Though the profession of Teacher has largely and historically been dominated by women, there is a struggle against patriarchal, hegemonic control in the classroom for female teachers of writing and composition. Struggle against masculine pedagogy and against conceptions of teaching norms are just two examples of the power conflicts female teachers encounter in their academic institutions.

As a female writing student planning to teach later on, I anticipate these issues to arise in my future. My identity as a student now, a teacher later, and a writer always is prone to crisis without insight into the topic. This paper will draw on teaching and composition theory to explore the identity and power of females in the classroom.

“Matters surrounding gender identification are complicated, fluctuating, and ripe territory for the rhetorical critic,” say Donna M. Nudd and Kristan L. Whalen in Why Feminism? (Kuypers, 258). Gender concerns the socially constructed ideas we attach to what it means to be male or female. These ideas will come along with teaching in the classroom, and may pose the complicated matters Nudd and Whalen discuss. To understand femininity takes understanding patriarchy. Globally, societies value masculine qualities such as “competition, individualism, invulnerability, rationality, and physical strength” (Kuypers, 258). Society is male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. This is the patriarchy Nudd and Kristan say is “entrenched in our political and value systems” (Kupers, 257).

On the other end of the gender binary patriarchy creates, femininity is made invisible and marginalized. However, in the classroom, the “connected knowing” of feministic teaching is widely promoted by theorists such as Donald A. McAndrew and Thomas J. Reigstad (McAndrew, 6). According to McAndrew and Reigstad, feminist teaching entails a collaborative relationship where caring guides tutor and writer as they work toward a common goal. Growth is the byproduct of nurturing, feminist teaching. Rather than being oppressed by a patriarchal authority that dictates the right way of writing, or the right way of teaching, authority resides in negotiation and consensus between writer and teacher.

Why theory is typically in favor of feministic teaching brings up questions about women and writing in general. Is composition study in need of a feminine revolution? Do the romanticized perception of writers and writing have to do with a feminist approach? What constrains (or develops) the role of a female tutor or teacher? How significant is power, communication, or rhetoric in the female’s classroom?

This paper attempts to answer questions such as these. It forms a theory-based argument while giving insight into an issue that writing students and teachers must address before finding success in the classroom.

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Observation #3

23Apr14

poop


My tutor Tyler described the hiring process he experienced in applying to the writing center.

“What do you know about rhetoric?” the interviewer had asked him.

“Not much,” Tyler replied.

“Okay. When can you start?”

Rhetoric, as defined by Plato, is “the art of ruling the minds of men.”  Anything that attempts to convince, educate, convert, or even reinforce the mental workings of a listener or reader’s mind is rhetoric.  The purposeful agenda of a student’s work is what tutors should focus on in their sessions.

Analyzing the theory and practice of tutoring brought me to a twofold conclusion.  First, there is a rhetorical purpose for every work of writing. Secondly, there is a rhetorical purpose to tutoring.

I believe Tyler’s interviewer asked about rhetoric upon hiring him into the writing center because understanding of rhetorical purpose is essential to writing.  Writing with purpose speaks from exigence, requires awareness of an intended audience, works within given constraints, and employs artistic proofs.

ExigenceAudienceConstraintsArtistic Proofs

In advising me, Tyler made initial moves to understand the rhetorical purpose of my work by asking what the paper was for, what the prompt said, and for which class I was writing it. An awareness of the intended audience how the message of a work affects that audience is crucial.    The who, what, and why you write for directly affect the content of your writing.  A tutor would not be able to give appropriate advice without knowing such constraints.

Taking note of a student’s rhetorical purpose in their work is looking at the “writer-reality-audience-language relationship” that underlies the composing process.  In The Major Pedagogical Theories James Berlin says this relationship exists in every stage of writing: prewriting, writing, and rewriting.

A writer attempts to alter the reality of his or her audience by their use of language.  This is almost Lloyd Bitzer’s definition for rhetoric word for word: “rhetoric is a mode of altering reality…by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action.”

