Self-care and Students

This week, Jay Dolmage–a prominent disability and disability rhetoric scholar–has been to Syracuse for our department’s Spring Conference, giving a talk and leading a workshop (both were wonderful, and here are the materials and more on accessibility and disability studies). It, along with some other things, have made me think about self care and students.

I’ve always found that writing instructors have a unique connection with students, compared with other disciplines. We often have smaller classes, we tend to get a huge portion of the university, and we get a lot of frosh students. In addition, writing tends to involve many more skills than “grammar”: critical thinking, reading strategies, synthesizing ideas, formulating arguments, researching topics, analyzing primary and secondary sources, evaluating sources, cultivating and managing productive work and workflow strategies, etc.

And, perhaps in a more Romantic sense, writing, even academic writing, is a personal task. Though the image of the lone writer in some castellated tower is not accurate, writing and authorship–crafting a cohesive document that carries our mark and oftentimes our name–is something powerful, even in our information-saturated age. Issues of voice and privilege play a role, along with identity. And, one of my favorite adages from the field remains: “Writing is thinking.” Often, as we think through an issue by writing, we learn something new.

I am not saying that this is true for all writers nor with all writing, but it happens. And we often give a space for students to reflect on issues like identity and experience because literacies, in all their forms, are fundamental to how we exist in and experience the world. As the humanities get stripped and softened in many universities, “writing” provides a space to reflect on fundamental questions and experiences–should students and administrators allow it.

All this is to say that increasingly, though we already have too much to teach in a semester, I’ve been trying to address, or think about addressing, issues that are not immediately tied to writing. And this post, I want to stress self-care (or self care, with no hyphen?). Inspired by my colleague Allison Hitt, and others, I’ve increasingly made some space to address self-care with students, particularly strategies and experiences.

This deserves its own post or article, and the input of others with more experience, but for now, I often start with this article on perfectionism and procrastination. It disarms the usual narratives we and our students tell ourselves–and are told–about productivity and laziness.

But in a more general sense, I think “addressing self care” involves getting into the embodied, day-to-day experiences of being students and writers, of being friends and partners, of being sons and daughters (or something else, articulated or not)–in short, we get at being human.

And, it does not always work. And it can been exploitative and risky for you and students, with plenty of pitfalls–and is impossible with increasingly destructive teaching loads for adjuncts and others–but I feel like it is important to consider and strive for when possible, not only for our unique connection with students in higher ed, but also for the fact that questions of productivity, writing, and development involve care.

You cannot succeed, or even survive, if you’re always treading water.

And, as part of my own focus on technology, I also increasingly think it’s important to talk about privacy, cyber security, and technology habits as part of our profession. Media literacy, password security, the mental effects of social media, screen time, etc., are both questions of literacy and questions of self-care. As our digital lives and “flesh” lives infuse–as well as the literacies and skills we rely on to negotiate these lives–the importance of these topics increase.

I know I am not new at this, from Stuart Selber to Estee Beck–and Selfe and Hawisher and a bunch of other brilliant young and cornerstone scholars–writing instructors have long recognized the role of technology in composing. But, I think we also recognize the intersection of self, technology, and literacy in ways that are profound and unique. And increasingly important.

IST 700: Next steps and Research Muddles

Project update: I’ve heard back from all of my core research participants and have been able to ask a few follow-up questions over the course of the past weeks. While some aspects of e-mail interviews have been tedious, as noted, I feel largely happy. I have a decent amount of stuff to work with and think through future problems.

I haven’t had much time to “do” next step stuff, as I’ve been trying to get a paper in this Monday, but that may be good, as I have time to think through the next steps.  I’m not sure whether I’ll do coding or not. I think I may go through and read the data a bit, trying to get a general sense of things, before making more specific moves. I also want to print out copies. Something about looking at a paper copy, instead of a screen, feels more appealing, like I may catch more or be less inclined to skim. On screen, I tend to have such an F-style reading pattern, which would not be good for research.

At this point, too, I’m trying to remain somewhat inductive in my approach, as noted in my last post for this class. I have my focus: intertextualtiy and the tensions created by openly intertextual work. I want to see what people are saying about this.

Shifting gears a bit, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about presenting research in different ways. I think I often tend to “think” better in a PowerPoint setting sometimes. The way it breaks down units of thoughts into discrete slides helps me think more clearly about what those units are. In my head, they often get muddled. And though more long-term, free-writing thinking (much like this blog) helps me think through ideas, I have had trouble transitioning from that thinking into the presentation of thought in a paper. I can’t quite straighten out, simplify, and de-muddle.

