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Negotiating Between the Pedagogy: Learning To Be Permeable
Brian Patterson, Whatcom Community College

Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. (Freire 29)

That was me, in Victoria’s story, the instructor who cried out: "If this isn’t good writing, then I don’t know what I’m teaching. For her, that cry was an expression of the discomfort that comes with being judged by one’s colleagues, of being found lacking as an instructor. And I suppose there was some of that in it. But for me, more importantly, that cry marked my realization that I had failed to do what I had set out to do when I began teaching full-time at Whatcom Community College.

After working for a year as a part-time instructor at Whatcom, I was hired on full-time in part to revise our English 100 course. English 100, as Victoria has explained, is designed to give students more time to work on their college writing skills. It’s really a stretched out English 101, and designed to be a safe place for students, a place where they can get used to the conventions and expectations of academic writing. Instructors don’t evaluate their students; rather, at the end of the quarter, students submit their best writing, an in-class essay and one out-of-class essay to a panel of instructors which decides whether students are ready to go on or not. English 100 was created a number of years ago in response to a feeling across campus that students were not writing at a college level, and until I came to Whatcom it was a course with a focus on grammar instruction. The curriculum had not changed much since its inception, and there was a growing sense in the English department that students (and instructors) were so concerned with producing grammatically correct essays that would pass the panel they were unwilling or unable to take the kinds of risks in their writing that lead to significant thinking. "Clean but vacuous" was a common complaint during panel readings. Whatcom is close to Mt. Baker, a ski area popular with snowboarders, and we get students from all parts of our state because of that. A certain type of compare and contrast paper became infamous at panel readings: the snowboarding vs. skiing paper which often began with some variation on this contrastive statement: snowboarders use just one board, skiers use two.

I came out of a grad program that had been influenced by a process model, which stressed critical thinking and a descriptive approach to grammar as opposed to a prescriptive model. We were warned, more than once, by our professors—with much head-shaking and sighs—that there were still writing programs out there which actually used grammar drills to teach writing, and so, when I came to Whatcom, and saw what I perceived as a program just like the ones my professors had warned me about, I was ready to make dramatic changes, to bring our program into the future (or at least the present). I had read Bartholomae and Petrosky, and Noguchi, and, during my first quarter at Whatcom, I even took a class from Donna Qualley, at Western Washington University, just to be sure I knew the latest theories. I knew what our English 100 course should look like: I wanted to see students writing, not taking grammar quizzes.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew there would be resistance. I was ready for that, and I thought I did everything right. I included long-time faculty—both full and part-time—in the planning and development process; I invited faculty to pilot variations of the new curriculum; we conducted exhaustive textbook searches, had frequent norming sessions, and introduced the changes gradually, carefully; I solicited input at all stages of the process. I listened, I really listened to what people were telling me, to their advice, and their suggestions. Or, at least, I thought I listened. I guess what I mean to say is that I thought I knew what it meant to listen.

But then came that fateful panel reading Victoria has already told you about, a panel reading when what had been collided with what was struggling to be—it was a panel reading fraught with tension, and my own frustration increased as it became more and more apparent that what I had thought was happening in English 100 wasn’t really happening. After all that work, I hadn’t got my point across, I hadn’t spread the word, hadn’t been the savior I’d imagined I would be. What I thought we should be doing in English 100, so beautifully exemplified in my student’s essay that had just been evaluated as barely passing, was not what others thought we should be doing.

It was a sobering moment, believe me, and I’ve had to do some serious re-thinking since then. It’s been a gradual process, of course, and in fact, I’ve only recently been able to articulate at all satisfactorily the changes I’ve had to make.

