Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Page Full of Abnormal Discourse and a Bottle Full of Gin

I just finished reading Kenneth A. Bruffee's "Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind" for the second time, and though I still basically agree with his main points about the socially constructed nature of knowledge, I am also a little worried about some of the implications of his discussion. While I appreciate that a social-constructivist view of knowledge allows us to be free of the Cartesian worldview that views knowledge as "information impressed upon the individual by some outside source" (Bruffee 92) I feel that a whole new host of problems attend the social-constructivist conception of knowledge.

Let me explain. While the pre-Cartesian model placed the source of knowledge in "the mind of God", the Cartesian model does little better, according to Bruffee, by replacing the "mind of god" with some other equally abstract external source. The social-constructivist model according to Rorty and others, transcends the limitations of the Cartesian model by placing the source of knowledge in the hands--or mouths-- of the people. In the "conversation of mankind", as it were.

Now I certainly think that knowledge is socially constructed to some extent, in fact, I even believe that the pre-humanist idea that knowledge comes from a divine source was a result of social consensus among the ruling religious class. This example--religious rulers imposing a concept of knowledge on the masses-- is exactly why I feel hesitant about advocating for social and collaborative learning practice. I definitely think that some good is gained by teaching collaboratively, and by consciously making collaboration the focus of a classroom, I have learned far more in classrooms that employ a collaborative approach than in those that adhere to the old "banking model" of education. Nevertheless, I feel that interruptions to the "normal" flow of "discourse" are even more central than Bruffee seems to suggest to keeping such an approach viable, useful, and ethical.

I would go so far as to say that unless "abnormal discourse" is the emphasis--nay, the center--of a collaborative classroom, then that classroom runs the risk of turning into little more than a place where half-informed group-think and second-rate-pseudo-intellectualism dominate. If learning is a social process, then it is vital that teachers and students alike remember the pitfalls and shortcomings of sociality; remember that sometimes in social situations the loudest voices and the hottest heads dominate the soft-spoken and the thoughtful; remember that charisma and intelligence do not always go hand in hand, and remember that communication and understanding are related, but ultimately distinct spheres.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Keith Sawyer refreshes the stale metaphor of the classroom as performance by tweaking that metaphor to conceive of the classroom as improvisational performance. Adding the element of improv, not just to the teacher's plan (or lack thereof) but also to the model of interaction between teacher and students, accommodates social construction and dialogism.

And the improvisational performance metaphor works, not just as a way to talk about what teacher's and students do in the classroom, but also as a way to construct lesson plans and as a general guide to one's teaching practices. I find Sawyer's discussion particularly convincing when he talks about the classroom conversation as a sort of improvisational performance in which both students and teachers participate. Why do I find this convincing? Well, because it mirrors experiences I have had in classes--and those experiences were among the most rewarding I have had as a student. I think that improvisation and collaboration are what make writing workshops so fun (and instructive), and it's no accident that peer groups (a common technique used in composition courses at HSU) are reminiscent of the creative writing workshops I have attended.

As Sawyer warns, the skills needed to effectively lead an improvisational classroom may not come automatically to the beginning teacher. As I look ahead to teaching my own classes, I only hope that I can learn to be as effective an improviser as some of my past teachers. And I think it's important to keep in mind that for even the most gifted and experienced teacher, improv can go awry, just as it can for the stand-up comic who, after a series of jokes that have the audience in stitches, suddenly loses his place, or delivers a punchline that falls flat. The trick, it seems to me, is knowing how to recover from errors, because as human beings we're always going to make mistakes. Skill lies in the recovery as much as in the performancea.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Before I begin talking about the second chapter of Michael Jarret's Drifting on a Read I feel obliged to say that I am just about blogged out! I responded to most all of my classmates blogs, and I found myself surprised at how much I got into it. But, I have been drinking coffee all morning, and I have yet to use the restroom, so I'm going to write until my bladder makes me move or until I say all I have to say, whichever comes first.

As I mentioned in a response to one of Kendra's blog posts, Jarret irks me. He seems to spend a large portion of each chapter establishing his knowledge (both of arcane literary/cultural theory and jazz). Improvisation is a social construction, as is everything in the realm of semiotics, and as such, all signifiers are unstable, uncertain. Fine, I get it, can we please move past this idea without dropping the names of 40 French literary theorists?

As for the section on the "signature" I actually felt physically ill while reading it. Even with inclusion of the "message to skeptics" on page 90, I was unconvinced of the relevance of this section. Perhaps the excercise could have been summed up, and I might have bought it, but to share hisresponse to this writing prompt for nearly ten pages? Unacceptable.

