Category Archives: Week 6 – Lit Workshop

Writers must also be readers

Joy Wagener

Several of the readings this week focused on the need for students to write—write more, write with ease, write through the difficulties, write to know oneself, write for others. As many of the authors reflected, writing is HARD.  Grading writing is HARD.  I think that’s why so many teachers shift their focus to literature, or have students use writing as a way to demonstrate mastery of the assigned literature. I know that I’m guilty of using writing as an assessment tool instead of a tool for learning. So, how do I transition from writing for assessment to writing for learning? How do I make room in my curriculum for writing without burdening myself with grading or without cheapening the writing process with rubrics, expectations, and guidelines?

Echoing Elbow in “The War Between Reading and Writing,” it’s apparent that many new English teachers are not well prepared in teaching writing, but are overly prepared to teach literature.  I know this is true of my background, coursework, and licensure. Writing is just supposed to come, right? I think part of the difficulty in instructing students to write comes from the teacher’s own level of comfort with it. For example, in “When Writing Teachers Teach Literature,” Cheryl Glenn keeps a diary throughout her semester to document her feelings about assigning writing to her students. She is at first uncomfortable with how much writing she plans to assign, doubting that the students will engage with it and doubting that she’ll be able to manage grading all of it. I can completely sympathize with that! Throughout her semester, the same students keep returning to her office hours to raise complaints or to conference with her about why they have poor grades. It’s an uncomfortable situation, yet she usually has a “big picture” response for them. She reflects that it’s difficult for her to dig her heals in and stick to the value of doing all of this writing, revising (or contrastingly, NOT allowing her students to revise) as it becomes more and more difficult. “Jill” hasn’t met the group work requirement while “Dan” has not listened to any of the feedback from professor or from his group. Glenn is conflicted over the pedagogy of what she’s doing—should she allow students to be truly independent in writing? Or does writing have to require a reader as well?

Elbow argues that all writing requires a reader. Readers are the ones who interpret and negotiate meaning in a text.  So even if the reader is oneself, or just one other person, or a much larger audience, one must write with an effort of clarity. In William Cole’s piece called “Less as More, the Ten-Minute writing Assignment,” he has a great activity for teaching students to write with clarity and concision. Dealing with an enormous class size, he gets students to write one to three sentences each class on a specific prompt. Not only do the students have to be concise and clear, but they have to demonstrate mastery over the content and grammar within the sentence constraints. The result is a clear idea of what the student knows—and it’s faster for Cole to assess. I love this idea! It’s a writing challenge reminiscent of Tweeting out messages to #ENGL610.

Writing is indeed a challenge, just as reading is a challenge. However, they both need to be taught, if only has a means to the other. Writing takes time. In the end of the semester, Glenn notes that the process—all of the doubts, conferences, confrontations, conversations, and growth—was worth it.

Whatever happened to Colonel Mustard in the Library?

Put me on the ‘now what?’ boat too.  Echoing Megan, okay, so there are 36 principles I’m willing into buy into — traveling across generational, cultural, and academic bridges—how do I make them work for my students?  Low and behold, the bright-minded among us, Liz, created a pretty remarkable three-identity translation.  I strongly applaud her work and agree with all three.  Taking inspiration, if I may, want pivot ever so slightly…

In regards to the projective identity, another idea might be how do the other characters perceive Jane?  Despite Gee distinctly pointing out the difference, “Remember that the projective identity is the interface identity between one’s real world-identities and the virtual identity. The projective identity is the space in which the learner can transcend the limitations both of the virtual identity and the learner’s own real-world identity”, what happens if a virtual identity isn’t even a century away?  What happens when you want to keep students present and cognizant of that world’s rules? (63)  To me, I’d turn to the next best comparison, public versus private identity and discussing how authenticity appears there.

