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Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class

Too often, rather than inviting First-Year Composition (FYC) students into the disruptive experience of being a writer, we try to shield them inside the safety of the walled garden of neatly ordered paths that is the traditional, instructor-driven composition classroom. Even while some of us have refocused on the process, rather than products, of writing, we continue to hamstring students with scaffolded compositional tasks and writing “prompts,” assuming that by allowing students to choose between various (artificially-created, instructor-mapped) paths, we are endowing them with an autonomy so empowering that they will arrive at the end of their journey through our garden as self-identified writers.

But this is a squalid kind of psuedo-autonomy. How many writers take baby-steps into writing — first mastering sentences before moving on to paragraphs before moving on to five-paragraph essays? And how many writers start with a writing prompt (generated by someone else)? In contrast to authentic writing, “[t]he student essay,” Mark Sample writes, “is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one.” If we are to help students realize writing as something more than just a set of irksome classes or a task to get done in order to get on with the serious business of learning and living, we must rethink what we mean by autonomy in the writing classroom and what we really mean when we say we want students to identify themselves as writers.

Students Becoming Writers Becoming Students
Many of us claim that we want our FYC students to see themselves as writers. When you’re a writer, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing an article or a report or a blog post or an email. Each writing context is analyzed and approached with consideration to genre, medium, audience, and purpose. Writers apply skill sets from one writing context to another, adapting practices as needed. This is an elastic self-image, not constrained by any one set of formulas. Yet, consider how the formulaic teaching of writing imposes just such constraints on our students. How confident are we that, when they leave our FYC class, they will be able to apply what they’ve learned about writing to other, less concrete writing contexts?

Students must recognize that writers are — and always will be — students of writing. We learn from other writers and from our own successes and mistakes. Our identities as writers are constantly in flux. Yet, we assign a final grade on each piece of student writing, positioning it along a continuum, implying that there is an end-point to what they should or need to learn about writing. Perhaps we even attach a rubric that indicates which writing criteria have been mastered and which have not, explicitly delineating those aspects of their writing identity that they need no longer concern themselves with or that they simply need to maintain at the current level of “mastery,” while in reality, as Hemingway noted, “[Writers] are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Does dissecting good writing into quantifiable values — if that is even possible — truly reflect how we view our own writing? Writers think (w)holistically: they are, at all times, concerned with all aspects of their craft and recognize that what makes a particular piece of writing effective is neither reducible to quantifiable units nor localized within any particular component of the piece (thesis, organization, paragraph construction, mechanics, etc.).

This dual existence — writer and student of writing — is what we should encourage in our FYC students. Many of them don’t think they can write. Some of them don’t wish (or think that they have anything) to learn about writing. These are nodes of thinking that are often, ironically, created in K12 English classrooms and, unfortunately, sustained in the college-level FYC classroom. When writing is taught as a linear, formulaic process bounded by rigid guidelines (topic, word/page counts, rubric criteria, etc.), there is little to gain from mastering the artificial, inauthentic products that result. But, as Pete Rorabaugh points out, “The act of writing is organic and generative. . . . Composing is a demonstration of thinking.” Writing is not ordered. Like thinking it is messy, recursive, fragmentary. It shares the organic structure that Dave Cormier describes in his considerations of rhizomatic education. If we want our students to self-identify as writers and students of writing, then we must invite and encourage the chaos that is authentic writing.

Autonomous Rhizomes
In providing the questions and topics that our FYC students have to address in their writing, we are training grapevines rather than nurturing space for rhizomes. As scary as freedom and autonomy are, they are what allow growth and organic connection. Without the freedom to grow into their identities as writers and the autonomy to make their own connections within and between their writing processes and products, FYC students will never view writing as anything more than a means to an end (i.e., passing a class).

In order to encourage this growth, we should allow students to select their own topics, encouraging them to select those that have intellectual and/or academic significance for them– ideally, a topic related to their major or, alternatively, a hobby or passion. I still believe that the best service that FYC can offer the incoming college student is practice with grappling with ideas, both their own and those of others, so students will have to find a path into their topic that allows them to write about it in a purposeful and thought-provoking way. With individual students in control of their writing assignments, the writing teacher’s role will be to help them discover this path into their topic and to help them navigate it by serving as a writing resource expert — a figurative first-mate. Because we will no longer be a knowledge expert (since students are likely to select topics that we are unfamiliar with), we will necessarily have to assume a place alongside their peers as a learner, while the author adopts the role of teacher, requiring them to locate and curate a network of topic experts from whom to draw inspiration and supporting materials (just as we hope they will do when we assign the traditional research paper).

