Friday, January 31, 2014

Katie's crash course on composition theories (with extended discussion of those I like most)

As I've been conversing with teachers in SNL's professional development course "Teaching with Writing," I've realized that there isn't a simple, accessible resource that discusses recent theories of college-level composition and writers. I think a snapshot of these theories with an extended discussion of social epistemic composition pedagogy and post-process composition theory would be most helpful since it seems they align well with both SNL's and DePaul's mission. I offer this relatively short (and hopefully accessible) piece via this blog so that all can benefit from the conversation.

In the composition and rhetoric world, there has been a steady growth of perspectives on what, how, and why writers compose, and a focus more on writing as a process rather than only a product. There are four major theories about composition: expressive, cognitive, social epistemic, and post-process. Expressive composition theory focuses on the individuals’ writing as inspired and cultivated from within the writer. Often, expressive composition pedagogy involves journaling, free writing, and invention techniques in process. Cognitive composition theory focuses on writers’ planning, goal setting, and revision processes. This pedagogy often involves teaching prewriting, writing, and rewriting with emphasis on how the writer thinks about the development of a text. Social epistemic composition theory focuses on writing and language use as socially constructed knowledge. This pedagogy involves collaboration, peer-review, and an awareness of language use in social constructs such as "the University". Finally, post-process composition theory focuses on writing as interpretive, public, and situated. Therefore, the emphasis is on examining and critically analyzing the power structures and contexts of writing, literacy, and language use rather than on a particular writing process.

Thomas Kent, in his introduction to Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm, claims that writing is situated, interpretive, and public, and thus there is not a universal Theory of writing or Theory about writers that can be taught to students (1). In other words, Kent explains how writing involves a recursive process, but it is not the same for every individual (3). Rather, each individual has a “prior theory” (little "t" theory) or context that influences the ways he/she writes and engages in other forms of communication with people (4). Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon in their “Critical Introduction” extend Kent’s view on writing as situated, interpretive, and public but introduce the concepts of “relation, location, and position” to further elaborate Kent’s theory in ways that focus on the contexts of writers, students, and teachers and their situations with respect to the world around them (8). Examples of these three contextual concepts include constructs of power between student and teacher (relation), writers’ material place and conceptual space in institutional structures (location), and the impact and essentialization of class and race on normative beliefs about the world (position) (12-16).

Patricia Bizzell, David Bartholomae, and Kenneth Bruffee are three composition theorists who focus on principles of questioning or criticizing the dominant discourse, its inherent ideology, and the power-relations established as a result. Their pedagogical principles offer ways we can be mindful of post-process composition theory in our classrooms.

Patricia Bizzell, in “Cognition, Convention, and Certainty: What We Need to Know About Writing,” claims that expressive and cognitive theorists need to focus more on why writers set the goals they do when writing (373). Her focus on outer-directed theory answers this question—writers’ goals (and knowledge) are influenced by their surroundings (379). Although students’ main goals in composition courses are to learn the conventions and standards of academic discourse as if it were another language, she urges an “open area” or “discourse community” where discourses can collide and function as spaces for students who question those conventions (376; 386).

Bizzell’s consideration of an “open area,” where discourses collide and the dominant discourse is questioned, is a form of what Vandenberg, Hum, and Clary-Lemon would consider a conceptual location or “space.” However, I believe this conceptual space can be made material in the classroom in the ways students and teachers communicate with one another in their attention to power, whether in online discussion forums or in discussion circles. If students and teachers maintain the pedagogical principle that the classroom is an “open area” or “discourse community” with Bizzell’s theory in mind, they may begin to critically analyze their context: gender, race, class, and relationship to societal structures. As Kent would claim, students and teachers bring their own prior theory to the classroom; an “open area” in the classroom, or a forum for critical and resistant discussion, would present an opportunity for students to make their prior theory material though language—whether oral or written. Thus, in an “open area,” relation, location, and position is interpreted, made public, and situated in writing (or another form of communication).

