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CHAPTER IV

THE TENETS OF PERSON-BASED RESPONSE: AN APOLOGIA

 

Overview

In this chapter, I offer a theory of response that privileges persons over text. It is based on the finding that there are two major trends in current teacher response: one text-based, a legacy of modernism and founded on the principles of New Criticism, which locates meaning in the text, and two, person-based, founded on postmodern thought, which locates meaning in the writer and the reader. My contention is that not only does person-based responding work most effectively to produce better writing (assuming that the writing apprehension theorists are correct and better writing attitudes lead to better writing), it also represents the ethical high ground, ethical because strategies that privilege genuine readership over correctness, writer successes over errors, student voice over an ideal text, and faith in process over evaluation of product; all value persons over things, an ethical principle upheld by systems as varied as existentialism (Martin Buber's distinction between "I-Thou" and "I-It" attitudes--see Johannesen, 58-60) and Christianity (see especially Jesus' words in Mark 2: 23-28). Phrased in the imperative, these practical/moral tenets of person-based response are as follows:

Respond First as a Genuine (Human) Reader.

According to Peter Elbow, the New Critics had a good reason (a concern for scholarly rigor in studying a piece of literature) for locating meaning in the text, "but they made the mistake of locating meaning exclusively in the text: in their fear of baloney and their itch for high standards, they couldn't bear to go back inside the author's head or look inside the heads of readers" (Writing without Teachers 158). Now, in a postmodern world, Stanley Fish and others have shown that meaning does indeed rest at least partly in the "interpretive community" of readers, and error-analysts (Barthlomae, Hunt, Kroll, Shaughnessy) and social constructionists (Gage, Jerry) have argued for recognition of authorial intentions as part of understanding and negotiating a text's meaning.

Elbow's point is that an overemphasis on text is not wrong for what it includes, but for what it excludes--persons, which is what has happened in much teacher response. Trained as literature majors in the formalist tradition (the New Criticism), many English teachers approach student writing the way they would a piece of literature. The emphasis is on the text, specifically on textual correctness. As Ken Macrorie puts it, "papers are not meant to be read but corrected" (686). The result is a devaluing of persons as the following examples from Michael Robertson illustrate:

A student writes a narrative of a rock-climbing expedition on a wind-swept cliff, an adventure which ends abruptly when her boyfriend falls to his death. Her composition teacher's written end-comment: "Your conclusion is much stronger than in your previous essay and nicely continues a metaphor from the preceding paragraph."

A Nigerian student writes of her first day in an American public school, telling of her bewildering encounters with harried counselors, brusque teachers, and unfriendly students. Her teacher's comment: "Good use of dialogue. However, note the lack of transition between your first paragraph and the rest of the essay."

Responding to John Holt's 1967 essay "How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading," another student condemns the liberalization of education since the 1970's, argues for more structure in English classes, and questions the value of Freshman English assignments. His teacher's comments begin, "Your use of specific examples strengthens your argument. But do you need to use first person in this essay?"

In an essay entitled "White and Black Can't Mix," a student proposes that the United States end all efforts to integrate public schools. Such efforts have failed, he argues, and segregation is the most beneficial policy for all races. His teacher comments: "Clear statement of your thesis in the first paragraph. However, the anecdotes in paragraphs three and four are off the topic and do not support your position." (87)

 

Robertson explains that these examples, though somewhat exaggerated, come from actual student essays, and the teacher responses are condensed versions of his own words. He shares them to show how such an emphasis on "technique" (textual correctness) violates the basic truths of human communication (88) and destroys the students' sense of audience (89). His point is not to exclude any textual criticism but to include the human response first:

If a computer can evaluate students' technique as well as most teachers . . . then what is left for us teachers to do? What we can do is to be a unique human reader. We can respond to student writing in the same way that we respond to a friend's story about his vacation or our spouse's comments on current events, commenting first of all on what was said. To do otherwise, to respond to technique alone, is not only bad pedagogy. It's bad manners. (89)

 

In "'Could You Put in Lots of Holes?': Modes of Response to Writing," Russell Hunt reiterates Robertson's point using a children's' story by Randall Jarrell. In The Bat Poet the bat recites some scary verse about an ominous owl. The mockingbird's response is classic text-based comment:

When he'd finished his poem the bat waited for the mockingbird to say something: he didn't know it, but he was holding his breath.

"Why, I like it," said the mockingbird. "Technically it's quite accomplished. The way you change the rhyme-scheme's particularly effective."

The bat said: "It is?"

"Oh yes," said the mockingbird. "And it was clever of you to have that last line two feet short."

The bat said blankly: "Two feet short?"

"It's two feet short," said the mockingbird a little impatiently. "The next-to-the-last line's iambic pentameter, and the last line's iambic trimeter."

The bat looked so bewildered that the mockingbird said in a kind voice: "An iambic foot has one weak syllable and one strong syllable; the weak one comes first. The last line of yours has six syllables and the one before it has ten: when you shorten the line like that it gets the effect of the night holding its breath."

"I didn't know that," the bat said. "I just made it like holding your breath."

"To be sure, to be sure!" said the mockingbird. "I enjoyed your poem very much. When you've made up some more do come round and say me another."

