A Reflection of Semester one, MATW:

where I have been and where I am going...

By Sarah Spears 

For Dr. Stacey's English 600 Class, Fall 2007 


Pope Forum

Ecocriticism Forum

Bazerman Forum

Journal Entries



    Contrary to most students in the MATW program, this is my first experience in an English department. That being said, I have found many of the ideas tossed around in class beyond my scope of knowledge. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, I walk down the halls of Founders smiling glibly at the passers-by. I have a purpose and that purpose involves teaching. It wasn’t always my goal in life, being a teacher. But after four years spent in a Journalism department, writing wasn’t as important, or as fulfilling, as teaching. Five years in public junior high schools and still in love with my job, I opted to pursue my MA in preparation to teach at the junior college level. Yes, I am following in my father’s footsteps, and it is no accident. I saw first hand, sitting in a desk beside his students, what it meant to be a teacher and the sheer joy that comes out of the experience.
Being at Humboldt, sitting in classes with students obviously excited about the prospect of their own classroom, I am carried forward on my mission. Only one semester down and already I have learned things I will take back to the classroom. From one class to another, knowledge is a shared experience.
    English 600 is a reality check. Fledgling teachers, we sit behind computer screens and listen to the woes of an undercut, under-staffed, and under-privileged composition department. Fortunately, with sarcasm, come bouts of laugher and release as we all struggle to familiarize ourselves with a discipline that goes under-appreciated. Rob Pope’s English Studies book proves to be a comprehensive guide to the study of English and the theories that follow along. I must admit, much, if not all, of what I read was news to me. Sure, I had heard of many of the “-isms” discussed but not necessarily what they meant. Reading Pope scared me at first. There is simply no way I can know everything that is on the pages of this book. But then I began to look at this book as a resource. Something that I can refer back to when I need clarity or a reminder, English Studies serves as an encyclopedia of sorts, helping to ground me in my studies.
    More accessible is Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition. Reading the short essays and stories of these teachers and researchers comforted me. Discussing the reality composition teachers face, we as graduate students can better situate ourselves in our discipline. Unlike many, I am not turned off by the articles, not even the obviously ego crushing, gender-biased rants. I’d rather know as much about what’s out there as possible in an effort to harden myself a bit to the blow of being a composition teacher. Richard C. Gebhardt does a very nice job of introducing publishing and the notion of teacher-scholar and scholar-teacher. Reading his article "Scholarship and Teaching: Motives and Strategies for Writing Articles in Composition Studies"  made me realize I am a teacher-scholar. When I publish, it will be about my direct experience in the classroom because being in the classroom is more important than researching. My articles will find relevance for teachers in a variety of levels. Like Gebhardt says, “indeed; composition studies can be viewed as a K-16 enterprise” (40). Though I see teaching as my calling in life, reading Gebhardt's article solidified my understanding of research and published work as a continuum of teaching.
    The discussion forums we’ve had have forced me to organize and focus my thoughts and really think about the ideas being shared in our readings and what they mean to the study and teaching of composition.  One of our first entries was a response to Pope. We were asked to spend about 20 minutes writing quick responses to the bulleted questions about what we do in English Studies (p. 29 of ESB). This first response was very difficult for me. I had really no idea what was expected and I panicked about what to write. Thankfully, once I read a few other responses, I began to see where I fit in and what I might want to say. But still, some of the responses I didn’t fully comprehend, and this made me feel uncomfortable in my position; it made me feel like I didn't belong in such a program. I did end up writing something, however; and what follows is a little sample from that entry:

...English departments are beginning to de-segregate themselves realizing their obvious relationship with and reliance on other subjects (i.e. history, science, social science, philosophy, etc.). Extending the parameters of English as a subject leaves many questioning its identity and its future. Where will the English department be in ten years or twenty-five years? Will it be the “Englishes Department” or better yet “Multicultural English”? The point is, there may be no defining the know-whats (content, substance, techniques). As Pope postulates, “In fact, paradigm shifts appear to be fundamental to the continuous reconstruction of all subjects…” (33). Does this mean we are heading down an inevitable path of more overlapping between all subjects? And if so, is this overlap unavoidable or a conscious effort among schooled professionals?

Much of my entry dealt with what I know, teaching. But here, I branch off and try to converse with the text itself. Looking back on this, I am not disappointed in my entry. The entry demonstrates my longing to understand just what is happening to English and what it means for those of us with positions in an English department. Actually, it makes me see a connection between something I wrote about here, interdisciplinary classes, and a possible project proposal.
    Since day one, we have been pressured to come up with a thesis topic. Many students are drawing on topics they are covering in classes this semester. I am not sure, however, that I feel strongly enough about my 611 paper to expand it into a thesis. But after speaking to Erin Sullivan, she turned me on to the idea of interdisciplinary classes, in particular, one she is teaching this Fall as a pilot. She is looking for someone to do a project on this class and I am looking for a project idea. Now that I look back on my first Pope entry, I see that perhaps writing about English overlapping with other subject areas isn’t such a bad idea. I can see how much of what we’ve talked about and read in this class deals with English no longer being purely “English.” What I mean to say is there is much more taught in English classes today than purely literature. And as for composition classes, many teachers draw on other subjects to better balance out their curriculum.  I can already recognize how the readings we have done in this class and others have opened up possibilities for more interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and I can see myself using some of these approaches in my classroom.
    One of our more recent entries that I included in my website is our group dialogue about eco-criticism. This semester is my first introduction to this term and being in Corey Lewis’s class has given me a little background on it and its relevance to reading and teaching literature. However, I notice when reading back over my entry, that I don’t engage Pope or my classmates in dialogue using my own ideas, but rather, I use the ideas of others to help position myself in the discussion. For example, this is an excerpt from my entry. 

