Teaching With Student Texts: Essays Toward an Informed Practice

Teaching With Student Texts: Essays Toward an Informed Practice

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Harris, Miles and Paine ask:  What happens when the texts that students write become the focus of a writing course? In response, a distinguished group of scholar/teachers suggests that teaching with students texts is not simply a classroom technique, but a way of working with writing that defines composition as a field.

In Teaching with Student Texts, authors discuss ways of revaluing student writing as intellectual work, of circulating student texts in the classroom and beyond, and of changing our classroom practices by bringing student writings to the table. Together, these essays articulate a variety of ways that student texts can take a central place in classroom work and can, in the process, redefine the ways our field talks about writing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874217865
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 12/15/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 260
Sales rank: 839,362
File size: 740 KB

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Essays Toward an Informed Practice


Copyright © 2010 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-785-8

Chapter One


Bruce Horner University of Louisville

There is now a well-established tradition of complaint about student writing in composition. I refer here not to the much longer-standing tradition of complaint that students today can't write, or write poorly, and/or don't write as well as they used to. That tradition, a robust one, continues apace, part of a larger tendency to displace onto literacy what are, in fact, social anxieties-what John Trimbur has argued is a "discourse of crisis" (1991). Those of us in the field of composition studies, in combination with our colleagues in the broader field of literacy studies, have been assiduous in using historical research to challenge myths of a current decline from a golden age of high literacy standards invoked by that tradition of complaint (Brandt 2001; Resnick and Resnick 1977).

But while scholars have been combating those myths, there remains within composition studies itself a tradition of complaint about a putative lack of value to the work student writing can accomplish qua "student writing" with an extremely limited range of circulation-restricted almost entirely to a readership of those attending or teaching a single section of a first-year composition course. In this tradition, the problem resides not with the quality of the writing but with the fact of its location within the academy and, more specifically, the first-year composition course. That location, at least within first-year composition courses as ordinarily constituted, is understood to significantly restrict what the writing can be and do, and hence its value. As a consequence, those attempting to increase the value of this writing, in the eyes of teachers and students, have directed their efforts toward either broadening the circulation of that writing or asking students to produce writing that goes against conventions for student writing. The hope driving such efforts is that they will somehow render students "authors" rather than mere "students," and thus their writing as something other than simply "student writing."

In this chapter, I argue that this tradition rests on limited, if dominant, cultural understandings of the work that can be accomplished by writing circulating only within academic institutional settings. As a consequence, attempts to resist restrictive notions of the work of student writing end up reinforcing those dominant understandings that account for the denigration of student writing to begin with. As an alternative to this tactic, I argue for ways we might work with student writing in composition courses that would offer a valuing of it countering dominant notions of the work of those courses and their students. I will begin by outlining three of the primary trajectories and tactics of this tradition in order to identify its assumptions regarding student writing as what I will call "notwriting." These trajectories identify the problem of student writing with either the students' selves, the academic conventions to which their writing is expected to conform, or the location of the students and their writing in the first-year writing course, and they address the problem in these terms: through pedagogies focused on the authenticity or ethical integrity of the selves expressed in the writing, or on breaking with academic conventions, or on removing the students and their writing from the first-year writing course. In defining the problem in these ways, they implicitly accede to dominant conceptions of the Real to which students and their writing are to aspire that are, in fact, problematic. I then consider alternatives to this tradition presented by Anis Bawarshi (2003) and John Trimbur (2000), alternatives aimed at shifting from a "compositional" to a "rhetorical" orientation to allow for the potential of first-year writing students to engage in critique of problematic conceptions of the Real. In points of tension in Bawarshi's and Trimbur's arguments, I identify three challenges in revaluing the work of student writing, and explore ways of treating student writing in the specific location of the first-year college writing course as, in fact, legitimate academic work.


