Category Archives: Week 3 – Poetry

Response Week 5 – Robb Garner

Arlene Wilner’s “Confronting Resistance: Sonny’s Blues—and Mine,” asks us to think about something we don’t think about—and certainly don’t talk about—enough in pedagogical education: What, ethically speaking, is the role of education?  And what is the moral role of the teacher?  The problem is that these questions are weighed with a thousand prerequisites: Is education primarily an ethical construct?  Are teachers moral agents?  If education is ethically grounded, does that mean all education must be ethically oriented?  Do we teach ethics when we teach literature?  Can we teach ethics when we teach literature?  Are we morally compelled to teach ethics when we teach literature?  Conversely, can we not teach ethics when we teach literature?  And so on.  Unfortunately, Arlene Wilner’s essay, which was a clumsy mash of ethics, literacy, and critical thinking, only addressed these questions with via-negativa response of, ‘Not this way.’

As I see it, the big problem is that we don’t study ethics; we never think about morality critically.  We “learn” ethics from our parents, and not surprisingly, we spend our lives working off those teachings, those assumptions, our life experiences, and maybe one or two texts we read in a philosophy 101 class.  I don’t think Wilner ever took a philosophy class at any level, but in “Confronting Resistance” she suggests that we use our literary critical thinking skills in the literature classroom to enter a philosophical depth wrought with emotional, cultural, and experiential barricades (never mind that depths like this are hard enough to access when approached directly, in a dedicated study of ethics).  While there are a number of points I’d like to make, first and foremost it must be stated that this approach is ridiculous because before we can really talk about ethics we have to figure out what ethics is.  Where does morality come from?  That is the first question that has to be considered.  But that question alone takes longer than a university’s greater curriculum is willing to account for.  Ethically speaking, it seems that all education students ought to take a course on ethics, but even in this event the product would be questionable.  I spent three years of my philosophy major studying ethics and personally I’m comfortable discussing the ontology of morality (which, in the Aristotelian tradition, was the first and most major component of the branch of philosophy called Ethics and had roots in Plato’s early dialogue Euthyhro), but I don’t feel capable or comfortable of actively engaging students in an ethical discussion that will ultimately be severely—if not misleadingly—abbreviated.

Wilner’s example of the “homophobia” in one of her classrooms is a treatise on what happens when you gloss over fathomless depths.  First, she defines reading as “sympathetic engagement”—sympathy here being a sort of handicapped understudy of ethics and one of the few things our culture is comfortable believing in.  Then she engages students in a story which many of them believe to be indecent.  They do not believe they should be forced to read something that is outside of their moral code.  This moral code—which is not sympathetic or understanding of people that exist outside of it—is not in line with the morals “of the academy.”  Wilner than devises a number of assignments that loosen the “rebellious” students from their position so that, in the end, they can sympathize with the homosexual protagonist.  Of course, Wilner does not account for their prejudice as being a moral code.  The students go out of their way to tell her that they are not ‘homophobic’—they do not fear gay people—they “hate them.”  For Wilner, their hatred is not saturated in a belief of one thing which cannot allow another (say, what many evangelicals have turned Natural Law—a legitimate philosophic theory—into); it is not complicated, legitimate, and certainly not educated.  In coming to this immediate conclusion (which is what her society has propelled her to do) she ignores their cultural background, undermines their moral code, and fails to acknowledge their insight: That her ultra-sympathetic culture, which labels all people who look down on homosexuals as “homophobes,” portrays their prejudice as cowardice—not cultural casualty, lineage, or malice.

Of course, I’m not defending homophobia—but I am using my critical thinking skills to reflect on the narrative that Wilner presents.  Wilner says this of her students thinking abilities, “Without such supporting concepts, students naturally rely on habitual patterns of reaction, often shaped by unexamined emotions that encourage them to convert nuanced, complex relationships (among characters or ideas) into simplistic, distorted ones,” and it is hard to not be indignant.  She goes on to say, “In extreme cases, as in the rebellion in my class, students may simply refuse to do the reading if they do not like what it is “about.”