In “Inventing the University,” David Bartholomae claims that good writing will “appropriate” the conventions of academic discourse and question them, while maintaining a shared goal with the reader (406). He uses students’ written products to determine their process and, as a result, their level of writing ability. As Bartholomae shows in several cases, he can identify students’ ability to “approximate discourse” through their use of examples, conclusions, “commonplaces,” and keywords (408). He recognizes a “movement toward a more specialized discourse” within one of his “good” writing examples because he sees the student taking a privileged position against a “common discourse” and questioning that code—the student is able to establish his position within and against the code (413).  In addition, Bartholomae asserts that the writer is “written by the language available to him”—knowledge is constructed when a student writes through imitation and through the context of a discourse community (415).

Like Bizzell, Bartholomae pays attention to those writers who question the conventions and inherent power of the academic or “common” discourse—he considers this a “good” form of inventing the university. He still places value on some students’ writing over others, but his recognition of students who have more power than others in the academic discourse is evidence of post-process theorizing about ideology, relations, and context. His “inventing the university” concept presents a pedagogical principle that reflects the situated, interpretive, and public writing of students. However, this situated, interpretive, and public writing is only “good” insofar as it approximates the dominant discourse. While Bartholomae encourages students to invent the university through writing, he already has a normative view of what university writing looks like. Therefore, for this principle of “inventing” to surface in a post-process pedagogy, writers’ goals would be to recognize and question the hierarchical norms of the dominant discourse while simultaneously recognizing and questioning the norms in other discourses.  

Finally, Bruffee claims that collaboration in the classroom gives students the opportunity to learn the “normal discourse” of the academy (and in other settings) together through negotiation and conversation (406). He shows that students will “negotiate social relations” and produce spoken or written contributions that follow the conventions and values of the “normal discourse” amongst a community of “knowledgeable peers” (401). He states that by learning these conventions and values in this way, knowledge is gained socially and reflected in writing—writing is “internalized social talk made public and social again” (400). However, Bruffee briefly introduces the idea of “abnormal discourse,” which is knowledge created against the authority in a discourse. It is abnormal because it rejects or criticizes the normative assumptions of the dominant discourse (407).

“Abnormal discourse” compares to Bizzell’s proposal for “open areas” in the discourse community, where convention can be questioned, and Bartholomae’s interest in writers who imitate and question convention (Bartholomae 408; Bizzell 376). Thus, Bruffee is also theorizing, though briefly, about context and power in the ways that post-process theorists do. Although Bruffee claims that abnormal discourse cannot be taught, acknowledging or providing space for “abnormal discourse” would help writers reflect on their positions and “prior theory” relative to the dominant discourse (407). In the classroom, communication that reflects “abnormal discourse” might further the deconstruction of the authoritative and power-laden ideology of the dominant.

Since I have shown how post-process and social epistemic theories overlap at specific points because of their focus on power and context of writers, writing, and readers, the social epistemic principles of open areas, inventing the university, and abnormal discourse can be considered in a “post-process pedagogy.” These principles are not content that is to be mastered, nor are they agendas that place the teacher as the authority in the classroom. Rather, they are concepts that allow for teacher and student recognition and dialogic communication.

I believe that these pedagogical principles are already occurring in classrooms, but students and teachers may not recognize them as such. On the other hand, perhaps students and teachers are still functioning in an authoritative relationship and writing is being taught as a body of knowledge and a universal process to be “funneled” into students’ minds. Thus, I offer this summary and analysis of three pedagogical principles that can function in the classroom to help students and teachers recognize their own and others’ positions, relations, and locations in language and how those relate to context and power in writing. These pedagogical principles are universalized in their attempt to recognize difference and promote dialogic communication. Yet, because I don’t prescribe an agenda that defines “good” writing or ultimate ways of learning to write that facilitate that “good” writing, I am merely suggesting the means or principles by which students’ and teachers’ begin to consider their relations, locations, and positions when using language.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.  589-619.

