Mutt Genres and Avoiding the Impossible

Elizabeth Wardle’s “‘Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help students Write the Genres of the University?” is more than a summary of her own research in the practices of teaching FYC at a ‘large midwestern university’ or any discrete criticisms of that program, this article works to undermine the position and function of FYC within the entire university system. Despite this stance, Wardle’s cathartic description of an overstuffed and overstretched FYC is ultimately a hopeful remodeling and not simply a deconstruction of the practice. As a student working on the development of an FYC course, this piece worked to unknot some of the current issues I have been working on in designing my course. Particularly, the issues of transference of skills and which genres are aiming to transfer into has become a point of argument within my group of cohorts. Wardle argues with this approach by saying “… simply teaching students institutionalized features of various genres limits and simplifies the varied exigencies to which those genres have responded in their rhetorical situations outside the FYC classroom” (768). This reductive element is attempted to synthesize these spaces is further complicated by the issue of flux, or intrinsic liminality within genres. Which is to say, their genre definitions change with the exigencies that arise in the maintenance of their identity as a unique discipline. I feel like accepting the impossibility to accurately teach these genres in a four month FYC course is an important step in seeing what is possible, like the development of metacognition, reflection and particularly an understanding of what writing isn’t. These empower the student to realize not only some popular genre conventions through articulation with a survey of texts, but to go beyond these particular, liminal situations to learn about the work that genre conventions do as responses to exigencies.


Reading the Text of the Classroom

Jennie Nelson’s piece, “Reading Classrooms as Text: Exploring Student Writers’ Interpretive Practice” grapples with the inundated necessity for students to morph their own learning practice in order to meet arbitrary goals of practice within the classroom. As a result of this, writing can become formulaic to the point of bypassing the teacher’s intended pedagogical route. By resisting student agency in determining their own education, classrooms “may often conflict with the goals of academic literacy” (Nelson, 413).  I and no doubt many students have experienced learning environments like those described in this article. When assignments alienate the identity of the students as successfully participating, they feel a lack of agency in process and lose faith in the purpose of the learning practice. This alienating is most often due to the disconnect between the learning situation imagined by the educator and the actual learning situation that is experienced by the student. John Dewey’s seminal Democracy and Education (1916) has this to say about disconnecting the student from the learning aim:

We are rather concerned with the contrast which exists when aims belong within the process in which they operate and when they are set up from without. And the latter state of affairs must obtain when social relationships are not equitably balanced. For in that case, some portions of the whole social group will find their aims determined by an external dictation; their aims will not arise from the free growth of their own experience, and their nominal aims will be means to more ulterior ends of others rather than truly their own. (Chapter 8).

In Dewey’s opinion, the authoritative political environment that leads students to focus on ‘giving the teacher what they want’ has an inherent structural disorder. I find that this disorder manifests itself as alienation of the student, like what is portrayed by Nelson through her research.

Some Interesting Concepts

Over this last week of reading through the Bad Ideas About Writing, I am left reflecting on several questions. One of those is the purpose of grading and feedback and how they affect the student’s performance. Another was the connection between writing and identity as a writer, etc. The one that most echoed with me most personally however, was the connection between reading and writing in the composition classroom.

As someone who has studied a foreign language for many years now, I find that fluency,  (literacy in a language), is both reached and enacted by mimicry. When a native speaker gauges whether I am a ‘good’ speaker of Japanese, for example, they compare me to the concept of a ‘normal’ speaker of that language. There is a certain level of subjectivity in this, but is largely affected by the social concept of what ‘normal’ is. By mimicking that concept I am engaging in the literacy practice that is conceived of that language by the native culture of that language. This is not to say that there is no route for creation in this space, whether a native speaker or otherwise. Rather, the stage of acceptable creation is necessarily beyond the mastery of the literacy practice the new creation must work within the same conditions as all previous examples of mimicry, but be different enough to be considered new. Mastery of the literacy practice of a language requires ample models of mimicry to allow the new practitioner the tools to create. It is by this logic that reading as a way of gaining literacy should be necessarily staged before writing within the act of creation (within a preexisting literacy practice). As we have read this week however, this is often not the case in college level writing courses. Students are expected to skip mimicry and go on to creating despite engaging with a new literacy and an inadequate amount of experience.

Reading is certainly important to building the kinds of writing skills valued at the college level, but instead of practicing mimicry, students are warned against ‘plagiarism.’ Let’s face it though, all writing is just a reconfiguration of established concepts, and is therefore a degree of plagiarism. Rather than being so focused on the creation stage of writing, I wonder if it would not be more productive to allow for class time to focus on becoming fluent in the language of the discourse of the field in question.

Active and Passive Reading

    Ellen C. Carillo’s “Reading and Writing are not Connected,” strives to argue against the titular concept which plagues post-secondary education. Elementary schools teach writing and reading together, giving students practice in both analyzing and using the literacy practices of the texts they work with. Over time, these students become conscious of the literacies across differing genres. Like Carillo points out however, “by the time students arrive in college, stories beginning with ‘once upon a time’ are long gone” (39). Support for analyzing the literacy practices of texts, including their genre, is not upheld past the most basic conventions. A student knows the conventions of a fairy tale and can therefore work within those conventions when writing. The same cannot be said however, when students write in response to the kinds of texts used in post-secondary education. Without education in how to read these text and understand their conventions, students are less able to adhere to these conventions when writing in response.

