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Jimisha Relerford is a Master Instructor in the Department of English at Howard University. She serves as director of The Writing Center and is currently a student in the PhD program. Her research interests include early 20th-century African American literature, archival studies, and composition pedagogy. 

 

Earlier this month, The Chronicle of Higher Education published “What’s Wrong With Writing Centers,” a profile of the work of Lori Salem, director of the the Writing Center and Student Success Center at Temple University. The profile focused on findings presented in Salem’s Spring/Summer 2016 article in The Writing Center Journal, “Decisions...Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center,” for which she received the 2017 International Writing Centers Association Outstanding Article Award. Salem’s article draws on quantitative research conducted at Temple to implore writing center scholars and administrators to reconsider some of our “best practices”: our use of nondirective feedback in student tutorial sessions, our focus on “higher order” concerns before “lower order” concerns, our insistence upon not proofreading student writing, and our casting of tutors as peers rather than experts. Such pedagogical orthodoxies, Salem argues, are geared toward privileged students and ineffectively meet the needs of the students who visit writing centers most often: women, minorities, and second-language learners.

 

Reading Salem’s article was a shock to my system. As the newly-appointed director of Howard University’s Writing Center, I’ve spent the past year implementing and strengthening many of the policies that Salem now calls into question! However, Salem’s voice is one of many calling for practical and pedagogical changes in writing centers, and, based on her research, it is reasonable to assume that some of those changes may be beneficial for writing centers at HBCUs. But which ones, exactly? Which pedagogical practices are most effective for the unique student populations that HBCU writing centers serve?

 

Answering this question requires that HBCUs take a step back and evaluate our own writing center programs. What students regularly visit our centers? What motivates those students to seek tutoring? How are we developing our pedagogies to target those students? How are we training our tutors to best meet their needs? These are the types of questions that I hope will be explored at this year’s Symposium on Teaching Writing at HBCUs entitled “Remembering Our Past, Re-enVisioning Our Future.” The symposium offers an ideal opportunity to reflect on the progress and potential of the work we do in HBCU writing centers. Let us take advantage of this opportunity to learn from each other, to re-visit our own writing center “best practices,” to make plans for our own research, to ensure that our voices are part of the broader discussion.

Today's blogger is Jeff Ousborne, author of Writing Music: A Bedford Spotlight Reader.

 

All the essays in Writing Music model thoughtful and perceptive writing in a range of genres, from blog posts to scholarly articles. Students can read and adapt practical strategies for, say, moving from a general claim to a supporting example or using a paragraph to address an opposing point of view. That modeling process works at a deeper level, too: it means seeing writing not merely as an academic performance, but as a way of pursuing curiosity, answering questions, and correcting misunderstandings.

 

So how do we get students to identify with the curiosity and engagement of these writers? I have had success using a vintage technique: questioning. Every selection in the book lends itself to this approach (even the ancient excerpt from Aristotle). But let’s focus on a specific example.

 

Case Study

I’ve taught Will Wilkinson’s “Country Music, Openness to Experience, and the Psychology of Culture War” (page 105) several times now.  In a class comprised of many international students, but only a few dedicated fans of contemporary country, you’d think the topic would be a tough sell. But with a multimedia approach (I show music videos of the songs that Wilkinson discusses), students quickly apprehend the signals, symbols, and themes that he identifies in his argument.  The images also get students thinking about the writer’s wider claims: that a musical genre can mirror and express an ideology, and that a type of music can coordinate its fans as a community with shared values.

 

Several students were able to apply those insights to other genres, ideologies, and communities, which helped them place their own musical preferences in a broader context. For those students, one key to moving from Wilkinson’s text to their own writing was the low-tech process of asking the right questions about their topics. So in a class discussion, we essentially reverse engineered Wilkinson’s essay by identifying root questions that he attempts to answer. I put a few question prompts on the whiteboard; together, we worked through the answers. Here are just a few of them, with the brief explanations that Wilkinson’s essay provides:

 

  • What interests me about this topic?

While listening to a country song, the writer wonders whether its sentimentality is connected to the ideology of the genre, the psychology of country’s conservative fans, and the “stakes of the ‘culture wars.’” 

  • What do I know about this topic? What don’t I know, but want to discover?

What the writer knows: Contemporary music focuses on a limited number of subjects and themes; it seems to have a conservative ideology and represent a “side” in the “culture wars.”

What the writer doesn’t know, but tries to discover:  He does not know how, specifically, a preference for country music is related to cognition, personality types, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and social psychology.  

  • What are specific examples of this topic?

            The song that inspires the writer’s inquiry is “One Boy, One Girl” by Collin Raye:

           

In the original version of the essay, Wilkinson includes other examples, as well:

            “Small Town USA” by Justin Moore

 

                  “The Good Stuff” by Kenny Chesney

            These examples reinforce Wilkinson’s premise that country music has a worldview.

  • How is this topic misunderstood? What needs to be clarified?

Different views of country music reflect not differences in superficial “taste,” but more fundamental differences in psychology, ideology, and moral intuitions. Those with “high openness” personalities may find country music boring and nostalgic, but its fans understand that the genre celebrates traditions charged with transcendent meaning: “the  baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life.”

  • How has my attitude about this topic changed over time?

The writer comes to understand that country music works, in part, “to reinforce . . . the idea that life's most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities    on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.” That is, the writer moves from curiosity and intuition into a more precise, supportable, and debatable understanding of country music.  

 Again, these are just some of the questions that you can use (for more, see “Asking the Right Questions” section in this book’s “Preface for Students” (pages 2-6) or Critical Reading and Writing: A Bedford Spotlight Rhetoric (page 22)).

 

These questions encourage students to look for gaps, paradoxes, changes in attitudes over time, and other sources of tension and conflict. The question about specific examples also requires them to begin assembling specific evidence to support their claims. So after dismantling an essay from Writing Music by questioning it, ask your students to interrogate their own prospective topics in the same way. If they can come up with preliminary questions and speculative answers (or ideas for pursuing those answers), they have made significant progress in the writing process.