Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development.

Chapter 8 | Conclusions and Implications

Implications for Supporting Literate Development

In addition to shaping our research, how we understand and imagine the developmental histories of literate persons and practices is a crucial pedagogical issue as well. In this sense, these five accounts of disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization have as much to tell us about how writing might be best supported and taught as it does about how it might be examined. As Yancey (2004) noted in her CCCC chair’s address, “our model of teaching composition, as generous, varied, and flexible as it is in terms of aims and as innovative as it is in terms of pedagogy—and it is all of these—(still) embodies the narrow and the singular in its emphasis on a primary and single human relationship: the writer in relation to the teacher” (p. 309). Viewed from this perspective, what Prior (1998) referred to as “the chronotope of the classroom” (p. 249), literate persons are reduced to only students, and their histories of literate engagement are configured solely in academic terms. Writing is reduced to the ability (or perhaps the lack thereof) to use disciplinary practices in order to interact with disciplinary texts in the pursuit of disciplinary objectives, and thus the circulations of tools and texts come to be configured solely within disciplinary cycles. Richly literate landscapes are reduced to only classrooms, college libraries, and writing centers.

Extending and enriching this perspective is critical if we are to realize Yancey’s vision of “a new curriculum for the 21st century, a curriculum that carries forward the best of what we have created to date, that brings together the writing outside of school and that inside” (p. 308, italics in original). To date, responses to Yancey’s call include a number of innovative approaches that occasion and make visible, both to ourselves and our students, “the system of circulation—the path that writing takes … beyond and around the single path from student to teacher” (Yancey, 2004, pp. 310-311). Shipka’s (2005) multimodal model of composition immerses learners in a set of rich and rigorous tasks that ask them to analyze how a broad array of communicative tools can and do shape the production of a wide variety of activities. Jolliffe and Harl (2008) invited undergraduates to log their curricular and extracurricular reading as a means of illuminating the richness of their literate lives.

Haas (1994) wrote that, “At the college level, to become literate is in many ways to learn the patterns of knowing about, and behaving toward, texts within a disciplinary field” (p. 43). However, the portraits of these five co-researchers' repurposing, remediating, and coordinating a rich network of texts and textual practices, of authoring themselves continually across vernacular, disciplinary, and even professional worlds and of navigating the tensions and synergies that texture their efforts suggest much longer, more complex, and more heterogeneous pathways of learning. Those portraits also begin to document the ongoing ways — ways we must learn to see — that students are (re)making disciplinary genres, practices, identities, and fields through their engagement.

These five portraits point to the need for a curriculum that positions learners as people who are agentively making and remaking disciplinary practices, identities, and worlds based on their rich histories with literate activity. Such a curriculum would invite students to trace the historical trajectories of the full range of their literate activities and texts as a way of bringing tacit linkages between literate activities to the foreground, thus making them available for examination and signaling their relevance and value in disciplinary settings. Such a curriculum would involve students in the work of interrogating materials, instructional approaches, and reception practices to identify elements that afford connections between disciplinary worlds and broader literate landscapes. Such a curriculum would invite students to explore histories of academic practices and variations in academic genres and styles to make clear that there is not a single, ahistorical form that people need conform to in order to legitimately participate in disciplinary life. Such a curriculum would invite students to view changes in genres, styles, practices, and participation structures in ways that afford learning to participate in varied, and always-evolving literate and semiotic nexus of practice.

Casting students as persons with agency in disciplinarity informs much of the teaching we do at our respective institutions: the University of Central Florida and Anoka-Ramsay Community College. Our teaching—whether for first-year composition, upper-division undergraduate classes, or graduate courses in composition and rhetoric—centers around an approach that invites learners to understand their richly literate lifeworlds and how those lifeworlds figure into the continual making and remaking disciplinarity.

Some of the activities and assignments we use, for example, invite students to identify the full range of their encounters with literacy, especially experiences in which texts assume a variety of forms or might not be immediately visible but are nonetheless shaping activity in significant ways. Like a number of scholars (Bazerman, 2004; Dominguez Barajas, 2007; Guerra, 2007; Ivanic, 1998; Kells, 2007; McCrary, 2005) we recognize that helping learners to develop an awareness of the broad range of discourses and discoursal tools they have in their repertoires is a key factor in literate development. We have also come to recognize the importance of helping learners to develop an awareness of the broad range of practices they have in their repertoires. One such activity that has been particularly productive for both of us, especially in the first-year composition classes we teach, asks students to articulate their notion of “writing”—what it involves, what forms it can take, how it is learned, and elements that shape its production, reception, and distribution—and then to compare their representations with those offered by a range of institutions and communities.

