Tag Archives: pedagogy

Student Testimonials

In Fall 2015, I contacted former students I had worked with during my three years teaching composition at The City College of New York. I asked them to write brief testimonials about their experiences in my classes. In particular, I prompted them to discuss 1) their feelings about writing courses before my class, 2) what made my classes unique, and 3) what they gained from their time in the class.

These testimonials provide a useful counter-point to my Statement of Teaching Philosophy. I am honored to see that my students recognized my motivations in designing the course, and that they internalized many of the lessons I hoped they would.

The testimonials I collected came from students across the majors, though because I taught more engineering-focused courses than anything else, their perspectives are a bit over-represented. Indeed, even in my general-major courses, engineers represented the majority.

The testimonials are largely un-edited. I have omitted small sections for clarity, but I have otherwise not altered my former students’ words. I added bold face to draw attention to key words from the student reflections.

My Teaching Through Student’s Eyes


Many students used their testimonials to identify specific aspects of my teaching practice. While these testimonials contain aspects of personal reflection, I include them here because they help name the practices that both I and my students agree are hallmarks of my teaching: individualized attention, holistic assessment, digital collaboration, and student-directed inquiry.

Steven, an English major, describes the daily class structure as well as the central role of individual mentorship in my courses:

Andrew Lucchesi’s Writing for Engineers classes were some of the most formative of my college career. Andrew brought great enthusiasm and energy to every class, ensuring that every student had the opportunity to participate and speak his/her mind. One of the best aspects of class was how Andrew structured the lessons, dividing the class-time into sections so that we could reach our “aims for the day.” This was a wonderful tool because it prevented the conversation from ever getting too far off topic. It also was a relief to know that if Andrew said we would cover a topic that day, we always had time to cover it without a doubt.

Among the many professors I’ve had since Andrew (his being the first writing instructor I’ve had in college), Andrew was beyond the most involved and concerned with professor/student interaction. Twice a semester, students in Andrew’s class were asked to come in for a brief, twenty-minute one-on-one session in which students could ask questions or give comments about the course and discuss their works and assignments from the class. Taking Andrew’s class as a Freshman at CCNY, I had never been to a professor’s office hours before, but it was a great first experience. Andrew gave very specific, constructive feedback on my writing assignments, and it was always a relief afterwards knowing that I could adjust any of my writing that I had concerns about with the comments he suggested to me in our meetings. Andrew pushed each student to take advantage of these meetings, and I remember being so amazed with how much he devoted himself to seeing each student, despite his being enrolled as a graduate student at the time. His dedication to his job and his passion, which he visibly brought to every class session, rivaled or surpassed those of any of my full-time professors, and it was clear that he was only able to keep up with such a busy schedule because he had a distinct calling to teaching. In fact, Andrew was an inspiration for me to reevaluate my major and overall direction.

During my first semester in Writing for Engineers with Andrew (I took a second class with him because the first was so enjoyable), the class was given an assignment to write short piece based off of a short-story by campus [physics] professor Michio Kaku. The assignment was fairly open-ended, and we were asked to write two pages of original fiction that was set in the near future, like Kaku’s piece. Several pages and a few hours later, I looked upon one of my first short stories. I had a better experience writing this mini-narrative than I did while completing homework for Chemistry or engineering classes, and I discussed it in detail with Andrew during one of our meetings. Andrew, as an English student, encouraged me to pursue my writing even if I was determined to be an engineer one day. I admired Andrew’s interest in his own research goals, and I realized from observing him in class—doing what he loved—that I was meant to change majors so I too could do what excited me as a student. I continued writing as an engineering major, and one semester later I made the transition to English with concentrations in Creative Writing and Literature, where I’ve had far greater success as a student.

Nelsyda, a Mechanical Engineering major, describes how the use of grading contracts and multi-stage revisions allowed her to grow her writing projects across the full semester:

Andrew Lucchesi was my English instructor during my first two semesters for two different classes at the City College of New York. These classes were Freshman Composition for Engineers (ENGL11000) and Writing for Engineers (ENGL21007). Each class felt very different from other classes in the sense that your grade was determined based on your own growth as a writer.

As per the syllabi for both courses, all students started out with a grade of B+ and worked their way up to their desired grade through the assignments that Andrew assigned. This made every assignment about tracking one’s own progress rather than handing in assignments and receiving a final grade for each assignment. Because of this style of teaching, Andrew’s final assignment involved revising old pieces that was done during the semester and working to make it better.

For example, the final portfolio of our work for ENGL21007 included a revision of the midterm assignment, which was to analyze a discourse community, write about how the discourse community functions as a whole, and identify if the scholars that we looked in class at would classify the chosen discourse community as a discourse community. For that assignment, I wrote about the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). When I completed my midterm assignment, I realized that I did not have enough information to successfully define ASCE as a whole. For the final portfolio, I chose to revise the midterm by being more specific in my criteria. Instead of analyzing all of ASCE, I chose to repurpose my thesis and focus my attention on the City College of New York student chapter and its affiliated clubs (i.e. the Concrete Canoe Club and Engineers Without Borders). I had a better overall piece as a result of this change. In all my years in college, I have never taken any other classes that allowed me to revise a piece done in class to this extent.

Both classes were like this. Andrew would guide you by giving you small tasks that help you work towards the completion of an assignment and if you were not satisfied you were given opportunities to revisit that assignment. This made his class enjoyable and less stressful given the more technical classes that we would have to take as engineering students. Also, despite my guaranteed B+, I found that I worked just as hard as I would in any engineering class because putting in time for this class never inhibited my ability to put time into my technical classes. It was a rewarding experience that did not feel like I was grasping at straws to earn a grade that would reflect the effort that I put into this class.