Finally—assuaging the indignation here—I think the point can be made a little more relatively to the matter at hand: How should we teach literature?  Wilner makes what I would call a confined cultural breakthrough with some of her students.  I believe that breakthrough won’t ever amount to much because the underlying issues—the real issues, not their materialization—have been wholly ignored, as have their potential implications.  And they have been necessarily ignored: Wilner doesn’t have the time or the capacity to treat ethical issues in a way that I think ethics ought to be discussed.  But at any rate, the breakthrough happened, and not much critical thinking coincided with it.  Getting a student to imagine what a homosexual might write to his mother does not demand a large amount of critical thinking skills.  Her response to the assignment series was that, “The students had taken a step toward enhanced literacy and an understanding of multiple perspectives that William G. Perry Jr. (1970: 54) persuasively argues is essential to moral maturity.”  But are we here to facilitate moral maturity or help students to think critically?  If we’re here to help student evolve morally then why don’t we have a class that is dedicated to it?  I’ll argue that critical thinking is necessary for moral maturity, but you have to have the critical thinking skills to really mature; her example was more giving a fish than teaching how to fish.  You can see this when she talks about the problems her students had with the highly literary task involved in Baldwin’s Sonny Sings the Blues.  The questions she asks her students about this story—“Why do you suppose the author chose to have his narrator begin here, at this point in his life? What is the effect of the flashbacks and of their placement at specific points in the narrative? More fundamentally, why does Sonny’s brother tell this story instead of Sonny himself, and how would the story be [End Page 190] different if told from Sonny’s point of view?”—are very much beyond what her students were asked in the other example.  It seems to me that teaching literature and, through it, critical thinking is hard enough as it is—better leave trying to force moral maturity and all its baggage to something other or later than 101.

Old knowledge makes way for the new

I read the short story “Sonny’s Blues” first this week without looking ahead in the other readings to see where the discussion of reading literature might be going. While I read, I was thinking the whole time of how I might address this story with my high school students. I noted immediately that they might misconstrue the drug references in the text to be glorified as “cool” for the time period since Sonny seems to have done well for himself in the end—and also for the fact that the drugs helped him to find his voice or sound. I struggled to figure out how to get around those misconceptions and shallow interpretations of the plot without the story becoming, as Wilner describes, and anti-drug message. So it was incredibly apt that the article by Wilner would address my fears of allowing students to start with what they know and then give them the tools to build critical interpretations of a text.
Wilner describes a similar situation where her students misunderstood a text to be about homophobia while they missed the more rich and instructional thematic qualities. She explains that a teacher must let students enter into a text with their preconceptions and understanding of topics. A teacher must meet his or students where they are and then scaffold the instruction to allow students to fully interpret a text. I think the trick here is in not prescribing to students exactly what they should get from a text; instead, students must learn the skills in order to perform the interpretive acts on their own.
And yet, I remember conversations we’ve had in class this semester on the pitfalls of ideologies presented in texts like “How to Read Like a College Professor.” If tools for interpretation are too prescribed, then a student will be led down the wrong path, assuming that everything is a symbol or holds a metaphor.
Wilner describes that there must be a balance between the “complex relationship between beliefs and cognition” (Wilner 2). Students must negotiate between “old knowledge and value systems” and “new knowledge” (Wilner 2), finding a way to build understandings and reshaping what one had assumed. So, it is not about prescribing steps for a student to follow, but instead wanting to “help students see what constitutes and valid question or ‘problem’ and to cultivate in them the art of answering the question or solving the problem as an expert would do” (Wilner 6). Teaching reading should be about instructing students on how to approach a text and question it—to interact with it.
As a final thought, I appreciate what Blau says in chapter one of “The Literature Workshop” regarding confusion when reading a text. Blau says, “The only texts worth reading are texts you don’t understand. Because if you understand a text as soon as you read it, you must have understood it before you read it, so you didn’t have to bother reading it in the first place” (Blau 24). Reading is about discovery. It’s interpretive. And I think this confusion is what makes it so interesting to teach.