Another activity introduces students to various terms used to describe people's engagement with texts, including "writing," "reading," "literate activity," "inscriptional practice," and then asks them to examine their own literate lives in light of those terms as a way to understand what those terms illuminate and what they can obscure. Still another such activity invites students to examine the relationships among various experiences with reading, writing, and otherwise acting with texts, often by asking them to identify and analyze key instances of texts, tools, or practices being repurposed across activities and worked through multiple representational media. Informed by analyses of the ways cultural tools both afford and constrain action (Hutchins, 1995; Scollon, 2001a, 2001b; Wertsch, 1998), scholarship examining how persons coordinate multiple texts and practices (Bazerman, 2004; Prior, 1998; Spinuzzi, 2003), and the research on which this book is based, a recent spin-off of this activity asks students to focus on specific instances of repurposing and to explore how such interactions might be affording as well as constraining action. Another activity centers around inviting students to examine closely the ways that their lives have come to be mediated by mundane texts and inscriptions such as calendars, schedules, lists, diaries, notes to themselves and others, texts and other kinds of digital messages, and Facebook postings, and then to connect their analyses with scholarly analyses of those texts.

It is important to note that these tasks are not geared toward obscuring or ignoring people's’ academic engagements, but rather toward inviting learners to situate disciplinary activities in a larger literate landscape, and, to some extent, to write their engagements with a variety of texts into the discursive space of the classroom. Nor are these tasks aimed at eliminating the tensions that can arise as people negotiate and coordinate profoundly heterogeneous networks of tools, texts, practices, and identities by making, say, disciplinary literacies more like fan fiction ones or vice versa; rather, they are designed to help learners identify such tensions as opportunities to understand more fully what it means to be a literate person in the world.

The kinds of invitations we've outlined above can help students to more fully imagine themselves as active participants in the continual remaking of their disciplinary practices and selves. But perhaps the more crucial benefit we see lies in how students' responses to those kinds of invitations can serve as resources for re-making ourselves as teachers who recognize, and take seriously, a number of realities of disciplinary learning and enculturation as they play out in the lives of their students.

Students' responses to such activities can help us recognize more fully and concretely that learners bring with them to our courses a wealth of experiences with literate activity. In this sense, students’ responses to these activities impress upon us all of the literate activities that can be obscured or rendered completely invisible, subordinated or entirely ignored, when literate persons and activities are seen only from the dominant perspective offered up by classrooms, disciplines, and professions. Understanding those rich histories, those extensive cycles of repurposing and remediation that stretch across the full range of literate engagements—key considerations in making literacy instruction more relevant in the production of the persons, practices, texts, and tools shaping writing in the twenty-first century—demands that we follow the advice Shaughnessy (1976) offered for making visible learners’ rich experiences with language and literacy that typically go unrecognized: to become “student[s] of new disciplines and of [our] students themselves” (p. 239).

The portraits of students' literate lives that emerge from these kinds of activities can also help teachers to re-envision how we think about the literate experiences that learners bring with them to their disciplinary activities. Based on her study of a doctoral student in physics, Blakeslee (1997) argued that teachers and mentors need to “acknowledge and work more with the residual practices that get carried over from students’ previous experiences and training, particularly those carried over from traditional schooling” (p. 158). Given the richly literate landscapes that emerge from students' responses, Blakeslee’s point about acknowledging and working with the practices learners bring with them is well taken, even if students' responses suggests that we might not want to privilege those practices that originate in formal instruction. Blakeslee’s statement does, however, raise questions regarding precisely what we acknowledge those practices as and thus the kind of work we ask learners to do with them. Whether practices are encountered through engagement with other disciplines or literate activities beyond school altogether, to characterize them as “residual” or “unproductive” (Blakeslee, 1997, p. 158) is to cast them as impediments to disciplinary expertise. At best, this might encourage educators to conclude, as Blakeslee did, that “rather than completely setting aside their old, comfortable strategies, students can continue to rely on those strategies while gradually replacing them with new and perhaps more productive ones given the tasks they must now perform” (p. 158). The binaries here—old and new, comfortable and more productive—and the unexamined assumption that the ideal end point of development is full replacement are oriented toward the notion of discrete and autonomous territories of practice. Based on the portraits of Charles, Kate, Lindsey, Terri, and Alexandra, we simply do not see the validity of such views.

