The Restaurant Review

Reflections on a Semester of Educational Cuisine  

 
Links to the Delicious Dishes Featured in this Review:
 

Fillet of Trope

  

Improvisational Sashimi

 

Gumbo a la Coltrane

 

Pedagogical Dinner Salad

 

A
  Reflective Essay

 

            Hello, all you gorgeous gastronomes! I’m back with another mouth-watering review, so prepare your palate, get your gut gurgling, and fire up your imagination, because it is going to be a bumpy ride! My goal today is to whet your appetite for something with a little bit more staying power than your average hamburger: knowledge. That’s right, your favorite restaurant reviewer is about to take you on a rollercoaster ride deep into the dense and flavorful mental territory of English 612, courtesy of the wise faculty at Humboldt State University and the delightful staff at Chez Erin. If you are lucky, you might even make it back out alive. Fasten your belts!

            Over the course of the Spring 2008 semester, the two pedagogical concepts that resonated the most for me on a personal and academic level were collaborative learning and improvisation. Before enrolling in English 612, my knowledge of collaborative pedagogy was limited to a vague appreciation of Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, and my understanding of improvisation was too deeply intertwined with memories of community theatre and youth acting workshops to be useful within the wider scope of higher education. As the weeks progressed, however, and February slowly bled into March, which then proceeded to flood right through April and into May, I began to understand, recognize, and embrace collaboration and improvisation within the classroom to a degree that I had not previously. Interestingly, like many other life epiphanies, this one started with music.

            In this particular case, when I say music, I am actually referring more specifically to jazz, a seemingly incongruous study topic for a graduate-level English course. When jazz is understood as an ideal example of collaborative creativity and improvisational conversation, however, its inclusion in a class devoted to composition pedagogy begins to make sense. A piece of jazz music, such as the ones assigned in English 612 throughout the semester, functions as a transparent audio representation of the process of collaboration and improvisation within writing, and as such can be utilized as an inspirational and educational soundtrack for radical pedagogy. For me personally, as both a student and a beginning instructor, it was not until I accepted and analyzed the flowing, interactive, constructivist qualities of jazz that I was able to truly embrace the tenets of collaborative and improvisational writing pedagogy.

            This semester-long intellectual progression from uninterested skeptic to intensely involved theoretical practitioner can be seen in a brief overview of my writings from English 612. Although I did not compose any major bodies of work during the Spring 2008 semester, I can easily point to a myriad of informal written pieces (primarily responses to the various semester readings) that highlight my budding understanding of, and appreciation for, collaboration and improvisation. At this particular moment, I will limit myself to discussing only four of them. Many of the group projects that I have participated in reflect my interest in collaborative and improvisational learning as well, and will be mentioned at a later point in this reflection. I know you wouldn’t want me to get ahead of myself.

            The first dish that I will be reflecting on for you today, my delightful little academic gourmands, is a tasty and tender Fillet of Trope in a tangy Balsamic Reduction. For those less imaginative intellectuals who actually want the factual details, the Fillet of Trope is a blog entry that I posted early in the semester in response to Michael Jarrett’s Drifting on a Read. In the piece, I muse over Jarrett’s discussion of “troping,” a jazz method in which the creative process takes place via a series of collaborative and improvisational reworkings, reconfigurings, and reimaginings of existing material. Although I stop short of actually applying this concept to the writing classroom in any but the broadest terms, it is clear from my commentary on – and synopses of – Jarrett’s discussion that my interest has been aroused. This piece, while short, topical, and far more akin to a chapter review than an actual essay, is my first attempt to grapple with and understand collaboration and improvisational pedagogy through the lens of jazz music.

            The second academically epicurean treat that I want to reflect on for you, my hungry readers, is the Improvisational Sashimi Platter. Another blog, this time in response to R. Keith Sawyer’s “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation,” the Improvisational Sashimi Platter is an excellent illustration of my growing dedication to the interwoven concepts of collaboration and improvisational pedagogy. Sawyer’s article, which contains a usefully applicable description of the pros and cons of the growing improvisational trend, also provides an accessible pedagogical framework within which I was able to explore my own interpretations of his main points. Although the blog entry is, as the genre predicts, informal, it is more intellectually involved than the previously mentioned Fillet of Trope, and demonstrates my visibly increasing commitment to the exploration of collaboration and improvisational instruction. Collaborative improvisation, like a fresh and artistic Sashimi Platter, is unpredictable, but almost always tasty.

            Now, before I go any further, please go ahead and take a moment to order yourself a bread basket and a beverage, because I smell gumbo, and it promises to be spicy! The third piece to go under the reflective lens today is Gumbo a la Coltrane, a two-page paper written in early April in response to David Borgo’s “The Play of Meaning and the Meaning of Play in Jazz.” In this essay, I analyze and contemplate Borgo’s discussion of creativity, reinvention, collaboration, and improvisation, stretching his exploration of developmental theory and jazz until it encompasses the fields of composition and rhetoric as well as music. In the course of making connections between jazz theory and writing pedagogy, my own knowledge of collaboration and improvisation expanded to include such concepts as cross-domain mapping, and this heightened understanding is demonstrated, albeit briefly, in this little gumbo pot of an essay. Are your mouths watering yet?