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CCR 611: Avoiding Neutrality

I found a lot of rich material from today’s readings, so I guess I’ll just pick a thread and run with it: neutrality.

As Horton notes, “Neutrality is just following the crowd. Neutrality is just being what the system wants us to be. Neutrality, in other words, is an immoral act” (102). In this context, neutrality is immoral because structures remain in place–be they of racism, classism, etc.–that thrive on the status quo. Thus, to remain neutral, one perpetuates the problematic momentum that already exists.

This resonates with Kynard’s observation on the rhetoric of student “need” that often gets invoked by teachers and administrators in the face of more radical critique. As she writes, “the trope of what students need is usually claimed as politically neutral territory for
a rather conservative mode of curriculum and instruction” (93). Such needs, argues Kynard, “are for the monolithic student, the monolithic kind of college writing requirement, the monolithic argumentative essay, and the monolithic college assignment” (93). In this way, doing nothing, one is siding with the status quo.

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CCR 611: Discussing Remedial Writing

I’m not sure what to take away from the readings. Perhaps that’s the byproduct of my own frazzled ontology as of late, but I also think part of the difficulty arises from the complex, fraught nature of the debate.

Kynard, I think, presents the most dynamic critique. By redrawing the history, she presents a completely new insight, approach, perspective, tear in the curtain. As she says:

“When I stopped looking for black folk in basic writing scholarship and in the history of open admissions and instead placed basic writing scholarship and open admissions into the already existing history of African American education and literacy, lo and behold, I got a whole different kind of story” (189).

And indeed, that story was different. Protest, tension, ransacked offices, Jim Crow and bodily danger at the heart of literacy. The voice of student. The bodies of student. The structures–both physical and conceptual–making walls and red lines. The pilling up of de jure and de facto discrimination. The hard-fought challenges. And Kynard goes on to vocalize an approach:

“The issue here then is not to insert black teachers into the basic writing paradigm, but to deliberately see black compositionists’ practices, research, politics, and discourses inside of the much longer standing protest tradition of black teaching” (189).

In other words, this “whole different kind of story” needs to keep going, not just in the way composition constructs or tells history, but in how it in enacts it. In how it makes history. How it orients itself.

In other words, composition has a lot to think about.

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CCR 611: Professionalism, Boundaries, and Theory

As an undergraduate, my first taste of “composition” was through a sort of disciplinary tension between three schools of thought. In a creative writing club on campus, I worked heavily with one set of professors: communication instructors with a penchant for creative writing and literary journalism. Most of the club was also journalism majors. But we were also poets, fiction writers, and and creative nonfiction writers.

In this camp, I found a practical outlook: write often, read often, experience widely. While one of the profs had an MFA–and later a PhD–in creative writing, he was skeptical of the MFA rout, thinking it to be little more than an expensive qualification badge. “Real” writing could still take place without this training.

Camp two was a literature professor who edited a poetry journal and was well-steeped in Literature and contemporary work. Without much taste for theory, he celebrated the passion of writing and reading. Reading my short stories, he encouraged me to pursue the MFA and didn’t have much feeling about composition beyond, “The job market seems better than literature.”

Finally, the rhet-comp faculty encouraged me to go the rhet-comp rout. I heard the job market argument, but they also asserted how it connected to my philosophy interest. And like the communications professors, discussed the difficulties of the MFA–although one of the profs was a published creative writer with an MFA.

Each of these camps intersected and fractured in odd ways. The communications side considered rhet-comp boring. “They can’t persuade the school to pass a writing major, even with rhetoric in their name,” one said. But the communications faculty also critiqued the Ivory-Towered literature profs talking themselves into circles over Derrida and Keats. For their part, the English profs disparaged the dirty hands of those engaged in the “dark arts” of PR or the slipshod quality of fast-paced journalism.

And most other departments had never heard of composition as a field, and those that did thought it dealt with things like comma splices and thesis statements. Even more bizarrely, our philosophy department taught the second required writing course, with many making it a class in symbolic logic and syllogisms.

All I knew was that I liked writing. But everyone talked about writing in different ways, caught in disciplinary worldviews.

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CCR 611: Multimodality, Tinkering, and the Craft/Comp Border

When I was younger, I built things. Rolling out an industrial-sized roll of thick, white paper onto the cold floor of my parent’s glassed-in back porch, I drew grassy fields, rivers, mountains, and beaches that gave way to scribbled-on seas. But that was just the first step. Soon I took out slender wooden train tracks and blocks, building a set of towns and rail networks across my paper countryside.

