Category: Know Your Theory!

Becoming a Teacher of Writing: George Hillocks and the Power of Disruption

This is the second part of a three-part series exploring my growth as a teacher of writing. The first part can be found here.

Many teachers of writing act as though writing is best done under some sort of compulsion, involving surrender to mysterious psychic powers that take place over the task of producing text. They believe that this state may be attained in a number of ways and order classroom activities accordingly, dimming lights, listening to emotive music, writing freely without inhibition

I was a quarter of the way through George Hillocks’s Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice when I read the above sentence. I put the book down, twirling my highlighter between my fingers as I attempted to come to grips with what I had just read. While I’d never lit candles in my classroom, my students would attest to my use of emotive music and inhibition-free writing. I started pacing back and forth in my living room, grinding the end of the highlighter between my molars until the blooming ache in my jaw forced me to stop. The opening of Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice was an indictment of everything I thought about teaching writing.

In my previous post, I described how I had willfully abdicated my role as the lead architect of student learning in my classroom. “Just write” became my mantra. No activities, no strategies; just the student, the pencil, and a sheet of paper. Any feedback students received from me or their peers took the form of “your piece made me think/feel X.” Students were writing more than ever, but I was laboring under the illusion that fluency was all that mattered. Just write.

Hillocks refers to this style of pedagogy as the “natural process,” the belief that the most effective way to become a better writer is merely to write more. This is exactly what I had spent the entire school year asking kids to do. I felt nauseated from guilt. Why didn’t I realize that Peter Elbow’s ideas (as presented in Writing Without Teachers) were no longer cutting edge? In my head my classroom was a space of raw expression and powerful freedom. I quickly understood that anything can feel revolutionary to the untrained mind.

The rest of the book outlines Hillocks’s “environmental approach,” a complete pedagogy combining creative activities with structured writing assignments. The ideas contained in the book triggered an immediate change in my brain. Within days I’d thrown together a flash-fiction genre study focusing on genre-specific writing skills and what Hillocks calls “gateway activities.” Gateway activities differed from the mini-lesson of a more standard writer’s workshop model.

Instead of using portions of a mentor text to help students isolate, analyze, and then apply examples of strong descriptive writing, I took a page from Hillocks and asked students to describe a series of eight generic waterfall pictures. The rub was that they weren’t allowed to use any color words or reference specific parts of the picture (e.g., the one with the cave). Students then traded papers and had to match their partner’s description to the correct waterfall image. We then engaged in a similar activity using shells. While my classes enjoyed the gateway activities, I was too scattered to check whether or not students’ use of description actually improved.

By the end of June I was a wreck. My classroom had become an uneven mess of freewriting, gateway activities, and genre study. In an attempt to get some closure, I reached out to my writing mentor Sarah Baker to ask her about Peter Elbow’s status in the academy. “Peter Elbow is old-school,” she said in an email, “his work is a required read, but we have to figure out what it means and how to use it within the current contexts.” She recommended that I pick up A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, a primer on writing instruction, to help me begin to understand the field of writing pedagogy. I loved the book so much I ended up writing a series of posts devoted to exploring its concepts.

I learned that Peter Elbow’s concerns with student voice and authentic writing were in many ways a response to the current-traditionalism pervasive in classrooms leading up to the sixties. And that he is/was just one part of a larger theory of writing complete with its own thought leaders, epistemology, and critics. For the first time I witnessed the depth and complexity of composition. I began to see how the instructional methods I employed in my classroom privileged certain ways of knowing and communicating and being-in-the-world. A Guide to Composition Pedagogies introduced me to what being a teacher of writing really meant.

In the introduction to Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, George Hillocks reminds us that teaching is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object. In my final post, I’ll bring the reader up to the present moment and describe what that direct object is for me.

Know Your Theory! – Process Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, part 3 describes expressivist composition theorypart 4 examines feminist composition pedagogy, part 5 concerns genre composition pedagogy, and part 6 looks at literature composition pedagogy.

Process Composition Pedagogy

I write in a scattershot format. I start out by writing out key concepts and interesting phrases on a blank document. Then I flesh out each concept, move things around, and try to let a structure reveal itself. My goal is to expand each concept and idea until it organically dovetails with what comes before and after. This requires a lot of hemming and hawing, indecision, and general consternation. At the bottom of each document I keep a “Misc. Ideas” section where I dump seemingly random thoughts. By the end my hope is that each paragraph and section successfully bleeds into the next, creating a narrative thread that ferries the reader along from point to point. I didn’t realize this until someone asked me to describe my personal writing process. With that in mind, this final post in the Know Your Theory! series describes process pedagogy. How do writers write?

