Sunday, April 6, 2008

Improv, baby! Yeah!

I have to say, this is some of the most fun I’ve had in an academic setting. Listening to music that I love, recognize, and appreciate is nothing but inspiring. Coltrane’s Acknowledgement is testament to how people can improvise together and what happens when you let certain constraints go. David Borgo mentioned that Coltrane performed this piece only once yet it is a milestone in jazz history. Charles Limb says that when people improvise, “the brain alters itself into a creative mind frame” in order to “generate novelty and decrease inhibition.” Those who listen to jazz can appreciate the seeming disorder as an inside look at the creative process as it’s happening.
Perhaps that is why Dr. Charles Limb wanted to study “the brain on improvising” so to speak. To know what goes on in the brain while someone is improvising could teach us a lot about people’s ability to create on the spot.
When Borgo brings up the idea of categorization of music, he talks about our inability to separate a piece of music we’ve heard for the first time from our past knowledge of music. The point that he keeps coming back to is that “Our models of categorization are also inherently conditioned by individual and cultural values and goals, which can change, often dramatically, over time” (180). This statement made me wonder if anything can really be categorized in music? If so, how is it done? If our process of categorizing changes over time, then how is anything musical supposed to stand the test of time? Perhaps it is a matter of how well received it is and how many musicians choose to reinterpret it. I wonder if timing has anything to do with musical appreciation. For instance, what does the time Sonny Rollins wrote Freedom Suite (1950s) have to do with how it was received? If a jazz musician were to write a 19-minute piece about the Iraq war, would it be as well received?
Ware brings forward one of the better points in Borgo’s essay. “Ware’s remarks remind us that we need better and more appropriate tools to discuss the ways in which tradition and expectation are referenced in musical performance and cognition. And we need to be aware of the variety of culture-specific ways in which these performances and processes are framed and valued” (186). It reminds me of previous conversations in class about Jarrett and his belief that no one can write about or talk about jazz; it’s impossible.
The Borgo essay also mentions the different connections people have to various songs and artists and how our relationship with a song shapes our feelings of an entire genre of music. When I listen to Miles Davis perform “So What” I am brought back to my home in Half Moon Bay where my dad is playing the record and doing household chores. Jazz was an integral part of my life growing up. It was always on, particularly jazz of the hard bop era. Because of the early exposure to many of the artists we’ve discussed and listened to in class, I have an immediate affection for what we read and our discussions of improvisation.
I truly loved the Clark essay as well as the rest. Looking at rhetoric in a new dimension through the help of jazz allows one to see the true potential of rhetoric that has been looked over for years. Instead of reconciling all differences between two parties, John Poulakos suggests a move from “the sphere of actuality” to “a place in that of potentiality”. This place of potentiality allows one to leave the realm of the real and imagine a different, potential common ground.
Jazz is a place where the individual and the society co-exist and work together to create something better than they could alone. “In jazz performance, neither the virtuosity of the soloist nor the unified authority of the ensemble is subordinated to the other. Rather, the two are inextricably interwoven and absolutely interdependent” (32). So instead of individuals coming together to form a collective, rhetoric could be about individuals coming together to thrive as individuals while sharing their common ground. I like the fact that jazz demands individual invention but that it’s not possible without the collective ensemble behind him or her.
I very much believe that people thrive and grow as individuals when a larger group supports them. They are able to create in ways that they never thought possible because of their interaction with a collective. All of these pieces we read this week make me want to stop what I’m doing and pick up my instrument and practice. The more I practice, the more likely it will be that I too can create with others and grow more into my experience and abilities.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Writers and Genres Fight Over Agency