The Venerator

In my school experience, teachers often assumed the “missionary” role, which Arlene Wilner describes, or the authoritarian stance in which a lecturer controls the keys to knowledge and interpretation.  Sheridan Blau demonstrates how this teacher-centered approach tends to hold students in thrall and may confuse and disempower them.  I guess I’m lucky I survived my headlong, unqualified plunge into Ernest Hemingway, which a zealous high school teacher unwittingly encouraged. 

My English teacher was a bachelor, intense, short in height, and thoroughly sincere, who paced the floor in front of our desks and monopolized the classroom.  He venerated everything Hemingway had ever written, describing the master’s narratives as the keenest canvases imaginable of life, love, and passion.  At age sixteen, I needed little convincing.  Just as Wilner depicts, I was a naïve reader who imbibed Hemingway’s characters and stories instinctively and wholeheartedly, without rational reflection.  In my mind, it was clear that I was Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises.  After I saw the film version of the novel, I cut my hair (dark brown then) to look like Eva Gardner.  Then I envisioned myself as a female personification of Robert Jordan, hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, embedded with the partisans in the mountains of Spain.  In a shop in Georgetown, I bought rope-soled sandals that proved uncomfortable to walk in.  I traveled to Spain and got into a lot of trouble. 

“Hemingway is very dangerous,” a George Mason University professor recently remarked in an MFA class.  “If you don’t understand that his writing is artifice, you might try to live his fiction.”  Without providing details, I told him that this had happened to me. 

Only decades later, have I begun to approach literature with some critical distance.  Previously I lacked the tools and insight; in school we listened wholesale to the teacher’s opinion.  The Wilner article particularly resonates because of the clarity and candor with which she depicts her efforts to fathom her students’ cultural perceptions and levels of maturity.  Sometimes she fails to engage them then she maneuvers imaginatively to help a diverse class relate to new ways of textual interpretation, enhancing their self-awareness and modes of thinking.  It is an art to be a teacher who guides students to develop their own realistic powers of analysis, and it may save them.        


Teaching Self-Awareness

In high school English we read for theme.  I teach my students that if we can wade through the particulars of a text, we’ll arrive at something universal. Literary analysis writing that my students do asks them to interpret theme, support it with textual evidence, and explain how an author uses literary devices to produce this theme.  But I do like Sherry Linkon’s method of assigning different kinds of literary analysis writing.  Writing that’s exploratory and inquiry-based makes more sense for literature, and looks more like the kind of writing I did in college.   Students produce a reading, but not necessarily an argument.

Of course, I’d like to show my class how to produce a new reading–rather than how to artfully arrange old ideas.  I don’t think anyone wants to read a synopsis of what the teacher said (or what Sparknotes said).

In producing the kind of reading Linkon describes, students have to situate a text and themselves in relation to it.  Most of the readings this week posited that readers need an awareness of their own historical and cultural context as well as the context of the reading, and they need to be aware of the effects if these contexts differ.

Rabinowitz articulates this scenario well: “this difference among readers has always posed a problem for writers, one that has grown with increased literacy and the correspondingly increased heterogeneity of the reading public” (21).  For me, it can be overwhelming to teach literature that’s been chosen for my students but not written for them.

I’m plagued by the question of how to teach my students about their cultural context. I feel ok helping them develop an awareness of the way they process and interpret new information.  But teaching students to recognize their unique life experience and how that experience shapes who they are as readers is not so easy.

My students don’t yet know how to do what Fish’s students can do: ascribe literary significance to a list of names.  I’m not sure how valuable this ability is.  It would be nice though, if they could translate this skill to read the world around them, using context, connections, self-awareness, and healthy self-doubt.

