Beyond the Basics

Susan Naomi BernsteinSusan Naomi Bernstein’s most recent book is Teaching Developmental Writing, Fourth Edition. She has published in Journal of Basic Writing, Modern Language Studies, and elsewhere, and has an essay forthcoming in Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Writing, and Service Learning. Susan currently is a lecturer at Arizona State University in Tempe, and co-coordinates the Stretch Writing Program. This year she is teaching a section of Stretch at an American Indian Community in central Arizona, as well as a new practicum course in teaching Basic Writing.

A Paperless Perspective

posted: 11.11.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

On the first day of this semester, the first day of my new paperless face-to-face classroom, the course management system crashed. When the system revived, the projector quit. In short,  in the first seventy-five minutes of opening day I experienced my greatest fears about going paperless. More than once I longed to throw my laptop out the window, and to return to a time before Facebook and smart phones, when we sat outside under trees with ripening apples, doing independent free writing and discussing our writing processes together, unaware of the genie about to emerge from the bottle.

Yet, at the first sign of nostalgia, I blinked. The memory of that seemingly better world held deep imperfections of its own.  At the same time, I find unexpected connections between those paper-centered BW classrooms of a generation ago, and the paperless classrooms of today.  Students then and now struggle with juggling a multitude of academic, personal, and economic responsibilities that often come in direct conflict with the requirements of our courses.

Rather treat these issues as flashpoints, or to ignore the existence of such issues altogether, we can work with students to foster resilience and persistence for the future. Additionally, we can create moments that remind us to humanize our classrooms by re-purposing the space that binds us to the classroom.

Here is one example of re-purposing space: On a bright autumn day,  I invited students to leave the classroom, or to use the classroom as a place for independent study. What would students learn from creating their own activities for promoting writing? I offered students approximately 45 minutes of a 75-minute class period to work on this activity, with the goal of finding specific examples to support an education narrative.  At the end of the 45 minutes, students return to the classroom to report their findings to the class, and to take attendance. Four specific responses followed:

1)    Writing with the lights off: Several students chose to stay in the room. With fewer students in the classroom, the remaining students worked quietly and independently on their education narratives. We kept the lights off so that students could write and read without the glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. Students found sufficient natural light from the Arizona sun, filtered through the high shaded windows.

2)    Mindfulness walk: A small group of students took advantage of the midmorning mild desert temperatures to take a mindfulness walk. As these three students walked across campus, they brainstormed ideas, and offered each other suggestions for developing their narratives.

3)    Interviews: Other students had wanted to conduct random interviews on campus to supplement the main persuasive point of their narrative. The interviews helped students gather ideas, and also gave them opportunities to converse with strangers on campus. One student tweeted that her interviewee had given her information that she found contradictory.  Because of the contradiction, the student did not think she could use the interview as an example. Instead, I suggested including the rich material of  the interview as a point of refutation.  Not all examples needed to work in harmony with the thesis.

4)    Photos: Many students decided to take photographs that might work as visual arguments for their education narratives. The outdoor spaces feature large crowds of people moving quickly between buildings on multiple modes of transportation (walking, skateboards, bicycles, golf carts). Additionally, the campus offers a landscape thick with trees, including palms, evergreens, and orange trees, that attempt to shade the inhabitants from desert heat.  As a next step, students would need to discern if their photographs would serve as appropriate visual arguments.

Much like that class discussion held long ago under the apple trees, our class activity included student-centered elements of re-purposing space and independent study. Yet this work also approaches writing from a paperless perspective. Instead of being tied to technology as we were once tied to paper, we included a variety of multimedia and kinesthetic resources that students had at their disposal. Instead of viewing the paperless classroom as a threat that interrupts writing,  we can learn to reclaim technology and humanization as a point of intersection, rather than as oppositions at odds with each other.  That point of intersection offers us the hope of living without nostalgia, and becoming fully present for the writing of our future.

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Qualifications to Teach BW: Questions from the CBW Listserv

posted: 10.14.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In a recent conversation on the Council on Basic Writing’s listserv (CBW), a correspondent asked about minimum qualifications for teaching Basic Writing. A listserv discussion ensued about appropriate degrees and necessary training. As minimum qualifications remain a long-standing question for the theory and practice of BW, we examined this conversation as part of our Teaching Basic Writing Practicum.

On the listserv, key theorists and practitioners from our field offer their insights. Peter Adams (whose co-authored article on ALP is included in Teaching Developmental Writing [TDW] 4e) and Gerald Nelms address the promise of studying student development as an essential part of BW teacher training. Michael Hill, new co-chair of CBW, inquires about the need for national policies on teacher training. Hill asks if policy work and best practices statements remain of concern to CBW members.