Christopher, a Biology major, describes the way the course wiki website promotes classroom community:

I was a student in Andrew Lucchesi’s Honors Freshman English (ENGL 11000) and Writing for Engineers (ENGL21007) classes during the Fall 2012 and Spring 2013 semesters, respectively. One of the key features of Andrew’s classes that I would like to comment on is the strong focus that was placed on group-centered learning.

The class itself was centered around an online class wikidot page where we publicly posted and displayed our writing for the class. One of the most utilized features of the wiki page was the blog. The blog was the space in which we posted our writing responses to the specific writing prompts of the class. This in itself presented an interesting dynamic. What I noticed was that the original intentions of the individual writers were usually to elaborate upon a topic that was relatively specific to them.

However, unlike most English classes in which students submit papers never to be seen by anyone else, posting to the blog turned every written document into public knowledge so that other members of the class could learn from their posts and also offer them constructive feedback through the comment system of the wiki. This conversion from private to public knowledge was one of the key factors in promoting the sense of teamwork and community in the class.

Another interesting component of the wiki was the reflective annotated bibliography. In this section of the wiki, students summarized and reflected upon the readings that we had done in class. When students wrote these entries, not only were they intending to enhance their own understanding of the documents, but they were also formatting their writing in a way that could be easily understood by their peers, as their audience was the rest of the class. It was through this kind of public display of knowledge and the idea of writing in order to enhance each other’s understanding that the class really began to take on the feel of a community striving to learn something from one another rather than a bunch of people each trying to just get a high grade with little regard for the rest of the class.

In addition, several of the major projects in the course were group projects that had to be completed in teams. This required the students to practice effective communication methods and think collectively, both of which will be necessary in the working world. There were also peer review sessions for almost every major assignment in which students were able to provide feedback on each other’s work. Not only did this help the students whose writing was being reviewed, but it also helped the students who were reviewing the writing in that they were able to learn from the writing of their peers.

As you can see, the ways in which this class deviated from more traditional English classes changed the classroom dynamic from a collection of individual, solitary efforts to a more or less unified group effort.


Priya, a Childhood Education major, discusses my approach to student-centered teaching and how it fits with her ideas of critical pedagogy:

I was in my sophomore year when I enrolled in the Writing for Humanities course taught by Andrew Lucchesi. As an aspiring teacher, I had researched and observed educators to figure out how I could create a student-centered classroom focused on critical pedagogy, but it was really through participating in this class that I learned that such a classroom is very much possible. In my freshman year, I had taken many general education courses that merely skimmed the surface of what it meant to be a writer and learner. This class demanded that I view writing as purposeful and an active process, driven by the writers desires to articulate the personal. I had never had a class where I was invited to write with my voice, to contribute my perspective to academic discourse, or to critique others writing as if I had authority in the classroom space. Through simply asking us to create online blogs and to comment on each other’s writings, I gained confidence in working with my peers, knowing that they were my equals in our intimate community of learners.


Although the whole course of the semester proved to be immeasurably invaluable, it was through working on the final research paper that I realized the power of researching, learning, and writing. In previous writing classes, I had been given “choices” in terms of writing topics, although in reality I was in fact given specific options from which I had to choose from, and my personal interests were irrelevant. Now, I feel that writing, even academic writing, is such a deeply personal task, and so students need to be allowed to make real decisions in terms of their writing. When planning my research paper, I was allowed to choose the topic that most interested me and I was allowed to be passionate in my writing, to be angry, raw, and to channel the fury into my words. I learned that my voice did not have to die for my argument to be more “objective” and “academic.” I learned that students thrive when they are given agency while researching, writing, and presenting their scholarship. Even as a senior, I know that Writing for the Humanities drastically altered the way that I think about writing, scholarship, power, and the classroom. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Personal Reflections: Growth and Lessons Learned

Many students submitted testimonials that attest to the personal significance of our work together in my classes. While these testimonials don’t focus on the details of my teaching practice, they focus on how the experience of working in my classes influenced their lives as writers, thinkers, and students.

Lawrence, an Environmental Engineering major, reflects on my mixed-major English 11000 Freshman Composition course: 

Before getting into college, I had a poor experience with English and writing teachers in high school. I’ve always been a huge reader, and similarly have a growing passion to write. Before taking Andrew’s class my passion to write was a private thing and something that I shared with only a couple of close friends. After taking the course I felt much more comfortable in my ability to produce a well thought out work, as well as go back for revisions, which was always a weakness of mine.

Andrew was honestly one of the best English professors I’ve ever had, especially in composition. He inspired us to write and graded us on our ability to improve, which is the fairest way of grading a student. By taking his course I improved in my ability to communicate ideas clearly and succinctly, as well as my ability to critique my own work. This has been so important in my life as a student and aspiring scientist, as well just being a person. 

Overall, I would love to take some more composition courses with Andrew, and think that my time at CCNY was improved by having him as as a professor.

Zahin, a Biomedical Engineering major, reflects on another section of my mixed-major English 11000 course:

I took Andrew’s English 110 class in Fall 2013. It was my first semester of college and Andrew’s class really helped shake some of the fears I had about the college transition. It was a very welcoming and collaborative environment. During our group discussions, not only did we discuss assignments pertaining to English, we discussed worldwide topics that mattered to us, such as the use of GMOs and the events happening in Syria at the time.