The bat said he would, and fluttered home to his rafter. Partly he felt very good--the mockingbird had liked his poem--and partly he felt just terrible. He thought: "Why, I might just as well have said it to the bats. What do I care how many feet it has? The owl nearly kills me, and he says he likes the rhyme-scheme!" (qtd. in Hunt 22)

 

By contrast, when the chipmunk hears the poem, he gives a big shiver and decides to go to bed early to avoid the possibility of meeting an owl. Before he leaves, the bat asks, "Shall I start on the poem about you?" "All right," said the chipmunk. "But could you put in lots of holes? The first thing in the morning I'm going to dig myself another" (22).

Hunt's example is as compelling as it is vivid. What writers want from readers is genuine person-based response. If something is scary, they expect a shiver. If a piece is funny, they want a laugh. If sad, empathy. In short, persons write for persons, not grammatical automatons. And if teachers will respond first as persons, "We won't have to be mockingbirds, basing the construction of our artificial responses on a theory of how language might work (do metrically truncated last lines actually work? Only the chipmunk can know)" (Hunt 23).

The chipmunk in Hunt's example identifies with the bat's fear of owls, something that 20th century rhetor Kenneth Burke sees as essential to persuasive rhetoric. Burke believes that fundamental to the human condition is a sense of division: "If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity. If men were wholly and truly one substance, absolute communication would be man's very essence" (22). Burke's solution to this basic separation is what he calls consubstanciality, a term he borrows from Protestant theology used to describe the presence of Christ in the Eucharist (the bread and wine share [con] substance with Christ).

Similarly, Burke sees effective communication as the ability to identify the substance of the speaker or writer--including things like ethnic or geographical background, occupation, friends, activities, beliefs and values--with the substance of the listener or reader: "You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his" (55). For teacher-responders this means taking seriously the separation between teacher and student (there are many ways in which they are different and, thus, division is great) and working seriously on finding areas of commonality. Person-based response suggests that this commonality be found first in the human rather than the textual. Beginning college writers know little about a common academic text (Geisler). They must develop knowledge here to write successfully for academicians, but will make only half-hearted attempts until, in Burke's terms, they become consubstancial with it, until they find something in it with which they can identify and call their own.

On the other hand, college freshman already share much in common with their teachers on the human level. For instance, both teacher and student know what fear feels like. The mockingbird does not have to share a particular fear of owls to know what it is like to shrink in terror from a predator. The problem stems from a lack of focus, not a lack of familiarity. As long as one focuses only on text, they will not see the human, and without the human, the text has no true meaning.

In addition, responding as a genuine reader is more than simply responding to content (although such a response is always more helpful than merely marking mechanics). A teacher responding to content might remark: "Your specific example adds interest and credibility to your argument" or "How can you effectively illustrate this point?" These are both useful comments and need to be made; however, they are not what a writer looks for first and foremost from the reader. The writer does not simply want a reader to comment on the seasoning in his or her stew, they want readers to taste, eat, and take a second helping: "You've convinced me. Where do I sign up?" or "Your point is a good one for the already-convinced, but if you want to change this reader's mind you will have to deal with the plight of unemployable 13-year-old mothers." or "What a moving story! You have made a brave comeback. I'm impressed with your perseverance."

Of course, there are many other roles teachers need to assume in responding to student work. Purves divides these into four categories. The common reader receives and responds; the proofreader, editor, reviewer, and gatekeeper receive and judge; the critic and anthropologist/ linguist/psychologist receive and analyze, and the diagnostician/therapist receives and improves. The strength of Purves's view is his emphasis on adaptability, the willingness for teachers to take on different roles in different situations: "Which of these roles is preferable for a teacher to adopt? I would suggest all of them depending on the nature of the situation in which the writing is produced" (263).

The weakness of Purves's position, however, is that he relegates the teacher as common reader ("the person who is reading out of pleasure and interest, with no practical end in mind, who might be enlightened or pleased by the text and who might read the text aesthetically" [260]) to "private or semi-private" writing such as journals or creative writing (263). But does this mean that writers of non-fiction expect readers to find their work displeasing or uninteresting? Does it also follow that those who write expressively expect their readers to desire no practical insights from their words? The problem is solved if one sees teacher responding roles as hierarchical. Person-based response is not opposed to teachers reading as editors or critics; it simply asks for a human response first. As Jeffrey Fleece puts it, it is the teacher's first priority "to convince his students that he is really an audience worth addressing" (272).

But does the student actually address the teacher in his or her essay? Walter Ong indirectly addresses the question in his essay "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction." Ong says that a writer's audience is indeed a fiction in two senses: One, "the writer must construct in his imagination, clearly or vaguely, an audience cast in some sort of role . . .," and, two, "the audience must correspondingly fictionalize itself. A reader has to play the role in which the author has cast him" (60, 61). If Ong is right, then effective communication depends on the reader as well as the writer. If a reader refuses to fictionalize himself, to at least partially assume the role designed by the writer, the resulting loss of communication cannot be blamed on the writer. Refusing or neglecting to respond to students as persons, seeing and commenting only on things like comma splices and sentence fragments, violates the contract inherent to normal communication. If teachers responded to those outside of academia in this manner, they would be either ignored or ostracized by their interlocutors.

