeable person is to be a "legitimately" knowledgeable person, a person who can write some genre of text that serves as a site of authority. W. Ross Winterowd, for example, in Composition Theory for the Postmodern Classroom argues for the inclusion of all essay genres as legitimate forms of knowledge, yet he still contends that "the essay is -- and . . . should be -- the central genre in composition instruction" (121). And, in reality, it's hard for us to envision different ways of being "legitimately" knowledgeable, let alone to enact different ways of being -- this is a truism applicable not only to academics but to everyone. But, for scholars specifically, it is as Shotter says, a difficulty attributable to the fact that "in fulfilling our responsibilities as competent and professional academics, we must write systematic texts; we risk being accounted incompetent if we do not" (25). Perhaps we ourselves, as well as our students, need the unordered exchange of conversation in order truly to envision different ways of being as teachers. Perhaps only then can we enact change. The essay, because it is systematized and monological (regardless of genre) may only reify the same way of being for us all.
In the long run, this same way of being, this same legitimized notion of knowledge does not serve us well as preparation for our democratic social lives or for our lives as individuals in relationship with others simply because none of us lead insular, asocial lives. Why not promote in our classes new kinds of knowing and new ways of being that recognize the
undeniable empirical fact . . . that our daily lives are not rooted in written texts or in contemplative reflection, but in oral encounter and reciprocal speech. In other words, we live our daily social lives within an ambiance of conversation, discussion, argumentation, negotiation, criticism and justification; much of it to do with problems of intelligibility and the legitimation of claims to truth (Shotter 29).
Argumentation. Negotiation. Criticism. Justification. Problems of intelligibility and the legitimation of claims to truth. Not only are these the primary tasks of conversationalists in their everyday, hurly-burly practices, but they also constitute the content of our courses in rhetoric and writing -- our goals. The oral conversant faces the same rhetorical tasks as does the writer engaged in metaphorical conversation with a monological, textual world. If we want to teach this content, these skills, why not let the texts be really conversations rather than metaphorically conversations?
One criticism that may be leveled at conversational models is that the chaotic, hurly-burly nature of the exchange is, in effect, incomprehensible or incoherent in such a way that efficient learning (greatest knowledge return for time invested) suffers. Students in the conversation-based classroom may never rise from disorder, interpreted as confusion, to order, interpreted as enlightenment. I would answer this criticism by asking that we revisit the chaos of conversation itself, perhaps best accomplished by reflecting upon our own experience of sharing with others. We will quickly have to admit that the chaotic, hurly-burly does not naturally connote incoherence and incomprehensibility. As a matter of fact, conversation tends to be more coherent and comprehensible because order naturally proceeds of its own accord since the aim of conversation is the carrying forward in time of the social relationship of the conversants. To carry this relationship forward necessarily means that they must discover and practice linguistic strategies that help them find ideological and practical common ground, strategies that help them make sense to one another. Reflecting on our own conversational experience or observing the conversation of others, we will quickly become aware of the overall coherence that develops between conversants. Shotter points out that the linguistic strategies that we practice in our daily exchanges are usually unnoticed, that it is "unknowingly [that we] construct between ourselves those orderly forms" that keep our person-world relationships afloat (35). We often speak of "audience awareness" in our teaching. We encourage our students to "think about" or to "consider" the possible reactions a reader may have to the ideas we advance in our texts or to the ways in which we advance them. In conversation-based classes, the audience is not merely an abstract idea about which we think or give consideration -- the audience is a living, breathing reality whose reactions we directly experience. Within the experience itself, if we intend to remain part of the social interaction, organizing principles of coherence and understanding arise as a necessity. If a certain speaker/writer, for example, has a personal opinion not held in common with her fellow speakers/writers (audience), she must nevertheless feel that she is not excluded from that audience, that she is a part of that group's reality. Through her desire to be included, she learns by what is essentially trial and error "how to be a responsible member of certain social groups"; conversation helps us "learn how to do certain things in the right kind of way: how to perceive, think, talk, act, and to experience one's surroundings in ways that make sense to the others around one" (Shotter 46). As Kenneth Burke has noted, a writer "may have to change an audience's opinion in one respect, but he can succeed only insofar as he yields to that audience's opinions in other respects" (A Rhetoric of Motives, 56). In conversational models, the audience and the social group are one and the same; the changing and yielding of opinions, the polishing and perfecting of clarity, are the social/discoursal glue that binds the members in actual community.
