By Gitte Frandsen
When COVID-19 disrupted our F2F classes this semester and we moved online, a Cultural Rhetorics framework helped me make sense of my online teaching and focus my efforts to maintain a classroom community. Though the second half of the semester created a stressful and difficult learning environment for the students, it also gave me an opportunity to examine what I value in teaching and to reflect on how I can create a better learning environment for my students.
A Cultural Rhetorics framework helped me to understand my classroom dynamics, and especially the dynamics between the students and myself once we moved online. Cultural Rhetorics highlights the notion that all cultures are constituted by rhetorical practices that help members make sense of their world and build community. Cultural Rhetorics studies how members make meaning in and through relationships. It focuses on how material bodies interact with each other, and how our embodied experiences shape and are shaped by that relationality. Cultural Rhetorics studies cultures such as Native American cultures, workplace cultures, and crafting cultures; I would argue that a classroom is also a specific culture, albeit a temporary and perhaps more loosely knit one.
Though we had only just started developing relationships in the classroom when COVID-19 happened, I was struck by the relationships I developed with many students in spite of the distance. I had wanted to maintain a collaborative learning model online to continue learning with and from each other, but realizing how many access issues COVID-19 caused for the students, I dropped the collaborative element to simplify the expectations. I remained in touch with everyone regularly though. Students expressed feeling isolated, lonely, and longing for the relationships in the classroom, but simultaneously they cultivated their relationships with me. They reached out about their circumstances and shared personal stories. They expressed extreme gratefulness for the fairly simple acts of kindness I provided by being understanding and flexible. I couldn’t help but reflect that, ironically, though the virus forced us apart, it also made visible how interconnected we are. Models of the contagion particularly demonstrated how many people’s lives we touch, so the models became a strange metaphor for the relationality between us.
These changing and meaningful relationships with my students happened while I was struggling with isolation from many other personal relationships, and while I had to adjust to new relationships with my family, as we were all home, working and being home-schooled. All of us were trying to negotiate our new life which was difficult. I, too, was sharing my struggles with my students. And somehow there was a silver lining in these positive relationships that found a new way to grow.
Cultural Rhetorics also centers storytelling, and the potential for stories to create meaning and build community. Because my students clearly yearned to tell stories about their experiences, I gave them an option to write a research project that centered their stories on how COVID-19 had affected their lives, workplaces, or communities. I had students who were working as RNAs at hospitals and nursing homes, or who worked in retail or at restaurants. I had students who suddenly became the breadwinners of their families; students who got ill with COVID-19, or who witnessed people die from COVID-19. I had students who were struggling with their school work because retaining learning was difficult in an online learning environment, and students whose teachers suddenly gave them way more homework. There were so many stories. It was clear they wanted to tell those stories in order to make sense of all the confusion and pain COVID-19 had caused. Although the goals for the research project shifted to center personal stories over “rigorous” research, the stories that emerged had strong voices and rhetorical awareness. The students thought carefully about the genres they picked, the modalities they used to tell their stories, the audiences they wanted to engage.
COVID-19 certainly was and will continue to be tough. It has amplified many of the access and accessibility issues students face under normal circumstances: technology, food and housing security, supporting families, childcare, and physical and mental health problems. Still, I value the lessons I learned from and with my students this semester which I will take with me into future classrooms. I think the relationality between students and the teacher, as well as among the students themselves, can be strengthened by sharing each other’s stories. We can listen to, validate, and learn from others’ and our own stories and use those stories to develop research questions, explore our positionality, and think rhetorically about how those stories can make meaning and maybe make a difference.
Gitte Frandsen is a 2nd year PhD student at UWM in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement. Her teaching and research focus on linguistically, culturally, and socially sustaining pedagogies.
This week we examined the assumptions educators and institutions have about students for whom standard American English is less accessible or for whom it is accessible but only at the expense of their own cultural language and individual identities. Our readings, Mina P. Shaughnessy’s text Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing and La Vona L. Reeves’ article “Mina Shaughnessy and Open Admissions at New York’s City College,” served as the basis for this discussion.
The Complexity of Basic Writing
Turns out there is nothing basic about the often maligned “basic writing” (BW). Shaughnessy’s examination dispels notions about writers of basic English as unintelligent, illogical, or careless. Shaughnessy focuses on errors precisely because “teachers’ preconceptions about errors are frequently at the center of their misconceptions about BW students” (Shaughnessy 6). One class participant asserted, the errors themselves are intelligent errors that occur when one confronts a written system that differs from one’s own.
Our discussion also delved into cognition and practice, two related aspects of learning that are sometimes incongruent. A student of any age or ability can know the rules that govern writing or even the mistakes to avoid but that knowledge does not necessarily prevent errors from occurring, especially for a student whose language, culture, or class has competing or contradictory linguistic rules of usage. By contextualizing learning, teachers can better serve their students. Essentially, “a teacher must ask not only what he wants but what the student is most ready to do and what, from a reader’s viewpoint, is most important” (Shaughnessy 120).
The Academic Writing Trap
Our most lively discussion centered on Shaughnessy’s assertion, “for the BW student, academic writing is a trap” (Shaughnessy 7). This resonated with us as graduate students because though we had successfully navigated the academic landscape, one presumably easier for many of us because of our privileged positions upon entry, we too had experienced some of the “traps” of education.
Academic writing can be subjective, and professors often have idiosyncratic preferences that influence how they assess student writing. Students potentially confront inconsistencies in instruction that compel them to alter their writing for the purposes of pleasing a teacher. The writing then becomes increasingly less authentic and purposeful.
