Saturday, January 13, 2007

Academic Personae and Academic Discourse

Dr. O wrote a fabulous post over at Chasing Tenure about our being more honest with our students about our methods, writing, knowledge, and feelings of competence instead of hiding behind all-knowing super-competent academic persona facade.

I would say that part of the reason why we invest so much time in our academic persona facades is our own sense that this is how we would act if we were confident, instead of being so possessed with, and determined to compete with, other competent veneers and hide our imposter syndromes that we overwork, overdress, overcompensate. (I feel pretty confident about the imposter syndrome and grad students -- I just bet that getting a job feels more like you pulled the wool over the new school's eyes rather than an affirmation of your academic rockingness.)

One point I want to discuss is the sticky wicket of writing. Dr. O said:
. . .students often don't understand that we scholars learn in part through writing. Writing is not the reporting of completed and digested discovery, but can in its own right be part of the discovery process.

Yes! And if we want our students -- from first-year writers to grad students -- to consider writing part of the discovery process, we have to develop projects and assignments that encourage them to use it that way. Many teachers across the curriculum tell those of us in English that "students can't write." (It usually goes like this: "What are you doing over there in first-year writing? My students can't write.") What is it that they can't write? They can't work through their thinking about course concepts in their writing? Or they can't write a "good" well-formatted paper in the discipline? (Often what these complaining teachers say is that students don't know their proper grammar. Not only can a first-year writing course not inoculate students against the improper grammar that surrounds them everywhere, but compared to exploring complex ideas and communicating through the confusion of new concepts should hyper-correct grammar be what we mean when we say "good writing?")

Too often, assessment strategies (No Child Left Behind's timed writing tests anyone?) foreground organization over complex thinking. Complex thinking is often messy. Focusing too much on discourse conventions, format, and organization in a piece of writing can lead to well-structured but simple-minded papers. While developing a thorough understanding of discourse conventions is very very important, assigning writing that invites students to do the messy shitty-first-draft exploratory work that we do invites students into how the real work in the discipline gets done. Worrying over whether a piece of writing is structured correctly for the discourse before grappling with the complexity of the ideas is like making sure we have the tweed jacket with suede patches and the pipe in our mouths before we get to grad school. The smooth surface of a too-correct paper may be like the all-competent surface of our academic persona: totally empty beneath.


Krista said...

G. Douglas Atkins has an interesting essay that my honors composition students read this week, which argues, among other things, your very point: "The Return of/to the Essay." Response papers to this essay were almost all confessions of relief, mixed with a little fear over deviating from the rigidity they've been taught till now.

Tiruncula said...

I've got my freshmen writing exploratory essays, which are tightly focused on a question they've developed about the text they're reading but are NOT allowed to have a thesis or try to prove a point. They resisted every step of the way through the first of these assignments, but I got a huge payoff when one student (a scientist, who likes things to be orderly) said to me in conference, "I wrote through my exploration, and it worked! I came out in a different place than I expected, and I saw something I hadn't expected to." Yes! And these papers are so much more interesting to read.

Earnest English said...

Tiruncula, I LOVE that you were reading backposts yesterday/today. So was I!

My experience is that exploratory writing/writing-to-learn/essaying is most resisted by those students who are most schooled in and rewarded by the dominant academic/argumentative mode. That is, "good"/AP/honors students. I love that you're doing exploratory writing where you are!

Recently, working with a student who is writing a piece where she is consciously trying to explore, she said that the more she worked with it, the more she loved the thesis/support model! But she admitted it was good for her to try to explore. It's awesome when they look back and see how far they've traveled. That makes all that resistance so worthwhile. And they ARE so much more fun to read. I don't know why everyone doesn't do it!