I really enjoyed his teaching style as well as the assignments he gave us. He taught in a way that made the topics interesting to students and kept us actively engaged the entire time. Many of the English classes I’ve taken were a bit boring and the assignments always seemed tedious and time consuming. This was never the case with Andrew’s class.

My first experience writing blog posts to share my ideas was for Andrew’s class and I really enjoyed it. This was also my first time using wikidot and I remember how proud I felt when I learned how to change the format of my page for one of the assignments, as it was something I had never done before. My favorite assignment to do was the [Literacy] Timeline Assignment because I was able to really think about myself and events in my life that lead to changes in my development. I wish I could have taken more classes like Andrew’s!

Patrick, a Biomedical Engineering major, reflects on my Honors English 11000 Freshman Composition for Engineers course: 

I think the greatest quality about Andrew Lucchesi as a teacher is that he genuinely cares about his students. My most vivid memories with him were at his office hours. I took one other writing course at CCNY, Writing for Engineers, but what made Andrew’s class different was that it felt very tailored for each individual student. He met with all of his students individually multiple times in the semester, and he tried to learn about all of your interests and the best way to pull great writing out of all of us. We the students had a lot of freedom and flexibility with the assignments, and we got to choose what we were interested in and what we wanted to write about. The class was constructed so that the final products were not all that mattered, but the thought process behind the projects were valued as well. Each assignment was coupled with a series of drafts and reflections to help us think about the writing process, and as a result, the final products felt very personal and fleshed out. This was especially valuable in a freshman writing class, as there were just so many rampant emotions of excitement and apprehension from starting college, and it’s fun to read and look back on the projects to see how we felt during some very decisive times in our lives. Andrew helped make freshmen writing classes how they should be: personal and enjoyable.

Jenny, an Education major, reflects on my English 21001 Writing for the Humanities course: 

The class I took with Professor Lucchesi was ENG 21001 in SPRING 2014. The class was an intensive writing course where we used technology to help us with our research in writing about factors in present day society. The most memorable aspect about the class was the way Professor Lucchesi was thoughtful to the students and helped us develop strong writing skills. I admire Professor Lucchesi because he never stressed us out with writing assignments yet helped us to be disciplined in our writing habits and improve on them. He had a great connection with the class and was always very considerate of how he did not want us to be overwhelmed with writing. He made it enjoyable and was willing to help with anything we needed guidance on.

During the class, I learned free writing. He gave us have 5 minutes to ourselves and just write whatever what was on our mind. It helped us clear our mind yet at the same time get every single idea out of our mind before we forgot. It is better than brainstorming and also a relaxing way to just let our minds freely think than be crammed in a certain topic. I still use free writing to this day and always produce a well-written essay.

Professor Lucchesi is knowledgeable, helpful, considerate, reliable and relatable. He understood us as students and always made sure to be available for us. He would set up one-on-one meetings to help us where we are in the class and give thoughtful feedbacks. I truly believe professors having a relationship with students individually is a great way for students to grow academically and personally. Though it is difficult to remember large amount of students and know them individually, Professor Lucchesi did not compromise and went out of his way to make an effort. I wish I could take more classes with him or have more professors like him.

Christina, a Mechanical Engineering major, reflects on my Honors English 11000 Freshman Composition for Engineers and English 21007 Writing for Engineers courses: 

Andrew has been one of the most influential professors I have had in my undergraduate years. Throughout my freshman year at CCNY, I took two of his classes: Freshmen Composition and Writing for Engineers. I remember starting college very unsure about my writing abilities, and desperately in need of an instructor like him to teach me the way. At the time, I strongly disliked writing and his classes came at such a pivotal time in my life, to get me back on the right track for my college years and future career. I am truly grateful for these two classes, as I am not sure where my writing would be without these experiences.

The most crucial and important things I remember from his class were his level of support, encouragement, innovative class format and great feedback. From the very first day of school, I got the sense that he truly cared about his students, and he was there for us to learn and develop professionally. I really enjoyed that he was different from any other professor I had and his assignments were very unique. I liked how much of the course was integrated through an online platform, which made it easy to both keep track of my progress and network with other students. I also appreciated that he made time to meet each student one-on-one, and track our individual progress. He made the class feel less like a burden and more like a fun and encouraging experience in which we developed scholastically. As our class with him neared the end, I began to truly appreciate writing and learned how important it would be for my future. After my first semester in Freshman Composition, I knew I definitely wanted to take another class with him. He was one of the best professors I have had at CCNY, and I am thankful for the things I have learned in his classes as they will be life-long tools for my future.

I am grateful to all my former students who took the time to write these testimonials. 

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Workshop: Universal Design for the Writing Classroom

I designed this workshop for the CUNY Graduate Center’s English program orientation for new teachers, held on August 25th, 2015. It was designed to give a 50-minute introduction to the principles of Universal Design for Learning and to help first-time teachers think about how they apply to their writing-intensive humanities courses. Please feel free to use it and adapt it as you see fit. And, of course, comments are welcome either in the box below or by email.

Part 1: Confronting our beliefs about ability, inclusion, and access

I want to start our conversation today with some guiding questions.

  • What do we expect our students to know when they arrive in our classrooms?
  • What do we expect them to be able to do? Do we imagine “baseline abilities”?
  • What aspects of our courses do we expect them to find challenging?
  • What aspects of our courses do we expect them to find impossible?

