Headings and Subheadings Activity

For one of my technical communication classes, the students are composing a grant proposal responding to the following RFP: Undergraduate Spring Research Grant Requirements

To get the students thinking about headings, subheadings, and the hierarchy of information they create, I accumulated actual headings outlined by the RFP and then made up some potential subheadings to correspond and put them into one document: Heading Exercise. I then printed this document, cut each entry out individually, mixed them up, put them all in an envelope, and then had students rearrange the headings and subheadings in a way that made sense to them. We then had a class discussion in which students were asked to justify their choices.

Of course, students were not wedded to these subheadings while writing their own grant, but the activity did serve as a springboard for thinking about hierarchical relationships between different sections and types of information.

Heading Activity

Visualizing Classical Rhetoric

I had a student ask if I could visually represent the orators/writers we’re covering for the first third of the semester for a 300-level Introduction to Rhetoric course. This is what I came up with. Very rough. Very, very rough. So rough. I think my students found it to be useful but now I’m thinking about how next semester I can really visualize the ancients in a way that will capture the “progression” without encouraging a merely linear reading.

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John Dewey, the Hipster


Perhaps it is beneficial to think in terms of the agency of Latourian “missing masses” not so much in terms of the agency things initiate upon us (thereby perpetuating a tried anthropocentrism) but in the relationships things have together outside human experience. Think of it as the Bechdel Test for non-human things. In Experience and Nature, Dewey makes it clear that we should not be so naive as to think that when we turn our back, things cease to form relationships with other things. Tools not only have relationships outside of our own, but Dewey even goes so far as to say that these relationships are primary:

A tool is a particular thing, but it is more than a particular thing, since it is a thing in which a connection, a sequential bond of nature is embodied. It possesses an objective relation as its own defining property. Its perception as well as its actual use takes the mind to other things. The spear suggests the feast not directly but through the medium of other external things, such as the game and the hunt, to which the sight of the weapon transports imagination. Man’s bias towards himself easily leads him to think of a tool solely in relation to himself, to his hand and eyes, but its primary relationship is towards other external things, as the hammer to the nail, and the plow to the soil. Only through this objective bond does it sustain relation to man himself and his activities. A tool denotes a perception and acknowledgement of sequential bonds in nature. (123)

This passage disrupts the tendency for readers of Dewey to see him as overly anthropocentric and it is actually in this passage that we can see Dewey responding to Morris Cohen’s criticism about that same topic leveled at him in Problems of Men (195-6). Dewey wants us to recognize that humans are but one bond in this long sequential series of transactions marked by continuity. Things/objects are literally “acting out” on their potentialities in the process of inquiry, and this oftentimes gets hidden behind the fact that it is happening during the act of experience. But just because a human is using a hammer and that hammer is known through experience does not mean that the hammer and the nail do not have a separate relationship when the human turns around or when they operate outside the realm of human experience.

Dewey, always a perennial champion of experience, should not be interpreted through such a delimiting lens by assuming that his philosophy focuses on the primacy of human experience.

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.

Student Apathy, Saving the Milquetoasts

Writing teachers are familiar with student apathy. Over the years, each “movement” in composition studies has had its own response to this issue: Emig and Britton asked students to engage in the expressive and poetic; Bizzell and Cooper extended the discursive acts of student writing beyond the classroom; Berlin celebrated but also lamented when students realized they were very much part of the oppressive institutions they were critiquing. In this vein, I ask: How can current writing teachers respond to supposed student apathy towards civic engagement without relying on using technological artifacts as mere “entertainment”?

In his recent TED talk titled based on his co-edited book Local Motion, Toronto-based Dave Meslin redefines political apathy not as some sort of internal syndrome, but as a complex web of technocultural barriers that actively reinforce disengagement. Barriers, Meslin suggests, that manifest through societal narratives of involuntary “heroes”; uninformative political coverage in the media; and impossible City Hall documents. If we view Meslin’s call as a challenge and not an excuse, then I contend that writing teachers can benefit from Meslin’s redefining of apathy.

I’ve been thinking about how (non-learning management system) course websites can serve an integral role in shaping a social environment aimed at overcoming barriers to engagement. In many ways, course websites can serve as the hub of a student’s understanding of a given subject: students collect resources, view content, and even contribute to this one given site.  As such, how we craft course websites could potentially re-shape student habits and associations. John Dewey, in The Public and Its Problems, shows the importance of developing habits in citizenship.

“Faculties of effectual observation, reflection and desire are habits acquired under the influence of the culture and institutions of society, not ready-made inherent powers.”

Apathy, or the lack thereof, is not an individually-based phenomenon; rather, political motivations stem from the shaping of particular kinds of environments. Course websites shape technocultural environments that value certain habits over others. These aesthetic, political, and educational spaces require a careful thinking through of design, purpose, and particularly features, all of which have ramifications in the group habits we are developing  in students. Our students are not milquetoasts, drained of all political purpose. Our students are motivated individuals whose experiences revolve around the encountering of a series of actively discouraging barriers for political engagement. I wonder if our construction of course websites, if done with Meslin’s redefinition of apathy in mind, could act as agents against these active barriers discouraging political engagement.

Dewey and Cross-Nationalism

The deep purpose of Dewey’s philosophy of education may be said to be the infusion of social meaning and relevance into the learning activity that places in school and the replacement of the individualistic and intellectualistic organization of these activities by the style of cooperative inquiry which he held to be at the heart of democratic social practice. (Olafson 185)

It is beyond ironic – it is unfortunate – that John Dewey is cast as one of the forefathers of modern American higher education and yet the practices of students in higher education today are so divorced from his original intentions. Well, for the most part.

Dewey’s idealized version of the American educational system is one that viewed higher education as a tool of transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, a tool that transmits the accumulated knowledge and skills that would allow students to actively participate in “social” life as engaging members of society. Education was about transmission of social, real-world competence.  This is why the findings of David Foster’s study comparing the roles of student writers from a cross-national perspective are so disappointing (albeit not all that surprising). Foster’s qualitative methodology (interviews, institutional analysis, discourse analysis) of comparing the roles of American and German student writers is appropriate given his goal, which is to identify the degree of agency, control, and preparation of student writers across cultures. If Dewey’s goal was to model educative practices after “real-life” social situations, and this entailed preparing students with the necessary skills that would make them capable of engaging in civic life, then Foster’s findings that the institutional (“deadline-based”) constraints of American higher-educational systems limits this degree of agency and control is indicative of how America is failing in living out Dewey’s mission (utopia?). Our institutional constraints are impeding upon the students’ ability to “unfold from within.”

That being said, Dewey did write at a time when capitalizing “Great Society” was not really that bad of a thing. His educational models, political philosophy, and system of ethics all depended upon a heightened sense of nationalism – fervent, fervent nationalism – that assumed common morals, beliefs, and goals in a unified society. Developing the aims of education is much simpler when there are more cohesive relations among citizens. Now, teachers are not teaching just Americans with goals of bettering the localized community; teachers are teaching students from South Korea, India, Egypt, and most complicated of all, Canada! These students, as shown in Erin Krampetz’s thesis “Writing Across Cultures and Contexts,” draw on different expectations of audience; Krampetz ultimately shows, also through qualitative research methods (transcripts, writing samples, interviews), that cultural factors such as background impact student writing processes the most. How can we teach writing in the Deweyan model of education when the conceptions of writing, and thus rhetoric, and thus action, is so diverse in any given classroom?

Perhaps it is the presence of multiple senses of nationalism that education functions well (?) as merely the transmission of practical skills that are oftentimes divorced from “real-world” life systems. Dewey did not think education was just the transmission of social bodies of knowledge, but that education was so interconnected to social life that they really were not separate at all – education was not preparation for life, but life itself. However, this mission becomes unlikely when the experiences and expectations of students are so diverse so as to render betterment of social communities non sequitur. Perhaps a study like this would allow international students break free from the iron cage.

Works Cited

Olafson, Frederick A. “The School and Society: Reflections on John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education.” New Studies in the Philosophy of John Dewey. Ed. Steven M. Cahn. Hanover, NH: The University Press of New England, 1977. Print.