Poetry and Progress

So I’ve been doing this Mellon fellowship where I’m working with a local two year college. I spent some time this past Friday working with my mentor teacher, Mike, getting involved in his classes, mid-term progress meetings with students, and even getting to attend a departmental meeting. A few experiences this day really made me start to see some key differences between the students I teach at a top research institution and the students at this community college. What struck me about these students, in general, was how willing they were to take the time to set themselves, and each other, up for success, even if (or maybe because) they didn’t believe in themselves.

During the mid-term reviews for Mike’s pre-college level writing course, I was amazed how many students, given the option to skip a class and move ahead more quickly through their required writing coursework (based on their current performance), chose to take the slow approach and move ahead to the next level. The fact that these students 1) recognized the benefits they were getting from a slow and comprehensive introduction to composition and 2) wanted to stay with this approach as opposed to speed through required coursework as quickly as possible struck me as mature, deliberate, and free of ego. Four students were performing well enough to skip a class; all four rejected that offer. All of these students were taken aback by the praise and success they were receiving.

Thinking about my own students, I can’t say as many would recognize the long-term benefits of being patient with coursework. I can think of a handful of students who would have absolutely made the same choice, but most would not. My students are some of the highest performers in the state; most have been top performers their entire academic lives, and this can sometimes bring with it an “I already know how to write” attitude. For other students, they’re hyper-focused on getting ahead in their desired majors and don’t want to waste time, or credits, on classes not directly related to their chosen degree. Yet for others, with the time and money they are spending on their education, they would simply rather be taking something they’re interested in as opposed to something required of them. Granted, by the time students get to the portfolio, most often realize the value of a college-level composition class. But given the option to skip over a writing requirement (even after such an experience), I believe there aren’t many who would pass up that opportunity. But Mike’s students, even when told they have the skill and ability to skip ahead a level, want to keep chipping away at their foundational writing skills. The foresight shown by such a decision is something I think, in many ways, can give community college students an advantage over students like my own; instead of thinking in the short term, they’re thinking about the long term benefits of their education.

Another thing that struck me this day was the vulnerability and support shown by Mike’s poetry students. They were working in small groups (3 people) workshopping their Hurts-So-Good poems, a poem in which the student confronts the topic they least want to write about. As expected, this assignment asks students to be quite vulnerable with and respectful of one another as many choose to confront issues such as rape or abuse. I spent the first 10-15 minutes floating around the room, just taking in both students’ poetry and the conversations they were having with one another about their work. One group of young women invited me to join their group and give feedback on their poems. Again, I was struck with a realization about these students — they has such a desire to help one another, to build one another up, as writers, as students, as people. They were critical of each others’ poems as writers, but each piece of feedback was delivered with careful attention and framing. They were genuinely invested in helping each other get better; they were open and eager to not only receive feedback, but to give feedback as well. The buzz around the room in general, both what I heard before I sat in with this particular group and the continued energy and conversations I caught snippets of while working with these ladies, suggested that this was not unique to this particular group.

While I’ve absolutely witnessed these types of conversations and dispositions in my classroom, but I can’t say every student is as willing to be as open to, as vulnerable with, and as invested in each other as Mike’s poetry students. Now, of course I have to acknowledge that, since this is an elective and not a required course, everyone in the class wants to be there (at least in theory). It would be foolish not to consider this as a contributing factor. But I also can’t help but think that the same maturity and purposefulness that motivated Mike’s ENGL 097 students to want to take the slow and steady path also motivates his poetry students to take the time and energy to build up each other as writers, students, and people. Additionally, since these students may not be used to being top performers or having strong educational support systems prior to college, they recognize the value of having someone in your corner believing in you.

When thinking about what two year schools and tier one research institutions can learn from each other, I think Mike’s students demonstrate foresight and a commitment to building a classroom community that 1) may not be inherently valuable or favorable to students like my own and 2) teachers at institutions like mine should (and do, to be fair) deliberately work to foster within our own classrooms, departments, and campuses. I’m not sure exactly where to go beyond these initial thoughts, but I wanted to take a moment and reflect while the experience was still fresh.

Response: “Composition and the Circulation of Writing” by John Trimbur

I like that this article is predicated on the idea that the current composition models in schools doesn’t necessarily serve how we want our students to think about and engage in writing. I’m not sure Trimbur really gets to any real conclusions in order to help mitigate this, but his insistence on including how writing circulates into the composition process is important. It’s a clear call to prioritize delivery.

