Vignette: "It's Not About You," or, Getting Out of My Own Way to Better Perceive Composition

Eric A. House

As I reflect on the interactions with student writing and work that have impacted my understanding of our field, I’m noticing that the moments that stand out involve my being forced to question the role of the researcher and teacher in composition classroom ecologies. This is especially the case when those moments are about some of the more theoretical and abstract concepts such as ideological assumptions about languaging, literacy, and difference.

Conversations surrounding linguistic difference and the issues with assuming static concepts in composition have always been important to me because of my own educational history as a black student who grew up within a public education system that couldn’t imagine students like me effectively participating. I would like to think that my research seeks to shift away from these myths of standards and static concepts and into spaces of differences and compositional flexibility. But I struggled initially to bring some of these issues into my pedagogy to the point where it would almost feel hypocritical since we wouldn’t often explicitly have those types of conversations in class. It’s not as if I chose to ignore those conversations; I would emphasize the practical and negotiated aspects of language in my writing instruction in subtle ways. But rarely were there concrete or overt conversations about why there is an assumption that first-year composition courses are spaces where students need to develop skills in languaging that will supposedly help them materially in other contexts, as if the contexts students encounter outside of those courses could ever be static enough to the point where concepts in the class could simply transfer. 

So maybe hypocritical isn’t the right word, since it wasn’t as if I was preaching dynamic language and literacy practices one day, and then running the wild grammar exams or decontextualized mechanics lectures the next. Maybe it was good enough at the time that these thoughts on language difference in composition impacted my pedagogy in some way, as that might suggest that the way I prepped, taught, and graded were all informed by a fluid concept of language and difference. 

However, I still felt as if I wasn’t doing enough, and I felt that way up until one of my last semesters teaching in grad school where, probably for the first time, language differences were explicitly brought up in the classroom. One exercise we often do in the very first class of the semester once we get through all the syllabus and policy stuff is have an intentional conversation about the hopes, expectations, worries, and some anxieties that we all might feel as we collectively engage in what it is we do in a first-year composition class. The purpose is to gauge the energy as we start the new semester, to sort of see where everyone is and to hopefully start the semester off in a collaborative place fueled by transparency. As we were talking, a common anxiety about linguistic varieties came up with quite a few students in the course expressing similar worries. A number of them expressed that English was not their first or most comfortable language and communicated anxieties surrounding potential misunderstandings or rigid linguistic structures that might result in decreased chances of success in the class. I responded to those worries by articulating to the class my thoughts concerning linguistic varieties, and I mentioned that the way we evaluate and assess in our course is done from a place that is interested in the students’ labor and the rhetorical nature of their writing rather than their mastery of an imagined standard (shout out to all my anti-racist writing assessment folk).

I don’t know for sure if starting the semester out with a comment like that was a main factor, but that specific class has easily been my favorite to teach so far. Our conversations in that course were perhaps the most generative in my experience. Class discussions were almost always expressive with active participation, and we had multiple critical conversations about the overall purpose of a first-year writing course where we brought up issues surrounding the popular expectations and assumptions of our class. But, as I said, I’m not sure if laying a foundation early about my understanding of linguistic varieties was a main factor for all of that. It could have been that it was probably the most students of color I have ever had in one course that the dynamic was already going to shift because of my identity as a black man. It could have been I got lucky and all of our personalities just happened to mesh. It could have been I was finally turning into a dope teacher, whereas we couldn’t have had those types of conversations years before because I was constantly trying my best to stay afloat. I can’t say what it was for sure, and for all I know the students in that class felt it was business as usual while I was the only one who was hyped to walk in and talk all things composition every day. But as I reflect on that experience, I do know that the student-led discussion early on in the semester, if nothing else, invited a conversation on something that clearly gave me life and hopefully eased some tensions for all. It taught me that student invitations to think critically about composition occasions can be liberating for teachers, which, to me, illustrates the reciprocal nature of our composition classes that I believe the field needs to continually explore.

The vibe of the class that semester has me currently thinking that my task as researcher and pedagogue requires that I spend more time getting myself out of the way. When I was first trying to get a sense of the field of composition studies, I would get caught up in an image of teachers with all this agency who could be the force that creates change within the classroom. But in those imaginings, as pure and beautiful the intentions might have been, I didn’t always remember about the ideological constraints placed on the composition classroom. I’m wondering how often instructors get out of our own way, admit that maybe the flow of the class isn’t necessarily about us, and allow ourselves to be moved by students? I’m also wondering how often before that semester I’d say something in passing, or unconsciously convey to past classes some type of rigid conception of language, and whether or not that placed a burden on the class in general? Or even on the other side, if I made comments about not emphasizing a variety of English to the point where it became incredibly abstract for students despite my best intentions, and as a result if we all struggled to write because we seemingly got so abstract that the context and other helpful elements of the writing situations seemed to slip away? 

That last question has just reminded me that I lied earlier in this reflection by saying that the previous mentioned semester was the first time bringing up a tough topic such as linguistic varieties, but instead of going back and revising, I’m gonna ride this wave into the conclusion. Once while teaching first-year writing earlier in my grad school career, I had assigned an essay where students were writing about writing with an emphasis on language variety and the issue of standardization. I went full-on annoying grad student who was way too hyped about something I read a semester or two prior and thought I would throw some theoretical and philosophical fire on my students, and we’d have this super woke conversation and break down all the barriers of standardization and compose freely and all that nonsense. Long story short, it didn’t work out. At all. I admitted to that specific class that my assignment was trash. They laughed. I laughed. We got over it and still had a good semester. But that moment stands out as one where I think I tried a little too hard to push concepts such as linguistic varieties on students in a way that did not work, because, of course, I had to be the innovative teacher who brought this type of thinking to my class effectively. That class taught me it didn’t work like that, at least for me. The other experience informed me that those conversations can happen in the writing classroom, but when they do it has to happen in a way that allows all of us, teacher included, to be changed by the ways in which people in the room think of, think through, and make sense of our own languaging practices as they are informed by and concurrently inform the composition classroom. At least, that’s where I’m at right now.