The Pilot Course, Wrap-Up

Yeah, I know: I’ve been going on about this for a while. This is the last entry. I think I’ve said and thought enough here to be able to turn these entries into an article, and I’ll have the IRB permissions to do it. I’m happy about that. As I’ve noted before, I think this is the first large-scale project I’ve been able to implement that’s drawn together my process-oriented pedagogy and my scholarly interest in the rhetoric of technology as it plays out in composition and connect both through my work on the economics of immaterial labor and a renewed attention to the labor theory of value. In other words: everything clicked last semester, and I’m trying to figure out why and how, so I can develop this approach (which, according to our blind tests and number-crunching, is empirically and statistically successful, and I think that’s no small claim) into something that might in some small way be adaptable or generalizable to other college writing courses.

The Framework I’ve been trying to apply to what we did last semester describes eight “habits of mind essential for success in college writing” and then offers five approaches or forms of experience that “can foster these habits of mind”:

Rhetorical knowledge — the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts. (In my class, we get pretty good at that: we write for multiple and various real-world audiences for various purposes and in various contexts, and I’ve encouraged students to send off their end-of-semester real-world documents to the audiences who they thought were both most in need of being convinced and in the best position to make a difference. In so doing, I’ve benefited from the cadets’ confidence in themselves, but I’m also one of the people who helps to build that confidence.)

Critical thinking — the ability to analyze a situation or text and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research. (This is the criterion I hate for its bland, euphemistic triteness. Is anybody in academia opposed to “critical thinking”? Of course not. It has no positive opposing term. It’s a fancy way of saying, “Just be smart,” or — for many instructors — “Agree with my political opinions and endorse the ways in which I unmask for you the grim and terrible functions of hegemony.” Too often, the would-be Freirean pedagogue simply becomes a counter-Freirean, substituting one set of banking-method perspectives for another. Yes, one can critique, but if you’re going to critique, you’d better be pluralistic in doing so, even if you don’t like the answers you get. I avoid use of the phrase “critical thinking” because it’s a hackneyed term and a more-or-less empty signifier, but I do demand that students engage multiple perspectives and carefully evaluate the motivations that stand behind the sources they engage.

Writing Processes — multiple strategies to approach and undertake writing and research. (Yes, the approach we used in last semester’s pilot course did this in a huge way: we showed and worked with our students on multiple approaches and processes and then asked them to engage them in enormously flexible ways, trying out one approach after another and carefully monitoring and self-monitoring what worked and what didn’t work. The first and most important thing: we wrote, every lesson, and we wrote a lot. Students got good at composing fast; at putting together words. That’s a first and foundational skill, and perhaps more than anything else what helped them to succeed. They admitted as much, nearly unanimously, in their anonymous evalutations at the end of the semester: if you’re going to learn to write well, the first step is writing, and writing regularly. The next step was to try it out in various ways and with various approaches. That engagement with the multiple processes and approaches — the various forms of work for composition, but most of all with the down-in-it work of actually composing — is precisely what leads me to mistrust any compositionist who self-characterizes as “post-process,” as if we can simply glide over or elide that absolutely essential attention to how we do what we do. If someone self-characterizes to me as “post-process,” my first question in response will likely be: How many of your students still write their papers the night before they’re due? Uh-huh.)

Knowledge of conventions — the formal and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate, or incorrect and inappropriate, in a piece of writing. (We have here our share of would-be grammar nazis — often self-identified, and often unable to adequately explain what they mean by the term “grammar” and how it might differ from punctuation, mechanics, or usage — who are mostly as ill-informed as they are at any other institution as to the proper use of the subjunctive voice, the particulars of em dashes and en dashes as opposed to hyphens, or why certain students struggle with the use of determiners. Perhaps because of that, I work hard to illustrate to my students how such conventions are always dependent on context, and work hard with junior faculty and with other departments to talk about how conventions shift according to context and audience.)

Abilities to compose in multiple environments — from using traditional pen and paper to electronic technologies. (We totally rocked this last semester. We worked in pencil and paper, on laptops, across multiple information systems for multiple purposes. I opened lesson 1 and closed lesson 40 with the use of pen and paper and 63 sealed envelopes; in between, we worked with Microsoft Word, 750words.com, email, chat clients, Zoho.com, Blackboard, beta-testing the Eli peer review software, blogspaces, presentation software, movie editing, wikispaces, and that reminds me that I need to test out Etherpad analogues this semester. In fact, we changed environments so often that students got good — or perhaps were already good — at changing environments.)

Conclusions? The work of writing has value. Students get better at it by doing it in various ways that focus their attention on the very specific contexts in which they write. And this pedagogy — a pedagogy of writing as work, of writing as regular work — works.

The Pilot Course, Wrap-Up

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