e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


WCSA Conference, Day Three

Early morning session on "Class in the Classroom: Teaching Strategies." Tess Evans and Jacqueline Preston, in "Discourse Community as a Foundation for Teaching Research and Writing," gave an overview of the concept of a discourse community (a group that shares common goals or values and, by extension, a common vocabulary and set of language practices), geared--appopriately for a multi-disciplinary conference like this one--for an audience of folks from various disciplines. They also spoke about the imperative to challenge the vague "default audience" of academic writing and spoke of a writing pedagogy involving the development of rhetorical awareness, the exploration of various alternative rhetorics (that is, alternative to academic apporaches), and the completion of a writing project that uses the conventions of a discourse community of the student's choosing. Jan Schmittauer and Sue Lape spoke about the need to sequence writing assignments in their talk "Resisting Tradition, Inviting Experience." Again, familiar territory for compositionists but geared toward a broader audience of conference-goers. They used the literature courses at their community colleges as examples of venues in which to invite low-stakes, experience-based responses to a series of writing prompts, leading to tasks that get more and more challenging. By the end of an assignment sequence, they suggest, students have a "coherent whole." This is especially important, say Schmittauer and Lape, for first-generation college students and others trying to make sense of the expectations of literate, academic tasks. Lastly, Ray Mazurek gave his paper "Teaching the Problem of Whiteness," a report on how Ted Allen (The Invention of the White Race)'s work on race in the seventeenth century has influenced his approach to teaching the first-semester American Studies survey on his campus. The concept of "whiteness" grew up during that century, Mazurek suggests, to "create a buffer between the elite and the masses." Mazurek's talk made me want to look up Allen's work and learn more. He glossed Allen's argument so quickly that I didn't make out its nuances.

The mid-day plenary was dedicated to the memory of Tillie Olsen. Few dry eyes in the auditorium as conference-goers remembered the great writer who has been an icon among the working-class studies community since the conference started up in the mid-90s at Youngstown State. We screened the new documentary "A Heart in Action," which I hope sees wider release, as it captures Tillie visiting various classrooms and marching in various public actions--two activities that she loved. Julie Olsen Edwards (Tillie's daughter) shared stories, choking back tears. She said that, growing up without much money, her mom would always fill a paper bag with books from used bookstores, each one chosen carefully. She also reminisced about the MLA session where Tillie told a panelist speaking about education and privelege to be careful not to frame education as anything but a birthright. To bring some levity, she also talked about Tillie getting kicked out of the PTA because they thought she was a spy from the Kremlin. Barb Jensen and Cherie Rankin read excerpts from "I Stand Here Ironing" and Yonnondio respectively. Steve Zeltzer spoke about Tillie's eternal optimism, noting, "If you're going to be a revolutionary in this country, you've got to have patience." Sherry Linkon, past president of the Working-Class Studies Association, acknowledged that Tillie was one of the key inspirations for starting the new working-class studies movement and recalled her passing around the guitar at the Pub at YSU, suggesting that the image of someone so renowned hanging out with conference-goers captured the essence of what the field and the conference are all about. Janet Zandy ended the session by reading a short piece "Walking with Tillie" about her various encounters and conversations with the writer.

All that, plus a great banquet, more great poets in the evening, and the singing of many labor songs. You just don't get that at most academic conferences! Tomorrow, back to Detroit, so I should get some sleep.

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