For my own perspective on this conversation, I turn again to Adrienne Rich’s “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” and her recently published course notes and syllabi for teaching Basic Writing in the SEEK program at City University of New York. In “Teaching Language,” Rich offers what she sees as the most significant qualification for a teacher of BW courses: “a fundamental belief in the students is more important than anything else….This fundamental belief is not a sentimental matter: it is a very demanding matter of realistically conceiving the student where he or she is, and at the same time never losing sight of where he or she can be” (TDW 4e 25). In other words, the student is not a problem to be solved, but a human being learning to write as a socio-cultural subject, within and beyond the constructs of a BW course.


As Nelms suggests, students in BW do not arrive in our classrooms as “blank slates” (also see Shannon Carter’s work in TDW 4e).  However, for me, the issue of this issue moves in a somewhat different direction from Nelms’ concern that “prior knowledge can both help and hinder learning.” Instead, I want to turn the question back on our selves, as new and experienced teachers of BW:

What about our own multiple literacies? What stated or unstated assumptions and values—as expressed in syllabi, writing assignments, and course activities— may become barriers to our own students’ learning?  What can we do to recognize such barriers, and to begin to ameliorate them?

In the practicum class, we attempt to address these questions through activities such as

  • Reading what others have written about the roles of their own socio-cultural backgrounds as learners and as teachers of BW
  • Writing about and discussing our own socio-cultural backgrounds as learners and as teachers of BW
  • Addressing the diverse intersections of students’ socio-cultural backgrounds
  • Teaching model mini-lessons
  • Tutoring at an off-campus site that does not have a writing center.

As in other BW theory and practice courses across the US, we attempt to create a community of teacher/scholars who actively interrogate our own theories as we develop new practices. As individual teachers, even as all of us are apparently white, our socio-cultural backgrounds represent a diversity of life experiences, fields of study, and approaches to teaching and learning. Often we find that we need to agree to disagree. Perhaps just as often, I grapple with expanding my own comfort zone, so that I remain aware of the need to learn from students, as well as merely to teach.

Because of the intersecting needs to interrogate and innovate, I welcome a national discussion of qualifications for teaching BW. Yet even as we undertake such a discussion, we need to recognize the diverse roots of our field. Adrienne Rich, who had only a BA when she taught BW at City College, remains one of field’s foundational teacher/scholars. Her work offers a keen understanding of the role of critical awareness for teachers of BW and also helps us to address a key issue for aspiring teacher/scholars in BW: Not only what we need to know— but perhaps more significantly, why we need to know it.

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Grammar and Persuasion: Teaching Ferguson, Missouri

posted: 9.22.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Recently, the students in my teaching basic writing practicum class asked me to teach a lesson that I had presented to students. I chose a lesson in rhetorical grammar, inspired by the work of Martha Kolln, and clarified by Laura Micciche in “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar,” an article included in chapter 6 of Teaching Developmental Writing 4e. Micciche writes: “This shaping of meaning through writing is intimately connected with a writer’s grammatical choices” (225). In other words, we can understand grammar more critically if we examine a writer’s sentence-level choices, rather than reducing grammar to a basic skill that writers address only at the stages of proofreading and editing. Rhetorical analysis of grammatical choices can foster a deeper comprehension of the writer’s meaning, and can allow the reader to perceive crucial connections between language choices and making meaning.

The sample lesson for my practicum students came from a Stretch class early in the new semester. We were discussing the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. My purpose in presenting this lesson was twofold: first, to illustrate the significance of teaching difficult subjects that resonate with students as members of a multi-racial and multilingual society; and second, to demonstrate the necessity of approaching grammar beyond basic skills. Grammar in this sense offers more than a series of rigid and unbreakable rules. Instead, rhetorical grammar offers teachers and students in basic writing a process of gleaning the persuasive possibilities of language and its usage.

I began the practicum lesson with my class notes from the Stretch course:

To find details in the language and the words of the text, look carefully at how and why the writer uses parts of speech. This analysis is called rhetorical grammar. The details that you look for in the TEXT also hold importance for YOUR OWN WRITING. Reading and writing are interconnected. When you read, you are also learning important ideas for writing.

This example shows how rhetorical grammar works in a quote by John Dos Passos. Charles P. Pierce begins his recent article, “The Body in the Street,” with this quote by Dos Passos. The article focuses on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  We can examine the rhetorical use of blank space in the article, and the evocative photograph chosen to accompany the article. However, let us begin here with an analysis concentrated on the most basic parts of speech.

Analyzing the Dos Passos quote for parts of speech demonstrates the significance of nouns and verbs to convey meaning, and how strong verbs convey that significance more directly than forms of the verb “to be.” After highlighting the parts of speech, the students in Stretch noticed the lack of adjective in this paragraph. Additionally, they discussed the contrast between the adjective “pleasant”—and the impact of the majority of the nouns and verbs that convey not only a sense of unpleasantness, but also a description of catastrophe. Describing this sharp contrast helps us cut to the chase.

