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A Lesson Learned at the 2017 CCCC

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Flying home to SFO after this year’s CCCC gathering gave me time to reflect on this conference and its long history as well as on its evolution. Bigger than ever (I gave up trying to count the number of sessions) and replete with poster sessions, think tank sessions, and caucus meetings, the program offered more than any attendee could possibly say grace over. Yet in spite of the profusion of panels, I missed some of the excitement I used to feel in looking through the program for sessions of particular interest to me. There was very little on history or historiography, very little on rhetorical history, theory, or practice, few student voices. In recent years, at least as near as I can tell from looking at CCCC programs, our field has turned away from rhetoric as our foundational discipline; and for that, I am sorry.

 

Still, I came away very glad to have been in the company of so many smart and dedicated scholars and teachers and, as always, I learned from inspiring work. I will write more in another posting about some of the great sessions I attended, but today I want to share just one presentation that taught a powerful lesson. The presenter was Dion Simmons, from the University of Kansas, and he spoke (with eloquence and passion) about what he termed “interrogative feedback,” starting with its importance to his own learning. He told of his experiences at a primarily white institution, where, as a beginning undergraduate turning in essays for his composition class, he fell back (as we all do) on familiar and comfortable ways with words. He remembers that he had an affinity for the phrase “I just feel like,” which helped him get started, to get into a topic, or to sum up a response. This phrase was his, and he liked it, though he hadn’t thought much about it. But his teachers didn’t agree, responding with comments such as “Your feelings don’t matter” or “This is opinion; I need facts.” These comments told Simmons, loud and clear, that this wasn’t a good phrase, that he should not use it.—but nothing more. Then, as I recall the story, he moved to an HBCU, where he once again turned in an essay including this familiar phrase. This time, however, his instructor did not offer criticism or warnings but instead one simple word: WHY?

red pen and essay, essay with edits, copyediting, proofreadingThat one word, that “interrogative feedback,” led him to think hard, not only about why he felt a certain way but why he used that particular phrase, and subsequent discussions with his instructor, who went onto become his mentor, led him to understand that he was trying to get his own voice into his writing, to use it to establish some authority, however tenuous. He kept asking “why” as he grew as a writer and thinker and as he completed his undergraduate studies and began pursuing his Ph.D. Now he is teaching students of his own, asking them questions and using these questions to help students learn why they make the choices they do, where those choices come from and what implications they hold.

 

This was a lesson I can never learn too often, especially because it’s an easy one to forget: rather than leveling a criticism, why not ask a question that will allow student writers to explain what they are doing and why? Looking back, I realize I first took this lesson to heart when I read Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations, in which she demonstrates over and over again that listening to students, asking them about their choices, and taking in their explanations, is the key to teaching them effectively. Ask questions. And then listen hard. That’s the way to open the door to learning.

 

Credit: Pixaby Image 1870721 by 38344328, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

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I agree completely. I was also taught by my mentor, Dr. Pat Perry, that asking students questions about the choices they make within their writing allows students the opportunity to think critically about the "whys" of their choices. The conferences between my students and me are so much more open and productive. They come in with explanations and justifications. They no longer try to write for me. The write for themselves. I digress. My question is, "How do I help other teachers come to this same realization?" I am talking about teachers who have been teaching 20 or 30 years longer than I have been teaching.

Dear Michele: You bring up a tough question: if teachers have been lecturing for 20 or 30  years, it's very hard to change to discussion mode, much less individual conferences.  Mina Shaughnessy used to say that the best way to approach such questions is through demonstration.  She said she kept going about her department full of excitement and enthusiasm and eventually older colleagues would ask her what she was so excited about -- and she'd invite them to join one of her classes or sit in with discussions with students.  It's a long shot but maybe worth a try.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.