Prompt: Freewrite for five minutes in response to the following question. Andrew will keep track of time, just follow the ideas wherever they take you, even if it takes you off topic:

What do you believe about these things that students find challenging or impossible? When do we recognize a shift between challenging students and shutting them out? 


Part 2: Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design (UD) describes an inclusive design movement originated in fields of architecture and consumer product design. The idea is that when most people sit down to design a building or an object, they start by imagining a typical user, often a user very similar to the person doing the designing.

Image shows a row of a typical economy class airplane seats. Leg room is cramped, arm rests divide the seats. No humans are present.

How do our design choices reveal our beliefs about the abilities of our end users?

Think about airplane seats. The designers of most airplane seats, throughout the history of that technology, have put strict constraints on the shape and size of their designs. We can look at the seat and imagine, with some surety, who the designers envisioned as their end user–what abilities and personal needs they would be expected to have.

The UD movement approaches design anticipating, at the onset, the widest possible range of users. This requires designers to anticipate what aspects of their design might impose barriers for full participation. 

Image shows the approach to an Oslo train station. In the background are shallow stairs, marked with reflective borders and textured grip. In the foreground is a shallow ramp to the same level

Notice the design elements included in this Oslo train station. What choices were made to invite a wide range of users? (Taken from the website for Zero Project, a UD initiative in Norway)

While so far I’ve been talking about UD as an architecture and design movement, UD has become a motivating imperative in the areas of web design, information design, and, of course, classroom design. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) describes an approach to classroom and pedagogical design that attempts to anticipate and invite the widest possible range of students into full and equal participation.

The UDL approach boils down to three main principles (all of which are covered in great detail, and for a range of educational settings, by the National Center for UDL):

  • Multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge,
  • Multiple means of expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know,
  • Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation. (Dolmage 2015)

The goals of these three principles are to create classrooms and pedagogies that work equitably for all students. In a moment, we’ll think more closely about how these principles apply to our work as writing or humanities teachers.

Part 3: UDL in the Writing and Humanities Classroom

Think about these components of your class:

1. How do you communicate with your students?

  • What kinds of texts are they required to read?
  • What kind of multi-media texts are they required to read?
  • How, other than “reading,” can students learn important ideas from the class?

2. How do you expect students to demonstrate what they know?

  • What kinds of assignments are students doing for a grade?
  • How are you evaluating their success on these assignments?
  • What alternatives are you offering in terms of using other media or literacies?
  • How are students expected to understand the criteria for evaluating the success of their products?

3. How do you allow for multiple kinds of engagement?

  • What avenues of “participation” are open to students who are shy, asocial, or uncomfortable in class?
  • What options do you give students to choose their work based on their interest and abilities?
  • What opportunities do you give students to tell you how they learn best?


In the time that remains, I want to get us brainstorming and problem solving together. Take the notecard I provided and write on it a question that you want answered about UDL and how it might apply to your work in the classroom this semester. Once you have written your question, you will work in small groups to crowdsource answers and compare your concerns with others. The most pressing questions will come back to the full group for a final wrap-up Q&A

Prompt: What do you want to know more about from this discussion of UDL and teaching? Do you want concrete examples of one kind or another? Do you want to pose a scenario or problem for us to talk through? What do you need before you walk out the door today?

— Write your question on your note card

— On the other side of your card, write your name

— When you are done, raise your hand or catch Andrew’s eye so he knows

[Full notes from this workshop session are available on this google doc, or for download as a Microsoft Word document]


Part 4: Conclusion and Further Reading

Many disability studies scholars have pointed out that the phrase Universal Design sounds utopian. There is no way to truly anticipate all possible users and their unique abilities, vulnerabilities, and needs. Jay Dolmage has described UD as an approach, “[a] way to move” (2015). In that light, I encourage you to continue thinking about the ways your course design might invite the widest possible range of users. Try experiments in flexibility and multiplicity in your assignment design, course policies, and communication practices. Below are some useful resources to get you started.


Jay Dolmage, “Universal Design: Places to Start,” Disability Studies Quarterly 35:2 (2015): http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/4632/3946

This short article defines UD approaches and imagines how they apply to our roles as college-level instructors. It also includes a 20+ page appendix of “places to start” for implementing universal design in a wide range of classes, including lecture, discussion, seminar, and lab-based classes.

Patricia Dunn, Talking, Stretching, Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing, 2001

This book includes excellent assignment ideas for engaging students in diverse learning practices, including play-acting, analysis using picture drawing, hands-on rhetorical outlining, and other techniques that help students with a wide range of cognitive skills succeed at writing. Good to get from ILL, copy out a chapter or two, and try out experiments during the term.

Disability Rhetoric, www.disabilityrhetoric.com

This website serves as a network for composition/rhetoric scholars who work in disability studies. It contains bibliographies, sample syllabi, and a wealth of other resources.


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An unasked question for Cathy Davidson: response to Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It (2011)

I had the opportunity to spend the day with Cathy Davidson yesterday. She was visiting the Graduate Center for a series of job-talk events–a catered lunch with program grad students, a seminar with grads and profs, and a lecture, all exploring how higher education is poised to respond to shifting paradigms in digital education and Internet-based industry. I didn’t get to talk with her as much as I would have liked, and by the end of the day, when she was finally free enough to approach alone, I chickened out. She had already endured eight straight hours of conversation and debate, including some rather adversarial questions in the final lecture, and it didn’t seem like the best time to engage her with my rather specialized interests in her work. We’ll have other occasions to talk. And, besides, who needs to talk IRL anymore? If you’re reading, Cathy, it was a pleasure to meet you.

