Reluctant (Voice)

While reading Elizabeth H. Boquet, “‘Our Little Secret’: A History of Writing Centers, Pre- to Post-Open Admissions” I kept thinking about the reluctance I’ve seen in students. An enormous reluctance to engage in texts, their texts, peers’ texts, course material texts… no one wants to say what they think, and if they do it’s mediated with a question. “I think the author is saying that these characters don’t like each other?” Each tentative rising tone sends a chill down my spine. Who frightened these students?!

Boquest discusses the beauty and terrors of writing centers in a way that she says reflects her honest experiences. We read about writing centers at their best, coaxing the answers from students and showing them they know how to write. And then the worst, passing them a topic, a new structure, and the feeling that they cannot write and need these handouts to make it through school. I can see how the worst happens though. In my conferences, I asked open-ended questions, I dug, I cajoled, I encouraged, I sat in silence and waited for answers. I got shrugs, embarrassed titters, sighs, and miserable looks. Oh my god, I thought to myself. Just tell the poor girl what to do! And I did. I told her exactly what I thought her story needed. I gave in to the pressure of silence and shrugs. And when she left, guilt bit at my insides. Ohhh, my brain moaned at me in that melodramatic way, you just crushed that poor student’s voice! You confirmed her worst fear! WHY WEREN’T YOUR QUESTIONS MORE OPEN-ENDED? When I read her final draft a few nights later I saw that she followed my advice… but then she also added her own spin. She didn’t do exactly what I prescribed, and I think her way was better for her story and that it reflected the tone of her story. Her story. Was it so bad to give her that push?

I am always toting balance. I do a lot of yoga and I try to eat well (which comes and goes). I guess there is a time for prescription and a time for asking asking asking. Socrates is one of my favorite dead guys. I’m all for the Socratic method of teaching. But sometimes I think you’ve got to throw a student a bone. After all that vital self-discovery and only when absolutely necessary, of course. There is a difference between a reluctant voice and a student who really needs some help.

bone trumpet?

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Poor Unfortunate Souls!

Papermills and authorship… it’s a black magic trade-off. The ethical issues are obvious– it’s wrong to sell a paper to a papermill, just as it’s wrong to buy one and turn it in as one’s own. I’m more intrigued  with the concept of points of view for sale.

When I write a paper, I normally feel that my voice is in it. Maybe that’s just my giant ego, or that only child syndrome (which is actually not taken seriously by professionals any more, mind you), but I feel like if I wrote it, it’s freaking me. According to Kelly Ritter in her article “The Economics of Authorship: Online Paper Mills, Student Writers, and First-Year Composition,” I’m in the minority. A lot of students do not feel that their writing reflects their voice. They think that their papers are only worth something if they can be bought and sold, and that “professionals” ought to be doing their writing.

I wonder, would students be less likely to plagiarise if they believe that their writing (and voice) is intrinsically valuable? Would highly personalized assignments help this? Along with Peter Elbow’s method of “liking” all student writing? I think it would. I feel that if some students are lazy and don’t care about the class, they will cheat. But as we discussed in class this week, it is more likely for a student who normally does well to cheat. What is the psychology of cheating? There are a lot of questions with variable answers depending on the student and situation, I imagine. But at the same time, I think small steps can be taken to remind students that selling their papers is like handing your voice over to that evil octopus woman. The prince really isn’t that hot. And he’d prefer to hear your voice coming out of your own sweet face rather than that watery bint’s.

In-class writing exercises could help, creative projects, engaged research… all these things and more spring to mind. Making writing professional, political, personal could help. Drafting and drafting and drafting is a pretty tough one to get around plagiarism-wise. And all these things, along with positive encouragement and student-led discussions about each other’s work might help them see their writing and voices as something that is theirs, that is valuable, and that has its rightful place with the original author.

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Exquisite Corpse

I wrote about Exquisite Corpse before. It explains everything.

"Object in Fur" by Meret Oppenheim. Image courtesy of

Object in Fur by Meret Oppenheim– image courtesy of

The beautiful thing about the game is the seamed and seamless collaboration of voices to create a certain effect. It can create alienation, like Oppenheim’s teacup, or a weird logic to bridge separate minds and thoughts. Above all, it is a cooperation to blend many voices into one freaky text.

Wikis are different, of course, because everyone knows the topic, everyone can see the text, and facts and reality are encouraged… so it’s not exactly a round of Exquisite Corpse. However, the two methods of writing share the same lovely collaboration. Many voices become one, with the hope that it will be better that way.

