We Do Language

Toni Morrison stated in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Word-work is sublime… because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives”  (Morrison, 1994, p. 22).

Morrison describes language as an action, part of a process. This distinction is powerful when I think about my task as an English teacher. Language is generative, and language is what we do to make meaning, or as Morrison puts it, live. We do language to live. I’m not sure exactly how I got here, or even if it makes sense.

Dying means the end of life, so we should take advantage of the time we have and make it mean something (cliche, of course). And if language is something we do, we use it to prove meaning, which is what dying is for, too. So, I arrived at “We do language to live.” (Because “We do language to die.” seems just too depressing for a Monday.)

Written language is advantageous, but limiting.

In chapter 13 of Multiliteracies, titled “Narratives and Inscriptions”, Michaels and Sohmer address the power of inscription, and also its disadvantages. While inscription has the power to “transfer,simplify, and transport aspects of the word in forms that are at once mobile (easily and widely circulated), immutable (held constant across time and space), presentable, and combinable”, it also has the potential to omit incredibly important components that may have gotten lost along the generative process. Although the term “inscription” seems archaic, I liken this to teaching. As the instructor, it is my responsibility to make the unknown familiar, or make the tacit, explicit (I can’t remember exactly where I read that phrase, but it’s definitely not my creation). I am to make the information mobile and available to me, even more mobile, presentable and combinable to my students. But what might get lost along the way is the process with which I employed to get that information or knowledge to my students.

An important question to consider: How are inscriptions blinding my vision as an English teacher? Where and what are my blind spots?

The Aboriginal Australian ganma metaphor resonated with what I’m tossing around in my brain. Essentially, the metaphor depicts a fresh water river colliding or meeting with the sea. If I were to look at my context, I think the fresh water would be current education knowledges and practices (by this I mean, curriculum and teaching practices in general), the salt water would be students’ knowledges and practices in this 21st Century, and where they meet is in my classroom. How do they get along (if at all)? The symbiotic meeting of the two bodies of water seems too normal and down-to-earth for me. I imagine it as a cataclysmic event where everyone is running for their lives. At least that is what it feels like in my head.

So what does this mean for me? Simply, I am interested in becoming a better teacher of writing. I am struggling to negotiate traditional notions of writing with what a Multiliteracies pedagogy calls for, although this isn’t exactly the framework I’ll use to approach this. I want to see where these two areas, as the ganma metaphor suggests, meet. Hopefully, this doesn’t mean doing more and spending more time “doing” more, but rethinking the teaching of English. All while staying within the parameters of the approved curriculum. Some questions I think I need to ask are:

1. What is a text? How do students define text?

2. What writing do students value?

3. How does an idea start?

4. How does an idea evolve through different modes and mediums?

The last two questions I am tossing around with the concept of remediation in mind. I have been thinking of this idea since the first week’s readings. While this interests me and what it could look like in a classroom, I am also a little worried that I may fall short of this task. I may want to incorporate multimodal literacy into my classroom, but do I know what that means (to actually DO it)? Do I have the capacity to represent myself in multiple modes? This should be interesting.

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6 thoughts on “We Do Language

  1. I like the questions of “what is a text” and “what writing do students value.” Something I stole from a colleague is that he starts his freshman comp classes by asking students questions about everyday writing: how many times did you write on Facebook, emails sent, texts written, paper notes, etc.? By the end, he points out that if all of this writing and text were added up, it would show that there is actually a ton of writing that happens everyday and that students are surprisingly prolific.

    • Love that idea! May have to snag that. It reminds me of something in Andrea Lundsford’s Standford Study of Writing where she asked students to voluntarily submit their writing over the course of five years. They sought to examine the types of writing to further their understanding of students’ purposes of writing and aimed to alter or develop their composition programs around the conclusions. I really like the idea of tracing the development of an idea throughout an entire school year, but am struggling to articulate how it connects to my wanting to expand the definitions of writing and text. It’s there, I know it is, just have to keep thinking and writing. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Bree,

    I agree with Katie; your list of questions at the end of the post is incisive and thought-provoking. In my first-year comp course last semester, students inquired into both their personal values and the value of rhetoric. I asked them to explore what written elements they value most as readers, and why. And we also discussed how students’ valuation of writing relates to their larger values as human beings.

    Very interesting thoughts!

    Katie M.

    • Very good ideas! I love the idea of having them explore the written elements they value, and your extension on having them connect their textual values to their larger selves is really interesting. Will have to keep this in mind! Thanks!

  3. Bree, I so appreciate your openness to experimentation with what and how you teach. This is such a vital part of teaching (and the ever-evolving subjectivity of English) that can become stagnant otherwise.

    You thoughts about written language being “advantageous, but limiting” encapsulates how I often feel in my own communication with my students. I often have to pull from music, websites, apps, etc to even explain my thought connections in my classes, but at the same time attempting to combat this limitedness can seem limiting in attempting to explain it to others.

    So much of what I’ve noticed with how modern technology shapes our ways of thinking is that often that thinking is harder to connect to others’ ways of thinking if all parties are not familiar with the same modalities. This often becomes an area of contention and obstacle of efficiency in department meetings and even in talking with and listening to students (who I either assume have a certain linguistic understanding about modern modalities or am unaware of the more “up to date” understandings that they do have).

  4. I really enjoyed your discussion of the affordances and disadvantages of “inscription,” and the way that you use the metaphor of inscription to reflect on your teaching. At the same time, I was struck by your comment about how archaic “inscription” seems to be, and I wondered if you can think of an alternative metaphor, whether we might rethink that word. It interests me to consider what “inscription” might mean in virtual spaces and how the space of the virtual changes our understandings of “inscription.”

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