The Reader’s Apprentice: Making Critical Cultural Reading Visible

With the Developmental English Redesign in full effect this semester, I have been faced with transforming the entire curricula I have become accustomed to for the past seven years. The new Student Learning Outcomes (SLO) associated with the redesign combines and streamlines the implementation of reading and writing skills to improve students’ success. In the past, the reading courses were taught separately from the writing courses (I personally believe that reading and writing are intertwined). In restructuring my courses, I have been reflecting on my own practice and my own thinking process as well as questioning the course content and student learning. What stood out the most from reading The Reader’s Apprentice was our role and responsibility as teachers of reading and making our thinking process visible to our students.

According to the article, “Most of the time, we teach these skills (“craft of reading”) and ways of thinking through demonstration.” Modeling might be engaging and exciting, but they can leave our students believing that the process of analyzing cultural texts is effortless, because teachers/experts can perform these tasks easily. When these same students are asked to emulate the modeling that was taught to them, both the teacher and the students end up disappointed. This is in part because, “Students may succeed on the level of explication, but they encounter difficulty when asked to position texts in their cultural and critical context, to apply theory or use critical sources to deepen or complicate their own readings, or to generate their own inquires.” Students need to be taught skills of interpretation. Students also need to be taught “ … (The) multiple habits and practices – inquiry, considering multiple positions, self-awareness, examining the cultural context, revising the text and one’s own ideas (slow and recursive), and making connections (connective) – together constitute the practice of critical cultural reading.”

I saw many of my developmental English students in this reading assignment. My students appear to have engaged in little thinking of their own in their final papers and research assignments. According to The Reader’s Apprentice, some of the problems stem from how we teach, but some are rooted in students’ prior learning and students’ preconceptions. Other problems have to deal with timing, “The problem stems from lack of understand about what it means to write about cultural texts.” Another problem, which I also observe in my students is, “We tell students to ‘do research’, but they may not know what to look for, or even why reading critical articles or related primary materials would be valuable.” Even though it is easy to place the blame on the students, we as teachers need to learn and transform. “We need to provide alternative models of reading and writing, in part b making our own cognitive processes more visible to students, but as my discussion of students’ assumptions and habits suggests, we also need to guide students through the reading and research process more carefully.“

The Problem of Expertise section goes back to our earlier reading of How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Due to teachers’ expertise, their thinking process remains invisible. If we are not aware of our own thinking process, then how can we make it visible to our students? It suggests, “The processes of thinking are often invisible to both the students and the teacher,” yet “cognitive strategies are central to integrating skills and knowledge in order to accomplish meaningful tasks. They are the organizing principles of expertise.” I can relate to this personally. I am currently teaching the same developmental English courses that set in motion my own college education. As a developmental English student, I perceived my teachers as experts who never experienced any challenges in reading and writing. In my view, my teachers were not able to empathize with my struggles, because they never had to struggle themselves. I now observe the same mentality with my developmental English students. Most of them hold the same views about me until I share with them my own experiences as a struggling reader/writer. This common understanding and my ability to empathize with them help us work as a unit to ensure their success. It is crucial to be able to understand how we think and then make our cognitive processes visible to our students. According to this essay, visibility is not sufficient without allowing our students the opportunity to practice. “We developed our facility with critical cultural reading through years of practice, with some direct coaching from our teachers…” Now, we need to provide our students with the same opportunities. I strongly agree with “transferable cognitive skills” mentioned in the section Apprentices in the Library. We need to teach our students not just the important content of the course, but the transferable cognitive skills that go along with it that they can apply to future courses in their college education. This is what my primary goal in teaching developmental English courses; to teach my students transferable cognitive skills, which they can apply to other college courses to help them become successful.

When I read the Fish article I recalled another theory-based English class from a few years ago.  For a few weeks that semester, we settled into a discussion of the Ideological State Apparatus.  According to this theory, we are unconsciously interpellated to do certain things, or think certain things, in certain ways (think, indoctrination, sort of).  This interpellation is accomplished through every person or entity, we come in contact with, from the moment we’re born to the day we die. It distorts our perception of what’s real, and what’s true and thereby, holds us bound by certain ideologies.  We’re not really free.