A tutor who is aware of what is central to a writer’s work will have a greater sense of how to tutor them, despite whatever genre, subject, or ability level constrains them.  The tutor must know that the student is attempting to alter the reality of her peers or teacher by use of the language written down on her paper.  “To teach writing is to argue for a version of reality,” Berlin says.  This reality– how we, or our audiences perceive the world–is prone to change with a skillful use of language. Tutors guide writers as they communicate new realities to their audience.

To communicate an alternative reality to an audience through writing takes thought and mastery of language.  Walter Ong says in The Orality of Language, “Writing enlarges the potentiality of language almost beyond measure,” and “restructures thought.”  Thought, language, and writing are intertwined.  Tutors should assess their students’ thought processes and language use when evaluating their writing.

I don’t think Tyler managed to find out more about rhetoric since the day of his hire.  Experience taught him that it was only common sense to find out the academic purpose of a student’s work by asking for the assignment’s prompt.  Unless his students mentioned it, I don’t think Tyler perceived an audience besides the teachers the writings were assigned by.  Tyler had a knack for observing the constraints of a paper by reading the prompt.  He was good at fitting a paper into the checklist rubric Nicole gave him, for example.  However, Tyler did not notice a writer’s use of artistic proofs, or their tools of persuasion.

As for the rhetorical purpose of his students’ work, Tyler missed out on a lot of it.  In regard to his rhetorical purpose as a tutor, I don’t think he realized an inkling of it.

The rhetorical purpose of a tutor has the same outline as the rhetorical purpose of a work of writing.

 

 

 


Observation #2

14Apr14

“I’d go gonzo for this,” I thought to myself after my second tutoring observation in the writing center.

It had taken quite a lot of effort to finally score a session with a tutor.  The classmate I originally  partnered with was as flaky as layered biscuits, which didn’t jive with my busy schedule.  Instead of observing Miss Pillsbury do–n’t-have-the-time-even-if-I-said-I-did Girl, I observed a random student named Nicole.*

Nicole graciously allowed me to look on as tutor Tyler reviewed a draft of her paper on obesity. She flipped open a pink-covered laptop (which matched her pink nails and sorority bag!) and got started.   They first brought up the prompt: a 1.5-page long, 10-pt font, single-spaced checklist on what to write for physiological psychology.

If Nicole and Tyler had glanced at their observer sitting behind them, they’d surely hear the loud “Oh, goodie!” of my face expression.

“What is the topic?” asked Tyler.

“Any physiological issue.  I chose obesity,” replied Nicole.

“What do you think about your paper? Why’d you bring it to me?” Tyler asked Nicole.

For her 14-page draft, Nicole wanted to make transitions flow and improve clarity, organization, and coherence.  This initial exchange of question and answer between Tyler and Nicole would be the most I’d hear of Nicole’s voice throughout the session.  It was short and sweet, like a cordial bank transaction or a fast food order.

Pink laptop then switched laps as Tyler took control.  He read the paper out loud.  He suggested revisions.  He typed in corrections. Her pink fingertips never touched the pink keyboard throughout the entire session.  Instead they stayed on her arms, which were crossed and motionless.

Pink lips were relatively motionless as well.  It seemed as if our tutee had a very limited vocabulary.  So limited, in fact, that Nicole only knew six or seven different words.  Lulled by Tyler’s droning, flat reading voice, I resorted to the engaging task of tallying Nicole’s words for the rest of the hour. photo   These were the ONLY words Nicole would say in response to:

“Is that your thesis?”

“Sounds like its describing the paper rather than making a strong argument.”

“‘An individual’ is singular and ‘them’ is plural.” “Do you want to make this a quote?”

“I’m going to add a subject to your clause.”

“Is ‘over eating’ hyphenated?”

I get more communication from my infant cousin with down syndrome in a minute than Tyler got from Nicole in an hour.  And that brings me to the conclusions I drew from applying theoretical knowledge to this tutoring session.

Muriel Harris says in Collaboration is Not Collaboration if Not Collaboration, that a tutor’s role is to provide needed support, offer reader response, diagnose underlying problems, and lead the student to discover his or her own answers.  Most importantly, the tutor is there to listen.  

