Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Composition Theory Essays + Gendered Books Idea Stuff

Putting these here for posterity - they don't have much context in them regarding source material, so they may not make sense to anybody but me.

Initially, I found myself at odds with Bruffee's essay Collaborative Learning and the “Conversation of Mankind,” but I found myself agreeing with the majority of the content of his essay by it's conclusion.

Inclined to disagree that collaborative writing/learning from the outset, I hadn't considered that writing is essentially the same thing, although it takes place specifically inside of one's mind. My personal experience with collaborative learning has generally been poor, mostly due to the reasons that Bruffee laid out; “ethnocentrism, inexperience, personal anxiety, economic interests, and paradigmatic inflexibility.” I found the final reason to be perhaps the most significant; often, the standards that I set for myself academically are different than those of the people that I've been assigned to work with, and this can often dramatically affect the productivity of the group. If I'm driven to meet all requirements and surpass them while following all of the rules closely, but my partner either doesn't care or would rather skirt the edges of the rules, then the difference in vision can be damaging.

I particularly appreciated his point regarding explanatory or argumentative conversations: they're almost identical to those conversations when they're written. Instead of an active voice disagreeing with your thesis and a variety of points, you instead have an internalized version, capable of dissecting your arguments with a cold and callous effectiveness, and when you're writing to explain something (which, I believe, is a form of argumentation in itself), you're speaking directly to the internal voice that doesn't know the first thing about assembling a Warhammer 40K army (or whatever your topic might be).

I found Bruffee's statement concerning the best methods to learn to think better to be interesting; “the first steps to learning to think better, therefore, are learning to converse better and learning to establish and maintain the sorts of social context, the sorts of community life, that foster the sorts of conversation members of the community value.” It strikes me that he's suggesting that by engaging in peers or superiors in active, intelligent dialogue, then you're creating a more powerful and intelligent internalized voice – which aids directly both in writing and thinking, as with a more effective challenging voice, then you are forced to deliver more effective thought in order to combat it.

That conversations “of value” need to occur is a topic that came up among my room mates last night. One of the two sat with one of the sociology professors for four hours, drinking coffee and talking about local, global, and school issues, and the topics ranged from curriculum discussion to community organization. Among the things that my room mate took from the conversation were that these dialogues need to occur with more regularity, and I entirely agree – my room mate, as a direct result of the conversation, was smarter, more well-informed, and had developed a series of new ideas which he could use in the future for various social and academic pursuits. One of the most rewarding conversations that I've had personally was with a former professor over a series of beers in a local bar. The conversation often drifted into territory covered during the class, but due to the more intimate nature of the setting, far greater levels of depth were achieved – although I learned a great deal from the class itself, I developed a series of entirely new insights concerning the course material that I'm not sure I'd have achieved otherwise. It wasn't exclusively self-beneficial – after asking my opinion on a series of curricular ideas for future classes, I believe my professor came away from the discussion with a somewhat better idea of what worked inside of the classroom, and what did not.

I'd like to think my ideas were worthwhile in curricular terms, anyway.

One of the other aspects that this viewpoint skirts around is that of the voice of the writer, or even the speaker. By imagining and being aware that every written work is a dialogue, the result of an internal conversation, it enables the writer to speak with a much more clear voice of their own. When trying to speak to merely a blank page and a letter grade, prose often is written without character and reflection; however, by actively defending your arguments and acknowledging that there could potentially be some harsh critics – even among your peers! - the voice of the individual is much more likely to come through.