Thus, teachers need to read student papers as human beings first. For only after discovering and identifying with the human elements in the students' work, will teachers have earned the right to respond to text. And as students see their communicative efforts connecting with the shared humanity of their teachers, as they experience first-hand consubstanciality with their readers, they will be more motivated to learn how textual improvements can enhance this process.

 

Emphasize Success Not Error

Whether fact or fiction, the obsession of composition teachers with student error is widely perceived. "The average English paper corrected by the average English teacher looks as though it had been trampled on with cleated boots," writes Paul Diederich (58). "There is a familiar caricature of the composition teacher as a revenge-thirsty monster wielding pen and red ink to bloody a stunned freshman's paper," adds Barry Kroll and John Schafer (242). "Try as I may, I can't keep from bleeding all over student compositions," echoes a tongue-in-cheek R. W. Reising. "After I've finished with them a class's best products (or their worst) look like carnage out of The Godfather" (43).

Though this propensity to spot and mark error is probably overrated--Connors and Lunsford found that most teachers mark only 43 percent of errors ("Formal Errors" 402)--it does show that teachers are more adept at spotting textual errors than student successes. In an analysis of 3,000 teacher-marked student papers, Connors and Lunsford found nearly one-fourth offered only negative judgments. Some were openly hostile and demeaning to the student: "Do over and pick one subject for development . . . This is just silly . . . Throw away!" ("Teachers' Comments" 215). Surely, it is comments like these that lead to the kinds of discouraged students chronicled by Dickinson (the remarks are unedited):

"I knew I couldn't write, however, now I am really convinced of my inabilities . . . my writing is worse that I thought."

"It made me feel like it was an insult, it kind of change my mind about writing all of the sudden. I don't think I'll take another English class ever in my life after this one. As a matter of fact if I could just resign it I would . . . God I hate this. Since the beginning of this week all I've gotten is feedback from my dear teachers on how rotten I am in everything." (11)

 

Students who write words like these have no faith in themselves as writers. Why should they? Their teachers tell them they are failures, and their difficulty in writing confirms it. There is a better way. "Errors count," writes Mina Shaughnessy, "but not as much as most English teachers think" (120). Shaughnessy puts error in perspective--not an affront to textual correctness but interference with communication among persons. She suggests establishing a zone of "tolerable error" where a basic writer can make some mistakes and still connect with their audience (which if it happens, will motivate the writer to write more with predictable improvement).

Joseph Williams says that tolerable error is something genuine readers allow anyway:

In short, if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find. But if we could read those student essays unreflexively, if we could make the ordinary kind of contract with those texts that we make with other kinds of texts, then we could find many fewer errors. (159)

 

Williams proves his point when he concludes his 16 page article in the prestigious College Composition and Communication with an admission. He has deliberately inserted 100 errors in the text. Williams demonstrates that when teachers fixate on error, they usually find it. On the other hand, when these same teachers emphasize success, they may find it too, and, more importantly, reinforce it in their student writers. Sam Dragga thinks so.

"Praiseworthy grading is a method of evaluating students' writing in which the instructor comments only on the praiseworthy characteristics of a given essay," writes Dragga (41). In his system, the writing instructor reserves critical analysis for a recommendations section--given to the student separately from their returned essay--which highlights areas to consider when revising this and/or subsequent papers. Dragga believes that traditional error-oriented grading causes problems for both students and teachers. Teachers spend all of their time commenting on the worst students and the worst essays, and students develop unhealthy fixations on their failures:

Obsessed with error, the teacher necessarily focuses the attention of his or her students on their mistakes, their failures in written communication. As positive or supportive as the teacher might be in discussing their writing, as constructively as he or she might comment on their errors, it is the errors to which attention is given. It is the errors to which students will address themselves in the revision of their essays and in the composition of subsequent essays. (265)

 

Dragga's alternative is to direct students to their "communicative successes," a focus he believes will actually produce better writing.

To test his theory, Dragga randomly selected writing teachers (n=8) and their students (n=80) from TAs teaching freshman composition at Texas A&M University. He then divided the group in half, with one set of instructors receiving instruction in--and then marking papers according to--the principles of praiseworthy grading, and the other grading according to their traditional training. Next, a sample from each group was randomly selected to submit particular essays for blind grading by four independent raters. Near the semester's end, essays were examined (both those with comments by teachers and those without comments which were graded by independent coders), and teachers and students in the experimental group were interviewed. Dragga hoped to thus support three hypotheses: one, "teachers in the traditional grading sections would be considerably more error-oriented than teachers in the praiseworthy grading sections in marking and commenting on students' essays;" two, "essays of students in the praiseworthy grading sections would be judged superior to those of students in the traditional grading sections;" and three, "students would prefer praiseworthy grading to traditional grading" (43).

