The Struggle to Get it All Straight

The Struggle to Get it All Straight

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The Struggle to Get it All Straight


I first began writing--really writing--sometime around my sophomore year of high school. Since then, I have consistently received high marks and flattering compliments for my work. But I still suffer this insecurity which Judith Guest describes perfectly. She says that after achieving great success in her writing she found that she was "still telling [herself] that [she] wasn't really a writer, but a trickster" (xii). Ah, yes. I know that feeling. Every paper I am asked to write, I fear will be my undoing--that it will be the assignment which proves that I haven't been able to write the whole time, that I'm nothing but crafty.

My undergraduate degree carries with it an emphasis in creative writing; for four years I wrote mostly poetry. I didn't know it, but the poetry courses gave me my first introduction to Rhetorical Theory. There I met the generative techniques of Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg which make so much sense to me. I appreciated these exercises, which, as Guest notes, "[give] people permission to think the thoughts that come, and to write them down, and make sense of them in any way they wish" (xii). Between the covers of my journal, I took on the premise of Goldberg's book Writing Down the Bones :

Learning to write is not a linear process.

There is no logical A-to-B-to-C way to become a good writer. One neat truth about writing cannot answer it all. There are many truths. To do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life. (3)

Because I understood the idea without understanding the possibilities, these courses didn't change my life--instead they were a reprieve from "real" life, a reprieve from the the standards of "real" academics. Although I enjoyed other English courses, I never felt the freedom that those writing courses offered me--the opportunity to create my own understanding from a personal perspective. Instead I wrote the essays about subject matter, and in the kind of language, I thought those teachers wanted to hear. This contradiction between these two types of English courses was something I accepted without question.

Two years ago the issue really opened itself up for me. I had been out of school for a few years and was a little nervous about returning to the world of academic writing. That spring quarter I had three writing courses and an American Literature course.

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In all of them I somehow allowed myself to write from (in Mark Christensen terms) "the place" where I wrote poetry for so many years. And in all of them, I found the instructors receptive to that writing. To this day I don't know how or why it occurred to me that I could do so. Maybe one of the instructors encouraged it, maybe all of them played a part. What I do recall is that it came as a total surprise to me. I don't think that I had ever really believed that it could be done. I felt free. But, as always, I also felt unsure of how, really, I had done what I had done and of whether or not I could continue to produce writing which felt so good but was still considered academically appropriate.


The following fall I began my graduate school career, which included a position as an instructor of freshman English. The insecurity I felt before has been exacerbated by this new position. I feel like I am expected to relay, with confidence, the truths about writing. How can I instill confidence in my students when I am struggling with the same questions they do? But in the last few weeks I have come closer to managing that uncertainty that I have felt since I began teaching a year and a half ago. In fact, I think that that has been my difficulty in finishing this damn essay to begin with--I haven't felt confident enough to draw any conclusions. Suddenly I feel like I am finally feeling my way out of the fog. Keep reading. I will, I hope, emerge in one piece.

For the majority of the last four quarters I have not felt like a very successful teacher. Perhaps in my pre-teaching daydreams I was an outstanding teacher just because I had "the knack." After my first couple of weeks I had given up my knack theory; I knew I would need more than that to be a successful writing instructor. I began to read some books and essays from different positions of Rhetorical Theory. To these I generally seemed to react dramatically in two ways: relief and panic. Relief, because many of the authors seemed to begin their works with their own horror stories of teaching without a clue. So, it was a there-is-some-hope kind of relief. Jane Tompkins, in her essay "Pedagogy of the Distressed" describes precisely the loneliness, (and even shame) of this struggle, which I have already felt quite keenly at certain points in my relatively short teaching career:

. . . I used to wonder by what mysterious process others managed their classes, since no one I knew had been trained to do it and no one ever talked, really talked, about what they did. Oh there were plenty of success stories and the predictable remarks about a discussion that had been like pulling teeth but nothing about how it really felt to be there day after day.