For example, when we English teachers confront something new, like a poem, we have been taught to handle it a certain way and we do so, without even thinking.  The fact is that we are not really free – we’re not freely interpreting the text.  We’ve been trained (conditioned/interpellated) to approach a poem a certain way – to expect certain meanings when we read “rose” or “white”- and that’s probably how we teach it too.

Even a poetry-reading novice comes to poetry with an ideology in place.  When he tries to interpret a poem, that ideological training/conditioning kicks in and he finds his meaning by looking for signs familiar to him  – signs which are “previously learned cultural codes” (Rabinowitz) and attempts to decode.  In his article, Fish tries to show us that we all (both teachers and students) are limited by our own cultural institutions – without us even realizing it.  So while we create meaning, our creations are fashioned (to use his word) by the ISA’s to which we belong (white, female, English teacher, student, etc.).  Reading is another form of creating – creating a meaning for the reader, within the boundaries of his or her own individual ideology.

Working within the framework of this understanding could lead to some innovative teaching – got any ideas?!  One of the reasons students are so turned off by poetry, like our colleague, Alex Glass, is simply the way we teach it- that’s all…. it comes down to the teaching.

Cognitive apprenticeship and the myth of “natural ability”

As students of pedagogy, we all occupy a somewhat unique space in which we are able to test out the waters on either side of the classroom experience. Personally, I’ve noticed that my tendency to reorganize the weekly reading assignments is indicative of this dual role, both because it allows me to keep like ideas together (or to transition more cohesively from one idea to the next) and because it provides an opportunity for me to reflect on the original order of the readings in an attempt to recognize the logic or the pattern intended by the professor. After scanning through the pieces assigned for the week, I decided to read them in the following order: Rabinowitz, Linkon (Making Critical Cultural Reading Visible), Linkon (Developing Critical Reading), Collins, Showalter, and Fish. In ordering them this way, I felt I was better able to trace the development of the idea, from general theorizing on audiences to more practical classroom approaches to teaching literature and finally into a specific genre, poetry.

I was struck by two main ideas that were present in all of the pieces to varying degrees: first, that reading and writing are dependent upon culture for their meaning and interpretation; and second, that cognitive modeling can help students develop the cultural and intellectual skills needed to successfully navigate texts. The ideas are closely related but, despite my familiarity with the former concept, I had never considered the latter. Because my own development of literary skills was largely unconscious, I have struggled with teaching the skills to students. Learning about the learning process has been of limited value since so many of the readings describe the stages without offering any real suggestions about how a proficient reader can harness their own abilities in their attempts to teach others.

The discussions of cognitive apprenticeship and its focus on making thinking visible were eye-opening. I realized long ago that students who seem to develop critical thinking and reading skills “naturally” are actually just those who are better able to follow and internalize the steps and strategies of their teachers, family members, or other models. Without explicit instruction and modeling, students who are less observant have little opportunity to develop the same skills. This is largely reflective of Bourdieu’s insight that: “By doing away with giving explicitly to everyone what it implicitly demands of everyone, the educational system demands of everyone alike that they have what it does not give” (Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture). I have to admit that I am embarrassed by my own failure to recognize the obvious solution to this problem. Make it visible. Make it explicit. Doing so not only gives every student the opportunity to develop the strategies implicitly demanded of them, it also allows teachers to remove the veil of mysticism surrounding the myth of “natural ability.”