All three of Dragga's hypotheses were affirmed. Those teachers who graded from the traditional perspective wrote praising comments 6% of the time and corrective ones 94% of the time. The experimental group, on the other hand, wrote 69% praising comments and 31% corrective ones. In addition, impartial raters scored two samples of student essays higher for the praiseworthy group than the traditional one: a mean of 75.26 compared to 71.57 on the first set of essays (p<.01) and 71.75 compared to 68.96 on the second set (p<.05). Dragga supported the third hypothesis with anonymous written surveys from students. Though some writers felt uncomfortable with the praiseworthy system, the majority, especially among better writers, enjoyed the change. Typical was the following comment: "I was sick of receiving papers with red ink splattered everywhere. (Even if it was a B+ paper, there were always those red scratches!) The praiseworthy grading system makes me feel good about my papers. This, in turn, makes me want to try harder--to improve my positive qualities, rather than dread the negative ones" (46).`

Dragga's results reinforce earlier work done by John Daly, a University of Texas communication scholar who, with Michael Miller, developed a self-assessment instrument to measure writing apprehension. According to Daly, highly apprehensive writers dislike composing, have little confidence in their writing ability, and fear evaluations of their written product ("Writing Apprehension" 51). Significant to this discussion is the fact that high writing apprehensive writers report more past punishment for their work as well as a lack of positive reinforcement by teachers (62). High apprehensives spend less time in all phases of writing activity (60, 61); they have lower expectations of success (50), produce fewer words (56) using less intense language (57), and are consistently given lower grades than their low apprehensive peers (55). Interestingly, when Daly and Miller correlated writing attitudes with SAT verbal scores and writing apprehensive levels, they found writing apprehension to be a better predictor of motivation in writing. "No matter how skilled or capable the individual is in writing, if he believes he will do poorly, or if he doesn't want to take courses that stress writing, then those skills or capabilities matter little" ("Further Studies" 256). In others words, attitude more than aptitude gives students the motivation that produces more writing practice and, usually, better writing.

There are some dissenting opinions about the value of praise. For instance, Burkland and Grimm surveyed 197 students at Michigan Tech to see what comments students perceive as most useful. They were surprised at the response:

Our most surprising finding was the students' attitudes toward praise and criticism. Students expressed a strong preference for criticism and an ambivalence about praise. In one section of our survey, we gave students a list of seven types of comments and asked them to rank them in terms of their usefulness. Three of the comments were labeled complimentary and four of the comments were labeled critical. Seventy-one per cent of the students chose a critical comment as most useful even though these were comments on final drafts. ("Motivating through Responding" 242)

 

Burkland and Grim conclude by stating that student writers are not as vulnerable as once imagined: "We have mistakenly assumed that students have a strong emotional stake in their writing and that their fragile egos would be incurably wounded by criticism" (243).

Yet, while the authors seem to have accurately reported the attitudes of their sample, the sample itself is not typical. Chosen non-randomly, the students were five-to-one male, mostly engineering majors, with ACT and SAT scores significantly above average in both mathematical and verbal skills ("Student Responses"). These are obviously confident and capable writers who may not receive a lot of corrective comments on their writing, and who may, in fact, not feel a need for much positive reinforcement, especially as a matter of usefulness. In addition, the negative comments these above-average students receive might be more specific and thus more helpful. "That's often the case," says Sam Dragga, "since teachers don't have a good vocabulary for offering praise" (personal interview). However, as Susan Miller found in a survey of professional writers, a significant percentage of the best of the best writers depend on praise for their sense of accomplishment: "Thirty percent of the professional novelists, poets, and academic writers mentioned that their sense of success and failure depends on positive response from a reading public or one important reader" (179).

In person-based response one's successes are privileged over one's failures. Errors are not marginalized, but neither are the students who commit them. Errors are not viewed as final, but steps on the way to effective communication. Postmodern scholars of error analysis (Hunt, Kroll, Schafer, and Barthlomae) see error not as bad but as an opportunity for basic writers to discover their writing strategies in order to empower them to create their own communication successes:

By having students share in the process of investigating and interpreting the patterns of error in their writing, we can help them begin to see those errors as evidence of hypotheses or strategies they have formed and, as a consequence, put them in a position to change, experiment, imagine other strategies. Studying their own writing puts students in a position to see themselves as language users, rather than as victims of a language that uses them. This, then, is the perspective and the technique of error analysis. (Barthlomae 258)

 

In the same pedagogical vein, Linda Flower deals with error for the beginning writer. While the basic writer mostly includes those who did not learn English as a first language, the beginning writer is simply a novice or inexperienced writer and, thus, has not learned to transpose fluent verbal communication into written form. Flower says that the beginning writer suffers from "Writer-Based prose," a kind of egocentric writing that forgets the needs of the reader. And, like the error-analysts, she refuses to condemn this as error, but suggests viewing and using it as a necessary first-step on the way to Reader-Based prose:

A Reader-Based strategy which includes the reader in the entire thinking process is clearly the best way to write, but it is not always possible. When it is very difficult or impossible to write for a reader from the beginning, writing and then transforming Writer-Based prose is a practical alternative which breaks this complex process down into manageable parts. When transforming is a practiced skill, it enters naturally into the pulse of the composing process as a writer's constant, steady effort to test and adapt his or her thought to reader's needs. Transforming Writer-Based prose is, then, not only a necessary procedure for all writers at times, but a useful place to start teaching intellectually significant writing skills. (34)

 