I wrote about The Future of Thinking, Davidson’s 2009 (mass-)co-authored monograph in my last post. There I found compelling institutional theory and a model for peer-to-peer academic work that surprised and inspired me. Now You See It (2011), Davidson’s newest book, addresses a more popular audience, bringing brain science and case studies from 21st century schools and workplaces together to dispel our contemporary fixation on the “attention crisis” caused by the proliferation of digital technology, especially as that crisis relates to today’s young people. Davidson narrates the history of American educational institutions and workplaces and their connections to mass-production models of industry, productivity, and uniformity. She argues that the newest revolution in mass communication–the Internet and the World Wide Web–have initiated a paradigm shift in the way we work and learn in the 21st century. Education, she claims, has been among the slowest sectors to embrace these possibilities, largely due to misconceptions about attention, productivity, and work life that we have inherited from older generations.

To aim her message at a popular audience, Davidson employs easy-to-follow narratives throughout Now You See It, leaving behind the carefully wrought academic language of Future of Thinking. Davidson’s choice of audience address has clearly contributed to the book’s massive popularity and appeal, but for me as a scholar, it initially turned me off to the book. While I found her case studies from classrooms and work places compelling and illustrative, they tended to leave me without many scholarly leads to follow.

However, I don’t want to make it sound like the narrative work Davidson does in this book is simplistic. In fact, I feel I’ve learned much from examining the ways she incorporates individual historical narratives (for instance, the history of IQ or standardized testing, or the history of the 20th century corporate-style workplace) within a broader narrative structure of the book itself, a cradle to grave examination of life in the Internet age.

She begins with infancy, when we learn to pay attention to our world by internalizing the values and habits of our home and our parent’s culture. She then examines the neural capacities that allow us humans teach and learn as they grow and go through schooling. She then takes us through both the public school and the university system, at each step confronting how contemporary educational systems respond to or ignore current understandings of how we learn. Because most education is justified as preparation for life in the work world, she takes us to 21st century work places and the new industries fostered by information technology. In the end, she speaks directly to an audience who sees itself as too old to learn the new technology, celebrating the impressive and sustained capacity for learning and growth possessed by even the most skeptical, behind-the-times, technophobes.

Throughout all stages of life, Davidson’s investigates what literacy and learning really mean in the 21st century. In particular, she explores the question of what role attention and attention-blindness play in our current work and school lives. She draws upon recent brain research about how we actually pay attention in order to dispel the common complaint that kids today don’t know how to pay attention like they used to. She turns this argument on it’s head, claiming that it is the popular press and tech-skeptics who distract themselves with hand wringing about multitasking, video games; because they fixate on what’s wrong with kids today, they themselves do not pay attention to the positives that come from embracing our universal capacities to pay attention in different, ever-changing ways. Rather than trying to force people to pay attention in old-fashioned ways better suited for the industrial age, Davidson believes we should be learning from what kids find important enough to pay attention to and teaching them to cultivate their own attentional and discernment abilities. Rather than pushing all students to pay attention in the same ways (the ways that are supposed to lead to good standardized test scores, usually), we should teach students to “collaborate by difference,” working together to fill in for one another’s attentional gaps. Davidson believes collaboration, flexibility, and creativity are the literacy skills necessary for survival in the Internet age. And our institutions should reflect this shift by becoming less hierarchical, less silo’d, and more conducive to the kind of peer-to-peer, self-directed knowledge making now possible through the Internet.

I found my own attention drawn to the way Davidson discusses learning disabilities throughout her book, including ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, her own dyslexia. Her general stance toward labels like LD, dyslexic or Autistic shows a careful skepticism, especially about what we as a culture believe these labels mean in our current moment. She walks a tense line between acknowledging differences in people who have “different brains” and also denying that there’s really such a thing as learning disabilities in any fixed definition. It’s a tension I myself feel when talking about learning disabilities as a progressive educator who at the same time wants to advocate a positive identity for LD people, while also changing education to remove impediments that make LD diagnosable in the first place. I see this tension throughout Davidson’s work.

On the one hand, because she has read a great deal of neuroscience work on these “disabilities,” she is willing to describe developmental conditions using some medicalized explanations. For instance, when narrating the way a typical baby’s brain develops more streamlined neural pathways as he learns, Davidson writes, “If his [the hypothetical Baby Andy’s] development unfolds as it should, he will lose 40 percent of his extra neurons before he grows up. If he does not, he will not be able to function independently in society and will be considered mentally handicapped or disabled.” (44 – 45) To me, this passage exemplifies the tension of talking about cognitive disabilities in a progressive educational context. On the one hand, Davidson is talking about a biological reality–something that is happening or not in an individual’s brain. On the other hand, she is talking about this person’s ability to “function independently in society,” which Davidson’s work acknowledges is no stable capacity–it is indeed a rapidly changing capacity as technology, industry, and social structure change over time. By setting the labels of “mentally handicapped or disabled” within their historical and cultural context, Davidson acknowledges that these labels are not natural or automatic or even value neutral–they are labels that name someone as a poor fit for our current social and economic systems.

