Mike Rose, "Writing for the Public" — CCCC 2009 — Session C

[My own thoughts will appear in brackets. I regularly assign Rose’s essay, “I Just Wanna be Average” to my freshman writing students. He considers the editorial a valuable form of public writing, and teaches graduate classes that ask students to use their specialized subject knowledge to produce editorials of value to the broader community.]

Bringing our knowledge into the public sphere. Disciplinary knowledge,
teaching and classrooms, and personal knowledge.  As a group we are
oriented toward practice. This talk is an opportunity to discuss going
public with what we know.

[Rose’s talk was very structured… so structured that I fear I may have missed labeling a section or two, either because I was inspired by something he had just said and was writing rather than listening, or because I was listening so closely that I forgot to take notes.]


The talk is structured around three pieces that Rose wrote recently. He read each for us, occasionally offering commentary and annotations while reading.

1) Reflection on how Rose uses history in his work. Requests that we think on the way we use our disciplinary knowledge to inform what we can do.

1.1 History contextualizes current practices. Exploration of literacy; academic prep; remedial education.  Cognition involved in blue-collar and service work. Defense of public education, from portraits of effective education.

Early 1980s at UCLA, created expository writing courses. Surprised by protracted resistance from core faculty. Puzzled and exasperated by the depth of the dismissiveness, even scorn, accompanying this resistance.  Despite surveys showing the importance of writing, the teaching of writing is characterized as not belonging to a research university.  When writing is labeled a “skill” it’s the kiss of death for course credit.  History shows that the picture is always shaded, nuanced; there is no clear villain, possible alternative solutions.

The second notion related to the first… even the most solid entrenched practice or believe has emerged from a complex set of historical circumstances. Things weren’t always so.  Other developments were possible, other ideas were in the air.  Rose wanted to defend yet reform writing instruction in remedial education.

1.2 Use of tools. Studying the thinking involved in blue collar service work, from welding to waitressing, work of the “old economy” is rich in its congnitive demands. Everyday congnition, how a narrow definition of intelligence affects democratic life.  Novices and experts in carpentry, for example.   Referred to a high school contscturction class, with manual tools on the wall and power tools ranged throughout the room.  With the advent of power tools came a degree of de-skilling… bandsaw and jigsaw can quickly make cuts that would have taken much longer when done by hand. Power tools require a skill of their own. Conflict in the trade of furniture making, and an ethos of craft traditions that continue as power tools reform the furniture business.  Advanced students would use hand tools when the machines were down.  Students will take a piece created by power tool, and use a hand tool to repair a tiny flaw.  Knowledge of history enhances the perception of commonplace physical activity.

1.3. 1991-1995 took time to travel around US visiting “good public school classrooms” – wanted a story that acknowledges the many failures of public education, but reaffirming the central importance of the public school in a democracy (this was the book Public Lives).

Wheelwright High School… Kentucky:  Deep in Kentucky coal country.  Originally a small farming community, participating in lumber economy. Railroads led mining companies into the region.  Coal boom led to row houses, company stores, and recreational center.  In 1931 the town was refurbished and made “a real good place to live”.  Modern coal town.  Coal markets declined in early 1950s. Workforce reduction in 1960s.  New company owner started selling off the town.  Former library is dismantled and overgrown with kudzu.  Teachers in Wheelwright created assignments that drew on this history. The students had heard this story from their parents and grandparents, and saw the history themselves. Many students attached to that history. Some wanted out. Most of them would have to move out (with a high unemployment rate).  

Classroom events can seem disembodied if analyses of student projects on a micro-level end up casting teaching and learning in a social vacuum.

Small one-room school in Polaris Montana. One-room schools are the epitome of local control. Rose found a copy of historical documents describing the establishment of this school, with teacher reports dating to 1894.  Some of the same last names appeared year after year. Holding these original documents while listening to a girl playing a traditional song on the piano helped him understand why these people fought to keep their one-room school from being consolidated.

1.4.  Writes about his own family experience, stories of waitressing and working the railroad. Uses historical scholarship to help him understand the personal history.  Knowing about the auto industry in 1950s and 1960s helps him understand the work his uncle did… makes sense of whether his accounts of life on the factory floor are characteristic.

