Information Sheet #80

April 19, 1994


On March 15, I arrived in Nashville, Tennessee--once known as the Athens of the South but thanks to Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl renamed "Music City, U.S.A."--for the annual College Composition and Communication Conference. This is not only the #1 conference for college writing gurus (and those of us who come to listen to the gurus) but also a friendly, congenial conference. The presentations generate lively conversations, exchanges of ideas, and rethinking of assumptions. I've attended five 4 C's and always leave rejuvenated, eager to try new strategies for improving my teaching.

What follows are some notes I wrote to myself on the Saturday afternoon after attending 16 workshops, panel discussions, round tables, and special interest sessions. I'm not sure why anyone else would be interested in the stale bread baked by a bunch of writing teachers talking about writing for four days, but perhaps skimming over these notes you might find something worth storing for future reference. Sprinkled through the text are brief quotes which stuck in my mind, independent of their original context in the conference.

"Writers not only mine memory, they repair it."

Wednesday, March 16

Workshop: Portfolios, Classroom Practice, Assessment, and Research. The day-long workshop was led by Pat Belanoff of SUNY, Stony Brook, a school which has been collecting and assessing portfolios of student writing since the late 1970s. Questions the workshop participants concentrated on during the session:

How do students perceive portfolios?

How can we improve the portfolio Introductions (what some schools call the Reflective Letter)?

Many faculty see the Reflective Letter as the portfolio's distinctive characteristic, but students perceive this writing requirement as an annoying burden. Finding it hard to say much, they rely on general, default statements ["I hope you enjoy reading my portfolio"]. When faculty readers encounter such hollow writing, they start looking past the text to uncover the person who isn't saying much. Should we be making evaluations based upon these palimpsest impressions?

What kind of scores or evaluations do we want to produce?

The discussion circled around a rhetorical disagreement over reality going back to the spats between Plato and the Sophists. One participant cast psychometrics as a modern-day Platonism which assumes that reality can be measured; the task is to improve our imperfect technology. Heirs to the Sophists are the post-structuralists, who question any reality independent of the observer.

How do institutional contexts influence the development of portfolio systems?

By teaching with portfolios, are we really doing something quite different from teaching without them?

Consideration of "C" words in reading: what is the role of consensus, community, collegiality, compromise?

Holistic scoring [such as the 6-point scoring system we use at Coe for evaluating the freshman writing exams] requires readers to set aside differences. We "privilege" consensus over our own readings. This consensus derives from a desire for collegiality, not because fundamental conflicts get resolved; in fact, the desire for collegiality means they don't even get addressed. [Of course, this attempt to create a community parallels what happens as we learn to write: one ironic purpose of writing instruction is to erase individual differences by teaching everyone to obey the same writing conventions.]

How do we read and assess portfolios?

Most scoring rubrics negotiate away differences between readers and the possibilities for multiple readings. In seeking consensus, we create artificial ways of reading. Portfolio evaluators should honor student differences, respecting standards but not demanding standardization.  Most academic assignments invite students to write safely: fast food writing. As faculty we read too safely, giving students fast food reading. Faculty should know how to read rapidly (to gain a holistic impression of a text) and slowly, to practice "deep reading"--which, paradoxically, moves a reader beyond the text's surface to discover how complex any student writing really is.

What reading strategies do faculty use when evaluating portfolios?

In the afternoon we discussed the implications of post-structuralist reading techniques, which emphasize that each reading is partial, incomplete, unique, never fully retrievable. Each dance is new; every reading, even of old and familiar texts, will be different. There is no context-free, value-free reading.

What is your theory of writing and why you teach writing? How then does using portfolios as a methodology reflect that theory? And how does using portfolios as a evaluation tool reflect that methodology?

What do we tell our students about all of this? What rationales do we give students? How do we reach students who don't value revision, a process fundamental to the portfolio approach?

