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Being John Hagerty

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Creative Writing, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication on November 18, 2010 at 8:08 pm

It’s early on a Tuesday morning when I walk into John’s classroom, a cup of coffee in my hand, my too-heavy bag draped over my shoulder.  I gain the nearest desk and sit down.

Outside the leaves are beginning to change, and a cool air whistles through a crack in the window.  “Smells like football season,” I think, even though the room is choked with chalk and dust.  Inside the classroom the students stare at me, the new guy, the stranger, and they look away when I acknowledge their glances with my own.

I probably look funny in this desk on which I’ve arranged various papers: John’s syllabus, his assignments, his pop-quiz for the day.  I’ve been up since 5:00 a.m., reading and rereading my students’ essays, so I’m not a little fatigued when class begins and John introduces me as “a new teacher” and “a lawyer.”  I smile and mutter “hi.”  I even manage half a wave.

John passes out the pop-quizzes, and the students, slightly panicked, seem to forget that I’m in the room.  How nice it is to be sitting here watching students take a quiz rather than taking one myself.  

John is a balding, bespectacled man of medium build.  Today he wears a shirt and tie—no coat—and pants that hang loosely around his waist.  He flips through his notes as his students dash off line after line, tearing through their quizzes.  I wonder what he’s looking at, what his notes might say.  Is he really reading those notes?  Or is this his way of occupying time, of doing something—anything—besides waiting for his students to finish.  He looks pensive.  What he’s thinking I can only guess at.  Perhaps it’s his forthcoming lesson plan.  Perhaps it’s the quiz.  Perhaps it’s me: this looming presence in the corner of the room.  I try to imagine myself in John’s shoes: up there in front of the class, behind the podium, waiting for my students to finish their quizzes, another teacher watching my every move and listening to what I’m saying and watching me and taking notes and watching me—constantly watching me.

Stop!” John exclaims.

And for a moment I forget he’s talking to the students and not to me.  The students sigh, some out of relief, some out of regret.  They pass their quizzes to the front rows.  John collects the quizzes and calls on students to share their answers. He doesn’t wait for volunteers.  The students, all except one, supply correct responses to what seem like fairly straightforward questions, at least for those who did their homework.

Having exhausted the questions, John distributes the second of the semester’s four major assignments.  This task asks students to “experiment stylistically.”  It divides the work into stages: stage one—analyze; stage two—develop opinions; stage three—write and rewrite.  John doesn’t require students to proceed from stage to stage in the order that he lists; he merely suggests that this order is helpful.  That John provides order and steps, dividing tasks into stages, suggests his commitment to pedagogies that deemphasize finality and emphasize procedure and persistence.

John is, in this sense, a partisan of process pedagogy.  Or so I’ve deduced from perusing his syllabus and writing assignments from the last two years.  Perhaps “partisan” is not the right word.  And perhaps “process pedagogy” is too narrow a label.  At any rate, John, whatever he considers himself, seems, to me, one who, in Donald M. Murray’s words, teaches “a process” and not “a product,” and who designs his syllabus accordingly (3).

John borrows primarily from process and expressivist pedagogies, and although methods or techniques from other pedagogies may creep into his classroom, they are always secondary: supplements to the pedagogy but not the pedagogy itself.

John cherry-picks from various pedagogies but always privileges process and expressivism above all.

John uses a portfolio system of grading.  He responds to student assignments throughout the semester but does not assign a grade until the end of the semester.  This grade, according to his syllabus for the current term, “will be determined mainly . . . by the quality of the final work submitted in [the students’] portfolio.”

This final work includes “essays, revisions, drafts, [and] prewriting,” much as his particular essay assignments recommend various stages of brainstorming, prewriting, writing, and revising.  The portfolio concept calls to mind “unfinished writing,” a phenomenon, says Murray, in which we should glory (4).  John’s syllabus, with its emphasis on conferences, revision, drafts, and daily work, seems to support this never-finished-but-always-revising methodology.  It appears to underscore that writing “involves not just one process but several” (Lindemann 22).

Process pedagogy involves much more than just working and reworking over time.  It’s not simply filling an empty receptacle full of signs and syntax and then gradually filtering the good from the bad.  It entails getting students to realize their authority as writers.  It has a psychological element.

“My primary job,” explains Lad Tobin, a process pedagogue, is “not to tell the writer where she had gone wrong or right but to help her see what she had accomplished and what the essay might become in its next carnation” (Tobin 6).  Tobin adds that “writing does not merely reflect what the writer knows but actually generates meaning through the identification of the writer’s own unconscious thoughts” (8).