Susan Miller's critique (1991) of the "intransitive" nature of student writing, at least as it is organized in many first-year composition courses, provides one touchstone in this tradition of complaint. Miller argues that the production of such "intransitive" writing has "no particular products as results" (97). The purpose of such writing, instead, is performance for evaluation: to illustrate the writer's ability to produce particular forms (e.g., mirroring conventionally "correct" writing), and even to adopt an ideological stance recognizable by instructors as acceptably "educated." Students are positioned as "presexual, preeconomic, prepolitical" and as always "emerging ... but never as actually responsible 'authors'" (87, 196). Such a positioning of the students and their writing is understood as both an effect and cause of the low status of both and of composition generally insofar as it is identified solely with courses for such students and their writing (196).

Miller's critique hinges on a chain of binaries in terms of which students qua students and those they teach are doomed: they are not authors, not members of the polis, not yet responsible beings, hence their writing is effectively "notwriting." At best it is a display, or "performance" (in the non-"performative" sense of speech-act theory) for instructor evaluation, of students' ability to produce writing that conforms to dominant expectations for notational practice (e.g., Standard Written English), ideological stance, (and) or interpretations of assigned readings. As intransitive, student writing has no real effects, no real purpose, and performs no real work (and hence is not "performative"). It is, instead, a "bastard" discourse peculiar to the academy.

In earlier manifestations of this tradition, many of them associated in composition studies with "expressivists" such as Ken Macrorie, William E. Coles, and Roger Sales (though the expressivist credentials of the last two have been challenged), such writing was derided as "themewriting" or "Engfish." In these manifestations of complaint, the problem of student writing was defined largely, though not exclusively, in terms of the authenticity, maturity, or ethical integrity of the student's self as displayed in his or her writing, though it might be more accurate to say that teachers in this tradition adopted the pedagogical tactic of turning students' extant concern about the presentation of self in their writing against the contradictions that the institutional demands for such presentation inevitably entailed. The writing deemed praiseworthy by these participants in the tradition was often writing which deliberately defied conventional expectations for student themes while still being recognizable as themes rather than as, say, research reports or newspaper editorials. As commentators (e.g., France 1993) have observed, this praise of writing for its authenticity, indexed by its defiance of conventional expectations for students, is the burden of many of the contributions to Coles and Vopat's collection of composition teachers' arguments for What Makes [Student] Writing Good (1985).

Later manifestations of this tactic have encouraged writing that appears to break with academic conventions, on the assumption that those conventions themselves constrain what it is possible for the work of student writing to accomplish. Here the problem with student writing is identified less with the students themselves than with the formal conventions and media that are imagined to dominate academic writing and constrain what it is possible for that writing to do-both for students and for academics generally (Elbow 1991). Those adopting this tactic have encouraged students to produce writing that is recognizably "alternative" to academic discourse as a means of breaking past those constraints (Bridwell-Bowles 1992; Bridwell-Bowles 1995; Hindman 2001; Yancey 2004). But this move mistakes the notations produced through the work of writing with its actual work, which has to include not simply the notations but also, as Raymond Williams has argued, "the nature of a practice and ... its conditions" (1980, 47). In other words, it fetishizes formal features as in themselves constituting the work of writing rather than recognizing the contributions that reading practices make toward determining what, in fact, the work, and value, of that writing might be. That is, it fails to recognize writing as a material social practice.

A different set of tactics within this tradition of complaint appears to take Williams' advice: it defines the problem of student writing not in terms of the students' selves, except insofar as these are "subjectivities," nor in terms of the textual conventions of academic writing per se, but with the location of the writing in the academy generally and, more specifically, within the first-year composition course. Those defining the problem in this way view that location as restricting the writing produced there to "bastard" discourse whose accomplishments, or work, are (again) of no real value, though here value is measured in terms of the work's use to other disciplines, to students' future employers, or to the nation and world. One tactic to solving the problem, when understood this way, is to deny the location of the writing by assigning students to write in an imaginary role to an imaginary audience for an imaginary purpose, a denial that in practice fools no one (Bartholomae 1985; Ong 1975; Petraglia 1995b). Alternatively, it is argued that student writing can accomplish "real" work only by taking it, and/or the students, outside the location of the first-year composition course to venues where it is imagined writing accomplishes real work.