Jeff Brooks emphasizes the importance of the student’s ownership of their writing in Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work.

In The Idea of a Writing Center, Stephen North advocates producing better writers, not better writing.

I wouldn’t say Tyler failed to do these things.  He did the best job he could to help Nicole, but by employing techniques that focused on lower-order concerns.  Higher-order concerns, the less shallow issues Tyler addressed might include Nicole’s lack of engagement with her paper, her tutor, or her subject, awareness of audience, or expertise on the topic.  The lower-order concerns that were addressed included punctuation and grammar.

Brooks would disapprove of how Tyler revised the paper on his own, on Nicole’s laptop.  The positioning of his hands on the keyboard completely transferred ownership from Nicole to him.  It may have been a move towards collaboration, but there was no contributing effort on Nicole’s part.  She sat back in submission as Tyler polished her paper for her.

If ever Nicole would come back to Tyler, I believe the same issues would arise.  Tyler would make the same grammar and punctuation corrections and Nicole would respond with the same vocabulary.  The writing may have been improved this time, but the writer… not so much.

 


Observation #1

14Apr14

I met Tyler* for a tutoring session in the writing center last week.  As I handed him my writing he mumbled, “Now, where’s my red pen?”

Nightmares of grammar Nazi teachers’ past came rushing back to me and I prepared for the worst.

I gave Tyler a paper copy of a blog post I wrote on minimalist tutoring and collaborative learning.  I wondered, who would be the pro here?  The experienced tutor? Or the well-read tutoring scholar?

Tyler read through my paper out loud, which was different from other tutoring techniques I’ve studied.  In Tutoring Writing: A Practical Guide for Conferences, Donald McAndrew and Thomas Reigstad suggest the tutor read a student’s paper only when the student is not comfortable reading aloud.  Tyler chose to read it himself right off the bat.  To hear voice and tone is the objective of reading out loud, say McAndrew and Reigstad.

“Is the voice you hear in the piece the one you expect to hear?” they advise tutors to ask students.  I was  able to answer that question myself, without Tyler ever asking it.  It was easy to track the flow of my writing by hearing his voice.  Any stumbles or pauses he made signaled areas where my punctuation or word choice needed work.

Lisa Ede describes writing as a social process.  Reading aloud simulates that social act of exchanging verbal messages.  It is the closest thing to having a “conversation” with an imagined audience.  Language is, after all, “an oral phenomenon,” according to Walter Ong.

Tyler read my paper without much struggle.  In one or two places he’d lose his breath reading a run-on sentence, or mix up the words of wordy phrase.  I learned a simple rule to follow for future writing: words written have to be easy to read out loud.

In the typically solitary act that is writing, the voice I hear reading my work is in my head.  It reads effortlessly, as easily as I typed the words on the screen.  Hearing someone else read my writing put the audience’s internal “voice” in perspective.

When he was done, he gave me the tutoring advice and criticism he had saved for the end.  He commented on my use of the word “to.”  Many of my “to”s were unnecessary, because of something about “prepositions.”  I had never noticed how “have to” could be replaced with “must,” or how “has to own” could be simply replaced with “owns.”  It was a note-worthy piece of advise.

Something else about “infinitives” and “definitives” caught my ear, but I mainly remembered the final approval he gave me for writing a good paper.

“Yeah! It’s good.”

 

 

*Name has been changed.

 


By studying theory on the practices of writing and tutoring, tutors gather information to coincide with the empirical knowledge they gain from the act of writing or tutoring itself.  Only when coupled together do theory and practice produce strong writing and strong tutoring.  Lisa Ede says in Writing as a Social Process, “theory without practice is likely to result in ungrounded, inapplicable speculation.”

Speculation describes anything but what Jeff Brooks endorses in Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Workan article preaching a sturdy argument for establishing the writer’s ownership of a paper in a tutoring session.  Muriel Harris also provides strong theory in Collaboration is not Collaboration is not Collaboration: Writing Center Tutorials vs. Peer-Response Groups.