In this respect teaching was exactly like sex for me-- something you weren't supposed to talk about or focus on in any way but that you were supposed to be able to do properly when the time came. (188)

But this relief soon gave way to the panic which ensued as each article inevitably moved on to encourage teachers of writing to rethink their teaching strategies--to honestly make an effort to assess the success or lack of success in their classrooms. This shouldn't have frightened me so much, since this, if you recall, was supposedly my goal in this project in the beginning. But Ruth E. Ray, in her book The Practice of Theory , nailed a description of my distress noting the "high anxiety" of graduate students who felt that the expectations of her course asked them to

analyze their teaching when they already felt inadequate in the classroom and to do so in the context of a graduate seminar,where they felt intimidated and insecure. (107)

I was really frightened to do an honest self-assessment. This fear made my both of positions--teacher and student--even more miserable. Without the self-assessment I didn't have a paper. So, I felt like a loser student. Without the self-assessment, my classroom situation got no better. I felt like a loser teacher. But the connection between the two struggles is even stronger: how could I push my students to write strong, insightful essays when I felt that couldn't do so myself? In my own course work I had returned to my safe, academically placating style-the one that is never questioned, which earns the grade. And I began to allow and (I cringe to say it) maybe even encourage my students to do the same thing. It was so easy to do in EN122, and even easier in EN123. I was taking the whole ship down with me.


Mark Christensen's Rhetorical Theory course has done wonders for my courage this term. In that class I discovered that my friends and colleagues really are fighting the same battles I am. I heard more than one of my fellow classmates confess, in an essay, feelings of being a "bad" teacher. I think that the class really, in some ways worked as a support group. It was important for all of us to know that we aren't alone. This allowed us all to open ourselves up to the idea that

scholarship can be done for oneself, first and foremost, and that scholars can be internally motivated to seek relevant knowledge and personal growth, which leads to keen insight and high-quality research, thereby bringing recognition in the field. (110)

The assurance that weak theory and bad pedagogy does not translate to "idiot," or even "failure," finally prompted the breakdown of my resistance to self-assessment.

Also, in this setting, I found the reading quite helpful. Classroom discussion was valuable in the overall comprehension of each piece. Reading some of the essays for a second time, I come closer to an understanding to the variety of theories. My friend Luanne Muhm, who teaches grades 7-12 in the Laporte Public School told me this last week about teaching Shakespeare to 9th graders "They read it, you tell them what it means; they read it, you tell them what it means; they read it, you tell them what it means; they read it, they understand what it means." Well, I experienced a similar a-ha feeling in Rhetorical theory. The last book we read this quarter was Romancing the Rhetorics by Susan Gradin. Not only did Gradin manage to make the continuum of Rhetorical Theory more clear to me than it has ever been--complete with blurry areas, but she also thoroughly investigated the possibilities in connecting personal writing to academic writing. This was a valuable discovery for me.

My primary difficulty as both a student and a teacher has been the definition of "academic writing." I am expected to teach students the basics of whatever this is. In the first quarters of my teaching career I spent much of my class time responding to the kind of writing prompts which I learned in my creative writing courses and which continue to allow me to grow as a writer. But all the while, the ambiguous standards of "academic writing" haunted me. Compounding my insecurity was the attitudes towards expressivism I gleaned from much of my reading. I knew from my reading that the expressivism position attracted plenty of negative commentary. Gradin lists among these their accusations charges that

neo-romantic and expressivism rhetorics lack rigor, are arhetorical because they are solely for self-expression and thereby ignore audience and the social contexts for writing, and are radically individualistic, resulting in a desire only for self-development and a naivete about social and political realities (91).

As I've already admitted, it is that shift from public to private that I have always had the hardest time with. So, although I personally felt indebted to expressivism, some of my concerns still mirrored those above. I knew that I needed to explore different visions regarding what a student "needs" to learn in the writing classroom.

I found social epistemic theories especially provoking in their contention that "rather than teaching them how to write in only one type of institutional audience we should help our students discover the basic strategies by which they can determine and fulfill the requirements of various types of discourse" (Tarvers 27). I even began my fall quarter class with a focus on audience. In class we spent time reading literature of different discourse communities, and analyzing the values of each audience. In our essays, we practiced targeting our writing to specific audiences. The results were depressing. The essays were, for the most part, unconvincing. Voice was absent or heavily muffled. According to Bartholomae, the reality is that the student has to "appropriate (or be appropriated by)" her audience (159). He feels that failure to teach students the language of academia will keep students out of academia. Somehow, I have come to feel really resistant to this premise. Should a woman to act like a man to make it in a man's world? Must we give up a rather important aspect of individuality (style) for the sake of acceptance? I hope not. I do not want to teach my student to invent the university, but to reinvent it. Gradin's argument makes real sense to me:

The expressive emphasis on voice, sincerity, reflection, and organic form is often an attempt to counteract the academy's forms and conventions. The expressivism stance is a conscious stand against the barrage of empty lifeless prose that often mirrors our student's lack of critical thought or investment in a subject, and which often comes neatly packaged in one or another of the academic prose forms. (154)

It also seems to me that we need to reconsider the purpose of academic writing. Ruth Ray's assessment of the prevailing dichotomy between academic and personal writing explores some of the question of purpose (this is lengthy, but it was an important passage for me):

When graduate students are asked to write only critically and analytically about readings just partially understood, they are placed forever in a position of inferiority to professors who will inevitably know the texts better. Savvy students realize that the professor is saying, in assigning such writing, "Show me that you value what I value by writing as I do." Yet the same argument for personal writing in undergraduate composition classes can be made for personal writing in graduate courses: when writing is based on students experiences and personal theories, the professor can be a real reader; when writing is based exclusively canonical texts that the professor "owns" in terms of prior knowledge and expertise , the professor will always be evaluator and judge. . . . Another argument for personal writing in graduate studies is that it can facilitate learning and understanding. From he interpretive perspective, the most significant finding of Berkenotter et al. is that, during the course of his graduate studies, Nate [a case study] continued to write expressively, despite strong programmatic influences to the contrary. In doing so, he created an environment more conducive to his own learning. (153)

Thus I, like Ray, think that a writer-whether an undergraduate, graduate or grandma--who concentrates only on meeting the expectations of her audience loses out on many of what I consider "academic" uses of writing. If I continue to teach audience as the most important aspect of writing then I leave behind self-discovery and understanding as academic goals.

At the same time, I would never contend that audience should not be an issue. But neither, as Gradin points out, does Peter Elbow or other expressivists who are often accused of doing so. Mark Christensen once advised me to try writing through a "filter." I think that his definition of his filter includes audience, and mine definitely does. This mind set doesn't limit the generation of irrelevant material, it just allow the writer to effectively "filter out" what might be applicable for that assignment. I always considered this a valuable revision tool--which, I think, is how Elbow would want to use it. Gradin pointed out that Elbow's major concern regarding audience is that focusing on it too soon can stunt the growth of a piece of writing, "It is not that writers should never think about their audience. It's a question of when" (qtd in Gradin, 106).

Gradin's views answered many of the questions expressivism has posed for me. Expressivism does not limit its focus to the inner world, ignoring the outer. In fact, it offers writers the opportunity to express their opinions, in their own voices. She admits that pitfalls in practicing expressivist pedagogy happen because of difficulties in balancing "the focus on the individual with the complexities of our social contexts" (109) Thus, she calls for a conscious effort at promoting social-expressivism Because students writings are self-reflective this does not mean they must be self-indulgent. Like Gradin, I think personal writing is a ticket for a new self-awareness and has potentially powerful social and academic applications:

I envision a social-expressivist classroom where the best of both expressivism and social-epistemic theories are practiced: students carry out negotiations between themselves and their culture, and must do this first in order to become effective citizens, imaginative thinkers, and savvy rhetorical beings. Learning to enact these negotiations means first developing a sense of one's values a and social constructions and then examining how these interact or do not interact with others' value system and cultural constructs. (110)

A week or two ago in my composition pedagogy seminar, Mark asked us what we thought his idea for a n EN122 course theme: What can I do to make myself happy? It seems like it can manifest itself in a variety of ways--based on every individual's interests. Most of them, it seems to me, will have social implications. This interests me so much that I think I will steal his idea. I hope to prompt my students to explore aspects of our society which make people unhappy, and to expore possible solutions, both personal and public. I, like my students struggle to become an "independently powerful writer" (Mark's term). Perhaps this direction will allow us all to become more confident in following our natural instincts, in trusting our personal discoveries, and in allowing them to be valuable. Our successes, then, will not feel like tricks. They will feel real.

Works Cited

Bartholmae, David. "Inventing the University." In Josephine Koster Tarvers' Teaching Writing . New York: HarperCollins, 1993. 159-185.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.

Gradin, Sherrie L. Romancing the Rhetorics . Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1995.

Guest, Judith. "Forward" In Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. Boston:Shambhala, 1986.

Ray, Ruth E. The Practice of Theory. Urbana, Il:NCTE, 1993.

Tarvers, Josephine Koster. Teaching Writing . New York: Harpercollins, 1993.

Tomkins, Jane. "Pedagogy of the Distressed." In Josephine Koster Tarvers' Teaching Writing . New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
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