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Lesson Plans, Reflection

Inventing the Reflective Assignment in English 3010

This is my second semester teaching a pilot section of Eng 3010, but my first teaching the newly designed reflective component of this course. For those of you that are less familiar with the pilot project, there are six instructors involved in the study. The instructors are split into pairs to test the value of a Writing About Writing (WAW) approach as an alternative to the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) curriculum currently in place here at Wayne: two of the instructors teach control sections of WAC; two teach pilot sections of WAW; the remaining two instructors teach pilot sections of WAW with a reflective component. Initial research seems to indicate that having students consciously reflect on their writing throughout the course of a semester better prepares them to transfer key concepts and strategies from Eng 3010 to the Writing Intensive (WI) courses in their respective majors. In the latter sections, instructors work in opportunities for students to compare their past writing experiences with their experiences writing in 3010. Namely, the students are asked to reflect on the process of composing the semester’s three larger projects.

Being that I’ve never taught specifically reflective assignments, I must admit that I was not particularly well-prepared for this semester. Although I’ve always encouraged students to think about how the writing that they are doing in any given course might be of use to them in other contexts, I have relatively little experience developing assignments that focus on this task directly. That is, although reflective exercises have been present in my courses, reflection has always been more of an implicit or secondary component of assignments; an afterthought at best. As a result, I continue to struggle to find ways of incorporating reflective exercises that students might actually find useful or productive. Primarily, my concern is that students don’t often see the value of reflection. In some ways, I think this is a result of their past experiences with reflection. For many students, reflection seems to connote a different practice than crafting a formal argument. Students don’t often take these assignments very seriously because they think of them as journaling exercises. Reflective assignments seem more informal, even less serious. The result is that these assignments end up reading more like a list of likes and dislikes, than a careful argument about one’s writing.

This brings me to the primary tension of reflection: Although there is clearly value to having students reflect more informally on (and in) their writing, how do we get students to realize that there is more at stake here? The problem, I think, is that students believe that there are two kinds of writing that we do in the classroom. When it comes to more formal and conventionally restricted genres, such as larger research papers, reflection takes a clear backseat. Students believe that they are either (A) writing a formal paper evacuated of personal voice or (B) writing from a personal position, that has no larger stake outside the classroom. In this sense, the goals that we set out for students seem contradictory. For all the talk we do about audience, we spend very little time helping students to see that they are often (if not always) writing for themselves. The main difficulty that I’m having this semester is showing my students that these purposes are not mutually exclusive. Although writing for an outside audience may conflict with one’s personal interests, beliefs, assumptions, etc. this does not mean that personal reflection is invalid or unimportant.

In some ways, the theoretical component that we are introducing students to in pilot sections of 3010 nicely prepares them for this connection. Students are assigned readings by scholars broadly interested in the topic of discourse communities. They are asked to reflect on their own attempts to enter professional and disciplinary communities where they have little or no authority. I’ve also had a relative degree of success drawing on Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University.” Bartholomae argues that when students sit down to write at the university, they must appropriate or be appropriated by a specialized discourse that is remarkably foreign to them. They invent the university, he argues, by assembling and “mimicking” its language:

They must learn to speak our language. Or they must dare to speak it, or to carry out the bluff, since speaking and writing will most certainly be required long before the skill is “learned.” And this, understandably, causes problems.

Bartholomae goes on to identify what he takes to be the central problem facing teachers of composition at the university. He notes that in an effort to let students try on authority, we develop classroom exercises that deny the classroom. We ask students, that is, to speak as though they already occupy a privileged position or as authorities on a given subject. Although these exercises help students to imagine the needs and goals of an audience, they fail to address the central problem of academic writing, where students must assume the right to speak on an issue that others know better than them.

Despite the rather obvious critique of university writing, one that centers on the tension between our claims to be teaching students and our appeals to tests, measures, and writing performances that are always largely outside or before student capability, Bartholomae also seems to recognize the value of this tension. Namely, he calls us to consider what it might mean to teach to conflicts relating to audience and authority. My experiences teaching reflective assignments in 3010 seem to back up Bartholomae’s position. What I’ve tried to do, with mixed success, is to let students try out a variety of audiences. In the larger assignments that they write throughout the semester, I ask them to try writing as if they were authorities in Writing Studies. That said, I’ve also tried to temper this kind of work with reflective activities that call them to think seriously about their weaknesses or shortcomings as students that are just beginning to try out theories that have a much longer history. In particular, I’ve tried to emphasize that although they are not yet “experts” on issues pertinent to the field of composition, they can still speak to issues that experts find valuable, interesting, etc. The difference, as I’ve framed it in my course this semester, is between writing as an expert and writing to experts. Although students are clearly not in a position to speak with much authority, recent interest in student scholarship opens up channels for students to try out expertise with compelling results. For example, in their research proposals at the beginning of the semester, many of my students argued that what is largely missing from WAW scholarship is a student perspective. Although WAW scholars talk about issues facing students, many of my students argue that the field suffers from its inability to account or speak from a position outside the teacher-student binary.

If I’ve learned one very important lesson this semester, it is that the tension of university learning can actually be really productive if we are honest with our students. As much as we want students to see reflective assignments as gateways or sources of empowerment, it seems important to consistently remind them that we are their audience (being that we are giving them a grade), that learning is a sometimes contradictory and frustrating experience, and that completing one assignment, however proficiently, will not give them the keys to the car, so to speak. I guess what I’m pushing against here is the sense that reflective assignments, because of their holistic nature, escape the critical tension that Bartholomae discusses above. This does not mean that these assignments do not have value, just that we need to be similarly attentive to the problems of audience and authority that persist at every level.

Derek Risse is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric & Composition at WSU with research interests in New Media and Animal Studies. He is currently teaching both 1020 and 3010 and serves as a member of the program’s Mentoring Committee.

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