Reaching the younger audience and modeling

This weeks readings focused on the concept of understanding the author’s expectations and how readers need to be aware of the author’s assumptions. This started with Rabinowitz’s Before Reading which differentiated between the actual audience and the author’s intended audience. Understanding the difference seems to draw a realization which enables young readers to accept their difficulties with a text, thus getting over the embarrassment that they don’t know. This connects nicely with last weeks readings, specifically the “difficulty paper.” Keeping that in mind, Rabinowitz stated that “making assumptions about the readers’ beliefs, knowledge, and familiarity with conventions” is impossible for an author to accomplish in a text. Therefore it must be expected that some elements of each text will not perfectly match a reader’s prior knowledge or expectations. Unfortunately, some authors present a text which expects too much from the audience – knowledge of an allusion or ability to sympathize with a character – and thus presents difficulty to the less informed/capable reader. The essay continues with an explanation of authorial reading, Rabinowitz’s definition for reading with the author’s intended audience and expectations in mind while simultaneously reading “in an impersonal way” as to avoid misdirecting the meaning with personal interpretations. All of the above may be difficult methods to apply for an inexperienced reader, and they may not pose much use in a younger classroom. But, Rabinowitz’s later sections illuminate the simpler task which may be used by a younger reader, pay attention to titles, first, and last sentences, as they are “privileged” (possessed of insider information) and can reveal important points about the text to a reader. These areas to focus on for a young reader could assist them in getting over the hurdle of not understanding the purpose of a text.
Another passage which was revealing this week, and easily applicable in the classroom, is Collins, Brown, and Holum’s “Cognitave Apprenticeship Making Thinking Visible.” This article presented ideas already recognizable in my classroom, but it also shared a few insights I would like to attempt -more modeling- and a few which may not be possible in the large classroom setting. The primary difficulty with some suggestions is understanding the dynamics of a thirty student, or greater, sized classroom. The “Reciprocal Teaching Dialogue” can potentially work with any sized group, but as the group gets larger is provided more opportunity for distraction, lack of interest, and difficulty on the part of the teacher to monitor each student. This task seems reasonable for a group size no larger than the low twenties. Fortunately, the article did not focus entirely on practices which, at this time, seem impossible to sustain. One great method of instruction is modeling, and the idea of getting in front of the class and sharing how one approaches a reading or writing task is a simple way to provide an example, and lead by example, to get students to find success. The most obvious method for modeling would be the thinking-aloud process. I have done this with small groups after school and will be making an effort to do this with the larger classes as well.

Is There a Literary Theory In This Class?

When I casually confessed, more or less in an aside, in my blog post last week to being a fan of New Criticism, I didn’t expect to spend so much of my time in this week’s readings thinking about New Criticism as a valid, or invalid, school of thought.

It’s not that I’m afraid of taking a stance when I have one, but, I feel compelled in this case to emphasize the casual nature of my affection for New Criticism.  I like a lot of things about it, and I think I got a lot out of learning how to interpret literature through its lens.  I also, though, would argue that I learned just as much from studying Historicism, and the psycho/sexual analyses of Freud and Lacan, and gender/queer theories and colonial/postcolonial contexts and Marxist interpretations and modernism/post-modernism/post-post-modernism and so on.  No one literary theory exists in a vacuum, and to my mind, that’s where a lot of the value in examining criticism lies.

Though, I’ve noticed that a lot of academic types like to pledge allegiance to a particular school of theory in a manner that resembles rooting for the home team.  “Why are you a Ravens fan?”  “My favorite color is purple! Also I live in Maryland.”  Okay, that’s mean – I trust academics who hold one school up above others have given their affinity much more thought than I’ve ever applied to picking out sports teams – but I think as educators, it’s important to caution ourselves against teaching one or two ideas at the exclusion of others (because if I were tell my students Freud is the only way to go, they just might walk out of my classroom believing me).

I tend to have a lukewarm opinion of survey classes—yeah, it’s great to be able to say I have “studied” 400 years of Western Literature across the span of 10 or 15 weeks, but, how intimately have I really gotten to know any one text?  I think a survey class does more to help you understand things about texts, and while that’s certainly valuable, it’s not the same as the ten weeks I spent in college picking apart Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.  For one thing, there was nowhere to hide in that class:  Miss a week’s readings in a survey course, and whatever, next week is a new novel; but missing a week’s readings in that class was a slippery slope of doom and, frankly, embarrassment.  In any case, the end result is that I can chat about Either/Or with a lot more confidence several years later than I can re-cap, in the right order, the major themes of the literature produced in the West in the past 400 years.