Bawarshi goes a little deeper into his notion of genre as invention in chapter three. He sides with Bazerman in placing the agency of the writer in a larger social sphere. “To designate and treat writers as the sole agents of invention because they are its most visible agents, as is largely still the case in composition pedagogy, is to overlook the less obvious but just as significant factors that are at work on the writer, factors that shape writers’ intentions and motivate the choices they make as agents” (50). Bawarshi is very much interested in teaching genre in writing classrooms as a way for students to be able to more fully understand what happens to them that makes them do what they do. What’s important to remember about the writer is that she is not only acting out her own desires but is also acting out already existing desires. By only looking at half of the equation, by only seeing the writer as agent, we as teachers are misrepresenting the teaching of writing and devaluing composition studies.
Unfortunately, with the focus shifting from the product to the process of writing in the 60s and 70s, came a belief that invention lay in the prewriting stages. Therefore, invention was seen as not only teachable, but also individual. What I found interesting was Lakoff and Johnson’s argument that “metaphors are actually social concepts we learn as part of our social and linguistic development. As already existing social conventions, metaphors structure the ways individuals conceptualize reality” (67). It would be interesting to look at a few metaphors and really see how wide their scope of influence reaches.
Bawarshi may be making more work for teachers of composition, but his intent is valid. We would be doing wrong by our students not to develop the idea of genre as invention. Whether we like it or not, we are wrapped up in social contexts and social practices that determine a lot of what we do. By studying genres, students have a better ability to act against as well as with the constraints that each genre embodies.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sawyer's Down with the Improv

Sawyer’s argument that “creative teaching is better conceived of as improvisational performance” is well taken. I agree that teachers and students need a space for improvisation inside the classroom. Not only is scripted teacher-proof curricula killing the motivation of everyone in education but it’s also keeping healthy, vibrant, and creative prospective teachers out of the classroom. I have witnessed firsthand the color drain out of teachers’ faces when they hear they will be teaching High Point (a direct instruction language arts program). No one wants his or her qualifications questioned. As Sawyer recognizes, teachers think of themselves as professionals but are increasingly being treated as clerical workers. What I found even more disheartening and angering was the quote by a Direct Instruction advocate that, “the reality is that we draw our teachers from the bottom quartile of our colleges” (18). This seems to me to be an excuse Direct Instruction advocates are using to better handle the controversy surrounding the need to implement such a constrictive form of instruction.
Sawyer isn’t advocating for a structureless classroom but rather a classroom that uses the best attributes of improvisation within a logical framework. “Several researchers have noted that the most effective classroom interaction balances structure and script with flexibility and improvisation” (13). Improvisation is the best of both worlds because it allows teachers and students to work and learn cooperatively and to be creative without completely losing sight of the curriculum or goals of the course. What I find particularly positive about an improvisational approach is its ability to create true shared learning. The students, with the assistance of the teacher, can formulate their own understanding in a shared learning environment.
The big question that Sawyer poses and one that seems to have already been answered in many school districts is: “Should we improve schools by investing in scripted curricula – a capital intensive approach – or by investing in teacher training and professional development, a labor-intensive approach?” (17).
I, for one, buy into the worth of our teachers as competent human beings. I believe teachers have a right to learn how to be creative and improvise in their classrooms. After all, once we take away the right to invent ourselves in the classroom, what is left?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Bawarshi, Center Stage