“How does persuasion work here?” I asked the students in Stretch. “What does Dos Passos want us to do?” “To pay attention,” the students offered, “and to take action.”

In re-teaching this lesson to the students in the practicum, I hoped to advocate for a process of professional development that suggests learning and flexibility at all stages of our careers. Through rhetorical grammar, we can present a system of investigating language and its uses and move beyond grammar as a rigid structure of basic skills. Instead, we can offer our students a means to approaching language that, as the new WPA Outcomes suggest, strengthens the habit of “…composing and reading for inquiry, learning, critical thinking, and communicating in various rhetorical contexts.” We also gain a language for addressing difficult subjects that speak to our students’ concerns as members of a multi-racial and multilingual society. In the wake of the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, attending to such concerns can move us from hopelessness and helplessness toward persuasive possibility and rhetorical action.

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Basic Writing Back to School Specials

posted: 8.11.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

This should have been an easy post to write. Who doesn’t love a back to school special? Yet, so many of us, students and teachers alike, experience contradictory emotions as August begins. Although summer doesn’t end officially for more than a month, August commences the season of longing. The summer—apparently endless by mid-July— seems so short. Even in those summers when I was involved in teaching, service, or looking for work, the arrival of August gave me pause.  Whether we are teachers or students, we have begun the season of transitions. Time to take a deep breath. Time to take on the back to school specials–or in this case, to take a look at sites that might prove helpful as we start this new academic year.

Advice from Students
Last spring, I invited students to create multimedia sites for the class of 2018, the incoming class of first-year students. Since this assignment was an option for the final writing project of the academic year, the mood was reflective and also celebratory. Because we were also reading The Myth of Sisyphus, our conversations focused on persistence and resilience. We discussed why the class of 2018 would be the most difficult audience yet: “For years, people have been warning this audience that college will be ‘different.’ The audience might be tired of these warnings, and may be past the point of wanting to hear more advice. They may believe that the warnings do not apply to them and that, since they are invincible, they can easily overcome any difficulties that arise. How will you speak to them? Why should they listen?”

While some of the advice the students offered remains specifically applicable to our large state university campus (“join a sorority or fraternity,” for instance), other suggestions addressed some of the most difficult points of transition. One student focused part of his site on coping with the unexpected challenges and stresses of the first week of college. Another student concentrated on several different aspects of how to handle independence, which this student identifies as learning that “we must push a boulder up our own hill.” A third student created a Twitter page offering tweets best summed up by the phrase “stay determined.

Advice for Students
Sarah Juliet Lauro, blogger for HuffPost College and visiting assistant professor at Clemson University, offers “Ten Things to Do in College (Probably) More Important Than Going to Class.”  Lauro ends her list with what she considers the most significant advice: “go to office hours,” and she also touches the significance of developing intellectually by urging students to learn about political views different from their own, and by following and speaking with others about the news and current events.

Advice for Students’ Parents
Claire Potter, a history professor at The New School in New York City, writes the Tenured Radical blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In her post, “Bye-Bye Birdies: Sending the Kids Away to College,” she offers no-nonsense advice about common issues that students face in the transition to college. Potter provides a bulleted list of “the differences between college and high school as academic environments,” including “READ THE SYLLABUS OFTEN.” She also suggests having a conversation with students in which parents “address alcohol and drug use concretely, not as a moral, legal, or family discipline issue.” For Potter, the emphasis is helping students become aware of the consequences of breaking the rules, and understanding the impact of substance use on attendance and performance in class. As my students’ multimedia work indicates, “partying” can be an issue for students of all ages, whether they are living on campus or commuting to class, and Potter hopes that students will recognize the “links [of] poor achievement to excessive partying.”

Advice for BW teachers
This summer’s global, national, and local struggles remain deeply connected to our own lives and to the lives of our students. When these struggles become reflected in students’ essay drafts, and part of our online and classroom discussions, words may become heated—or conversely, may generate silence, as when students feel disrespected or frustrated. For these moments, Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Democratic Deliberation offers Deliberation in the Midst of Crisis, a website created in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked Penn State in 2011 and afterward. If the twelve Deliberation Guidelines are geared toward students, teachers also can find support for negotiating difficult moments in classroom or online interactions. The third guideline, for instance, emphasizes respect for everyone “by ‘being present’ and listening actively.” Further guidelines illustrate best practices for active listening, which can lead to more engaged writing, as students learn to collect their thoughts. As teachers, we benefit from active listening as we learn to hear our students’ concerns and work actively to find points of connection.

Advice from You
What advice websites would you recommend to your students in BW that would help to ease transitions to college? What do you like about these websites? Please leave your responses in the comments below.

