Feb 8, 2018
Welcome to MR the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history
It’s the start of another semester, which, for me, means a season of wonder. I wonder about who my students will be. I wonder whether my schedule will be crushingly busy. Mostly, though, I wonder how my students will react to the syllabi and assignments that I have lovingly crafted. Will they understand the instructions? Will they learn what I hope they will? Will they find it meaningful?
Many compositionists have wondered these same questions and have argued about what kinds of assignments are best for students--digital or analog? Open-ended or directed? Reflective or projective? The authors of the Meaningful Writing Project,Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, Neal Lerner , had similar questions. But instead of pontificating, they just asked the students themselves.
And, boy howdy, did they! They surveyed students at a varied of schools--big state, small private, research and community college--and asked them which (if any) of their writing projects had been the most “meaningful” for them. What they found surprised them, and it surprised me too.
The researchers were expecting on finding a small cohort of “meaningful project” professors who had skillfully crafted assignments that were more meaningful to their students, but instead they found that the meaningful projects were scattered across instructors. Some of the instructors were veterans, some were novices; some were full professors and some were adjuncts. There weren’t clear patterns in who assigned meaningful projects. There was also no pattern on where these meaning projects were taking place. Meaningful writing projects occurred in big classes and small, required courses and capstones and in no courses at all. This might seem like a null result--what can we say about meaningful writing projects if any sort of instructor can assign them in any sort of class?
Again, the answer is in listening to the students. The authors found that these projects focus on the past (students' personal connection and previous experience) and the future (application to the students' sense of their future selves). These projects recognize that education doesn’t happen in discrete modules, but builds upon past lived experience and anticipates the classes, jobs and lifestyles students will eventually enter.
Almost 70% of the students in the study said that the writing project was related to what they expect to do in the future, usually related to their prospective jobs (41). They said things like “”As a teacher, I must write lesson plans that are creative,” “As a physician assistant I will have to write referral letters,” and “As a career artist I..must be able to write about my work when I submit it to juried exhibitions” (41). Recognizing connections to their future lives envigorates writing for these students. The past also matters, even when the comparison to the past was uneven. One participant, Leah, described her previous writing experience as “neutral.”
Leah also gave a good insight into the importance of choice in writing projects.The authors note that the “balance between allow and require once again seems key…[because] Leah’s experiences up tot his point were too close to the require end o the continuum with not enough allow” (48). Accordingly, student choice means a lot--encouraging students to delve into personal interest and to feel "invited and encouraged" (133). This is always a hard balance for me too--do I let my students choose to write on whatever topic they want, assuming that they will write with more passion about the topic of their choice? Or do they not have any particular passion yet, and fall back on standard fare: gun control, abortion, illegal immigration. Similiarly, do they lack the content knowledge to know how to approach that topic and will falter, unable to come up with a meaningful area of research? It’s not enough just to dump novice students into it--”You decide what to write and how to write it,” sounds like agency, but it also sounds like neglect. Instead, the authors say we teachers can “intentionally build optimal conditions for agency to emerge” like directing students to make use of the skills and thoughts that they have developed in and out of the class (53). That’s kind of a big deal, not just for a student’s writing ability, but for their developing sense of self.
As the authors put it, the meaningful projects were "holistic--not merely about content or genre or process but also about mind and body, heart and head--and to act as a kind of mirror in which students see their pasts and futures, enabling them to map those on to their writing projects to make meaning" (107). It’s not overstating it to see these meaningful writing projects as meaningful experiences period. Certainly I remember some of the most meaningful projects of my undergraduate life--the time I wrote a platonic dialogue to explain Foucault’s theory for my theory class, the long honors thesis where I was able to pursuit my obsession with an obscure Steinbeck novel, the Shakespeare class that allowed me to delve deep into Renaissance concepts of madness. These weren’t just fun assignments, but projects that helped develop my sense of what mattered to me.
But as I reflect on my undergraduate writing, I’m also impressed by the impact that non-required writing had on me. The sketches I wrote for my comedy group, the impassioned articles for the school opinion paper, the poetry and fiction that I was able to give readings of in the library auditorium. While the authors mention that some of the MWP took place without classrooms, teachers or grades (131) there’s not much discussion of those projects. Look, I know that I’m a writing nerd--otherwise I wouldn’t end up the host of a show called Mere Rhetoric--but in addition to designing assignments that might be meaningful to students, we can also nurture environments where meaningful writing can take place outside of our classes too.