Perhaps its just because I’m on Dowtown Abbey withdrawals or Liz has me in the classical Jane Eyre mindset, but I can’t help but delineate Gee’s concept to Lady Mary.   For the non-PBS enthusiasts, this particular character doesn’t have a strong history of kindness.  Then, she gets married and has all these warm, wonderful, private moments with her husband—one of which specifically acknowledges the public v. private fact: I’m glad you think I’m nice, even though no one else does.

The virtual-world, for all books we discuss pre-1990, was a steep social, class hierarchy—how characters are selectively viewed out in society (as compared to online). Complications escalate when reputations precede characters, characters are/are not privy to such facts, how this all informs their identity/action, etc. etc.—abundant classroom discussions ensue.

And, if I can rewind to his first identity to comment on the following: “Of course, the students are not ‘real’ scientists and are not going to become real scientists any time soon” (55).  Extrapolating this idea to my composition classroom, I take large, hefty disagreement.  It would seem, ‘students as scientists’ is as lightly applied and removed as one’s hat.  I want students to become real (without quotations!) lifelong readers and writers.

While I am trying not to base Gee’s learning theory on my own limited experience, its hard not to travel down that slippery slope; Tetris, Mario Tennis, Donkey Kong, Mario Super Kart, or Sean White’s snowboarding game did not provide me  “learning, and learning in deep ways” (215).  Comparatively, I’d venture to say Clue, Monopoly, and the obvious Game of Life, provided a much deeper learning experience—but then again [playing my own devil’s advocate] aren’t video games today’s Hasbro equivalent?

“Any Minute Mom…” and “The Story of An Hour”

Prior to reading chapters 6-10 of Blau’s The Literature Workshop I was contemplating what short story or poem I would use for my literary analysis and reflection essay due after spring break. After reading the syllabus I felt a bit dismayed by the open option to use any piece of literature for the assignment, and the ‘literary analysis’ also lacked detailed direction and expectations. Putting these concerns aside until class I moved on to the reading and discovered that chapter 6 addresses some of my concerns and specifically  mentions “that learning to write has to include learning how to find and choose a topic for oneself” (123). This line made me consider the literary analysis assignment in a brighter light, that the assignment was an opportunity to read and explore something of greater personal interest.
As the chapter continues it mentions the necessity of choosing a text which enables the possibility for “different avenues” of literary interpretation (125). Finding a short story which is contentious enough to inspire debate on interpretation, young enough to not have been exposed to numerous prior analysis, and of a topic which interests me personally makes for a difficult find. Fortunately, Blau shares his sample short story, “Any Minute Mom…,” which reminded me of a few stories I reserve for my own students who may have finished their assigned work ahead of schedule, particularly “The Story of An Hour” by Kate Chopin. This story may be my choice for the literary analysis essay, even though I expect there may be considerable prior scholarly analysis.
Blau’s activities: Jump-in reading, Pointing, Writing about a line, and Reporting Out and Publishing, present a perfect starting point to develop a literary analysis. I found the ‘Sharing in Writing Groups’ activity to be an impossibility for my upcoming task, but one which I could easily use in my own classroom. The first three activities work simply enough on ones own, with pointing as an individual listing of favorite/outstanding lines. The reporting Out activity would work perfectly with a bit of research. In place of a classroom of peers I will have to search the databases for existing analysis and compare the findings of others to my own. I also realize that following this order is especially important, as reading any scholarly analysis prior to writing my own could have an influence (adverse or not) on my own interpretation. Following this method I expect I can produce a paper which demonstrates a construction of my knowledge and not, as Blou puts it, ‘a paper made of prefabricated parts” (153).

Learning to Leave the Lectern Behind

I, like many others that blogged this week, have had hesitations over the years with journal entries. I found them obnoxious. I found them irritating. But most of all, I felt they were inorganic. They were busy work designed to make me feel the crushing weight of my professor’s supremacy over me. Even if left ungraded (as they often were), my journal entries would be riddled with chicken scratch notes and check marks at the top of every page. It never felt like a dialogue with my professor—only mere exchanges in hopes for his satisfaction: constructed responses to reading that felt more like hoops of fire to jump through than actual conversation. Because they never talked back. Not entirely.