For example, many of the arguments for incorporating service learning into the teaching of composition claim that doing so engages students in real writing with real effects in the (of course) real world (Dorman and Dorman 1997; Heilker 1997), in assumed opposition to the writing, effects, and place of the first-year composition course. By taking students and their writing outside the confines of the first-year composition course, it is claimed, students no longer work as students in the bastard discourse of first-year composition but instead write brochures and the like with effects in the world. Aligned arguments call for replacing first-year composition (FYC) courses of instruction altogether with writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) or writing-in-the-disciplines (WID) programs. These arguments hold that FYC pretends to teach "general writing skills" which, in fact, do not "transfer" to the "real" writing undertaken in academic disciplines and the workplace. The general writing skills taught in FYC are thus deemed bogus, suitable only for the artificial site of FYC, which is deemed to be void of any legitimate academic or work-related discursive context that would make the writing produced there meaningful (Petraglia 1995b, 91-92; Freedman 1995, 137; Hill and Resnick 1995).


Those arguing for retaining the first-year composition course in spite of the apparent paucity of its potential as a site of legitimate writing have done so largely in terms of shifting the focus of the course from what is imagined to be its "composition" orientation to a "rhetorical" orientation. In one of the smartest of the recent arguments in this vein, Anis Bawarshi (2003) accepts that the first-year composition course (identified as "First-Year Writing" or "FYW" in his text) cannot "re-create the various ideological and discursive formations that underwrite disciplinary and professional contexts," but he rejects the notion that this limitation justifies eliminating the FYW course. Instead, he argues, the FYW course can function "as a kind of rhetorical promontory from which we teach students how to read and negotiate the boundaries of various disciplinary and professional contexts," thereby becoming "the site in which students learn how to access, interrogate, and (re)position themselves as writers within these disciplinary and professional contexts" using analyses of genres as the "passports" for doing so (155).

Likewise, albeit from a quite different point of departure, John Trimbur calls for courses in which students both examine and engage in "translations" of knowledge from, say, specialized scientific journals to newspaper accounts to advice columns to the texts of legislation (2000, 212-13). The aim of such course designs is to problematize "expertise in the circulation of academic and professional writing" (212), and "[m] ore specifically, ... to [help] students to see that the shift in register and genre between a journal article and a news report amounts to a shift in modality ... that marks journal articles as 'original' contributions and news reports as secondary and derivative" (213). As in the kind of FYW course for which Bawarshi calls, such courses would engage students in analyzing, and thereby better grasping and presumably learning to subsequently intervene effectively in, the ways in which particular genres carry particular meanings and effects for writers and readers, with special attention to the modes by which genres circulate. For the assignments in the course Trimbur describes (which he acknowledges as "works in progress" [212]), students would engage in critical analyses of the mediation effected by modes of circulation as a means toward the end of producing "socially useful knowledge," in the form, for example, of "public health publicity on teen or college-age sexuality" (214).

While both Bawarshi's and Trimbur's arguments arise out of composition's tradition of complaint about student writing, they also suggest ways to turn against that tradition. Admittedly, both appear to assign a primarily preparatory role to their courses, whether that preparation is for work in the genres of academic disciplines or in the texts circulating in the public sphere. But there are points of tension in their arguments that suggest an alternative stance to take toward student writing. For example, Bawarshi, while seeing "FYW as possibly a prerequisite" to writing in the disciplines, also sees it as "a site within the structure of the university that enables students to reflect critically on and at the same time to write about the university's disciplinary structures" (155). And in a final footnote, Bawarshi cautions that he intends his pedagogy not to promote "assimilation into genred sites of action" but to promote "critical understanding and participation," finding that students develop "the desire to change" genres as they "begin to uncover the desires, subjectivities, and activities embedded in a genre's rhetorical conventions" (185, n. 6, emphasis added). Thus, in these calls Bawarshi identifies the work of his students and the FYW course not as preparatory for but contributing to the work of academic genres, in alignment with James Slevin's call for an "interpretive pedagogy" for first-year composition in which students and teachers work "collaboratively ... to interpret educational practices and to work for educational reform" (2001, 2).