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed Bawarshi’s first two chapters. Something about his messages about genre and invention were really speaking to me. I felt he had a little Burkean flair to his prose in the beginning when he asks the question “what do writers do when they write?” and “what happens to writers that motivates them to do what they do?” Like Burke, Bawarshi brings up the notion of motivation as driving force for writers. Bawarshi, however, is interested in the idea of invention and how the study and teaching of genre theory play a major role in the invention of the writer.
The introduction of his book outlines the term “beginning” as a relatively false claim. As Bakhtin notes, “every beginning is a response to a prior beginning” (2). Said also describes beginnings in much the same way, as a continuation of a prior idea; an idea, however new, that stands next to previous texts, not in a linear line ahead of the rest.
Again, this was another concept that made complete sense to me because if it weren’t for previous texts, people would have a difficult time creating their own in relation to the rest. Bawarshi’s idea of the blank page is also brilliant. He says “the blank page is mythologized as an unmarked space waiting to be marked, its physical blankness masking the fact of its specification in discursive and ideological conventions, including genres, which already situate it, already mark it” (3). Would students feel more comfortable knowing that their the page itself is already situated within a particular genre?
Here we come to the bulk of his argument – the significance of genre theory. He believes invention happens within genres. He also believes that new genres can be created out of already recognized genres through interaction and contact with these genres and by the natural evolution that occurs through the changing of values and assumptions (10). He also brings up the importance of social and rhetorical practices in the creation of tension between the writer’s intention and the genre’s social motives.
He does not confine genres to writing only but rather opens up the possibility of our lives being led through various forms of genre. He says, “…genres are both functional and epistemological – they help us function within particular situations at the same time as they help shape the ways we come to know and organize these situations” (24). There is interplay between genre and those who exist within genres. We shape them as they shape us; it is a mutually exclusive act.
As far as the teaching of writing is concerned, Bawarshi sees genre theory as a tool that can be used to access a writer’s purpose. Not only can it reveal, “what a writer does [but] why they do it, and what happens as a result” (25). I will admit I was a little thrown by his description of Halliday’s “register.” I am not all together clear on what Halliday is going for with this concept of register. Perhaps we can go over this in class.
As a last note, I am very interested in the placement of composition. Bawarshi brings up the debate among scholars as to where composition should rightfully be placed in academia. I had never considered the idea of composition as an entity all on its own, as
it’s own discipline, or as part of writing in the disciplines programs. This is a topic I look forward to reading more about and possibly researching myself.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Haswell, Take Two

Is the way we are "holistically" grading student essays flawed? Do students possess better writing skills as juniors than they do as freshman? According to a group of eager young teachers that scored an assortment of essays, the answer to the ladder question is no, they don't. This may be due to the fact that the teachers were following a very systematic framework for scoring the essays. Nothing was left up to interpretation. And though, as Haswell points out, the teachers might be seen as wholly objective, there is also the flip side of the coin. "If we take objectivity to refer to qualities in the object itself, independent of human subjectivity or judgment" than no, they were not acting objectively (41). Haswell would argue that the teachers have fallen into following an "English-teacher vision." They are no longer looking within themselves for answers, but instead are guided by the standards of the "English-teacher vision." By interpreting the interpretation, one thing is clear, the papers written by the upper classman were not recognized as better than those of the freshman because the teachers were not scoring based on developmental advancement.
Haswell believes that there are obvious improvements in students writing by the time they reach their junior year. The improvements in their writing, however, are for the most part overlooked by the teachers. Many teachers believe in the legend of deterioration. If students are not forced to do any writing in their classes, all the skills they picked up in their freshman comp courses will go out the window. Unfortunately, people have misinterpreted what Kitzhaber discovered. He points out that "the "increasing carelessness" of the students occurs only "when permitted to" and the main "therapy" called for is to "put steady pressure" on the student throughout the four undergraduate years by installing "disciplined practice in writing in courses other than freshman English" (154) or, as we would say today, across the curriculum" (48). It's not so much a matter of students losing their ability to write as it is their losing their momentum due to a lack of structure on the part of teachers. As is said in so many schools across the country, teaching writing should not be left up to the English teachers, and the English teacher alone. Students need all the practice they can get.
Once Haswell walks us through his writing experiment in chapter three, we begin to understand the real life implications of writing. By comparing employees writing with student writing, we are able to see clearly the differences. Thankfully, the employees writing samples score higher than those of the students. This means that students, once out of college, continue to mature and develop and improve their writing skills. What's interesting is that the style of writing of the employees is different. They use the first person "I" a lot more and they take a more linear approach to addressing the prompt. The conclusion paragraph that so many of us teachers drill into our students is no longer being used once out of school. Could this be because it is one of the more difficult paragraphs to write in an essay?
Haswell alleviates some of our worries that students are not improving as they mature. But as he mentions in chapter three, how are we to know if the improvement is due to maturation or learning? We aren't. I think it's fair to say it's a little of both. What will be interesting is to see where his argument takes us next - the teacher. What is our role in all of this and how do we make sure what we are teaching is helping them succeed as writers?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Gaining a Little Ground, for now.

