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What Glynda Hull and Mike Rose Learned from Researching Remedial Writing Programs

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Humanities, Information Design, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on July 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Based on their research of remedial writing programs, Glynda Hull and Mike Rose conclude in “This Wooden Shack Place” that students of writing often offer arguments that at first seem wacky or wrong, but that are actually logical and coherent. These students give unique and insightful interpretations that teachers, fixed in their privileged and heavily conditioned interpretive communities, cannot always realize or appreciate. Hull and Rose treat this student-teacher disjuncture as revealing as much about the teacher as it does about the student. Finally, Hull and Rose conclude that student readings that seem “off the mark” may be “on the mark” depending on where the interpreter—the teacher or student—is coming from or aiming. 

Along these lines, Hull and Rose describe “moments of mismatch between what a teacher expects and what students do.” These moments demonstrate that teachers and students come to writing with different values and assumptions shaped by various experiences. Hull and Rose focus on one student, whom they call “Robert,” to substantiate their claims that students respond to literature based on cultural history and background.

Robert and his peers read a poem that Hull and Rose have reproduced in their essay: “And Your Soul Shall Dance for Wakako Yamauchi.” Working together, the student-readers agreed on certain interpretive generalizations but failed to reach consensus about particular lines and meanings. Some students “offered observations that seemed to be a little off the mark, unusual, as though the students weren’t reading the lines carefully.” Robert, a polite boy with a Caribbean background and Los Angeles upbringing, was one of these students. He commented about the poem in a way that troubled Rose—until, that is, Rose pressed Robert about the poem during a student-teacher conference, which Rose recorded. Robert challenged and surprised Rose at this conference by offering a plausible reading, which Rose had not considered.

Hull and Rose set Robert’s interpretation against what they call a “conventional” reading, a label based on a representative sampling of interpretations by more “sophisticated” readers: a senior English major, two graduate students, and two English professors. In a follow-up meeting, Rose discovered that Robert’s interpretation had less to do with sophistication than with Robert’s unique upbringing: “He [Robert] comes from a large family (11 siblings and half-siblings), some members of which have moved (and continue to move) across cultures and, to a degree, across class lines.” This background shed new light on Robert’s perspective about the figure of the poem, who wished to flee the countryside for the city.

Robert disrupted Rose’s assumptions once again when he (Robert) offered a close-reading that flew in the face of Rose’s. Robert began to establish his authority, but Rose did not acknowledge this authority right away—indeed, not until (it would seem) Rose began constructing this particular article did Rose also begin to understand Robert’s interpretive facility.

Even as they defend Robert’s reading, Hull and Rose privilege themselves as superior readers “educated in a traditional literature program,” “trained in an English program,” and “schooled to comprehend the significance of the shacks.” (There’s a narrative trick afoot, so hold tight.) Hull and Rose suggest that they understand “the principles of compression and imagistic resonance,” whereas Robert “isn’t socialized to such conventions, or is only partly socialized.” This, they claim, doesn’t make their interpretations right—just more nuanced. Hull and Rose allow that Robert’s interpretation is not “inadequate” and is “pretty sophisticated”—hardly resounding praises—and they render it “perhaps inappropriately invoked in a poetic world.” This smugness takes a turn toward condescending pity as Hull and Rose contextualize Robert’s reading by way of Robert’s background. Robert, they presume, is not moved by the depiction of shanties and huts because his relatives live in shanties and huts—because he’s not so removed from the “reality of poor landscapes” depicted in the poem. Robert also missed the irony in the poem because his “position in the society makes it difficult for him to see things this way, to comply with this conventional reading.” In perhaps their most presumptuous moment, Hull and Rose claim special insight into what Robert is doing as he reads and interprets the poem. He is, they say, transposing his limited knowledge about farms (he’s a city boy) onto the poem’s setting.

In a delightful volte face—alas, the narrative trick revealed!—Hull and Rose applaud Robert for his attention to visual imagery. They reveal that their putative “smugness” was actually carefully constructed to endow their article with irony. These authors were not necessarily positioning themselves as superior readers after all, although they let on that that’s what they were doing. Their argument, then, is more subtle: the student may offer unconventional readings that are not necessarily as valid as the conventional reading but that nevertheless retain some plausibility.

“What’s important to note here,” Hull and Rose declare, “is that Robert was able to visualize the scene—animate it, actually—in a way that Rose was not, for Rose was focusing on the dramatic significance of the shacks.” Moreover, Hull and Rose add, “Robert’s reading may be unconventional and inappropriately jurisprudential, but it is coherent, and it allows us—in these lines—to animate the full landscape in a way that enhances our reading of the poem.” The teachers would seem to have learned as much from the student as the student has from the teachers.

On the one hand, Hull and Rose worry about encouraging unconventional readings; on the other hand, they worry about socializing students into the mechanistic interpretive cultures of the academic community—cultures which, with their privileged and unchallenged assumptions, severely limit interpretive possibilities. Hull and Rose argue for a third-way between the conventional and the unconventional—for a drill of give-and-take between teacher and student. They call for a “richer, more transactive model of classroom discourse.” We can, I think, learn much from this idea, and we should try to put it into practice in our teaching.


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