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CWPA 2014: Connecting Themes for Basic Writing

posted: 7.28.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

If the theme of the conference was “Writing Program Administrator as Worker,” a connecting theme remains in the hearts and minds of the Basic Writing educators with whom I spoke at the 2014 Conference on Writing Program Administration (CWPA): “We need to make our work visible to the general public.”

CWPA provided some excellent examples. Duane Roen’s Saturday keynote talk at CWPA holds particular resonance. In this final plenary talk on the last full day of CWPA, Roen offered a compelling argument for presenting our work as writing teachers to the general public. Citing the research of Linda Adler-Kassner, Roen suggested that we need to find “opportunities” to “tell the stories of our research, teaching, and professional organizations.”

In another instance of addressing visibility, Jessica Winck analyzed a site called “Shit My Students Write” for the clues that this site offers for rereading students’ writing for positive rhetorical moves. The site collects samples of students’ infelicitous prose for the purposes of allowing instructors to blow off steam, to laugh at students’ work to alleviate the tedium of grading multiple sets of students’ essays. Yet, Winck cautions us about the consequences of posting on sites like “Shit My Students Write.” For instance, the samples are usually one or two sentences long and are therefore separated from the larger context of the writing process and the final written product. Samples such as these become calcified, and also become a record of our students’ work for the general public.  It seems both disingenuous and counterproductive to offer up our students’ work for laughter when so  much of our work already is already under-funded, as well as under scrutiny by critics inside and outside our classrooms.

Winck proposes another approach. She suggests that we practice reading so-called “mistakes” as students reaching beyond their experience; that is, as students trying very hard to make sophisticated rhetorical moves, creating meaning in nascent academic discourse, writing academically before they are able to do so. Instead of making fun of such moves, we can interrogate our own experiences in academic writing, and how we deal with our own infelicities. We can refuse to see infelicities as laziness or bullshitting, and we can refuse to reduce infelicities to public jokes.

Most significantly, we can take students’ efforts seriously.  This seriousness involves asking students to clarify meaning, to engage in peer review, and to revise as often as necessary. In other words, we can ask students to engage in the writing process—and we can post positive and encouraging results of such work on the Internet, in counterpoint to “Shit My Students Write.”

Brent Chappelow offered another example of making our students’ work visible through an online archive of open research called the ViTA Project. Open research is much like teacher-based research in education. Teachers collect samples of students’ work, and study the examples to find what we can learn from these examples to help improve teaching and curriculum. Brent participated in such a project at Arizona State University, photographing a classroom of students in their first semester of Stretch writing, and inviting the students to interpret the photographs. He made a video (included here) using slides of the class, with the voices gleaned from the recordings he made of students’ interpretations.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to add that Chappelow’s study focused on my Stretch class in the Fall 2013. What so impressed me about Chappelow’s presentation was his dedication to students’ perspectives, even as he understood that the photographs might hold different interpretations for writing instructors. While Chappelow noticed all of the different technologies that students used for writing, I noticed the students’ willingness to commit to writing and to build community across differences, at a time and place when differences can become barriers to isolate people from each other. Yet the students offered entirely different interpretations. They discussed the importance of groups, of the processes that they used in groups to help each other understand assignments and to deepen their writing. Through students’ voices, we hear how students process the work of the course, and the methods they use to process that work in together in groups.

Both Winck’s and Chappelow’s presentations offer positive means of reading the work of Basic Writing, and of offering alternatives to the invisibility of our students’ work. In offering alternative interpretations of our work, and sharing that work with the general public, as Duane Roen suggested in his CWPA Saturday keynote talk, we can begin to build a more realistic view of the work of writing studies, and of students, teachers, and writing program administrators.

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First Lesson for a Basic Writing Practicum: Cultivating Metaphors

posted: 7.14.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

This summer, I am planning a practicum course for experienced first-year composition teachers that are teaching Basic Writing for the first time. In considering our initial lesson, I realize that my thoughts center more on conceptual possibilities for approaching our classrooms. Tips and hints are helpful, of course, but without considering conceptual possibilities, we may well limit the scope of our contexts for teaching.

At the same time, I try to remember my own concerns about teaching my first Basic Writing class more than a generation ago, in my Masters program. My program did not offer a Basic Writing practicum, although we had a comprehensive full-credit course taken in tandem with our first semester of teaching our university’s equivalent to English 101. The rhetorical and composition program was relatively new at that time and, in retrospect, still carried that feeling of excitement that comes with beginnings, a sense of experimentation and openness. That experimentation and openness would be the first lesson I would want to share.

