Author Archives: Jackie Blain

Discourse Community Activity

HI all. Following on Kim’s comment (I think it was Kim) about never teaching Swales again, I thought I’d share this lecture/activity I got this from Portland State University some years ago. II did tweak the original, but’s a nice explanatIon of Discourse Communities  and a set of activities. It’s probably better for 1101 than 1121 but I wanted to share it anyway — along with a three-part activity. It makes Swales a lot more student-friendly.

I’ve used this in previous classes where it’s worked really well, but I’m changing the activities a bit this year. For Phase One, after the students brainstorm their own communities, they’ll create a Discourse Community web, using the one in Anne Beaufort’s course outline as a model. For Phase Two, I’ll see if I can get them to talk about taboos or at least write about it on their Web. And for Phase Three, I’m turning it into a blogging assignment.

After that, they’re going to read Perri Klass’ New York Times column from many years ago (the pdf is below) about being a medical student, and have them tease out the features of that discourse community. (Complete honesty, I got this from Jeff Sommers’ article about doing a virtual workplace ethnography for my ENG 2570 class where it worked well.)

Hope somebody finds this useful. At least it’s something to talk about this week.



Ideology and history

I first read Berlin 10 years ago when I started studying rhet-comp seriously. And, like Aaron’s initial reaction, I was pretty blown away by what I saw as the heart of the article: that we should be as aware of why we teach the way we do as we are of what we teach. At the time, I was surrounded at the community college where I was teaching by a clear separation of pedagogies: some were student-centered, many others were what I came to know as current traditional, and the CT bunch always denigrated both expressivist and social-turn instructors as being “too lenient, too concerned with students, and not rigorous enough.”

Unfortunately, I think that battle is still raging, or maybe not even recognized as a battle by people who haven’t read Berlin (or more current writers) or who aren’t aware that there’s a battle at all, and maintain a CT  adherence to rhetorical modes and traditional grammar. Happily, I don’t believe this group of ours is in that category. But having this issue brought up for conscious discussion is, for me, perhaps the most important aspect of this article.

One other thought I had about how it’s written is my memories of being in a doctoral program in the mid- to-late-1980s. Cultural studies (media studies, for me) was fighting for acceptance in U.S. higher education (the Brits were already there), and there was a major paradigm shift, taking us from more textual analysis to Marxian political-economic theory and cognitive psychology. I and my fellow grad students found a lot of the newer theoretical stuff to be both patronizing/patriarchal (even when written by women) and almost incomprehensible in its formal language and lecturing tone. Much discussion ensued, the consensus of which was that the new paradigm, struggling to take make a place as a rigorous field along with psychology, economics, etc., chose the formal academic essay as its genre for convincing the skeptical. What I’ve read of rhet-comp from that era is, in many cases, similar to Berlin in tone and formality, largely, I suspect, as a way of establishing the field as a true discipline.

Forgive the digression (too many pain killers), but I think reading Berlin now is an exercise in historical research and a raising of consciousness for people who were trained in literature and not in composition (the case with most English faculty), demonstrating that current composition pedagogy is not a fad, but is in fact a reflection of how ideology works on us as teachers… and why we should take it seriously.

Silence is sponsored

These past two weeks have been an out-of-control roller coaster. Since we’ve been focusing as a Professional Development group on 1121, which I’m not teaching, I’ve been working to bring the various elements into the 1101 course outline, and, frankly, it’s been a bit overwhelming in terms of the amount of content and variety of focus. The good news is two-fold: 1) I’m finally able to bring current composition pedagogy into a unified curriculum in my 1101 class (I’ve been doing it piece-meal for 10 years), and 2) I seem to be working my way toward a unified set of scaffolded assignments that admittedly slow down the pace of 1101 but which I think could make the class more effective. I won’t bore everybody with that at the moment!

What I will say is that being able to front-load key terms and the reasoning behind what we’re doing has been pretty rewarding so far in terms of student buy-in. They’re already using terms like metacognition and reflection when they talk… when I can get them to talk. This is, as they say, “a quiet class.” Even my fail-safe ice breaker didn’t seem to get them engaged with each other. So this past Monday, when the pair-share activity about Cisneros and Malcolm X died a horrible, ignominious death after two minutes, I tossed out the lesson plan and asked how many of them consider themselves talkers — in or out of the classroom. There were only three out of 24. But then I asked them why they were all listeners. The ensuing discussion that broke out shouldn’t have surprised me but it did, because it ended up focusing on their literacy sponsors: the expectations of family, the demands of fitting in to a classroom, the fear of ridicule or bullying if you’re smart, especially if you’re a black male or a girl. We ended up writing group high school horror stories… which were hilarious. And then they quit talking again, but their eyes were on me and not on the computers, which I call a win. I now know I have a quiet class, but an engaged one.

And that brings me to this: I sometimes forget how young the 1101 students generally are, how much they need to be both gentled and prodded out of their high school mindsets. Right now, we’re beginning to talk more about their personal rules for writing, how they learned those rules, how they get blocked, why they don’t like writing, etc. They got a lot from the Mike Rose piece, and I think that having them continue to reflect on those things, and connect rules and sponsors, is well worth taking extra time on this Unit.

That said, I do look with envy at your posts about the Literacy Narrative unit with your 1121 students.

Can’t wait to see everybody! — jackie

Interesting article

Hi all. I found this article in the December issue of TETYC. An instructor interested in Teaching for Transfer and reflection was trying to find a way to build reflection activities into the early parts of her assignments. This details what happened (mostly good) and how she wants to modify it. It might be worth a look. Megan J Bardolf, Modifying Classroom Routines to Provide Reflective Space


I am suggesting that assignments that predetermine goals and narrowly limit the materials, methodologies, and technologies that students employ in service of those goals while ignoring the “complex delivery systems through which writing circulates” (Trimbur 290), perpetuate arhetorical, mechanical, one-sided views of production.

