About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, February 5, 2010

“A Study of Writer’s Block, Part Two”

Last time we got a glimpse of the composing processes of students who had a hard time writing. This time, we’ll pick up with some discussion of fluent writers.


What about the students who weren’t stymied, who wrote with relative fluency? They too talked of rules and assumptions and displayed planning strategies. The interesting thing, though, is that their rules were more flexible; that is, a rule seemed to include conditions under which it ought and ought not to be used. The rules weren't absolutes, but rather statements about what one might do in certain writing situations. Their assumptions, as well, were not absolute, and they tended to enhance composing, opening up rather than restricting possibilities. And their planning strategies tended to be flexible and appropriate to the task. Fluent writers had their rules, strategies, and assumptions, but they were of a different kind from those of the blocked writers.

What to do? One is tempted to urge the blocked writers to clear their minds of troubling rules, plans, and assumptions. In a few cases, that might not be such a bad idea. But what about Liz's preoccupation with passive constructions? Some degree of concern about casting one's language in the active voice is a good thing. And Gary's precise strategies? It would be hard to imagine good academic writing that isn't preceded by careful analysis of one's materials. Writers need the order and the guidance that rules, strategies, and assumptions provide. The answer to Liz's, Tyrrell’s, and Gary's problems, then, lies in altering their approaches to make them more conditional, adaptive, and flexible. Let me explain further. For the sake of convenience, I’ll focus on rules, though what I’ll say has application to the assumptions we develop and the planning strategies we learn.

Writing is a phenomenally complex learned activity. To write in a way that others can understand we must employ a large and complicated body of conventions. We learn from our parents or earliest teachers that script, in English, goes left to right straight across the page. We learn about letter formation, spelling, sentence structure, and so on. Some of this information we absorb more or less unconsciously through reading, and some of it we learn formally as guidelines, as directives ... as rules.

And there are all kinds of rules. Some tell us how to format our writing (for example, when to capitalize, how to paragraph, how to footnote). There are grammar rules (for example, "Make a pronoun agree in number with its antecedent”). There are preferences concerning style that are often stated as rules (“Avoid passive voice”). There are usage rules (“That always introduces restrictive clauses; which can introduce both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses”). There are rules that tell us how to compose (“Before you begin writing, decide on your thesis and write it down in a single, declarative sentence”). The list goes on and on. Some of these rules make sense; others are confusing, questionable, or contradictory. Fortunately we assimilate a good deal of the information they contain gradually by reading other writers, by writing ourselves, or by simply being around print. Therefore, we can confirm or alter or reject them from experience.

But all too often the rules are turned into absolutes. And that's where the trouble begins. Most rules about writing should not be expressed (in textbooks), stored (in our minds), or enacted (on the page) as absolutes, as mathematical, unvarying directives. True, a few rules apply in virtually all situations (for example, certain formatting rules or capitalization rules). But most rules do not. Writing rules, like any rules about language, have a history and have a time and place. They are highly context-bound.

Should you always, as some textbooks suggest, place your thesis sentence at the beginning of your first paragraph or, as others suggest, work up to it and place it at the end of the paragraph? Well, the answer is that both injunctions are right ... and wrong. Students writing essay exams would be well-advised to demonstrate their knowledge and direct the reader’s attention as soon as possible. But the writer who wants to give a sense of intellectual discovery might offer a series of facts and events that gradually lead up to a thesis sentence. The writing situation, the rhetorical purpose, and the nature of the material one is working with will provide the answer. A single-edged rule cannot.

How about our use of language, usage rules? Certainly there’s a right and wrong here. Again, not quite. First of all, there’s a time in one's writing to worry about such things. Concern yourself with questions of usage too early in your composing and you’ll end up like Liz, worrying about the minutiae of language while your thought fades to a wisp. Second, the social consequences of following or ignoring such rules vary widely depending on whether you're writing formal or informal prose. Third, usage rules themselves have an evolutionary history: we aren’t obliged to follow some of the rules that early twentieth century writers had to deal with, and our rules will alter and even disappear as the English language moves on in time. No, there are no absolutes here either.

Well, how about some of the general, commonsense rules about the very act of writing itself? Certainly rules like "Think before you write” ought to be followed? Again, a qualification is in order. While it certainly is good advice to think through ideas before we record them for others to see, many people, in fact, use writing as a way of thinking. They make major decisions as they write. There are times when it's best to put a piece of writing aside and ponder, but there are also times when one ought to keep pen in hand or finger on keyboard and attempt to resolve a conceptual tangle by sketching out what comes to mind. Both approaches are legitimate.

I'll stop here. I hope I've shown that it's difficult to make hard and fast statements about the structure, the language, or the composing of an essay. Let me be clear: I’m not calling for an abandonment of rules, strategies, etc., but for a more context-sensitive and fluid use of them. Unfortunately, there’s a strong push in our culture to make absolute statements about writing, especially when issues of style and usage are concerned. But I hope by now the reader of this essay believes that most roles about writing – about how to do it, about how it should be structured, about what words to use – are not absolute, and should be taught and enacted in a flexible, context-dependent way. Given certain conditions, you follow them; given other conditions you modify or suspend them. A teacher may insist that a young writer follow a particular dictum in order to learn a pattern. That’s fine. But there also comes a time when the teacher extends the lesson and explains when the dictum is and isn't appropriate.