            The final main dish that I have chosen for this reflection is simple, hodgepodge, unassuming, and fresh: the Loose Leaf Pedagogical Dinner Salad, a specialty at Chez Erin. This roughage-packed gastronomic wonder, drafted for English 612 right before the end-of-term essay assignment was altered, is actually the very early two-page incarnation of what will one day be a full-length academic article entitled “Workin’ It: Collaborative Learning and Improvisational Pedagogy in the Writer’s Workshop.” In this piece, my fascination with collaboration and improvisation is expressed not in response to the writings of another, but as a thesis for my own work within the area of writing workshop pedagogy. At the moment, it is still in its salad stages, unfinished and redundant; it is interesting, however, because it is a key example of the ways in which my interest in collaborative learning and improvisation has grown and developed throughout the semester, culminating in my own attempt to address the topic.

            Now, my rapacious yet discriminating gourmets, am I correct in remembering an earlier promise to discuss collaboration and improvisation in relation to other English 612 projects? I thought so! Although only one of the group projects undertaken by my classroom cohort during the Spring 2008 semester was officially collaborative, certain online undertakings, such as NiceNet participation and blog-posting, are undeniably conversational in nature. And besides, what is a good main course without some accompaniment? Gaston!

            I will start by guiding you briefly through the Cheese Course, my discretely salivating readers, a delightfully edible academic experience more commonly referred to as NiceNet. Within the English 612 section of this online forum, I was able to not only post my reactions to various listening assignments, but also read and respond to the thoughts posted by my classmates. This semi-interactive arena of improvisational internet conversation provided an vehicle through which I, along with the other students from the course, could participate in a collaborative online Zone of Proximal Development. Although the first required post seemed, to put it bluntly, like a waste of time, only a few weeks had passed before I was logging in eagerly, curious to find out what new insight I would glean from the posts of my more musically knowledgeable peers. I must admit that I was disappointed when the class stopped utilizing this forum.

            Oh, but I am neglecting your needs, my lovable little foodies! Cheese without wine is like laughter without happiness, so lets bring out the Wine List, also known as Discombobulated Musings, my academic blog. Blogging, with its focus on multimodal hypertextuality and reader commentary, provides an opportunity for collaborative conversation and freely improvised “riffing” that is even more accessible and enjoyable than most standard online forums, and the blogs produced by English 612 students provide the proof. Although regular weekly postings began to dwindle off sometime mid-semester, I would argue that the strongest intellectual work of the term was presented in blog-form. Yummy stuff.

            What could possibly be left to indulge in after a meal like this one? Well, all you Ladies Who Lunch and Dudes Who Dine, a little bird recently told me that Chez Erin serves amazing deserts, and after further investigation, I concluded that that little bird really knew his stuff! Desert Menu, please!

            It is here, in the realm of cheesecakes, trifles, chocolates, and brules, that the most collaborative project of the semester, the group VoiceThread, can be found. VoiceThread, an online collaborative forum supporting pictures, photographs, text commentary, voice recordings, and video footage, provided the English 612 cohort with the opportunity to create a group project in which we joined our voices (both spoken and written) in an interactive conversation about the course itself. Although the actual postings were done individually and privately, we were conscious of the necessity of furthering a cohesive and multi-voiced dialogue and interacting positively with our peers’ contributions, a consciousness that led us to improvise collaboratively as well as plan individually. Interestingly, the most vibrantly charged – and sometimes confrontational – collaborative moments took place not on the VoiceThread website, but in the classroom prior to the actual online work.

            Collaboration and improvisational pedagogy have composed the thematic core of my experience in English 612 this semester, and this reality is visible in the sampling of works that I have reflected on within this piece. From the Fillet of Trope, in which I grapple with the then-new concept of collaborative jazz and improvisation as something applicable to writing, through my exploration of Sawyer in Improvisational Sashimi and Borgo in Gumbo a la Coltrane, up to the Pedagogical Dinner Salad, in which I attempt to add my own voice to the academic conversation currently taking place around collaborative learning and improvisational pedagogy, my budding and rapidly-growing interest in the topic is obvious. Other projects, such as those reflected on in my discussion of the Cheese Course (NiceNet), the Wine List (blog), and the Desert Menu (VoiceThread), highlight collaborative and improvisational pedagogy in action.

            So there you are, my little gastronomes, a veritable rollercoaster ride of academic flavor! Four main dishes, cheese, wine, and a sweet, all courtesy of Chez Erin, the best restaurant in town for true Fans’o’Food. Collaboration and improvisation have never tasted better. So to all my indulgent readers, until we meet again at the buffet table of life, may the wine be good, the plate be full, and the bill be missing! Happy trails!

            What? Don’t tell me you’re still hungry?

Links to the Tantalizing Tastes Mentioned in this Review:

 
Cheese Course

*NiceNet*

 

Wine List

 *Blog*

 

Deserts

*VoiceThread*