¡vive la revolución de proceso! or, fabulous realities

MacRorie, Ken. Uptaught. New York: Hayden Book Co., 1970.

I found I really dug Uptaught. For one thing, it is a pleasure to read a scholarly text that is not bound to some sort of disjunctive “academic” voice; MacRorie’s writing is highly personalized, both in terms of style and in his use of personal experience as the basis for scholarly inquiry. I found that a pleasant surprise: the book is very much a record of how MacRorie comes to recognize the limitations of “Engfish” and his attempts to find a pedagogical space beyond it–the space that would later become institutionalized as “process pedagogy,” although KM doesn’t use that term and, in this text at least, pays far more attention to student voice than the “writing process” as such (so, we might say, despite often being associated with process KM here is really more of an expressivist–but again important to note that this is our term and not his own).

Long-ass post.  Click the link below for more.

I wanted to read KM because my recent research has turned up a repeated trope of process, expressivist, critical, and basic writing pedagogies all being reactions to 60s social crises, and I wanted to see how that played out in at least one text (I still want to read Donald Murray and more KM, and eventually Emig’s Composing Processes). What is interesting about KM in regard to this question is his displacement of the question of political engagement from the Institution at large to the site of the classroom.

But neither the administrators nor the police nor the students have the power to change what is wrong with this university, with all American colleges and univeristies. They can bloody each other’s heads forever and not improve what happens in the classroom, where the action really is.

There the professors are failing, every day, every hour. This book is the story of how I came to that knowledge. (2)

KM starts with a satire of a writing-assessment computer application he christens Percival; in brief, the program is designed to grade student writing in an inhuman fashion that, KM finds, is all too typical of the writing produced by the FYC student. The FYC student is not to blame for these results, however:

In the university the base of the whole academic endeavor has traditionally been the Freshman composition course, where the student learns to write. Not to write truths that count for him. Not to connect his experience to what he reads and hears about in the classroom, but to master an academic tongue and a manner of footnoting and snipping out other persons’ words and rearranging them in a new introduction-body-conclusion form. “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, and then tell ’em what you told ’em.” And that will finish them off. Make sure they look at your paper to see how many pages it takes up rather than what it says.

This dehydrated manner of producing writing that is never read is the contribution of the English teacher to the total university. (8)

What follows is described as a “retroactive journal”of KM’s awakening. What is encouraging is that KM does not write from an assumed position of unique enlightenment though–he fully admits his own teaching was marked by such student writing for many years. His rising with such dissatisfaction was hard to isolate until a student essay leads to an epiphany of sorts.

This girl had given me a name for the bloated, pretentious language I saw everywhere around me, in the students’ themes, in the textbooks on writing, in the professors’ and administrators’ communications to each other. A feel-nothing, say-nothing language, dead like Latin, devoid of the rhythms of contemporary speech. A dialect in which words are almost never “attached to things,” as Emerson said they should be. (18)

The word, of course, is “Engfish,” and KM takes Engfish and the writing and teaching that supports it as his target. His new style of teaching encourages free-writing, writing from experience, student voice, revision, reflexivity (but, important to note, this is not laid out in any sort of programmatic fashion . . . it’s not the mechanistic “process” familiar from handbooks). KM comes to think of his new pedagogy as a “Third Way.”

I began to see how school is really taught in America, from kindergarten through graduate school.

In the First Way the teacher hands out a package of information and tests to see whether students can remember its content. The package contains no gifts, and the teacher expects none in return.

In the Second Way, the teacher provides complete freedom and no direction at all. That way is apt to produce a few splendid, inventive sand castles that are eventually abandoned on a beach strewn with empty beer cans.

In the Third Way, which I stumbled onto, students operate with freedom and discipline. They are given real choices and encouraged to learn the way of experts. (27)

The Third Way, as noted, is freedom and discipline. The goal is not to just let students write whatever they want however they want to write it, but for instructors to use their own experience to guide students to become more effective in writing about things that matter in their lives. (Later, KM clarifies: “Freedom to follow one’s own movement, and the Discipline of considering the response of others to it” (167).) The disciplinary model here (thinking Foucaultian for a moment) is less the factory than an apprenticeship: not put the right part in the right spot again and again and again, but to create something under the eye of an experienced practitioner who helps you hone your craft. Reflective experience rather than unthinking expertise. As KM concludes, expertise for its own sake (or, specifically, for the sake of just generating a product) is a dead end.

The grade school student is told by his teacher that he must learn Engfish because the high school teacher will expect mastery of it. The high school student is told by his teacher that he must learn it because the college professor will expect mastery of it. The college undergraduate is told by his professor that he must learn it so he can go to graduate school and write in Ph. D. thesis in it.

Almost no one reads Ph. D. theses. (52)

Throughout, KM is forgiving of lifeless student writing, but as above takes the university and its personnel to task for the way it has enabled the cultivation and success of Engfish. Still, he does so generously, suggesting that it is the process of institutionalization more than particular individuals who are at fault.

At moments I look at all professors, including myself, with understanding. We are no less victims than our students. In the schools we were brought up as slaves. Someone or something opened to us the possibility of becoming overseers. We submitted to the required trials, said “Yes, sir,” to the professors in graduate school and moved out of slavehood. But we did not escape the system. That was not presented as a possibility. So we stayed with slavery, as overseers. Some of us acted more decently and liberally toward the slaves than others, but like the best slaveowners . . . we perpetuated a system which robs young people of their selfhood.