As Stephen Colbert might say, "Jarret, you're on notice."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Meta-interpretation, 3 examples

In the second chapter of Gaining Ground in College Writing, Haswell provides three examples of “interpretive tales” that have historically guided practices in the teaching of writing in recent times and at various institutions. In reading this chapter, I was impressed by Haswell’s keen observation and clear portrayal of an issue that I see at work in the academy and particularly in the writing classroom: the inexorable link between politics and pedagogy. Haswell expertly demonstrates the role of the political in the writing classroom through 3 concrete examples of different interpretations of student work. He further develops his discussion through an analysis of the ideological assumptions underlying these interpretations.

While the three “interpretive tales” that Haswell discusses, “the ungrounded English teacher assessment”,” the legend of deterioration”, and “the tale of growth” are clearly common within the academy, I think that Haswell’s discussion goes beyond the particular concerns of these three specific tales. In other words, I think he makes a larger point in this chapter than mere criticism of some prevalent assumptions in the college writing classroom. Ultimately, I think the most useful thing I will take away from Haswell’s discussion of “interpretive tales” may be stated as a warning: be aware of the politics that shape your practice, and do not doubt that your practice is indeed shaped by the political. The practice that claims to be “ungrounded” (that is free from political concerns) is in fact guided by unexamined political assumptions. As Burke suggests, it is vital that we interpret our interpretations, lest we mistake abstractions for reality. It is only fair, for those of us who seek to become teachers as well as for our future students, that we approach teaching with our eyes wide open to the biases that undoubtedly underlie our practice.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Dextromethorphan Power Rangers

This week I’m keeping my post a bit shorter and discussing a chapter from a book by Richard H. Haswell. I was exceptionally busy this last week planning a workshop for a tutoring program at Humboldt State University. The workshop was yesterday, Saturday the 9th, and I administered and attended the workshop in spite of an awful cold, which has, incidentally, gotten much worse.

This introduction, I hope, explains the brevity of what follows.

In Haswell’s discussion of alientation and growth in Gaining Ground in College Writing the author brings up some provocative questions and offers some useful, if tentative, approaches to answering them. Haswell’s three “primitive” concepts, standard, status, and change, provide a method of dealing with some of the difficult problems that teachers of writing face. When we question, as Haswell suggests we should, our assumptions about a student’s status, the standards by which student’s should be judged, and the change a student’s writing undergoes through his or her college career, we interpret out interpretations of student writing. The positive effect of this meta- interpretive act is twofold: it forces teachers to constantly evaluate and reevaluate their practices, and it prevents habitual practices of instruction from calcifying.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Reading Burke, Thinking about Eco-criticism

Reading Burke, Thinking about Eco-criticism

The first two chapters of Blakesley’s The Elements of Dramatism are my first encounter with the work of David Burke. Although I certainly do not feel qualified, after reading only two chapters written about Burke’s work by another author to comment on Burkean thought as a whole, I do foresee limitations of Burke’s approach in regard to my own creative and scholarly pursuits. That said, I also see the depth of thought and insight in Burke that I find admirable, worthwhile, and also fairly difficult to grasp in a single read through. I’ll try to clarify some of my initial concerns here first and then explain what I appreciate and identify with in Burke’s line of thinking as presented by Blakesley in the first two chapters of his book.

The possible limitations that I foresee in Burke’s work arise because of the types of symbols or symbols systems he is concerned with in A Grammar of Motives. For although Burke states that “All Living Things Are Critics” a phrase that suggests an all-inclusiveness to his approach, it seems to me that the emphasis in his work (and in all probability its only practical application) is upon very highly developed symbol systems. In other words, the heightened capacity for abstract thought that, according to Walter Ong, accompanies literacy seems in Burke (at least “in Burke” as his ideas are represented in the first two chapters of Blakesley’s work) to exist as the unquestioned and unchallenged situation for critical discussion. The ubiquity of cultural values from highly literate culture in the world today makes the emphasis in Burke upon highly developed systems of symbols almost forgivable. It certainly makes this emphasis understandable, and the critical tools gained from such an approach undeniably useful. Nevertheless, the importance of symbols in Burke assumes that the symbols under discussion are recognizable and comprehensible to those concerned. Inasmuch as this is true, a Burkean approach strikes me as wholly anthropocentric and even more than that centered on literate civilization to the exclusion of non-literate, oral traditions.

That said, Burke has already proved the validity of his approach within a complex, highly literate situation. His rhetorical analysis of Mein Kampf is chillingly astute, even vaguely prophetic, as Blakesley suggests. The “five keys of dramatism” and the four types of form of which Burke conceived strike me as valuable tools of critical analysis for works produced within a literate society. It will require further reading and reflection to comprehend the degree to which Burkes approach is compatible with an eco-critical approach, and I shall withhold further comment for now.