Fresh from reading and discussing Brooks and Harris, my classmate Lauren and I put theory to practice in a mock-tutoring session.  I brought her a piece I wrote for the Chapman Women’s Lacrosse team blog, and she brought me an excerpt of a final paper from a previous class.  Minimalism, as emphasized by Brooks, was the theme of the half-an-hour; collaboration, defined by Harris, was the methodology.

Lauren took the initiative to “make the student the primary agent” in the session, as Brooks would have wanted.  I had to take complete ownership of my piece by first reading it out loud, and then by explaining influences and inspirations for my writing.  It was a heavily influenced and inspired entry in the first place, but the words of the blog alone wouldn’t reveal the entire truth of that.  To expose the workings of my process, Lauren talked to me as an individual and respected my authority over the writing.  She surely kept Brooks’s advice in mind: “Get the student to talk.  It’s her paper; she is the expert on it.”

Brooks says a tutor functions as “a living human body who is willing to sit patiently and help the student spend time with her paper.”  To have another human body, another pair of eyes, another mind engage with the work you would otherwise develop alone opens you to a collaborative learning experience.  In tutoring, contrasted to peer-response groups, tutor and tutee collaborate to emphasize individualized concerns.  Harris says that tutorials are “minimal” (in conjunction with Brooks) because they are focused on one writer, or one piece of writing, instead of the group.  Despite the individual-oriented focus, the engaging process of tutoring is a social act between two able people.

As I reviewed Lauren’s paper, I aimed to “lead the student toward finding her own answers,” which Harris advises in Collaboration is Not Collaboration.  I wanted specific answers to questions she had not asked herself, such as an explanation of the choice of point of view, or how she actually wrote the paper, or what the rest of the paper was like.  However it was not my place to assume the answers for her, but to ask the appropriate questions instead.

I found it difficult to take any directive authority over the writing, which a teacher, rather than a tutor, might do.  Harris explains this by saying a tutor “becomes a hybrid creation”– neither teacher nor peer– for the tutee.  Equal status may be the case in a peer-response group.   In a tutorial there is a tiered, yet two-way authority: authority of the writer over her work and authority of the tutor as a trained professional.

As much as a tutored writer has to own her work, I learned from Lauren that a tutor has to own her ability to encourage the writer to “anticipate her readers’ questions,” “diagnose possible underlying problems,” “offer needed support,” and listen.  Harris says that “in a tutorial, tension exists when the writer wants to improve the paper and the tutor wants to improve the writer.”  Although I didn’t encounter much of this tension with Lauren, the mock-session gave me confidence that with minimalism and collaboration, that tension can easily be overcome.

 

 

 

 


One on One

31Mar14

My classmate Zasha* fell victim to my first crack at tutoring. In a mock tutoring session for our Theory and Practice of Writing, Tutoring, and Conferencing course, Zasha and I brought each other pieces of our most recent writing.

“Why we write,” was what we wrote on.  So meta.  So personal.  We had to tutor each other for the 1000 words that explained why we were writers, and why we were taking this English class in the first place.  I don’t think half the class realized the actual weight of the project, but I surely felt it while reading and tutoring Zasha.

Theorists precaution tutors to avoid becoming therapists or “living diaries” for the students they mentor.  How was that avoidable with such a personal writing assignment? How could two girls, giddy and open-hearted from making a fresh friendship, avoid becoming anything but living diaries for each other?

Tutoring Zasha and being tutored in return exemplified the capability for a conference to become intimate.  One-on-one is a delicate interaction for any two people.  Center it around what I believe to be the most sensitive activity in academia: writing, and a one-on-one conference inevitably becomes something more.

The Zasha I read was different from the Zasha I sat next to.  Her writing was highly emotional, open, vulnerable.  Her feelings were all over the computer screen.  Zasha didn’t express this much about herself out loud.  In fact, our initial conversations were trivial and unimportant.  In writing, Zasha took on a different identity that was not light, but heavy, and not guarded, but giving.