Now I realize why the tone of this book oscillates between bitterness and charity. Writing it, I felt like the person who confronts the reality of the extermination of Jews under Hitler’s regime. In Germany and elsewhere, all men who allowed that to happen, including German Jews, were responsible, but not responding. We permitted the most massive attempt at genocide ever undertaken. Where were we? What were we?

We say we didn’t know. The systems, old and new, had taught us not to notice what happened to Jews. Or if we noticed, not to talk, not to stir up trouble. So there’s the reasonable explanation. It must be given weight.

Yet the criminality of our neglect should be shouted to the hills. (78)

Okay, so maybe the analogy KM makes here is sort of suspect. But his point is taken: even while we might acknowledge that teachers are themselves products of a broken system, that doesn’t excuse people from fixing a broken system. Doing so, KM argues, is political not in the sense of being left or right, radical, liberal, or conservative, but it is political because it fundamentally changes how power functions in the university qua institution.

To teach the Third Way is to set up an arrangement which allows the majority of students in a class to find their own powers and to increase them. Making others powerful makes the teacher feel powerful. And the power of both is a fact.

I have never before known such a feeling. There is no antagonism in it. It is not power for struggle, for besting others in intellectual or physical combat. It is akin to the feeling Gandhi had when he was chasing the British out of India and making them feel better for it. (88)

This sense of shared power is at the heart of whatever “political” argument we can claim KM is making. To teach in such a way that students are empowered is to empower the teacher as well. To persist in a broken pedagogical system that leaves both the professoriate and the student body disengaged, discouraged, and disgusted with the academic enterprise is no solution–but both sides have to want and work for change.

I fear that the movement of students to reform university teaching, if carried out by them alone, will end in a wave of breaking windows and burning offices. In that struggle the students do not have enough power. They can quit school and put the professor out of a job, but what they need is a reformed professor working hard at his job. (156)

To the extent that KM’s purpose here is conventionally political, it is that he sees the Third Way not just as an intervention into teaching methods, but as a way to answer the turn to (often violent) student unrest that unsettled campuses throughout the Sixties. So, KM’s argument depends on an analogy between how power functions in the classroom and how it functions in the institution. The project of KM’s revolution, such as it is, is to reform the process of power transfer such that at it starts on a micro level and institutes the macro level.

In the Third Way the professor and student do not contest for power to keep each other down. When the student is moving upwards, using all his abilities and extending and sharpening them, the professor is at his most powerful. When he quits using instruments of boredom and torture, he finds his students doing and saying things that make him look good.

The realist’s common response to suggestion of reform from within—“You expect the men in power to give it up for someone else’s good?”—is based on a misconception. The professors teaching with traditional methods do not have a satisfying power now, except as sadism is satisfying to a few. Most often, professors feel bored and defeated. Their students are not learning what they want them to learn.

So both professors and students stand to gain from reform which takes the Third Way. (158)

The Third Way works through situating the student and her writing in a way that her experience, both within and without the classroom, is made valuable as an essential part of intellectual inquiry. So unlike Engfish, which depersonalizes the writer and in effect produces depersonalized writing, Third Way teaching emphasizes not just what is learned but the experience of having learned it.

The principle is to start right here . . . by encouraging the student to show himself at his strongest, in knowledge, language, habit, works produced in the investigation of something that counts for him because it lies in his here. And then to encourage him to study how other investigators, more experienced and professional than he, have carried out the same task in a larger and more sophisticated way. (174)

KM seems to have predicted my own experience this semester fairly accurately. While I am not yet ready to dismiss the potential of the stasis-based standard syllabus, this past semester’s teaching has left me feeling defeated. Why should that be? Trying to understand through KM’s work, I might suggest the following:

  • It’s difficult to generate excitement for a syllabus that one hasn’t prepared, so it’s even harder then to encourage similar excitement in students. “Bored and defeated”? Hmmm.
  • I think I didn’t do as strong a job this semester finding ways to connect the stases syllabus to their own writing for my students. I don’t why it didn’t happen, and the reasons I might suggest, while I think them valid, don’t seem to go the heart of the matter. I never found my students’ “here” this semester.
  • I think by its nature–despite attempts to humanize one’s presentation of it–the notion of stases (or modes of types or even genres) generates Engfish. It suggests that certain kids of discursive activity are employed in (rhetorically sterile) situations in ways that are sort of mechanized and dehumanizing (as KM predicts). At risk of sounding too New Agey, the stases lack a certain . . . organic (?) quality that I think is what KM finds lacking in Engfish writing.
  • I failed a lot of students this semester, for a number of reasons. Like, a lot. I don’t like doing that.

So, moving forward, I want to try to find more space in my teaching for Third Way methods. This will come up again later in the week when I post on Crowley’s Methodical Memory (also finished), but I don’t want to teach process as a mechanical thing: First one brainstorms/freewrites/drafts, then one edits and proofreads, then turn it in, then revise. I want to find a way to make the process more naturalized in my teaching, but in a way that has more flow (or something) to it: so that it is more a matter of writing, reading, responding, and writing again than one of steps. What I want to try to do, I guess, is take the PROCESS out of process and to teach it in such a way that it doesn’t seem like the writing process is akin to putting together some furniture from Ikea.

Ikea instructions


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