Codes and rules of academic writing and academic success overwhelmingly favor those already familiar with them. As Delpit expressed, “the rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power,” so “success in institutions…is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those who are in power” (25). These codes however are not easily mastered because what
may seem “simple” or even “universal” to a native speaker is incredibly complex and often obscured for someone positioned outside the culture of power (Shaughnessy 38-39).
The role of Class
Several of us commented on the role of class and how it might affect an individual’s likelihood of success. This week’s readings explicitly referenced economic and social class as factors in education. Reeves’ article “Mina Shaughnessy and Open Admissions at New York City College” dispels the assumption that students who take advantage of and directly benefit from open enrollment and nontraditional matriculation requirements are overwhelmingly students of color. In opposition to public perception, the City University of New York’s (CUNY) largest “enrollment increase had been in non-Puerto Rican Roman Catholics, including the city’s Italian, Irish, Polish, Haitian and German youth—first and second-generation Americans” (Reeves 123). Although examining current data related to nontraditional educational programs and the populations they benefit is necessary to substantiate a similar claim today, few would argue that class is a factor in access to education.
We found the readings both stimulating and bewildering. Among other questions, we asked, how can we prepare students for success or expand the current possibilities for success without a transactional exchange that requires a loss for a gain? Why are we not learning other dialects or celebrating linguistically rich communities instead of adhering to an antiquated education model that has proven inadequate? How does teacher education contribute to the prevailing assumptions and practices and how might it improve?
While there are no easy answers to these and other questions, the readings gave us much to consider going forward.
Delpit, Lisa. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press, 2006. Print
Reeves, La Vona L. (2002). Mina Shaughnessy and Open Admissions at New York’s City College. Thought & Action, 17(2), 117-28.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.
Our focus this week was on process theory and its frictions. We read two foundational texts in process theory, Donald Murray’s “Teaching Writing as a Process not a Product” and Peter Elbow’s “Freewriting Exercises,” alongside Lisa Delpit’s book Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. Murray and Elbow’s essays are part of the expressivist movement that shifted from professors teaching students to students teaching each other.
Delpit’s book asks us to reconsider process theory by looking at the different learning needs and cultural interactions with authority that students bring to the classroom. These needs and interactions are often misinterpreted by well-meaning teachers as problems instead of as a call for a blended pedagogy. Delpit argues that problems generated by a process-heavy classroom arise from a lack of both awareness and diversity within educators that creates a homogenous, unquestioned set of teaching practices (40).
Reading these texts together evoked an emotional response from me. I have used freewriting exercises each semester since my first composition theory class during my MFA where I learned the technique. As a creative writer who spends most of her time in product-focused workshop classes, I have embraced process pedagogy when I teach composition. It is a practice I have valued and never questioned until I read Delpit’s work, and I felt angry – both at myself and frankly, at Elbow, for not recognizing the layers of privilege inherent in favoring a process pedagogy.
"In Order to Teach You I Must Know You”
The 2006 edition of Delpit’s book begins with two of her most well-known essays: “Skills and Other Dilemmas of a Progressive Black Educator” and “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” Delpit’s main argument is that “teachers need to support the language that students bring to school, provide them input from an additional code, and give them the opportunity to use the new code in a nonthreatening, real communicative context” (53). In conversation one classmate pointed out that in this way teachers can honor what students bring to the classroom while recognizing the skills students need to take away (DK).
We considered the practices of valuing interactions with students’ home languages in the classroom and framing class discussions on how home/heritage and academic/Standard Edited English (SEE) both have important rhetorical roles in society. In order to do this, teachers need to overcome their fear of articulating differences, for as Delpit argues “pretending that gatekeeping points don’t exist is to ensure that many students will not pass through them” (39). Children are already aware of codeswitching in action. Teachers can use this awareness as an opportunity to discuss these linguistic changes and why they happen. We might ask children how they speak, then write their language on the board, and have a parallel, SEE version so students can see the differences as choices. By doing this we remember as teachers how much knowledge students already have.
There is a false dichotomy that pedagogy is either teaching grammar or “letting them do whatever they want.” Delpit argues for a balance that takes into consideration the learning needs and goals of each particular community of students.
Reviewing Process Pedagogy
Our critiques of Murray were filtered through Delpit’s eyes. We connected Murray’s advice for teachers to “shut-up” with students not feeling helped, and questioned the value of “unfinished” work in the reality of deadlines both in academia and professional careers.
Delpit’s work highlights how well-meaning teachers may seek to give power to students as part of a process pedagogy, but in doing so they must also consider how this removes the teacher as a resource, and unequally influences students during assessment. Students believe grammar is important, and want clear instruction on how to fix their mistakes, because this is how they are graded.
We considered Elbow’s “babbling... jabbering exercises” and how students might perceive these as teacher laziness or a lack of authority (3). Elbow also presupposes a level of grammatical fluency where in revision the student can focus on higher order concerns.
Key Points from Our Discussion:
Questions Moving Forward:
Intersections with other fields’ pedagogies have already started appearing in our class discussions, and I’m interested to see how both Writing Center and Creative Writing pedagogies might complicate and inform our future discussions.
Murray expresses concerns over the term “teacher” by giving a litany of alternatives and Elbow’s essay appears in the book Writing Without Teachers. Writing Center scholars have also considered alternate terminology than “tutor,” worrying it will lead to an assumption of prescriptive suggestions. How might our pedagogies be different if we were to shift more towards claiming these titles? How is this complicated by graduate student identities where neither “Instructor” nor “Professor” feels quite right?