As the semester begins, many instructors have already decided what role technology and low-stakes writing assignments will play in their classroom and course requirements. I used to be wary of technology, especially, and didn’t find it necessary to create the kind of classroom experience I wanted–and I know I was not alone in this sentiment.
But then I read Jason Tougaw’s “Dream Bloggers Invent the University” and everything changed. Dream-blogging (Tougaw had students blog about their dreams under pseudonyms) is an excellent example of a low-stakes writing assignment that allows students to make deep and broad connections about the course material, without the fears and insecurities that come with being asked to write formally within a discourse community they are unfamiliar with. Tougaw addresses these insecurities when he describes a student’s, “Drei’s,” un-authoritative language: “several things I guess,” “I think,” “I am also not sure,” etc. (256) while talking about his own dreams, as well as other students’ insecurities in feeling that they lack “the expertise and authority to comment on each other’s dreams” (258). For instructors who are not comfortable using blogs in their classroom, they might have heard similar comments from students during peer-review sessions or any kind of group work. In many ways blogging and other kinds of low stakes writing assignments are a kind of consistent, frequent type of peer-review. But peer-review only works when all students involved believe that they are capable of “reviewing” in constructive ways.
Tougaw argues later on in the article that students may benefit from “low-stakes writing, presumably because, like dreaming, such writing provokes students to avoid the “tightly woven” or “overlearned” regions of the mind’” (266). I think this is so important, because many freshmen come in with mindsets like “Drei,” and in order for them to push their way into what Gaipa calls “The Academic Ballroom”–to write in ways that change the conversation–we must, as educators, find a way around these ingrained beliefs of inadequacy, our students’ perceptions that they are not able to, or expected to, make important interventions through writing. I haven’t found another way to address and change this kind of mindset without low-stakes writing assignments as a foundation.
As a way to incorporate “low-stakes” writing into the classroom, Tougaw argues that blogs of any kind “are to formal essays as dreams are to waking thought…a process through which students internalize the lessons of a course sufficiently to produce their own cognitive blends and express the emergent ideas in their own voices” (266). In my own experience, indeed, blogs allow more introverted students to become a part of class conversation, and more extroverted students to realize that they aren’t the only ones in the classroom formulating these “emergent ideas.”
In this way, Tougaw’s article has a lot to do with why plagiarism happens (join us for the upcoming WAC workshop, “Avoiding Plagiarism” on October 18th!). Students, in my experience, have the capability to participate in what Bartholomae deems, “the real work of the academy” through their “academic writing” (qtd. in Tougaw 254). If we create spaces in which students begin as experts, in this case framing a course around their dreams, their subconscious, and their selves, and then provide an academic framework for this expertise—Freudian interpretative theory, for example—to build upon their “voices” and ideas, then we might find that plagiarism is not only easier to detect, but also happens less frequently in our classrooms. One of my marginal notes while reading Tougaw’s article was, “he takes his students seriously,” and I think this is of the utmost importance in not only bridging constructivist and expressivist composition theories, but also nurturing students in a way that inspires them to take pride in their own voices and writing assignments.
To conclude: but “what about students who don’t dream?” This is a loaded question I’m often asked about the syllabus I designed based off of Tougaw’s article. First, everyone dreams–the issue is whether or not the dreamer remembers these dreams. Tougaw addresses this question in a discussion of the “feedback loop” in both blogging and in the students’ cognitive processes:
“The blogs have provided a formal structure for the making and expression of meaning that is both cognitive and social, and because the class is linked in this enterprise, collectively the blogs create what might be called feedback loop, whereby each student’s blog has the potential to catalyze the cognition of her fellow bloggers and vice versa” (263).
Tougaw seems to make the argument, here, that by encouraging the students to learn about and focus on dreams, they begin to have and remember dreams, even certain types of dreams. In closing, I wonder if this phenomenon is not necessarily particular to Tougaw’s vision of low-stakes assignments, but to any kind of writing assignment that troubles the assumption that there are some students “who don’t dream,” so to speak–low stakes and high stakes writing assignments that take for granted each student has something important to say.
Tougaw, J. (2009). “Dream Bloggers Invent the University.” Computers and Composition 26, 251-268.
Gaipa, Mark. “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing.” Pedagogy 4.3 (2004), 419-437.