Russell A. Hunt
St. Thomas University

Becoming a Dialogic Teacher
An Interactive Web Site / Book

Okay, what's this about?

For some time I've felt that the ideas about written language that I've been exploring for the last ten or fifteen years were beginning to move together into something larger. Exactly how they fit together, and what new explorations I needed to do to find pieces that weren't there yet, hasn't been nearly so clear.

I knew, for example, that the empirical work Doug Vipond and I had done during the '80s on literary reading was directly relevant to, and clarified, what I'd been doing during about the same time with other colleagues -- especially Jim Reither -- on inkshedding as a way of extending the range of written language as a tool for teaching and learning. I knew, too, that my increasing interest in the linguistic theories of Bakhtin and his circle, which I'd started seriously exploring during a sabbatical in 1989, fit neatly with the interest in what a genre was that had begun to develop about the same time, and flowered into something quite surprising and wonderful (to me, at least) at the Carleton conference on genre in April of 1992. Further, I knew that what I'd learned about early language development, and semiotics, and especially emergent literacy, from the long interest in early childhood education I've shared with my wife, Anne Hunt (and perhaps especially during a sabbatical at Indiana University in 1982-83), was part of the same piece of discourse.

Equally important, it's been becoming more and more inescapably obvious to me that my most immediate current work, what I've been preoccupied with for the last three or four years, on the undergraduate curriculum -- particularly the problem of the first year experience and the initiation or enculturation of students into academic discourse communities -- was part of the same set of ideas. (This was something of a surprise to me; when I first became engaged with the development of a first year program for St. Thomas, I thought in some ways it was an abandonment -- a reluctant one -- of the work on composition and literary reading that had been the focus of my career).

The largest surprise, however, has been my increasing realization that my continuing and increasingly deep (not to say obsessive) interest in computers and computer networks as communication media was also part of the same nexus of ideas and practices -- and, it seemed, the same incipient text.

How all these disparate strands could be brought together for others, however, and in a way in which each illuminated all the others as they have for me, has been a problem which has stumped me. Everything I've done for almost two decades, it seems, supports one central idea: that the dialogic and social nature of language is the most important thing about it, and that it runs deeper and has more radical consequences for teaching, learning, writing, reading and curriculum than has generally been realized.

But when I do workshops for colleagues on fostering dialogic writing with computer networks, or using writing (with or without computers) as a way to help students become better learners, I have to leave out references to the empirical work on point-driven understanding which is central to my understanding of why the same piece of written language can be understood in different ways by different people in different situations. When I do an article or conference presentation on the constraints which make it so difficult for teachers of writing to respond usefully to student writing, I cannot take the time I'd like to show why evaluation short-circuits dialogue and thus limits opportunities for learning.

Or when I explain, at a conference on university teaching or curriculum, the development and structure of the Aquinas Program, I find it impossible to set aside the time to explain why I believe what I do about the central importance of dialogic written language in that process -- and exactly what I mean by dialogic written language.

It has been clear that what I wanted was to have already written a book that included all those disparate pieces, and that presented them to a reader as one more or less coherent and interrelated whole. For some two or three years that book has been the top long-term item on my personal agenda, but it's been the project that gets pushed aside as I explore the possibilities of setting up a new Web program to mediate the dialogic conversations I'm promoting in the Truth in Society section of the Aquinas Program and in my eighteenth-century literature class. It's been the book which gets pushed aside while I explore the organization of an online and face-to-face academic conference, and the extent to which, in that context, dialogic written language can mediate learning for my colleagues.

So what?

Hence, this website. There are at least four reasons for it:

  1. I want to make these ideas available. I don't want to wait until I've found time to make them into a book, and found a publisher who has managed to go through the whole process. Further, I don't expect -- have never expected -- that a book about them was going to earn signficant royalties, nor is it going to get me tenure. The reason I think a book was, and is, an important product is that I'd like to be able to point people to one easy source where the ideas I can only wave at in a conversation, or even in a half-day workshop, can be explored, lingered over, questioned, bumped against each other and against other, conflicting or even contradictory ideas. It's much harder to linger over them on a web page, but at least I would be able to say that they're all here.

  2. I want to have the role of author in shaping the way the ideas are connected. By creating links between documents, passages, and ideas I can help a visitor to the web site see what I think are the most salient parallels and connections.

  3. I can work on it continuously, and when I get a chance. In this format, texts can be interconnected, extended, edited, massaged, reframed, reorganized.

  4. I can involve others in the development and connection of the ideas. None of them -- as Karen Burke LeFevre makes clear about all ideas -- are mine: everything that I would argue is original or valuable here has arisen out of conversations with colleagues and students, out of readings and experiences with other people, out of conference presentations and classes I've sat in on and taught. By setting up this site (and putting interactive forums at intersections and cruxes) I can invite colleagues to help me see the connections and refine the ideas and see what their implications are.

Do I think people will steal my ideas? I have to say here that I'm not sure what that means. Insofar as they are valuable, they're only valuable insofar as they affect other people's practice. Ursula Le Guin's Kesh, the tribe who inhabit her Always Coming Home, believe that the only way to establish real and unchallenged ownership of something is to give it away.

I expect -- indeed, I am at this exact moment engaged in the process -- to make the ideas arrayed here into a book. One thing I'd like to demonstrate by the existence of this website is, in fact, that electronic text doesn't offer a replacement for the book, but rather offers a different way of accessing discourse -- less flexible in some ways, less amenable to lingering, far less portable, far less comfortable. For the foreseeable future, too, the printed book remains far more widely available. And more permanent.

What's here, then?

The main separable issues I think I have something to say about -- and which can be related to each other as part of my attempt to make clear what I mean by dialogic teaching -- are these:

What does watching children learn to talk, and learn to read and write, tell us about the learning of later forms of literacy?



Collaborative investigation

Reading research

University curriculum

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