Using Genre to Help Students Envision Themselves as Writers

Using Genre to Help Students Envision Themselves as Writers (CCCC 2006 Chicago — Day 2)

I volunteered to chair this session, so I wasn’t taking copious notes, just jotting down possible discussion prompts.

Scott Whiddon, Louisiana State University, “From Cellblock to Center: Literacy, Identity and the Angolite.”

The Angolite is an award-winning news magazine produced by the inmates of the Lousiana State Penitentiary. He noted that criminality and illiteracy are often taken as synonymous. This publication lets its contributors and editors transcend their role as “prisoner” and lets them participate in the outside world that their circumstances and mistakes have denied them. He also mentioned the Angola Prison Rodeo, in which prisoners particpate before a sold-out crowd. [I asked whether the print-only Angola might perpetuate some of the power differentials that we see eroding in the outside world, with the rise of digital distributed culture. I also couldn’t help but think how both the magazine and the rodeo are attempts by the prisoners to take control of and even invert the panopticon. Instead of being subjects, observed by the invisible eye of authority, they become performers, interacting for and with the public who has paid to come see them. Whiddon noted that the articles in The Angolite feature redemption stories — precisely the kind of thing that the general public wants to hear from inmates.]

Lisa Bickmore, of Salt Lake Community College, prestented “Writing ‘Just on Paper,’: Genre, Exigency, Situation.” Since I’ve taught web design and writing for the web, I had to bite my tongue when she showed a slide featuring a mockup of a student website. The students had cut and pasted colored paper to indicate buttons and menu bars on a piece of poster board, and pasted what looked like an 8 1/2 x 11 paper printout in the center of the board.

My own biases made it hard for me to see beyond the paragraphs of plain text, poured into an approximation of a web design. You can put your boots in the oven, but that don’t make ’em biscuits.

I can certainly understand the value of a paper prototype, and of course I know nothing about the technical literacy or access to computers that Bickmore can expect from her students.

At any rate, Bickmore applied Jim Gee’s definition of literacy as social action, and presented samples from two student projects who chose to write on progressive topics. During the Q & A, I noted that as a journalism teacher, I make it perfectly clear that no human endeavor is ever perfectly objective, and I briefly described how I use the story of an article that appeared in the student newspaper when I was an undergraduate. An article reported that two demonstrations of equal sides took place at the same time, with pro-choice demonstators on one side of the downtown mall, and pro-life demonstrators on the other. The student reporter included four direct quotes and one paraphrase from protestors on one side of the issue, and merely quoted the slogans shouted and carried by demonstrators on the other side of the issue. I tell my students that, if they’re waiting for me to tell them which side of the issue this reporter favored, then they’re missing the point of the story — it’s bad journalism, no matter which side it favors. Students don’t have to adopt a neutral tone of voice in the composition classroom, but still, in light of the activist framework she supplies to this wriiting assignment, I asked her whether her conservative students felt comfortable expressing themselves in the same way. (She answered that she was glad somebody asked that question, and noted that one group of mostly male students wrote about their opinion that Title IX was unfair.)