I could reduce every composition theory explored in this series to a value statement. For example feminist composition pedagogy uses writing to address and achieve social justice in the classroom. Genre pedagogues bring attention to the different ways genre shapes our perception of and interaction with various forms of literacy. Each links writing with a goal larger than the writing itself. This is not the case with process pedagogy. Process pedagogy uses knowledge about how students write in order to improve student writing; writing is both the subject and the object. The idea behind process pedagogy is simple to understand: focusing on how we write improves what we write. The simplicity of the idea belies the semi-radical nature of process pedagogy. In order to understand that we need a glimpse of what was happening on the composition scene before the process movement kicked off.

The Spectre of Traditionalism

As an inner categorizer, my natural inclination is to reduce everything to discrete units so I can slot them into the appropriate categories. I also have a penchant for periodization. Many of my frustrations about trying to understand the composition field stem from my (and the field in general’s) inability to offer up a formalized chronology of major events. Even if I could cobble together some sort of linear history, the sequential logic of A -> B -> C ignores the complex vertical negotiations between institutions and teachers that bubbles and froths below any orderly history.

Ever since its beginnings at a Dartmouth College Seminar in 1966, process pedagogy has loomed large over the field of composition. It offered an appealing challenge to current-traditionalism, the dominant paradigm of composition instruction at the time. In order to understand the widespread appeal of process pedagogy, it’s first necessary to explore the methods of current-traditional instruction. My writing about current-traditionalism is in the present tense because it still lives on in many classrooms across the country. I say this not to disparage teachers but to point out that what we do in our classrooms often borrows from different bodies of theory at different times. Restricting yourself to a single theory is myopic and limits your ability to reach a diverse population of learners.

Current-traditionalism (CT), called so because it brings traditional beliefs into current classrooms, is defined as “formulaic notions of arrangements; an inflated concern with usage and style…no discussion of drafting, and a focus on grammatical and mechanical correctness.” Students in a CT classroom can expect to practice writing in the dominant modes of expository, descriptive, narrative, and argumentative. In terms of assessment and end goals, CT measures student writing against well-established pieces of professional writing. Compared to professional and published writing, student compositions naturally come up short. Since CT views writing as the combination of parts (thesis statement, topic sentences, concluding sentences) and axiomatic rules (avoid sentence fragments, watch out for comma splices, don’t split infinitives), creating a polished piece of writing means attending to the mechanics and usage of established grammar and genre.

A CT approach views writing as an assemblage of knowable parts. Take the paragraph, for instance. Current-traditionalism borrows its definition of the form and function of a paragraph from Alexander Bain’s seminar paragraph definition of 1866. Don’t be fooled by the archaic date and unfamiliar name; Bain’s definition of the perfect paragraph continues to hold sway. The picture below is a page from one of the many writing textbooks in my school’s English rooms (Write Source: A Guide for Writing, Thinking, and Learning).


Paragraphs should be written as mini composition in which every sentence must fall under dominion of the powerful and guiding introductory topic sentence. I mention the paragraph for two reasons: to highlight the ways current-traditionalism lives on in English classrooms and to provide a minor peak into the world of English textbooks (For a fascinating look into the ways textbooks have influenced English check out Textbooks and the Evolution of a Discipline by Robert J. Connors).

Much like every other composition pedagogy I’ve covered throughout this series of posts, current-traditional pedagogy is no one thing. It’s marked by the struggle “between stasis and change” that characterizes all pedagogy.  Mentioning CT’s status as a pedagogy-in-flux is important because it’s often viewed as a calcified set of beliefs and practices which no longer serve any instructional value. It’s also worth noting that teachers who employ pieces of current-traditional pedagogy are certainly not “bad” teachers. The more I learn about composition studies, the easier it is to understand why many K-12 English Language Arts teachers implement a variety of writing strategies, some in contradiction with each other.

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From Product to Process

The above image (from A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al.) sums up the changes between current-traditionalism and process composition.  The ideological assumptions behind the process approach “represented an important shift in priorities, attitudes, and the use of class time.” Process pedagogy places a focus on the process of writing, on the various methods and strategies real writers employ to create a piece of writing. We’ve already discussed a few reasons why this change was so monumental.

Early process approach split the writing process into three main components. Donald Murray’s landmark essay Teach Writing as a Process, Not Product suggested the tripartite structure of prewriting, drafting, and revising that continues to hold sway today. While certainly not new (classical rhetoric’s five-part canon includes invention and arrangement), spending instructional time on prewriting and content generation before drafting was an important break from tradition.