I’m a nice person.  So I was nice.  The feeling expressed in Zasha’s writing was reciprocated by a feeling-considerate tutor.  Much as it made me squirm in my tomboy lacrosse uniform, the entire conference became a give and take of just that- Feeling.

Zasha’s emotionally-charged, raw writing was deposited into my open hands, and I was compelled to feel for her in return.  Empathy was the most memorable of those feelings.  As open as Zasha was, I tutored her with just as much careful consideration.  I was walking on eggshells.  Misstep with a wrong word of advice here, break a heart there.

The activity was freeing for Zasha, as she said.  It was a bit constraining for me.  I learned that a tutor is much more liable for her words than a student is for theirs.  It takes grace to walk the tight rope between harsh critic and caring mentor.  Nevertheless, the liberation and empowerment a good conference provides for students like Zasha make that painstaking walk worthwhile.

A problem I noticed that came from reverting the tutor to become the tutee in this mock session was that vibes from the previous conference bled into the next.  There was an emotional transaction made in the last session, and Zasha paid me back for it.  With interest.

The piece I offered was my post, “One Story,” a narrative of my adventures with high school English.  It’s unlikely that Zasha was aware of any indebtedness, personal-wise, left over from my previous review of her writing.  But maybe my writing was just that good.  I’d like to believe the latter, but just as much as I’d like to believe Zasha’s gushing praise was well-deserved.  I’m really more humble than I boast.

Zasha said I wrote things that may as well have come from her own mind.  I’ll be honest.  She made me proud of this quality, especially since my main goal writing “One Story” was to make it relatable.  She gave me more good reviews and a question or two.  I don’t remember much else of her mentorship.  We talked more about her writing from there.  By now, I was pretty good at it.

*Name has been changed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Short Story

24Mar14

If my so-called “partner” was truly worthy of all the puppy-dog love and admiration he gets from the boss, the guys, and even the goddamn hookers at Denny’s on Sunset, he’d be here. Right now. Buying me a draft for all the shit I’ve been through without him.

“Kid’s on a sickbed and the wife’s on a church mission,” my ass. More like the kid’s healthy with Ms. Jones next door and you took your saintly wife on a second honeymoon to try to keep her mind off the blonde, struggling actor you can’t compete with no matter how much Viagra you pop after your sad, lonely, home-cooked, evening TV dinner.

Two weeks off is enough, man. I’ve got a life too. And without you, that life is exactly what’s on the line out here in the streets. Tremaine DuPont has his boys on a roll, killing the Garcias and all. Perez is retaliating of course, Chang won’t take sides, Tremaine won’t take “No” for an answer, and looka here! We have a massacre every fucking day. And is it YOUR sorry, tan-lined ass out here getting shot at? No. Bitch, it’s MINE.

Fuck. Better get home while I’m ok to drive.

One day, when I’m running the precinct, bums like Roberts won’t be here to dump all the shit on us rooks. We’re the one’s who do the dirty work. Sure, Roberts. You can read him his rights. I’ll just keep my knees buried in the sewer ditch here, holding the knife-wielding son of a gun in a choke hold that’s not endangering my life at all. I know you can’t even wrap your arms around your own body, with that sack of lard under your tits.

I’ve just gotta keep going. Keep up the good work. Andrews says I’m dependable. McArthur keeps me honest, but the guy likes me no doubt. And let’s just say my dashing good looks have nothing to do with it, but Lisa upstairs says she’s not the only one keeping an eye on me…

Things could be better, but I’ve got a lot going well for me. A promising career, a new apartment, and maybe a lady… in the future… to keep me company. Work’s the shits right now. But it can’t get any worse, can it?

Wrong alley. I’m not that tipsy am I? Ok, here we are. Right where I left you. You, my squad car. But you, Tremaine? Where the FUCK did you come from!!?

Hands in the air!!! Hands in the AIR!!! HANDS IN THE FUCKING AIR!!! DO YOU HEAR ME YOU SORRY PIECE OF SH…

“I don’t mean no harm, boss. I saw yo car and… Please…”

He’s bleeding. On my shoes. Fucking Roberts… why the fuck am I alone here?