The ethical strength of Barthlomae's and Flower's views from the vantage point of person-based response is that they deal with writer error without disrespecting and abusing the writer. And rather than cast students as victims of the red pen, they empower them as intelligent persons who can take responsibility for their own writing. The practical strengths of the views are similarly significant. Error analysis theory offers to save teachers the time and effort of marking every student error, a temptation Elaine Lees says is sometimes hard to resist. Lees chronicles her own metamorphosis:

I nonetheless clung to the belief that it was somehow safer to do so [mark everything even when one knows better], as my aunt believes it's safer to rinse the cups when they come from the dishwasher and iron every pair of Levi's she washes. A teacher marks things because they're there. Yet I suspect that much of what can be said about a paper, many of the lines that can be passed through it, make no fresh contact with the student writer and are therefore unnecessary to put into comments. Much emoting, correcting, and describing now seems to me to fall into the same category as Levi's-pressing; not exactly wrong but useless. (373)

 

Yet overmarking papers can do more than waste teacher time. Advocates of error analysis say that it can harm students. Russell Hunt explains why: "An infant learning to talk is virtually never overtly corrected, or needs to be, or ought to be. What happens is that the fantastically sensitive set of social antennae that each of us has . . . tells us when we've said something a little wrong, something that hasn't quite connected . . ." ("Horse Named Hans" 90). Hunt goes on to say that the child's effort cannot afford to become self-conscious and must bypass "the sort of effortful conscious apprehension and understanding we associate, for instance, with formal grammar instruction . . . . The more conscious many kinds of knowledge become, the less effectively they can be utilized" (91).

Hunt's point is profound. By overmarking errors, teachers may make students too conscious of their internal editor, which Peter Elbow says preempts freewriting and edits out not only one's mistakes but one's emerging meanings, meanings that, if not allowed to exist as embryos, will not give birth to finished ideas. "Meaning is not what you start out with but what you end up with," writes Elbow (Writing without Teachers 15).

A final practical aspect of error analysis addresses the frustration of English teachers who believe that students do not read teacher comments (How could they when they keep making the same mistakes?). Dillman says that when poor students are overcorrected they tend to ignore negative comments. "They have become, in effect, teacher deaf . . . . Excess criticism blocks communication, while encouragement may enhance it" (4).

On the other hand, student writers, especially the better ones, do need teachers to mark errors (as the Burkland and Grimm study suggests). As Connors and Lunsford put it,

Not even the most liberal of process-oriented teachers completely ignores the problem of mechanical and formal errors . . . . Errors are not merely mechanical, but rhetorical as well. The world judges a writer by her mastery of conventions, and we all know it. Students, parents, university colleagues, and administrators expect us to deal somehow with those unmet rhetorical expectations, and, like it or not, pointing out errors seems to most of us part of what we do. ("Formal Errors" 396)

 

So person-based response, because it cares about persons, has a duty to correct errors too. However, it does so remembering that one can teach many of the same points through a student's successes and too many corrections pay diminishing returns. As E. D. Hirsch warns,

If the comments are to effect an improvement, they must be taken to heart and kept in mind by the student. And if the student is to keep the comments in mind when he writes again, they must be few in number, because his capacities are already heavily taxed by the act of writing. He cannot think of ten new points all at once. The worst vice of the schoolmarm is to correct everything. (160)

 

So the second tenet in person-based response is this: one should respond to writing in a way that emphasizes success over failure and that uses one's errors to provide personal insight rather than condemnation. For student writers this means an effort on the part of the teacher to locate strengths to build upon before marking errors to eliminate. And it means teacher comments and conferences where students are urged to discover reasons for and strategies to correct their own errors. Also important is the genuineness of teacher praise. Students are not stupid and can recognize phony and perfunctory praise. Praise tacked on to the end of a long list of criticisms sounds phony as does praise that concludes with "but" or "however" followed by a string of negatives. A good alternative is to do what Dragga does and put criticisms on a separate sheet of paper than praises. Or one can write global comments at the paper's end beginning with things done well followed by suggested improvements: "I like the way you . . . . You can improve by . . . ." And praising students' successes has another advantage; it privileges their own ideas and styles over that of the ideal text of the teacher, which leads to the third tenet of person-based response.

 

Empower Student Writers. Don't Silence Their

Voices or Appropriate Their Work.

Perhaps the following conversation taken from an actual writing conference best illustrates the third tenet of person-based response:

Teacher Now, what did you think your purpose was in writing the paper?

Student Well, I was just kind of dealing with the fact that people have animals. And are nice to them. And we're not really nice to other organisms besides ourselves. You know, I wonder why people are so uncommonly nice to domesticated animals.

Teacher Yeah? So--umm--did you come to any conclusion about that?

Student No. [Laughs.]

Teacher But at the end you say: "I have had a pet as a companion. Pets are machines for us to lavish affection on or to proclaim superiority over." That sounds like you've come to a conclusion.

Student Well, it's more of an observation.

Teacher Oh. You see, I think it's a false conclusion. I mean I think you still don't know.

Student I don't.

Teacher And I think it's better that you don't know. I mean you're saying there ought to be some reason for this, but I love my dog.

Student Yeah.

Teacher And so for me the last paragraph was--I think I said that before--that you have a tendency to be asking questions and think you have to find some answer.

Student Umhumm.

