Writing Students as Flattened, Non-Enriched Soil

To say that metaphors are a dominant trope in reflections on teaching practice is a rather sizable understatement.

In his 1989 article, “Bridging the Gaps: Understanding Our Students’ Metaphors for Composing,” Lad Tobin relays an excerpt from an interview of a student who viewed the writing process through a slightly different metaphorical lens than did Tobin:

You see, that’s the whole problem. Writing is a lasagna to me. There are layers and you have to put them together carefully and then you are done. But you keep saying that I have to narrow my focus. You are trying to turn my lasagna into a meat loaf and I don’t like meat loaf. (455, emphasis added)

Tobin’s anecdote, while humorous, illuminates an important point: many of the conflicts we have with our students on a pedagogical level can not only be addressed through explicit discussions of metaphor but are direct causes of dissonance between the metaphors we have and the metaphors our students have. And while English educators as a whole have addressed metaphor thoroughly (see Bowden; Cooper; Faigley; Fleckenstein; Mead and Morris; Reynolds; Smith; Tobin) in many ways pertaining to teaching roles and methods, one way that is lacking is in what Tobin refers to as “bridging the gaps”: assessing, analyzing, and teaching students how to be critical users of metaphor to see how theirs match up with ours.

The consistent, explicit integration of metaphor into my own teaching practices stems from a frustrating trend in the literature of composition pedagogy to be teacher-centric in its discussions of metaphor. Most thoughtful, reflective instructors are quickly able to respond to the question, “What metaphor guides your teaching?” but are perhaps, in my estimation, less likely to have a quick response to the question, “What metaphors do your students subscribe to when writing?”, or even, “How do students challenge or respond to the resulting metaphors of your choosing?” Tobin’s comic relief above relays the reality that the metaphors students have for writing, and education broadly, differ at times fundamentally from the ones we use to teach.

We are accustomed to thinking about our own metaphors for our teaching selves; however, each metaphor we conceive of ourselves as embodying necessarily places students in their own position (if I am a cultivator then my students necessarily take the form of flattened, non-enriched soil, and so on). Metaphor is a powerful tool, as we have collectively acknowledged. As such, we should be more explicit in the ways we get students to hone this tool.

2 thoughts on “Writing Students as Flattened, Non-Enriched Soil”

  1. prichards,
    thank you for this. thank you for caring enough to work in & perpetuate a pragmatic approach that truly cares about students and their writing. hopefully we can engender more severe directions toward such paradigms.

    also, how about paradox? or is this too much? for upper level undergrads & grads i’m certain it could be fruitful. to me, paradox is the natural, next level beyond metaphor. neurosciences have shown that our brains/minds work naturally with metaphor but for those who care to move on, i feel strongly that paradox is the organic heir apparent for next levels. and why is so little coverage given to paradox among the literature? cf. William Perry’s cognitive development scale for college students, as it shows cognitively how we move up progressively into more and more complex, rich, arenas. but i really don’t get the dearth of paradox as a serious point of discussion and/or research. it seems to me to be a wonderfully constructive and naturally useful tool for higher levels of writing (& literacies/rhetoric of all sorts, of course).

    1. Jeff,
      I definitely agree that paradox is the next level up from metaphor in terms of cognitive exercises. I enjoy that that their purposes are starkly different, though. That is, with metaphor, students are capable of altering beliefs, perceptions, and ultimately actions (according to Lakoff and Johnson). Metaphor intersects at the point of convergence of cognitivism and the social. As for paradox, are there any social, physical benefits to engaging in such thought exercises? Does negotiation of paradox lead to much more? What does it lead to, beyond developing (or trailblazing) useful cognitive pathways?

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