Those that live in Hunter's Point and Richmond are not the ones that created the environment around them, yet it is affecting their every day life. In an article called "A Shot in the Arm for African Ecocriticism, Evan Mwangi says, "In the West, eco-criticism focuses mainly on the 19th century literature which celebrated nature and wildness. In Africa, it would be more energetic because most of the literature has a rural setting or a degenerate urban background that expresses a longing for the lost rural peace." Are those living in neighborhoods damaged by the onslaught of industry and pollution desperately longing for "rural peace?" Like Mike said, in the west, we are more concerned with "nature" and "wilderness" and trekking into the wilderness to do our part to save something we value.

Because I am not versed in these theories and ways of reading text,  I do not feel confident enough developing my own response. Right now, I am reliant upon expert opinions. I do feel uneasy about this, but I see this as my introduction into the program. This is my first time grappling with these topics, and as a newcomer, I am not confident nor competent enough to enter the conversation without the help of others. 

    The notion of our ideas coming from others brings me to the next addition to my website, my essay for 611. Struggling almost to the point of rebellion, I finally began to see some significance in the theorists Lev Vygotsky and Mikhail Bakhtin. Never having been introduced to them, or any other theorists for that matter, I found the learning curve quite steep. I chose to write my paper about feminist pedagogy, Vygotsky, and Paulo Freire.  I believe there is a lot of truth to Vygotsky's ideas about the social nature of language. There is also a lot of truth behind increasing a student's intellectual development in a Zone of Proximal Development. His ideas compliment those attributed to feminist pedagogy. Being my first seminar paper ever, I fought over the direction in which to take. But like our writing in this class, it has been a learning experience. And I can honestly say that as the semester progressed, I began to see direct connections between all of my coursework. I find this significant. If we are being groomed to teach composition, all of our classes should overlap in one way or another. For instance, we discussed topics in my 611 essay in my Education 583 class. And we’ve discussed these same theorists in 600. I was even able to use what little I’ve learned about feminism in my Pope entry about what suggestions we could give him on his Feminism section. I believe if we are to be successful, we must take all that we are learning and fit it together somehow in an effort to form our own overarching philosophy about teaching writing.
    This brings me to the Charles Bazerman article, "What Written Knowledge Does," followed by the Kenneth Bruffee article, "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind.'" I think both of these are significant in the arena of knowledge and teaching. I struggled with the Bazerman article. But what I came away with is a sense of the importance of writing as a conduit of knowledge. Writing is not only a way for someone to demonstrate their understanding of a concept but it is also a way for them to draw a larger audience. And, depending on the subject matter, a certain rhetorical approach is taken that people understand is specific to a particular area of study. Bazerman made me realize that we rarely write for ourselves. Even when we think we are writing for ourselves, the idea of audience is always in the back of our head, and this idea is what directs our writing. In our Bazerman forum, I wrote the following: 

At the same time, I agree with Jimmy in that we, as graduate students, do not feel confident enough in the subject areas in which we are writing to be as assertive as others who have been ‘part of the conversation’ for years. We have yet to make a name for ourselves and are therefore reliant more on expert opinions than our own. As Jon said, many of the concepts he read in Norton he took as fact and I think many of us do the same with all sorts of academic writing. We base our opinions on the author’s ability to persuade us, on how strong the argument is that they are making, on their name, and on the credibility of the source (i.e. Norton).

In this first year of study in the MATW program, I plan on becoming more confident in the area of writing and in the study of composition to a point where I feel I can productively add to the conversation.

    I found Kenneth Bruffee's article more accessible and practical. I also very much agree with the idea of collaboration. For one, it follows the same thought process as feminist pedagogy, a topic I spent a lot of time researching and writing about for my 611 paper. In order for collaboration to work, there has to be a spreading out of knowledge. The teacher can no longer be seen as the only authority in the classroom because a collaborative model looks to each individual for knowledge. Speaking from a student’s perspective, working in groups is a lot of the time just as effective, if not more effective, than working by oneself or with the help of the teacher. Bruffee brings up a good point, one that connects directly back to Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development.

The inference writing teachers should make from this line of reasoning is that our task must involve engaging students in conversation among themselves at as many points in both the writing and the reading process as possible, and that we should contrive to ensure that students’ conversation about what they read and write is similar in as many ways as possible to the way we would like them eventually to read and write. The way they talk with each other determines the way they will think and the way they will write. (Bruffee 89) 

Obviously, the way we do this is to have our students work collaboratively. Vygotsky argues that people learn best in what’s termed a Zone of Proximal Development. Students are able to learn from other more capable peers thereby increasing their own intelligence. If language is social, so is learning, and so is writing. There is no reason to separate education from our social reality. By making classrooms social and collaborative, we are giving our students the opportunity to learn in as natural an environment as possible.
    Keeping that in mind, I see the significance both collaborative learning and interdisciplinary classrooms can have on our teaching. I can also see myself exploring these topics further in my master’s project. This semester has proved a success. Having been outside the world of academia for years and never truly believing myself an academic, I wasn't sure what to expect. But I do see the purpose in learning about writing and in continuing to discuss teaching with teachers and scholars alike.  I want to walk back into my classroom versed enough in the theory behind my practices that I don’t get quite as frustrated or caught off guard when something doesn’t work or someone criticizes my methods. I don’t pretend to be the next Paulo Freire, but I do plan on having a positive impact on the writing of my students.

“Master your instrument, Master the music, and then forget all that *!xy!@ and just play.”



Project Proposal 

 Bazerman Meets Bruffee 

 611 Seminar Paper

Annotated Bibliography