Thursday, March 17

Arriving a few minutes before the opening session in the grand ballroom of the Nashville Convention Center, I listen to a female singer entertain us with sixties-style folk singing, guitar playing. At 9:00 a.m. (right on time) the 45th annual 4C's is brought to order. Intermixed with the official welcomes, I learn two things:

1. Nashville is home to 13 colleges and universities.

2. The Mayor of Nashville signed a proclamation declaring it "College Composition and Communication Week in Nashville." [We applauded.]

Included in the opening remarks was a tribute to important writers in the field who had died since the last meeting, most notably Kenneth Burke and James Berlin (a noted historian of American rhetoric).

The Keynote Address, by Lillian Bridwell-Bowles from the University of Minnesota, was the first of many talks which began with the speaker's personal history--in this case growing up in an all-white community in Florida. Bridwell-Bowles emphasized how her discoveries about writing were done on her own. School assignments always dealt with correctness of form; she couldn't recall a single piece of meaningful college writing, even though one of her instructors was James McCrimmon [author of the most widely used college writing textbook of the last 50 years; I had to use the 7th edition when teaching a composition class at Mt. Mercy in '81].

"You discover in college that the wheel isn't round, it's circular."

Session on assessing WAC programs. In two of the three presentations, the WAC administrators, both at large research universities, revisited the endless problems they had endured while trying to establish their WAC programs. In one instance (a renowned university in the Carolinas), the English faculty were scheduled to adopt a portfolio system for freshman composition, but they revolted, unable to agree on any "common ground about the value of assessing student writing in portfolios."

A second presentation, based on events at a large university in a state neighboring Iowa, described problems with their new general education requirements. Their governance board mandated the introduction of an assessment test to evaluate the success of the new gen ed curriculum. The assessment package included a 40-minute writing test, to be scored holistically. The result was a $600,000 fiasco. The students made no attempt to take seriously any of the tests. The university has recently appointed a new task force to develop more viable assessment procedures.

"Good assessment is local assessment."

Session on placement of freshmen in writing courses. This session was jointly produced by administrators from Washington State University and the University of Pittsburgh. Because of practical and philosophical problems with the holistic scoring of freshman essay exams, both schools have adopted new procedures for scoring writing exams prior to assigning freshmen to writing courses. Both programs use only English composition teachers, who read the essays and categorize each essay exam, not according to a 1-6 scale, but according to prototypes of typical papers for the different courses.

I attended this session because I was interested in seeing if Coe could adopt improved procedures for scoring writing samples. Although we may be able to employ some features of these programs, Coe's situation is substantially different from these two schools.

  • Washington State and Pitt use their writing exam primarily to identify and reassign students labeled as "Basic Writers"--individuals who have substantial problems with consistent sentence structure and the conventions of Standard English. During the last five years, Coe has had very few students (perhaps 2-5 per year) that would be labeled as Basic Writers. I suspect the students we test are a more homogenous group than the students being sorted by Pitt & WSU.
  • At both universities the writing exam was their sole means for assigning students to writing courses. Because Coe deals with smaller numbers of students, we construct a much fuller profile of each student. While the writing exercise score is an important factor in making writing course recommendations, we also consider ACT/SAT scores, grades in high school English courses, high school cumulative GPA and rank, and the application essay.
  • These universities have required English Department freshman composition classes, taught primarily by TA's. The results of the writing test determine the placement. In contrast, Coe's composition classes (Reading/Writing Workshop, Topics in Composition, the Seminars in Writing) are supplemental writing courses to the Freshman Seminar, and advisors receive recommendations, not assignment orders.

"We x-ray texts, smell through the text to sense the writer."

Three lectures on Ideas in Composition. The first speaker, from Harvard, stressed the importance of students complicating their ideas, thinking of papers as a series of interconnected ideas. The second speaker, from NYU, suggested ways in which ideas are often best understood by students when perceived in terms of their own personal history. The third speaker, Gerald Graff from Columbia, discussed the difficulties experienced by college students as they struggle to find a comfortable stance for dealing with ideas. Graff noted that many college writing assignments press upon the student to adopt the role of a contentious public spokesperson. The pedagogue assumes the good citizen is someone eager to argue over public issues. Our students, however, have minimal interest in political debate; they find intellectuals--defined as anyone proclaiming ideas--pretentious nerds. Students believe in a "live/let live" attitude, unless they be religious fundamentalists, in which case they adopt an "I'm right and everyone else is wrong" position.

