This summer, I have the great fortune of participating in the Calderwood Fellowship for the Teaching of Writing at UMass Boston. It is an exciting opportunity to conduct some funded action research over the course of a year. It starts with a week-long, intensive seminar in July which is just around the corner. In preparation for the seminar, we were asked to read a handful of texts.
The first one I opted to read was the short article ”Learning the Uses of Chaos” by Professor Ann Berthoff. This is the second of a two-part reflection on my reading.
While I have long been an advocate of asking students to engage in meta-cognitive writing. More recently, I have been playing around with the idea of narrating the work or process, as explained by writer and software developer John Udell, author of Practical Internet Groupware. It is not necessarily all that new or radical an idea. In fact, it seems that Udell even picked up a thread from biologist Edward O. Wilson’s book Consilience. By demonstrating the process in an open, confessional way, access to the creator’s mind is established. That is not only what teachers must do for students but ask students to do it too. By laying the process bare, in all of its chaotic mess, almost like a journalist, we clarify it for others and ourselves. It is a great kind of writing, albeit not composing, that provides a window into the head of the thinker. That window is what all learners need more than anything.
When Berthoff begins to engage the idea of context most directly, I kept returning to the Robert Frost piece “Education by Metaphor.” As challenging as that text can be, it holds great wisdom, providing an anchor for how we see the world. As Berthoff, writes on page 3, “We know reality not directly but by means of the meanings we make,” all I could think of was changing the word “meanings” to “metaphors.” I also kept feeling that in her discussion of contexts that it was really more about reading than anything. Yet reading and writing are also so intimately commingled that they too are nearly one.
Still, a key concept to making meaning from chaos for Berthoff returns to ambiguity. Possibly my second favorite sentence in the article is a partially borrowed one from page 4, “We must realize ourselves and make dramatically evident to our students is what I.A. Richards means when he calls ambiguities the “hinges of thought (1959, p. 24).” What great phrase, “hinges of thought.” Moreover, I found Berthoff’s challenge to teachers to ask better questions particularly resonant. In that last few years, I have migrated to making the vast majority of my comments on student papers simply questions. While I may fall victim to “What do you mean hear?” I am definitely trying to compel students to answer the questions I pose, as well as clarify. Additionally, I am hoping to reignite the thinking that may have sparked their idea in the first place. Always considering how to reframe questions is a good takeaway for me.
I have been chasing methods of helping students to ask themselves better questions for some time now. The goal has always been helping them to develop quality questions in such a way that their answers will ultimately help them construct their compositions. I often comment, “Writing essays in school is often about asking yourself really good questions and arranging the answers into a cohesive whole.” Adding to the question development kitbag is ongoing.
A small surprise for me was Berthoff’s transition into “interpretive paraphrase,” which I believe to be a great insight into how to guide student revision. By “continually asking ‘How does it change the meaning if I put it this way?’ — is of course a principle method of enquiry, but its importance for us in the composition classroom is that it teaches students to see relationships and to discover that that is what they do with their minds,” from page 4. Here Berthoff champions the idea that “Language is an exchange” and the importance of dialogue, also on page 4. It reminds me of how much of the benefit from taking any course is the social context. Similar to Vygotsky, Murray, and others, I am reminded of just how much it is in the conversations where the real meaning begins to emerge in thinking.
This left me quite fond of her page 4 ending, “Dialogue, that is to say, is essential to the making of meaning and thus to the learning to write. The chief use of chaos is that it creates the need for that dialogue.” Therefore, a teacher’s job is to help students spot ambiguity, like truffles in the forest, and help them learn to grow comfortable with a certain degree of chaos. I wonder if it is a concept that they may actually be more familiar with outside of school than in it, considering our modern lives. Perhaps getting students to see that idea as neither “isolated” or “absurd” is a key in reframing their relationship to the classroom, wherein the classroom becomes a context for not only making meaning but training for using writing as a means for navigating through the chaos that life presents. It is a lesson many modern adults could serve to learn as well.