English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

Either, Or, and (maybe) Neither

by Dave Nentwick

     Hmmmm. So many choices. It' the or that makes it difficult to begin: "explore your own literacy history or describe your experiences (or a single experience) with writing and/or writing instruction."

     As a writing instructor and/or tutor, I have traveled on either side of the or; that is to say that I have at times according to the wishes of the students in the class, or my own desires to be "teacherly," given very specific prompts for writing assignments. In one "Freshman level" Rhetoric course called "Profit and Loss: Medicine, Morality, and Corporate America," for the first paper-length assignment I wrote up three paragraph-long "questions," and a short sentence-long prompt (a "choose your own paper" question) and gave the class the opportunity to choose one of the four to write in response to. Students could choose to respond to question #1 or question #2 or question #3, or question #4. Choices. Teacher determined choices.

      My thinking behind structuring the assignment that way was influenced by several factors: should these students be "forced" to write specifically about issues in some way based on the readings we had explored through class discussion, or, in the tradition of Donald Murray, should student writing be the text of the writing-based classroom? Should the questions ask the students to write in such a way as to demonstrate their knowledge and familiarity with specific texts and the kind of writing that many professors might ask students to do in response to texts, or should I encourage them to begin their writing from a place of their own choosing and personal interests and experience? Did I want to instruct student writers in the traditions and conventions of academic writing, of exposition, argument, and analysis, or did I want students to feel absolutely free to choose a form that they were comfortable with?

      Ultimately, I spent much time and effort writing up three very detailed question/prompts that would allow, in some fashion, for students to navigate among all of the above mentioned possibilities (I left myself and them an out: question/prompt #4 was "Or choose your own topic and format, as long as it is related somehow to the medical/ethical issues which we have raised so far in class"). After having written three very "academic" prompts, I had to at least include room for students to play and experiment within the structure of the sequence of assignments, or else I would have to stop telling myself that I was trying for a student-centered classroom.

     I based the prompts on class discussions, so the topics weren't "teacher determined" in the strictest sense. In class, the conversations seemed to center around certain issues, questions, and problems, so I centered the writing assignments around those issues, questions, and problems that the class in general seemed to be interested in, although these topics appeared before the students now in the form of a question and in the language of the teacher. I thought that if I, the instructor, was going to be the originator of the actual writing assignment, at least I could pose the students' own questions back to them and give them the opportunity to write about them.

     Students were asked to commit to respond to one of the four questions, and to sign an assignment contract. I asked students to sign a contract because they could also choose to do this assignment or not. I had structured the course so that students could pick and choose which assignments they wanted to do: there would be seven writing assignments given over the course of the semester and students would be required to choose any five of those seven, two of which had to be longer papers. I wanted to build some flexibility into the course and allow students to do the work according to their own habits and work styles. Motivated students could get the work for the course out of the way and give themselves a bit of a break during the final week of the semester, and procrastinators would be able to indulge themselves to their own delight. I wanted to give students enough choices, and enough different types of choices, so that in some way they could, in effect, create their own course within the course.

     I have, at other times, framed writing assignments rather loosely. For example, in a course I taught this past summer, "Questioning Authority, Author-izing Ourselves," I asked students to begin to situate themselves as human beings within the world of academia: I asked them to write a literacy autobiography. The guidelines for this assignment were rather loose. As a class we read six very different literacy autobiographies: Linda Brodkey's "Writing on the Bias" in which the author tries to write space for herself as a woman, a writer, and an academic. Also Chapter 11, "Saved," from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which a young black male prisoner relates his coming into the written language as a discovery of its inherent power as hegemonic discourse (particularly how language has worked to perpetuate racial prejudice and subjugation of the black man). We read Shirley Brice-Heath's "Ways With Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classroom," an ethnographic/sociolinguistic look at the textual practices of small town called Trackton, and Mary Soliday's "Translating Self and Difference Through Literacy Narratives," in which the author gives examples one her student's writings to illustrate how we might use our own stories to understand how we negotiate various discourse communities, and the relationship between those literate practices and a person's sense of identity. So that we could read some work written by non-professionals, we read an early draft of a literacy autobiography written by a graduate student at SUNY Binghamton in which he explores reading cultural codes and coming to terms with his homosexuality and finally a draft of a literacy autobiography written by yet another graduate student at SUNY Binghamton in which the author explores issues of literacy, prejudice, gender and race: a black woman with substantial learning disability talks about her educational experiences so as to uncover the possibilities for silencing and violence in educational settings.

     For this assignment, I simply said: "This will be a course project and will not be due until the last week of class. You will be given the opportunity to produce many drafts of this project, and opportunities to workshop your drafts in class with your peers. You may be influenced by the reading of these autobiographies, you may not. Further readings in this course may influence your approach. I only ask that you somehow engage your own history as a literate being. You may be as creative as you like- for example, a poem or short story would be great." They were free to go in any direction they chose.

     I guess I'm getting back to Elbow's Writing Without Teachers, and Lauer's "Rhetorical Approach," particularly as they are concerned with how writers actually begin to write. Elbow proposes that writers discover their own topics through the act of generating text. For Elbow, the writer must sit down and write, and see what develops on the page: the writing will tell the writer where its going; the writer will recognize the direction the writing is taking and will somehow know what is worth keeping and what is worth throwing away. In other words, it is the writing self, in dialogue with the generated text (growing), and the generated text in dialogue with itself (cooking) which determines the form and content of the final product.

     On the other hand, Lauer's rhetorical approach imposes a series of heuristic structures into the writing classroom as guidelines for students to follow as they begin to figure out the form and content of their writing. Lauer's rhetorical approach asks the writer to participate in the rigors of various formal rhetorical exercises as a way to generate possibilities for writing. How should we structure writing assignments to get students to begin to write?

     When I began this writing, I was momentarily paralyzed by the "or's" of this assignment. Should I go with the instructor's suggestions and simply use the language of the prompt to inform my decision-making process? I have written a literacy history before: should I go back to that history and engage it from a different place? If I choose to write about a particular writing experience, which one should it be? If I choose to write about an experience as a writing instructor, which one should it be? How can I write those experiences so that they correspond in some way to the first segment of this course? How, exactly, will I satisfy the expectations of the assignment?

     A writing prompt, or suggestion for writing, can allow the writer a wide latitude and paralyze at the same time. A writing prompt can also narrow the focus of the writing in such a way as to altogether eliminate any manner of choice. So can the ultimate freedom of choosing your own topic also paralyze. It may take time to arrive at the beginning of writing, and often in the classroom the deadline does not allow for such a passage of time to occur. As a developing teacher, I find it helpful to examine my own pedagogical practices and my own strategies for beginning writing in order to continually think through how I might present the "or" of writing assignments to student writers, and help them to begin writing.

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