The rise of process pedagogy paralleled newfound interest in the composing process of the student writer. Educators like Janet Emig, (The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders),  Nancy Sommers (Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers), and Muriel Harris (Composing Behaviors of One- and Multi-Draft Writers) produced groundbreaking scholarship investigating the ins and outs of the composition process.  How do students approach a new piece of writing? How do they move between writing process stages? How do the moves made by students and expert writers compare? Thanks to these and other efforts, we know that good writing requires copious amounts of revision, and that beginning writers spend the least amount of time on revising and editing. Process scholars have also helped illuminate the complex situational variables that inform how a student approaches a piece of writing. Location, purpose, audience, genre, and mindset are just a few of the factors that affect student writing. The fact that these ideas may seem obvious to us now is a testament to the near hegemonic influence of the process pedagogy movement.


Criticism and Push-Back

As with all schools of theory, early incarnations of process pedagogy were refined and rebalanced by academics and practitioner-scholars. Many of us might remember (or use) some form of a process wheel in our classes. We now know that there is no one process. Expecting students to move from prewrite to publish in a linear fashion misses much of the point of process pedagogy. For this reason later theorists stressed the recursive nature of writing.

Composition’s social turn, a move in the late 1980s/early 1990s to reorient the field to include issues of culture, ideology, and sociality, reminded compositionists that when it comes to writing, culture matters. Any effective English teacher must account for cultural differences in how children, families, and schools when planning for student writing. In Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit offers a scathing critique of progressive teachers who engage children in peer critique and brainstorming while ignoring direct skills. Her book is a poignant reminder of the importance of a balanced approach to literacy.

Chances are if you teach English you’re familiar with some process pedagogy. Major education publishing houses like Heinemann produce scads of professional materials devoted to helping children flesh out ideas, revise drafts, and edit for standard grammar and punctuation. That’s why I’ve left the actual classroom component of this post until the end. I wanted to contrast process pedagogy with current-traditionalism because I think there’s incredible value in understanding where we come from.

This is my final post in the Know Your Theory! blog series, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them.

Additional Resources Consulted:
Current-Traditional Rhetoric: Thirty Years of Writing with a Purpose by Robert J. Connors
Process Pedagogy by Lad Tobin
Coherence in Paragraph-Level Structures by Marc Pressley

Know Your Theory! – Literature and Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, part 3 describes expressivist composition theorypart 4 examines feminist composition pedagogy, and part 5 concerns genre composition pedagogy.  

Literature and Composition Pedagogy

Last year a colleague of mine asked me to define the purpose of English. What is the essence of the discipline? What is its content? I fumbled for an answer. On a basic level students in my class read and write. They analyze texts, investigate language, and use literacy to interrogate themselves and their world. Yet other disciplines could claim the same basic objectives. In social studies, for instance, students use similar techniques to explore history and understand the push and pull of civilizations. So what makes English unique?

Anytime I tell someone what I do for a living, they invariably ask me about the books we’re reading. What novels do I ask children to read these days? I tell them that my classes don’t take part in too many whole-class novel units (Practitioner-scholars like Donalyn Miller and Penny Kittle have helped cement the notion of student choice as a dominant theme in secondary English classrooms across the country). If you’re not reading William Faulkner, George Orwell, or any of the other white male authors from the canon, what do you all do in class?

We read and write. Literature and composition share a complex history together. The contentious relationship between the two deals with fundamental issues of literacy, education, and democracy. Your employment of literature in the classroom depends upon how you answer bedrock questions about the connection between curriculum and society.

Debates over curriculum and education’s purpose have been around in earnest since at least the Common School movement of the mid 19th century. Humanists wanted a classical education of Greek, Latin, and belles lettres. Social efficiency educators pushed for streamlined coursework in order to match up school curriculum with the skills demanded by employers. Progressives wanted school to prepare kids to be citizens, revolutionaries, and public servants. Literature can transform itself to meet any of these diverse needs.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about how teachers have struggled with integrating reading and writing for over 200 years. Unpacking the relationship between composition and literature benefits from a basic understanding of the growth of English as a discipline.

Up until the late 1800s there was no English. Universities offered rhetoric/oratory (speech) and belles lettres (literature studied for its aesthetic appreciation). 18th and 19th century academia was firmly situated within an oral culture. Although students were required to write, their compositions were to be memorized and delivered before the class. Writing was rarely taken beyond a rough draft. Students wrote only as preparation for the main event of presenting a beautiful and eloquent oration.

Charles Eliot, Harvard’s president during the late 19th century, introduced a system of electives that dethroned the dominant standardized university curriculum. Schools began offering different courses for students. As new courses opened up others receeded. The birth of English coincides with the downfall of certain higher education stalwarts such as Greek and Latin. As the influence of humanist curricula (Greek, Latin, the ‘classics’) continued to wane in the late 18th century, English rose to prominence as a new mainstay of the higher ed experience.

In time oratory lost its belletristic flourishes and became rhetoric. Rhetoric “gradually lost its oral emphasis, finally giving way to the exclusively written focus of English composition.” Now bereft of the traditional focus on oration, new composition classes needed something to study. So students began producing early literary criticism. Courses in literature moved towards the canon, employing literature as a high-brow product fit only for those pursuing a life of the mind.