Teacher And I don't think--I mean whatever answer you find, it's probably going to be a question and it's probably going to be inherent in the whole piece. (Qtd. in Newkirk 322)

 

"I ran over this kid like a Mack Truck," admits the teacher in the preceding conversation. Thomas Newkirk uses it as an example of a teacher who dominates a writing conference and seems to have in mind an "ideal text." Newkirk says this teacher "has an image of the true version of what this paper should ultimately conform to" (323). Newkirk's example illustrates a third difference between text-based and person-based response. The former empowers the commentator-teacher; the latter, the student-writer. The first privileges templates for stereotypic essays; the second encourages rhetorical invention and genuine student voice.

Carnicelli echoes Newkirk's position by quoting another frustrated student: "In conferences, which are so important, she doesn't seem to always concentrate on you. She seems rather to be thinking of her next question instead of listening to the student comment about writing" (118). Carnicelli calls this teacher's actions a form of manipulation. "Clearly, this teacher was so intent on getting the student to follow her own line of thought that she ignored what the student was actually saying" (118). Nor does it take overt teacher dominance to silence student voice. Freedman and Sperling describe a ninth grade girl who tells her teacher "I did it the way you wanted me to," to which the authors respond, "Another assumption, then, that appears to drive Lisa's writing . . . is that one writes in ways that reveal how compliant one is to the demands/desires of the teacher-authority. Put succinctly, a good girl writes like a good girl" (10).

It is this point that Anne Greenhalgh addresses in her postmodern critique of teacher response. She urges teachers to be aware of their own voices in response (do they master or overthrow?) while teaching students to do the same (do they hear interpretive and interruptive teacher voices--do they compliantly accept victimization?). "Then," writes Greenhalgh,

Students would be less likely to miss chances, as I did, and more likely to seize opportunities to take control of their own texts. If we close our ears to voices in response, we teachers run the risk of appropriating our students' work, and they risk writing a flawed version of our own ideal text. If we open our ears, we teachers have an opportunity to express, as we must, the discourse of education but not at the expense of silencing student voices; our students, in turn, have a chance to take greater control of their texts with fewer misgivings about accommodating or, for that matter, discounting teacher comments. (409-410)

 

Greenhalgh's ears metaphor leads to an alternative to silencing student voice: respectful, careful, listening. "In the usual classroom the teacher speaks and the students listen," writes Donald Murray. "In the writing class, the students speak and the teacher listens" (A Writer Teaches Writing 103). Murray goes on to explain why listening belongs with effective teacher response: "When you talk to those teachers who motivate students you begin to see, although the teachers may be young or old, male or female, strict or permissive, understanding or impatient, they are all interested in the student as an individual. They listen to the student and the student knows it" (151).

Listening to students, really listening, demands a new role for teachers, or as Probst points out, the "shedding of roles." In person-based response teachers are not the authority, the guardian of an ideal text. Rather they are "co-responders" (Bleich), "facilitators" (Podis), "collaborators" (Newkirk), and "participant-learners" (Murray) with their students. Person-based responders share power with students (Onore), and listen and do not "rush in to fill silences" (Newkirk 330). Above all, this kind of person-based response requires a certain humility, teachers who are themselves willing to be the student. Donald Murray puts it poignantly:

Now that I've been a teacher this long I'm beginning to learn how to be a student. My students are teaching me their subjects. Sometimes I feel as if they are paying for an education and I'm the one getting the education. I learn so many things. What it feels like to have a baby, how to ski across a frozen lake, what rights I have to private shoreline, how complex it is to find the right nursery school when you're a single parent with three children under six years old. I expected to learn of other worlds from my students but I didn't expect--an experienced (old) professional writer--to learn about the writing process from my students. But I do. The content is theirs but so is the experience of writing--the process through which they discover their meaning. My students are writers and they teach me writing most of the time. (237-237)

 

Finally, empowering student writers with their own voices will have three important results: one, it will democratize learning; two, it will encourage rhetorical invention, and, three, it will further motivate students to write by striking at the heart of the psyche's desire for self-actualization. Richard Johannesen says that ethical communication should be dialogic rather than monologic (64). In Baktin's terms, it should elicit a "turn" in speakers. It should open rather than close a conversation. Teachers who give only directive comments, in which they tell students to conform to the teachers' own ideal texts ("You have only two major points; present them in two distinct paragraphs") are not encouraging dialogue. Those who are dialogic will find a way to continue the conversation (Do you have three points here or two?" "Do you need another argument or will these do?" "What additional reason could you give for this?") and return responsibility (and power) to students. And when students are encouraged to generate their own ideas, rhetorical invention must follow, for where is one to get these thoughts if not from some kind of invention heuristic (Aristotle's topoi, Pike's tagmemics, Burke's dramatism, or a host of other practices such as freewriting, journaling, or library research)? And, as Gordon Rohman has pointed out, nothing motivates writing more than this thrill of discovery, a desire, he sees as fundamental to self-actualization:

To what end do we teach writing? If it is to "program" students to produce "Letters and Reports for All Occasions," it is not only ignoble but impossible. The imp of the perverse in students will simply thwart any attempts to reduce them to regimented sentences. However, if it is to enlighten them concerning the powers of creative discovery within them, then it is both a liberal discipline and a possible writing program. We must recognize and use as the psychologists do in therapy, a person's desire to actualize himself. Such a desire makes mental healing possible; such a desire makes writing possible since writing is one important form of self-actualization. (108)