If, fortuitously, a group of students wishes to write about the same topic, peer groups can then serve each other far better in terms of soundboarding ideas about individual pieces and providing topic resource expertise. By allowing organic peer-to-peer(-to-expert) and student-to-expert connections, we can encourage students to see themselves as autonomous learners and teachers and to realize writing — their own and others’ — as their key tool for both.

Seeds and Nodes
I recognize that disruption cannot be served at the expense of learning. We cannot ignore the fear that writing engenders in many of our students. And we cannot assume that autonomy is desirable or solely effective for motivating and inspiring all of them. If valuable and authentic organic writing is to be achieved, then we must provide students the seeds that will help them begin and the nodes that will allow them to probe for and make connections.

Invention will need to be tackled head-on via workshops, whole-class and small-group discussions, and collaborative practice. This semester I have found the peer-centered silent dialogue exercise to be particularly effective in my Basic English Skills class, especially when using Google Docs as a space for organic probings about prospective topics. Similarly, dialoguing with existing pieces of writing is often a good jumping-off point for many writers, whether it be their own works or those of other writers. We should encourage students early on to use responses to other writers as nodes for their own posts. Another inventive technique is to have students use a word cloud of a previous piece of writing as a method for identifying seeds or nodes for new compositions.

Some students thrive when given complete freedom, while others dead-end and atrophy. It is important that we both teach them how to embrace the disorienting chaos of possibilities that the act of composing affords, as well as allow them to explore and identify genres and media with which they feel comfortable and inspired.

(Re)Defining Writing
Many students entering a FYC class are writers without being aware of this aspect of their identity. The misperception arises from traditional definitions of what writing is and what writers do (both in process and product). In order to encourage students to own their identities as writers, we must redefine what writing is and which methods of composing are most engaging.

As Jody Shipka argues in A Composition Made Whole, the kinds of writing that students are exposed to and are most likely to have already practiced themselves are, increasingly, multimodal. Yet multimodal writing is often deemed to be superfluous within the context of the FYC classroom, its value and utility interrogated by stakeholders: “‘How is that college-level academic writing?,’ ‘How can that possibly be rigorous?,’ or ‘How can allowing students to do that possibly prepare them for the writing they will do in their other courses?’” (Shipka 2). Multi-genre pieces are also rarely found in the traditional FYC classroom, despite evidence that writing across genres both increases student engagement and provides practice in the same kinds of habits of mind and compositional methods valued in expository and argumentative compositions (see M. Thomas Gammarino’s “Class Barriers: Creative Writing in Freshman Composition”). Yet even when given the option of multimodal and/or multi-genre pieces, students are often reticent to propose videos, songs, fan fiction, comics, or mashups because they do not perceive these genres to involve or represent (academic) writing.

Multimodal and multi-genre pieces are deemed disruptive by many FYC instructors and students alike, but such texts often emphasize the kinds of organicity and authenticity that the best writing embodies, existing “in relation to the complex and highly rigorous decision-making processes the student employ[s] while producing [the] text” (Shipka 3). It is just this kind of decision-making that is central to not only allowing students to develop their writing identity, but to connecting this identity to their academic and professional identities. By encouraging students to (re)conceive the genres and media of writing that they already engage in personally, socially, and playfully as equally viable and valuable academically and professionally, we can perhaps give them the leverage within the discourse of the academy that they assume they lack (a lack which is, as David Bartholomae points out in “Inventing the University,” more often than not the source of their fears about academic writing). We should not only encourage multimodal and multi-genre writing throughout the FYC course (rather than simply as an end-of-term option for a final project), but make discussion of and practice with multimodal and multi-genre forms of discourse central to what we do in the class and how we do it by purposefully foregrounding and considering all available rhetorical modes and genres during writing workshops, peer reviews, and summative feedback and perhaps even requiring students to experiment with different modes and genres.

Along with selecting their own topics, media, and genres, students should be freed from the formulaic teaching of formulaic writing. In “Against Formulaic Writing,”Gabriele Lusser Rico argues that “[f]ormulaic writing . . . misses the point of what writing is all about: the discovery of what you want to say in the richest pattern possible, unique to each writer and to every newly tackled subject.” Just as we should help students discover the richest pattern for the topic/genre/medium/audience/ purpose at hand, our instructional methods should be responsive to the needs of each unique writer at any given moment. “Teaching writing” via lecture is no more authentic — or effective — than the five-paragraph essay. Instead, we should focus on nurturing students’ immediate needs, integrating a flexibility and spontaneity into FYC courses that is, like the writing and learning we are asking our students to engage in, probative, connective, multi-directional, and recursive.