Bizzell, Patricia. “Cognition, Convention, and Certainty: What We Need to Know About Writing.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 365-389.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.393-414.

Kent, Thomas. Introduction. Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. 1-6.

Vandenberg, Peter, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. Critical Introduction. Relations,
Locations, Positions. Urbana: NCTE, 2006.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Michelle Navarre Cleary on Inside Higher Ed

Last week Associate Dean Michelle Navarre Cleary's article on competence-based programs, "Creating Competent Students," was published on Inside Higher Ed. Presenting quantitative evidence of student success, Navarre Cleary explains, "Different does not mean diminished. To the contrary, by any number of measures, competence-based programs have proven that they can support effective learning as well as, and often better than, traditional programs." 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Suburban Campus Writing Groups: Update for Online Group

Writing Groups at the suburban campuses will begin this Saturday, January 18. Writing Groups are an opportunity for SNL students to give and receive feedback on their work. The groups are facilitated by a highly qualified UCWbL tutor, but the emphasis is on creating a collaborative learning environment rather than on individual tutoring sessions. Click here for more information on the Writing Groups. 

Update: An online Writing Group will also be offered this quarter. Detailed instructions are given below; you can also contact Edward Evins ( for more information. 

Suburban Campus Writing Groups - Winter Quarter 2014

Writing Group Facilitator: Marianne
Start date: 1-18-2014
Time: Saturdays, 10:00 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.
Room: 119

Oak Forest
Writing Group Facilitator: Kevin
Start date: 1-18-2014
Time: Saturdays, 10:00 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.
Room: TBD – Ask Receptionist

Writing Group Leader: Amanda
Start date: 1-18-2014
Time: Saturdays, 10:00 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.
Room: 303

Online Writing Group
Writing Group Facilitator: Edward Evans
Start date: 1-18-2014
When: Saturdays, 12:00 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.
Location: Online - Google Hangouts

1. To join the group, contact the Writing Group facilitator, Edward Evans, Make sure to provide the facilitator with your name and email address.

2. Check your Inbox for an email from your facilitator. It will include an invite to join the videoconference session. 

3. Click on the URL (NOTE: this link will redirect you to Google+)

4. If you don't have a Google+ account, you will be asked to create one (NOTE: for time purposes, please skip all the additional steps while creating your account).

5. Once you're all set, a notification will pop up on your screen asking you to join the session created by your facilitator. Click "Join" and you'll be online with your facilitator and other participants. 

6. Once you're live, notice on the left side a list of things you can do during the videoconference. Screenshare will be particularly handy, as it will enable you to share with your facilitator your desktop and/or desired resources (websites, Word documents, etc.).

7. If you feel uncomfortable sharing your live picture, you can always disable your camera by clicking on the appropriate icon on the upper right bar. Please let your facilitator know about this prior to turning your camera off for the session.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Winter Quarter 2014 News & Reminders

Now that Chicago is recovering from the deep freeze and the quarter is underway, SNL Writing would like to pass on a few notes and reminders for Winter Quarter. 

UCWbL Relocating
The Lincoln Park UCWbL office is now located in the Schmitt Academic Center (SAC) at 2320 N. Kenmore, next to the Richardson Library. The online appointment scheduler will be available beginning January 10, and the center will open on January 13. The Loop office is still in 1600 Lewis (25 E. Jackson). Instructors can request an in-class "orientation" for their students by clicking here

Beginning this quarter all WTC and WW students are asked to create their course portfolios using Digication. Click here to view the UCWbL's comprehensive how-to guide for both instructors and students. Instructors can request additional support and resources from the Teaching Commons, FITS, and the UCWbL