By the early to mid 20th century, English departments were split between the study of literature and the teaching of writing. The legacy of separation and distinct curricular spheres for reading and writing remains potent in English classrooms today.

In a previous post I mentioned how it took 15 years for feminism to move from academia into composition classrooms. A similar case might be made for the relationship between composition courses and English Language Arts classes at the secondary level. Although anecdotal, I would offer that secondary teachers often privilege reading over writing. When writing is taught, it’s often approached through the lens of writing for high stakes tests. Test writing is a legitimate genre with its own conventions and forms. The fact that testing ends up narrowing the English Language Arts curriculum his should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with public education.

I think it’s fair to make the modest assertion that we are in the beginnings of a lit/comp renaissance. The rise of the mentor movement in secondary education offers English teachers an effective way to combine literature and composition. By mentor movement I mean the proliferation of books, websites, and articles focused on mentor texts. Popular practitioner-scholars are bringing renewed attention to the benefits of integration. Combine this with our 21st century understanding of a text as essentially any cultural artifact and you have new crops of teachers helping students read as writers, dissecting the moves authors make in order to enact them in their own compositions.

It’s my hope that the mentor movement, in tandem with what we know about textual artifacts from Cultural Studies, Genre Pedagogy, and Critical Pedagogy, will help students both analyze and create works of real power and meaning.


Know Your Theory! – Genre Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, part 3 describes expressivist composition theory, and part 4 examines feminist composition pedagogy


Genre Composition Pedagogy

In a piece of historical fiction an author sets an imaginary plot against a specific historical setting. Realistic fiction involves characters and conflicts that could have actually occurred. Autobiography is someone’s factual telling of their own life story. At the middle school level this is how I’ve taught genre. However, contemporary understanding sees genres as rhetorical acts situated in specific contexts rather than a static set of conventions for students to memorize and mindlessly employ.

Carolyn Miller’s 1984 influential article “Genre as Social Action” defines genre as “rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations.” Authors, faced with similar writing tasks (recurrent situations), make similar stylistic and formal decisions (rhetorical actions). Over time readers come to recognize and expect certain conventions in a certain genre. For example I wouldn’t expect an autobiography to include a chapter on the author’s experiences transforming from a human into a mythical creature. A magical transformation goes against autobiography’s social contract as a genre rooted in the real. When teachers help students understand genre as rhetorical action they help students navigate the cultural expectations of public writing. To understand how a genre works is to gain access to the socially accepted forms of expression and discourse.

Three Broad Pedagogical Approaches to Genre Composition
As with the other composition pedagogies in this series, genre pedagogy has no one true way. The chapter breaks down genre pedagogy into the three following methods.

1. Teaching Particular Genres
2. Teaching Genre Awareness
3. Teaching Genre Critique

These three methods are not mutually exclusive. Incorporating all three approaches in a classroom creates students who are empowered to act rhetorically “within and beyond the situations they will encounter throughout their lives.”

Teaching Particular Genres
Giving students the tools to identify the characteristics of various genres is perhaps the most obvious and common method for teaching genre. Students learn a genre in order to write it. The genres we teach speak to perspectives we privilege in the classroom. Deborah Dean notes that the “genres we select favor and develop certain perspectives more than others.” For instance, Dean explains that focusing on five-paragraph essays promotes a certain type of logic, distance, and formality. Teaching mainly personal narratives favors individualism and chronological thinking.

Teaching students about genre characteristics often requires the use of explicit instruction. Although some warn against the use of direct instruction, the authors note that teaching students skills in an explicit manner doesn’t have to be formulaic or rote. Other scholars such as Ken Hyland and Lisa Delpit argue that explicit instruction in genre conventions is essential for supporting and empowering certain population groups like second language learners.


Teaching Genre Awareness
If teaching particular genres seeks to introduce students into the public arena of literacy, another genre pedagogy, genre awareness, seeks to provide students with techniques for learning any genre. Genre awareness pedagogy “treats genres as meaningful social actions, with formal features as the visible traces of shared perceptions.” A genre awareness approach requires students to collect samples of the genre, identify the larger context and rhetorical situation in which the genre is used, identify patterns in content and form, and analyze what these patterns reveal about the situation and larger context surrounding the genre. Once learned, students can apply the genre awareness approach to learning any genre.

Sample assignments include asking students to analyze a genre and then create a “mini-manual” to instruct others on how to read/write that genre. Sarah Andrew-Vaughan and Cathy Fleischer have developed the Unfamiliar Genre Project. The assignment cycle requires students to select an interesting genre, collect representative samples of it, keep a research journal, write their own version of it, and more.

