Gearing Up for Calderwood Fellowship: Reviewing Berthoff – Part 1

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 first of a two-part reflection on my reading.

While the piece was written and delivered as an address in the 1979, there is something deeply prescient about our current context in Berthoff’s notion of  making use chaos. Contemporary life has forced all of us to grow a bit more comfortable with chaos than we might like.

She begins by poking at the concept of writing as a process and what that means. The writing process mantra was a pedagogical staple by the 1970s, yet Berthoff poses a valuable challenge to dig deeper into what the writing process actually means and what its value is.

Presenting the chart of Prewriting-Drafting-Revising-Editing-Publishing with some kind of clever graphic isn’t really enough for anyone. I have worked in schools where there seemed to be this assumption and expectation that hanging the poster on the wall  would somehow teach the students about writing. Perhaps it was only meant to be a reminder but to even think it all that  meaningful is a bit ridiculous.

Much of what Berthoff advocates is the need for teachers to constantly give students a sense of geography for the context in which writing is situated in their particular course, as well as how it might fit within a grander context of their lives. She spends a lot of time discussing contexts and their importance in how we all go about making meaning. I like the idea that composing is the process of making meaning. In fact, I like the idea of teaching writing as composition, the wrangling of an array of disparate elements into a newly synthesized thing. This appeals to the existential part of me.

On page two she explains, “Thinking, perceiving, writing are all acts of composing: any composition course should ensure that students learn the truth of this principle, that making meanings is the work of the active mind and is thus within their natural capacity.”

Writing and thinking are both recursive and discursive as many theorists suggest. They inform one another in such a symbiotic way that it can be impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. Yet distinguishing between writing and composing might actually be a helpful paradigm for students to understand. It is something that I have been considering for some time now.

I also love the aphorism, “Ex nihlo nihil fit: out of nothing, nothing can be made” she includes on the same page. She also explains how instructors must assist students to “reseeing the ways out of chaos.”

I often explain and model for my students that writing is a messy process. In fact, I tend to do a lot of guided prewriting with classes as a communal activity, where the group shouts out various ideas and answers to prompted questions while I capture them on the board at the front of the room. From there, we start to discuss how to classify, group, and construct some meaning out of the mess. It is usually after that point that I release them to begin writing independently.

Being a huge fan of the late Francis Christensen’s work, the generative nature of language and writing as Berthoff invokes it  appeals to me greatly. When Berthoff starts winding through some of the philosophical underpinnings of her claim, I was pleased to recognize other familiar names, particularly Sylvia Ashton-Warner‘s “key vocabulary,” which is a fascinating example of teaching young children how to own their language and use it with authority. I can’t help but think that Ashton-Warner and Berthoff were influential to much of David Bartholomae‘s Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts.

More interesting some of my most recent thinking was her comments on page 3, “Beginnings, for instance, should never be graded: identifying mistakes is irrelevant when we are teaching making a start at the process of making meanings.”

This idea is strong support for my recent thoughts on grading. I have been grading less student writing, but commenting and guiding development a lot more. In fact, it has inspired perhaps a better way for me to state my position on what I have been doing is to say, “Compositions are what is to be graded, not writing,” although I am not sure if that quite captures the idea completely yet.

“Learning to write means learning to tolerate ambiguity,” on page 3, might be my favorite statement in the whole article. I love that concept. It gets at another idea that I try to continually impress upon students. I encourage them to go hunting for uncertainty, because that is where they have the most work to do. It demands thinking. It is where the juice is for a writer. Too often students only see writing as the result. the product. That is in fact what we read, generally. This is a false idol of the classroom and a notion that teachers can implicitly endorse without realizing it. When writing s inadvertently presented as a product, it obscures the mess and chaos Berthoff is trying to capture regarding the process with the sophisticated polish of the finished piece.


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