    Pedagogy that dismisses the connection of reading to writing obscures the function of rhetorical moves within a text. Carillo warns that by dismissing this analysis “students may lack the ability to read the world around them… think reading is passive… [and] these students might blindly accept whatever come their way” (39). Through “rhetorical reading” (42), instructors can empower the students to read actively, and by manipulating the conventions of the genre students can write more fitting responses.


New Theories, Old Theories

Because my undergrad focus was on English Literature, I regrettably have had very little contact with the discourse surrounding modern pedagogical practices. For me, grad-school was the start of my foray into this realm of research, so I am still trying to find ‘my way.’

That said, I am quite intrigued with the concept of learning as a social practice. With the educator as part of a larger practice, in the same sphere as the student-participant, learning feels more accessible. The concept of mutual change among the participants also helps to define my own experiences as an ESL teacher abroad and everything I learned while teaching. I suppose at this point I’d just like to see more examples of how LPP is implemented in academic settings successfully, but we have seen some of that with the ‘lenses’ and ‘valued practices.’

Coming into classroom however, I was trying on the concept of learning through ‘thresholds.’ The shearing and reforming of signifiers and signified is exciting and Land (link below) makes a good argument for its usefulness. That said, I am worried by the binary that liminality relies on to determine success. COP has differing positions within a community, but these are largely fluid and learning is gauged on a contextual analysis of participation growth. Liminality theory on the other hand relies on the rigidity of liminal states to orient the learner longitudinally as simply more or less ‘complete.’ This consideration of in-between spaces ultimately devalues them as spaces of incompleteness and mimicry, not places where new practices can be made.

Liminality theory based on the anthropological shift of a boy becoming a man, like Rand’s, is based in a social construct, but like that original concept the actual moment of shift is reliant on an often decontextualized ideological concept (manliness). Compared to COP, which is similarly based on a social-economic concept, the COP approach only makes contextual evaluations. Similar to the debate against the instruction of a universal, ‘formal grammar,’ as opposed to a rhetorical/contextual one, I find myself gravitating toward the more deft and situationally accurate contextual approach.


Lenses and a Couple hours of ESL

Although I have just started working in the ESL Center and amassed only a couple of hours actually on-call, I think I can make a couple connections to the Lenses pamphlet. I worked alongside a veteran tutor and noticed that most of the lense practices were not used during the tutoring process. Most notably is the lack of writer-generated questions, a key concept of the lenses. This is not a criticism however, the lenses, while exciting, require some key point of setting up before they can be used effectively. In many ways, this pamphlet works like a script. Asking the tutee to suddenly accept this role would lead to an awkward and prolonged tutoring process. Also, there was only one student in the center at that time and it can be argued that without group participation these lenses become even less useful as the ability to reinforce the roles falls solely on the tutor. In the perfect situation, the tutor should act more as a mediator of the practice. This gives the tutees the ability to participate as both tutor and tutee which greatly increases the sense of connection and participation.

While it may not have been feasible then, I can see why there might be a drive to create an environment to enact these lenses. During my short tutoring experience, I noted seeing a tutor reading over the student’s paper while the tutee sat silently by. The tutor would ask questions periodically and even compliment the student’s writing, but ultimately the student’s participation was quite low. It seemed like a positive experience for all concerned, which is no small feat, but there is a sense that a learning opportunity was diminished by separating the writer and text in this way. I feel like the greater participation afforded by the lenses approach is an exciting way to empower the students in the long term.


Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics

Chapter three of Lave and Wenger’s book is titled “Midwives, Tailors, Quartermasters, Butchers, Alcoholics.” As suggested by that title, we are given several examples of communities of practice and how they function. I was particularly interested in the account of the Vai and Gola tailors. The rigorous structure of the apprenticeship helped to form an image of legitimate peripheral participation in my mind with apprentices gaining more participation during the five years they worked. This correlated so well with their increase of knowledge of the curriculum that the terms “knowledge” and “participation” are synonymous. Also, Apprentices had a notable degree of freedom of access to information by being able to observe the various stages of garment making as well as the differing levels of complexity. This, combined with a reversal of the production order in correlation to where apprentices begin, helped to insulate the apprentices from the larger burden of failure within the COP.  Risk prevention mostly functions as a cost-saving method specific to clothing production, but a lowering of failure also helps to promote the self-identification of the community member as just that. Communities of practice are entered and exited freely and are not necessarily tied to action. For example, a person cutting cloth is not necessarily a tailor. An increased participation in the COP should correlate with an increased sense of identity as a member of that community. This may be what Wenger means by “learning as becoming.”

In response to my last post, the example of the A.A. community in this chapter helps to show what COP looks like outside of apprenticeship/production. Knowledgeable and skillful activities, one that meet a certain standard, can be basically anything. Again looking at identity, I find that the only requirement for being a member of a COP is some limit of ‘personal identifiability’ as a member. Any measurements of skill or a move for the community to pursue efficiency is seemingly entirely relative and personal.