“Perez, his…”

I DON’T WANNA HEAR IT! SHUT UP, HANDS ON THE CAR, AND SPREAD YOUR LEGS! NOW! I said NOW, DuPont! GET UP OFF YOUR ASS AND….

Winded from yelling, I can’t help but exhale and look at him there. Sorry son of a bitch. Can’t even stand. “Never let your guard down, NEVER.” I remember you saying that, McArthur. You probably would have shot the mass killer by now… Roberts too… but I… I just…

“Fuck you AND yo white boy profanity. Sheet. Twenty-eight years of runnin these streets wit da HARDest muhfuckers out there and I’m goin out listenin to fucken MISTER GODDAMN ROGERS cussin the fucken cracka ass shit he learned in pre-school. Help a nigga and gimme a goddamn cigarrette. I’m dyin.”

Who does this crook think I am? I don’t know how the fuck he knew my last name was Rogers, but I’m no cardigan-wearing fool. I have a gun. Looks like he’s unarmed. But you never know. “Never let your guard down. NEVER.” Better radio in for back up.

Hey 876, Code 2. Whats your 20? 10-4. Santee Alley. Copy. EYYY! EYY YOU! Don’t MOVE!

I swear he reached in his pocket. I SWEAR. Out of the corner of my eye I swear I saw something silver and shiny. But all I see is a bloody ebony hand clutching a Malbaro pack of cigarettes, and more blood. Everywhere.

“I’m all out, boss. Help me. I’m dyin.”

Yeah, 876, we need an ambulance here. Yeah. DuPont. DuPont. Copy.

“No need, yo. Just make sure you slam Perez’s sorry ass, Rogers. If yo boys don’t do it, mine will.”

No, DuPont. You’re going to a hospital and YOUR sorry ass is gonna be thrown straight in jail. See if you can kill any more innocent people in there.

“Whateva. I don give a fuh. Hand me a goddamn cigarette.”

You don’t realize how you have made life HELL on earth for people, do you!? I have lost FRIENDS out there because of you. Better if I leave you out here to die. Leave you to the RATS you piece of shit.

“Dzamn, Rogers. Calm down, yo. Blame that dirty wetback, Perez. HE’S the killer. Nigga’s gotta look out for the family, Rogers. You have a family? Huh?? Naw? Well you dun know shit.”

I know there’s families out there that were RUINED because of you. Fathers. Gone. Sons. Gone.

“I never knew my daddy. But I got a boy. You think I’m ‘sposed to let dat fuckin maricon run his shit and kill MY family!? Do I LOOK like a fuckin pussy to you? Brotha stands here SHANKED by a fuckin mariachi COWARD and you tellin him he gotta feel guilty and shit for doin whus RIGHT!?”

I do the right thing. I DO. You’re a killer and you deserve to die.

“Sheet. You go on tell that to my son, Rogers. You go on.”

By now, there’s no chance. I see the wound’s deep. Lots of blood. He’s such a dark man, and wearing dark clothes; I wouldn’t be able to see the blood on him here in the dark if it weren’t for the moonlight. A dark night. A dark man. I must look like a fucking glow stick.

“You tell that to my son, Rogers. You tell him. You tell… Destin… my son…”

I watch this gangster, this killer dying before my eyes, and realize he’s neither of those things… at least not right now. He’s human.

“853? 853? Do you copy? 10-76. ETA 02:48. Do you copy?”

McArthur’s voice on the radio sounds a mile away. I prop Tremaine to sit up against the car and pull a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket. Reaching for a cigarette I glimpse my own hand in the moonlight, and see a stain of blood, red as a scarlet wool cardigan against my pale skin.


“One Story”

09Mar14

Writing, for me, is a story of stories.  Just like no single experience has shaped me as a person, no single influence has shaped me as a writer.  I’ve encountered many influences.  There is a story to tell about each one, but if we’re talking simply, there is only one story.