According to Graff, academics are obsessed with problems. In contrast students have trouble seeing problems, and they don't see the value of convincing readers to take seriously a problem that really isn't a problem. Because of these divergent world views, faculty accuse students of being lazy incompetents, but the problem is better understood as a contrast in learning styles.

Students are bored or alienated by the intellectual discourse that faculty thrive upon. According to male student culture, real men don't read books. Given this disinterest in the intellectuals' book culture, most curriculum modifications or adjustments in reading assignments are irrelevant. The students don't respond any more positively to the contemporary Maya Angelou than they did to the 19th-century Hawthorne: both signify an irrelevant book culture, and attempts to problematize written texts are doomed to failure.

According to Graff, our mistake has been to privilege the argumentative mode--a "male, white ethnocentric" strategy. We give good grades to the students who write like us. Graff's examples of possible models for improving composition instruction depend on a college allowing students to build connections among their classes, overcoming the fragmented, disconnected discourse pervading most campuses. One possible solution was enabling students to organize conferences on topics requiring an exchange of interdisciplinary ideas and practices. Many speakers in Nashville defended the benefits from allowing students to become more involved in the planning and administration of their own instruction, students moving away from a passive consumer mentality.

"To learn to write is to learn to have ideas."

Two sessions on Writing Center theory and policies. In three hours of talk, I acquired three lines of notes: "Image of writing center people as amphibians: they need to breathe both in water and on land. - A judicial board at an unnamed college often sends students to the writing center as part of their punishment for having committed a campus crime."

"Knowledge is dialogic."

I didn't spend much time walking around Nashville, but my superficial impression was of a deserted city. In the five-minute walk from my hotel (one block from the state capital) to the convention center, probably half of the store fronts were empty and deserted. There was evidence of construction and remodeling projects throughout the area, but I never saw many people on the streets. Nor many cars. Perhaps city tempo is different when the state legislature is in session.

"The reader is the writer's dance partner."

Academic & Personal Writing. In contrast to the emptiness of the writing center sessions, I was fascinated by a session with three eminent composition scholars on the topic of academic "versus" personal writing. In each case, the speakers sought to remove barriers between these two discourse styles. Anne Gere, whose research has concentrated on writing groups outside the academy, began by talking about her family life, including a story when she tried to become a cheerleader but was not chosen because, according to her judges, "her voice wasn't loud enough." Gere suggested that teachers too often perceive students' voices as problems to be fixed. We need to value our students' family and communal histories as we invite them to consider adopting new voices in their writing.

In one of the conference's finest moments, Gere talked about her adopted daughter, who suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. While the daughter is bright and has become a successful, award-winning artist, some language areas of the brain were severely damaged by her first mother's alcoholism. As a result the daughter frequently can't recall simple words when speaking, a condition that presented a relentless challenge as she progressed through her schooling. But because she received understanding support from her family and schools, she is now a successfully functioning adult and is even writing a book with her mother. Gere's address raised important questions about the value of teachers understanding each student's unique history.

"Your definition of the good teacher: sage on the stage or guide on the side?"

An address by Nancy Sommers began by describing in her office at Harvard a sepia-tone photograph of her grandparents on the day of their engagement in Regensburg, Germany, shortly before the advent of World War II. Ten years later almost everyone in the photograph was dead, many within concentration camp death chambers. Sommers recalled her parents living in Terra Haute, Indiana, with three locks on the front door. Her father proclaimed that he wouldn't open the door for the Nazis as his father had done when taken away to Buchenwald. Sommers talked about needing to find a "middle perspective" when looking at the photo: if she came too close to the photo, it became too personal; too far back, it became too abstract, separating her from her people.

Students in our classes have the same challenge: to find a middle perspective, melding academic survival strategies with their personal heritage, creating an education neither too personal nor too detached. Teachers tend to contrast the personal and the academic as subjective versus objective, but we need to overcome that either/or choice. Personal and academic modes of thinking at the extremes isolate themselves, nor is authority granted by adopting either extreme. In working with students, teachers often can help students find this middle ground by looking to the margins in the text, trying to get students to deal with what has been left out.

