“Necessity is still the matter of invention,” says Al Manners (a character in Alice Childress’s play Trouble in Mind). Helping composition students find the content and context by which necessity might invent some meaningful argument or analysis can be somewhat of a tricky task. Especially for students who enter our classrooms with attitudes about writing, or skill sets in writing that deter their ability to see themselves as apprenticed rhetoricians constantly negotiating the rhetorical situation.
Within the past few weeks I’ve been roaming through scholarship on Writing about Writing (WAW), teaching for transfer, language and identity, retention, and symbolic power. The writing priorities privileged by writing about writing instruction (e.g. rhetoric, genre, writing process, subject matter, and discourse community knowledge) have strong implications for Wayne State University’s student retention issues (also articulated as WSU’s black/white educational divide)—mostly because of it’s ability to provide students with a complex and sophisticated tool kit for navigating various writing situations. But what WAW and teaching for transfer don’t seem to consider is the “hybrid conditions of multiracial America or the pluralistic demography of the new American school” (Kirkland “Black Skin, White Masks”) or the fact that even the best set of writing theories can be jeopardized by what Arnetha Ball and Ted Lardner call “teacher efficacy,” the ways in which racial, religious, socioeconomic, social and cultural identities shape and inform teaching practices (xvi). With that being said, I’ve been reflecting on my work at the MSU Writing Center (WC), my time with “at-risk” students in programs like Upward Bound, or DREW Scholars, and Office of Supportive Services (Academic Affairs). Many of these programs (like that of WSU’s WC) promote safe houses where groups of students work with writing experts in informal professional settings outside of the composition classroom over a two-to-four year time frame. Working with students who often frequented the WC or discussing writing in say a dorm cafeteria or coffee house established mentoring relationship that helped students repurpose and renegotiate new rhetorical situations. Also, when considering my experiences in writing communities (as safe houses) to the transfer of learning scholarship and WAW curriculum, the idea of seeing/showing students their role as apprenticed rhetoricians was coupled with: 1.) Using Writing for Advocacy, showing students how to strategically advocate for themselves (e.g. visiting instructor office hours, clarifying what’s expected based on observations of a given writing assignment, writing persuasive emails to professors, asking good questions, suggesting new ways of looking at a writing assignment) 2.) Writing & Resilience, teaching students how writing can also be used to problem-solve, and counter personal struggles with inquiry, and 3.) Writing & Identity Negotiations, In African American vernacular English the saying “keepin’ it real,” implies being true to oneself, and one’s ancestry (Smitherman 36). The idea of keepin’ it real can be a valuable concept when unearthing issues of discourse community conflict, where performed academic identities seem forced, “fake” or monotonous. The idea is to teach students writing skill sets without insider/outsider dichotomies so that they can integrate into the structure and become “beings of themselves,” instead of beings of someone else’s communal identity (Friere 74). In my next blog post, I’ll talk more about these three elements as I’m very much interested in establishing student writing communities using WAW. Namáste.
LaToya Faulk received her MA in Rhetoric and Writing Michigan State University in 2009. She joined the department as a lecturer in 2011 and is currently teaching ENG 1020.