Vignette: Diving In: A Redux

Jessica Enoch

[W]e are much more likely in talking about teaching to talk about students, to theorize about their needs and attitudes or to chart their development and ignore the possibility that teachers also change in response to students, that there may in fact be important connections between the changes teachers undergo and the progress of their students. 

                                                            ––Mina Shaughnessy “Diving In” (234)


I have always loved Mina Shaughnessy’s essay “Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve read and taught it—a lot. Students and their writing should change us, as teachers, Shaughnessy argues; it should make us rethink what we know about writing and teaching. Shaughnessy calls us to “dive in” to student writing and to gain the “professional courage” that allows us to “remediate” ourselves as teachers so that we can become students of our students “in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence” (234). This is not as easy task. To become a student of our students, to see students and their student writing as a heuristic that catalyzes reflection, reconsideration, and change can be discomforting; it can be really hard.

So, for this short essay, I put myself to the test and re-read some recent scholarship I’ve published, both collaboratively and alone, that incorporates student writing to see what I’ve done with it. I’m interested to see whether and how I’ve been open to remediation; if and when I’ve mustered the professional courage to change. In these essays, I’ve collected and studied student writing to better understand how students engage in revision, reflection, feminist rhetorical history, and feminist memory production. With others and alone, I’ve coded, categorized, assessed, and examined their work, using students’ words to help me rethink my teaching and their learning and to make arguments about how we might proceed as teachers of writing and rhetoric. No doubt, their writing inspired new ideas. It discomforted, provoked, and perplexed me. It changed what I (think I) know. 

But: was there, is this, pedagogical courage? 

Reading these essays now at a remove and through this lens, I see that, in many cases, the work I did as I conducted this research required me to detach the writing from the student, to remove the writing they produced from the context of the class. I anonymized and created pseudonyms. I isolated quotations from essays that were smart, messy, thoughtful, and sometimes not that well thought out, and then I used those quotations to make the point I needed to make. I was learning from them, but the learning was happening in particularity, not holistically. The pedagogical research I conducted necessarily disconnected the writing from the classroom and from the student, and through this disconnection the stakes of these pedagogical encounters were reduced. 

Reading the student quotations I incorporated into my research now, I tack out (rather than in) to remember the students, the parts of their lives they shared with me that semester, their anxieties, their humor, their engagement, and their resistance—all the stuff that was left out and did not (could not) show up in my research and writing. I remember their names, not their pseudonyms. Let me be clear: I’m not discounting the findings in those publications or the excerpts of student writing contained in it; I learned from them, and I hope my readers did as well. But in reflection now, it was the students’ work produced in full and in the context of the semester, when the student in the student writing was still present, that’s when I had to muster courage that Shaughnessy is talking about. That’s when I had to be open to them and them to me, and that’s when the difficult and imperfect change occurred, if at all. We can dive in as researchers, for sure, but, for me the gathering of the courage happens in the messiness of the classroom, when there is no room yet for scholarly detachment, when the research question is not well-formed, when the writing and the student are in close range, and when the effect of the classroom is still prickly and present. That’s when pedagogical courage is necessary to dive in.

Works Cited

Shaughnessy, Mina P. “Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 27, no. 3, Oct. 1976, pp. 234-39.