Mentioned the story of his grandfather coming to America, working in Pennsylvania Railroad, and losing his leg in a gruesome accident. His grandfather was one of the millions of men being written about at the macro level in Montgomery’s history of working class.  Knowledge of his grandfather brought a fuller level of understanding to the historian’s findings.  The data help him to imagine a time and place, and the people moving through it.  Gets an inkling of his grandfather’s daily life…

Public and foreign policy has been “dangerously ahistorical”.  

2) Account of two writing courses for doctoral students, with particular attention on writing for broader audiences.

How to help young scholars go public with their knowledge?

Education includes diverse subject material. Not uncommon for a student to study several of these disciplines, acquiring as well the authority of disciplinary membership. Education students very much want to affect educational policy and practice. How to turn their voices from the seminar room to the public sphere?  Tension between the language of specialization and the language of public discourse.

Student after student expressed a desire to communicate to the public, but they worried that the specialized language of learning theory or critical social thought… the very language that certified their authority in the academy tongue-tied them when writing for a general audience.  Concern that professional language left no room for their passon.

Workshop on scholarly writing. (Referred to findings in Educational Researcher March 2001)

Course on writing for the broader public.  The goal – produce a newspaper opinion piece and a short magazine article. Draw on one’s studies and research a 700-800 word opinion picece, 1500-2500-word magazine article, also familiarizing themselves with the venues.   Will focus today on the op/ed piece.

Students immediately notice the brevity and conciseness of the op/ed piece. Evidence is present, but not a marshalling of evidence showing the richness of the research tradition.  Features of the op/ed genre – the “hook” and the “turn” (from summary to the writer’s preferred vision).  Accessible vocabulary, lack of jargon, judicious use.  Syntax of sentences, short paragraphs. Attention to style leads to experimentation, to a heightened appreciation of revision. A student realized “It does you no good to hold onto your precious words.”

The discussion of how one wants to come across is related to identity. How to sound at least a little distinct, while still using the discourse of the discipline.  

Students began applying the writing workshop to their own writing – reducing the scaffolding, emphasizing more on what is the problem, the fundamental logic one is trying to solve.  

Crossover works in both directions. Students gain a heightened sense of the relevance of their professional work to the public domain.

3) Cultural tangle of attitudes towards school knowledge.

Education Week op/ed written by Rose.

Broad concerns about politics and public history. Began as a blog entry.

“Politics and Knowledge.”

How does political knowledge get defined, in the moment, but affected by a thick web of historical

context. McCain’s campaign’s subtle attempt to diminish Obama’s Harvard law education.

School knowledge can be abstract, exclusionary… growing up in a poor family, Rose says he still feels uncomfortable in certain academic settings, particularly the retreat into pedantry.  The rural vs urban conflict has a long history in the US in 19th and 20th C American fiction.  Country boy/girl escapes the constraints of the small town, and either finds enlightenment or alienation.  Either dismissing the provincialism of the country, or emphasizing amorality and immorality in urban life.

Class marker: “It took a guy with a college degree to screw this up, and a guy with a high school degree to fix it.” A valuing of hands-on knowledge over schoolhouse knowledge. The bias against those who work with their hands works the other way.  Entertainment, tastes from liquor to wall hangings, speech.  Noted how “deadly” it was when Obama’s answers labeled “professorial”. 

[Journalism has a blue-collar tradition that encourages such phrasings… Journalism interns have to learn not to write to impress, but rather write for the benefit of someone with an eighth-grade education.]

Many working-class families would consider it a dream come true to follow Obama’s path to Harvard.

A brief reference to Sarah Palin [But so far a notable absence of references to “Joe the Plumber,” whose resonance in the last stages of the election breathed some life into the McCain campaign. If I had access to WiFi during the talk I would have searched Rose’s website for references, but for now I’ll just record the fact that I wanted some reference to the working-class appeal of this figure.]

Did formal education bring with it condescention, arrogance, ruthless? “The conservative attack on knowledge over the past eight years”  — seen the substitution of political loyalty for expertise, replaces feeling for knowledge.  (Maintains power, but runs counter to conservative traditions.)

Think of what it would mean for our civic life to affirm the bedrock value of knowledge – from machinists to pediatricians.