As a teacher of teachers, I want to present the activity of thinking of our classrooms metaphorically. Metaphor can allow us to become more mindful of the material realities at hand, and can help us to find the means to describe and analyze our work in the classroom. In other words, metaphor allows us to practice what Shannon Carter describes as rhetorical dexterity: finding the similarities between two seemingly very different activities. We engage in this practice to allow our selves to apply the knowledge from an activity that we know well, to an activity that we are just beginning to learn. For Carter, that learning activity is Basic Writing. For my future practicum students, that activity is teaching Basic Writing for the very first time.

To engage in this practice and to develop mindfulness, I might ask practicum students to engage in the following activity—first with me in class, then with the students enrolled in our Basic Writing classes. I also have included a sample illustration.

CULTIVATING METAPHORS:

  1. Consider an activity that you enjoy doing. Describe that activity to an unfamiliar audience.
  2. Highlight the key words and phrases of your description.
  3. Write down your thoughts about Basic Writing, using the most significant key words and phrases to illustrate your thoughts.
  4. Invite students to read or summarize their writing aloud.
  5. As students are reading aloud, write down an idea from the writing that stands out.
  6. Write the ideas in a list on the smart board or dry erase board so that everyone can observe how thoughts develop, repeat themselves, and build on each other.
  7. Read the list aloud, and the class’s observations, as in the above step.

SAMPLE ILLUSTRATION:

The teacher as gardener has long remained my favorite metaphor for the work we do in Basic Writing, planting seeds, watering the earth, keeping track for sunlight and shadow, pulling weeds as necessary, sowing and harvesting as the season unfolds. However, just recently I have discovered an additional layer to this metaphor.

When my spouse and I moved to the desert from New York City a year ago, we understood that the new climate would require us to make some difficult adjustments. One of the greatest adjustments would be leaving our proximity to oceans and rivers and the deep green deciduous trees—the nature that nurtured our spirits. The desert holds amazing natural beauty, emphasized by the arrival of the monsoon. At the same time, we knew that we were facing long summers that featured endless months of temperatures well over 100 degrees, with little relief after sundown. We would need to adjust to the heat and become used to living in perpetual air-conditioning.

This summer, our first full summer in the desert, our adjustment begins in earnest. As I began my crazy quilt, my spouse announced: “I want to have a vegetable garden in the backyard.” Our backyard consists of a concrete patio, frames by two stretches of dirt, rocks, and cactuses. I was skeptical. “That soil is all rocks,” I said, “how do you know it will grow anything?” My spouse grew up on a small farm in the Midwest, and every summer he worked with his parents in their large vegetable garden. He said that the dirt in the backyard felt fine and that he wanted to try. “But the sun will scorch the seeds, or the monsoon will wash them away.” My spouse was instant. He planted beans and summer squash, and waited, ever hopeful, for new growth among the rocks.

When the first sprouts appeared, my spouse invited me to celebrate with him. I offered to photograph the new growth. Every night after sundown, when the temperature dropped from 108 to 98, my spouse would step outside to water and weed. The sprouts have turned to leaves, and we hope to have vegetables as the summer moves forward. The leaves growing out from the rocks fill me with unexpected joy—and with a revised metaphor that I hope to share with new teachers of Basic Writing.

Any of us, when we teach Basic Writing for the first time, might have pre-conceived ideas about what await may us. We have heard rumors, read articles, and listened to opposing points of view. Perhaps we have already formed our opinions. Yet we ought not allow our opinions to calcify.  We need to adjust our thinking beyond our perceptions and to pay attention to new growth unfolding before our eyes. Sometimes the growth will appear imperceptible, but in the next moment (or day or week or month), if we remain mindful, we might find great happiness. We need to practice mindfulness for our selves in order to offer our students additional options to judging their work, beyond the paradigms of easy success or hopeless failure. We need to cultivate our gardens alongside our students, so that all of us, working together as a community, may reap the harvest of the brief time we spend together.

For in the end, teaching Basic Writing presents no more—and no fewer— challenges than any other human endeavor. We share more with our students than we realize, for we are all gardeners, working to create a fine and sustainable harvest, hoping to feed our communities beyond a single semester – or a single generation.

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The Crazy Quilt Theory of Process

posted: 6.30.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Many years ago, I gave a conference presentation entitled “Piecing Together an Academic Life.” At the time, I was making a quilted pillow of my clothes from graduate school, and of pieces donated by family and friends from different parts of their lives. My presentation focused on how we take the different pieces of our experiences to quilt together a new configuration, an object that values each piece separately—but also a piece in which the whole eventually becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

This summer, I am quilting again, and I note over time that both the process and the eventual product have changed. I envision a flat crazy quilt as the final product, rather than a pillow. As before, I am not using a pattern, but this time I did consult craft sites on the Internet to learn how others made crazy quilts and t-shirt quilts. The most important change, however, comes with the work of actually piecing the patches together in real time. In previous quilted pillows, I hardly ever pieced everything together beforehand. This time, I began by placing the fleece blanket backing on the floor, and then arranging and rearranging the different t-shirts prints, patches, and pieces of old clothing. I pinned down the prints and patches, because those pieces made up the majority of the quilt.