I feel a great deal of consternation about her use of the phrase “If his development unfolds as it should.” Having read other examples from the book, I know that she praises the broad and diverse capacities of people our medical discourse labels as disabled, as evidenced by her extended examination of industries where neurotypical (NT) people are disadvantaged compared to their autistic coworkers, such as IT program quality control (see ch 7 “The Changing Worker”). However, this phrase signals to me a value-laden assumption that–all things considered–it would be better if people like Baby Andy developed along the normal path, the way they should. It would be nice if there were fewer cognitively disabled people in the world. I want to push back against that should, to say that it leads us toward seeing intellectual capacity as the most important factor and away from seeing the value in intellectually disabled people. I don’t want to push very hard, though, as I think that should speaks against the injustice of innaccess, rather than the tragedy of disability.

In almost every other case where Davidson discusses disability, she does so within a larger social and cultural context, rather than focusing on the shoulds or should nots of individual development. For instance, rather than speculating about biological causes of recent rise in autism, she carefully observes “it seems that more people who are born now will eventually be diagnosed with autism than a decade ago” (215). Similarly, when talking about her own dyslexia, she claims “I wasn’t always dyslexic. I am old enough that ‘learning disabilities’ didn’t exist as a category when I was a kid” (8). In each of these cases, Davidson foregrounds the historical contingency of our terms for discussing these seemingly stable, unchangeable brain conditions (dyslexic, autistic).

In so doing, she is able to focus not on what makes dyslexics or autistic people biologically different, but instead on how education practices workplace cultures perpetuate systems that exclude certain people and not others (10). Labels like autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities arise, Davidson claims, because doctors are asked to provide reasons and treatments for people who don’t fit into rigidly narrow education systems. As she puts it when discussing the rise of standardized learning and IQ assessment, “the more standardized our assessment, the more kids fail. Their failure is then diagnosed as a learning disability or disorder” (79). If schools employed broader approaches to education that respected (instead of seeking to correct) the differences between individual capacities, these labels of disorder and syndrome would no longer be necessary.

I will conclude this discussion with one final passage, where Davidson lays out her social perspective on disability most broadly. Here, she is discussing the fact that in our current age of constantly shifting literacy requirements–where this year’s newest technological innovation leaves us unable to do work with new software or hardware we need to carry out our lives–learning disability is in fact the norm, not the exception. She writes,

The issue isn’t whether you have learning disabilities because, in a larger sense, everyone does. No one does everything perfectly all the time. Given the inherent lack, it’s just not interesting or useful to label some disabilities and not others. Far better to diagnose what the issues are and then find the right tools, methods, and partners to compensate for those so that you are able to contribute in the unique ways you can. (140)

Here Davidson takes the social model of disability to its logical conclusion: disability is not about individual impairment, it’s about inability to function within the existing social structure, and in that regard the label could apply to anyone irrespective of actual “brain difference,” whatever that would mean. Even if you might be temporarily learning-abled now, a simple change in the technology could render your literacy abilities out of date, creating in you a deficiency that did not previously exist.

This leaves me with the question I never got around to asking Cathy Davidson when I saw her yesterday, a question I hope to discuss with her more in person, as it’s not quite answered for me in her work. How can we rationalize and resolve the tension between biological essentialism, educational progressivism, and positive disability identity politics when we talk about learning disabilities and education? From a biological essentialist view, Davidson and I are “different brained, ” as she describes in her recent blog post “How it Feels to be Learning Disabled.” From a progressive educational viewpoint, however, we are simply the most disadvantaged in an disadvantaging education system whose priorities fixate on a fictional “normal brain” that no human being actually has. To reform that system is to deny the relevance of our “brain difference,” that is, to render us as a population indistinguishable from everyone else. And yet, these two views do not preclude a third, a paradoxical middle ground in which Davidson (and I) can cheer for positive identity politics in which we can say it’s great to be dyslexic or autistic, and we can use these terms for community building and to fight a culture of stigma. I want to know what place positive identity building as “differently brained” plays in Davidson’s politics of disabilities and learning. Maybe I’ll get up the gumption to ask her about it next time I see her.

Notes: https://docs.google.com/document/d/121f0oy5xPDldQyCCu4y0Liu5BPmTAgONiC2X3dSf4ak/edit?usp=sharing

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I say, therefore I do: J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words

While I took great pleasure in reading Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, I am daunted by the task of summarizing and reflecting on it. Here I’ll try talking about what seems to me most important from Austin’s observations and what applications do I see for these theories for my work in composition.

I was initially drawn in by Austin’s distinction between the constative and performative uses of language. By offering a wealth of everyday examples (such as “I do” when said in a marriage ceremony or “I bet” when playing a card game) he convinced me quite quickly that there are many ways that we use words to do things. By examining how performative uses of language either fail or succeed to have their customary effect, Austin further distinguishes the ways performatives function within social and cultural contexts.

Neither of these points were revelations for me: Language is clearly an important tool we use to do things, like conduct business or set cultural laws. However, I found his taxonomy of infelicities–ways speech-acts can go wrong and fail in their effect–compelling, especially as he takes a joking tone when producing examples, occasionally absurd. I often felt dragged through his later taxonomizing, when he tries to evaluate grammatical heuristics for distinguishing performatives. The humor helps.

