Systems vs Relationships: A Binary

In teaching, my focus for a long time was on building a good system for students to learn writing.  Now, I think that the one-on-one relationship with each student has a far greater impact not only on building rapport, but on helping students prioritize their learning.

Are these two components of teaching a binary?  Or are they complementary?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  It seems that each student is far more individual in terms of learning than many of our theories indicate, at least from what I’m seeing.  But I don’t think it’s “skill” or “literacy” that’s the issue, really – I think students tend to be far more linguistically literate than is necessarily reflected in their classroom writing.  Instead, I think that the real issue is that different students have very different degrees of experience with certain certain modes of literate expression (e.g. Facebook vs. the five-paragraph essay).  Further, we’ve been trying to view citation practice as simply a scholarship practice, when it reality we use citation all the time in conversation (cue the gossipy aunt: “Well I heard from x that y has been…”)

A bigger issue, perhaps, is that we have undervalued the socially-driven aspects of prioritizing of knowledge and practice.  For example, I know that I work harder on my dissertation materials because they will represent who I am not only as someone on the library bookshelf, but because I want my committee members to think well of me.  I don’t want to face the look of “I don’t think you really worked hard enough on this…”  And it’s not that I would ever get that look, but I see my written research as a reflection of who I am as a person.  Our students experience the same issue, but there are a few caveats:

  1. Who are the important people in the student’s own conception of personal identity?
  2. How does the student want to appear to these individuals?
  3. How exactly will this writing classroom help with those goals?

As a teacher, we are limited in terms of 1 and 2.  Theoretically, yes, we can use collaboration and discussion to help the student see the people in the classroom as a subset of those important audiences (and they will, normally.)  And if the course is really good, we might change the ways students see themselves.  But really, our main area of connection is going to be 3.  Here, you find out what each students is looking for in 1 and 2, and then you individually rephrase the course in order to position it as an important (or at least useful) thing that will help with 1 and 2.

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