As I pieced and pinned, drafted and redrafted, I also began to see the quilt as a revised meditation on academic life. Crazy quilts are not designed at random or by accident: like a course, they offer beginnings and endings. To create a course, we need to cover a certain amount of time and space—whether virtual or physical. The crazy quilt also provides these constraints. While space remains largely tactile and material, I find that taking photos of the process helps me to see my progress, as well as to plan the next steps toward completion of the project, within the limited timeframe of a summer’s hiatus from teaching. Additionally, while taking and viewing these virtual photos, I recalled the significance of spontaneity in our work, and found inspiration for this blog post.

The design element of spontaneity plays an important role, for example, as we create our Basic Writing classes. We piece together assignment and class activities across different courses, different schools, and different periods of our lives. Increasingly, our work offers opportunities for collaboration, vision, and revision. Even if we begin with assignments mandated by administrators or committees, our students and their writing create the shape of the essay and make meaning from required assignments. Our courses, through student-centered participation and involvement, may come to resemble crazy quilts.

Consider, for example, the literacy narrative assignment, for which writers are invited to address an aspect of their education that stands out to them.  Many writers may not yet have gained experience with critical analysis of education, of pointing to specific moments in their schooling that would offer enough material to create a detailed narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  Teachers and peer reviewers might encounter drafts written as a list (in paragraph form) of the most basic activities of one or more years of school. In other words, the writer might have created a bare outline of structure, but not yet developed connecting threads of details.

How might the crazy quilt theory of process prove particularly helpful for revision? In other words, how might writers repurpose the fabric of a literacy narrative draft to create revision?   How might writers foster spontaneity of process to work toward a more realized final project? In class, I present variations on the following practices for revision:

  • First, individually or with teacher or peers, writers can identify the blank spaces in the draft, spaces where details seem very general.
  • Next, pull out a specific generic sentence. Writers can begin revising by using this particular sentence as a topic sentence.
  • Then, invite writers to free write more concrete details from the same years as their schooling. For this activity, the details would relate more directly to writers’ lives outside of the classroom. Such details would encompass sights, sounds, and smells that writers might remember from time spent outside of school, including eating meals; playing outside in natural settings or in home communities; listening to particular genres of music, artists, or songs; wearing clothing that may or may not have followed current styles; taking part in sports, artistic pursuits, or gaming; etc..
  • Moving forward, ask the writer to share or describe this free writing in conference or peer review. The writer or the reviewer can read aloud or offer the electronic device or paper where the writing was composed. For online classes, the writer can post the free writing to social media or the class’s course management system.
  • At this point, the job of the reader/reviewer would be to find details that best fit with the topic sentence, and to explain why those details offer an appropriate fit. The job of the writer would be to consider this critique, and then to revise the paragraph.
  • Finally, the writer would focus on writing independently by moving through the cycle himself, pulling out paragraphs and inventing more specific detail. Ideally, at any moment that the writer finds herself uncertain, she could return to a reviewer for more feedback.

Our academic lives include moments when we feel frustrated by circumstances that we did not anticipate. For students in Basic Writing, as in our own academic lives, the steps of our systematically arranged scaffold can collapse under the weight of unplanned events. Yet, if we cannot stop what we could not have predicted in advance, our designs can at least foster the time and space for spontaneity.  Through spontaneity, we may experience more fully the Crazy Quilt Theory of process—and appreciate the end product all the more.

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Sisyphus Redux: Toward Pedagogies of Resilience

posted: 5.19.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

If we teach students of traditional college age, we work with young people that, in primary school, experienced 9/11/01 and the beginning of two wars.

Children who attended public school in those years grew to maturity through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. They and their families endured the brunt of the 2008 economic downturn, and continue to experience long-term unemployment and underemployment, as well as housing displacement, overburdened healthcare, mental healthcare, and criminal justice systems, food insecurity, and the storms and floods of climate change.  The wars and the recession have brought to our classrooms combat veterans and dreamers with no immigration papers, or children who were born in the US but whose parents, because they were born elsewhere and have no papers, face deportation.

In other words, we are living through the consequences of history. We also experience these events—either from our own direct involvement, or through our teaching.  It is far from easy. As Pam Whitfield so cogently describes in “Why Teaching Developmental English Breaks My Heart,” we all, on some level, have dealt, as communities and as individuals, with difficult personal, local, national, and global circumstances. We are all in search of an antidote for burnout, or at least a pain reliever.

