Author Archives: Carrie Hall

Commenting on papers: some thoughts

So, I’m at the tail end of a grading marathon, and I’ve been thinking anew about my philosophy of commenting, especially since I have to give a talk on Integrated Reading and Writing later this month. We talk a lot about minimal marking, and that’s important, and I’m not always as good at that as I should be, but I also don’t think I need to talk about it too much here, except to reiterate, students can only take in so much at once– if they get a paper covered in red, they’re going to think “I’m a shitty writer, just as I suspected,” and shut down. And I’ve talked to a number of students who’ve had that experience.

But one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is– how do I comment AS A READER (while not pretending that I’m not the one giving a grade) and also respecting the students AS WRITERS. In other words, as much as I can, I want my comments to be less about “master/ novice” “right/wrong” dynamic and more about a “reader/writer” dynamic– or sometimes a “writer to writer” dynamic. So I try to say things like “As a reader, I feel like you set up a promise for me in the introduction that never gets fulfilled, and I’m kind of bummed because I want to know what happened to that bunny!” or “I honestly am pretty confused with this sentence, and can’t figure out what you’re trying to say” or “as a writer, I find it sometimes gets the point across more clearly if I…” That said, if there’s something I NEED the students to do for a grade, like introduce/ summarize and analyze quotes (this is something I’m really drilling in 1101) I will make that clear. “As the assignment says, part of your grade is on integrating quotes, as in the handouts. If you’re having a hard time with this, please come see me.” This dichotomy: I’m just another writer like you, and also I’m your teacher giving you a grade is, at times, annoying, I know. But I think it’s still useful to write to them as writers and to ASK them– “why did you make this choice in your writing?” instead of saying “this is wrong,” even though sometimes they may not be aware of having made a choice at all.

On grammar: I pick one issue per student per paper, whatever I think most impedes comprehension, I mark the first few instances of that issue, and then I ask them to look it up on the OWL– unless that issue is “sentence focus,” in which case, I make them come talk to me. If it’s subject/ verb agreement, verb tense or articles, I would normally send them to the tutoring lab to work on that one issue only (because those issues are very difficult to handle on your own) but with the ALC issues, and because I can make the time, I ask students to come see me about those issues too. If an issue affects nearly half the class, I have a mini-lesson on it for the whole class. All of this said, I tell the class repeatedly what the research shows: the best (and honestly, basically only) way to learn grammar is by reading (and to some extent writing.)

The ideology of language

Well, I began my day by spilling some coffee all over my computer. It now sits at home, drying out (hopefully) so I’m a little late to this. And a little grumpy.

I did agree with Aaron’s complaints about Berlin’s tone, and posted a few notes about them on Aaron’s post. That said, I do think the ideas here are important to remind ourselves of (and warn ourselves of.) Of course, it’s important to ask ourselves what ideologies our pedagogies are promoting and whether that promotion is ethical (is it, for example, ethical to promote a particular political ideology? Even if it’s the “right” one? Is that what writing class is for?) But I also think it’s important to remember the ideology behind language systems, as Therborn claims. (“ideology is transmitted through language practices that are always the center of conflict and contest” (478)). In other words, as most of us would agree (but as some other faculty may not) there is no “correct” or “incorrect” language, but a battle over language practices based on ideology and power. I’ve found when I have discussions about this with students, they really engage. Berlin goes on to explain that “ideology carries with it strong social endorsement, so that what we take to exist, to have value, and to be possible seems…inevitable” (479). Again, I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I like the way he phrases this: we don’t notice the air we breathe.