Austin finds no clear way to distinguish performative utterances from mere statements of fact.  Through his investigation, he establishes to three key senses in which to say something is to do something. In one sense, to say something is to perform a locutionary act–that is, to make noises (he’s not interested in gestural languages) that correspond to an accepted vocabulary and grammar. In another sense, to say something is sometimes also to perform an illocutionary act–that is, it’s a performative in the initial sense, like “I apologize” or “I object!”. Sometimes the sentences we make invoke a particular ritual force that performs a further action. Austin provides six major types of illocutionary acts, including utterances that pass judgment (“I judge you to be guilty of murder”) that commit oneself to further action (“I promise to bake you a cake”) or that enact a social  interaction (“I apologize for . . . ” or “I thank you for . . .”). Finally, he explains that sometimes when we say something we’re performing a perlocutionary act–that is, we affect an audience, often through complex, indirect means. The model here goes, “By saying X, I Y’d” as in “By saying ‘you’re so confrontational,’ I offended her.” Unlike the illocutionary act, which has its effects because it adheres to pre-determined (if sometimes hidden) social rules, in this case, my speech act is doing something out in the world that’s internal to my audience. I haven’t invoked a social ritual, but I have done something. To offend someone with my words is not to use any particular grammatical or syntactical structure, but it is one thing I can do when I perform an utterance. (Put I perform so much more than utterances!)

While I may not retain the particulars of Austin’s distinctions between, say, the types of infelicities to which performatives are vulnerable or the destinctions between the of illocutionary acts one might do (not so solid even for Austin), I am facinated his illusidation of the illocutionary and perlocutionary forces of speach-acts. I found myself reflecting on how this distinction applies to the kind of rhetoric I teach in my freshman composition course. It seems like an exceptionaly elastic way of considering how utterances function (whether in an argument or a story or a memo) : that is, without discussing rhetoric explicitly, Austin’s theory explains how rhetoric is possible.

I want to consider the pedagogical implications of each of these performative forces of utterances.

1. Locutionary– to teach students to be aware of the locutionary powers of their utterances is to focus on elements of grammar, mechanics, and vocabulary usage. We do this work frequently, and current-traditional pedagogies do this work above all others. Imperative here is training students to understand how to forge utterances that adhere to and exploit the capacities of (usually) standard academic English for making meaning. Prime concerns, then: spelling or capitalizing words conventionally (typographical version of Austin’s phonic act): or we might teach students how to choose the correct words and using them according to their proper meanings  for instance, the difference between affect and effect, and how to deploy them (Austin’s phantic act); we might also teach students about subject/verb agreement or about constructing sentences logically to make clear meaning (Austin’s rhetic act). Teaching students to level of sentence construction and correctness is to sensitize students to the locutionary forces of their speech-acts.

You’ll note that I’m trying to adapt Austin’s distinctions to suit the context of the writing classroom, where most utterances are written in prose For instance, I am rendering Austin’s phonetic act as equivalent to typographical distinctions like capitalization and unconventional spelling, which may have no phonetic effect at all, but seem roughly equivalent. I may be working in rough analogy here and thus overgeneralize. But for my purposes, I couldn’t help trying to extrapolate into what I know, which is writing instruction. At the end of this post, I’ll go further, and consider how these categories might work for other sorts of communicative acts we study and make in the classroom, including visual and digital performances. That will be pure speculation.

2. Illocutionary–what would it mean to teach students about the illocutionary force of language? This amounts, I think, to social constructivist pedagogy–showing students how to perform important rhetorical moves that make up our academic genres and teaching them how to avoid the particular infelicities to which those moves are vulnerable. The work I do with my students on discourse communities often wanders close to this model of literacy acquisition. Of the six styles of illocutionary act, some seem more applicable to thinking about teaching than others.

We often ask students to evaluate or assess another author’s point of view, essentially asking them to perform a verdictive. Verdictives pass a judgement. While other illocutionary acts might commit the speaker to some future action (“I swear to X”) or express the establishment of a social interaction (“I denounce you!”), verdictives speak from a position of authority and define something based on reason or evidence. Austin’s examples are an umpire calling “out” or a judge declaring that an accused person actually is guilty based on the evidence. Verdictives must come from those with clout and must corrispond to the accepted rules of evidence in order to work. Our job as instructors is to help students avoid the pitfalls of issuing verdictives, namely that the student doesn’t hasn’t established the authority to issue her assessment, that she’s basing her verdict on unacceptable reasoning or evidence, or that the assessment is vague. When we ask students to evaluate, estimate, assess, diagnose, describe, analyse, characterize (157) our role is often to help them see how their utterances may be sound or unsound, authoritative or amateurish.

The other most obvious category of illocutionary acts that correspond with what I teach fall into Austin’s category of expositives. An utterance is expositive when it involves “the expounding of views, the conducting of arguments, and the clarifying of usages and of references” (161) Here we see verbs like argue, describe, accept, agree with, begin by, conclude by, analyze, distinguish, illustrate, explain, etc. When I teach students to use these verbs consciously in their writing, I often think of it as teaching them to employ a distinctive argumentative voice, finding ways to make explicit the thinking process they intend their essay to perform with the reader. These kinds of performance are also subject to infelicities that we try to help our students avoid. So, when a student sets out to describe something and actually ends up summarizing instead, or when they set out to argue and do not actually present an argument. Or when they set out to disagree with an author’s perspective but don’t in fact offer a disagreement or merely deny or refute or reject the author’s position.

Since illocutionary forces rely on accepted convention, I think of approaches like Graff and Berkenstein’s They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Arguments method as essentially illocutionary pedagogy. Using templates, TS/IS shows students how to make the conventional moves that make up an argument in certain academic contexts. Within a social constructivists pedagogy, much of what it means to help students learn to write boils down to helping students understand the that rules govern a particular scholarly or professional discourse. Students learn how to employ conventional forms, how to perform “the moves that matter” without infelicities.