Teaching genre awareness attends to genre’s ideological and social contexts as well as its rhetorical and textual features. The goal of the process is to develop within students a nuanced and rigorous understanding of “how, why, and for whom” they write. Students use pieces of writing as objects of genre analysis. Helping students see writing samples as objects for strategic analysis instead of models for emulating requires a significant time commitment. In her book Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres, Amy Devitt recommends helping students gain access to social situations, develop interview skills, and make observations. This is a far cry from telling students why Ender’s Game is an example of science fiction.

Teaching Genre Critique
True to its name, genre critique seeks to train students to think critically about existing genres in their cultures. The ability to analyze a genre brings with it the ability to “subvert, legitimize, or revise” them. Genre critique fits squarely within the larger tradition of critical pedagogy by calling attention to the way every day cultural practices often constitute various systems of oppression.

Genre scholars Richard Coe and Anne Freedman use the following meta-rhetorical questions to help students tease out the ideological implications tangled up within genres:

1. What sorts of communication does the genre encourage? What sorts does it constrain?
2. Who can – and who cannot – use this genre? Does it empower some while silencing others?
3. What values and beliefs are instantiated within this set of practices?
4. What are the political and ethical implications of the rhetorical situation constructed, persona embodied, audience invoked, and context of situation assumed by a particular genre?

Students learning this type of critique pick apart a genre, analyzing it for roles and expectations in order to create a new piece of writing that violates that genre’s tenets. The authors give the example of a syllabus. What roles for students and teacher does a traditional syllabus enact? How could students remix this genre to subvert the positions of power implied within a formal syllabus?

In “Genre, Antigenre, and Reinventing the Forms of Conceptualization,” Brad Peters says that the goal of genre critique is for students “to acquire – rather than acquiesce to – the grammar of a genre.” Taking a page from Cultural Studies, this type of perspective treats the genre as a cultural artifact ripe for analysis. For instance what can a food label tell us about how our culture views issues of consumption, transparency, and government regulation? A pedagogy of genre critique teaches genre not to help students internalize characteristics but to show what forms of discourse are possible. Genres “create an opening for students to realize that what has always been is not what must always be.”

Wrapping Up
I’ve always taught genre as a set of criteria for students to memorize. As I’ve grown as an English teacher (and read authors like Katie Wood Ray) I’ve induced students to explore a genre through an inquiry-based approach rather than a transmission model. I now understand the power embedded within and enacted by genres. Next year I’m looking forward to helping students investigate shared understandings and create their own meanings by applying a more robust understanding of genre pedagogy.

Know Your Theory! – Feminist Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, and part 3 describes expressivist composition theory.


Feminist Composition Pedagogy

Just like critical pedagogy, feminist theory contains within it a broad range of practices, assumptions, techniques. However feminist pedagogies typically share a common goal of bringing about social justice through specific teaching and learning methods. Every wave of feminism has expanded and complicated the definition of social justice. In terms of composition studies, feminist pedagogy seeks to use literacy to “interrogate and transform social relations.” It is a practice well suited for investigating social and political categories of difference such as race, class, and gender. This post explores a number of important concepts in the feminist composition classroom.

Gender Differences and Experiences
Feminism’s primarily white/cisgendered focus came under attack during the 1960s when scholars and activists began elevating black and lesbian voices. What started out as a women’s suffrage and abolition movement in the 19th century now fights for social justice on issues of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and migration. Feminism didn’t move into Composition Studies until the 1980s. Work during this early period focused on “experience as a legitimate form of knowledge, the inherent gender differences and effects on writing” as well as encouraging women to write from positions of power and authority. Early feminist compositionists wanted students to understand experience as a construct instead of some essential, private truth.


Diverse Discourses and Practices
In the 1980s and 1990s, postmodern and poststructuralist notions of subjectivity, agency, and textuality infused feminist composition with experimental prose and multilayered structure. Feminist pedagogues looked to complicate and subvert the single viewpoint approach favored by academic writing by introducing new methods of argumentation. Scholars like Catherine Lamb advocated for collaborative and cooperative academic discourse that valued and highlighted a panoply of voices and perspectives. Ann Berthoff  and Terry Myers Zawicki pushed students to write through hesitations and to use writing as a vehicle for knowing, rather than a simple method of recording thought. Students in a feminist composition class often mix genres, modes of writing, and perspectives in a single piece.

Feminist compositionists work to dislodge traditional univocal academic discourse. Through alternative models of composition and revision, these scholars brought attention to the difference and complexity of literacy. Collaboration and shared linguistic ownership undercut traditional notions of power and authority by “creating spaces for marginalized voices.” Donnalee Rubin’s important study Gender Influences: Reading Student Texts called attention to the the way gender biases affect the way teachers respond to student writing. Influenced by this study, many feminist educators engaged students in non-competitive activities and helped females to move from “private discourse to public pronouncements.”