I am currently in Half Moon Bay and will be back in town tomorrow, therefore my post will be brief. I will be adding to it tomorrow, however.
I think Haswell brings up a good point when he mentions teachers are resistant to change if it means leaving behind any remnants of one's old pedagogical practices. People don't like to be told what they are doing is wrong. And in the teaching profession, it's usually not entirely wrong, it's just a matter of tweeking one's pedagogy a little to fit with the students. After all, I feel like the idea to cut way back on grammar instruction was perhaps not the best plan. Now scholars are writing about reinventing grammar in the classroom and teaching it within student writing so that it's not so dry and detached from any frame of reference. We are constantly learning and relearning how to teach. Haswell is proposing we look at the new findings in the study of student development and try to come up with a way to adjust some of our understandings and teaching practices accordingly.
Haswell introduces his terms: standard, status, and change. Change is inevitable in a classroom and in a student's life. The type of change isn't always a positive one; it depends on her motivation or lack there of. But with change, comes a shift in status.
I am not entirely sure where the standard comes into play here. I am going to have to do a bit more rereading tomorrow and come back to this thought. I do think Haswell brings up some valid points about who we are teaching and what they really know versus what we assume they know.
More tomorrow...
It's Monday, and I am back in Arcata and ready to talk a little more about Haswell.
What I found particularly interesting was his description of high school students perception of their writing skills. It doesn't seem to matter if the student is high achieving or barely passing, she will always view her own skills as proficient, even above average. What makes a student view her skills in such a good light? Could it be because, as students believe, grading writing is very subjective, and therefore, they aren't relying on a grade to determine how well they write; they'd rather decide for themselves. In my experience teaching, students, for the most part, hate writing. So the question becomes, how can students think they are all great at something they hate doing?
And then back to the standard, status, change. What is it that makes a student's status change? Is it their promotion to another grade or something purely mental? If a student believes he is a good writer, has his status really changed? It's obvious from Haswell's examples that student J has reached a higher standard of writing than student F. But how? If, as he says, students forget or dismiss many of the skills they once used, what skills are they using now?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Dramatism Blog, take one

After reading chapter one of Elements of Dramatism, I was a little worried. The material is dense and the concepts new to me. But chapter two allowed me to place myself in the picture and see how form directly affects my life. Form is something an author can use to appeal to their audience. Does that mean form can be applied to the way people interact with each other outside of printed works or film? If I’m having a conversation with someone, might they already have an expectation of the way the interaction will unfold (Conventional Form)?

The idea that there is danger in certain forms is so true. We can be easily carried away with a particular song or film because it appeals to our sense of form, yet the underlying message is contradictory to our beliefs. We have to be aware of the motives of those behind the scenes.

I feel like I’ve taken away a new appreciation for looking at motivation, identification, division, and consubstantiality (an unconscious desire to identify with others). Burke wants us to look at situations and recognize the reasons behind our unity and division. Dramatism allows us to create new identifications through studying the way we use words as a tool to achieve our goal. He therefore aligns dramatisim with rhetoric. “Dramatism and rhetoric are both conceptual frameworks for understanding ways that human relations are formed through language” (15). What I found interesting is that Burke doesn’t believe rhetoric is just about persuasion but that it’s about identification. Therefore there is some sense of a desire to identify with one another but a lot of that desire may be unconscious. It reminds me of the presidential election. If we identify with one of the candidates more than another, we may, without knowing, begin to align ourselves with their platform without really understanding it. There is, as Burke mentions, a dialectical struggle between identification and division. We want to identify, but we cannot be entirely someone else. Therefore, there will also be division.

So much of what Burke says (through the much easier to understand prose of Blakesley) rings true in my mind. I am just waiting for the day when I can see the whole picture, when all the rhetoric stuff we’re learning in all of our classes comes together is an organized fashion.