Re: ranting for anarchy (long)

Eric Crump (wleric@SHOWME.MISSOURI.EDU)
Fri, 16 Aug 1996 13:04:13 -0500

On Wed, 14 Aug 1996, Darlene Sybert wrote:
> And how do you immerse your students in "real" writing situations, given
> that they are required to take freshman comp?

Ah. good question!

There's no reason (aside from long habit and entrenched practices) that
fycomp couldn't be designed to help students find real writing
situations. If we use MU's program as an example, even its current form
doesn't *preclude* authentic writing, even such stuff doesn't
appear to be encouraged, and could I think be muchly improved by the
incorporation of same.

>From the English 20 web page Trish just posted

English 20 is designed to contribute to this array of University
writing courses. It includes:

1. at least three papers that integrate sources of information other
than personal experience and general knowledge;
2. at least three papers that are submitted twice (in a preliminary
form that the instructor critiques and in a revised form);
3. at least one paper that addresses a question on which people can
reasonably disagree;
4. experience with peer review and peer editing;
5. practice with MLA or APA documentation style.

I have to assume that 'papers' can be interpreted broadly as
'texts-of-appropriate-length-and-depth' (otherwise the turbo classes
would be a waste of time!). And if we wedge that crack open a bit more,
we could let 'papers' refer to a bunch of fun & interesting things: web
pages, MOO objects, email to lists&newsgroups, letters to the editor of
the local paper, etc.

All of those writing venues can be sites for writing that goes beyond
personal knowledge & common knowledge and uses other sources, including
writing by colleagues in the class or on the net. One thing that
delighted Elaine Lawless last fall was how her students used the
hypermail archive of her class list to retrieve *and cite* each other's
comments. The E20 guidelines don't rule out the class's texts as

Every post, every object, every web page could address issues that
reasonable people could disagree about. Any time people write about what
they really care about they create tension with others who see things
differently. Negotiating about ideas *through* that tension is what I
think the guideline is atttempting to suggest. That's what we're doing,
right? :)

There is that drafting requirement. I ignore it as a comprehensive
requirement & I suppose I should feel horrible about that. But I figure
drafting is valuable when drafting is valuable. That's situationally
determined & does more harm than good if you enforce it as a rule.

Practice with editing & style issues? Create real publications.
Production is trivial if you use the web. But the web is a real
publishing venue, so editing suddenly matters in a real way. I think
students find it hard to *care* about editing when the only purpose they
can see is to dodge red marks on their paper. But if they know they have
a real audience Out There, of their peers, perhaps their parents, perhaps
future employers, then *they* see the importance of editing and are more
likely to embrace it (I've seen this happen--it's not just something I'm
dreaming up!)

> So, How DO you find these "real" writing assignments...

I don't. Students do. All I do is insist that they have permission to write
about something they care about. I don't screen topics (though I do advise. I
bring up questions about who they hope to affect with their writing, about
what relevance the topic has & to whom, etc.). Real writing projects aren't
hard to find. In fact, once you open up possible writing topics to the Rest
of the World, the big challenge is choosing among too many choices. I've had
students who want to do *everything* all at once.

> That's a practical question. But here's another, have you any ideas
> about how a curriculum might be set up so that students took only classes
> that interested them enough to do the work with no incentive but that
> interest?

First, 'no incentive but that interest' belies your distrust of personal
interest. I think it's a million times more powerful as a motivator than
institutional requirements and the rewards & penalties we have to use to get
people to perform within them. Carrots & sticks are admittedly more effective
at producing immediate behavior, but the victory is an empty one. Students
haven't changed their lives or learned much. They've just complied with
orders. I trust interest. It generates work that is intrinsically worth
doing. Interest unfettered also unleashes energy and creativity. The problem,
as I said before, is more likely to be how to help direct that energy than
how to get people to act. Incentive? Takes care of itself.

Another word in your comment is a problem for me. Curriculum. I don't
think this is really a curricular issue. Or at least it can't be answered
curricularly. Here's something Seymour Papert has to say on the matter in
_Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas_:

There are those who think about creating a "Piagetian curriculum" or a
"Piagetian teaching methods." But to my mind these phrases and the
activities they represent are contradictions in terms. I see Piaget as
the theorist of learning without curriculum and the theoriest of the
kind of learning that happens without deliberate teaching. To turn him
into the theoriest of a new curriculum is to stand him mon his head.

But "teaching without curriculum" does not mean spontaneous, free-form
classrooms or simply "leaving the child alone." It means supporting
children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials
drawn from the surrounding culture. In this model, educational
intervention means changing the culture, planting new constructive
elements in it and elminating noxious ones. This is a more ambitious
undertaking than introducing a curriculum change, but one twhich is
feasible under conditions now emerging. (31-32)

I know. How do we run a writing program without a curriculum? Well, maybe
we need to rethink what writing programs are for, who they help, how they
help, whether they help, if student learning is our highest goal.
Curriculum, in other words, may be more a part of the problem than a
means of finding solutions.

The thing that bothers me about any set of guidelines, even the broad and
relatively flexible ones we have, is the implied valuing of consistency.
Our faculty and administrators and our students firmly believe that for
English 20 to be a good composition course, its 90 or 100 sections should
be *consistent,* and we allow difference, but it must fall within
a fairly narrow range of tolerance. Programatic consistency basically
thwarts individual learning needs and styles and the naturally chaotic
process of community formation and function. Programs shift the emphasis
strongly from learner to bureaucracy.

I bet if I asked you which you cared about more, students or the
bureaucratic structure, you'd say students, right? And it's common enough
to rationalize that we need the bureaucracy so we can have stability and
order. But it quickly uses our desire for those things to encase us in
its sticky web of guidelines and regulations and rules that must, in
fairness, be applied to everyone equally.

Suddenly equality doesn't seem so appealing to me.

Bureaucracy is like any organism. It has survival instincts and the means
to defend itself. It doesn't care about us. It care first about itself.
It serves us only after we've agreed to obey it. It doesn't recognize
diversity. It sees chaos as a cancer trying to invade its systems. It
sees individuals as potential agents of chaos. We're cells that might
metastize, it thinks, if we were ever given a chance to interact freely.

Heh heh. We *would* too!

> I mean I get the idea when you talk about your classes that
> you think it would be better if students waited until they had a writing
> project in the "real" sense of the word before coming to your class..
> or you wish they could anyway. Is this correct or do I still not "get it."

That's it. You get it just fine.

--Eric Crump