The discussion of cognitivism is interesting, though somewhat dated. I have a strong interest in the intersection between science and the humanities, and I hope that, what I see as the false divide is somewhat lessened from what it was when this was written.  I don’t think that it’s entirely negative that cognitivism seems kinda “sciency,” as Berlin seems to intimate. I don’t have a negative feeling toward science, though I do have a negative feeling toward science-as-pinnacle-of-human-knowledge, and I think current cognitivists worth their salt don’t buy into the science/ humanities divide. I mean, I don’t actually believe in absolute static “facts,” but neither do most scientists. Again, I think this false dichotomy was kind of big (on both sides) at the time, but I don’t think it serves anyone. I certainly don’t think anyone who’s not insane– or at least anyone who doesn’t have an understanding of SOCIAL FREAKING FACTORS, FOR EXAMPLE, would claim that psychologists can, as Berlin claims (483) isolate the environmental features of children who will get good grades, make big money and get good SAT scores. I would hope, at least, that this discussion has been reframed to a discussion about how the system is set up to favor certain people over others, as opposed to having to do with anyone’s cognitive skill.

I mean, I guess this is what Berlin is getting at with his social-epistemic rhetoric, but I wonder about this a bit too. He seems to argue for Shor’s pedagogy that “students must be taught to identify the ways in which control over their own lives has been denied them…” (490). Okay, sure. But… again, this is maybe our era, but, perhaps students can also explore ways in which they’re complicit in a system? This seems like it’s set up to paint students as victims– and if this is the case, what is the role of the teacher? Savior again?


Reflection on Reflection

So, in my 1101 today I had students reflect on their first essays. I usually am kind of disappointed in reflections, as they often seem pretty phoned in, so I decided to do something a bit different, and it seems to potentially have been helpful.

First, I had students write one thing they learned about themselves as a writer, or that they learned about their writing process.

Second, I had them write about the ONE MAIN THING they struggled with in their writing. This could have been something process-oriented (distraction by phone) or more technical (organization.)

But THEN, we took a break from writing, and I asked them to confer with another student to talk about possible strategies for working with that issue. Then we regrouped as a class to discuss both problems and strategies. The problems really ran the gamut: from procrastination, to wanting to sound academic, to feeling like they were repeating themselves, to problems with organization. Interestingly, I noticed a lot of note-taking (which is not always the case in my classes.)

The third part of the writing task was to have students write down the strategies they want to employ to work on their struggles. I’m not really concerned if they picked the right strategies, or even the right struggles, but this is the most successful reflection I’ve ever had, as far as students actually writing reflections and engaging with the discussion.

1121 is going very well indeed. I’m so glad I decided to do these group presentations, even if they turn out terrible. In part because making the students look for similarities in the group makes them see themselves as a part of a conversation and I think is going to really help when it comes time for revision. Now it is not just ME and MY EDUCATION, but how “my education” fits in to a system of education. I actually had 100% attendance today. And these guys are so engaged I have to keep telling them to PIPE DOWN.

This idea of “it doesn’t matter if the end product is terrible” in both classes is interesting. I feel like in both cases, they are learning from the experience– in 1101 from metacognition, in 1121, from the synthesis of creating scholarship out of their narratives with other narratives and (minimal) research. It’s exciting!! I’m excited! I’d like to milk this a little bit more in 1121 when it comes to revising the class ebook. Can I ask individuals to use their group themes in their revisions? I don’t know where to go with this.

Here is the link to the book, btw. Please don’t share outside of this group:  1121Book

First couple of weeks.

My class seems to be going very well– we’ll see, because they have their “learning narratives” (part one) due on Thursday. Our discussion started with Amy Tan, and the students have talked a lot about their various Englishes. I have a class of largely Carribean students, so there has been a lot of discussion of the similarities and differences of being a “good child” across the various islands. These conversations have been HILARIOUS.

The second thing that we read was an excerpt from Keith Gilyard’s “Voices of the Self.” It’s a very hardcore excerpt where he talks about going from shooting up heroin to getting into college. It’s beautifully written, and I wanted to find something that “puts its money where its mouth is,” so to speak, and uses a variety of Englishes. We also have put a great deal of effort into learning how to draw the reader in with concrete, significant detail, and then back that detail up with reasoned reflection, and Gilyard does this quite well. To some extent, this worked well, but many students then felt like they needed to have some VERY DRAMATIC STORY to tell, which we’ve had to discuss on several occasions– there’s a lot more going on in Gilyard than just arrests and drugs.

