Sunday, March 2, 2008

writing and/or improvising

Just read an article by Keith Sawyer on improvisation in teaching. His point is pretty much this: "Scripted teaching, bad; improvised teaching, good." Okay, it's not quite so binary, but he does explore teaching as performance. In his view, teachers should be encouraged to alter teaching materials or methods to best suit their students.

In thinking of how to apply this to the teaching of writing, I've been reflecting on what it means for a writer to improv (or to improvise, or to "do an improvisation"). I even went so far as to look it up on Wikipedia. According to someone somewhere, improv is the "practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one's immediate environment." In exploring the concept of improv writing, I've been wondering how any form of writing can not be considered improvisation. Isn't it all in the moment, making and creating? Some might argue that this could be the case for creative writers, but what about boring technical writing? I would think such writing is still responding to stimuli in the immediate environment (watch this machine do something; now describe how it works). In jazz, the musician has several tropes they can turn to in improvising. Isn't this the same as the writer's bag of tricks--let's try second person present tense this time; let's remove the punctuation and see how that looks; let's kill the guy at the end of the first chapter... Nothing but trope. And yet...

And yet, does the analogy continue: if there are times when a musician is not improvising, are there times when a writer is not improvising? A musician just reading music and playing what she or he reads would not be improvising. Is there a time when a writer does this--"just reading music"? It doesn't seem to work that way--it seems the writer is always creating, putting words into new orders and shapes. But maybe I'm biased (I consider myself a writer, I don't consider myself a musician).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My contribution to the blog genre

I was looking forward to reading Genre & the Invention of the Writer: Reconsidering the Place of Invention in Composition by Anis Bawarshi, to learn more about genre theory. But I started to find myself disappointed as I read chapters one and two. Bawarshi discusses the old idea of genres as mere classifications (poem, detective story, romantic comedy, etc.) when he indicates "Certainly, genre appears to be nothing when it is defined as a way of innocently classifying or sorting kinds of texts" (7). But the leap to a new conception of genre didn't seem that daring to me. He presented numerous ideas/theories regarding genre, but seemed to belabor the point that genre can refer to nonliterary or extraliterary "texts." Yup, we could say that lectures and memos constitute their own genres.

Another point that seems to be made one or two times more than I needed was that the rules of a genre give the reader/audience a way to understand what they are reading. That is, a genre has specific features and by understanding a text as a part of one genre, it helps the reader understand what is happening. By way of example, Bawarshi provides some text and shows how the reader will interpret it one way if they know it to be a detective story and read it another way if they understand it to be a memoir. I've got a lot more to read in this book, but let me just say this: I expected a little more meat. Hopefully this isn't all there is to this genre theory thing.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Haswell that ends well

In chapter 2 of Gaining Ground in College Writing, Richard Haswell describes three "Tales of Growth," the first 2 of which he denigrates (the tales of "ungrounded vision" and "deterioration") in favor of his third (tale of maturing). But a funny thing happened on the way to his conclusion: Chapter 3.

Chapter 2 describes the ungrounded vision as built upon teacher expectations: "Here is part of the ungrounded vision. The teachers will expect the first-week essays of the older students to be longer and to have longer paragraphs. They will expect...the organization to be better...more transitions...a reduction in solecisms of spelling, punctuation, syntax, and prediction...more concreteness." (36-37) Etc. Haswell claims teachers look for these based "on an idealized platform of 'good writing'" (37). In essence, he is saying that our idea of what constitutes good writing blinds us to students' actual change toward good writing.

But then along comes Chapter 3, in which he demonstrates that the ungrounded vision may have some ground after all. He studies post-college "employees"--people beyond college but who still do writing in their everday work lives. "Compared with the students, they are substantially better at parallelism, spelling, apostrophe use, pronoun agreement..." (80); "Their sentences, T-units, and clauses are all longer, not flatly so, but with an increase in variety and emphasis" (79). Yes, many of the features of "good writing" that the ungrounded vision looks for are, well, found in more experienced writers.

But he still seems to suggest that the ungrounded vision is still ungrounded: "In this it differs from the ungrounded English-teacher vision, which sets a piece of student writing against a magic mirror of Perfect Writing" (70). That is, it is not okay to compare student writing to a generic set of standards, but it is okay to compare student writing with unrelated assignments given to older workers under completely different circumstances. It would seem to me that in making this comparision, Haswell has developed his own set of standards to compare the students with: But instead of labeling it 'Perfect Writing' we will call it 'the median workplace essay writer.' I'm just guessing, but I'd assume many of those teacher conceptions of 'perfect writing' are based on experiences with more advanced writing--not on teachers' very many experiences with 'perfect' examples of writing. Put another way, I think the 'magic mirror of Perfect Writing' is not as ignorant as Haswell believes in thinking of how the writing of real people can develop.