High school reading and writing was a blur of school paper articles, novels, MLA-formatted papers, red-ink grammar corrections, and a Lord of the Flies paperback annotated to put the Half-blood Prince’s Advanced Potion-Making to shame.  1984 highlighted till bleeding, after-school-hours in journalism, and trying not to stutter while reciting Desdemona’s lines.  A rare, throwback-to-kindergarten book report here, an open letter there, timed essays, SAT writing tests, Strunk, White, Frost, and finally… Stop.  Pause, and…

“Open Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature like a Professor to page 185,” my English teacher Mrs. Farmer told us senior year.

We purchased many books as honors English students at El Toro High School.  This one, Holy Grail of literary counsel, was a purchase worth more than all the tatty paperbacks I bought put together.  Reading Mrs. Farmer’s selected chapters of How to Read Literature Like a Professor stands as a frozen moment in my writing experience, because it was the moment when answers were given, when connections clicked.

For all the literature I read in high school, I always knew the answers.  I always made the right connections.  I had a knack for literary analysis.  So when Mrs. Sheridan would ask us, “What religious figure does Simon remind you of in Lord of the Flies?”  I’d raise my hand, clear my throat (for dramatic effect), and answer, “Jesus.”

For all the papers I wrote in high school, I (pretty much) always knew the answers.  I always made the right connections.  I had a knack for writing according to each English teacher’s preferences.  So when Mr. Shields gave us an essay prompt that seemed too open-ended, I’d take a philosophical tone and apply big questions to something as focused as a passage in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

You can see that I must have established a fairly large literary ego by the time Mrs. Farmer had us first open How to Read Literature like a Professor.  The section we read titled, “One Story” put my proud ego to its rightful place: on its knees.

When asked if she knew as a child that she wanted to be a writer, Toni Morrison answered, “No.  I wanted to be a reader.”

I learned how to read and write simultaneously when I was younger, but I know that I was first a reader before I ever became a writer.  The stories I read, from No, David! to I am David, collected in me to create the writer I’ve come to be.

Words are taken in when I read, and the same words are spewed out when I write.  If you look at my writing closely, you’ll surely see the same sentence structures, patterns, and even themes from works I’ve read before.

This is intertextuality is what Foster talks about in How to Read Literature Like a Professor.  In a sense, every writer is a plagiarist. “Pure originality is impossible,” he says.  My essay on Ken Kesey’s Randle McMurphy as a Christ figure? It’s been said before.  My compare-and-contrast on the hubris of Oedipus and Othello? It’s been said before.  And every one of my English teachers who ever rolled his or her eyes at an essay repeating the previous student’s knew it.  They just never told me.

High egos trail every honors English student who graduates from high school.  Add an editor’s position on the school newspaper, a 4.03 weighted GPA, and acceptance to a prestigious private school and it’s impossible to refrain from self-glorification in every following assignment you write.  The very words you use might reflect the pompous student you were when you thought your knowledge of the symbolism in Animal Farm set you above the “regular” students who were still, undeniably, “cooler” than you.

Forgetting that my book-smarts compensated for my social anxiety and insecurity in high school, I read Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor with humility.

“There’s only one story,” read the bolded words on the bottom of page 185.  The chapter goes on to say that this story–told by every story in existence–is the human story.  It’s a story about us that’s “not about anything.  It’s about everything,” says Foster.

The reason why every movie, play, or novel seems to follow the same plot line of exposition to conflict to climax to denouement is because “Every Trip is a Quest” (Chapter 1).  We’ve seen the storyline of The Notebook before because, “When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare” (Chapter 6).  Piggy from Lord of the Flies, Tiresias from The Odyssey, and Neo from The Matrix have vision problems because “He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know” (Chapter 22).

Every work written draws from and interacts with past works.  That means everything I write draws from and interacts with what I’ve read and written in the past.  You might call it plagiarism.  I call it familiarity.  I’m not in creative writing, but the stories I tell don’t materialize out of thin air.  They’re echoes of past stories.  They collect into one story: my own.

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It takes humility to admit that your words are not your own, and that you are not as original as you think you are.   Whatever sarcastic humor I think I have came from Vice Magazine.  Going all natural, writing words that automatically come to mind employs Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous method.  Visually-stimulating adjectives listed to describe trivial objects are just the Gabriel García Márquez talking in me.