Our writing and how we do it can be such a personal thing. Certainly, most of us are at least a little sensitive about the writing we do. I hope this discussion has been helpful, if for no other reason then it gets us to reflect on how we write and make some adjustments to make that writing go a little easier.


jen said...

Towards "a more context-sensitive and fluid use of" the rules for teacher practice.

Dr. Rose tends to illuminate the broader issues of education with his precise description of the moments of schooling, thinking, and learning. True to form, Mike helped me think more closely about the rules of teacher practice that frequently are referred to as teaching best practices.

I would argue--following Mikes explanation of those writers who were not stymied by writers block--that just and effective rules for teacher practice should be more context-sensitive and fluid.

Consider the rules guiding teacher practice as a trajectory of activities that requires both thought and action and includes recognizing a problem, coming up with a solution, and taking a course of action that will make significant strides towards solving a problem. They are those particular moments when people find themselves facing a situation that runs contrary to or at least complicates their values and how they strategically act in a way to forward those values within the constraints of the moment.

These rules guiding teacher practice can be distinguished from the related concept of best practices associated with social justice education in several ways. Best practices are concrete guidelines that are the paramount actions and strategies that are touted to be the preeminent thing to do in any community, school, classroom, or with any child. For example, the National Governors association offers reports on the best practices in early childhood, elementary and secondary, and postsecondary education, including teacher quality, high school redesign, reading, access to and success in postsecondary education, extra learning opportunities, and school readiness. Conversely, navigating actions are highly contextual trajectories of action that are more concerned with the relations between the context, problem, action and a solution that include everything a teacher does in school. Darling-Hammond (1997) notes the complexity of promoting what works when she posts 10 effective features of effective small schools and 10 common tensions these schools encounter. On the other hand, she also repeatedly acknowledges that "Bureaucratic solutions to problems of practice will always fail because effective teaching is not routine, students are not passive, and questions of practice are not simple, predictable, or standardized. Consequently, instructional decisions cannot be formulated on high then packaged and handed down to teachers" (p. 67). Navigating actions are not prescriptive, they are grounded in the local practices, culture and social relations all converging around any action in a school.

As defined here, just and effective rules for good teacher practice become a way to solve a concrete problem that arises in a school in such a way that justice, equity, and access are maximized. There can be a number of ways social justice educators do the work of educating underserved students in non-dominant communities; navigating actions represents one way that the three educators in the study bridged their ideas about working to make a more just society with the implementation of that goal.

Joe said...

Thanks for bringing this up, Mike. In pointing out that writing rules are far from hard and fast laws, you make a good and important point. I fear, though, that it is a point that is too fine for this day and age. You are calling for students and teachers to develop judgment about when to apply and when to bend or ignore the rules, but we live in a time when the judgment of the individual is not trusted. We live in a time when policy is used to replace judgment and the individual can hide from personal responsibility by throwing up a barrier of rules.

In my current position, I am able to spend time in the classrooms of many teachers where I am treated to quite a collection of stone tablet rules brought down from the mount. Thou shalt not use “I” in academic writing. Thou shalt not begin with a rhetorical question. Thou shalt write five paragraphs. Thou shalt use the Harvard (Cornell, Princeton—pick your school) Outline to plan your homework paragraph. And on and on (Oh, and thou shalt not begin a sentence with “and,” “but” or “because.” And for Heaven’s sake, watch out for sentence fragments!).

Later, in the teacher work room I hear the repeated lament that, “These kids can’t write.” Later still, in a grad course or workshop series for teachers, these same folk are ducking my writing assignments whenever possible. Because, you cannot hide behind the rules once you begin putting words to paper.

As you state, “Writing is an immensely complex activity.” In addition, writing involves public exposure. A friend of mine, Tom Cluney, once wrote, “Writing is like going to a party and dropping your pants, the fear that everyone will be shocked is only matched by the fear that they will be disappointed.” Rules are a protection against that kind of exposure.

The point that your respondent, Jen, brings up about “best teaching practices” speaks to the same issue. She believes that teachers must use their judgment in applying the strategies needed to help students learn, while education policy, deeply distrustful of teachers, seeks to eliminate decision-making from the classroom, from the school, from the district.

Those of us on the ground in education know that there ARE no “best practices” or “worst practices” in writing or in teaching, only appropriate and inappropriate ones at the moment. Ignorance of this fundamental reality is what keeps policy makers and actual teachers constantly at odds.

Doug Stowe said...

Mike, I think that schools aggravate the problem of writers block by not giving the students anything to write about. It has a lot to do with some students' relationships with the concrete vs. abstract. I am living evidence. I hated writing, but took a class in creative writing on a lark my senior year of college. My teacher wanted me to pursue writing as a career, but I had nothing of significant interest to write about, and making stuff up (as in fiction) or digging through research and interviewing others for material had no appeal to me.

So I ended up becoming a how-to writer on the subject of woodworking, a thing that happened following about 20+ of professional woodworking. I've written 6 books and over 60 articles for national magazines, and it is nearly all about writing what I see and what I do, and is all based on personal experience.

I have this strong suspicion that early educators were right that learning should move from the concrete to the abstract, and by having expectations that students write (a process of abstraction) when we haven't given them enough concrete experience to write about, is an error leading some to insurmountable writers block. It no doubt often leads others to hate writing and to have complete lack of confidence in writing.