I hated it. And yet I don’t hate this.

By “this” I mean this blog post. This is not busy work. There are no hoops of fire. Instead this blog post is one of many this week that together compiles a conversation; this is our discourse. But it is still a journal entry, a series of them. And I think the difference lies in execution.

There is a hierarchy to the classroom. There must always be one, because inevitably there will be grading. That is how college works as an institution and will likely never be changed outside of the most liberal alternative education programs.

I do not wish for an absolution of this hierarchy. I merely think it does not need to be lorded over our students.

Submitting journal entries to one’s professor is simply retention of lecture-based instruction, planting the professor and student as opposite of one another. Journal submission is just another way of attempting to impress the professor, placing them as the authority.

I instead like what Blau asserts, with the sharing of journal entries. Like classroom discussion, reactions to texts should be designated toward a larger audience rather than simply with one’s professor. I think this especially works in concert with how Blau perceives the professor of the classroom.

Last semester I had the opportunity to enroll in the Teaching of Composition course with Dr. Paul Rogers. I learned many great, valuable lessons from his instruction, but perhaps the most important one is the necessity to engage oneself in the instruction. Do not lead the classroom—participate in it.

Blau similarly asserts acting as a participant in classroom activities to make it seem less like busy work. Doing journals with students, and actively engaging in sharing entries, changes the perspective a student may have about the work—as I do with this.

By sharing one’s journal entries with one’s students it also offers them a glimpse at what good “interpretive” reading is like. It allows students the ability to understand what the trained eye of a literary scholar looks for and sees in a written work without it being directly told to them.

In essence, it is teaching without lecturing. It’s learning to leave the lectern behind in classroom instruction.

Do I drink the kool-aid or crack a beer?

While I often drink the kool-aid that “our classrooms are communities in which a culture is constructed,” there are also days when try as you might, that culture degrades into civil war.  Depending on the citizens in your constructed community, the rules of discourse may be as likely to lead to anarchy as to any positive outcome you were all hoping to reach.  Differing interpretations may degrade into arguments, disrespectful commentary, or simply disconnected interjections, which you then must dutifully extinguish, redirect, or connect as their de facto leader.  Admittedly, my experience in this arena is not in an academic classroom as a teacher.  Instead, I work with compensated adults in the corporate workplace, training one on one, and with smaller classroom type groups.  We are not only brought together in attempts to accomplish company goals, but also to collaborate generally, and generate new ideas often concerning business processes.  Despite being paid healthy salaries to do all of the above, they may sit in a room and either pretend they’re mute or participate only towards the previously mentioned examples of anarchy.  If you’re lucky enough not to experience such rebellious downturns and you have a group of willing followers who take up tacit rules in an effort for the common good… let the work-shopping begin!   After all, even in the corporate workplace, the “Pointing” activity could be re-worked to elucidate parts of written texts that the group does not understand.

While I think many of us are probably taking the “You get the papers you deserve” quote out of context, I have to think that this attitude is a bit masochistic and glosses over the multitudes of constraints that students either face or willingly submit to prior to handing in their work to teachers.  I can’t help but be a bit disappointed that Blau didn’t at least somewhat try to confront apathy in the text and how we as teachers combat it.  Are we to pretend that those students don’t exist?  If they don’t want to try their hardest, are they not worth our effort?  Perhaps, the literature logs/journals are one way to crack a door on their consciousness, but I suppose the purpose of the book is the workshop, not “problem” students who can’t be reached (Where are those books?).