Although I have neither antidote or pain reliever, I am working toward pedagogy of resilience. This pedagogy germinates from my own experiences of surviving school as an ADHD learner—and from years of teaching and learning in times and places that seemed to cultivate anything but survival.

But I was lucky. In my late teens, I discovered “The Myth of Sisyphus,” by Albert Camus.

The plot of Sisyphus seems easy enough to comprehend. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a rock up to the top of a mountain. Each time Sisyphus reaches the mountaintop, the rock falls back down to the bottom of the mountain, and his apparently pointless labor begins— again and again, for eternity. As teacher/scholars, and as students, we perhaps can identify with this eternal plight. We give our all to our work, only to watch it come crashing down, ending one phase of exertion and beginning another.

Yet—there is a catch. Camus concludes: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  Why happy? Because in the midst of his toil, Sisyphus discovers that, in Camus’s words: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.” As our hero descends the mountain, he realizes that he has survived yet another round of the cycle—and that the cycle itself is absurd. Camus identifies this realization as a moment of consciousness, a moment of acute awareness that, if one is paying attention, can render great happiness.

I have taught “The Myth of Sisyphus” for two academic years in a row, in two very different cities, and in two very different institutional settings.  Last year, we read and wrote about Sisyphus in a small converted office building in a strip mall in the Bronx, and this year on one of the largest university campuses in the southwestern United States. I have asked students to synthesize moments of happiness that they have found in their larger struggles, and I have engaged in this writing with them through a series of blog posts, which I have listed below.

This year, as part of their final writing project, students have engaged in creating t-shirts, websites, and daily planners to document their survival of their first year in college. Through this documentation, they hope to inspire next year’s first-year students to carry on in spite of the odds pitted against them. That is, in the wake of reading Sisyphus, students address both the difficulty of their struggles and their strategies for surviving the difficulty.

As I write the last blog post of this academic year, I have just finished evaluating the students’ final projects and recording their grades.  Even as my first academic year in the southwest has ended, I am still processing the results of the students’ responses and innovations to this experiment in the pedagogy of resilience.  For the next step, I will compile the students’ digital work on a website for the entering class of 2018.

But for the moment, the desert heat is beginning to settle over the valley where I now make my home.  I think of the cool white t-shirt that one student made to fulfill final writing project requirements, with drawings of flowers and a quote from Sisyphus. The quote reads: “He is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

And so the summer begins.

To see another practical application of these ideas, see “Who Gets to Graduate?” by Paul Tough.

Appendix:

Blog Posts Based on “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus

Persistence  (1/23/12)

Engage—and Boldly Go Outside the Comfort Zone (4/24/12)

The First Day of Class: A Lesson in the Absurd (9/24/12)

The Sisyphus Year (5/21/13)

In Caring There is Hope: A Response to “I Don’t Like Teaching” (6/17/13)

Reading, Writing, Multimedia—and Sisyphus (4/22/14)

Synthesis: A Moment of Happiness (5/5/14)

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Synthesis: A Moment of Happiness

posted: 5.5.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

One morning, late in the spring semester, my phone alarm sounded at 8:50 a.m. as it usually does on the days that I teach, and reminded me that class begins in ten minutes. The phone alarm is set to Patti Smith’s song “People Have the Power,” which helps me to become mindful of a day’s work about to begin. Usually I turn off the alarm right away, but on this particular morning I decided to listen more carefully to the words. I heard: “Listen, I believe everything we dream/Can come to pass through our union/We can turn the world around/We can turn the earth’s revolution.” This song, I thought, has been my theme song this year, the song that kept me resilient in difficult moments, and grounded in more joyful times.

In class that day we were supposed to discuss The Myth of Sisyphus, and I remembered that Camus writes: “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” How do we arrive at the moment of happiness? What gives us the strength to roll that rock up hill yet again, knowing only that we will need to repeat our work for what seems like eternity? Camus suggests that Sisyphus finds his moment of happiness when he realizes the absurdity of his task, during that long trudge down the mountain to retrieve his rock. So the process of schooling—and the writing process itself—is not merely about rolling the same rock up and down for eternity. It also involves that moment of happiness.

“We can turn the world around,” I thought, “that is the lyric that moves me.” At the same time I wondered about my students, who had encountered Sisyphus for the first time this semester. So I invited students synthesize their thoughts about Sisyphus with a song that could serve as their theme song, a song that described their own moments of happiness. We listened to several theme songs from a variety of sources and time periods, everything from Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” to Myley Cyrus’s “The Climb,” to The Script’s  “Hall of Fame.” Then I asked students why the songs related to Sisyphus, and to find a takeaway point from listening to several songs at once. The students suggested that the songs, as different as they seemed, discussed universal themes, especially perseverance—pushing through and not giving up. Perseverance, for the students, was linked to that moment of happiness. Sisyphus achieves because he keeps trying. Even as the cycle remains endless, each time he moves through the process, he learns something new. This learning also brings happiness.