A question I have: is it possible that by expecting perfection (which I'm not sure we do), that perhaps we are pushing students to achieve more? What if we expect 'median' writing--will all students strive for this level of writing? Won't this necessarily push down the 'median' (if the above-average writers all aim for the middle of the pack--and hit it)? Hmmmm...

By the way, Haswell sure loves lines like these:
"Always in trying to interpret an interpretation, one needs to ask what happened" (39)
"But profession, even if professional, is not application" (39)
"The possibility is supported by an assessment of the assessment" (40)

How many more can you find? Can you make up your own? Here's mine:
As our Professor professes to teach us teaching, hopefully we will learn how students learn.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Still adrift in the gumbo

This week finds me still examining Michael Jarrett’s Drifting on a Read. Through Chapter One, he discusses the satura trope of jazz, which concerns 'mixing.' He compares this to making a fine gumbo. If done right, all the original flavors are there, complemented and informed by the others. Done wrong, everything turns into a mushy stew, one big indistinguishable flavor. I can relate to this as a few nights ago I was fixing a nice veggie stir-fry mix. It was looking good when, toward the end, I decided to add more veggies and what I had were pretty hard (i.e. carrots). I decided to throw in some water to try to steam them. Unfortunately, it turned the whole dang thang into a big sloppy puddle o' veggie mush. You've got to know when to quit. But alas, all is not too bad, because I have learned something. And even if that is how not to properly satura my vegetables, that's still something.

Anyhoo, toward the end of his chapter, Jarrett offers a recipe for satura-in-writing, something Gregory Ulmer calls 'mystory.' Its a means for appropriating the story of a legendary figure and putting your own spin on the tale. Soon after reading this section, I was perusing the SF Chronicle Book section today and came across a review for John Edgar Wideman's Fanon, which treats the story of Frantz Fanon, "one of the 20th centyr's major revolutionary thinkers," according to reviewer Megan Harlan. While Wideman's book is not a reimagining of Fanon's life, "...the narrator and Thomas take turns ruminating on Fanon's character in dazzling, fever-pitched riffs..." The narrator appears a thinly-veiled version of Wideman himself (the 'narrator' even has a mother named 'Mrs. Wideman") and uch of the novel is taken up with the narrators' discussion of his failed attempts to write a book about Fanon (this from an author writing a book about Fanon that's not really about Fanon, as it is about himself--i.e. a failed book on Fanon).

Interestingly, Jarrett discusses the "autobiographical component of mystory," for example in discussing Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, about a mythic jazzman, Jarrett notes, "Ondaatje seeks to understand himself by researching Bolden" (56). With Fanon, it appears Wideman has a mystory-type project, in which he seeks to understand himself (or at least his relation to this Fanon project) by researching and understanding Frantz Fanon.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Drifting on a ...

In his Cadenza intro to Drifting on a Read: Jazz as a Model for Writing, Michael Jarrett discusses the concept of tropes--in his words "generalizable strategies for invention." Jarrett defines jazz's loose and creative improvisational focus as, perhaps ironically, dependent on the "Law of the Trope."

Jarrett devotes a full third of the chapter to riffing on a quote attributed to Louis Armstrong. Regarding a woman who asked him to define jazz, he replied, "Lady, if you gotta ask what it is, you'll never know." Jarrett playfully examines the quote from numerous philosophical perspectives. We get Armstrong the Modernist, Armstrong the Marxist, Armstrong the Metaphysicist, etc. In doing so, Jarrett draws the connection to each of these viewpoints as a "trope," or as a way of turning the phrase, re-reading it anew to tease out more possibilities and fresh meaning. Of course, it could be read by Saussureans, structuralists, and homespun philosophers alike in much the way a popular email answers 'Why did the chicken cross the road'. That is, it reduces the entire philosophy or religion to a mere sentence [What is jazz? Marx: "Them that ask have got to go"; Deconstruction: "What it is is a question of what is is."] But at the end of the day, the exercise is just that: a game that demonstrates the possibilities of the game. By continually rereading the statement from different points of view--a la jazz troping--Jarrett shows the wide range of possible results.

Jarrett's project is to use jazz as an example of how to 'invent' in other fields (particularly writing in this case, but it appears he is open to other areas--reading beyond chapter one should detail whether this is the case or if his focus is more tightly on writing). Creative types have perhaps always felt free to be-bop around like this--writers play with words, artists play 'trope' with art, etc. But Jarrett's hope is for the jazz model to open up creative play beyond those already open to it. And perhaps for those in the know to have a better grasp of the why and how--or perhaps to have an extra tool in their arsenal (i.e. now that I've written this post, perhaps I should revisit it from the ol' satura trope and mix in a few other thoughts).