Like others have noted, I have to also disagree with Blau’s “make themselves stupid” accusation.  I happen to love vocabulary.  If I didn’t forcibly try my hand at “sounding smarter” in the past I would’ve never worked out appropriate renderings in my writing about literature (or anything else for that matter).  Similarly, Blau’s obviously feels that it would be abominable for a student to simply take up a “second-hand interpretation” from another reader or teacher of a text.  But again, I would argue, isn’t it sometimes necessary to imagine from another’s perspective in order to discover our own?  Surely, there is room for some “right answers” or “second-hand knowledge” in the arena of literary interpretation.  By the time a student gets to college or grad-school they will be taught to be skeptics and not only doubt the text, but all the second-hand knowledge they’ve been spoon fed for years.

Week 6

I’ve read a lot of bad books about teaching English.  Books that are all practice without any explanation of the theory behind them; books that recommend “research-proven” strategies without mentioning any of the research; books about teaching English that carry a tone of disdain toward literature (or at least, the aesthetic experience of it).

Blau’s book is so great, that I hate to write a negative post in response to it.  But with it’s hard not to when there are 32 instructional days until the DC-CAS (big NCLB test).  While reading The Literature Workshop, I felt a little inspired, but mostly discouraged.  I’m sure other teachers had a similar experience.

I could relate to the teacher who created an essay assignment that asked students to show “how their knowledge of a set of literary terms contributed to their understanding of a literary work” (154).  I can imagine exactly how this high school English teacher came up with this assignment.  She looked at the learning standard that said something like: ‘students will analyze how tone and point of view contribute to the theme of a literary text,’ and wrote an assessment to match it.  She then probably planned her unit or text module by breaking the standard up into objectives and creating daily assessments to measure student mastery of those.  That’s how I’m expected to plan.

Blau goes on to say about this assignment that “we need to acknowledge that such papers function largely as essay tests on what students have already learned and are quite limited as opportunities for students to experience genuine authorship” (154).  It’s difficult to give my students this opportunity when my lesson plans aren’t experiences in genuine authorship.

The portfolio assessment poses a similar problem.  My classroom is not a place where it’s acceptable to take risks and make mistakes (at least at this point in the school year). Just like a student who’s inhibited by fear of how they’ll be graded, I’m nervous to try something out when I know I might get a surprise visit from administrators, DCPS Master Educators, the DCPS chancellor (that happened twice!), OSSE, or the charter school organization that has a partnership contract with my school.

We’ve Got to Go Deeper

The ninth chapter of Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop, “Honoring Readers and Respecting Texts”, deals quite thoroughly with what seems to be a fundamental and recurring problem amongst students and teachers of literature, namely, how to arrive at and determine the validity of an interpretation of a text. Blau, as is the case with several of the other writers we’ve read in class, straddles the line between the authority of a text and the authority of that text’s readers; there is not necessarily a single, correct, best interpretation of any given text, but at the same time, it is not at all accurate or honest to say that any and all interpretations of said text are equally valid. Not to beat a dead horse, but this reminds me, once again, of Rabinowitz’s swing-set metaphor: the author gives a set of instructions for the swing-set, and everyone who reads the instructions builds their approximation of it. Blau falls squarely on the side of readers needing to support their interpretations with textual evidence (which implies that close reading, as a strategy, is necessary in some capacity, even if people are relying on specific interpretive lenses) and to re-read the work multiple times in order to cover anything that’s been missed. Even then, there is the possibility that their outside knowledge (as in the case of the Ball-Turret Gunner) simply isn’t expansive enough for them to understand fundamental parts of texts, and so their interpretations, while not invalid, are still clearly flawed or lacking in some way. Someone who builds a swing-set, even if it is the wrong size, still has built a reasonable fascimile of a swing-set; someone who has no idea what a screwdriver is would probably have some trouble even getting to that point in the first place.