For his part, Trimbur cautions that while it is not possible to "get out of the relations of in loco parentis that encompass the work of teaching writing" (2000, 194), he does not want to suggest "that there is no social good that comes from the higher learning, advanced research, and the specialized practices and vocabularies of the disciplines and professions," as opposed to more widely circulating writing (212). That is, Trimbur recognizes that while, on the one hand, academic writing, by students or "professionals," remains, well, academic writing, it is also the case that there may well be "social good" to works not recognized by the dominant culture as having such value.


I see these tensions pointing to three challenges. First, there is the challenge of seeing past the official duties assigned by the dominant to particular sites to the full range of work that might be accomplished at those sites. Second, there is the challenge of not allowing the exchange value ordinarily assigned the work conducted at those sites to occlude from view the potential use values to be realized from that work. And third, there is the challenge of recognizing that the work accomplished at those sites is not contained by or in the textual forms by which that work ordinarily is seen as circulating-that is to say, the challenge of not fetishizing the textual form of writing, student or otherwise. In suggesting that FYW students might, in fact, not simply acquire agility with the genres other academic disciplines demand but also critique these, Bawarshi (2003) resists the purely preparatory role the dominant assigns to the site of FYW. In calling attention to the "social good" that might arise from work the dominant might ordinarily deride as "merely academic," Trimbur (2000) rejects both mistaking the ordinary exchange value of academic writing for its potential use value, and calculations of the value of work purely in terms of the circulation of particular textual forms. The textual forms and modes of circulation of "higher learning, advanced research, and the specialized practices and vocabularies of the disciplines and professions" do not in themselves fully determine the work these might accomplish (212).


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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction / Joseph Harris, John D. Miles, and Charles Paine I. Valuing Student Texts 1. Re-Valuing Student Writing / Bruce Horner 2. Revealing Our Values: Reading Student Texts with Colleagues in High School and College / Nicole B. Wallack 3. "What Do We Want in This Paper?" Generating Criteria Collectively / Chris M. Anson, Matthew Davis, and Domenica Vilhotti 4. Teaching the Rhetoric of Writing Assessment / Asao B. Inoue II. Circulating Student Texts 5. Ethics, Student Writers, and the Use of Student Texts to Teach / Paul V. Anderson and Heidi A. McKee 6. Reframing Student Writing in Writing Studies Composition Classes / Patrick Bruch and Thomas Reynolds 7. Students Write to Students about Writing / Laurie McMillan 8. The Low-Stakes, Risk-Friendly Message-Board Text / Scott Warnock 9. Product as Process: Teaching Publication to Students / Karen McDonnell and Kevin Jefferson 10. Students’ Texts beyond the Classroom: Young Scholars in Writing’s Challenges to College Writing Instruction / Doug Downs, Heidi Estrem, and Susan Thomas 11. The Figure of the Student in Composition Textbooks / Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue III. Changing Classroom Practices 12. Workshop and Seminar / Joseph Harris 13. What Do We Talk about When We Talk about Workshops? Charting the First Five Weeks of a First-Year Writing Course / Maggie Debelius 14. Texts to Be Worked on and Worked with: Encouraging Students to See Their Writing as Theoretical / Chris Warnick 15. Writing to Learn, Reading to Teach: Student Texts in the Pedagogy Seminar / Margaret J. Marshall 16. The Writer/Text Connection: Understanding Writers' Relationships to their Writing / Muriel Harris 17. Learning from Coauthoring: Composing Texts Together in the Composition Classroom / Michele Eodice and Kami Day 18. Inquiry, Collaboration, and Reflection in the Student (Text)-Centered Multimodal Writing Course / Scott L. Rogers, Ryan Trauman, and Julia E. Kiernan 19. Workshopping to Practice Scientific Terms / Anne Ellen Geller and Frank R. Cantelmo 20. Bringing Outside Texts In and Inside Texts Out / Jane Mathison Fife 21. Embracing Uncertainty: The Kairos of Teaching with Student Texts / Rolf Norgaard Afterword: Notes toward an Informed Practice / Charles Paine and John D. Miles References Index Contributors

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