The conversational model is an active model, while the monological model tends to promote passivity. The essay, especially the freshman essay, leads the writer to believe that a kind of passive understanding in the mind of the reader is what he's after. His essay, if successful, will merely put his thought into his readers' minds. But when conversants make a contribution to the discoursal exchange, they do so fully expecting a response whether that response be agreement, sympathy, challenge, criticism, or objection. In other words, the form of understanding that arises in dialogue or multilogue is very different in kind from the monological form, the kind of understanding required of the readers of a text who are naturally concerned with what that text is about. In the absence of genuine, active exchanges, the writer must face the daunting task of formulating a single linguistic framework that will function as what Shotter describes as a "structured container" for thoughts, ideas, experiences, etc. upon which the writer has imposed a transmissible order such that his meaning can be later poured out of the container in a likewise detached and lonely manner by readers (57). While there may be a great deal of mental energy and activity that goes into the reader's interpretive "pouring out" of the text, that energy is generally expended in isolation and without further input from the writer.
Gregory Clark sees the imposition of ideas into the minds of readers by writers as an eristic venture in which the primary goal is to not only assert a subjective interpretation of reality and/or events, but to have the reader/audience assent to that interpretation as complete and absolute truth (19). The eristic exchange is therefore inherently confrontational, charging its participants with engaging in a competitive activity leading to an end not merely conceived of as a goal, but as a finality, a last word. But, what lies beyond the last word? Tautologically, silence, the death of the social.. Clark warns of the possibility of ensuing silences when he notes
how readily a text can stop the process of [dialogical] exchange and, consequently, collective progress toward knowledge of the truth. A text presents what is an incomplete version of the truth but presents it as an entity that, because it is palpable and permanent, seems complete and thus authoritative. Consequently, a reader can allow the text she reads to supplant her need to continue the perpetual process of constructing the truth. . . .[W]riting presents to its readers a text that not only affirms its own completeness but, because a text fixes its statement outside the social context in which it was generated, seemingly declares itself as autonomous, as removed from the modifying process of [dialogical] exchange (24-5).
At the very least, it would seem wise to me not to direct students in our classes on paths that lead to silence and a shutting down of inquiry by structuring our activities primarily around the production of monological writing. On the one hand, it is not possible to have the last word or to successfully deny the social mediatedness of all meanings. On the other hand, having the last word would hardly be desirable insofar as it implies also the end of the social, the end of relationship altogether because there would be, after all, no need of further relating.
That writing is on some level at all times a social activity is not, for me, a matter of dispute. I share with most current composition theorists the view that the public and the private are interrelated in so many complex ways that one can safely make the generalization that the public is the private and vice versa. While teachers like Elbow focus less on the public/social sphere of composition, they nonetheless recognize the fact that an individual can never stand alone in any communicative act. The audience, as it were, is always already there. Even if we write personal journal entries that we expect no one to read but ourselves, ourselves becomes a functional other, a collective and generalized we that reads and understands. But, more and more teachers are openly recognizing the social mediatedness of knowledge, language, and the social function of writing -- the need, in fact, for others, not only insofar as they read our texts but as they also help us constitute knowledge. A good example of this recognition is the recent proliferation of group work, peer review, and collaborative projects in composition classrooms. Marilyn Cooper and Michael Holzman have recently leveled criticism at classrooms which still employ pedagogical strategies leading to the production of the "solitary author," the one who "works alone, within the privacy of his own mind" and who "see[s] ideas and goals as originating primarily within himself and directed at an unknown and largely hostile other" (4). In their opinion, good writing instruction would follow what they call an "ecological model," one that recognizes the inter-relatedness of writers with readers, of writers with their environment, of writers with their culture and the cultures of others, one that sees "that writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems" (6). Still, one notes that even Cooper and Holzman propose no radical changes to the composition classroom that aims its sight in the long run on the essay. No matter what new and different social activity or experience gets constructed in the classroom, its ultimate aim is to make the writing of the monological text more real, to help students see that monologue as situated in the social sphere. If we truly believe in writing as a social activity and if we hold as our goal the provision of a Deweyan educative experience through which our students will learn, by interaction, the rhetorical skills that will carry forward with them in time into mature democratic interactions, why not aim for dialogical/multilogical writing, for textual conversation, making, as Shotter advocates, the disorderly processes of relationship and meaning-making "rationally visible" by describing them and subjecting them to critical reflection in order to "bring into view the character of the social negotiations, conflicts and struggles involved in the production, reproduction and transformation of our current social orders." If we truly believe that knowledge and meaning are socially constructed and, as the anti-foundationalists claim, that there is "no single, already made meaningful order to be found in our social lives," then it would seem common sensical for us to "turn away from the project of attempting to understand our social lives through the imposition of monologic, theoretical systems of order, and turn to a study of the more dialogic forms of practical-moral knowledge in terms of which they are lived" (60-1).