But literary theory is a realm in which I think the survey model is entirely appropriate, and even desirable.  Perhaps the best exposure to literary theory I’ve ever had – ever – was by one of my high school English teachers.  He laid out a sort of “fact sheet” about all the major literary schools he could come up with, and we learned to understand how each critical theory worked by applying it to the same text over and over.  In our case, Huckleberry Finn fell victim to all sorts of strange interpretations, each one as well supported as the interpretation of the assignment/”poem” described by Fish in his essay.

And so, I would hope that teaching literature would give me an opportunity to reproduce something similar to what my high school teacher did for me:  I’d like to lay all the schools of thought out there—including Fish’s own unique school of being anti-school—and let the students make their own minds up about whether or not there’s really a text in the class.  I think this approach would fulfill a lot of the objectives of this week’s readings, which address the importance of teaching critical readings skills in a way that enables students to engage their minds, engage with the texts, and transfer what they get out of the whole experience to other endeavors.  It would challenge them to make valuations—I like this theory because X, but I don’t buy this theory because Y—while also introducing them to some of the “vocabulary” they should acquire along the way as they study literature.  I also think it would help them see that there is no one right way to read a text, and that the point isn’t to arrive at what it is I think the poem means or the author thinks the poem means, but instead to arrive at that moment when neurons are firing and the text is something they simultaneously see and feel, know and question, wrestle with and embrace.  Which is to say, the act of reading, enjoyed.

Apprenticeship and Intrinsic Motivation

I am drawn to the idea of the cognitive apprenticeship, mostly because of the accuracy, the tightness, of the concept. As Collins et al explains, “apprenticeship” implies a work relationship between a novice and an expert, in which the novice watches the expert model certain tasks, then, with practice, the expert “fades” and the novice takes responsibility for the task in its entirety. This seems a perfect word for what we hope our students can accomplish in our classrooms. We hope, for example, that while they might need us early in the semester, that by the end of the semester they have the tools not only to exercise the skill (like writing, or reading) but to employ that skill in other disciplines. That they’ve acquired some domain knowledge and heuristic and control strategies and that they’re at least on their way to thinking about how their learning process happened.

While the rest of the article seemed obvious to me (even the part I’m going to discuss next), it still got me thinking. I have this problem in my Comp 101 class this semester: the community just doesn’t want to build. This is the first time I’ve instructed a class that is this slow to engage, and I think (as Collins et al. attest), that the lack of community seriously affects the learning environment. And I get it—as a student, it’s frustrating to attend a class that doesn’t seem to work socially. But as an instructor, I’m struggling. They say, “it can’t be forced,” and I agree.  Despite my best efforts (fun group work, early community building exercises, and a few class laughs) I can’t seem to get them to stay engaged or interested—in the material, or in each other. I was left, after reading the article, thinking about how much we, as instructors, can do right, yet how quickly and easily a botched learning environment can make our efforts seem to go wrong. Am I sounding jaded? I have a hard time NOT taking a class’s disinterest personally!

I guess what I’m looking for here, is a few amen’s and a couple of thoughts about how to conquer this one. While the article provides a (stilted) example of how to lead students through a discussion, the answers in the example come readily (and with some strange southern twang), and in my troublesome section, even when I call on students, answers are short, disinterested, and sometimes don’t suggest that the student has actually read the material. I almost wonder if I haven’t spent enough time thinking about the intrinsic motivations of this PARTICULAR group: the fact that maybe these students aren’t engaged because they don’t see a clear purpose outside of the more lofty goals of “learn to write,” “get a good grade,” “be clear communicator at future job” etc. While we’ve talked about the practicality (dare I say pleasure?!) of being a good writer/reader, and most of the class activities we do are focused on real-world writing/reading and furthermore ask students to think about their cache of already-learned and well-used writing/reading skills as they might apply to the classroom, I almost feel like I’m not speaking their language. That these purposes I’ve identified aren’t the ones that motivate them. So where to? What does motivate people to read or write well?