My Seminar in Composition class has a regular cycle throughout the semester. We read and discuss an essay (most recently “Deep Play” Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz), along with all the attendant discussion board posts and in-class writing exercises; the students write an essay related to that reading; we workshop certain essays and move on.
The workshop phase is meant to use student writing to learn about writing, to provide the class with something concrete they can work with and hopefully apply to their own writing.
Generally there are patterns in each batch of essays that need to be addressed. For example, in these Geertz essays, the students were very adept at describing the symbolism in various cultural “texts,” from Confirmation to boxing to prom, much as Geertz explains the symbolism of cocks in Balinese society. But unlike Geertz, most of them didn’t go much farther. Geertz treats the cockfight as a text that is saying something about something. Most of my students were able to show what their “texts” were speaking about (the second “something”), but not what was being said (the first “something”), or to whom.
So yesterday I brought an essay in where the first “something” was implicit, but not brought out, not pushed, perhaps not even seen by the student author. The themes of the “text” of confirmation–religious identity, responsibility, maturity–were aptly described, but not interpreted. So we talked about questions the author could ask to push the essay into interpretation: what does confirmation say about these things?
However, as I read the questions I had them ask of their own essays at the end of the workshop, I am realizing something didn’t quite click. I’m also realizing that it’s my fault. I assumed (as I do sometimes) that the connections I see between the things I have them do in the classroom–finding instances of certain language, pulling out themes, asking questions–are obvious. They are in my head. They are not to my students. I was not explicit enough.
The hard thing is that when you don’t make the connections then, you can’t really come back to it again. I mean, I could have them do the exact same things tomorrow and then be explicit. Or say, “hey, remember yesterday?” Both of which would annoy and bore my students.
This is a lesson I keep on learning and relearning, and I guess it’s one that only sticks with experience. My hope is that, in addition to learning better how to lead a classroom, my mistakes can help me read my students’ writing, to see the connections that are not made and help them see how to make them.