One of the things I’ve really noticed about this class is, the details of the assignment aside, it’s important to set up a sense of community– and the students have already talked about that. Because they know their writing is going to be shared with the class, they need to feel comfortable. I do a lot of small group work, I call on people, I have (stealing from Aaron) asked students to help me write the class cell phone policy, which now includes the rule that if your phone goes off, you have to tell a joke to the whole class (I did not write that rule.) Because they are part of the class-building process, they’ve mentioned that it seems like a “pretty chill group” and their nervousness at the beginning has somewhat alleviated– I THINK.

I was also pretty nervous, honestly, about “publishing” all the students’ work, especially personal narratives. I’m very protective of my students– too much so sometimes, and I always want students to find a way to keep their writing private. But I’ve titled my class “Writing for the Public” and writing itself is not private– I mean, some drafting is, but we are writing to be read. I think I have to get over the privacy issue a little bit here– maybe not for lowstakes assignments, but for high stakes ones. If I want to treat my students like writers, then I need to treat them like writers who are going to be read by people other than me.

Websites: Cool Stuff.

I’ve just spent a little while reading through the 1121 (and in Jackie’s case, 1101) websites, and there’s some great stuff on there that I think will be really helpful to all of us as we scramble to “go live.” I really love Jackie’s placeholders for all the blogposts, which are, incidentally great examples of metacognitive assignments on the readings. And I love Sarah’s statement that “you write to become a more effective person– across the board!” A couple of things I loved from Aaron’s website: that you ask not only “who are you writing to?” but also “who is writing to you?” and I love that handout on primary research. Anyway, I know we’re all busting our,um, selves to get ready– but there’s a lot of great stuff up there! See you all soon!


The most important things, I think, about Shipka’s work, are that it asks students to be responsible for their own writing choices, and then to explain those choices. It’s so (bear with me) groundless in some ways for the students that they need to invent a wheel, and then they need to say “okay, this is why I built this particular wheel.” By groundless, I mean that she leaves very very much of it up to the students, and while mine is a pedagogy of student choice, the assignments of hers I’ve seen seem to be less scaffolded than I’ve ever been able to pull off.

I’ve always found her work both inspiring and confusing. I’ve done some workshops with her and have always been a little confused about what’s going on. The projects she describes here sound pretty cool, but I can also see some students getting lost in the shuffle because, in some ways, she seems to rely on a LACK of scaffolding (and pedagogically, I understand why she does.) Hers is a pedagogy that necessitates a moment of frustration, one which students must get over to make projects which are often very cool. I wonder if this works with all student populations, though.

It would be difficult to argue against multimodality in her work, though (although I’ve certainly heard people do it.) The metacognitive reflection of the “heads up” statement shows students working through the decision making of writing in the way of true practitioners—and the examples she uses are interesting, engaged, contemporary examples that explore language. The fact is, students are using these types of writing already (or they are interested in doing so) and her assignments, lack of scaffolding and all, help them see writing as a process of invention rather than an act of following someone else’s inscrutable rules.

Well, it’s late.

I think she’s making this too complex. We know what genre is when we see it. As she herself mentions, when you pick up the mail and see a letter from a friend, you respond differently than you do to an advertising flyer. She says we respond to much more than the textual features and formal conventions of these items of mail, but… what are we responding to besides these things? (I mean, also graphics, paper quality, the way the paper is folded, font, etc, I suppose.) But most importantly: why is pinning down a definition of “genre” important? Or does she have another project here that I am missing?

She does mention something that I think is important: she says that, though the assignment is a letter to the editor, “if you begin with an inverted triangle” (???) the audience is really the professor. I think she refers to a description of the rhetorical situation here. However, this makes me think about the idea that if you ASSIGN a letter to the editor, the assignment is really a paper for class. How do we make the genre NOT a college essay when the assessment procedure is a letter grade given by an English professor? It’s hard to shake.