Notes and reactions:
“My point here does not have to do with what amounts to a fair policy on late papers but rather with what is contained in my usual response or, better put, what is silenced when I say ‘I don’t want to hear it.’…If my response is a typical one-and I believe it is reasonable to think so- then we might stop to consider what is at stake and the extent to which such pedagogical practices erase the materiality of writing. To say, as I have, ‘I just want the paper,’ suggests that the student’s words alone are what count and to identify writing with the creative moment of composing, thereby isolating an education in writing from the means of production and delivery.” – 189
This is problematic. I think back to my own composition instruction, and there have been countless moments where I’ve uttered this response. Granted, working with high schoolers, deadlines were more so a function to teach responsibility, accountability, and time management: life skills many students, sadly, do not receive at home. But the side effects of such an imposition on the writing process are profound. It pulls focus to the content of the piece and hides questions and concerns of production.
One contention I have with how Trimbur frames this, however, is that he separates production from delivery in this statement. I don’t see delivery as being different from production in such a way. Questions of production often become concerns of delivery. This isn’t to say that every question related to production is in the realm of delivery; rather, delivery is a central concern in any rhetorical consideration, and many questions of production are questions about delivery. In other words, inherent in any concerns of delivery are questions about production.

“the isolation results in part from the pressures and limits of classroom life and the overdetermined social relations between teachers and students. But there is also a conceptual separation of the canons of rhetoric operating in writing instruction that has isolated delivery (and memory, as well) from invention, arrangement, and style.” – 189
This is something I will have to look into deeper. Part of my thesis will be to look back at historic understandings and portrayals of delivery. No doubt this canonical separation has affected an understanding of what it is to compose. I think part of my work will be to show how there is a give and take between the canons, a flow, a symbiosis, that is centered around delivery.

“By privileging composing as the main site of instruction, the teaching of writing has taken up what Karl Marx calls a ‘one-sided’ view of production and thereby has largely erased the cycle that links the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of writing. This cycle of interlocked moments is what Marx calls circulation.” – 190
Trimbur uses circulation and delivery interchangeably in his article, and this is the excerpt to best support his reasoning. I personally think they cannot be used interchangeably, because circulation is simply one aspect of delivery. That being said, concerns of circulation ARE concerns of delivery, so I understand Trimbur’s choice. However, I would caution against using these terms interchangeably outside the context of this paper because delivery is concerned with more than just circulation.

“In writing instruction, however, delivery has been an afterthought at best, assigned mainly to technical and professional communication and associated largely with such matters of document design as page layout, typography, visual display of information, and Web design. Delivery, that is, appears for the most part to be a technical issue about physical presentation whether in oral, print, or electronic forms.” – 190
So here we have a second concern of delivery. Traditionally, delivery is concerned with “physical presentation.” Add to this circulation/distribution, and we already can see how delivery touches a vast majority of the composition process.

“Public forums are diffuse, fragmented, and geographically separated. Speech is both literally and metaphorically broadcast through expanded means of communication. To my mind, delivery can no longer be thought of simply as a technical aspect of public discourse. It must be seen also as ethical and political-a democratic aspiration to devise delivery systems that circulate ideas, information, opinions, and knowledge and hereby expand the public forums in which people
can deliberate on the issues of the day” – 190
This could be helpful in my thesis. If we look at the content/information itself as being primarily concerned with logos, than it’s through delivery that ethos and pathos are mitigated. The same content can be delivered in multiple ways, and how that content is delivered is shaped by ethical and emotional appeals. More so, these appeals are dictated largely by the audience in question, which complicates the equation further.

“My argument is that with the democratic evolutions of the modern age, delivery must be seen as inseparable from the circulation of writing and the widening diffusion of socially useful knowledge” – 191
Agreed.

“While these kinds of assignments do begin to address the problem of circulation in interesting ways, they depend nonetheless on a dichotomy between schooled and “real” writing that rejects
the private space of the classroom/home in the name of an unproblematical, immediately available public writing…Moreover, counterposing the ‘real world’ to the classroom draws upon a gendered separation of spheres that fails to see how the public and private merge in the domestic space of the middle-class family.” – 195
This is in response to “real world” writing assignments. While the family metaphor feels a bit much to me in this essay, what this quote does highlight is the merging of public and private space, which goes well beyond middle-class families. Given current technological conditions, I would argue that the lines between public and private space have blurred, problematizing these categorizations in ways previously impossible. For example, from the privacy of one’s own home, an individual can engage with social networking; this brings the public sphere into the home. Conversely, technology with app integrations allows for an individual to interact with elements of his or her home (lights, thermostat, even deadbolts) using a smartphone from anywhere in the world, granting control of the domestic even when working within the private sphere. With the boundaries complicated as such, the idea of writing as either a private OR public activity is antiquated. Instead, we need an understanding of texts that focuses on its dual nature of being both public and private at once. What does this mean for “school” and “real world” writing?

“The problem remains: how to imagine writing as more than just the moment of production when meaning gets made. How can we see writing as it circulates through linked moments of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption?” – 196
Composing with delivery in mind forces the composer to engage in the process of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption.

“By Johnson’s account, the notion of circulation enables us to see how cultural products pass through a range of meanings and uses as they are taken up at various points in the social
formation.” – 196
And this range of meanings should be anticipated, to a degree, by the composer. This echoes what DeVoss and Ridolfo dub “Rhetorical Velocity.”