The third talk in the session was given by Carol Hartzog, currently a vice-provost at UCLA. Carol began by recalling a day when her grandfather, an Iowa farmer, decided to have the entire family go into town and have their picture taken, to capture a day when they were all together and happy. He wanted to remember "one of the best days of his life." Carol talked about the impossibility of separating her UCLA work into distinct private and public domains. We can't always know ahead of time what will be public and what will be private [a discovery that the Clintons are coming to understand during the Whitewater affair]. She talked about her involvement in the hunger strike at UCLA, led by students committed to UCLA's adoption of a Chicano Studies program. As she worked on settling this dispute, almost every word she said was recorded on film or tape, news agencies following every step of the proceedings. Yet it was an intensely personal experience as she worked with these people and issues. A similar mixture of domains occurred after the recent earthquake. These experiences suggest the reasons for remaining wary of confining one's writing to traditional genres.

"Our passion for ignorance."

After two more sessions, the day ended by dropping in for the eighth annual CCCC's Humor Night: "Rhetoric Goes Country." The originator and star of this event is Hans P. Guth from Santa Clara State University. The evening's highlight was Guth's periodic attempts, despite his Kissinger accent, to mimic Southern inflections and phrasings, a feat best left to each reader's imagination. Nor will I repeat the jokes, though I can't avoid repeating Guth's distinction between a dialect and a language: the latter has an army and navy.

"We structure ourselves as a community by our talk."

Friday, March 18

This third day of the conference began for me by standing for two hours in a crowded room listening to a panel discuss various ways to assess college-wide writing programs. Alas, the panel could agree on no conclusive answers.

The second session of the day dealt with the problems of imposing on students specific process models for writing. Dennis Baron from the University of Illinois, author of two excellent books on grammar and vocabulary, noted several problems with most composition instruction: teachers do not read the way they teach reading; they do not write the way they teach writing. His paper described a recent project where he asked first-year teaching assistants, enrolled in his graduate course in pedagogy, to adopt the writing processes that they were imposing on their freshman composition students. They all rebelled, not wanting to be bounded by the confining theories they were promulgating in their own classes. The problem is that writers don't have one way of writing. We use many processes but we don't have a process; we adopt different strategies at different times. We should see writing processes as idiosyncratic.

"If you don't change your direction, you'll end up where you're headed."

After a delicious Shopping Mall Pizza, I attended a session bringing together three instructors who had conducted studies on the ways students handle responses to their papers. The second presentation concentrated on peer reviews, students providing written comments on each other's papers. Student writers have three problems with peer comments: interpreting the comments, evaluating the accuracy or usefulness of these comments, and addressing the suggestions for making improvements. Several previous research studies have suggested what has become a truism in the field: when textual problems are pointed out to good writers, they tend to believe the problems are in the text; when similar problems are pointed out to marginal writers, they tend to blame the reader. The research project at Carnegie Mellon confirmed that peer reviewers often gave insightful comments, but the comments tended to be ignored. The presenter suggested that we need to find ways to improve assignments so students will more likely use comments, but she did not offer any convincing strategy for achieving this goal. It occurred to me that there might be some value in asking students using peer reviews to attach a postscript to their paper, perhaps a one-page commentary in which they summarize and discuss their peers' comments, identifying revised passages, explaining why each suggestion was or was not addressed. One first for me: the presenter read from a laptop computer while addressing an audience; the computer screen becomes a teleprompter.

"Formulations and abstractions are shorthand, not knowledge." William Carlos Williams.

The final presentation discussed a research project where students performed read-aloud protocols, talking into a tape recorder while revising their papers. As we would expect, students concentrated their revising on editing textual errors. Whenever peer or teacher suggestions called for a serious reconceptualization and revision of the paper, the less likely the changes would occur. During the talk I wrote a note to myself that one goal of the Writing Center is to encourage students to see their texts as fluid. Students usually see read texts as if they were frozen, completed, etched in cement. Our job is to help students learn to see texts as evolving, temporary, never reaching the full possibilities of what can be said.