The two reading selections for today elaborate on themes that have occurred repeatedly throughout the month’s-worth of readings; that there is a sizeable population of students at the college level that seem to be, for whatever reason, incapable of writing. The majority of these seem to focus on the mechanics of the language, and whether or not the direct instruction of these will better the writing quality of students. I find myself in league with the anti-grammarians, although I think the issue is almost an aside; the essays tend to focus on the craft of writing instead of the purpose, and I find this to be one of the greater failings of the system.
Many students struggle with mathematics due to its high level of abstraction; that is to say, they are taught a series of mechanical methods of evaluating sets of problems to achieve, what often seems to be, an arbitrary goal. 1 + x = 5. Anyone that has taken rudimentary algebra would immediately recognize X as being 4; but what does 4 mean? For that matter, what does X mean? Without a tangible understanding of the purpose of solving the problem (beyond avoiding a check mark), it remains so abstract that to focus on the resolution of the problem and its implications becomes pointless.
By teaching an understanding of the purpose of the problem – such as determining the depth of an angle using trigonometry that will be used to build a fin on a rocket ship – it becomes more clear to students why accuracy is important. It also demonstrates that there is a real purpose beyond a letter grade to the problem.
So too is it with writing; by instructing the core fundamentals of the language and composition, they develop in students a mechanical set of methods by which to deal with problems - introductory paragraph, thesis sentence or phrase, three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion – but fail to elaborate on the function of this form. Most reasonably accomplished or educated writers would argue that the purpose of forms such as the above are to allow for clarity and ease of understanding for the reader, as well as a simplified model of organization for the composer. But would what Rose calls remedial writers be able to explain this? State the function of effective communication via the written word?
“[Freshman composition] became and remained the most consistently required course in the American curriculum.” Why is this? Even though the readings have almost all hinted that the quality of the American student’s writing has dropped in recent decades, we continue to follow the same course. Although my experience, being anecdotal, isn’t worth terribly much, I know that it worked for me – and many of my peers.
Until my junior year of college, I was incapable of identifying a verb, or a noun, or any number of other specific functions of the language. I struggled in an introductory linguistics class to be able to identify a subject, pronoun, and so on – even though I’ve been fully capable of writing a reasonably well-written essay throughout much of my academic life. I believe the cause of this is due to an immense exposure to written works, whether in the form of literature, essay, poetry, or online prose. Through a drive to want to be able to communicate ideas as effectively as some of my favorite authors, I paid close attention to their stylistic choices – specifically issues of phrasing, pacing, and tone – and came to emulate many of what I considered the more effective practices. Further reading further developed the internalized craft.
It strikes me then that an effective method of instructing effective composition rests on providing students with effective examples of composition. Although literature classes often force students to read a great deal of text, they are often chosen for a series of reasons that will not contribute directly to the learning of a student. Themes, antiquated morality, excellent character development – these are the sorts of things that are focused on in a literature course. Often, these works are classical in nature - that is, their writing style is from an era preceding our own in a significant fashion – would seem to be more detrimental to the development of composition than anything else. Although they may develop skills that enable them to analyze characters and plot elements – important in their own right – they display to the student a style which is no longer desireable. Unfortunately, these would often seem to be the only concrete examples of composition received by students (at least before entering University).
Teaching instead works that are renowned for their style, clarity, and high-level of communication of critical ideas might be a better choice. This would enable students to see what the powers of effective writing can be. A lesson plan could proceed similar to the following; 1. An essay is presented, and the instructor asks the students to discuss the major ideas, and whether or not they work, in class and around their peers. 2. After establishing a relative uniformity of interpretation, the instructor could ask /why/ the students received the messages that they did – and finally, 3., the instructor could explain what about the essay – stylistically and mechanically – allowed the class to understand the ideas presented therein as accurately as they did. These broad ideas could then be used in further assignments for the classroom, with an emphasis on clarity of deployment of ideas.


I found that I reacted more strongly to today’s first reading – “Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing” – than I have to any of the other assigned readings, and it’s little wonder. As a piece focusing on essentially politicizing the classroom and the politics themselves, it’s difficult not to have an immediate knee-jerk reaction regardless of political orientation. My reaction, specifically, was a tacit agreement with the author – that the political ideologies of the instructor should have little to do with the curriculum and discussion in the classroom.

My issue with using freshman composition as a political platform lies in similar language to the second piece as well, “Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone,” in that students at that level typically lack both the political knowledge and rhetorical skills to compete with an instructor that they may disagree with. Although this may provide an opportunity for an instructor to indoctrinate students into what they perceive to be the correct political worldview, they are abusing what is already an inherently unfair situation. Students pay thousands of dollars to learn the skills and abilities necessary to compete in the outside workforce, not to become pawns in a leftist agenda.