This “compromise” approach is much more engaging than relying entirely on texts or readers (to each others’ exclusion) to provide meaning; as Blau points out, providing the “correct” reading to students does not require them to put in any effort, and their literary muscles atrophy, forcing them to rely on being spoonfed “correct” meanings indefinitely. On the other hand, the “anything goes” approach means that readers don’t have to provide more than an incredibly basic, shallow set of textual evidence (if even that) to back up whatever their first impressions were, and reading literature becomes pointless. It’s also just much more intellectually honest: we cannot point without error to explicit formulas or plans embedded in every text since the beginning of writing, nor can we say that all text is entirely without intent or meaning until a reader invents it out of thin air. So we need thorough, thoughtful reading(s), and evidence from those readings, in order to have an interpretation that can be thought of as, at least, not completely flawed (“correct” is too much to hope for).

But this still doesn’t address the problem of how deep one must go, and how informed one must be to get beyond misinterpretation. The poems that Blau picks are relatively straightforward in the ways in which people might misinterpret them: if you don’t know what a ball turret gunner is, you are bound to misinterpret the poem; if you can’t read Spanish or focus on the narrator literally living in a doorway (being homeless), you are misinterpreting the poem. And so on. But what about, for example, William Faulkner’s Light In August? I took a class on Faulkner as an undergrad, and when we came to this book, the class’s interpretations were wildly divided. Some students felt that it was a nuanced examination of the impossible situation that mixed-race individuals are forced into in our society, while others felt that Faulkner was essentially saying that miscegenation creates flawed, fallen people who cannot be anything but destructive to society. In a five-hundred-plus-page novel, there is ample evidence for both interpretations (I fall on the side of the former), and it wasn’t simply an issue of a class being unfamiliar with the themes and viewpoints that Faulkner writes about in his other works; we’d all read several novels and much of his short fiction by that point. These are, I think, irreconcilable interpretations: you cannot have real sympathy for a group of people marginalized by society and simultaneously feel that those people should not exist because they are somehow fundamentally flawed. But these were not inexperienced readers giving shallow, uninformed readings of a text. How deep did we need to go to reconcile these interpretations, or find which one was flawed in some way that we had not noticed? That point is clear in the poems that Blau used; it is not so in dense, lengthy fiction. Can we make a judgment as to which interpretation might be missing something?

Performative Literacy

Many years ago, I managed to successfully complete my developmental English course at Northern Virginia Community College as I embarked on my journey through higher education.  Up until that point, I had never read a book on my own and I did not recall being engaged in literature throughout high school. Having read an entire book called “Kindred”, on my own in the developmental English class, sent exciting energy through my spine. I felt victorious, because I knew I was on my way to climb the ladder of academic success.  That is until I barely passed my English 111 course with an average grade of “C”.  I was bummed; I agreed with my teacher that I read and wrote like a “foreigner”. I spent the next year returning to my old ways of viewing the literacy problem; it was my fault for failing to do well in my ability to derive meaning from text.

It was not until I found myself completely engrossed in literature in my American Lit class, that I realized the significance of constructing meaningful interpretations and engaging in critical thinking/reading with the text.  My American Lit professor asked us to “deep dive” into the text. At first, I was completely lost. I viewed him as someone who did not understand difficulty. I thought learning (reading, writing, and thinking) came easily for him and he was completely removed from “people like me”. To my surprise, he never gave up on me. He believed in me and he believed in what he was teaching. He approached various methods to assist me to deep dive in the meaning behind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.” I had a very difficult time looking past the printed words on the page to see the implied message. I was fearful of failing or admitting that I did not understand the text, so I avoided talking in class. I regarded Emerson’s words so highly that I did not feel that I could question and/or challenge the author’s viewpoint. I wanted my professor to end my misery by simply revealing the meaning to me, but he did not tell me what he thought the line meant, which would have been viewed by Blau as a mistake. Blau states, “…such instruction encourages students in two mistaken beliefs. First, it encourages them to believe that they are incapable, without more advanced and specialized training, of reading the difficult texts I have ‘tough’ them. Second it encourages in them the equally mistaken belief (especially counterproductive for those who will become teachers) that they have acquired something that can be called worthwhile literary knowledge by possessing notes on my readings.”

