Trends in Writing Research
One theme of the 2014 Writing Research across Borders conference in Paris, France concerned research that promotes social equity, an especially important topic in a time when teachers around the world are seeing demographic shifts in their classrooms and communities. Here are a few trends in writing research that hold promise for addressing questions of equity.
Methodological Innovations Writing research continues to develop more robust ways of approaching language learning. Promising trends include cognitive ethnography, ethnolinguistic studies, mapping, neuroscience research, and cross cultural genre studies. These approaches might offer the scale and depth needed to understand language learning in diverse communities and across multiple languages.
International Research Teams Increasingly, humanities, engineering and sciences, and education scholars are working together to develop large-scale projects. Their research questions are tending to address cross cultural understandings and approaches to questions of the transfer of writing skills and strategies, genre studies particularly across disciplines, the materiality of literacy, and assessment.
Ecologies and Materialities of Writing This longstanding area of research pays attention to the interconnected, networked, collaborative, material, infrastructural, systemic ways in which writing unfolds or is hindered in workplaces and communities. A new dimension to this research, ethnolinguistic studies of writing codes in contact, traces the imperialistic introduction of new writing technologies in cultures and communities.
Professional Development for Teachers in all levels and educational settings remains an important development in writing research. Along this line, look for didactic learning and teaching methods, competency based approaches to teacher education, as well as mentoring and professional development initiatives for faculty.
Global writing networks, digital contact zones, connectivity, citizenship, social networking, and activism all remain important areas of theorizing and research. While not a new area, look for interesting pedagogical innovations between teachers and researchers uniting classrooms across the globe to enhance learning of all students through project based assignments.
Trans (insert noun here) Cultures. Languages. Disciplines. Nations. All of these areas were represented by several presentations from scholars around the globe. The results of these studies show how learners develop metalinguistic awareness as they develop abilities to transfer skills and strategies; they show how literacies travel and accrue across life spans; and they reveal deeper understanding of the translating process as it unfolds in learners' texts. This important trend in writing research promises better understandings of circulations of power in literacies and language learning.
Interested in learning more? Browse the convention program here.
One of the the brightest, most enthusiastic and creative preservice teachers I've had the pleasure of teaching, Elizabeth (psuedonym) is in her internship year in a mid-Michigan school district. I hardly recognized her voice on the phone when she called in tears. Just one week into her unit on Zora Neale Hurston, a parent sent her a note lambasting her for the unit's content and focus on African American Language. This parent thought that only the classics and standard English should be taught. Elizabeth had developed this unit throughout her senior year in Michigan State University's top-ranked teacher education program. As well prepared as she was, little in her teacher education preparation readied her for this person's horribly racist remarks about the content of the class and her abilities as a teacher.
It's hard for me to decide which I loathe more-- the parent's explicit racism or implicit sexism.
For Elizabeth, this was just a taste of what will likely be a steady stream of oppressive, demeaning, and exhausting encounters with parents she'll have as a teacher. Her story isn't that unusual. Read through some of the 3,400 or so comments in response to futurist's Ron Clark's CNN editorial, "What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents." It's not clear why parents have so little respect for teachers or when this phenomenon starting taking root, though Richard Worzel has a few ideas.
If the entire profession had more males, though, my hunch is that teachers would be much more respected and well compensated, and recognized for work they do.* Between 1961-2006, the profession has remained consistently 70% female, but the number of those holding a MA degree has increase from only 23% in 1961 to 60.4% in 2006 (NCES). Despite the increased educational attainment of teachers profession, their income increased by only 2.7% between 2000 and 2011 (NCES). Compare this to the anemic 5.7% growth of the average US worker and the absolutely obscene 527% growth in CEO pay from 1978-2011 (ThinkProgress).
The disrespect for the profession and disregard for the teachers flies in the face of what we know about the demanding nature of the job. "Teaching done well is complex intellectual work," Mike Rose reminds us. "Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development. But it’s not just that teachers know things. Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others." I'm not sure how much growth Elizabeth would have been able to foster in the parent whose racism and disrespect were everywhere present in that note.
I do know she was trying to educate all of her students equally well. And for that she should be well paid, respected, and recognized. The everyday struggle for equity in classrooms unfolded here on two fronts -- in the curriculum AND in how teachers are recognized as professionals. Both link back to an ongoing struggle with patriarchy that place white males at the top of the chain of being.
Not quite finished with her internship year, Elizabeth asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for graduate school. But it turns out she didn't need it after all. She's accepted a teaching position teaching in Saudi Arabia where, she was assured by the search committee, the teachers feel respected, have autonomy to make sound decisions based on their professional training, and have opportunities to refine their craft. Why does she have to go so far for respect?
* A recent UNESCO sponsored study "Women and the Teaching Profession: Exploring the Feminisation Debate," reviewed by Kate Greany for Gender & Development 20.2 (2012): 379-380, seems to suggest this as well.
ᏍᏏᏉᏯ/Sequoyah/ as a Change Agent
Presented to the Cherokee tribal council in 1821, Sequoyah's invention of this 86 character writing system is what Walter Mignolo might call epistemic de-linking. When it was invented in longhand, none of the characters resembled alphabetic characters (click on the image to check out the longhand characters on the left side of each cell).
Sequoyah seems to have understood the power of writing in the alphabet. He had seen letters, books, the bible, and had signed a treaty all before finalizing his creation. Interviews with him and second-hand accounts from relatives revealed that he had tried out a number of symbolic systems before he settled on the syllabary as we know it.
From the jump, Sequoyah ruptured the colonial work of literacy, that is, reading and writing with the letter to show you're learned and civilized. He developed a completely unique writing system that works in and on Cherokee language and logics. “One strategy of de-linking is to de-naturalize concepts and conceptual fields that totalize A reality” (Mignolo Delinking 459). Because it was intentionally made without reference to the alphabet, along the instrumental logics of Cherokee designs and language, the invention of the Cherokee syllabary denaturalized the concept of literacy— it's no longer just about the letter.
Despite the tremendous pressure at the time to adopt western writing and/or alphabetic orthographies for writing native languages, Sequoyah single-highhandedly ruptured the conceptual fields of civilization, humanity, and knowledge associated with what it means to be literate, "lettered," as in knowledgeble and learned. Ironically, when the tribe was said to have learned the new script in 3 years, they were widely praised as newly 'litearte,' (thus civilized), even though they were writing in characters and reading and writing Sequoyan.
His invention was the initial rupture that changed the terms of the conversation about what it meant, indeed what it means, to be literate. It's only fitting that the first entry for this blog be about such an important American Indian activist and change agent in American history.
Models of change, change agents, teaching, learning, expressive tools, and everyday struggles for dignity, resources, respect, and cultural perseverance.