But the reason I knew Simon reflected Jesus in Lord of the Flies was because I heard a familiar story of self-sacrifice in Sunday school.  I knew there was a philosophical answer to why Jim and Huck travelled down the Mississippi because I’ve asked myself philosophical questions about the journeys I travel, too.

As Foster says, it’s a comfort to recognize characters, symbols, archetypes, or patterns in the things we read.  They are familiar and relatable.  Their resonance sounds deep in our collective subconscious.  I will never feel so proud to believe myself a genius, but I’m comforted to know there are words and ideas from geniuses before me to build and guide my own.

Humbling as reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor was for me, I look back and feel confident that the answers and connections I seek through reading and writing lie in the stories I already know. Inevitably, I know they will be revealed through the story I tell.

 


In the “black box” of your mind, you think…  therefore you are.  Your individual mind is the matrix of all thought, and you can produce great ideas all by yourself.  For you, knowledge has a universal foundation upon what you know is built, and by which your own knowledge is assured of its certainty or truth.  And yet, there are problems with this knowledge.  Most of it is unattainable, mysterious.  Try as you might, you just can’t see it all.

So goes the usual, cognitive-based conception of thought, knowledge, and reality.  If it feels familiar to you, then you, like many of your academic peers and superiors, do not hold a social constructionist view.  Yet the view of a social constructionist is the view we as academics must adopt if we want to challenge tradition and step into modernity, according to Kenneth A. Bruffee.

In Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge: A Bibliographical Essay, Bruffee quotes philosopher Thomas Kuhn: Knowledge is “intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all.”  This is the basis of social constructionism.  The social constructionist says “reality, knowledge, thought, facts, texts, selves, and so on are constructs generated by communities of like-minded peers,” according to Bruffee.  All that we know was collectively constructed, not based off a single foundation, or formulated in a single mind.  We have open access to knowledge and reality, and we can also contribute to it.

Cognitive, epistemology-concerned perception of knowledge is not language-centered.  Instead, it “places language on the margin of knowledge as a mere medium or conduit– a set of ‘skills’ by which ‘ideas’ are ‘communicated’ or ‘transmitted’ from one individual mind to another.”  But we know from Walter Ong that language constitutes our human consciousness.  It is internal, rather than an external currency to exchange.  Knowledge and language are inseparable, according to the social constructionist.  Reading and writing, two mediums of language exchange, are central to education.

In composition education, reading and writing take center stage.  Social constructionism is the spotlight.  Tutoring Writing: A Practical Guide for Conferences by Donald A. McAndrew and Thomas J. Reigstad begins telling us what to remember as we tutor a student’s writing: “Even when a writer might seem to be writing alone, she is still connected to others because she thinks of the audience to whom she writes, and she thinks of what she has read, heard, said, and written previously.”

We should look at tutoring as a social interaction between tutor and tutee, and all the works of writing that have influenced both.  When we do this, the dialogue of our tutoring session “takes place in the wider context of language and culture,” say McAndrew and Reigstad.

Now knowing about social constructionism and its place in the tutoring session, I cannot underestimate what kind of importance the seemingly insignificant writings I read and do in school might have in the social dialogue of thought, knowledge, and reality.  I think that if a tutor places this kind of importance on their student’s work, the student will do the same.  It benefits both the tutor and student to think of a work as a continuation of the creation of knowledge, of reality.

How isolating writing and even pensive thought used to seem to me was changed by these readings.  I realize that thoughts that seem private to my own mind were shaped by influences and stimulus around me.  Nothing is purely original, but derived from something social.  Yet in my mind, and while I write, it sometimes feels like I’m the only human on the planet.

I don’t know whether to feel empowered or belittled by the thought of a socially constructed reality.  Behind me, there are  brilliant words and thoughts guiding me.  Above me leer authorities that say nothing I create is my own.  Social constructivism may have a place in the tutoring session, but it will be a while before it takes a place in the core of my beliefs.