Flying home to SFO after this year’s CCCC gathering gave me time to reflect on this conference and its long history as well as on its evolution. Bigger than ever (I gave up trying to count the number of sessions) and replete with poster sessions, think tank sessions, and caucus meetings, the program offered more than any attendee could possibly say grace over. Yet in spite of the profusion of panels, I missed some of the excitement I used to feel in looking through the program for sessions of particular interest to me. There was very little on history or historiography, very little on rhetorical history, theory, or practice, few student voices. In recent years, at least as near as I can tell from looking at CCCC programs, our field has turned away from rhetoric as our foundational discipline; and for that, I am sorry.
Still, I came away very glad to have been in the company of so many smart and dedicated scholars and teachers and, as always, I learned from inspiring work. I will write more in another posting about some of the great sessions I attended, but today I want to share just one presentation that taught a powerful lesson. The presenter was Dion Simmons, from the University of Kansas, and he spoke (with eloquence and passion) about what he termed “interrogative feedback,” starting with its importance to his own learning. He told of his experiences at a primarily white institution, where, as a beginning undergraduate turning in essays for his composition class, he fell back (as we all do) on familiar and comfortable ways with words. He remembers that he had an affinity for the phrase “I just feel like,” which helped him get started, to get into a topic, or to sum up a response. This phrase was his, and he liked it, though he hadn’t thought much about it. But his teachers didn’t agree, responding with comments such as “Your feelings don’t matter” or “This is opinion; I need facts.” These comments told Simmons, loud and clear, that this wasn’t a good phrase, that he should not use it.—but nothing more. Then, as I recall the story, he moved to an HBCU, where he once again turned in an essay including this familiar phrase. This time, however, his instructor did not offer criticism or warnings but instead one simple word: WHY?
That one word, that “interrogative feedback,” led him to think hard, not only about why he felt a certain way but why he used that particular phrase, and subsequent discussions with his instructor, who went onto become his mentor, led him to understand that he was trying to get his own voice into his writing, to use it to establish some authority, however tenuous. He kept asking “why” as he grew as a writer and thinker and as he completed his undergraduate studies and began pursuing his Ph.D. Now he is teaching students of his own, asking them questions and using these questions to help students learn why they make the choices they do, where those choices come from and what implications they hold.
This was a lesson I can never learn too often, especially because it’s an easy one to forget: rather than leveling a criticism, why not ask a question that will allow student writers to explain what they are doing and why? Looking back, I realize I first took this lesson to heart when I read Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations, in which she demonstrates over and over again that listening to students, asking them about their choices, and taking in their explanations, is the key to teaching them effectively. Ask questions. And then listen hard. That’s the way to open the door to learning.