SNL Writing Instructor Handbook
The Handbook for SNL Writing Instructors Digication site includes sample syllabi, rubrics, activities, and other instructional resources for instructors of both WW and WTC. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Overcoming Doubt: Psycho-Emotional "Temperature" and the Process of Composition

by Steffanie Triller Fry

In her October 21 post to SNL Writing News, Katie argued that distraction in the writing process is “not a barrier to overcome but a necessary part of the process of overcoming” (Wozniak, Kathryn. “Distractions in the writing process.” Italics in original). She argued that our brains, bodies, and spirit all want this distraction in order to get us unstuck as writers.
            This post fell on the heels of the SNL Month of Writing Challenge, a month-long effort to encourage writers to overcome distraction and produce as many words as possible. The idea is that a month of writing will encourage us to understand that we can write, and that the more writing that we do, the more good writing we will do.
            On November 26, Kamilah Cummings posted on “Lessons in Failure,” arguing that perhaps one of the best ways to succeed is to readjust our goals. As she reflects on the challenges that adult learners face when balancing their personal, professional, and academic lives, Cummings thinks about the “psychological impact” of teacher expectations and adult students’ struggle to meet these expectations (Cummings “Lessons in Failure.”)  
            In addition to the impact of Katie’s distraction and Cummings’ expectations, I think that when writing, we also experience a significant amount of doubt. I see this regularly in both myself, my fellow writers, and in my students. As an adult student in a graduate program in creative writing, doubt is something that I think about, experience, and attempt to overcome constantly. And, in answer to my prayers, one of my own professors actually addressed this issue in one of my second semester courses. In her seminar “Rich Porridge and Thick Mud,” A.J. Verdelle shared with us the ideas of a little-known text by Kenneth Payson Kempton, The Short Story. In this text, Kempton presents the chronology of composition from the perspective of the psycho-emotional temperature of the writer. Below, I have reproduced his T-Scale as Verdelle presented it to our class:

On this graph, despair through ecstasy represent the psycho-emotional temperature of the writer. A is the point at which composition begins. Note that the temperature (T) here hovers between apathy and assurance: the writer is confident enough in his or her topic to begin. T then rises steadily, the degree depending on the writer. B is the point at which the writer begins to react to his or her composition, perhaps after the first draft is complete. Here T drops, usually well below normal (normal being defined as A). Kempton posits that close to C, somewhere between apathy and despair, is where much good work has been finished.
            This would mean that most great writers – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, King, Morrison, etc, likely finished their great works in despair! Or, at least, even when their manuscripts were published, they still harbored doubt about their composition. When this scale was first presented to me, I felt a kind of familiarity, kinship, acknowledgment. I felt better about the way that I feel when it comes to writing.
            But, after Katie and Cummings’ posts, I revisited Kempton’s ideas. And, of course, something seemed to be missing from his theory of psycho-emotional temperature of the writer. So, I drew up my own graph, thinking in particular of adult students, myself included. I imagined a psycho-emotional temperature of the writer that begins at a stage before the A in the chart above. My adaptation of Kempton’s graph is below:

What I have noticed, from working with writers during the SNL Month of Writing Challenge, reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and experiencing my own life as a writer, and the commonality that I notice in Cummings’ expectation and Katie’s distraction, is that all of this “psychological noise” comes before the actual writing. Yet, Kempton’s chronology of composition begins with the writing. So, my modified graph acknowledges that most of us begin somewhere between apathy and despair, and actually have to bring ourselves from my A-prime to Kempton’s A before we can even begin. If we can learn to overcome the distance between A’ and A, that is where the real work of writing is done. Perhaps, if we consider Kempton’s idea that most great work is achieved at C, then we can begin to understand and accept doubt as part of the entire writing process – beginning and end.

Works Cited

Cummings “Lessons in Failure.” Weblog entry. SNL Writing News. November 26, 2013. January 4, 2014

Kempton, Kenneth Payson. The Short Story. Harvard University Press, 1947. Print.

Verdelle, A.J. “Rich Porridge and Thick Mud.” Lesley University MFA June Residency. Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. June 2013. Seminar.

Wozniak, Kathryn. “Distractions in the writing process.” Weblog entry. SNL Writing News. October 21, 2013. January 4, 2014