One of the highlights of the Term 1-2/Easter Break for me was participating in a reading and discussion group at the Faculty of Education at Monash University. (Thanks to Madeleine Coloumbe for inviting me along, and to Drs Graham Parr and Scott Bulfin for welcoming teachers from outside academe.) It was a rare chance for me to engage in discussion with other writer-educators about the theories and questioning that drive our practice in the classroom.
The set reading for the discussion was “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being” by Robert Yagelski. This was my first encounter with Yagelski’s work. Some of the ideas that caught my attention in the article were:
– That writing can be a process or way of being, rather than only an effort towards producing a standard-English product.
– That writing is a way of reflecting and also reflecting on the process of writing.
– That this reflection and process is a powerful tool in helping students and teachers see themselves in more authentic (less alienated) ways and;
– Writing that connects directly with personal experiences and our situatedness in the world taps into a less product-driven model of thinking.
– That this (in some way) links to efforts to construct a more ecologically and socially sustainable future.
Yagelski’s vision is that, against the standards-based, “No-Child-Left-Behind” context of education in the United States, teachers can help students see writing as a way of constructing a sense of their own being. Yagelski’s hope is that writing becomes something in which there is a personal stake in literacy and the act of putting pen to page, rather than as an activity entirely mediated by standards and expectations set by policy. There was an element of phenomenology (via Merleau-Ponty) in the argument, in that the experience of writing as a process and practice, rather than the production of a standards-based written product, was put to the fore. Yagelski states, “writing as an activity matters, separate from any text that is produced” (7) and “Writing in the moment … has the capacity to change us” (7). An awareness of the writing as experience is offered as a way of off-setting the narrow focus on producing ‘correct’ texts.
These are challenging ideas for those of us working within the limitations and practicalities of the English classroom in Australia. The political discourse about English education has become almost exclusively framed in terms of ‘standards’ and achievement as benchmarked by such things as NAPLAN results and ATAR scores. If you teach in the VCE, there is also the added dimension of having to explicitly scaffold and teach forms such as the text response essay or the persuasive text.
On the one hand, as an English teacher, I do believe that helping students master certain ‘rules’ about standard English composition and expression does help them go on to occupy a more-empowered place in their life. Times when I have taught this concept I have used the scene from the Australian film The Castle where the characters first put their case to the courts in terms of the “vibe” of Mabo and the Constitution. It is only when they get a QC lawyer who can argue within the discourse of law that the heroes can hope to gain traction for their case.
On the other hand, my own writing and literacy journey is one in which the process of writing and the experience of writing – -seeing myself as someone who writes — has been utterly central. For me, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard are an essential facet of learning, because that is often how I formalise the learning in my own mind. I write about it and compose some ideas on the page outside the flurry of my own thoughts, where reflections on Yagelski, for example, sit alongside plans for a year 11 lesson and wondering what my six year old son is up to. Writing (and reading) are activities that have long felt like they ‘belong’ to me. Since childhood I have felt an immense sense of personal ownership of reading and writing – they matter. One of the reasons they matter is that they make a third space between the utterly shared world of sociality and the private world of thought. In this third space I can interpret ideas, critically evaluate the ideas that have been passed down to me, and, most importantly, come up with a personal synthesis that I can then share with others. Writing, for me, even when it has occurred in an academic context, has been about an experience of being, it is about composing myself on the page.
It is this idea that writing and reading matter at a personal level that I hope to foster and encourage in my students. I know that they cannot have this personal investment in their own literacy if they see it as only an exercise in compliance.
Nonetheless, I think it is inaccurate to say the ‘rules’ or standards are entirely or straightforwardly oppressive. As the first person in my family to gain a degree I have observed the ways in which people with uncertain skills in standard text production spend a lot of time simply avoiding situations in which they might have to use them. My husband has part of a law degree. Some years ago he wrote a letter for a member of my family who was negotiating with a technical education institute and felt themselves without the necessary words and literacy skills to self-advocate in a discourse the institution would recognise. I have seen first-hand how weak skills in standardised text production can harm and limit power. To be able to text and Tweet and update Facebook, but to not be able to write anything longer than that, is inadequate and damaging. Explicit scaffolding into the forms and styles of ‘standard’ texts is for me a democratising exercise.
So where is the line crossed? Where does cultural capital – in the form of certain forms of academic literacy – become oppressive? How do standards situate the student writer as merely a producer of pre-determined texts and how do they actually enable a more fluent production of a self-in-the-world?
For me the crux of the matter is Yagelski’s observation that “writing [is] an act of meaning making” (9). His vision of writing, however, seems to oppose the authentic process of making meaning through writing to the business of producing academic, standard texts. He argues that students are fed a line that drives a wedge between the aim of producing texts in ‘standard’ academic forms, and a personally meaningful experience of writing:
“Writing, they are being told, isn’t about making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living; rather, it is about following rules and creating ‘good’ texts, about conforming to conventions and demonstrating a narrow kind of literate proficiency” (19).
But does this opposition always hold? Ultimately, what I want for my students is a technology and fluency in written and spoken discourse so that they can work out what they think and engage the world with their ideas. They need to be able to interpret and form their own reading of the texts and narratives that circulate in our culture, and they need to be able to formulate personally significant yet intelligible meanings of their own. Is this always opposed to growing fluency in academic literacy?
This is where I started to think about the Lego Movie. At the risk of sounding undertheorised, Yagelski’s article made me think of the film I took my son to see earlier in the break. Yagelski seems to pose division between ‘standard’ literacy and writing for “making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living”. Emett, the protagonist of the Lego Movie, is a totally standardised being. He follows the instruction manuals for every moment of his day, following each guide to the letter. He strives to avoid deviation and eccentricity in a world where taste, thought and creativity have been outsourced. The villain of this world, President Business, aims to eliminate all personal creativity and reflection. The heroes of this dystopian Lego-verse are “master builders”, characters who have passed through the manual-following stage and have come out the other side able to cobble together any structure they desire from the bits available to them. In one scene of the film, the thoughts and imagination of the master builders appear as serial numbers and visual memories of the various Lego bits at their disposal. They run through them like an internal catalogue, out of which they assemble a prodigious variety of machines.
Now this is a version of creative production that suggests several things:
– That fluency and creativity in a certain medium comes via increasing mastery of the basics;
– That knowing the language or grammar of your medium allows you to negotiate new meanings and forms.
– That any medium is plastic, with an inherent tension between pattern and surprise.
– That the creative process is open-ended and that while there are forms, they are unfinished.
– All meaning-making is dialogic, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word. That is, we absorb the forms and utterances of others, but we rather than simply recite them, we can add our own interpretations and variations to the language.
To come back to the teaching of writing, I feel that our current political atmosphere does seem to promulgate a view of writing that is like following an instruction manual. As in a lot of areas of life, there seems to be a concerted effort to eliminate the need for a person to have expertise and the powers of observation and interpretation. However, despite the attractiveness of Yagelski’s focus on writing as an experience, in practice I am not sure I can divorce the teaching of writing from the written product students are being asked to produce. What I would prefer is an approach that seeks to draw students through the process of writing that, while giving them the tools to write in academic forms, also helps them develop a personal stake in writing as meaning making. After all, the most tantalising writing assignment is, perhaps, one mentioned by Yagelski: “What matters to you?”
Yagelski, Robert P. (2009). “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being”. English Education, Vol. 42, No. 1 (October 2009), pp. 6 – 28.