In the summer, my neighbor and I made paper planes, folding for hours on my grandfathers weather-grayed table in the backyard. We also drew designs in notebooks: go carts, forts, a zip line to deliver notes between houses. My basement table was covered with LEGO models, K’Nex, Tinker-Tots–whatever sets I could find.

As we got older, we built robots, using a kit to construct and program them.  Inspired by the show Robot Wars, we mostly had them fight, filming them on my parent’s VHS camera. But they had other uses, like taking care of my rabbit or trying to go up and down a particularly difficult hill.

These days, I don’t build much. Except with my nephews. But even they often prefer videogames, kickball, and playing with their instruments.

So, considering multimodal composition–through both digital architecture and tactile 3-D printing–brought back a spirit of play and tinkering. The pieces also brought some helpful elements to draw from for concrete teaching moments and larger teaching philosophies.

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Disability and Curriculum

“in the air     the slant snow

the bird rising away

from the wild and bare tree”  -Larry Eigner

Born with cerebral palsy in 1927, Larry Eigner spent most of his life using a wheel chair. He also wrote more than 40 collections of poetry, according to The Poetry Foundation. Often grouped with the Black Mountain Poets–and more broadly, the poets of the groundbreaking New American Poetry anthology–Eigner’s poetry has always struck me. Something about his wandering line breaks and latched-together images gives his poetry the spontaneous clarity of a Zen haiku. But it feels freer, spilling out of its forms. He composed most of them from his front porch.

About 100 years earlier, another poet named John Clair penned “I Am” from within the walls of an asylum:

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live. . .
Allegedly broken by the weight of poverty and grief, Clare was institutionalized for suffering delusions the final 20 years of his life. Some biographers trace his breakdown with the rise of industrialization and the death of the commons.
To me, both poets represent powerful writing. They also represent work from people with disabilities–Eigner’s cerebral palsy, and Clare’s psychosis. When approaching Linton’s Claiming Disability, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Maybe the clarion calls it makes throughout for a more integrated, critical outlook on disability. Or the way it deconstructs the traditional curriculum. The stances it makes on language.
But, I think the point that likely struck the most from Linton, and what drew me back to this poetry, is her point about the dominantly medical mode of disability and the role of this sense of the term has. As she writes at one point, “What is absent from the curriculum is the voice of the disabled subject and the study of disability as an idea, as an abstract concept, and it is in the humanities that these gaps are most apparent.”

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Harris, Dartmouth, and Composition

One of the more helpful elements in Harris’ Teaching Subject and his introduction to “updating Dartmouth” is his insistence on the perennial nature of issues he outlines and the fact that either side has much to other.

For example, he outlines the tension from the 1966 Dartmouth Summit between English as a discipline and content area (like Albert Kitzhaber’s approach) and the more lived out, experience-driven role of language that James Britton, James Moffett, and others argued for. As Harris writes in the introduction to “updating Dartmouth, “there is something to both sides of the argument. There are real things to teach students about literary genres, figures, and traditions. . . But those things become valuable only when students put them to use in their own work” (xxii).

In writing studies and composition, I think a further tension presents itself. Composition models, terms, theories, heuristics, histories, and paradigms—in short, a field of content knowledge—now comprise the field. But as Harris right points out in A Teaching Subject, many people in the field—including himself—see “teaching as an integral part of (and not just a kind of report on)” their scholarship (xv-xvi). Thus, this scholarship is always tested in light of the student and the classroom, with pedagogy acting as a desired end, not a byproduct.

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“Humanity” in the Hybrid

[My first blog post for CCR 733]

Digital humanities, and a good portion of academia at large, is a bit like RoboCop in RoboCop 3. For those unfamiliar with the brilliantly corny 90s flick,  the plot is essentially this: large, militarized corporation is trying to evict people for an international business deal. To get RoboCop on their side, the company tries to tune down his human elements and make him more susceptible to programmed orders. Of course, this doesn’t work, and RoboCop gets involved with the rebels, later joined by police and blue collar Detroit citizens, to fight the corporate army.

“Humanity,” in the movie, seems at odds with programming. Or more particularly, humanity lets RoboCop morally settle his conflicting programming  when law enforcement is no longer on the side of the people. RoboCop, unlike the fully robotic assassin he fights in the film, is human. And through that humanity, he can behave with compassion, violating immoral orders.

I think a similar fear is lurking in academia, especially in the humanities, that emotions and all the human elements that speak to our “human condition” are getting vacuumed out by technology and neoliberal policy.

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