The Writing Ecosystem
The best method for nurturing writers is to create an environment that reflects their identities as such. Classroom writing environments should mirror as accurately as possible the kinds of “recursive and reciprocal relationships” that define professional writing ecologies, focusing on the kind of editorial pedagogy advocated by Cheryl Ball. When students enter or look into this space, they should be able to clearly see themselves as authentic writers writing authentically. This space should be an ecosystem. Ecosystems are interdependent, with members interacting between and among each other in mutually beneficial relationships.

Such an ecosystem is often found within the creative writing workshop or writing studio. As Maggie Hess demonstrates in “Teaching Composition Creatively,” the integration of the creative writing workshop or studio model into the FYC classroom holds much promise for breaking the cycle of both formulaic teaching and formulaic writing:

“Most creative writing workshops engage in an intense study of how to use language intentionally—and therefore, where and when it is appropriate (or distracting) to break the rules.  A more nuanced application of this philosophy in composition classes might do more good.  That is, creative writing classes do have a sense of play and freedom: they rarely present a hard-and-fast-rule about writing without presenting at least one counterpart.  Composition classes need to engage in a similar philosophy of teaching intentionality of language beside flexibility of form.”

Also, by focusing all class activities on writing and by making students’ writing the primary texts for the class, students can realize their identities as writers rather than viewing writing as an auxiliary activity in the course–a “twitch in a void.” Any assigned texts should be secondary to the texts that the students compose, which should become the focus of all course interactions (even secondary texts should be discussed in terms of their meaning for and impact on the students’ writing). All workshops and discussions should be built around encouraging writers to grow and mature, as fellow writers/learners help them to incubate and nurture ideas, support them during the process of developing and expressing these ideas materially, and offer them constructive feedback on the end (or nodal) products.

The benefits of adapting the creative writing workshop to the FYC classroom are, in my opinion, located in not only the writing-centered ecosystem it creates but the balance between peer and expert feedback. Peer support and encouragement can be just as essential for a writer’s development and improvement as instructor/expert feedback and assessment. If we are to optimize the objectives of the writing workshop, we must work to not only balance these two experiences but to blur the lines of distinction between them. Ideally, the FYC instructor will function as a link within the network of writers/learners during the workshops; otherwise, they may become a dead-end, stifling emergent connections. Likewise, peers can and should be encouraged to take on the roles of critic and assessor. Peer review and whole-class/small-group workshops can be combined with the kind of anonymous peer assessment that I’ve experimented with this term in order to facilitate this.

Formal Assessment
The thorn in the side of the autonomous, organic, workshop-based writing ecosystem is assessment. Especially problematic is its impact on motivation. At its worst, the grading of writing enables an ecology in which all motivation becomes extrinsic — all writing is done because of and for a grade, rather than the sake of the development of the student’s writing identity or the enrichment of their writing environment. At its best, when students are already intrinsically motivated, grades haunt the act of writing, transmuting it into an act of fear and submission (rather than freedom and empowerment).

Alex Halavais has an intriguing method for assessing his students’ writing:

“I have a single requirement for an A in most of my courses at this point: teach the rest of the class something about the subject matter we would not already know. There is no single path toward this objective; it is, by definition, a surprise to me.”

This, combined with a portfolio system (ideally hosted within a blogging platform), is the best system that I can think of for encouraging students to write authentically and organically. Assessment is decentralized–notice the choice of language: “the class” and “we”–and reallocated within the writing ecosystem. Each piece of writing is an attempt to grab the golden ring; yet no one piece of writing has the power to doom the author to failure. Since mastery of the class is dependent upon how well the student enriches the writing ecosystem, rather than having students self-select the pieces that they submit for the summative course assessment, they would need to use their blog’s built-in analytics to identify the most read, shared, and/or commented on posts and make those the basis for their grade. This would shift the student’s focus away from her own perceptions of strengths/weaknesses towards her identity as a writer (i.e., her presence within her community of readers and how those readers respond to her compositions).

In a recent tweet, Steve Wheeler equated BYOD with “bring your own disruption,” suggesting that we need to extend the idea of disruption beyond simply encouraging students to use digital media in the classroom. Digital media are disruptive because they turn students’ focus away from the enclosed space of the classroom and towards the open, the public, the immediate, and the disorderly. We should encourage and facilitate the same kind of openness and immediacy in our students’ writing by inviting them into the disorder of authentic and public writing. Abandon trite writing prompts and intrusive scaffolding. Opt, instead, for autonomy, experimentation, discovery, originality, connectivity, organicity, relevancy.

We must wholly re-envision the purposes, processes, and products of First-Year Composition. We must invite FYC students to not only bring their own devices — in both the technological and denotative sense of the word — but to bring their own disruptions, and discover ways to use both for their own authentic ends.

[Photo by c@rljones via photopin cc]

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