“Imagining cultural forms and products circulating through a continuous cycle of relatively autonomous but interlocked moments has some important consequences. For one thing, it enables Johnson to challenge the assumption that the meaning of a message or cultural product can be inferred directly and unproblematically from either its moment of production or its textual manifestation without taking into account the conditions of circulation… And it also calls into question the tendency inherited from literary studies to constitute cultural forms and products simply as “texts” that can be analyzed, critiqued, and demystified by the expert readings of specialist critics” – 197
I agree with the first part of this statement: the meaning of a text cannot be inferred simply from the product itself. The process of meaning-making must account for conditions of not only circulation but composition as well. Meaning is not isolated within the text itself (like the new critics believed). It is a complex process that involves a wide variety of considerations. However, I do think all cultural forms and products are texts that can be analyzed and critiqued (though not necessarily demystified). Now, this analysis doesn’t have to be done by an expert; in fact, the one of the primary aims of education should be teaching people how to read and analyze all forms of text because this is essential to navigate daily life. But everything we are surrounded by communicates a message, thus it is a text in some form.

“My point is that by fixating at one moment on the circulation of cultural forms-by imagining culture to be a ‘text’ capable of being read-cultural studies writing assignments and classroom practices once again (and in loco parentis) called on the active meaning-making student to
give an interpretive account.” – 199
Yes, but interpretation is imperative to how we understand the world. Period. We should be calling upon students to make meaning in their interpretations, but this action hardly fixates on one moment. On the contrary, in order to make meaning, in order to interpret, one must engage in an endless series of moments that begins before the textual product itself ever comes into existence, and once it does, extends infinitely into the future, growing and changing in time.

“By assigning all the agency to the audience, the ‘new revisionists’ have made it virtually impossible to mount any kind of critique of the media-to ask, for instance, how corporate control of the means of communication promotes certain cultural forms and marginalizes others, not to mention how the ‘active audience’ itself is packaged and sold as a commodity (the ‘market share’
of viewers) to advertisers. The problem is not just that the ‘new revisionists’ have overemphasized the agency of the audience and popular practices of consumption. In effect, by doing so, they have severed the relation between production and consumption altogether, viewing the use of cultural norms and products in isolation from the social conditions that formed them” – 201
Yes, this does highlight the danger of assigning all agency to the audience. What needs to be addressed is how the audience’s agency changes. It’s clearly not the same for every text, and I would assume that form, mode, and temporalities govern the degree of agency for a given audience.

“In his formulation, the ‘active audience’ is not always ‘right’ or ‘in control.’ Instead, for Hall, viewers’ responses are open but not indeterminate, bounded by the pressures and limits of messages encoded at the point of production according to the prevailing ‘knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, historically defined technical skills, professional ideologies, institutional knowledge, definitions and assumptions, assumptions about the audience and so on’ (“Encoding” 129). Hall hypothesizes three by now familiar positions viewers take as they respond to encoded messages: a dominant-hegemonic position from which the viewer ‘is operating inside the dominant code’ (“Encoding” 136); a negotiated position from which decoding ‘contains a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements’ (“Encoding” 137); and finally an oppositional position from which decoding ‘detotalizes the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference’ (“Encod-
ing” 138). – 202
This could be very useful, particularly in determining the extent of an audience’s agency. Add this to the reading list.

“One of the striking features of Hall’s encoding/decoding model is how it seeks to represent the receiver as an active agent without giving up on the effectivity of ideology in the process of communication” – 202
See comment above. Also could be useful for navigating the relationship between audience, author, and text.

“But, for Hall, as well as Berlin, the literary legacy of cultural studies and its residual textualism continue to weigh heavily on their work, and the acts of encoding and decoding, writing and reading, production and consumption remain the privileged moments of analysis without adequate attention to the systems through which cultural products and media messages circulate or the transformations they thereby undergo.” – 203
Yes, there is a lack of adequate attention paid to delivery systems, but this isn’t because of textualism. The text still must remain central because communication happens through the text. We need to incorporate into our understanding of how a text is composed and functions concerns of how it is delivered and how delivery impacts the composition and function.

“Marx wanted to explain the various moments in the circulation of commodities- the cycle of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption-not as a series of separate events taking place in a predetermined order over time but dialectically, as mediations in mutual and coterminous relations that constitute the capitalist mode of production as a total system.” – 206
Note this. A dialectic approach may be helpful to include in my work.

“The process of production determines- and distributes-a hierarchy of knowledge and information that is tied to the cultural authorization of expertise, professionalism, and respectability” – 210
Nice little soundbite. Don’t know if I’ll use it, but I want it here just incase.

Quotes taken from:
Trimbur, John. “Composition and the Circulation of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 52.2 (2000): 188-219. JSTOR. Web. 30 July 2013.

Further reading from this article (citations copied from article as is):
Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” Culture, Media, Language. Ed. Stuart Hall et al. London: Hutchinson, 1980. 128-38.