The hidden subtle message behind Emerson’s words did not emerged to me until I released my dependence on authority’s interpretation (my professor) and I learned to believe in myself as a sufficient reader in approaching difficult texts, which is labeled as “performative literacy”.  I am now able to see the lack of the seven traits Blau describes as constitutive of performative literacy that distinguished me as a reader in my early educational years.

Capacity for sustained, focused attention I did not give careful and sustained attention to text, because I did not think I was capable of understanding the text. “…when simple lack of appropriate effort is treated – as it often is – as a symptom of cultural illiteracy or insufficient mastery of some subskill of reading, students are likely to be offered forms of instructional assistance that support inattention and confirm the students’ own mistaken notion that they lack some specialized body of knowledge or reading skills that distinguish them from their teachers.” (Page 211)
Willingness to suspend closure I avoided difficult text. Therefore, I did not engage in literary analysis in fear of being wrong. It was easier to be lazy and give up by formulating weak explanations.  “Expert readers…are more willing to endure and even to embrace the disorientation of not seeing clearly, of being temporarily lost.” (Page 211)
Willingness to take risks I did not value my responses to texts in order to “talk back” to text. I did not know that I was allowed to interact with text or question it.  Willingness to take risks is, “…to offer interpretive hypotheses, to respond honestly, to challenge texts, to challenge normative readings. This characteristic is closely related to a willingness to entertain problems, and both of them are functions of what we might more globally identify as intellectual courage.” (Page 212)
Tolerance for failure I viewed my failure to comprehend the text the first, second, or even the third time as my own insufficiency, which prevented me to sustain my efforts until the confusion became lucid. “…one of the principal differences between expert readers and those who appear less skilled is that the more accomplished have a greater capacity for failure…framing their failure but as part of the difficulty that comes with the territory of reading difficult texts.” (Page 213)
Tolerance for ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty As a reader I looked for security, certainty, and the path of least resistance. “The least competent readers tend to confuse intellectual sufficiency with certainty and completed knowledge, and are inclined to equate uncertainty with ignorance, and ambiguity or paradox with confusion.”
Intellectual generosity and fallibilism I did not remain open to new and alternative perspectives and meanings – one of barriers of critical thinking. “The strongest readers will generally argue persuasively for their own readings of texts and be able to demonstrate the deficiencies of arguments for alternative readings…In this process they also show themselves to be fallibilists, persons capable of changing their minds, capable of learning from their encounters with other readings to look in a new way and therefore to adopt a perspective that is more comprehensive than their own former vision.” (Page 214).
Metacognitive awareness I lacked metacognition – I was not aware of my own thinking, my own comprehension, or how to strategically correct my confusion of text. “…a major difference between strong and weak readers has to do with the way that strong readers monitor the progress of their understanding as they move through a text, self-correcting as necessary and recognizing when they need to reread or refocus their attention or take some other step to assist themselves in understanding what they are reading…they are less likely to feel defeated by difficult text.” (Page 214)



Effective Writing Assignments

I think one of the most difficult tasks about designing a literature course is selecting effective writing assignments. By effective writing assignments, I mean writing assignments that not only fulfill the learning requirements of the course, but writing assignments that students actually care about. As a student I can remember rolling my eyes every time I was asked to write in a journal, or do free writing at the beginning of class. I didn’t take the writing tasks seriously because it always seemed like busy work, so now I can sympathize with students when I think about the attitude I had about journal writing. I think Blau outlines good ways to introduce journal writing to students, in ways that are practical and meaningful.