I admit, I was pretty suspicious of the whole wiki thing. I’m not a fan of non-surrealist collaboration. And though places like wikipedia are good when my desire for a sated curiosity is counter-balanced by a bout of pronounced laziness, I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in it. So I was dreading the World of Warcraft Wiki article, but it surprised me. I was fascinated by the play of voices within a text. Hunter illustrated that the WoWWiki page was a much happier and healthier place when anonymity and politeness (the two of which have enormous overlap) were maintained through the many many revisions of the pages. If someone made a mistake on the page, a member would point it out without naming names and the error was easily fixed. When egos died down to kitten meows, the site came along quite smoothly. Conflict and disarray only erupted when ownership/authorship roared across the boards. I thought about this.

I taught a lesson on The Fantastic on the 18th, and I enjoyed myself a lot, mostly because my students enjoyed it. Of course, we played a game. Can you guess which one? I hate to keep y’all in suspense. I made them play Exquisite Corpse. We played with conditionals, and then discussed logic within the fantastic world and how to create it and keep it in check. Then we did a collaborative story. It went so much better than I imagined. The students were laughing, and seemed to get a kick out of the combination of anonymity and creativity– their weird words swirled all together and no one really knew or cared what anyone else wrote. The fun part was to hear what it sounded like as one text in one voice. Representatives would read sections of the class text aloud, and we tried to find the narrative that burbled up from our collective brains. If each person had read the line that he or she wrote, it would have been awkward, stilted, separate, and a little embarrassing. It would not have worked; it would not have been a story.

I thought this applied to the wikis too, and to all collaborative work. When many writers participate in a text, the concept of ownership changes. It’s fluid, and that fluidity allows people to write without reservation. The nature of the wiki is brutal revision for the good of the cause, and when no one owns it or knows who wrote what, that ideal is closer to being realized. What if family arguments were like wikis? Everyone would mix their teary, affronted stories and chops the irreverent-embellished drama bits until something closer to reality would emerge: essentially a record of long-enduring, passive-aggressive lore that the family could peruse whenever they wished!

This isn’t a text Utopia. Things go wrong, things get weird, and egos puff up like threatened squirrels. But it’s an interesting place for voices to coexist within one space, one text, and for the one cause of writing something pretty accurate and very accessible. And the fact that we read these community texts, and believe them mostly, must say a lot about our readiness to accept a hydra-beast author, even if we may not necessarily want to be one.

Considering how to apply it to the classroom, I think I like the idea of a class notes wiki. I like what we’re doing now in this class. I have to think more about it in all of my luxurious spare time, but I see that people are more ready with their information if they think it might be slashed, and people are more ready with their slashing when they think no one knows their hand. The desire for the self to be perceived as excellent in solo publishing is translated to the desire for the text to be excellent in collaborative publishing.  There is no “i” in collaboration. Well, there is but it’s awkward and much happier when unacknowledged. That could work in my classroom.

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Cheesy title, yes. But that’s the digital persona I’m creating.

Visual courtesy of  image courtesy of

J.E. Clarke’s article “The Digital Imperative: Making the Case for a 21st Century Pedagogy” addresses the idea of students creating an evolving body of work online in order to engage themselves in the texts they work with and to heighten their sense of audience. This is done through ePortfolios, online games, discussion forums, etc. I am particularly interested in the ePortfolio because they not only allow for class engagement, opportunities for authorship and publication, and fostering community of writers (the class), but they also provide a space for students to develop a “digital persona.”  Students have the opportunity to see how their writing improves and are able to see themselves as academics, but they are also able to determine how they want to sound to their audience. Clarke writes, “Public artifacts shared with parents, professors, and employers are markedly different than informal peer-to-peer communications among students. Students tailor their digital identities for multiple audiences, learning how to introduce themselves to a virtual world. This sense of network-situated self allows students to see how they function within different communities.” Students have the opportunity to present themselves, receive feedback from their academic community, revise, and develop a voice of authority, and also a writerly voice. I agree with Clarke– this kind of scholarship would create a wonderful awareness in our students.

After reading Kelly Ritter’s “The Economics of Authorship: Online Paper Mills, Student Writing, and First-Year Composition” it seems clear that a surprising number of students don’t see themselves as authors, don’t think student-writing is valuable, and don’t feel important to the academic community. I think that ePortfolios would be a way for students to see their contributions to their field, to see themselves as the authors they are, and to have their writing taken seriously not only by their teacher, but by their classmates, and by anyone else who might find it online. There is a power in publishing, as we discussed in class. I think that power would encourage students to use their voices, and this space would give them the opportunity to see how that voice progresses.

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The Humans are Just a Little Dead

When I was reading Yancy’s article, “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” I happily remembered Flight of the Conchord’s music video “The Humans are Dead” 

Yancy quotes Elizabeth Daley on the idea that students now need a third kind of literacy because technology is such an enormous part of our lives now. Screen metaphors have made their way into everyday terms, “close up, flash back, frame, cut to the chase, segue.” That’s true– our language reflects our time, and I would argue, also reflects our medium. There is a certain amount of techno-jargon that has filtered into the language of people who actually use it. People tend to construct metaphors out of what is familiar to them. For instance, in the Richard Matheson story “Born of Man and Woman” the main character refers to other children he spies through the window as “little mothers and fathers” because he has no experiences of people other than his mother and father. Many people in the university setting would have enough experiences of technology for it to rub off.

