Dawn Boeck – response for 10.4.11

The final two sections of Haswell’s Gaining Ground in College Writing helped me to gain a better understanding of his overall argument – the idiographic nature of students requires transformative interpretation, sequencing, and diagnosis on the part of the teacher.

Part IV: Style and Development Chapter 11, “Remediality: Bottom and Top,” explores the separation between developmental writers and non-developmental writers. Haswell concludes that this labeling system is “a travesty of current knowledge about human development” (268). He suggests an approach in which developmental (or basic) writers are mainstreamed into traditional (regular) classrooms. Teachers then focus on the skills which these students “already possess and in which they actually surpass the students above” (279). Haswell argues that this empowerment may give these students a reason to feel competitive about their education and progression again. He goes on to discuss the potential ramifications of this approach; however, I think that something productive can be taken out of this point. The emphasis on what the student (developmental or not) is doing correctly can be more beneficial that an emphasis on what he/she is doing incorrectly. Haswell asks the question, “What is a student at the bottom?,” answering “Only someone who needs to learn a lot. But not everything” (283). He goes on to discuss the insensitivity of “stripping” students of the skills they already possess and command. By taking the transformative approach to teaching, educators can begin to help students move beyond these fictive categories and take responsibility for their own educations.

Haswell argues that “other students will provide the best zone of proximal development” (280). I see this played out in my own classroom with students who have been labeled “developmental” – or TSI liable at TAMUCC. Although these students’ placement scores have labeled them as “developmental” or “remedial” or “sub-par,” they have been mainstreamed into a 1301 classroom with students who either had higher placement scores or were exempt from the placement test to begin with.

One TSI student in particular, we will call her Julie, has shown improvement in her writing between her first and second projects – in pre-writes, HW assignments, and journals. In Julie’s case, I think that her “poor” writing stemmed/stems from her attitude toward writing, and more so toward this TSI label. Her mistakes are minor, surface errors dealing with punctuation, grammar, and spelling – things that can be addressed, practiced, and moved past. My point is – her ideas, her ability to organize, and her desire to compose is all there; she could teach some other students a few things! In a brief conversation I had, she informed me that she was supposed to be attending weekly Writing Center visits (but had not been). She seemed upset by the fact that her scores on a writing exam had categorized her, thus requiring her to attend tutorials. She told me that writing has never been her strongest subject, but that it also wasn’t her worst. Julie could (and hopefully does) benefit from a more transformative approach to teaching writing. In my meetings with Julie while she was working on P1, I would focus on the positive aspects of her writing first – and then make suggestions for where she could improve. The Writing Center has taught me to approach writers not as empty vessels with broken products, but instead as intelligent students with papers that have things working in them as well as things that could use work. Julie surrounds herself with other girls in the classroom who do very well on their writing assignments, students who are not TSI liable (or at least, I don’t think they are – teachers aren’t informed of students’ statuses).Perhaps she is also teaching these “top” students a thing or two from her own arsenal of writing tools and tricks. I don’t know if she is attending her weekly Writing Center meetings, but she has a high B average in the class right now, and her second paper is looking very strong at this point. I agree with Haswell that the best zone of proximal development for students who are labeled “remedial” or “developmental” is a classroom mixed with both “top” and “bottom” writers. However, I do believe that the level of “remedial” should be taken into consideration, some students may need more focused or intensive instruction – but this takes us right back to the question of how do you accurately assess this?

Part V: Sequence and Development I liked Haswell’s idea of “an anticipatory curriculum,” one that divides the goals of college writing instruction into distinct freshman and junior courses. At the current time, freshman composition and advanced composition courses vary wildly, depending on which institution a student finds him or herself. While I realize that an ideal model cannot change a nation of diverse institutions, I think that it is a goal worth considering, at least on an institutional level. By introducing students to the “intellectual enterprise” in their first year, romancing students with the world of questions and ideas, we are able to set a foundation for these each of these student’s college careers. By building on this instruction in the junior year, empowering students with the potential power of critique, we are able to contribute to their knowledge and inspire a desire to continue learning, beyond graduation. If our goal in higher education is to teach students “writing” as a field and a tool, we need to find a more efficient way of building up skills in students.

Re-Action: A Consolatory Tale In Haswell’s final section of Gaining Ground in College Writing, he makes a comparison between the characters of Fath and Nasrud-Din and teachers and learners – both “are locked in caskets, of which each contains the key to the other” (352). Haswell states both teachers and learners “are locked into interpretive boxes fashioned by time and development and the chance condition that one was born not richer than but years before the other. They key is perspective, or the ability to see through the natural disguises that time confers” (352). In reflecting on this idea, I have come to the conclusion that perspective really is the key to the casket. It is easy to lose touch with the life of a freshman student – how it feels to be so uncertain and overwhelmed (not all students feel this way). Teachers must take the time to understand their students beyond a surface level, learning where they come from, focusing on where they are, and emphasizing where they are going. If we take this more interpretive or transformative approach toward teaching, assessing, and reacting to students, we will begin to understand more about our own profession through giving students the ability to teach us – showing us how they develop, mature, and continue on.