First, it is important that students understand that a journal or reading log is not just a place for them to summarize what they read, but they should use the journal to document questions that they have about the text, as well as possible answers. It is also a good idea for students to use their journals to explore writing ideas for their future papers. When I was assigned a reading log for my English class as a student the writing that I did was outside of the classroom, and I was not required to bring the journal to class. After reading this book, I think that it should be a requirement for students to not only bring their journals to class, but to routinely share their writings to their classmates. I think if you clearly show students how their journal writing can assist them in future assignments, and help them work through questions they have about the reading that they are doing, they will embrace this type of assignment more readily.

One of the things that I appreciated about Blau’s book was that while he discussed the writing assignments he uses in his classes, he also described the problems teachers can face implementing such writing assignments, and evaluating them. I have always liked the idea of using reading logs, but have struggled with determining how to evaluate them. I like the idea of having students write a reading log audit as a way of monitoring their progress, because it makes them accountable not only for their reading but it also forces them to be reflective about the choices that they are making while reading and writing. I also think that students will take reading logs/journals seriously if they know up front that their journals may be read in front of the class.

It is easy to feel defeated in the classroom when a new teaching technique or writing assignment is not received well. Given this, I was also glad to see Blau acknowledge that, “many of the most interesting problems we face as teachers never go away” (151). I think that teaching will always involve some form of experimentation.  A tasks that works well for one class, may fail miserably with another group of students, so you are constantly testing new things out in the classroom to see what fits.

(Eng)fish out of water

I read with particular interest Sheridan Blau’s description of some of his students and their practice of handing in papers composed of pompous, overly complex wording and a lack of true understanding. I was especially struck with his line, “For such students, an assignment to write a formal academic paper is an assignment to make themselves stupid” (157). He notes how these intelligent learners abandon their own voice (and often their own understanding) in an effort to sound erudite and professor-like. This isn’t an affliction merely for the young. Before I started my master’s program in the fall of 2011, it had been 27 years since I’d seen the inside of a college classroom. While I had ample confidence in my ability to write, I had much less assurance about my ability to write like an academic. I loved reading the books, poems and short stories in the lit classes, but wavered a bit on the academic treatises on theory and deep literary interpretation. I was a fish out of water, in too deep, wet behind the ears, and any other aquatic cliché you can think of.

It became a habit to read things two or three times just to make some sense of them, which admittedly, made me feel a bit dense. The language seemed unnecessarily wordy and obfuscatory (in itself, a big-ass word, but very apt). This aspect was especially frustrating for me. My undergrad degree is in journalism, where verbosity, redundancy, lack of clarity and overwrought syntax and word choices are constant enemies. You shouldn’t write like that, but even if you do, any editor worth his/her salt will rework it or make you do it over. For his part, Blau points out that “such language use is perverse in the sense that it violates most of the tacit rules or conversational maxims (Grice 1975) that have been found to govern conversations in most ordinary human transactions where people are exchanging information – maxims like try to be as clear as possible, avoid obscurity in expression, avoid excessive wordiness, say what you mean, say what needs to be said …” (157-58). But in my first couple of grad classes, writing sometimes felt like an “out-of-body” experience, using someone else’s vocabulary to make what points I could. In any event, I hoped they sounded good.

I’ve since learned to swim in the grad school pond. Subsequent classes (including ENGH 610) have helped me realize that multiple readings of texts (while a bit more time-consuming) are a good thing, both for reinforcing what I read and for enhanced understanding. I’ve come to accept that reading and learning can be very messy propositions (I already knew writing was messy). I’m more comfortable now with the discourse in the realms of writing and literary theory and instruction.

However, I still get frustrated at times with nebulous wording, and pages and pages of text that seem to run repeatedly over the same ground or veer greatly from the central point of the piece.  If instructors offer complex interpretive texts and lectures, it’s easy to see why students appropriate this tone and style to sound like they know what they’re talking about. This is not to say there isn’t a place for “$10 college words,” as we used to call them, but we must encourage students to fully understand them before they use them. Blau’s excellent suggestions of using first-person construction, reading logs and group work represent, I believe, important steps to keep students from floundering.