The Cursed Cursor

In the months since I’ve lasted posted, I’ve made some ok progress on this whole PhD thing. For one, my coursework is now finished, which is a pretty decent milestone. Second, no one has gently suggested that I look for another career, which is nice. I’m even submitting conference proposals, and they are getting accepted, which is even nicer. So I’m still moving forward.

Next up: comps. The exciting, glamorous appeal of comps (“comprehensive exams”) is that I’m now my own boss. I don’t have 23 articles and book chapters to read each day for class; there are no paper deadlines to give me anxiety rashes and bald patches. My schedule is serenely… open. What the heavenly prospect of this newfound freedom did not prepare me for is the fact that I now have to write three very long essays, and ain’t nobody out there giving me an F if I don’t finish them by a certain time. (Well. Someone might notice if I didn’t have anything to show for myself, say, 9 years from now, but god help me in that event.)

Lucky for me, my first comp was a breeze. I simply converted one of the papers I had written for a class and turned that in. It was probably too easy. Now I’m facing #2, and my good luck has gone cold. I JUST.CAN’T.SEEM.TO.START.THE.DAMN.THING. I have analyzed reams of data, I have pages upon pages of notes. I know what I want to say; I just cannot seem to overcome the blinking cursor syndrome. Anyone who has ever tried to write something knows what this is: the cursor blinking and blinking and blinking on a blank Word doc like Chinese water torture, and suddenly you’d rather be scouring the litter box with your own toothbrush than be taunted any longer by that hateful, laughing line.

So, I decided to do what I used to urge my students to do, back when I taught writing. I’m going to write a letter (blog post) telling my reader what I plan to write about. Before I know it, the logic goes, I will just have tricked myself into writing the thing itself. Just so you don’t snap your laptop shut or wander back over to Twitter at the thought of reading someone’s academic essay (and a rough draft, at that) let me tell you about a couple self-imposed rules for this exercise: 1. I’m going to be as concise as possible. Just as it can be difficult to start writing, it can be difficult to stop. Sometimes you can convince yourself you’re being productive, but really you’re just creating a curtain of words behind which you’re hiding from what you really want to say. So, for each main idea, I plan to devote only a short paragraph. 2. I’m not including any scholarly citations or using academic jargon. It’s easy to hide behind that stuff too.

Here goes.

Main idea 1. I am very interested in teacher identity. Specifically, writing teacher identity. “Identity” is a very sexy idea in the field of education research right now (why do I have to be such a follower?), so I need to make sure that I’m not just jumping on a bandwagon here, and tossing around the faddish word without giving it the weight and meaning that it deserves. So to me, teacher identity is a conception of self and purpose that is constantly being remade and enacted in one’s interactions with students, colleagues, institution, and discourse. In other words, who you are amounts to what you do, and what you have done.

Main idea 2. Like I said, I’m interested in writing pedagogy. If a teacher is trying to teach a student how to use language, then how is she herself using language? Language is the way teachers communicate with students. Language is the main chisel we use for sculpting our teaching identity. As we sculpt ourselves linguistically, what kind of form is the student left looking at? (Case in point, imagine two different writing prompts, handed out to students by two different teachers. One says, “For every typographical error, one full letter grade will be deducted.” The other says, “Engage in a dialogue with Shakespeare/Darwin/Lao Tzu. What would you most want to ask him, and how would he respond?” Can’t you get a sense of the identities and values of each of these two teachers?)

Main idea 3. After conducting interviews with four writing teachers and combing their responses for patterns I’ve come up with what I view as three of the most important influences that shape their professional identities every day. They are:

3a. Academic biography. Each of my interviewees told me happy stories about loving to read and write as kids. Their parents couldn’t pry the books and notebooks out of their hands (this sounded familiar to me too…). Then they went to school. Their flaming love affairs with words were snuffed out by 5-paragraph essays, inverted pyramids, and red-pen wielding professors. Yet somehow, a resolve set in and they learned how to play the game of academic writing, they excelled, and they became English/writing teachers. While I’m still trying to figure out how this history plays out on a day-to-day basis in their teaching, I know that it is a big deal somehow. I’m sure Freud would approve.

3b. Being a “writer.” Research is coming out lately that says that we can’t teach our students to write unless we think of ourselves as writers. Asking your students to write something that you would never write (there’s that 5-paragraph essay again) is a farce, and a transparent one at that. Asking your students to do in-class writing while you grade papers, erase the board, or check Facebook is like lecturing your child on the merits of a healthy diet while snarfing down a Cinnabon. Students will not engage in writing that is authentic and joyful unless you show them what that looks like (because let’s face it, the blinking cursor can be ruthless!).

Problem is, I suspect that most teachers don’t think of themselves as writers. For one, most English teachers got into this gig because they fell in love with reading literature, not writing it. And two, even if the teacher does write a lot– and all professionals write a lot– they don’t view the writing that they do as “real” writing. When I asked one of my participants (a writing teacher and doctoral student in rhetoric) if he wrote, he said glumly, “Not as much as I should.” Later in the interview I discovered that at the time, he was working on his comps, editing an article that he planned to submit to a journal, and regularly contributing to a blog about his writing research. If he isn’t a writer, then who the hell is? What kinds of writing would he need to do to be a “real” writer?

3c. Professional learning and development. My opinion in a nutshell is that, as far as P.D. is concerned, K-12 teachers are way over-managed, and college teachers aren’t held accountable enough. Therefore I’m painting in very broad brushstrokes here when I say that that “professional learning” is the final main influence on teacher identity. Whether it’s from the funny and amazingly astute thing your colleague said in the hall, or from the 8-hour workshop on implementing curriculum standards that your principal made you go to, teachers are constantly learning on the job.

I met my participants in two different courses on how to teach writing, so my study focuses on the context of these courses (one of which was the National Writing Project, which I wrote about last year). So in my interviews I asked my participants to reflect on how the course affected, and affects, their teaching. But I hope to broaden this discussion by observing that influences on our professional behavior are myriad: a thought-provoking mentor, the latest pedagogical theory, a joyful poem that reminds you that, damn it, writing can be play.

Well, that’s about the sum of it. Re-reading it, it sounds somewhat naked and simple. But like I said, I had to take off the academic claptrap to see what was underneath. I think I’m far too immersed in it to know if the ideas are valuable at this point. But at least I’m writing.

And on the topic of professional learning, check out my bone pile of library books. I think they’re reproducing at night. Luckily, as you can see, I’ve got a very faithful research assistant.  Image