 

 

Emphasize the Process Not the Product

In 1982 Maxine Hairston with "The Winds of Change" penned the Magna Carta of postmodern composition theory. Claiming a paradigm shift of Kuhnian proportion, she announced the arrival of the "process-centered theory of teaching writing" (15). Citing Mina Shaughnessy who said that basic writers must learn by making mistakes, Hairston issued this challenge for teachers:

Shaughnessy's insight is utterly simple and vitally important: we cannot teach students to write by looking only at what they have written. We must also understand how that product came into being, and why it assumed the form that it did. We have to try to understand what goes on during the internal act of writing and we have to intervene during the act of writing if we want to affect its outcome. We have to do the hard thing, examine the intangible process, rather than the easy thing, evaluate the tangible product. (22)

 

Donald Murray says that this fixation with product, like the fixation with correct text, comes from the training in literature (a finished product) that most teachers bring to the composition classroom:

Naturally we try to use our training. It's an investment and so we teach writing as a product, focusing our critical attentions on what our students have done, as if they had passed literature in to us. It isn't literature, of course, and we use our skills, with which we can dissect and sometimes almost destroy Shakespeare or Robert Lowell to prove it.

Our students knew it wasn't literature when they passed it in, and our attack usually does little more than confirm their lack of self-respect for their work and for themselves; we are frustrated as our students, for conscientious, doggedly responsible, repetitive autopsying doesn't give birth to live writing. The product doesn't improve, and so, blaming the student--who else?--we pass him along to the next teacher, who is trained, too often, the same way we were. Year after year the student shudders under a barrage of criticism, much of it brilliant, some of it stupid, and all of it irrelevant. No matter how careful our criticisms, they do not help the student since when we teach composition we are not teaching a product, we are teaching a process. ("Writing as a Process" 79)

 

Murray puts his finger on the major problem with product-centered evaluation. It confirms students' "lack of self-respect for their work and themselves." This is because product-based evaluation privileges the finished text (and the finished writer) over the emerging one. And since most student texts are, like the students themselves, successes-in-the-making, they are not judged successful at all, but failures. And while there is ample research showing that teacher comments are more effective on preliminary student drafts (Beach, Knoblauch and Brannon, Freedman, Ferris), few theorists apply the same process theory to students themselves, something just as necessary for success. For while the former builds student insight into their writing, the latter builds student confidence in their writing, a confidence born first in the mind of their person-based responder, as Murray demonstrates:

I hear voices from my students they have never heard from themselves. I find they are authorities on subjects they think ordinary. I find that even my remedial students write like writers, putting down writing that doesn't quite make sense, reading it to see what sense there might be in it, trying to make sense of it, and--draft after draft--making sense of it. They follow language to see where it will lead them, and I follow them following language.

It is a matter of faith, faith that my students have something to say and a language in which to say it. Sometimes I lose that faith but if I regain it and do not interfere, my students do write and I begin to hear things that need saying said well. ("The Listening Eye" 235)

 

So responding to student process work is only effective if one responds to students who are themselves in process. Person-based responders will communicate a faith in their students, something different from praise, for praise draws attention to a completed success, faith to one in the making: "Your draft is uncovering new ground and shows promise. I expect your final paper holds insightful discoveries for both you and me. I look forward to reading it."

And the result of such student confidence, as the writing apprehension studies have shown, will be more writing, especially revision, for revision is an act of faith. Those who have no confidence in their writing will revise only grudgingly and, then, with as few changes as possible, probably mostly mechanical in nature (Daly, "Writing Apprehension"). But confident writers are always hopeful that they can put things more clearly, more persuasively, with more insight and greater interest than the previous attempt. It is no secret that the best writers revise the most.

The view that a teacher's confidence in them can shape student success is supported by more than anecdotal evidence. During the 1964-1965 school year, Harvard's Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment in an elementary school. At the beginning of the school year, teachers were told the names of children in their classes who were "late bloomers," about to spurt dramatically in their academic learning. In fact, these "special" children were randomly selected and no smarter than their classmates (a fact that pretests confirmed). At the end of the semester, a post-test showed a statistically significant increase in learning by the experimental group. The "special" children not only performed better in the eyes of their teachers (an expected outcome, the so-called "halo effect"), but they also scored significantly higher on standardized IQ tests. "The undesignated control-group children gained over eight IQ points while the experimental-group children, the special children, gained over 12. The difference in gains could be ascribed to chance about two in 100 times [p<.03] (F=6.35)" (Rosenthal 74).

Rosenthal did no classroom observations so was not able to determine how teacher expectations were communicated to their children. However, a related study suggests possibilities. Rosenthal's team tested their "expectation theory" on animal researchers where laboratory mice labeled as "maze-bright" (bred to navigate mazes successfully but, in reality, no different than normal mice) actually performed better in maze tests than a control group. By observing the observers, Rosenthal's team found that laboratory researchers handled the "maze-bright" rodents more often and more gently than the others (38).

