Classroom Observation

Before class time began, the students were quiet. The classroom was small and had eleven students, and the teacher had them form a circle to help bolster discussion. But the students weren’t in favor of discussion. Unless you count the discussion they were having on their phones, they preferred being quiet and sleepy. Sleepy, at four in the afternoon. Perhaps they were feeling down though, about the social scandal that’d recently occurred, how a conservative student, who took a picture with Milo Yiannopoulos, had been cyber-bullied until she fled from school. The teacher asked them about it, and they spoke about the scandal vaguely, as if they didn’t know what had happened, while saying they did in fact know what had happened, maybe because of not wanting to talk about it.

Then the meat of the class began. A student played a song for class, so that they could go over the lyrics. The research class has moved on from research paper writing to writing lyrics, to go over rhetorical situation, code meshing, assumptions, and proposition in a different way; to (as their teacher puts it in the unit III assignment) “make the jump from writing for specific outlets to writing as a creative outlet.” What is the proposition of the song, what is the rhetorical situation? In the song the student chose, the rhetorical situation seemed to be a breakup, how the breakup affected her and she wanted to communicate something. It was about love, some students said, how her ex once had strength and gave her strength, but because he metaphorically “cut his hair” and “literally” left her, they’re both weaker. After this initial discussion, about the song the student picked, they moved onto forming groups for their final projects.

At this point I discovered how freshmen, who although have been in college for several months still can be, at times, timid, when it comes to collaboration, have a way of compromising with their teacher. By compromise, I mean starting at what the teacher would like and slowly communicating their needs until they achieve what they need while not taking away from what their teacher had wanted in the first place. They wanted their teacher to form the groups for them, rather than them going off to discuss the project on a canvas discussion. Their teacher then gave them time to form their groups on their own, because he wanted them to form the groups on their own. But all the students remained quiet, eventually telling him why they’d prefer him to form the groups for them. So he set them into groups, deciding (he told me after class when I asked him why) it was a battle he didn’t really need to win, and if it made it easier for them to handle the final project, so be it.

After groups were formed, they shared the lyrics they’d written for class, which were posted on a discussion forum. What impressed me most was how confident they all suddenly were. Where before they had difficulty sharing their thoughts in discussion or forming groups on their own, here, in a creative mode, they shared extremely personal aspects of their life. The first person to read his song discussed a bad breakup, the next also read their poem about heartbreak. One student discussed her insomnia and read her poem about the psychological inability to sleep and depression it caused.

One student really stood out. English was her second language. It was her turn to read her poem, and she tried to explain herself, “You see. This is maybe better if I sing. Because it’s…you know…the emotion is not in the written… you know what I mean?” She wanted to sing the song because that was how it was set up; it wouldn’t make as much sense to read it word for word. And in that room, an acoustic setting so small her voice surrounded everyone, she demonstrated an incredible, confident talent. Where she was shy speaking English, she was confident singing English, which she’d been classically trained in.

As they work toward the final project, this class, I think, with them sharing their lyrics, opened them up to each other and helped them come to terms with rhetorical situation (why they chose the heartbreak or insomnia to write about) and the different methods of communicating a certain purpose.

 

To Discourse or to Talk?

Elbow’s essay,  “Reflections on Academic Discourse: How it Relates to Freshmen and Colleagues,” and Bartholomae’s essay, “Inventing the University,” at first appear to come at college writing from opposite sides of the field. For Bartholomae, the college class ought to teach academic discourse in the mode of communication that universities give students access to. Students must appropriate the language of the subject to better suit their writing, to learn the audience and manipulate them “or accommodate her motives to her reader’s expectations.” Whereas Elbow argues that writing classes should teach nonacademic writing, and by adopting a specific, high level discourse a writer is detaching from the audience. College is short and life is long. Plus,different subjects, such as history and psychoanalysis, use different types of jargon and modes of communication. So in that way, B and E are juxtaposed. However, Bartholomae is often referring to being an “insider,” which I think can fall in line with metacognition. According to Elbow, if students always use ordinary language, their own thinking about a discourse will come much easier, and they will be more frank, rather than trying to dazzle with unnecessary academic riffraff. Bartholomae wants students to be able to see any discourse, recognize it, and adapt to it, so that they can write well and communicate their ideas. So there is something similar in that idea of playing multiple roles through what we know.

The readings for me raise a few questions:

A first-year writing class ought to prepare a student for the subject they ultimately choose to major in, so why even teach it in a separate department? By that I mean, perhaps a student who knows they want to be a psychology major should have their first-year writing class with the psychology department. It may be true what Elbow says about life being long and college being short, but if a student’s profession is completely based on their major (e.g. psychology) isn’t that discourse and jargon something they will take with them throughout life? And by that I mean, is there really a “college” language? Aren’t academic journals separated by their subject matter? Engineering, American history, 19th century Russian literature? Perhaps then the first-year writing program should aim at helping students decide where they want to be within all the possible choices of discourse and how to quickly adapt to the vast assortment of them; and it should help them come to terms with this new thing in their life: college, scholarly articles, being an adult, being a member of politics and the world–which I think Emerson’s first-year writing program does.