Our thesis writing group…

My fellow MA students Sarah G, Marieke, Michelle, and Sarah B and I are meeting once a week to go over each other’s writing and to motivate each other for our theses (or writing sample, in SG’s case). This is really exciting for me, and I’m looking forward to the good feedack and conversations we’ll have. I sent out some brainstorming I did to them via email a bit ago, and I’m going to go ahead and share that here:

As I lay in bed this morning, wondering what the hell I would send y’all about my thesis, the first somewhat concrete idea that came to mind was conflict. At this point, to be honest, I have very little idea of where I want my thesis to go. I’ve seemed to jump ship from idea to idea every other week this last year. However, there are a few themes that keep recurring when I freewrite about thesis ideas or when I walk around, playing ideas off each other in my brain.

Structures: I find myself struggling against structures in all facets of life: class, race, gender, sexualities, government, school systems, and now classrooms. Geoffrey Sirc writes about the classroom as a museum: A place where students have to arrive, be told what is good (and thus, since it’s in a museum, what is also lifeless), and be told to recreate with the same lifelessness. Part of me wants to rebel against the idea of a composition classroom as a training ground for training academic writing: why can’t the composition classroom be justification in and of itself? Why the force-to-train? Why is education a gauntlet for the worker-to-be rather than the person-as-is? Simultaneously, in today’s society, it is necessary to teach certain things in order to prepare students for the next stage. It would be irresponsible not to.

Ambiguity: One of my favorite passages from this year is:

These either/or ways of seeing exclude life and real revision by pushing us to safe position, to what is known. They are safe positions that exclude each other and don’t allow for any ambiguity, uncertainty. Only when I suspend myself between either and or can I move away from conventional boundaries and begin to see shapes and shadows and contours—ambiguity, uncertainty, and discontinuity, moments when the seams of life just don’t want to hold…. My life is full of uncertainty; negotiating that uncertainty day to day gives me authority. (Sommers 317)

The classroom seems to me to be a place where ambiguity is necessary. Where structures are questioned, where ideas are at play against each other, where values are in constant critique. A big problem I’ve had with education is the way it passes on culture instead of critiqing culture. The classroom is a tool of the king. Foucault places the teacher’s origins in the scribe of the Church or King, and in the lawyer. The teacher is supposed to appear “objective“ but instead reinforces the dominant ideologies. I want to struggle against being that teacher and instead be the teacher, who, like Socrates, questioned dominant values.

Social Change: In her book The Peaceable Classroom, Mary Rose O’Reilley asks whether the language arts classroom can’t be a place to help make a more peaceful world. I share her sentiment that the language arts classroom should be used to create social change. I want a better, more peaceful, more fair, less cruel world. It seems that the language arts classroom, based on the fact that we are teaching writing (in a way, a way of thinking), that it is the best classroom venue (as opposed to other fields) for the freedom to critique society and ask students to engage in the world. However, Structure sets in: Teach the academic essay. Teach the resume. Teach form. Tagmemics. The desire to use language to create is destroyed in our youth as early as elementary when they are taught that form (grammar) is more important than play, force, and engagement in the world.

Conflict: I do have a concern about the peace movement, and even with feminism as it is often applied (so more with application than with theory). It is the will to erase conflict. The peace movement and watered-down feminism often fall prey to the dominant American ideology of “conflict is bad“ – we are told “you are either with us or against us,“ so don’t be oppositional. Our youth are pathologized if they disagree too much: “Oppositional Defiant Disorder.“ People who criticize the race situation in this country are accused of “playing the race card“ or of being “uppity“ and asked “Why can’t we all just get along?“ Women are told not to “complain“ about their situation. Too many people would rather mask over conflict that is there and deny it. (And then when there is conflict, it is treated in the most asinine manner possible, thank you Rush Limbaugh and his ilk). I see conflict as one of the central metaphors of the composition and language arts classroom. I see teachers falling prey to the will-to-erase-conflict problem when they try to deny the power differential between them and their students. I see the ideal classroom as a place where it is not safe to hold any opinion for long, where it is safe to express any opinion, but where students are open to the conflict in themselves and among others to allow their opinions to be challenged and changed. Perhaps this is too violent, too masculine, and too agonistic of a vision?

How do all these ideas play with each and trim down into something manageable for a thesis? At this point, I am not certain. They’re all very big and amorphous in my mind right now, and I’m so fickle, I feel like I could be somewhere else completely in a few weeks.

Possible ways to approach this:

1. I am drawn to hypertextuality and the possibility to be upfront with conflict that is within us (it can be, in a way “texts that listen,“ as I’ve said before). I’ve ordered Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do by B.J. Fogg (recommended to me by Kevin Brooks) through Orbis. So, I could focus on hypertexts as a way to discuss the above issues, and choose one or two hypertexts that exhibit the possibilities of this. This actually sounds fun to me…

2. I could see how this could be a bit more theoretical with a heady discussion of structure and ambiguity, but I have no idea what this would look like. This is something that I want to write, but I am also beginning to think that this is also something that should wait a while – something that would be a bit more manageable for a longer work, when I have more experience and grounding in theory and in Composition reading.

3. A discussion of blogs in this vein, though, honestly, I have done a bit with blogs so far, and will continue for a paper or two at conferences. It would be very savvy of my time and energy to write about blogs on my thesis, but to be honest, I’m burning out on that. There is still a lot of energy around it, but I guess there is large part of me that wants my thesis to be something different from other work I’ve done. Perhaps it’s some naïve vision of a thesis as a grand work that stands out from everything else. I should just start viewing it as a long paper.

4. I’ve been tempted approach this as an analysis of Socrates’ dialogic rhetoric and approaching these ideas from a “This is what I see good about Socrates that we can learn as teachers and writers.“ This too sounds fun, but now as I think about it, I want more to focus on the modern classroom.

Okay, I feel done with writing this. I feel my own energy going around hypertexts with these ideas, and I look forward to talking to you!

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