Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2006

Wrapping it all up

Russ Hunt

St. Thomas University


Here's what I'd have liked to be able to do this morning [final session at Gimli conference]:

Unfortunately, I'm not her [Nan Johnson at last year's conference].

So, on the formal principle that you should return to your keynote to end, that you should come back to the beginning in some way, I want to try to repeat something Miriam did at the first session of this conference way back on Thursday night, and for the same reasons: when I sat down to try to put this into my own words, they didn't seem sufficient or honest enough.

So what I've done is to try to find words from Inkshedders that would help me get through this. I've found them, as you might expect, in inksheds, the ones people wrote after each of the sessions. I've tried to find ones that have some resonance for the conference theme, and which strike me as worth thinking about. As many people know, one of the things that I feel most strongly about is that text be dialogic, that it not only be written, and imagined to be read, but that it really be read, and really responded to. Here's my gesture at putting my money where my mouth is. Taking a cue from Miriam, I've distributed all the texts randomly around the room: when your number comes up you're invited to read your passage aloud to the rest of us.

Miriam's presentation, Friday morning, of some of the issues around the evolution and development of inkshedding and some of her findings, I know, surprised many old hands who thought they knew all about Inkshedding, including me. It produced some sobering reflections.

[#1] I was wondering about the Inkshed community and its viability -- if the practice of inkshedding serves the purpose of developing and sustaining this community of Inkshedders, is it perhaps on the wane? If Inkshedders themselves do not use it in their own classrooms, and if the number of Inkshed members is dwindling, is it perhaps time for Inkshedding to give way to other types of community-building practices?

[#2] First, you mentioned that few, if any, of us use inkshedding in our classrooms, with our students: how do you know this? Is this something that has been tried but discarded? How much is related to the pressures that we face in classroom teaching? This is truly a weird and astounding thing: that we engage in this process yearly as a kind of ritual (welcomed or not), and have some kind of passionate commitment to it, but do not promote it to students. I think what they experienced was a pleasure in revealing various vulnerability or uncertainties about their process, and then finding out they were not alone and that others were experiencing similar vulnerabilities.

Michael, in describing about his bringing the concept of inkshedding to ESL teachers in Costa Rica, provoked some similarly skeptical responses about the larger social context in which we teach and act.
[#3] This presentation made me feel sad. It was partly the idea of earnest students around the world but specifically in Central America, learning English and learning about teaching English in a context in which they are perpetually at a power disadvantage. Presenting "Inkshedding" as a technique to "improve critical writing skills" seems to be an imposition. I wasn't comfortable about it.
And later in that session Chris narrated an occasion when a similar sort of context put a student in a position where the expectations of the local context of instruction conflicted in an apparently irreconcilable way with that larger context.
[#4] For how long and at what cost (to ourselves and our students) do we continue to uphold institutional expectations we don't value. How do we recognize when such expectations are destroying our students. Or maybe such destruction has gone on a long time, years, and only every now and then are we "lucky" enough to see the results soon enough to intervene.
After lunch, Donna asked us to think about some strategies for helping readers read better, and produced some responses asking us to connect such strategies to the institutional context.
[#5] I'm inclined to think they use need to be thinking about a literacy process which brings monitoring strategic reasoning, transfer together as a single literacy process that plays out in somewhat different reading and writing circumstances. Isn't the division of reading and writing really artificial? This issue of transfer is interesting. English departments at universities assume teaching students how to write about literature will teach them how to write everywhere. We know learning in reading and writing is more localized than that. We must learn to read in English, Engineering, Health, Science. We need to learn to write in English, Engineering, etc.
Someone else invited us to put that reading back into the context of individual readers.
[#6] Who is having difficulty? Who says they are? What is being read? Whose text is it? Are these kids struggling readers or are they readers struggling with inappropriate reading materials? What are these kids reading? What strategies are already in place that allow them to read the texts they do read successfully?
And then Karen Krasny invited us to consider the complex relationship between reader, text, and author, and generated some fairly passionate response, including this one.
[#7] The entire notion of empathetic identification is dangerous as a classroom activity. Asking students to identify with characters and circumstances can place them in an untenable circumstance vis-à-vis their own lines. Examples include asking women to read phalocentric novels or gay men to read canonical literature where, if they identify with the main hero they are reading against their own sexuality, but if they identify with the heroine they are reading against their own masculinity.
Yesterday morning, we began considering professional contexts, and contexts in which professional writing is learned. Natasha told us about a longitudinal study of some students learning to write like engineers, and raised, for the first time, the question about the way in which various contexts for learning afford certain kinds of learning. Some of us responded by thinking about where learners are in the process.
[#8] Your use of genre theory, the way you tease it out into sets of interacting, accessible elements, and your suggestion, through the studies, about how these ingredients may coalesce after they've been "cooked" are all compelling. (Question: what do you think about "engaged learning" theory? Does this come into play for motivating students?) We need to give students more flexibility about course configurations and learning contexts; as teachers, we need support in handling those options. And finally, as academics, we need to lose our vestigial prejudices about universities being "better than" workplaces.

[#9] So much of Natasha's exploration resonates with my own observations of transitional writing students. What her work affirms for me is the critical but limited role that genre instruction plays in genre acquisition -- we can ready our students to varying degrees, and then they must have the rhetorical maturity to recognize those kairotic moments when engaged in work place writing tasks -- this proactive, strategic resourcefulness is not always very predictable. One important skill in this regard is identifying and mining the knowledge of mentors in the workplace.

