Once again, I was forced to take a break from blogging to focus on my dissertation. I spent the last three weeks writing about my research findings. It was a great opportunity to carefully analyze all the work that my students have done and also scrutinize my own involvement and development as a teacher. Specifically, it gave me a chance to carefully analyze my personal voice that I used in the class blogosphere when commenting on student work and posting my own entries. It occurred to me that the switch from a teacherly to a personal and writerly voice was crucial in helping me not only create but also sustain my class community of bloggers. I've learned from my study that, in a blogging classroom, students learn when they are allowed the freedom to use their blogs in order to write themselves into existence as individuals. Of course, a teacher can allow that to happen only if he or she is willing to operate at the edge of incompetence, never knowing what the next day or lesson will bring. I haven't met too many teachers who embrace this sense of uncertainty and enjoy what Marie Jasinski calls "facilitating the unpredictable." We seem to think that it undermines our authority and that we are paid to know and to dispense that knowledge with confidence. Not surprisingly, giving my students the freedom to become independent writers and researchers presented me with an enormous challenge of having to redefine my own presence and my voice in the classroom. It took a lot of effort to divest myself of the teacher's voice and acquire a new one, one that helped me function more effectively as a facilitator, learner, and co-participant in the class blogosphere.
When I first tried participating as a reader, I realized that I did not know how to write like a co-participant. I found it very difficult to divest myself of the omniscient and evaluative voice of a teacher. When I first started responding to my students' creative work, I realized just how difficult this process of acquiring a new voice would be. The following is my very first comment posted in my new role as a co-participant and reader:
Vanessa, I have to agree with Jack who posted the second comment. If you were to hand this in as an assignment, I can easily see myself giving you an A+. The characters are very well-defined and the plot moves well. You should also be congratulated on how well you established the setting in the first few paragraphs. It seems very realistic and yet your description is not forced. I think it is also very effectively described through some of the dialogue. Well done!
Needless to say, I was not pleased with what I had written. While the comment is generally supportive and very positive, it is also filled with evaluative comments. There is even a reference to a specific grade! It is clear from my comment that I read Vanessa's short story as a teacher, not a reader. There is nothing here about the impact that the story had on me as a person - I remain emotionally detached, unwilling to comment on the experience of reading Vanessa's story. Implicit in this comment is the suggestion that I "know best" - I focus on literary devices, on Vanessa's technical expertise as a writer. The comment sounds as if I had composed it while looking at a rubric.
I wanted to be able to respond just like Vanessa's classmates who often included specific references to her work but also managed to do it in a more expressive, conversational, and readerly voice:
Vanessa, you already know i love this this is awesome it was so descriptive, and i felt as though i was watching the girl give herself the needle, and trying to blindly find the "items" i love the suspense factor of not knowing completely how the society works, but having little hints all along the way. keep writing!!
Outstanding work! I loved the ending … especially how you just leave the reader with that last sentence … makes you think! It’s like you’re letting the reader make up his own … conclusion or point of view about the society. I like the way you introduce the father's mysterios death without putting it simply. You suggest that there's some kind of scam going on, and that James is really the only remaining person who knows about it. It grabs the reader well, gives hints toward a more dramatic story. I really am looking forward to the next chapter... i loved this one!!
Vanessa's classmates were able to convey a lot of support and, at the same time, engage in some critical analysis of her work. My attempts to do the same seemed insincere and "teacherly."
There were times, of course, when I thought that my attempts to become one of the participants in the class blogosphere were silly. "Is it really that important," I wrote in my research logbook, "to become just another reader, another voice? Isn't it also important to assert my role as that of a teacher and evaluator? Would they not benefit from my guidance and expertise, especially when it comes to writing?"
The answer, I soon learned, was "No." One of the reasons why I decided to establish a class blogging community was to get away from the "fourfold feedback" - the kind of feedback about writing that students in traditional classrooms receive from their teachers. It consists of grades, editing symbols, margin comments, and student-teacher writing conferences. In short, it's a process which encourages the student to write in accordance with the teacher's view of writing and the teacher's interpretation of a given topic. I knew that this would only undermine the class blogosphere and the sense of community that I wanted to create:
Such a process emphasizes the instructor and the instructor's reading of the text at the expense of the student and the student's reading of the text. This current-traditional approach presumes that the student learns best to write perspicaciously by following the precepts of the instructor, delivered no matter how idiosyncratically through the fourfold feedback. What this approach engenders, however, is not emulation of the instructor, but rather a sense of distance from one's own text. In the current-traditional classroom, writing is not so much to be read as to be evaluated; the effectiveness of any text lies not in the power of persuasion and description, but in its ability to trigger highly conventionalized responses from professional graders. (Barker, T & Kemp, F., 1990).
A teacherly voice can effectively stifle genuine, personal student voices. The presence of the teacher's voice reminds the students that they are writing for "an examiner audience" (Britton et al. 1975). It tends to shift the focus from reading and composing their texts to "reading" the teacher in an effort to figure out exactly how to appeal to his or her preferences and thus "do well." I realized that my students had learned how to "read" me very well and that their grades depended to a large degree not on what they had learned but on how well they had learned to "read" my idiosyncrasies as a teacher and marker. When reading the teacher becomes more important than reading one's own text, education begins to stifle and not empower.
It was crucial, then, to stop using my teacherly voice and learn to enter the community as a co-participant. Of course, as I found out, it is virtually impossible to outgrow the teacherly voice. It is, however, possible to modify it substantially so that it empowers students to see themselves as writers and contributors, as individuals with unique ideas. I wanted the students to assume the responsibility for generating ideas, expressing their opinions, exchanging views, evaluating them and collaborating to create knowledge. Knowing that a teacherly voice would seriously hamper these efforts, I continued to practice my new voice.
While the initial attempts, much like the comment quoted above, seemed artificial, I gradually developed a more personal and personable voice. I continued to reveal my personality and comment as a reader, as a human being who experienced the writing and not as a teacher who merely reacted to it:
I was reminded of my own childhood when I read your poem. You used very descriptive language and the metaphors make your description truly magnificent – very visual. There are specific images here, such as the bicycle and the fishing rod, that I can almost remember seeing when I was a child. I think it’s very difficult to write a poem in which the reader can see so much of his own life and you did it! You have really grown as a writer! This is an outstanding poem! I’m sure everyone else will agree!
I felt really sad when I read the stanza about the church. It reminded me of my uncle's death. I remember that it was a rainy day and everything around me - the traffic, my family members, the echo inside the chapel - all seemed somehow muffled and very distant. I guess I was just as absorbed in the situation as the girl in your poem. You conveyed that sense of quiet emptiness so well. If you look at some of the other comments here you'll see that this magnificent detail in your poem had a strong impact on most of your readers. You crafted it very well.
Of course, it would be incorrect to claim that my students ever stopped seeing me as their teacher. It would also be incorrect to claim that I have learned everything there is to learn about becoming a teacher-participant. However, I think I can safely conclude that the new readerly voice that I developed has enriched my experience as a teacher and allowed my students to understand that our classroom discourse includes all writing - not just formal and transactional but also creative, expressive, and conversational.
Barker, T. & Kemp, F. (1990). Network Theory: A postmodern pedagogy for the writing classroom. In Handa, C. (Ed.). Computers and Community. Teaching composition in the twenty-first century. (pp. 1-27). New York: Boynton/Cook.
Britton, J. et al. (1975). The development of writing abilities (11- 18). London: Macmillan.