Conflict and Difference
As mentioned in the introduction, feminist pedagogy is an “orientation to learning and knowing charged by social justice commitments.” Embracing conflict is a dominant theme for feminist compositionists. In “Feminism and Composition: The Case for Conflict” Susan Jarratt argues that feminist teachers should use conflict as a tool for calling attention to and ultimately challenging the racist, sexist, and classist foundations of the contemporary classroom. Similarly bell hooks views conflict in the classroom as a “catalyst for new thinking, for growth.” Conflict becomes a way to help students confront the dominant sociopolitical beliefs that help define and bracket their experience. Feminist compositions look to conflict to help disrupt and critique mainstream narratives of issues of race, class, and other categories of difference.

A portion of feminist composition’s use of conflict in the classroom comes from the notion that there is no “purely democratic, utopian space available to us in face-to-face or virtual realities.” Borrowing and continuing from Cultural Studies, feminist compositionists submit a wide range of textual objects and discursive practices to rigorous critique.


Listening to and Grappling with Emotion
In the late 1990s feminist compositionists began addressing the role of emotion in the classroom. They did so by situating emotion and affect in the social and political. Emotion is “bound up with judgment, belief, ideology, and social life broadly conceived.” Any investigation into larger issues of dominance, power, and identity must therefore progress in some way through the fabric of emotion. Feminist scholars like Michelle Payne call attention to the way traditional social construction theory has largely ignored emotion. As a result emotion is often seen as a private force bound up in the individuality of the body. Critical discussions of gender, identity, and emotion are crucial when dislodging stereotypes of female instability and irrationality.

The act of listening plays an important role in the feminist composition classroom. In Rhetorical Listening, Krista Ratcliffe uses listening to help students “recognize resistance, analyze it, and when necessary, challenge it.” It’s a way to identify and think critically about the narratives that shape our reality. The human body is not a hermetically sealed unit containing emotion. Instead feminist compositionists see affect as relational and social. The body is both a site of lived experiences and an amalgam of competing social forces. Teachers would do well to help students locate their own affective experiences within the larger social forces of the classroom and society.


Corporealities and Wrapping Up
The last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have witnessed the growth of queer and disability studies pedagogy. Like feminist pedagogy, queer and disability studies positions the body “as a locus from which to develop praxis.” Performativity, the way we express, reproduce, or subvert normative categories of identity, also plays an important role in the current feminist classroom. Feminist pedagogues use writing to help students contextualize their identity. What are our cultural norms regarding categories of difference? How do we choose to embody or disrupt them?

The feminist classroom should challenge, subvert, and push students outside of their comfort zones. There is no set of essentialist feminist pedagogical tools. This type of learning methodology poses active questions, questions norms, and views categories of difference through multiple perspectives. Students will collaborate to construct meanings and pursue critical inquiry. Although this book concerns college students, it’s never too early to introduce students to feminism’s critical perspectives.

Know Your Theory! – Critical Pedagogy and Composition Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon the excellent A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 (Collaborative Writing Pedagogy) can be found here.


This week’s post examines critical pedagogy from the perspective of the composition classroom. Critical pedagogy envisions a society devoted to issues of social justice and freedom. If traditional education is about raising the individual to improve society, then critical pedagogy recognizes the need to improve the society in order to raise the individual. To this end critical pedagogies look to engage students in analyses of how cultural practices and institutions (including schools) replicate certain power dynamics and social hierarchies.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the ur-text for critical pedagogy. This 1970 work introduced several important concepts such as the banking model of education (the notion that traditional schooling positions students as passive receptacles, teachers as cultural arbiters, and knowledge as demarcated units of discrete information), schooling as an instrument of cultural domination (curriculum and instructional practices that value specific types of knowledge) and critical consciousness (questioning the nature of lived experience and the unspoken norms governing our society).

Freire’s theory situates him as a social constructivist; for him, knowledge is a socially constructed linguistic product. He is therefore interested in language as a mechanism of both domination and possible resistance. Although language as domination is certainly not a new topic (see Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings, for instance), contemporary scholars such as Christopher Emdin and Gert Biesta continue to explore how curriculum, speech, and agency operate in the classroom.


American critical pedagogy hit its stride during the 1980s as a radical response to conservative reports on education such as A Nation at Risk  and Action for Excellence. The rise of neoliberalism during the 1980s produced reactionary and canonical works by academics such as Henri Giroux, Ira Shor, and Peter McLaren. These critical pedagogues worked to bring light to the ways schools functioned as sorting mechanisms to perpetuate inequality.

Through the works of these and other scholars, American critical pedagogy aims to inspire students to reimagine what it means to build a society based on democratic values and the respect for difference. Critical teachers wrestle with four central questions:

1. What does a critical classroom look like?
2. Can we create democratic classrooms within traditional institutions?
3. Is the goal to produce radical student activists? How?
4. Is Freirean pedagogy applicable to American schools?

Classroom Practice
While early American critical pedagogues like Giroux produced canonical texts that galvanized educators (check out Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life or Critical Teaching and Everyday Life), many teachers expressed frustration with the inattention to classroom practice. The authors consider Ira Shor to be an important exception. His books Empowering Education  and When Students Have Power bridge theory and practice with activities, anecdotes, and critical reflections. Shor invited a group of students to meet with him regularly after class to evaluate the day’s session and activities. Doing so allowed teacher and student to negotiate together the various contradictions inherent in the critical classroom.

Can Classrooms Be Democratic?
Thinking about democracy as a set of static actions and chunks of knowledge (voting, awareness of laws and various judicial and legislative processes) ignores the concept’s need for continuous renewal, deliberation, and public contestation. Democracy as a mode of being rather than a series of skills to be imparted and enacted. Democratic classrooms are not ones in which the teacher abdicates all power. Especially in terms of the secondary classroom, where I teach, the teacher must remain “in charge.” The contradictions of teaching for critical resistance in a highly structured environment remain one of the biggest challenges to any critical educator. It is possible, and indeed highly recommended, to engage students in as many decisions as possible while still allowing for professional control and guidance.

Producing Student Activists
It should go without saying that education is highly political. The content we teach, the methods we use, and the perspectives we highlight are political decisions. That said, the image of the classroom as an overtly political arena doesn’t sit right. My experiences de-testing and de-grading my classroom last year let me see first-hand the way many students (and adults) push back against any sort of explicit proselytizing. At the time I naively thought I was liberating both students and myself from a mechanistic and reductive assessment system. I openly spoke with them about my decision in an attempt at transparency. While my intentions might have been in the right place, my actions served mainly to polarize the class. Certain kids celebrated it while others dug in their heels and became hostile. I had forgotten that critical pedagogy is a process, not something to be delivered.

Freire in America
Poststructuralist and feminist educators have made valuable contributions to liberation pedagogy by unpacking Freire’s uncritical empowerment rhetoric. For, as the authors explain, to empower someone suggests an agent who empowers and a willing object who receives power from another. This setup mirrors Freire’s own banking analogy of education mentioned above, where power moves unidirectionally from teacher to student. We hear echoes of this when educators seek to “give minority students a voice,” a statement that ignores the fact that children already have voices.

As originally conceptualized, Freire’s critical pedagogy positions power as a commodity to be traded around and horded. As academics like Foucault have persuasively articulated, power is more of a verb than a noun. It is “exercised instead of owned.” Contemporary theory helps us reject the binaries of teacher/student, us/them, and oppressor/oppressed. We now understand identity and power to be relational constructs that “form (and reform) at the intersection of multiple axes of difference and power.” Viewing students as objects in need of saving is paternalistic and deleterious for teachers and students alike. Scholars working within poststructuralism, feminism, and critical race theory have successfully expanded upon Freire’s original aims to create a more inclusive rhetoric of power and resistance.

What Does This Mean for Teachers?
This brings us back to the aforementioned point about what critical pedagogy looks like in the composition classroom. While the authors refrain from providing many examples of what critical pedagogy might look like in a composition classroom, providing specific instructional strategies isn’t necessarily the purview of the book (or this post). Critical pedagogy is a practice, the routine contestations of power, value, and authority. The critical writing classroom asks students to examine the systems of academic discourse that bolster certain voices while devaluing or silencing others. Much of schooling’s “common sense,” assessment policies and grades, assignments, norms, and readings must all be scrutinized under a critical gaze. We can help students become aware and critical of the hegemonic forces informing our modern life. What better place to start than in the writing classroom?



Know Your Theory! – Collaborative Writing Pedagogy Edition

The National Writing Project is an amazing thing. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute for the last couple of years. The Invitational Summer Institute is an intense four-week experience where educators get together to talk about all things writing. I’ve transitioned from completing the program (becoming a Teacher Consultant in the process) to co-directing the four-week institute.

For this summer’s ISI I’ve appointed myself Theory Czar. To that end I’ve flung myself into the exciting realm of composition theory. This new series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon the excellent A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 3/5 summary and 2/5 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. 

Know Your Theory! – Collaborative Writing Edition


The first post in this new series discusses collaborative writing pedagogy. Simply put, collaborative writing theory attempts to explain the benefits, pitfalls, and rationale behind asking students to write together. The chapter begins with a reference to the model of solitary authorship promoted during the Romantic era (late 1700s to the mid 1800s). This is when many colleges in the United States began offering coursework in composition. Consider the Romantic trope of the tortured artist toiling away in isolation, producing masterworks out of his or her suffering.