See, I thought I was listening, and maybe I was listening to my colleagues, but what I wasn’t doing was learning from them. I came to Whatcom and the job of revising English 100 sure of my approach, my pedagogy, backed by all the theories, and I’m not saying I was wrong, only that I discounted all the experience there was at Whatcom, all that hands on experience that comes from years of successfully teaching writing. In a article in the February 1999 3Cs, "Professing at the Fault Lines: Composition at Open Admissions Institutions," Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Jeff Sommers point out that "it is because instructors at [two-year colleges] teach first-year comp over and over that they have opportunities to grow and develop and to reflect on their evolution" (446).

I had simply ignored all that evolution, and all the reflection that went with it. I needed to take that expertise into account. I couldn’t just impose my pedagogy on the program, I had to allow that pedagogy to be transformed by what was already there, but what my colleagues brought to the table. I brought things with me—who I am, my teaching philosophy, and all that I learned in grad school—and I believe that was—is—good stuff, but it had to evolve when it came into contact with where I ended up as a teacher.

My students transformed my pedagogy as well. I thought I knew what was best for them; of course they had their own ideas about what they needed from their composition classes but I didn’t see that at first; it didn’t occur to me that we were working together to develop a curriculum, a pedagogy that would be most effective for them.

When it comes to grammar instruction, I had to go through a process very similar to what Lisa has already described. What I’ll focus on here is how my students have transformed my ideas about how we use class time.

My students lives are very different from what my life was like in college or what life is like for so many students in four-year universities, like Donna’s students, for instance. They’re very busy; they have full-time jobs and families. For them, two hours of homework a night means getting just three or four hours of sleep. Many of my students are highly motivated, and they’ll do the work, but what I’ve come to recognize is that if anything meaningful is going to happen in the classroom then we need to be as productive as possible there, in the classroom, to make those hours count. And I don’t feel I’m getting soft, that I’m lowering my standards. I’m simply responding to my students’ needs, working with them, working together to find ways to maximize the possibility of learning.

I thought to negotiate the pedagogy was to convince others that I was offering them a pedagogy that would transform their teaching and their learning: to get them to understand and accept. It was a rhetorical act then, nothing more. But I was wrong, negotiating the pedagogy is a process of transformation that I have to engage in as well.

I find myself with questions now, instead of statements. For instance, I’m wondering how can I access my colleagues’ accumulated expertise. Could we do away with a standardized curriculum in first year comp? Could instructors do what works best for them and then gather quarterly to talk about what’s working and what’s not—instead of being presented with a standard curriculum?

And I’ve thought about turning norming sessions inside out. Instead of coming to a norming session and being handed examples of each kind of essay—some that do, and some that don’t pass—instructors would come with their own examples, essays which illustrate what they see as successful writing, or what they see as writing that needs work.. Norming sessions that expand our ideas about writing, rather than limit them. Could we make that work?

And I look at my students and above all I find myself searching for ways that would better facilitate learning for them, for the students they are, with the lives they lead. I’m thinking about more flexible scheduling, about meeting in small groups throughout the quarter, at times that work for students, and more individual conferences, and more opportunities to exchange writing online. I’m even thinking (and at the risk of incurring the wrath of those compositionists who resist anything that puts us in the position of being in service to other disciplines) about linking comp classes to writing intensive classes in other fields. Can we do these things? Do we want to?

And of course I’m wondering how far I can go before I begin to compromise my own beliefs about how writing is best taught, what I believe is essential. Is such a thing even possible?

If Freire is correct, if "freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift," and if I am in some way, because of my position in an institution of higher education, teaching a course it is hard not to describe as a "gateway" course—if I am, indeed, participating in and perpetuating a system of oppression, then I’m wondering if maybe a part of my job is simply to learn how to surrender. But maybe "surrender" is a word that will make people uncomfortable, with its connotations of cowardliness and submission. How about: "permeable"; I need to learn to become permeable. It’s much more than a process of negotiating. I have to be permeable, so that I can be transformed by the place that I work, and the people that I work with.

 Works Cited

Freire, Paulo Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993

Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia and Jeff Sommers. "Professing at the Fault Lines: Composition at Open Admissions Institutions." CCC 50 (1999): 438-462.

To Olson

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA