Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Formulaic writing as the "Gateway Drug" to Genre Theory

I am now thoroughly convinced that Genre Theory in the context of the Anthropology of Communication provides a framework by means of which to liberate student voices and transform our teaching – not just our teaching of core literacy, but of the sciences, the arts, and of all the skills needed for civic and working life.
Periodic Table of Story Elements by Barbara Kloss
Periodic Table of Story Elements by Barbara Kloss

This line of thinking was first sparked for me by what I now think of as the Seminal Post to #CLMOOC14 : "A Burr in Your Sock" by Kim Douillard. I experienced a level of collaboration, interchange (Ah Ha! Another opportunity for coining a MULTI Family word [and to play with nested brackets, of course] multichange now joins multinamics, multilogue, and one other multi which I've forgotten {another opportunity for a bracket |properly called squiggly brackets, according to one English Usage resource I consulted|} since I can return to this chain and add it when I remember!) multi-change (doesn't read right without the dash [I think]), growth, and expansion of a level I've never had in my life (except perhaps my initial talks with friends in college who introduced me to jazz, and surrounding the college course which introduced me to art) in terms of transforming my outlook profoundly.

That thread lead to the creation of my "Step In It!®" Writing satirical poster, my most stretchy Make in both series of the CLMOOC's, and even the whole year in between where I continued to participate often. There was something immensely satisfying in utilizing a genre new to me in what seemed to me like an effective and amusing manner. That was just the first step. Some weeks ago I realized that I was actually conducting a self-experiment with formulaic writing, since I purchased and bgan using Scrivener, a writing helper which, among other things, provides templates of structured steps and pieces for many genre of both fiction and non-fiction writing. I chose a template for "Thesis or Research Proposal" to begin drafting my thoughts on the six or seven figure research project around using string games to cultivate executive function which I promised myself should be well underway by 2024. That does give me ten years, but it is an ambitious goal, so I felt like I needed a well-formed brief. Then when a Writing Project colleague emailed me to ask if I would help her get started with Scrivener to write her novel during NaNoWriMo, I started another project with Scrivener around a dance and writing performance piece I'm planning to organize in collaboration with a movement teacher whose Web site I used to host, which gave me the opportunity to take her classes in trade for web work. So I came up with a collaboration as a way to get to work with her without having to pay for classes. Of course, it will probably be a lot more work and trouble to write a grant and organize a troupe to perform, instead of just paying for classes, but, as my initial sentence attests, I have grandiose dreams. And I got to use another Scrivener Template, the Persuasive Speech!

So here's my initial take on formulaic writing based on a commercial product so far: I really enjoyed using the templates, responding to the prompts and questions. It helped me a lot to organize my thoughts, prompted new thoughts,  and generated some language. The software didn't work at all as I had hoped--having labored through several steps of a template, I thought I could just take all those pieces and do a simple export which would combine them all into a single file I could edit elsewhere. None of the things I tried which sounded like they would do that worked. Of course, I never consulted the manual, looked in the Help Menu, or searched Google for a support forum. I don't  have close deadlines, so I'm not ready to go further...yet, but I probably will.

Will there be much trace of a Scrivener template when I finally do do something with either of the projects I started using their software? Probably not. Did using the software help me? Certainly. What this experiment has to do with my initial thought in beginning this essay is something I'm groping to say about the many ways folks monetize writing and education. The value I got from using Scrivener probably doesn't even approach what I would get by taking my drafts of the proposals I intend to write and posting them to the iAnthology Ning, or sharing them with a few friends and asking them for feedback. I will do those things as well, and of course share what I'm doing with the CLMOOC, but I think the original burr in the sock has something to do with the money part of this.

What I mean by formulaic writing as a "Gateway Drug" to Genre Theory is that discussing the way commercial formulae shape students' writing, treating these offerings as another Genre to teach, alongside and within a media literate panoptic (is multioptic even better?) understanding of the Anthropology of Communication, should give them some tools with which to deconstruct and reassemble a Five Paragraph Essay on the same critical terms as a sonnet or a hip-hop video.

The Four Questions of Genre Theory:

  • What's the genre (Form, Structure, Framework, Constraints, etc)?
  • How do we decode the contents? 
  • Who is the intended audience? and 
  • What's the stated or implied purpose of the Communicator in creating this artifact?

map quite nicely onto Talcott Parsons' Four Box diagram of social systems. But that's another post, and this one is already way too long...

The "Back Again Gang"

The “Back Again” Gang: Using the Revision Process to Develop “A Voice of One’s Own”

“...from here to there  and  back again.”

The idea of a return, a reuse, remix, repurposing of older work or others’ work, is of the essence of writing. 

British poster from World War II, reproduced in the Wikipedia article on Recycling:
British poster from World War II
If it is true in the most basic sense that “I write to find out what I think,” it is only in at least revisiting and rereading, that one understands what that thinking really is. The repetition, re-doing, is the hardest thing for children to learn. They are so eager for the new thing that they always want to be told by the authorities that they are DONE, that they can get whatever was the proffered reward for their compliance with the instructions that got them to put the words down on paper, or up in the cloud, and can MOVE ON. 

But no...they may not.

It is in that duplicative, over-again phase of the self-examination that the first glimmers of a productive interior multilogue begin to emerge, and it is in teaching the “joy of revision” (how’s that for a contradiction in terms!) that students can begin to appreciate the power of their own clarity, forged by a self-discovery process that depends on accepting their own recursive thought processes, and gradually learning how to incorporate the suggestions of others into that process, without surrendering their sense of ownership about the ultimate version, and truly begin to sense what it feels like to have “a voice of one’s own.”

I think it is crucial as we embrace, propagate, and demonstrate the multifarious and wonderful ways we can now create and then repurpose communicative content, amongst ourselves as a community of teachers, and with our students as a community of learners, that we remember how much of what we are doing is not all that different from what my third and fourth graders did in Writer's Workshop over twenty years ago or what I did with the moveable platen press the Westland School teachers went out and got for Group 4 at Westland School over sixty years ago, so that we could learn about printing.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Markings on her face

A friend recently shared to the group on Facebook of alumni from the commune where I lived for nine years a current Google Maps image of our land. It is extraordinary to me how recognizable from the air are the terraces of our vineyard, curving off from the main house in a gentle arc. Seen from the air, they look like faint scratches, the peeling remains of small streaky scabs from a brush with a prickly bush.

That’s our work, visible from afar. The house was never our work—built more than half a century before any of us communards was born. Most of the rest of what one notices as clear evidence of human activity are structures of one kind and another, a few our original handiwork, most much older and in perpetual dialogue between restoration and decay.  There are vehicles, roads, many other garden beds, but the vineyard terraces stand in relief for me, since I feel still in my body all the work that went into clambering around on those steep hillsides and shaping them into level shelves, supported by rock walls built where the dirt to level out those shelves was removed. We moved those rocks up the hillside, from the creek bed below the main house, up the hill to as far as the Power Wagon would go. At one point, we shut down that Power Wagon right there at the crest of her capacity, and she stayed there for many months. 

The last thirty feet or so of the uphill transport happened with human chains, lines of folks, standing a few feet apart, passing the rocks up, reversing the work of gravity and depositing them where they would soon be able to gaze down on the whole valley their ancestors had formed so long ago, into that creek bed from which they had come, where they would have remained for many hundreds of years, without our human hands and hearts. We picked them up, then put them down where they would then remain for longer than any of the structures any humans had built on the land with flimsier material than they.

There they will likely remain, long after the children of the children of the children of us foolish children who decided to move them have died, our little scratches on the face of “mi amante la madre tierra.” And every time I am able to work in a garden or move a rock from one place to another, I thank her again for giving me permission—even seeming to encourage me!—to make little scratches on her face. Love bites, like the male otter gives his mate during copulation, turning her nose bright red.