Why do we Research?

Kynard’s article is very inspiring, very moving, very well-written and… I’m still not sure how I would get this to work in my own classroom. I definitely want to reread this, as I don’t have the time to study it as closely as I would like. The thing that strikes me the most is that we have students who are being asked to engage with their own lives as part of the scholarly world. That is, this is far from navel-gazing, but acknowledging that their own experiences are worthy of scholarly research. This is endlessly important.

WHY do we research anyway? Why are any of US scholars? I became a scholar because I got curious about one very dumb and weird question (“what is ‘boredom’ anyway?”) that I couldn’t shake. I’m a person who, when curious, reads and reads and investigates and asks questions until I find out as much as I can. I think the research paper is a way to tap students’ curiousity. In fact, that’s something I try to do in all of my assignments. And as far as transfer goes, if we can help students to look things up (and do interviews and other research) on their own, just because they are curious, we are sending them well on their way to becoming solid scholars in any field.

Okay, so, how to do this? Some clues I got from Kynard were that it seemed to help when her students were clear about their purposes. It also seemed to motivate them when they could relate their research to their own experiences, urgencies, actually. The place I struggle as a professor is getting students to identify the experiences that have that kind of urgency, that “writing the self,” of Malcolm’s prison experience, or Rhonda’s experience. These are very personal decisions, and many students with Malcolm’s or Rhonda’s experience are not yet ready to go there. And how does one walk the line between narrative and research, especially in light of such traumatic experiences? I don’t think it means that these things should not be the topic of research, quite the opposite (if the student is ready.) I guess I don’t really care about the “line” between narrative and research, but I would want to make sure they were, in fact, doing research and not only writing about themselves—integrating the writing about the self with the research. This is not easy.

Lastly,  the reader response questions Kynard asks seem good, but I have asked similar questions of my students, namely, “what is triggering your response to this text?” I have gotten very surface, not thoughtful answers. I’m not sure why. I don’t know, maybe I need to have my students read Gilyard (never a bad idea.)

Chaos and the Rhetorical Situation

Grant-Davie begins his article by talking about how teaching students to understand “the rhetorical situations of historical events helps satisfy our demand for causality-helps us discover the extent to which the world is not chaotic but ordered, a place where actions follow patterns and things happen for good reasons.” This, to me, is a maddening logic—especially since he’s using Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War as his example. It is possible that, instead of ILLUSTRATING the order and good reason that exists in the world, in the war that killed the most Americans to date, rhetoric, instead, is capable of FABRICATING an order—or less sinisterly, explaining the inexplicable in a way that we can make enough sense of it to begin to understand. But, let’s be real—at Gettysburg, people sat having a picnic while others had their arms ripped from their bodies, and other people ran through the battlefield (after the battle) collecting teeth. That will never be unchaotic, and I resent rhetoric being used to explain away chaos.

But that said, he does add something to the discussion of certain key terms. I like his discussion of “What the discourse is about,” in that he asks “what VALUES are at stake?” I dislike the values he himself puts on the line in his own arguments (a boorish masculinity, a harsh Americanism, an absolutism, etc) but I think this is a good way of talking about topic with students. His discussion of “who is the rhetor?” is not new, but important to mention, and his discussion of audience basically incomprehensible to me. Also, his discussion of constraint is so all over the place that I can’t really get a handle on it, if you want to know the truth. Is there another way to talk about constraint—the simple fact that one cannot reach all audiences at once, use all discourses at once, discuss all topics at once?

I’m not sure what to make of this article, or the fact that we have yet to find an article that discusses “the rhetorical situation” well. I think that some clue to this can be found in the line on chaos, honestly. While Grant-Davie does acknowledge, for example, the multiplicity of rhetors, I still think many articles portray a tendancy to think of the rhetorical situation as a way to identify an extant order. And this makes sense. Order is easier to talk about than chaos.