That said, I find myself somewhat at odds with this interpretation as well; my view on the relative sanctity of education contrasts with my own political agenda. I believe that I would support, ideologically, the majority of instructors pushing a leftist agenda, and a very real part of me wants professionals at this level to use the opportunity to convert more people to this view – thus increasing votes, population, and ideas present to the left of the spectrum. But again, the classroom – especially the freshman composition classroom – is not the place for this sort of indoctrination. Nowhere on a college campus should students be indoctrinated into a particular mode of thought, regardless of the well-meaning of their preachers. Arguments for the purity of education aside, allowing this sort of behavior will potentially allow for more right-wing and views contradictory to my own to proliferate in schools where alternate ideas are held.

That is not to say that the freshman composition class shouldn’t be a forum for ideological disagreements. Each student will have a different background, and many will likely hold contradictory views. Rather than focus on badgering right-wing students into submission with vastly-advanced skills and understanding of the issues, instructors should rather provide for a forum in which these ideas can be discussed – but in writing. The traditional model of composition at this level, which generally includes at least one argumentative essay, is the perfect place for this sort of rhetoric.

Something that I have never seen done but might provide for an interesting and beneficial assignment would be to allow for two (or potentially more) students with differing political ideologies to write argumentative essays in direct opposition with one another. The students, before the formalized, five-paragraph-essay is written would need to agree on a series of generalized points to cover in the course of their respective essays. The topic, chosen preferably by the students themselves, would then be broken down into a series of points of contention – three or more of these could be chosen, and would become the individual topics for body paragraphs.
For example, were the students to choose abortion as a generalized topic, then the points of contention could read something like; “The point at which life begins (and therefore the point in which abortion is acceptable to all parties(unless of course they’re a genuine fundamentalist and believe that no child should be aborted, even in cases of the death of the mother or rape, in which case they should probably be taken out back and shot)),” “the social and economic ramifications of fully-legalized abortion,” and “alternatives to abortion.” These topics are of course entirely flexible and would change from student to student, but I believe they illustrate my point.

Trouble may arise if the majority of a classroom subscribe to the same general ideology, but this will provide an opportunity to further develop the rhetorical skills of the student – specifically, in how to, with words, bitch-slap the hell out of someone you agree with for making poor arguments.

What I’ve found to be one of the best opportunities for growth in this field, personally, are taking a stand contradictory to my personal beliefs in a topic. I recently completed an Argumentation and Debate course, and very early in the semester the instructor split the classroom into a series of groups. Each of these groups then decided on a specific topic, and then the groups were divided in half again so that there would be clearly-defined teams on each side of the debate. The topic of my group was international electronic piracy (which tended to gravitate most often towards the most popular form of this, music piracy), and even though I am a self-avowed copy-fighter and believe in few causes more passionately than Creative Commons Licensing, I chose to argue on behalf of the developers of intellectual property. Although I was in opposition to the majority of the words I wrote for the debate, I learned more about structuring an argument and about the field than I believe that I would have done had I chosen to support my own beliefs. I believe also that encouraging students to argue for things that they do not agree with will provide an excellent opportunity to hone those skills – for it’s far easier to see the holes in your argument if you already have an established opinion contrary to what you’re saying, as you personally will be your most staunch enemy.

WoW Response:

Alright. I’m actually more interested in exploring, in a slightly more formal fashion, one of the concepts that has arisen as a result of the mini-seminar that was presented by Jonathan and I; specifically, I am referring to the concept of books having a gender.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last week, indeed, almost every moment that I’ve been free from the tyranny of term papers. Alright, not every moment - I completed my last major term paper last evening (17 pages!), and bought myself two bottles of expensive beer as a reward and spent the remainder of the evening watching anime on Adult Swim. Just the same though, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Specifically, and perhaps most critically if I am to proceed with this as an independent research endeavor, about how, exactly, one would define a book as masculine or feminine, or if, as I asked my girlfriend the other night, if this wasn’t a potentially dangerous avenue to even explore. My room mate, whom I respect immensely, is a sociologist-in-training. He’s a pretty clever guy, and has been studying gender/feminism a great deal in the last few months, so, as usual, he’s a pretty good resource to try and tap.