The process pedagogue assumes that all students have at least some writing skill—regardless of whether students have realized it—and that the teacher’s job is to tap into that skill and then facilitate and encourage writing.  The teacher’s job is to help students find, as it were, their inner writer.

Tobin likens process pedagogy to Freudian practices and beliefs (7-8).  He even points out that freewriting, a technique associated with process pedagogy, “grows directly from Freud’s definition of free association” (8).  If process pedagogy has a psychological element, then it is bound up with thinking and self-discovery: things that must precede the act of putting words to paper.


A couple of weeks after sitting in John’s classroom, I meet John in his office.  It’s late on a Friday afternoon.  The once-bustling hallways have calmed and quieted.  John’s office door is open.  Most of the other doors, however, are closed, the other professors having gone home for the weekend.  John sits at his desk, leaned over a book.  He’s highlighting and underlining when I knock on the door.  He tells me to “come on in.”  I do.  He tells me to “have a seat.”  I do.  We exchange pleasantries—“How was your week?” “Any big plans for the weekend?”—and then, both aware of the time and perhaps ready to get home ourselves, shift into interview mode.

I ask John about his commitment to process pedagogy.  “Do you,” I say, “favor one pedagogical approach over another?”  He hesitates, thinking, so I qualify my question: “It’s just that you seem very committed to process pedagogy.”  With this prompt, John begins to answer.

“Over the years,” he says, “I’ve just started doing what works.”  As if unsatisfied by this reduction of his teaching to quotidian utilitarianism, he adds that as a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the 1980s, he began to favor a blend of process pedagogy and expressivism.  At that time, he suggests, expressivism was taken more seriously and had not yet undergone all the push-back that relocated it to the margins of composition studies.

John emphasizes that he doesn’t fit into simple compartments of pedagogy—into cookie-cutter categories of teaching.  “I’m not,” he says, “from column A or column B.”  He acknowledges the influence of Peter Elbow and Ken Macrorie, who champions the “I-search” paper as opposed to the research paper.  But he doesn’t allow himself to be typecast.

The I-search paper, which “invites readers to take the initiative in their learning, to reach out to satisfy their curiosity” (Macrorie, Preface), stands in contradistinction to the research paper, which, Macrorie claims, “implies complete detachment, absolute objectivity” (Macrorie, Preface).  Writing an “I-search” paper entails prewriting, drafting, process, revision—all things that complement and indeed participate with process pedagogy.  Small wonder, then, that John considers this approach instrumental to his process-oriented teaching methodology.  He is, after all, the man who tells students that text is never a finished product, and whose assignments entail prewriting exercises and other drills meant to get students working on papers over the course of several weeks and even months.

What does it mean to say that John practices process pedagogies?  The question does not admit easy answers because process pedagogies mean different things to different people.  In fact, some composition scholars have suggested that teachers move beyond process pedagogy and into the so-called “post-process” era.  What is this process pedagogy that it might brew such controversy—that professors would call for its demise?  The answer is perhaps too long and elusive for this essay.  Suffice it to say that when I claim that John favors process pedagogy, I mean that he teaches writing as a continual practice of writing and revising, revising and writing, writing and revising, and so on and so forth until writing and revising are no longer distinguishable activities.  The focus of this methodology is not on completion; nor is it on incompletion.  It is on doing.  And doing and doing and doing.

Yet John does not confine his teaching to mere emphasis on doing.  What good is doing if doing is not good?  What is the point of encouraging process if students do not first understand what, why, and how they process?  A student could repeat bad habits and replace bad drafts with bad drafts, bad techniques with bad techniques, for months and months on end.  At some point students will need direction and supervision.  They will need to know that what they’re doing has a point.

Here, I think, John’s attention to expressivism is particularly instructive and telling.  It has to do with the psychological elements of which I spoke earlier.  It involves writing as a cognitive exercise and not just a physical act.  When I say “expressivism” I do not mean, á la Christopher Burnham, “work to subvert teaching practices and institutional structures that oppress, appropriate, or silence an individual’s voice” (23).  If John’s pedagogy has such dismantling as its telos—and I don’t know for sure that it doesn’t—then John goes about his business rather quietly.