Cathy walked us through some ways to help students understand what academic writing actually is.
[#10] Demystification of the academic essay is what Cathy Schreyer's approach does. It's incredible how "taken for granted" this genre is: it is supposed to somehow magically imbibe the strategies. Yet the academic essay is never (or very seldom) contextualized in a rhetorical sense to students in any academic discipline. Cathy's pointing out the strangeness of certain conventions of the genre (inclusion at the beginning, etc.) is an excellent teaching moment (especially for students from different cultural/linguistic contexts!).
And there was some discussion about the role here, again, of explicit instruction.
[#11] The point that a thesis is a conclusion placed at the essay's beginning is one I always make myself (and yes, students always respond to it). Another good one is, "There's nothing magical about the number 3" -- when trying to get students past the 5 paragraph essay, when the need to take off that particular set of training wheels.
(Response: I've seen this too. But I've not seen evidence that it made a long term difference outside an actual context of use.)
And then Patricia asked us to think about the role of writing in the profession of nursing especially the contrast (perhaps conflict) between expressive and objective, expository uses of writing, which raised for some of us larger questions about professional contexts such as nursing, social work, medicine, etc.
[#12] The one thing I didn't clearly get from your paper is -- what can we do as writing teachers, or what can trained writing tutors do, to help nurses deal with all these contradictions and demands? Are there any practical strategies we can employ? I also find it fascinating that nurses are expected to focus on caring and empathy (I've read a lot of the literature on a feminist "ethic of care," and indeed, much of it focuses on nursing), but doctors are expected to remain "objective." That speaks to an enormous ideological, cultural, systemic divide that goes far deeper and has much broader implications that writing teachers could hope to deal with.
Brock then didn't tell us about learning to write in criminology, but asked us to think with him about the issues raised by students' resistance to the invitation to think about things that are important to them (and reminded us of the issues Geoff had raised the previous evening, but which we didn't inkshed on, about more general student resistance and incomprehension). Many of us responded similarly to this presentation, thinking about the way in which the students' engagement with the ideas fostered both resistance and growth.
[#13] They do feel they belong to "My Space", popular music, and other communities of discourse that they're familiar with, and may resent (without even being aware of it) having to cede that territory to academics, even though they themselves aspire to become their own conquerors. I'm rambling big-time here but am wondering if this is at all a factor to consider in student resistance. I couldn't agree more that thoughtful use of on-line interaction/discussion . . . plays a significant role in effective peer-based teaching. It's also a means of mutual enculturation. Effectively, they persuade each other into understanding what genre membership means -- and of course, they share and build upon knowledge, which is a significant motivator for learning.
And finally, at the end of that long morning, Diana, Josie, and Kathleen offered us a powerful model of the way in which working in real contexts can bring to the fore an awareness of choices being made and a growth in the ability to make them.
[#14] This is a brilliantly presented case study which certainly illustrates how students can negotiate the convention and demands of very different organizational cultures. But it's important to note that Josie and Kathleen were doing something more rhetorically complex than simply moving from the academy to the workplace.

[#15] Dwelling in the situations, and making those powerfully rhetorical decisions about what got included (or when), and even trying to infer what cryptic or veiled responses really meant -- obviously helped them think clearly about issues like audience and purpose and their embodiment in text. A question I have (rhetorical, I guess), is what can those of us who teach in a-professional programs with no access to this area between planets, do to make this sort of experience available to our students.

In the afternoon, Phyllis gave us yet another context to think about -- the institutional bureaucracy of the education system -- and provoked some fairly personal responses.
[#16] I want to write about another context of assessment and assessment policies. As the parent of two children who have gone through the public school system in the 1990s and early 2000s in Ontario, I have lived through and experienced the strange twists and turns of new ways to assess, outcome-based assessment, etc., etc. I always felt that a lot of these policy initiatives (on the part of the Ontario Ministry and government) in terms of assessment were creating/reflecting parental fear about children's vulnerability in the new globalizing economy. I have witnessed parental anxiety growing and also seen what appears to be an increasing divide between classroom teachers and parents. Government attempts to "reform", "standardize" assessment seems to widen this divide.

[#17] I'm having a hard time responding to this talk on any level except as a parent of a middle years child. The assessments he has done throughout elementary school in Manitoba seemed a senseless waste of time; results were never given to parents -- what were they used for? Parents are no longer involved in curriculum or instruction in middle years -- will we learn anything from this "new" assessment. The students suffer, but as Phyllis pointed out, so do the teachers. I really hope (in vain, most likely) that standardized assessment soon goes the way of the dodo bird.

And last of all Roger invited us to help him think about ways of categorizing the assignments university teacher so casually hand out to students, and help all of us think about the way in which ignoring the real contexts produces unfortunate consequences.
[#18] These assignment descriptions are pretty typical of those I used to see in the Tutoring Centre. I had many conversations with tutors while they were working with students because the tutors couldn't figure out the assignment requirements. Sometimes, neither could I, and when I attempted to talk to profs about the problems they were defensive (and often couldn't clarify anything.). Somehow, writing assignments are considered too obvious to elaborate on -- as if we somehow know on our pulses what we want of our students, so they should too.
To end, I'll really go back to the beginning, and to my own response to Miriam's history, in which I said, in part,
[#19] I'm wondering (as I write, in fact) whether and to what extent this is a function of the radical transformation in our assumptions about text that has come with email, internet, disk, blogs, etc. This is not the world in which writing with immediate social intent and impact was unheard of. Inkshedding has been totally transformed by its context. Context is indeed everything.

Table of Contents Wendy Kraglund-Gauthier