She heals, the earth heals from our scratching eventually, one hopes…or does she? Is my lover the earth crying out in pain from the kinds of scratches my fellow humans are giving her? YES, she says, YES, I do not want to be ripped open, blown up, covered over! If you humans must scratch at my face, make beautiful lines, interesting shapes, fill them with plants and creatures, with Life, more of this Life, Yes, I say YES! It is not sadism to want to make these kind of scratches on my lover’s face! It is part of how we make our living together, she and all of us, her lovers. We must relearn how to love her, not as a distant and superior mother (Earth Mother~Mother Superior?), as one unapproachable except through obscure and indirect means, but as a lover, an equal participant in our mutual exploration of how to Make Life together. We scratch gently, in different directions, alone and in groups, learning to respond to her, to read her signs, as one does with a familiar lover, eventually…

We have little time for learning. Those who do not know how to treat her as a Lover—perhaps do not know any lovers in their lives, never had the love shown them that they needed to learn to love anyone else—are fast destroying chunks of her flesh here and there, almost everywhere, in their ignorance of who she really is. We must do what we can to stop them, and continue to learn how to leave only the markings of love on her face.

Monday, July 21, 2014

In praise of non sequitur

In praise of non sequitur: you can call everything or anything a story, just don’t require that it makes sense

This is a reflection inspired by the #CLMOOC #CLMOOC14 Make Week #6 and tomorrow's Twitter Chat on the meaning of Story


When folks try to define story, they usually get to “beginning|middle|end” pretty quickly. Even if it takes them a while, that’s usually where they’re going. The most generous (liberal in one of its many pejorative senses [hate that word “liberal,” never did mean much {sort of like tolerant, implying that I know I'm right and I know you’re wrong but I won’t correct you out loud this time because I'm such a nice guy} and ever since liberal got that “neo” in front of it, it means even less]) definers of story allow as how there are these weird folks who sometimes like to put the end at the beginning or even in the middle, and shuffle around the other bits, and we need to acknowledge that there are these sort of “exceptions that prove the rule,” but all us sensible folks know that there’s really no call for weirdness, and we’ll just go on with how things are supposed to be and let the freaks hang out in the corner where we mostly ignore them.

There are the occasional reconstructions here and there which break down around attempts to distinguish fiction from nonfiction, or one genre or medium from another, but the sense/nonsense divide is the key one at which these systematizers balk. There’s a deep rebellion against these constraints that comes from the struggles of the unprivileged to make sense of their world on its own terms, rather than in terms of the framework of meaning which the dominant culture assigns and recognizes. The most common “end” to a classically defined “story” is some kind of moral or ethical or at least practical takeaway. It may not be a scriptural lesson or a self-righteous precept for conduct, explicitly, but at least the reader is left with a nugget of wisdom or judgement they can store and re-use. A bleak life of struggle for material existence or a constricted life, oppressed by exclusion and limitation through the prejudices of others, may have precious little to teach others, but its chronicler had better try to find that pearl, or no one will care.

Sometimes, though, that’s all there is, the description, the immersion in another’s world, a catalog of experience without construct or artifice. And why exactly is that not story?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Genre Theory Is the Salvation of Us All! How to re-frame [and transcend] formulaic writing in one swell foop

There's been a raft of ripples from an amazing seed, literally a "burr in your sock" by Kim Douillard, reflecting on a discussion that day in in Writing Project's ISI about formulaic writing. Many folks chimed in, and a delightful chorus of voices cascaded around the topic and its many branches and byways. I've just loved the interchange, as such a powerful exemplar of exactly why I've been so thrilled since its very beginning by the #CLMOOC and impressed at the up-leveling that's occurring as we get well into #CLMOOC14.
My reflection in process goes back to the other half of the contrast Kim was drawing, between the free-wheeling spirit of CLMOOC and the rigid cages kids get shoved into by formulaic writing. I've begun an attempt at crude satire by trying to illustrate to any non-k12-teachers in our audience what we mean by formulaic writing. It's to set myself the task of writing some ad copy for

Step In It! Writing®

Guaranteed to hoist each student on their own petard, whatever that may be!

Our patented BOX method of writing lays out well-formed loops of word-strings, in a scientifically designed sequence so that each loop snaps shut around their dainty feet, binding them to obvious and repetitive structures of meaning which remain forever clear and obedient. You don't really need to do any writing as a teacher, either! Just Step In It! ® yourself!

and, inspired by #CLMOOC  I used postermywall to create this