I have written about synthesis before, in relation to finding similarities in two seemingly different print texts. Traci Gardner and Jonathan Alexander, in previous Bits posts, have drawn attention to the importance of synthesis for understanding and creating visual rhetoric. Yet synthesis can serve additional functions, outside—as well as inside—of writing studies classes.

Students enrolled in college daily confront contradictions in their lives: post-secondary education, they are told by employers, families, government, peers, and high school teachers, is necessary for a good job. Yet good jobs are few and far between, and student loans to cover tuition costs carry notoriously high interest rates. Even if one manages to find a good job after graduation, much of the salary will go toward student loan payments. What is the purpose and what is the point? Class can be boring and writing is hard work.  Why stick with this? Why stay?

As teachers, we need to find the means to intervene in negative self-talk. Perhaps we cannot change the material realities of students’ lives. Yet, as we grapple with writing and with making meaning, we can offer a new vocabulary for addressing the absurdity of difficult circumstances. We can begin the journey again, aiming for the summit. Synthesis remains the moment of happiness as we move down the hill—and the rock that pushes us forward.

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Reading, Writing, Multimedia—and Sisyphus

posted: 4.22.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

During a recent trip out of town, I assigned students an independent study project that combined writing, reading, and multimedia. The assignment reached the students’ inboxes via blackboard during a time when I was away from email and could not respond to questions. My absence from email was purposeful. We are nearing the end of a yearlong program at the end of which students will have earned six full credits toward graduation and/or transfer, including full credit for English 101. The students could handle this task without my supervision.

Little did I dream that the completion of this task would turn into an exercise that would demonstrate the benefits of combining the processes of writing, reading, and multimedia-making.  Yet, because the end of the academic year is fast approaching, I had once more assigned Albert Camus’s essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Reading, writing, and thinking about Sisyphus had been one of last year’s culminating activities in the Bronx.  This year, I added a multimedia component, and came home to find still more inspiration waiting in my email inbox.

The assignment was to create a prototype for a t-shirt that would describe our yearlong program, using a quote from the Myth of Sisyphus. Here are the specifics.

  • Use a quote from Sisyphus that exemplifies your experience with the program and that would appeal to next year’s first-year students.
  • Choose original graphics (take photographs, create a drawing) that illustrate the quote.
  • Create an electronic file of the prototype and send it to me in an email. You can create the entire prototype online, or you can work by hand and take a photo of the results.
  • Write a brief rationale (3-5 paragraphs) that explains what you chose, why you chose it.

The two designs pictured here present a study in contrasts. Although the designers used virtually the same quote, the illustrations themselves point to very different readings—not only of Sisyphus, but also of the purposes of our yearlong study of writing.  Interestingly, a student working alone crafted the design of the “helping hands.” Five students, working together, constructed the design of a single individual, toiling all alone to raise the rock to the top of the mountain.

In class discussion, we focused on the rhetorical situation of this assignment. By combining reading, writing, and multimedia, these writers needed to address the incoming class of 2018; that is, new students who would be part of Fall 2014’s new cohort for this year-long writing program. We discussed the very different messages that each graphic would send to that audience, the first of group support and accomplishment, the second of individual toil and hard work.  We wondered about the impact of shortening the quote. Did Sisyphus have help in his achievement, as the “helping hands” graphic implied, or did he indeed toil all alone?

The writers focused on “achievement” as a key word. Some writers read the “helping hands” as the hands that would greet them at graduation for the achievement of earning their degree. Other writers were concerned about the graphic of the second design. Would the image of Sisyphus struggling alone with his burden provoke too much anxiety for new students? Or would that image offer new students an immediate message of the work that would be required to succeed in the writing program? Or would both of these graphics, presented together, offer new students a more balanced picture of their forthcoming endeavors?

We had no definitive answers that day. Yet, as a Basic Writing teacher/scholar, I garnered new insights from observing these writers interact with The Myth of Sisyphus. I have always believed that reading and writing are inseparable and inextricably linked, each generative of the other. I had initially attempted to introduce multimedia as an add-on to reading and writing, with limited results. That day, I learned that multimedia also must become woven into the processes of reading and writing. Our twenty-first-century lives demand it, and our students deserve nothing less.

At the same time, I came to these insights after re-reading a text that was first published in the 1940s and that I had first encountered in the 1970s. Sisyphus had once more helped me to grasp the twenty-first-century world through an older and more deeply familiar context.

For my students had written: “It is an endless cycle to improve one’s self until death and others after will stand on your shoulders and further the improvement. This cycle is eternal.” And I felt, at last, that I had reached again that moment in the cycle of which Camus writes: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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