No, what I mean by expressivism is, instead, something more modest and less vague, something more student-centered and less focused on institutions and hierarchy.  I mean that John encourages students to examine their world and its meanings.  He helps students to negotiate and express their identity or, as we say in this hybrid-happy era, identities.  He asks, for instance, in one of his assignments, “What is out there in the world, and what can it teach us?  What do we see if we really pay attention—if we stop, look, analyze, and infer meaning?  What does ‘what we see’ tell us about the world we live in and our place in it?  Does it mean something similar to others as well?”  This question (or series of questions) suggests that John hopes to teach students to explore themselves and their surroundings, to step back from life, so to speak, and examine it objectively.  One might be reminded of Aristotle’s oft-cited phrase—“the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Process pedagogy and expressivism are mutually reinforcing methodologies.  Consider the following observation by Tobin:

In spite of [the] very wide range of scholarly approaches [to process pedagogy], it was the version of process that emphasized freewriting, voice, personal narrative, and writing as a form of discovery—that is, the version articulated by Murray, Elbow, Macrorie, [Donald] Graves, and other so-called ‘expressivists’—that had the greatest influence on classroom practice and drew the most impassioned support and criticism. (9)

Support and criticism notwithstanding, the point is that process and expressivism have their roots in the same thoughts and theories.  The “founding fathers” of process and expressivism were more or less the same scholars; the aims of these pedagogies overlap.  Thus, it is “not unusual to hear ‘process’ and ‘expressivism’ used almost interchangeably, as if expressivism were the only kind of process and process teachers were only expressivists” (Tobin 9).  Nevertheless, a teacher could “emphasize the organic nature of the composing process but not assign or even allow personal writing, just as a teacher could insist on personal expression while still clinging to a traditional two-step (think first, then write) notion of the process” (Tobin 9).  It would, then, be misleading to suggest that process and expressivism are actually the same enterprise.  But they are similar enough to speak of as twin enterprises.  They are, in other words, in the same family.

No wonder that dissecting John’s pedagogy is tricky: his techniques lend themselves to pedagogies that are ultimately very similar and address like concerns.  These techniques help students not only to become better writers but also to realize personal agency.  One could argue, as I would, that a sense of personal agency is instrumental to becoming an extraordinary writer—that one can become a good writer without acquiring his or her own voice, but that to really stand apart, to really expand one’s audience, to really speak with authority, one must discover his or her own style and flair.

I opened by remarking that the process of collecting and evaluating data about John’s teaching has revealed as much about John as it has about process and expressivist pedagogies.  This piece is not biography, and I’m neither a biographer nor a psychologist.  But I would guess—and I can only guess because I haven’t any empirical evidence—that pedagogical approaches are just part of what makes students learn.  Put me in a room with a maniacal monster who employs process or expressivist or rhetorical or critical or feminist or whatever kind of pedagogy, and I will not learn.  But put me in a room with a teacher who cares about me, who wants me to learn, wants me to excel, wants me to see the world differently, and who tries his hardest to make that happen, then I will, I suspect, learn, notwithstanding the pedagogical approach.

This claim may itself smack of expressivism.  It may betray the personality of one predisposed to certain types of people and behaviors (those who are selfless and tenacious, for instance).  So be it.  I stand by E.M. Forster’s motto: “Always connect.”  There’s something to be said for those who transcend labels and groups and categories.  John is one of those people.  His success pivots not on what methodology he employs at any given time, but on how he invests himself in that methodology.  The man who sits alone in his office late on a Friday afternoon, grading papers and working on his students’ next assignment at odd hours, is the man committed to something beyond himself.  Perhaps, in the end, that’s what makes a good teacher: the dedication, the desire, the tenacity.  There may not be a tag for that sort of pedagogy.  Or if there is, it applies more broadly—to any profession or occupation in which one learns from another.  Life is a process.  We write and revise it.  Would that there were more Johns to teach us.

Works Cited

Burnham, Christopher.  “Expressive Pedagogy: Practice Theory, Theory/Practice.”  A Guide to Composition Pedagogies.  Eds. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, Kurt Schick.  New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Lindemann, Erika.  A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers.  4th ed.  New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Macrorie, Ken.  The I-Search Paper.  Pourtsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Heinemann, 1988.

Murray, Donald M.  “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.”  In Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader.  Ed. Victor Villanueva.  Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003.

Tobin, Lad.  “Process Pedagogy.”  In A Guide to Composition Pedagogies.  Eds. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, Kurt Schick.  New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.


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