Returning to the presentation by the professor from Virginia Commonwealth, she asked why we place so much emphasis on revision, considering the frustrations we experience because of students' resistance. She pointed out that opening the revision box would reveal almost everything we value in learning: critical thinking, mastery of content, creativity, metacognitive knowledge, understanding of growth, experience of evolutionary change, fulfillment in producing quality products. Revision is more than a craft, it goes beyond just creating a new text. "Deep Revision" pushes us further into experience.

"Multiple identities, multiple languages, multiple rhetorics."

Saturday, March 19

Saturday morning began for me with a session on the problem of "content" in writing courses: how do we decide what students should write about? The first presenter, Bruce Herzberg of Bentley College, addressed the absence of a convincing theoretical perspective for understanding the relationships between reading assignments and the writing students do in response to their readings. [During this talk I must admit that my mind frequently drifted to the side of the lecture hall where a young man was sitting in front of the audience, signing the lecture for a young woman. I know nothing about sign language techniques, but I was struck by the crisp, punctuated style of his sign language. Perhaps a Gallaudet graduate.] Most of Herzberg's remarks dealt with the various attitudes toward content within the history of rhetoric. Plato believed rhetoric had a cavalier attitude toward subject matter--thus his discomfort with rhetoric because it could be as easily used to defend the bad as the good. In contrast, Quintilian believed that students would learn content while studying rhetorical style. For Quintilian, broad learning was more important than rules in the practice of rhetoric. Herzberg concluded his address by nothing how the fall of rhetoric in the 18th and 19th centuries coincided with the increased concentration on mastering content as being more important than learning the ways to discover and express that content. Rhetoric was moved from being the capstone of the curriculum to being one of several introductory courses.

Herzberg was followed by Patricia Bizzell of Holy Cross, who also began her talk by discussing two distinct rhetoric traditions: Plato (who felt technique was separable from content) and the Sophists/Cicero/Quintilian tradition (the separation of rhetoric and content is not possible). After affirming her allegiance to the second tradition, Bizzell presented a model for organizing composition classes that allows for students to discover and understand the intimate bonds of form and content. In this lecture (as well as a recent article in College English), Bizzell argued for organizing thematic composition courses around "contact zones"--special moments in history when various groups in a culture are contending over the proper interpretation of an issue or a set of texts to determine what the culture should do. Bizzell offered the example of a freshman composition class she taught which focused on the meaning of the phrase "all men are created equal" as it was interpreted in America during the period 1775-1860. Bizzell argued that these contact zones are pedagogically most effective when they are historical, multi-cultural, introducing different genres of texts, allowing for students to locate themselves in history.

The final presentation, by David Jolliffe of the University of Illinois, reported on his study of students enrolled in composition classes without a body of content to be studied; the students were free to write on topics of their own choosing. According to Jolliffe, the students had real discomfort with the pedagogical model stressing the writing process. Interviews with students revealed minimal investment in the assignments. All had composition textbooks for their classes; not a single student in the study found the textbooks helpful.

"Beware of people demanding proof."

There were more sessions, more notes, but surely that's more than enough. By Saturday afternoon, I had left the conference behind and had returned to the streets of Nashville, just walking around. By the state capitol, I looked up at Andrew Jackson, immortalized in the first equestrian statue created by an American sculptor (by an odd coincidence I would see the original in April when walking through Jackson Square in New Orleans). Along the river, I watched runners finish the "Music City U.S.A. Marathon." On Commerce Street I walked by the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, Rose Pawn Shop, the Wheel Adult Emporium, Roberts Western World (with "live music"), the Wagon Burner, S. Friedman's Loans (proudly announcing its establishment in 1897), Tootsie's Orchid Lounge ("World Famous"), Western Union ("Checks Cashed"), and the Turf ("World Famous--a Real Honky-Tonk Bar"). I was ready to come back home.

"The vapid and vacuous but perfect essay."


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