"Good learners, like everyone else, are living, squirming, questioning, perceiving, fearing, loving, and languaging nervous systems, but they are good learners precisely because they believe and do certain things that less effective learners do not believe and do." -Postman and Weingartner (31)
Moving around my cramped first-year writing classroom to answer students’ questions about their I-Search projects, I peered down at their laptops, squinted at screens, tried not to hit anyone in the head as I gestured or bump their desks as I moved between them. The struggle I felt reminded me of Ruth Mirtz’s commentary that “our belief that we can’t control classroom-furniture–that its inertia will always be greater than our potential effort to move it–creates struggles for control in the classroom because we can’t re-imagine classroom space as tangible and part of the learning process” (15).
At the end of class, Muhammad walked up to me. We stood next to each other, and he held up his laptop to ask me what I meant by one of the comments I left in Blackboard. I clicked on his laptop, trying to find the comment, and then moving to his original document, my eyes scanning quickly, but not finding it. Then, looking across the room, I was able to see his paper in my memory. In front of me, I could remember the paragraph where Muhammad had written a set of sentences so lovely in their repetition, so full of the pathos he was trying to identify in his rhetorical analysis. Moving my hands in the air, like Tony Stark swiping hologrammed computer screens, I described to Muhammed what I saw him doing in that draft, and what he needed to do as he revised, to focus more on analysis. I was accessing a memory of his paper that I could not access squeezing between desks, more conscious of my body invading space than able to access memory and move through the reading in my mind. And standing next to Muhammad, instead of over him, I was able to think better about how to respond to him.
“You’re kind of doing two things right now,” I told him, evaluating the invisible paper in front of me, “and you only need to do the first one. But you’re doing these awesome rhetorical moves with repetition that demonstrate your own pathos. When you write your researched argument,” I told him, moving to the front of the room, and turning around as I started erasing the board, “you’ll want to harness that style, because it can be very persuasive.” He nodded. “Right now, you want to look at how Kevin Powell is using pathos to engage us in his argument.”
I often joke with students that I want to take our texts and throw them, hologram-style, into the air, so we can work with them in the both imaginary and physical space between us. While this vision is beyond practicality, or at least beyond a classroom budget, I nevertheless find myself performing aspects of student drafts in class. This performance is both in lieu of and to complement digitally presented texts. Our classrooms are technology-enabled, but not technology-reliable. Our individual technologized bodies are not even reliable in an unstable wi-fi network. We also have to admit that the “ease” of computer- or phone-mediated writing is not always in sync with the constraints of our fragmented personal time (I have the thought now, I want to explore it now, not after I have opened the Word file), or the abilities of our bodies or brains (I can’t always read your work peering at your phone from three feet away with my 40-year-old eyes; you may not yet be able to decipher my toneless marginal comments in our learning management system). So, the immediacy of our face to face conversation sometimes desires an encounter with the text that is mediated by the space between us rather than through a computer.
In a chapter called “Active Minds, Invisible Bodies,” Mary Ann Cain writes, “We learn to move largely in response to immediate circumstances. The movements that arise from those circumstances are often not the best ones we can make, just enough to satisfy the needs of the moment. As a result, these movements are largely arbitrary and thus limited in their usefulness. They do not come even close to tapping our overall capacity for movement” (103). Movement, thus, so often “arbitrary”, would benefit from the kinds of explicit thinking, of attention, we devote to other aspects of our discursive practice.
So, drawing from Cain (2004), Rutz (2004), Selfe (2009), and Stenberg (2009), here are four ways we can start to think about moving our words off the page and into the physical and imagined spaces of the classroom, so that we can support students’ negotiation of and emotional inquiry into the writing process.
When I observe teachers teaching, I find myself most fascinated by where they are in the classroom–how they move, how they use the space to keep students checked in. If they don’t move–if they limit themselves to the computer cart, tied by some invisible tether to the machine, I think about how to help them break free, how to suggest small ways they can move into the rest of the space, with their eyes, their voice, or their bodies. After all, if the machine wasn’t there, the teacher still would be, and the really good stuff is what happens in those spaces between the people in the room.
Cain, Mary Ann. “Active Minds, Invisible Bodies: Classroom Spaces as Constructions of Experience.” Classroom Spaces and Writing Instruction. Eds. Ed Nagelhout and Carol Rutz. Hampton Press, Inc., 2004.
Mirtz, Ruth M. “The Inertia of Classroom Furniture: Unsituating the Classroom.” Classroom Spaces and Writing Instruction.Eds. Ed Nagelhout and Carol Rutz. Hampton Press, Inc., 2004.
Rutz, Carol. “Marvelous Cartographers.” Classroom Spaces and Writing Instruction.Eds. Ed Nagelhout and Carol Rutz. Hampton Press, Inc., 2004.
Selfe, Cynthia L. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” College Composition and Communication,vol. 60, no. 4, June 2009, pp. 616-663.
Stenberg, Shari. “Teaching and (Re)Learning the Rhetoric of Emotion.” Pedagogy, vol. 11, no. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 349-369.