What might it mean, on the other hand, for teachers to acknowledge learners’ existing practices as elements of expertise, and how might that inform the work we and our students do with them? To echo Witte (1992), once the experiences with literacy that learners bring to their disciplinary coursework are regarded as elements of expertise, “the issue becomes one of navigation, not one of separation” (p. 292). Casting learners' textual actings, whether from other disciplines or beyond formal schooling, in such a manner recognizes the wide range of literate knowledge and abilities that learners bring to disciplinary endeavors as expertise and thus as potentially useful for developing expertise in a focal discipline. From this perspective, we should realize that our teaching need not be aimed at getting learners to employ extra-disciplinary practices only with an eye toward replacing them at the first opportunity, but rather toward encouraging learners to those practices as flexible resources for creating, maintaining, coordinating, extending, altering, and perhaps even productively disrupting networks that provide access to disciplinary expertise; to develop a sense of the linkages and the incommensurabilities and affordances and constraints that animate those networks; and even to consider not just what textual practices were in previous thens and theres, but how they might function here and now as well as in the near and distant future.

Realizing the full range of our students’ literate lives would help also us to avoid misconstruing their literate abilities. Students' responses to our invitations would help us realize that focusing on only one type of writing is, in effect, to make a sampling error, mistaking performance on a narrow task or as judged by a single dimension for the full multi-dimensional range of a person’s semiotic resources.

In an environment with ever greater emphasis on ever narrower regimes of literate accountability, we hope this picture of co-developing literate activities reminds us how important it is in human terms to look at the whole person, to support the co-curricular activities as well as the curricular.

Students' responses can also help us to more fully recognize that pathways of learning and socialization are multiple and varied. Seeing the various kinds of disciplinary trajectories of participation that students have charted would make it very difficult to ignore how configuring pathways toward disciplinary participation solely in terms of key knowledge that people need to possess or key skills they need to have mastered at specific stages, or even in terms of a single well-defined pathways, can prevent learners from engaging with disciplinary worlds.

Helping undergraduates extend themselves into the privileged conventions of the university is not so much about teaching them new practices as it is about providing students with productive opportunities to negotiate histories with multiple literate engagements and, thus, about asking ourselves to be flexible and invite the ongoing continuation of literate histories. Given that such non-school writing has the potential to enrich undergraduates’ educational experiences, doing so can heighten our awareness of how productive links between students’ literate activities might be forged and prompt us to explore more fully how we can all learn to recognize, acknowledge, and promote the productive interplay of diverse literate practices.

Students' responses to such invitations can also help us to recognize more fully that writing, learning, and socialization always occur at the intersections of multiple histories, and thus involve navigating the tensions and synergies among them. Accounts of students crafting disciplinary identities, for example, can powerfully foreground for us learners' always ongoing efforts to reconcile participation with multiple ways of being in the world. Such accounts can also help us to recognize more fully the very real difficulties of identity work, no matter how effortless it can sometimes seem.

Ultimately, engaging with our students accounts of writing, learning, and socialization can help us to see that writing, whether for disciplinary worlds or any other purposes, isn’t so much about learning new practices in a new context as it is about continually coordinating historical trajectories of multiple practices, artifacts, and identities; about reading those different currents of literate activity and understanding how they are and might be related; and then writing with, against, and across the sometimes turbulent confluences where they meet.

Bazerman and Prior’s (2004) call to explore the practices that people use to produce texts and the ways such practices gain their meanings and functions as dynamic elements of specific cultural settings, then, is a pedagogical imperative as well. The analyses we’ve offered here also suggest that it is imperative that we communicate to learners the roles they play in actively making and remaking these discursive practices. Part of how such practices gain their meanings and functions as dynamic elements of specific cultural settings, we argue, is through a learner’s remakings of them. As our analyses suggest, appropriating architectures for perception is not simply a matter of using them repeatedly and regularly in the interests of a particular discipline or profession; rather, it is a matter of continually making and re-making these practices and infusing them with your own particular historical trajectories. Practice may be situated for now, but it is never settled once and for all. It may be localized for now, but it is never finalized. To echo Scollon (2001a), practice is continually re-made in the interplay of two histories—its history with a particular field and its history in the life of the person. The provisional, always unfinished nature of practice means that learners are playing an active role in re-shaping those practices and, thus, also actively re-shaping themselves and their societies. Our theory, research, and teaching all should begin from this unsettling but empowering recognition.

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