The notion that a text is the result of a single author persisted in composition pedagogies until poststructuralist theorists like Michel Foucault infamously heralded the “end of the subject.” This stuff gets complex pretty quickly. In terms of collaborative writing pedagogy, all we need to know about the advent of postmodernism is that we no longer understand a text as a freestanding object created by a single person. Writing is always an act of collaboration. The chapter offers the following strategies for thinking through collaborative writing assignments in the classroom.

Delay Students’ Collaborative Writing:
Collaborative writing is difficult and should therefore not begin until the school year is well under way. In the time leading up to the task of collaborative composition, be sure to implement a plethora of social constructivist tasks: group work, peer review, class discussion, and even collaborative revision. It’s also worth mentioning that although every class benefits from community building activities, any teacher with her eye towards collaborative writing should invest a significant amount of instructional time on developing strong interpersonal relations and a positive class identity.

Design the Assignment for a Group, Rather Than Redesigning an Individual Task:
A mistake I’ve only recently begun to remedy in my own practice is the art of creating and assigning effective group work. Tasks given to a group need to be designed for a group. This means a significant increase in difficulty: for instance tasks that are labor intensive, require specialization, and/or involve deep levels of synthesis. The collective brainpower of the group means a higher zone of proximal development. A higher ZPD should mean more difficult tasks.

Discuss Methods and Problems of Collaborative Writing before the Project Begins:
Spend time ‘pulling back the curtain’ on the the basic methods and common pitfalls of collaborative work. This means discussing power dynamics based on race and gender (i.e. females doing all of the work). Go over consensus-building strategies as well as ways to help students actively listen to each other instead of resorting to adversarial majoritarianism.

Choose the Type of Collaboration:
The authors mention dialogic and hierarchical collaboration. Dialogic work involves students working together on every aspect of a project, whereas the latter involves breaking a task down into discrete components and assigning each part to a different group member. Dialogic work brings with it all the joys of messy discovery; hierarchical methods are more efficient and timely. Many types of collaborative writing require an interplay between dialogic and hierarchical teamwork.

Anticipate Problems:
Working collaboratively leaves us open to the reality of rejection. As one of my old bosses used to say, “Rejection of your ideas does not mean rejection of you as a person.” This is tough enough for anyone to do, regardless of age. Talk to students about this.

Anticipate and Prepare for Student Resistance:
Many students oppose group work. In my limited experience, I think much of this resistance is the result of unchecked power dynamics. “I’m the one that ends up doing all the work,” is a common (and valid) refrain. And some students do their best work when writing in isolation. It’s your job as the teacher to decide when to require group work. The chapter recommends helping students see how prevalent collaboration is in the work world, how individual writing improves from having worked with others, and how thinking through complex tasks with others typically increases understanding for everyone.

Let the Class Decide How the Groups Will Be Constituted and Discuss the Pros and Cons of Each Possibility:
Grouping students for successful collaboration is tricky. Students, like anyone, want to work with their friends. It’s important to stress to your class that while everyone enjoys working with people they know and feel comfortable with, doing so can leave certain students feeling unloved and unwanted. Additionally, we live in a world of others. It’s our duty to make sure students have the tools necessary to work successfully with all manner of individuals.

Give the Groups Autonomy in Deciding Their Methods and Timetables:
Creating and adhering to schedules and milestones is both essential to healthy collaboration and a key component of self-management. It’s important to devote class time to helping students through this process. As always, never assume that students know how to do these things.

Prepare for Dissent within the Groups and Prepare to Manage It in Two Dimensions: The Instructor and the Students:
The authors explain that successful collaboration allows for group cohesion, creative conflict, and the protection of minority views. Welcome rather than dread dissent. Tell students to anticipate in advance the presence of conflict and to welcome it as a sign of creativity and generativity. Handling dissent will require the direct instruction, scaffolding, and modelling of specific strategies. The authors recommend pulling from the academic traditions of “counterevidence” and “minority opinions.” Managing disparate ideas effectively is a great way to practice thesis, antithesis, textual evidence, etc.


As common sense as collaborative writing seems, I must admit I do remarkably little of it. I think there are probably many reasons for this: a culture that uses competition to pit students (and teachers) against one another, our education system’s strain of individualism, the difficulties of interdependency, and the challenges of devoting class time to something that won’t explicitly show up on a high-stakes exam are but a few examples. However collaboration has never been easier. Something as simple as a shared Google Doc allows multiple authors to work on a single text with only a few clicks. A cursory internet search yields a plethora of decent, free resources to help students work together. Although I’m not entirely convinced that collaborative composition is robust enough to carry the theory/practice weight of a full-blown pedagogy, the ideas presented in this chapter are certainly worthy of thought and implementation.