To be honest, I am not sure how many of my students will be more comfortable with technology than I am. (That’s not a steep slope to climb, I might add). I do know that writing online changes tone and voice. When I write online I am automatically more relaxed in tone, but at the same time hyper-aware that I have an audience. I also tend to reference popular culture a little more than usual because I can so easily link to videos, websites, etc. It’s easier to let everyone in on the joke. It’s easier to speak in a lingo that everyone understands through hyperlinks and other techno-language phenomena. Perhaps in the distant future “flashback” and “segue” will just be “00000101010111” and “affirmative.” No, I don’t think so. The humans aren’t really dead yet.

But I do think that if we encourage our students to write in a variety of mediums, in papers, poems, blogs, discussions on Bb, etc., we will give them an opportunity to use their many voices that Royster writes about in “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” Her experiences of finding places for all her voices to fit reminded me the multifunctionality of technology: it is a great place for voices. In Talking back: thinking feminist, thinking black, bell hooks writes, “our sense of self, and by definition, our voice [is] not unilateral, monologist, or static but rather multidimensional…. [it’s] a necessary aspect of self-affirmation not to feel compelled to choose one voice over another, not to claim one as more authentic, but rather to construct social realities that celebrate, acknowledge and affirm differences, variety.” I think this goal can be approached by writing confidently in all these authentic voices, and that the space, or “realities” for the voices can be constructed through journals, publication, blog space, forums, etc. There are a lot of places for our voices to live with complementary voices. And I think the ultimate goal of the classroom is to become one of those spaces– the classroom should be a place for learning and invention, and also a place to use all of one’s authentic voices and experiment with different technologies that are a part of our lives. Writing authentically in these realities can bring voices to life.

Our voices, like the bumblebee, need spaces where they can be validated by like bees. The field’s technology was a lot more suited to her voice than the auditorium. Right? Aren’t all music videos about discourse?

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Talking Logic

* A note to the reader: Please disregard the highlighting. It is an annoying quirk of my computer to highlight words at random, and that highlighting appears to be indelible. At least until I figure out what is wrong with the thing.

I love symbolic logic because it has a lovely mechanism. If my argument is sound, then someone has to eat up my conclusion. Learning how to construct (and dissect) arguments was one of the most helpful things I learned at university, and it annoys the hell out of everyone because it is rather hard to win an argument against me. It is a wonderful skill!

However, as I learned while I was working on my philosophy minor is one must define one’s terms and argue from a “place.” It can either build off of someone else’s argument, or be more original than that. Premises must be stacked, and they must support each other. It seemed that, after reading many many articles and arguments, everyone was arguing out of their own philosophy, with their own terms, and own strands of reasoning. The only connections that philosophers really had were a shared history of the discipline. I thought about this while I read Winterowd’s “The Classical Tradition and Composition/Rhetoric.”

Plato/Socrates, Aristotle, and Isocrates all have their own perception of truth and whether or not it was possible to know truth. I’m not to going to get into whatever fallacies they may or may not have committed on the journey because this isn’t that kind of space. (And thankfully! I love philosophy, but it takes me an extraordinary amount of time and effort to write it). What interested me the most is how much voice and personal perception colors a philosopher’s logic. This really was a new thought to me, as I rarely make philosophy personal. I argue better when I am detached, so I typically only argue about topics that I am interested in, rarely topics that I am passionate about. I will focus on Isocrates… he seems to be the strongest example. His belief that truth could not be found in a chaotic world full of imperfect people seemed to come from his own experiences of a rather terrifying time in history. His world was chaotic. People were killed seemingly without reason. How could this world have any truth? How could such a thing exist? His terms, his premises, and his argument all reflected this. Plato and Aristotle both had premises, similar terms, and a similar way of arguing their case… but their voices were different. They reflected their persons. Reading one compared to another is like reading about completely separate topics. One is ideal and comes from god, one is real and is found in the world, and one was never there at all.

I see this on a day to day level as well. As I was reading through students’ papers in my internship, I came across one that argued that the author had THE MOST complicated life. I had to stifle a laugh. She gave her premises, defined her complication, and presented her argument. My thoughts immediately flicked to my grandmother’s life. She grew up in Nazi Germany. She is Romani-Gypsy. That is a very complicated life. However ridiculous I found this student’s claim, I had to remember that she felt she had the most complicated life out of all the lives she knew (her life). She was arguing from her own philosophy, her own definitions and experiences. But even then her argument falls flat, because how could anyone prove that he or she has the most complicated life? There isn’t a grading system. We can’t know all lives. Even within her own philosophy, it doesn’t work, because it still exists within a wider discourse because she is referring to that discourse (ie: the world. The most complicated life [in the world]). I’m not saying her life was uncomplicated. That’s not really the point. But it was clear to me then that rhetoric is even more important in the classroom than I thought.

