On Commenting and Readerly Voice

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!!

Or

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!

Or:

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.

Notes:

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.

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8 Responses to On Commenting and Readerly Voice

  1. Charles September 11, 2006 at 9:53 pm #

    Why is it that writing teachers prefer to avoid teacherly voices while football coaches never avoid coacherly voices? I keep wondering why coaches don’t have a problem with “assert[ing their] role as that of a [coach] and evaluator.” Coaches generally take the position that their players do “benefit from [their] guidance and expertise, especially when it comes to [playing football]”. Why is there such a difference of attitude and authority between football (or other sports) coaches and writing teachers?

  2. Will Richardson September 12, 2006 at 1:09 pm #

    Konrad…this is such good stuff. That line “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” is just a great way of capturing what happens in the blogging process.

    This post reminds me of a book that was hugely influential in my teaching of exposition back in the days of paper, Lad Tobin’s “Writing Relationships.” It’s an amazing analysis somewhat along the same lines as what you are digging into. If you want me to send you some choice exerpts, just let me know.

  3. Gardner Campbell September 12, 2006 at 8:51 pm #

    Konrad, another inspiring post. I agree with Will’s praise of that line, and as a blogger I know how powerful it is to write for others by writing for one’s own emerging self. As always, you convey that experience very powerfully.

    Some concerns emerge linger here for me, though, and I’d like to discuss them with you.

    First, Charles’s comment reminds me that learners want coaching, and that certain kinds of coaching can empower individuals in very dramatic ways. I think your embrace of the readerly voice does coach, by example, but I wonder if authority needs to be so negative. Can’t authority be generative, and isn’t a certain kind of authority what we want students to develop? I think authority and power are easily confused, but can and should be distinguished. I feel Barker and Kemp may have overstated their case in this respect.

    Second, how do you convey to students your own perspective (a useful one, and one that I’ve certainly learned from) on what might or ought to be improved in their writing? It’s true that praise can also be analytical, but none of the comments you cite here suggest any need or direction for improvement. How do you express such direction in your comments? How do you encourage students to begin to give themselves such direction?

  4. Konrad Glogowski September 12, 2006 at 9:42 pm #

    Will,

    Thanks for the comment and your kind words. I am so glad you reminded me of that book. I’ve seen it somewhere at my school – last year, I think, and I’m sure it’s still there. I’ll look for it tomorrow.

    Charles,

    What an excellent question! I never really thought of that but it seems to me that good teachers want their students to become explorers, to learn on their own by investigating and “risking” learning. That can be done only if the students have the freedom to try their own ideas, express their views, and construct their own knowledge.

    Why is it different with team sports? I think composition teachers want to cultivate individuals whereas coaches want a great team. That’s why my approach to community-building is a bit more structured – I do often communicate to my students how to operate within a community because, much like a coach, I need them to become a team.

    I’ll keep thinking about this – it’s an interesting analogy.

    Gardner,

    I will definitely post something a bit more exhaustive on this topic – thanks for the inspiration! You are absolutely right – the teacher’s voice can be very generative not only because it is supportive and inclusive but also because it provides some specific and helpful guidelines. The fact, however, is that – as you rightly observed – my voice does not always provide the guidance. After two years of blogging with my students, I realized that what they need first is a period of time when they can grow as individuals and feel empowered as writers. During that time, I refrain from comments that offer specific direction. Once they experience that period of freedom and empowerment, once they acquire the confidence to start seeing themselves as writers, they begin to forget all the negative associations that they had with “school writing” and feel really motivated by their success in the class blogosphere. That’s when I come in – it’s my opportunity to say to some of them: “You’ve been doing excellent work that many of your classmates read regularly. Here are some suggestions on how to make it even better. I noticed that you have great ideas but they don’t often flow very well. Here’s an easy trick you can try when you’re proofreading your work …”

    Once they experience the thrill of writing in a community, I have their motivation that I can work with and they become much more receptive to my suggestions/generative comments.

    Anyway, the above is just as outline of what I do and why. Your comment prompted me to think about how this process really works in my classroom and I intend to address it soon in a new entry. I hope that the above is a good start. Thanks again for the comment.

  5. Charles September 13, 2006 at 6:40 am #

    I like the idea of students exploring, investigating, and risking learning. But I’m not as confident on the notion of individuals. One day, our students will be in a work environment that requires collaboration and team effort. I’ve been thinking (only thinking) about this for a while, but perhaps it would be better to focus not on individuals but on classes (or smaller groups of students) exploring, investigating, and risking learning. In that case, how does our role and interaction with students change? I’m not yet sure. These thoughts are part of my own exploration.

  6. Martha September 13, 2006 at 7:35 am #

    Thanks for this post, Konrad. I think it will be a great text to look at when we’re working with faculty who are new to using blogs in the classroom. I imagine it will spark some conversation.

    I have one question. Did you ever talk to your students about this change in voice you were trying to make? I wonder how often we actually take the opportunity to ask students to express what it is they think they need from their teachers. Obviously, it may be difficult for some students to do this, but the conversation that develops out of such a conversation could be enlightening.

    This reminds me of a conversation I was having with a faculty member recently who mentioned a drastic change in behavior and attitude between one class meeting and another later that week. Whereas at the first, the students had been disengaged and distant, at the second they suddenly started engaging with each other in very pointed and productive dialog. We were speculating as to who this happened, and I asked her if she had asked the students what had changed. It didnt’ seem to have occurred to her to have tried this direct approach, but I wonder what kind of response she would have gotten–the same way I wonder what your students would tell you about the change in your blogging voice. . .

    Perhaps the responses would help to hone in on that balance between an authority/coach voice and personal/reader voice. . .

  7. Lisa September 16, 2006 at 11:48 pm #

    Konrad,

    I read this blog with some interest as I am just stumbling my way into the use of blogging with a face-to-face, developmental English, community college writing class starting Monday.

    I have a thought about Charles’ comment regarding the “coach” voice a coach never wishes to avoid versus a “teacher” voice writing teachers prefer to withhold.

    A coach does give guidance, instructions, drills, and warnings about what can go wrong, but he or she can’t ever insert him or herself into the game. In the end, the players are “graded” by their performance on the field and the coach can only stand on the sideline and watch – win or lose (just as Mike Holmgren…sigh).

    I think good writing teachers are writing coaches – they guide, instruct, give some drills and warnings about what can go wrong, and in the end they step back and let their students win or lose the publishing game – be it blogs or the bathroom wall. If a class is scaffolded well, the support is stronger in the beginning and almost non-existent in the end – that is where the instructor can have the fun of just being another participant in the community of learners.

    Also, I found your efforts at entering the “community of learners” interesting as well. One of my myriad of adjunct positions is as the co-author and instructor of Online Classroom: Creating Collaborative Communities. In this class our goal is to explore with facilitators the very nature of building a constructivist classroom but in an online environment.

    You express the same arc of awareness (to use a cliche, moving from the “sage on the stage to the guide on the side”) in your comments to your students’ blogs as many of our student facilitators do about their change in techniques as they try to build a more collaborative, less “tutorial” style online classroom.

    I look forward to reading more…

  8. Gerald September 20, 2006 at 8:24 pm #

    This posting has really inspired me.

    I am on the cusp of setting my 7th and 8th grade students up to use blogging in their work in my class. What inspired me was the possibility of transforming their relationship to their own work from a limited conversation (at best) between a student and his/her teacher to one of collaboration and development of their own (in my case) scientific voices.

    Your point about students being freed to develop their own ideas has helped me give voice to concerns I barely understood that I was facing.

    Thanks.

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