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.