Sunday, February 17, 2008

Growth and Maturing

Response to pages 35-90 of Richard Haswell's Gaining Ground in College Writing

Reading this week's chapters, and not being deathly ill, have made Haswell's direction and focus much more clear. I am also thrilled to be reading perspectives on the assessment of student writing to which I have never been exposed. I am certainly guilty of having worked with and participated in, possibly even promoted, many of the ungrounded English-teacher visions. Obviously much of that has to do with being involved in a faulty education system, but I definitely have some guilt working into my head as I realize the other angles I missed in my study of writing assessment and instruction.

It's easy to teach in Richmond and be "the portrait painted by the English-teacher perspective [that] reflects moral stagnancy or loss" (42). Even while working with the idea of pushing these kids up the ladder and providing them with tools that will make them more competitive in the outside world, I found myself at times making comments about the erosion of literacy and the hopelessness of the situation.

Haswell, while discussing the false grounds of some advanced writing courses, point out "The older student's growth in writing (which is there) teachers cannot see, the growth that teachers expect (which is not there) they cannot find" (44). I realize that Haswell's focus in on writing instruction at the college level, but I'm wondering if the high school writing programs could benefit from keeping students with the same writing instructor for consecutive years. I know that it is not a brand new idea, but i think it's usually considered by schools as a way of "monitoring" behavior, attendance, and academic standing and not with the explicit purpose of putting a more developmental spin on student writing.

When Haswell says "that the myth of decline has roots in a political conservatism blind to certain facts and opposed to mass eduction and open admissions" (51), am I going to far to think that he is linking the hysteria behind the deteriorization of writing skills to those who decry multicultural education, English as a Second Language programs, and equal access entrance policies?

I find it ironic that the ideal tale of growth comes from West Point Academy. Keep education student-centered. I like it. "The focus is on the protagonist rather than on the event, but the plot is not static and picaresque. It is progressive" (54).

Haswell's third chapter blows me away. The set up of his writing group, the observations in the writing, and new standards were awesome and eye-opening. And again, I know this is geared towards college writing, but I'm wondering how to successfully introduce and implement ideas of concision, productivity, flow, expandability, maneuverability, and adaptability can be used at the high school level. I know the easy answer is to "just do it, Mannix." But it's not that easy. Administration from the school site to the district to the state is placing specific demands on educators and success is being measured by standardized tests. How do these six qualities make their way down to that level and get taken seriously?

I am looking forward to reading more.


David said...

Yes Dude! I’m so glad you’re in this class. Sarah too! Your backgrounds in actual teaching experience are soooo needed in here and in our program at large.

So yes. I too have been implicated, involved, complicit in the tales from below, so to speak. (And in this regard, there’s a great article from the 80s called “Underlife in Composition Studies” that’s akin to this “below the surface” metaphor we’re using. Not totally relevant, but there….)

Haswell is so smart, in my view, that he sees the future. This book is from the early 90s, the very tail end of the rule of “developmental” studies in comp. He seems to anticipate a number of things that are coming, not the least of which---the enormous, seemingly all encompassing turn to assessment. Evaluation of every kind. Accountability. Standards. No Child Left Standing. Etc.

Because of the likes of him, teachers had SOME advance notice, and therefore SOME occasion to “fore arm.” The WPA is in large part an organization dedicated to “striking first,” or getting hold of the thing before ignorant state (and now federal) legislators can impinge it all from the top down.

Not totally or even fairly successful, perhaps, but not on account of Saint Haswell, in my view.

And yes…the very last thing that has come to pass, at least at the University level, is teachers teaching writing to the same students as they go up the curriculum toward graduation. A VERY VERY VERY sacred cow at HSU.

Jimmy Astacio said...

"Am I going to far to think that he is linking the hysteria behind the deteriorization of writing skills to those who decry multicultural education, English as a Second Language programs, and equal access entrance policies?"

Mike, I think that is exactly what Haswell suggests here. It makes me think of the many times in San Diego that I heard negative comments from teachers in our voc-ed program about multicultural ed, providing non-English speakers with materials in their home language, etc. The comments usually take the following stance, something along the lines of "If they come to this country, they should speak English."

Those evil immigrants. One can only wonder why their English skills are not better, seeing as how many of them work 12-13 hour days performing jobs that no American citizen or legal resident could even conceive of doing. So, yes, I think that a lot of this "myth of decline in writing" has to do with the culture of denial that Americans live in. We want to deny that the rest of the world exists; we expect everyone to speak English--all over the world--but we never expect that we should learn about another culture. Why should we? English has, after all, cultural capital like Puff Daddy has bling.

But I've digressed. And I'm angry now. And I need to really get the hell out of here and go to school.

Chris Hall said...

I agree with your positive assessment of Haswell, Mike. This chapter clarified for me the importance of the awareness of one's personal politics, biases, and underlying teaching agenda.

In a recent conversation with my brother, who is currently teaching sections of NAS at UC Davis, I discussed the political in the classroom. We got to talking about one thing that I think does a lot to explain the strong presence of politics in pedagogy: most people who go in to teaching want (or wanted at one point) to change the world.

Food for thought, maybe not Jarret's rich, post-structuralist blend of Derrida, Saussure, and Okra, but yeah.

I likey the bloggy.