Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gay Wilgus

Dr. Gay Wilgus, City College of New York
The 573 was graced this weekend with the presence of dear friend Gay Wilgus, following her attendance at the Conference on College Composition in St. Louis last week. I met Gaywho is now a tenured professor in the City College of New York’s School of Educationover twenty years ago while we were in graduate school in New York. We were privileged to study together with Renate Bridenthal, co-author of Becoming Visible: Women in European History.

But we had first met in Michele Wallace’s English/Women’s Studies class. It was shortly after Invisibility Blues had been published and our professor's concern with representations of women of color in fiction and film, or lack thereof, was still very much on her mind. I asked Gay what, if anything, she recalled from our experiences in the class, and a wonderful conversation ensued.

GW: I remember Michele’s fascinating frame-by-frame analysis of movies with black women—Imitation of Life, Gone With the Wind, and others—in which she showed that if very dark women appeared at all, they were far back in the frame. I remember that the woman who served as the model for Aunt Jemima didn’t like pancakes at all!

FM: Are writing and visibility connected for you?

GW: In a big way. The most anguishing and potentially rewarding aspect of writing is that it can make one’s self—one’s opinions, emotions and perspectives—visible. Composition offers the challenge and possibility of writing from the self to the page in a way you can be happy with. 

The writing assignments I give my students are specifically not personal opinion pieces. This is because it’s typically all they’ve been asked to write as undergraduates. I think this might be related to a writing teaching movement in the 1980s influenced by Peter Elbow’s work, among others, advocating starting people right from where they are. The idea being that for a new writer, writing about the familiar takes the fear out of it. I find it problematic to ask students to express opinions about matters on which they have been given too little information. I’ve been put in that position myself and found myself thinking: I don’t have an opinion; I don’t know enough about it!

FM: So your preferred approach is…?

GW: Social Science writing. I ask in my child development courses, for instance, in which we study theories of development, that they observe children in their field research, write about what happens in the classroom or some other educational setting, and then correlate their observationswhat they’ve seen real children doto the theories—Piaget, for instance—and think through if what they’ve observed goes along with or contradicts what they’re reading. I want them to question the theory.

My aim is to help them develop an eclectic and large vocabulary of ways to understand and interact with children. I want them to consider different perspectives of children’s behavior. Teachers often go into schools with certain ideas about “badly behaved children,” and they don’t look beneath the surface of that behavior to understand the individual needs and learning styles of their pupils.

FM: How do you help your students to achieve this ability to correlate their own experiences in the classroom to theory?

GW: I conduct one-on-one writing conferences with every single one of my students. Before we meet I’ve read their papers, and have made written comments and criticisms in the margins. Our meetings offer an opportunity to be gentler, more caring and helpful. They can hear my voice—reading the comments alone, my remarks may appear hostile or nasty—but when we talk together, it softens the blow, the experience can be more encouraging.

Across the board, they have significant writing issues, often in structuring a point. The 5-paragraph essay gets a lot of bad press these days, perhaps because it's become so institutionalized, but I find its rigor helpful to my students. I ask them to photographically describe what they saw the child in the classroom do, paraphrase or directly quote from the reading with which it correlates, and then spell out the connection between the two. I ask them to write the introduction last—you have to know what’s in the paper before you can introduce it. In the conclusion they can offer a personal opinion, raise questions about the child, offer speculation, etc.

If I have a student who does not know how to write grammatically correctly, I teach them then and there, or do everything I can to make them aware, if necessary directing them to the university’s writing center for further assistance. I understand those who advocate "inventive spelling" and prioritize "expression" of ideas in order not to snuff out students’ fluency, but competency in grammar is a matter of respect. I want that for them.

FM: And your own academic writing?

GW: Terrifying to me! When I was writing my dissertation—and things would still be in draft—I thought, people are going to think it’s pedantic, stupid, or sub-standard in some way. I had to remind myself, often, that no one will see it until I’m ready for them to see it. Even now, I am constantly self-critical, engaged in self-loathing while writing. Once your ideas are on paper, it gives people the possibility to see you as you represent yourself. My writing process is one of constant revision, lots of revision, finding the right words, always looking for verbiage. Word retrieval is always an issue, using the thesaurus, but not quite capturing what I had hoped to say, that feeling that I know there’s a better word out there!

FM: Does reading fiction help with that?

GW: Yes, reading fiction or well-written social science theory both help. If I take the time to read fiction, it expands the whole project of writing for me, so much so that I sometimes think it would be more useful to write fiction rather than academic articles. A lot of people think this, that literature and movies can be more accessible, reach a larger audience, that one’s message can be relayed in a more palatable way, more appealing, like eating a nice, rich meal instead of bread and water, instead of the bare bones of academic writing.

FM: Then why perpetuate it? Why not try and change it?

GW: This is why I attended this particular conference. In my own recent research I’ve been videotaping my writing conferences with students. In trying to find an angle for analysis and discussion of my research, I stumbled upon composition rhetoric journals in which the academic writers are much more literary, humanistic, even funny. Hey, look at this! They’re academics but they write in a literary fashion. So I tried my hand at it, writing up my research, but the article got rejected…I’m not good at it yet. Lad Tobin is a big inspiration in this regard. But the point is, I am trying to move more toward the human, for lack of a better word.

One of the panels I attended at the CCCC conference was about writing instruction and emotion. What I want to know is, am I crushing my students with too much critique? Does that damage their sense of selves as writers? It’s important for them to be able to express themselves credibly and persuasively. The whole turn in early childhood education, or education generally, is toward teaching to the test, rote skills, rote learning and drilling. Concomitant with this is a withdrawal of self-directed exploration and experiential learning; any opportunity to engage in imaginative learning has been taken out of the curriculum.

One of my aims is to help students figure out ways without losing their jobs of meeting standards, helping their students to perform well on tests, but to teach in ways that are developmentally appropriate and child-centered. So they need to be able to explain to administrators how using music and movement, for instance, can support math and literacy. I want them to be able to make their case—to write it and say it.

FM: [Written word, spoken word…!]

GW: Pace bell hooks, we are teaching to transgress; we are teaching subversion. 

FM: Can I say that you said that?

GW: Yes! We travel back and forth to progress. In the 1920s, John Dewey advocated experiential learning, which is more meaningful than rote learning; the knowledge and abilities gained from experiential learning are more useful to the learner. In the 1980s, Luis Moll advocated acknowledging the “funds of knowledge” children already bring to the classroom, making that the source of curriculum. In some well-funded private schools, that’s the way they do it.

There are swings in educational ideology, there are moments in history, particularly in times of war and when their are new, significant waves of immigration, where you can see the shift toward Americanization and patriotism more pronouncedly. In one of the conference panels I learned that in our own time there is a move toward combining English as a Second Language with civics instruction.

FM: [Learning the vocabulary of the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, no doubt.] What about the future?

GW: I shied away from the panels on technology, but I did hear one presentation on research where a writing instructor videotaped herself marking her students’ papers, talking aloud. The students loved it, watching their teacher modeling the writing process, puzzling through how best to articulate her comments on their work, trying it one way and then another, exposing the difficulty of writing well, as if to say: See how hard it was to say that clearly?

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