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CWPA 2014: Connecting Themes for Basic Writing

posted: 7.28.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

If the theme of the conference was “Writing Program Administrator as Worker,” a connecting theme remains in the hearts and minds of the Basic Writing educators with whom I spoke at the 2014 Conference on Writing Program Administration (CWPA): “We need to make our work visible to the general public.”

CWPA provided some excellent examples. Duane Roen’s Saturday keynote talk at CWPA holds particular resonance. In this final plenary talk on the last full day of CWPA, Roen offered a compelling argument for presenting our work as writing teachers to the general public. Citing the research of Linda Adler-Kassner, Roen suggested that we need to find “opportunities” to “tell the stories of our research, teaching, and professional organizations.”

In another instance of addressing visibility, Jessica Winck analyzed a site called “Shit My Students Write” for the clues that this site offers for rereading students’ writing for positive rhetorical moves. The site collects samples of students’ infelicitous prose for the purposes of allowing instructors to blow off steam, to laugh at students’ work to alleviate the tedium of grading multiple sets of students’ essays. Yet, Winck cautions us about the consequences of posting on sites like “Shit My Students Write.” For instance, the samples are usually one or two sentences long and are therefore separated from the larger context of the writing process and the final written product. Samples such as these become calcified, and also become a record of our students’ work for the general public.  It seems both disingenuous and counterproductive to offer up our students’ work for laughter when so  much of our work already is already under-funded, as well as under scrutiny by critics inside and outside our classrooms.

Winck proposes another approach. She suggests that we practice reading so-called “mistakes” as students reaching beyond their experience; that is, as students trying very hard to make sophisticated rhetorical moves, creating meaning in nascent academic discourse, writing academically before they are able to do so. Instead of making fun of such moves, we can interrogate our own experiences in academic writing, and how we deal with our own infelicities. We can refuse to see infelicities as laziness or bullshitting, and we can refuse to reduce infelicities to public jokes.

Most significantly, we can take students’ efforts seriously.  This seriousness involves asking students to clarify meaning, to engage in peer review, and to revise as often as necessary. In other words, we can ask students to engage in the writing process—and we can post positive and encouraging results of such work on the Internet, in counterpoint to “Shit My Students Write.”

Brent Chappelow offered another example of making our students’ work visible through an online archive of open research called the ViTA Project. Open research is much like teacher-based research in education. Teachers collect samples of students’ work, and study the examples to find what we can learn from these examples to help improve teaching and curriculum. Brent participated in such a project at Arizona State University, photographing a classroom of students in their first semester of Stretch writing, and inviting the students to interpret the photographs. He made a video (included here) using slides of the class, with the voices gleaned from the recordings he made of students’ interpretations.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to add that Chappelow’s study focused on my Stretch class in the Fall 2013. What so impressed me about Chappelow’s presentation was his dedication to students’ perspectives, even as he understood that the photographs might hold different interpretations for writing instructors. While Chappelow noticed all of the different technologies that students used for writing, I noticed the students’ willingness to commit to writing and to build community across differences, at a time and place when differences can become barriers to isolate people from each other. Yet the students offered entirely different interpretations. They discussed the importance of groups, of the processes that they used in groups to help each other understand assignments and to deepen their writing. Through students’ voices, we hear how students process the work of the course, and the methods they use to process that work in together in groups.

Both Winck’s and Chappelow’s presentations offer positive means of reading the work of Basic Writing, and of offering alternatives to the invisibility of our students’ work. In offering alternative interpretations of our work, and sharing that work with the general public, as Duane Roen suggested in his CWPA Saturday keynote talk, we can begin to build a more realistic view of the work of writing studies, and of students, teachers, and writing program administrators.

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One Response to “CWPA 2014: Connecting Themes for Basic Writing”

  1. Rochelle Says:

    I love this sentence: “It seems both disingenuous and counterproductive to offer up our students’ work for laughter.” I think it’s not only disingenuous and counterproductive but also a little mean-spirited to poke fun at the first drafts of emerging writers.