This is precisely what I, along with my collaborator Bob King, set out to do in our own teaching practice -- to create, with the aid of electronic conferencing, a Deweyan educative experience of interactivity in which the central focus of the class was on the production and study of conversation rather than on the production of a monological essay. And, in doing so, we had to replace the "safe" goals of mastery, control, and static knowledge acquisition with "unsafe" (because not currently legitimized) goals of understanding and seeing connections; we had to do what Shotter said we'd have to do -- replace certainty with adequacy, with the conviction that we'd done justice to the subject we were studying (62). But, in moving into less certain territory, what also happened, through interactive practice, was a good deal of learning -- not only on the part of the students in our classes, but also on the part of ourselves as teachers, as co-learners. No other pedagogical strategy in my experience heretofore has enabled me so successfully to meet the collective goals of composition instruction: my students learned and practiced good rhetorical skills, they learned how to express themselves clearly, to advance their positions responsibly, to engage in authentic learning activity, to treat others ethically and with due respect, to understand if not accept different points of view, to analyze critically the ways in which their culture and experience informed their opinions, and to see their place in a larger social forum. By practicing multilogue rather than monologue, they were able to be expressive individuals as well as responsible social participants -- to enjoy the benefits of what have in other cases been seen as conflicting, perhaps mutually exclusive, models.
It's hard to imagine doing things differently, teaching a composition class in which the primary goal is not the production of the essay. We have, after all, seen the essay as either the primary tool for learning rhetorical skills and for making knowledge or as the only way to properly demonstrate the proficient acquisition of skills/knowledge. Shotter gives an account of Samuel Beckett's characters, Estragon and Vladimir, in Waiting for Godot as men who have entrapped themselves in a definition of self entirely self-constructed. They are waiting for a Godot whose existence is not even certain; their waiting defines their being, how they see themselves:
They have imprisoned themselves within an account of themselves of their own devising. And they, as the individuals they are, prevent themselves from `seeing' its inadequacy: not just because it is the only `currency,' so to speak, in terms of which they can conduct their joint endeavors, but because they owe their being who they are, their identity in relation to one another, to its continued use (83).
In a similar way, the essay is the currency of composition instruction, and we, like Estragon and Vladimir, see our own identity as teachers in relation to its continued use as if there were no other way to see or to conduct our joint endeavors. In the academy, despite its current leanings toward theories of social construction and anti-foundationalism, the production of coherent, systematic, formal monologue is still privileged. In the long run, it comes down to a matter of habitual behavior, of recognizing that "many of our motives are the products of our activities, not the other way around" (Shotter 95). I suggest that we can find new ways of defining our being as composition teachers, ways more in doing justice to the beliefs and the theories we espouse. Writing is a social activity only insofar as we are willing to see it as an artifact of the genuine social activity, the conversation of humanity. Our pedagogical strategies should be any which promote, in writing, real dialogical/multilogical activities.