What kind of writing do we want?

I took a longer break from the blog than I had intended! After returning to campus from break and the CCCCs, I found myself hopelessly behind. I had podcasting to teach and a ton of online work to review and comment on. After a flurry of activity and giving feedback, I find myself here at the end of the semester. I am watching my students complete their ePortfolio projects, campus is greening up, we can feel summer coming. How did this happen?

The group of people I started the semester with are getting ready to move on. EKU does not require any more general writing instruction beyond ENG 102. From here they are off to their major classes and will learn how to write in their disciplines. They continue to build their professional and academic identities in new places, they gather new information, they interrogate new ideas. I find this time of year simultaneously inspiring and melancholic. So I spent the morning re-reading Nancy Mack’s article “Ethical Representation of Working-Class Lives: Multiple Genres, Voices, and Identities” as a way to examining the ideas that Dom and Frank and I have put at the center of the ePortfolio project. As I tell my students, going back to your sources can often help you find the right next step in your work.

Nancy Mack’s article is a call to arms. She suggests a complete re-vision of what it means to be an academic and what it means to compose. Her work en-visions an inclusive academy, one that is open to other voices and other ways of writing. As a reader, and a reader of academic work, I have grown so tired of the strained and privilege-infused prose of the academy. Does it actually say anything? Or does it merely work to signal? And, more importantly, does it communicate the remarkable work we are doing to readers outside of the academy?

Mack asserts that our students need a world where they can express their thoughts in their own language. We need to open up what “academic style” is. Can we keep the details, the connections, the thinking, and get rid of the tired and overworked prose?

Mack suggests that this is not only possible, but it is essential to grow the university. As writing instructors, we need to make a place that reflects the world around it. We need to re-imagine academic identity as a position of power for all students. We need to teach them how to develop their own academic voice, not merely mimic or replicate old models.

I wish to contend that the language that we use to think about identity is a large part of the problem of developing a pedagogy that does not reinscribe working-class identity as a deficit. In other words, we need to take an existing negative construct and make it function as a positive for entitling working-class students to an academic identity (Mack 58).

And this idea of voice and identity is not merely a worry on my part as a teacher, it has huge implications for universities as a whole. Students who feel that they don’t belong will leave the university. Their voices will go silent. And I want my students to scream. All of them. I want them to be heard. Especially now.

One of Mack’s assertions highlights how identity conflict and fear impact the classroom environment. Student writing bears the mark of this inner conflict.

A rhetorical indication of this conflict is the self-effacing commonplaces that working class students feel obliged to incorporate into their writing to the effect that theirs is only an opinion or just their personal belief about a topic (Mack 53).

How often have I read these very words? How often have I had students ask, “Is it okay to include my opinion?” It hurts me to see my students to place such low value on their own thoughts. But it makes sense. Educationally, we tend to value data. My students don’t see their work as meaning anything beyond a quiz or an exam. Their work tells us they don’t think what they have to say matters. They are adapting. And hiding. And I think most writing instructors don’t want their students to hide.

Like most of my university colleagues, I do not look forward to pointless papers about hackneyed topics selected for their available sources, simplified positions, and prepackaged worldviews. I want more interesting writing from my students that reflects their remarkable lives. (Mack 54).

Don’t we all? And don’t we all know, deep down, that those “hackneyed topics” and “simplified positions” are what we have been asking them to do? I point the blame directly at myself.

We undertook this project to allow students to write their remarkable lives. We aren’t there yet. But we are trying. By focusing on process, and rewarding process with a detailed grading contract, we are opening up space for experimentation and honesty. And joy. And pride.

At least I hope so.




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