His initial reaction was that all books (I’m speaking specifically of novels in this context) have a gender, which can be relatively easily determined. He had a few ideas, but first, an examination of how he would define a book as masculine or feminine. His first criteria is the characters - are they predominantly, according to the BEM Sex Role Inventory, or some other metric, feminine or masculine? Their actual sex may or may not be important. Are their actions identifiably, in the Western context, feminine or masculine? And so on - but I, as I told him, find this viewpoint troublesome. It completely ignores two critical components of any novel; the plot, and the theme that arises as a result of both the characters and the plot, and how they intertwine. He argued that these can both be readily defined as masculine or feminine, which I disagree with - but this will be addressed later.

First, though, the difficulty of labeling specific novels. I’d like to star with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Note here that I haven’t read any of the novel in years, and my experience with it is mostly through feminist interpretations. From what I understand, it’s a novel about a woman making great strides in a masculine world, and not only succeeding, but dominating. So: superficially, a celebration of femininity, and the heights of power that it can achieve. In order to accomplish these things, however, the main character had to embrace attributes that are decidedly viewed, at least with the BEM Sex Role Inventory, as masculine - like aggressiveness, domineering, and assuredness. So - just because the main character is a female, does that make it feminine? How does her use of predominantly masculine attributes sway this? It almost makes it a celebration of manliness (lol) in the form of a female. Because of situations like this and others, I’m not quite sure how to proceed.

He also suggested surveying something like 1,000 authors randomly, and asking them how they identified their work. But this, too, is troublesome; how relevant is authorial intent? That’s a difficult one to determine, particularly if this research is to focus on “classic” or works of literature that are widely-regarded as being “good” - a lot of these works will be from dead authors, so surveying them becomes impossible. “But surely a consensus can be reached among readers about this?,” he asked - but hardly. The way that literature is interpreted is entirely subjective, although when it reaches the higher levels of criticism it becomes .. well, still subjective. Everything it still viewed through the lens of the reader - if they identify with and agree with Marxist ideals, then they’re going to want to make cases for or against why a novel is Marxist. So too with the gender of a novel - I personally might identify Atlas Shrugged as masculine, but another reader would not. The trouble, of course, with literary analysis, is that there is room to make both arguments - not merely to make them, but to make them effective. Why I chose to be an English major I will never quite understand.

Just the same, my initial thoughts on how to conduct this are as follows; first, some sort of what my room mate called “commonality of argument” must be established. That is to say, if my conception of books having a gender one way or another isn’t shared by at least some peers, then it’s mostly worthless, I think. So: a survey of possibly fellow students as a starting point. It would contain a couple of things, like asking them to take the BEM Sex Role Inventory - this may or may not end up being relevant, but I’d still like to see if, say, a higher rate of masculinity doesn’t correspond to rating novels as being masculine, and vice versa. I suspect that it will influence it, but I’m not quite sure how - maybe reversed. I personally rank somewhat highly on the feminine measure, and find that I would call more novels masculine than feminine. After that, a series of novels, and maybe asking for a brief, paragraph-long examination. I’d like to inject novels intentionally that are possibly clearly masculine, like, say, Dune or pretty much any Philip K. Dick novel, and some that are clearly feminine like, say, uh .. I’m not sure on this one. Maybe Mary Barton. I’d also like some more troublesome books, like American Psycho and Atlas Shrugged - the former I believe I talked about in class - it’s a celebration, initially, of masculine attributes - and then a damnation of them. I’m curious how people respond to this.

After getting the results from a collection of students, I’d like to apply this to a variety of maybe faculty; the literature professors would probably be the most in-depth, but I think feminist theory and political science professors would also provide interesting responses as well.

My friend Marcus had the following to contribute: Romance Languages are inherently gendered, and therefore almost anything that is discussed through them will have a gender. I’m inclined to agree, but not having any knowledge of non-Romance Languages makes this difficult for me.

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