I think this is an excellent companion to Kynard, Devitt, and even Grant-Davie in that all of them are at heart talking about “destabilizing students’ theories” of composition, especially first year writing. Shipka in particular just simply blew my mind as I thought about the possibilities. Even if a student’s work doesn’t use a full-on Shipka-esque approach, tapping into their knowledge of and ease with multimodal communication, combining it with “research as question” to generate content and meaning, directing it at specific audiences (and not just the teacher) and taking advantage of cross-genre presentation, seems not only possible but an exciting way to pull a lot of Teaching for Transfer/reflective practice threads together. I think I’m too tired to do this justice tonight, but although I’ve dabbled a bit in multi-modal projects, it has always been slip-shod, the results varying from utterly horrific to absolutely astonishing. This is an area I really want to do more with.

Taczak and Robertson

Thinking about writing gets at the why of a writer’s rhetorical choices, which allows for deeper reflection on the act of writing than reflecting only on the what of a writer’s actions.

There’s more in this chapter that I’d like to talk about than I can put in a single blog. I’ll just mention a couple of things: 1) the idea of teaching students the key rhetorical terms is, I think, crucial for transfer if we’re going to focus not just on the what but the why of writing; students think it’s pretty cool to be let into the discipline, like being in a new secret society, or at least that’s been my experience. 2) I appreciate the three component approach to the class: reflective theory, reflective assignments, and reflective activities; again, it’s like letting the students draw back the curtain to see The Wizard. 3) The four-part schema (look backward, look forward, look inward, look outward) leading to a final theory of writing reflection seems like an efficient way to conceptualize the scaffolding of reflective assignments and carrying them through an entire course. 4) Their specific use of reflection as a revision tool seems like a excellent addition to the always-painful revision process because it gives students something more than just “do better” as feedback.

This chapter and Teaching for Transfer in general) is one I’m very much looking forward to discussing as I appreciate the work Kathleen Yancey and her colleagues have been doing.


I don’t think I’m alone in having used final course reflections poorly. As Neal says, there are “potential problems  of reflective writing being either coercive or disingenuous.” I’d say maybe both at the same time. Over the years, my students’ reflections have wandered between fluent cursing and fluid ass-kissing. I wish Neal had given us more examples of what he wants instructors to do, and which he quotes Peggy O’Neill as saying that “[i]ncorporating reflection ethically requires more than just adding a cover letter or a reflective essay because students need to be taught what we mean by reflection, how to generate reflective texts, and how to evaluate them as processes and products.” He does make one useful point — that if a student makes a claim in their final reflection that they’ve learned something, they need to have an example of that learning in the revised materials in their portfolio. But that’s where the usefulness ends for me.

As an aside, in the same volume as Neal’s piece and the one by Taczak & Robertson, Jeff Sommers walks through how his final reflection piece evolved over time and the kinds of questions he asks students, which I found much more useful. A second aside/useful piece is the work in Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s Writing Across Contexts which talks about a final reflection as the culmination of a term-long series of reflections, and which results in a theory of writing developed by that student. Maybe we can talk about that?


While I appreciated her reminder about the newer theories of genre, her nod to Bakhtinian dialogism, a flashback to my own cultural studies background), and her brief attempt to define an activity system (and just how is that different from a discourse community?), I found the whole discussion a bit fragmented and not all that useful. She does bring up the idea of students’ use of prior knowledge, which is something I think we tend to ignore and which Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak encourage us to take into consideration when approaching recalcitrant students. And she mentions the academy’s general notion that “freshman composition is being charged with preparing students to write in all disciplines (however ridiculous such an expectation)” which is, I think, the impetus for the last decade’s work on transfer in composition and the best way to achieve it.

That said, the only thing I really took from this piece is her work on the writing prompt and how limiting it can be, and that was more of a reminder than anything. It’s very easy to mandate form (three sources, one of which must be peer reviewed, etc.) and micromanage the process instead of, as she quotes Head and Eisenberg, “conveying substantive information that students also needed, such as how to define and focus a research strategy within the complex information landscape that most college students inhabit today.” That’s a good thing to remember when designing research assignments.


It seems to me that what we often do in the name of the research paper buries more possibilities than it unearths.

I probably feel more passionately about the research paper as a genre and a practice, and how badly we teach and use it, than almost anything in composition (except maybe the 5-paragraph theme), and my copy of Kynard’s piece is all marked up with “yes!” and smiley faces and stars because of how much I agree with her. The truth is, my students hate the research paper, largely because they’ve learned it as a form of, as one student told me, a book report, a boring regurgitation of “facts,” and it’s hard to get them out of that mindset and start with questions rather than answers. Frankly, that mindset creates boring, error-riddled work and makes me crazy. However, if we’re honest, research is really about making meaning and creating new knowledge rather than presenting information. The problem is that the academic research paper has become so codified into what Elizabeth Wardle calls a “mutt genre” that it’s hard to push back against it. As Kynard says:

The one stock essay form seems to easiest to teach and grade, requiring thus only a mechanical reflex on the part of students and a counterreflex from the teacher’s pen.

The more I looked at this article, the more I got from it, not least the five goals that Ann Johns cites as her overall teaching goals (evoke student interest, draw from their own life histories, destabilize students theories of history and their theories of genre as static, and provide sufficient scaffolding or assisted performance). At the end of that paragraph, Kynard says, “This to me seems the purpose and goal for the freshman research paper class.” She goes on to talk about power imbued in genres, and also in the teaching situation although she is indirect about this, and suggests that we should, in fact, “destabilize” students’ notions of what research (and genre) is all about, Again, I couldn’t agree more. I’m looking forward to this discussion.