People make sweeping claims (like that one, for example!), and writing is convincing when it is believable. Generalizations can’t be entirely believable. They don’t have enough evidence. That’s why philosophers debate for centuries about enormous topics such as truth and reality tv beauty. But they debate not because their personal voice gets in the way of their argument (though sometimes it does), but because these topics are big, complex, and hard to prove. Personal voice in a well-argued article can enhance the piece. It’s part of the magic of rhetoric. It’s adds color and persuasion. It seems that voice might be a source, or at least inspiration, for these arguments. But voice alone cannot drive a paper. It needs to be sound and it needs to make sense. It seems that we are teaching our students not only to use their voice, but to use it within rhetoric, because that is what makes it effective. Especially in smaller-scale, easy to prove arguments that one finds in personal essays. It is crucial for the writing to have a strand of logic because there is simply no room for those kinds of errors. They are too glaring, and too easy to fix to be overlooked. For instance, my grandmother always says she is a weed. By this she means she is tough like a weed. It is an interesting metaphor, considering her reasoning (which she has walked me through).

Weeds are undesirable to some people.

Some weeds survive extermination.

Romani-Gypsies were “undesirable” to the Nazis.

My grandmother is Romani-Gypsy.

She survived Nazi extermination.

My grandmother is akin to a weed in this way.

Her logic, though metaphorical and personal, is easy to follow. It’s an easier claim to support than a claim like “I have the most complicated life,” which really could never be demonstrated so neatly. And perhaps that is the point. Metaphors and claims and all those wonderful things are a part of writing, but they are also a part of our wider discourse. We are not born knowing how to make sense. Rhetoric is worth teaching. Even if all these writings are coming with their own definitions, voices, and premises, they are still communicating something, and bridging that meaning between people is what rhetoric does. Otherwise, it is all just a babble of voices.

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Voice through Differance

As I was reading “A View of Writing and Students” by George Hillocks I was enamoured with the Derrida’s idea of discovering meaning when there is not-meaning, and that little gap is called differance. I thought it sounded a lot like the surrealist games that I used to play when I first fell in love with surrealism at 18. Many of my Exquisite Corpse poems, or my chopped up- scrambled-and blindly reassembled poems had very little discernible meaning, or at least that was the case until I really looked at the results. All of the words (or at least some of them) were mine and had been chosen for a reason. Their original intention had been released, and now these raw words were making new meanings on their own, yet my voice still haunted their new arrangements. I chose ambivalent pineapple fall night crocodile at a sand the cat in between. Somewhere, those words make sense. They are still mine, and then also, not mine.

Always while playing Exquisite Corpse with someone (one person writes an If… statement and covers it, and the next person writes a Then… statement, and so on) the results swung between hilarious and eerie.

“If the hedgehog drank the soup… then my dog wouldn’t have puked”

“If you were not here… then I wouldn’t be either.”

More often that not, our little half-lines of poetry would magically bridge the gap between separate minds. They would start to make sense together, or at least take on a similar voice, a manner of ridiculousness or cryptic messages that fell into step. In the differance, there was meaning.

I also thought of all the times when my own writing had crept up into my ears and became incomprehensible mush. A few days (sometimes years) away from it, doing something else entirely, and I had nearly forgotten what I had written. When I revisited the poem or story, it read like a stranger’s work. I could see where the piece had grown wayward, and where it had its real roots. I suddenly would know exactly what the piece meant and how to say it. Once I found the meaning, the voice of the piece, my voice felt stronger and more authentic.

I can’t help but feel that meaning and voice are closely related. Voice comes from a place of conviction. Voice feels like a commitment to the work. And work has to mean something to have that kind of power. Breaking down the thing seems the best way to see how it works. In my internship today I had the opportunity to read some of the students’ work as they workshopped each other’s papers. At first, I was oddly overwhelmed by the responsibility even though I’ve workshopped for years. But after a few pages, I saw that each student’s paper had at least one part where her voice came through so clearly that it felt as though a well-known character were speaking to me from the page. And what I noticed is that each of those points described a moment in which the speaker was reflecting on her behaviour in a quizzical, distant sort of way. Something she did that was at once familiar and alien, understood and curious, and that reflection of differance within the moment ultimately brought the speaker, and her voice, into sharp relief. And I had the pleasure of reading that moment and briefly hearing the voices of strangers, and thinking about what that meant.

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