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Identity Kits, Emotional Labor, and WAW Instruction

posted: 1.30.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Today’s guest blogger is Dan Martin, a full time Instructor in the Writing and Rhetoric Department who has been teaching composition courses at UCF since 2004. His research interests include writing studies, composition pedagogy and classroom instruction, writing across the curriculum, and writing about literature.

Reflecting on the completion of my eighth year teaching writing has brought three significant realities to my attention:

(1) How and why I write, how I teach writing, and how my writing knowledge grows are so closely woven together that it is virtually impossible to separate them anymore. This has drastically altered the way I think about myself as a writer and writing instructor.
(2) Teaching WAW requires a very specific identity kit that each instructor must adopt and shape to his or her personality and pedagogical strengths. The WAW identity kit is very different from the identity kits I’ve used in the past to teach writing.
(3) Teaching writing requires the mastering of emotional labor. Students are highly resistant to composition courses and dense scholarship about writing. They find unique ways to, as Liz puts it in a previous post, mutiny. Teaching writing requires a significant emotional investment that comes with massive highs and lows. Instructors must be willing to accept, understand and use emotional labor to their advantage.

How do we learn to think, act, speak, teach, and write like a WAW instructor? We get a new identity kit. James Paul Gee  describes an identity kit as the “appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, [teach], and write” for particular audiences and contexts. The motivational approaches necessary to mitigate applicable connections between WAW knowledge and students are not like the approaches I’ve relied on in the past to teach writing. We have to know something about how our students see the world so we can help them connect to the material.

WAW can be difficult for first-year students. The readings require instructors to form sophisticated analogies and concise examples of application for the classroom. To make these writing concepts resonate with students, we need to develop a personal relationship with them. Without the ability to personalize writing studies and make applicable connections for students, instructors will not see learning gains because the material remains diffuse and inaccessible. Learning how to make WAW accessible is something I have had to improve upon as an instructor. It is a skill that requires a sophisticated knowledge of where and how writing exists in and outside of the university.

Sometimes the best way to personalize the material is to be transparent about the realities of writing and our struggles and triumphs with writing. Doug’s last post  mentions this idea about being honest about writing, and how we have to be what I call “transparent facilitators” for our students to get the most out of our writing courses. We have to show them where we get stuck and how we move on, how we interrogate research, and how we draft a first page and revise it a dozen times. This is an effective way to personalize the atmosphere in the classroom. Revealing our limitations and strengths with writing takes students off edge and repositions their attitude about writing.

To make all of this work, we are asked to accept a certain level of emotional labor. Arlie Hochschild defines emotional labor as the suppression of “feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Teaching WAW successfully requires an investment in the material, the students, and yourself that is highly rewarding if it works well and extremely painful if it doesn’t.  Writing and learning are highly emotional experiences. Students will complain, so we have to listen, be patient and avoid overreacting. Once the material settles in, students express their dissatisfaction less, eventually realizing that WAW is valuable despite the difficulty level. But this realization takes time and is anxiety laden.

Yes, students require more help with WAW; they need their drafts read more often, they need to discuss their ideas and the articles more often, and they need time to digest the complexity of the material. This last issue can be the most cumbersome. We want to see our students make steady gains together, as a class, but that does not always happen. WAW gives students dozens of paradigm shifting moments about writing, but not all students have them at the same time. This can make it difficult to scaffold the course. We sometimes need to adjust our syllabi, assignments, or discussions on the fly. We may even need to change the pace of the course, but that’s why I like it.

WAW has shaped me, but I have shaped WAW. It has been a unique experience to reflect on how WAW has molded my pedagogy, writing, and writing knowledge together. The relationship between these three components forces me to grow as an instructor and a writer, and it is the reason I did not need to address, directly, the first point in the intro.




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