You will note that I’ve slid from talking about performances at the level of individual sentences or utterances to talking about them on a much larger scale–perhaps at the level of a paragraph or an entire essay. I’m uncomfortable with this elision, but I won’t go into it much here beyond giving a few quick examples of why I’ve done this. If students are going to use words to report the speech of someone else, for instance, academic conventions usually demand a more complicated ritual than can be performed in a single sentence. Strictly speaking, our students perform the act of quoting when they say, “I quote Austin, ‘these are all distinct from the producing of effects which is characeristic of the perlocutionary act’.” However, by itself, we as teachers would say that in order for the student to quote effectively (for it to be carried off “well”), he needs to perform other related utterances, like introducing and contextualizing the quotation to be presented, employing proper punctuation, analyzing or explaining the quotation’s relevance, altering the quotation with brackets to fit his own syntax, and so on. The act of performing a quotation in writing seems to be spread out over a great many individual sentences, as does the act of arguing or summarizing or describing. I wonder if in this sense a paragraph or an essay performs.

3. Perlocutionary–The truth is that I understand the perlocutionary much less well than I want to. Since it’s not the target Austin’s primarily aiming at, he doesn’t spend as much time elucidating it. An example:

In saying “I like other boys” I frightened my babysitter.

My language definitely did something: but what it did and why is a very difficult thing to figure out, and conceivably completely idiosynchratic to the babysitter. The exact same speech act could carry differing perlocutionary forces with different audiences (maybe the babysitter could have been delighted by the comment). If I understand the distinction he’s drawing, it seems like thinking about perlocustionary forces must lead down exceptionally complex theoretical terrain deeply wrapped up in the mess of affective experience, psychology, brain science. A connection to follow onward in the lists.

It seems a metaphor like “audience” is the pedagogical corrispondant to Austin’s perlocusionary performative. We train our students to anticipate the expectations of their readers, how their readers will likely react to what they’ve written. I often work with a model of peer review that focuses exclusively on familiarizing students with their audience and their audience’s responses to their work. My approaches largely derive from my experience with Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwart’s workshop model from Writing True, as well as my other research into cognitive comp folks like Peter Elbow. (He’s up soon on the list!). Most of the work in peer review is focused on the listeners explaining to the author exactly what their experience of the text was, exactly what it communicated and how. The idea is to help students make connections between their linguistic choices on the page and the effect it produced in an attentive audience. Over time, students use one another’s capacities to be listeners to hone their skills at effectively communicating ideas or feelings using their writing.

Well, not just their writing, of course. Or not in the traditional sense. In making these extrapolations, I’ve had to expand Austin’s scope pretty wide, and probably I’ve done a rough job of it. So, when I think of the possibilities if we include other sorts of textual performance in the mix, I feel certain I’ll stretch too far. However:

I don’t know a terribly large amount about visual rhetoric. I consider myself to be a visual thinker, and I’m certainly a voracious consumer of visual media, but I couldn’t tell you very much about what scholars have said about visual rhetoric. Dominique Zino has given me some idea, though, that it’s about analyzing and deploying non-verbal rhetorics, as visual artists or advertisers might do when composing an image for an audience. So, a Kara Walker image uses scale and size and medium and subject to communicate its message, to perform its desired effect. Since Walker’s an artist, it’s not trying to communicate facts, but a particular affective response–shame, intrigue, disgust, some admixture? Within the context of visual rhetoric, the communication relies almost wholely on that aspect of the perlocutionary performative that Austin attaches to non-verbal cues like gesture or expression. We teach students to read the visual cues in advertisements because we recognize the value of visual critical discernment in our present visual moment. Also, with the capacity for multimodal digital composing, students are able to experiment with performing utterances in formerly impossible of means. A cool example of something a student could conceivably make: http://pitchfork.com/features/cover-story/reader/janelle-monae/ (You know, but not so glossy and perfect and if I knew how to teach someone to make something like this.) I wonder: What would it mean to think of providing a hyperlink in a sentence as a quality of utterance? Another thread to track further, probably into the multimodal composing books on Mark’s list.

Other upcoming connections will probably come from the queer theorists and disability theorists on Mark’s and Joe’s lists. McRuer, Davis, Sedgwick, Halberstam (right?).

My next big reading, though, is Elbow’s Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. It’s one of my texts with Jason looking at process-era interests in cognition and the mind-brain. That strand will take me forward into contemporary cognitive composition work, and maybe link me there to multimodality. We’ll see what shakes loose as I read and write here.

My secondary reading at the moment is Lennard Davis’s Disability Studies Reader (4th edition). I’ve picked out all the chapters I think will be worth reading for my interests, which is still, like, 25 chapters. Thankfully, this includes many I read for Joe’s Disability Studies class last term, so I should be done within the weekend. I’m not yet sure how I can productively blog about that one. Obviously, brevity isn’t one of my strengths, and I really don’t think I need to summarize many of the ones that are quite distant from my dissertation work. For instance, I’m very glad I’m reading Ruth Hubbard’s historical essay on early 20th century hereditary science (read: eugenics). If I teach a DS course soon, I’ll likely assign it. But I doubt it will come up in my publishing life unless my scholarly interests take a severe turn in the coming years.

I guess I’ll use that, then. Out of the DS Reader, which articles will I want to write about going forward?

Finally, a rogue sentence I like but didn’t find a home for:

The total speech act, which exists within concurrent socio-cultural matrices: language (phonetic, phantic, rhetorical structures), custom (conventions of performatives, such as the rules of in/felicity for a given utterance), and affect (how an audience receives an utterance, makes meaning of it, and has a reaction).

Something a bit less . . . lyrical next time, I think.

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