Monday, February 13, 2012

Place-based writing exercises can encourage SNL students to “make their own knowledge”

Many scholars have argued that the classroom itself is politicized space that displaces and de-identifies students (Bartholomae, “Inventing the University,” Cushman, Drew, Reynolds “Composition’s Imagined Geographies”, Owens, Composition and Sustainability, Owens, “Teaching in Situ”). Jonathon Mauk has gone so far as to argue that college students are lost in space because they are not intellectually situated in academic space. Interestingly, he mentions this is particularly true for non-traditional students (119).

Julie Drew argues that by inviting students to become “travelers” and to write about the places that they visit we allow them to situate themselves and to write from experience. Writing about place gives students power by positioning them as experts (Plevin 154). Rather than structuring instruction around “students” who exist exclusively in the classroom, but who are writers everywhere except in the classroom, Drew believes that seeing students as “travelers” allows them to be validated as writers in and out of the classroom. This aligns with Arlene Plevin’s Freireian perspective on composition. Like Brazilian liberatory educator Paolo Freire, Plevin believes that the world and humans are in constant interaction, and that students “make their own knowledge” (151-152).

For this reason, instructors might consider making students subjects in the classroom by using place as prompt. Rather than beginning an assignment with an assigned reading or developing a question that attempts to engage a diverse group of students, consider beginning one writing assignment with an individualized field trip. In the hybrid Advanced Elective that I teach, I begin with a theme, such as “neighborhoods.” We read one theoretical piece and one example travel essay on neighborhoods; then students choose a neighborhood to visit for a few hours. They post their field trip plan to D2L, and offer feedback and suggestions on others’ plans. (As a sidenote, this has proven to be a powerful use of the D2L discussion boards.) Students often share prior knowledge of places they have visited and help each other build their paper topics. When students attend their field trip, they take detailed field notes on the space. From these notes, they create an essay.

These “students-as-travelers” see themselves as conscious creators and agents of their writing, rather than as passive respondents to a given prompt. One student begins his essay by saying, “I walked with a new eye of observation.” This re-vision of neighborhood invites students into critical thinking (Dobrin & Weisser). But even more than that, this student questions what it means to live in one place and make a home in another when he realizes that his neighborhood is dominated by a culture other than his own:

Was I subconsciously ignoring what this community had to offer, afraid I would find a sense of home away from home? I was puzzled as to why I had not noticed any of these cultural symbols before, and honestly I have to attribute it to me somehow ignoring it because where I lived was not my neighborhood.

The concluding experience of his self-directed field trip and essay is when he interacts with a man on the street, and develops an understanding of stewardship. He begins to realize that neighborhoods are not always stewarded by those who live there, and through the foil of a man in this neighborhood, he begins to understand that place and home may, in fact, be disconnected:
As I was looking at the hole where this former restaurant and dance studio was previously located, a gentleman working the valet service for another restaurant close says, “we will rebuild.” … So I asked what did he mean by “we” and he began to tell me how the community would rebuild what was lost! …I also asked if he lived in the area, and his response was NO, and at that moment I felt like this was more of his neighborhood than mine, my house may be located in this area, but this was his neighborhood.

Further, students can be motivated to act in their communities and in their world by the occurrences that they document. One student noted that in her commuter neighborhood, the sidewalks on same side of the street as the train station were neatly cared for; when she tried to walk on the opposite side of the street, she found that the walk was crumbling. She noticed that the only time people walked in her neighborhood was from car to business, or car to home. As she developed her essay, she asked, “What if I found that I do not like my neighborhood?” Another student discovered a wealth of resources and crumbling community in the neighborhood of his youth. He wrote, “Palmer Park was created at the beginning of the twentieth century to bring strength and cohesiveness to the surrounding communities. It was successful for over a hundred years. Now the park has become a well resourced space almost devoid of local residents.” He reflects repeatedly on ample resources – baseball diamonds, a pool with a playground, multiple field houses with basketball courts and aerobics classes – all unused.

These three students made new knowledge by stepping out into the worlds they lived in and “walking with a new eye of observation.” Claude Hurlbert posits that this reconfiguration of rhetoric would lead to a “stewardship of our homes, lands, and minds, and also our students’ real touching and real feeling – their real work” (357). SNL students are particularly suited for this kind of real work, easily begun by re-visioning the prompt for one assignment.

Works Cited

Cushman, Ellen. “Location and (Dis)placement in Composition Pedagogy. Relations Locations Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Eds. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006. 358-362. Print.

Dobrin, Sidney I. “Writing Takes Place.” Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany: State University of New York P, 2001. 11-25. Print.

Dobrin, Sidney I. and Christian R. Weisser. “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships between Discourse and Environment.” College English 64:5 (2002): 566-89. Print.

Drew, Julie. “The Politics of Place: Student Travelers and Pedagogical Maps.” Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany: State University of New York P, 2001. 57-68. Print.

Hurlbert, Claude. “A Place in Which to Stand.” Relations Locations Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Eds. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006. 353-357. Print.

Owens, Derek. “Teaching in Situ.” Relations Locations Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Eds. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006. 363-370. Print.

Plevin, Arlene. “The Liberatory Poistioning of Place in Ecocomposition: Reconsidering Paulo Freire.” Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany: State University of New York P, 2001. 147-62. Print.

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