More pertinent to composition, in a 1979 study, Daly found teacher expectations differ according to the level of a student's writing apprehension. Ignorant of students' actual writing abilities but appraised of their apprehension levels, teachers were asked to predict the success of various pupils. "Teachers offered significantly better expectancies for the low-apprehension student than for the high-apprehension one" ("Writing Apprehension" 51-52). In an analysis of four case studies, Freedman discovered the same bias. "For both stronger students the teacher spends a great deal of her time praising them; neither weaker student receives enough praise to count" ("Student Conversations" 9). Although Freedman speaks of praise rather than expectations and confidence, one could argue that the two are likely to be found together, and the observations suggest an alarming trend. However innocently they may do so, teachers tend to discriminate against students on the basis of writing attitude and ability, bias that subsequently hurts both areas and thus is self-perpetuating.

Because person-based responders recognize this power they hold over student attitudes, and because they value process over product, grading becomes problematic. It is an issue that Leki says "is inescapable for most of us and colors all other aspects of responding appropriately and effectively to student writing" (66). More importantly, Bloom says that grading undermines good teaching and blocks student discussion (364). And Peter Elbow takes issue with the whole idea of traditional grading, calling it untrustworthy and an undermining of good learning climates. Elbow locates the problem in a "hunger to rank":

The problem, then, is not the hunger to evaluate but the hunger to rank: the hunger to evaluate in such a way that we end up with people strung along a single continuum, with every student located at a precisely quantifiable distance above or below every other student: every student should know his or her place--precisely. This is really a hunger to simplify the data, to come up with one answer, one scale, to have a horse race, to see who wins--to reduce evaluation to a question of "who's better?" rather than "who's better with respect to what?" ("Hunger to Rank" 255)

 

Elbow offers specific solutions to the dilemma, including grading using multiple observers, observing on multiple occasions, looking at different genres of work, and using multiple criteria and scales (247-248). Hirsch suggests isolating the teaching of composition from the giving of final grades altogether. Students and teachers need to be "colleagues" rather than "suspicious adversaries" (163). Such is what portfolio grading proposes to do (at the semester's end, students assemble a collection of work for final grading, often by a panel of judges), and, judging by the following comments collected by Pat Huyett from teachers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the system seems to meet with some success:

"My teaching has changed because they allow me to be their user-friendly source of writing information instead of The Evaluator. Perhaps I just give them more hope about their writing because I don't evaluate it right away."

"I'm more of a coach and less of a judge. Students do have some anxiety about grades, but they also feel as though they have more chances to 'get it right.' I don't mark papers in order to justify grades any more . . . . I try to look at their papers as a concerned reader."

"The main advantage I see is that I truly feel as if I'm teaching writing. It's gratifying to see students' work improve. Before, I felt as though I had an almost adversarial relationship with students--now I feel more as if we're in this together." (6,7,9)

 

Portfolio grading, however, is not without its own problems, and is, at best, only a stop-gap measure in the grading dilemma. Sooner or later students will be graded (and ranked) either in other classes or in the workplace. Note, however, that the words describing these teachers' responses to portfolio grading--things like "hope," "coach," "more chances to get it right," "concerned reader"--also describe person-based response, something teachers can do even if they must put a grade on every paper.

As Rosenthal's expectation theory suggests and these portfolio teachers exemplify, the final tenet of person-based response (belief in persons as process, people who can be encouraged by the expectations of teachers) suggests a perspective on the other three, and a possible starting point for a remedy to text-based comments. Perhaps, teacher expectations are the key to successful response. Perhaps, teachers who expect to see student texts rather than student meaning do, in fact, see only words on a page. Teachers in search of error rather than successes find what they seek, error-riddled papers. Teachers who view students as passive vessels into which to pour the teacher's own ideal texts find students compliant, unthinking, and unimaginative. And teachers who expect students to function as products (finished writers) rather than process (emerging writers) get what they expect: flawed products. In other words, teachers who expect students to fail at writing are rarely disappointed. By contrast, person-based responders begin where teachers like Donald Murray do, with faith: faith in student meaning, faith in student success, faith in student choice and invention, and faith in student process and progress. In short, person-based responders have the same kind of faith that accomplished writers experience every time they face a blank page or screen, a faith that something meaningful can emerge from something chaotic, a faith in the power of creation itself.

 

 

Conclusion

Perhaps, the greatest failure of text-based response is that it cannot, in the words of Murray, "give birth to live writing" ("Writing as Process" 79). Why should it? Texts do not live apart from persons. Gordon Rohman sees writing as a form of self-actualization (108), and Reed Arson demonstrates in a case study how a writer's enjoyment of her craft correlates with both invention and quality of writing. A person-based approach to response understands these connections. "Live writing" is produced by "live writers," those who write to communicate with real persons, those who, because of this, find self-fulfillment and joy in writing. It is a relationship that needs to be investigated empirically through both qualitative and quantitative studies. Also in need of more research is the relationship of the four tenets of person-based response (teachers as genuine readers, emphasis on student successes, encouragement of student voice and invention, and belief in writers in process) to each other. Are they good predictor variables of each other? Similarly, do they collectively predict student motivation? In the next two chapters, I seek to answer such questions.

On to Chapter V

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