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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Is an "Ideal Text" a Completly Bad Thing?

I finished reading Thomas Newkirk's "The First Five Minutes: Setting the Agenda in a Writing Conference," and I would like to discuss his criticism of what Knoblauch and Brannon call an "ideal text." On a side note, I have not actually read Knoblauch and Brannon's work yet, so I will only discuss Newkirk's definition and perspective pertaining to the ideal text.

An ideal text, according to Newkirk, is the text which a teacher/tutor/consultant has in their mind during a writing conference with a student; "an image of the true version which this paper [the student's] should ultimately conform to" (308). Newkirk's main concern with an ideal text is that if a teacher has an ideal in mind, then they are likely to dominate the writing conference and not afford the student the opportunity to brainstorm, reflect and learn from their own writing and thoughts because the teacher will only be gratified if/when the student conforms to the ideal. If this is the case, then it seems obvious that there is no collaborative learning; the teacher will most likely always be disappointed, the student will ultimately need the teacher write the paper for them, and learning/research are certainly kicked to the way side.

Do all teachers have an ideal text in mind when it comes to conferencing? I should think so, and I wouldn't necessarily cast the ideal in such a negative light as Newkirk does. In tweaking the definition a bit, I would say that an ideal text largely consists of the experience and knowledge of the teacher. In other words, our understanding of composition, grammar, structure, organization, style, tone, etc. contribute to the creation of an ideal text. These things are not bad in of themselves so long as we teachers are flexible with them and use them sparingly as one of many reference points during a writing conference.

If our agenda is to impose our ideal text onto the writer, then Newkirk's concerns are correct. We will be bad teachers, the students will hate writing and be less apt to participate in dialogue, thus collaborative learning has been terminated. But if we are willing to use an ideal text in the likeness of an organ donor--that is, occasionally rip something (e.g. thesis, transition, etc.) out of our ideal body and offer it up as one of many potential examples, then an ideal could benefit the student's thoughts and writing. Newkirk's concern is simple: an ideal text leads to bad writing conferences, and bad wring conferences are detrimental to collaborative leaning. I would argue, however, that it is not the ideal which is bad, but instead, what we choose to do with it. On that point, wearing a "What Would Plato Do" bracelet might be a bad idea.

5 comments:

  1. Professor Keith graciously pointed out to me that there are many consultations in which the writer's subject/topic is foreign to the consultee. If this is the case (and it is quite often), then is it possible to still have an ideal text? In other words, can the consultant construct an ideal of what the writer's topic should be if the topic is alien?

    It may be argued that, so long as all papers rest upon structure and guidlines (perhaps a teacher's expectations and/or the writer's own objective), and these guidelines/boundaries are expected to be present in the paper, then "yes," an ideal text can still exist because of the experience teacher's bring with to each piece of writing. I am not sure, however, if Newkirk would agree with this definition. It is what I base my argument on in my original post.

    If Newkirk's ideal text specifically means that I (the teacher) have my own specifically developed thesis, body, conclusion about a topic which is alien to me, then Professor Keith's comment is very valid to this other definition.

    Any thoughts on the subject?

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  3. Hey, Shaun.

    I agree with your reaction to the Newkirk article. My take on what Knoblauch and Brannon call the ideal text, at least as Newkirk describes it, is akin to the Platonic concept of ideals. Consider an apple, for example. Plato would have said that we humans have an ideal concept of what an apple is, which might include how red it looks, how crisp it is, how sweet it tastes, and the like. When we eat an apple, we compare the one we're eating to our ideal concept, and though the many apples we eat in a lifetime will never live up to the ideal, we still sometimes eat ones that come close and call those "good" or "excellent" apples. And in my opinion, the same could be said about texts. We writing consultants are writers ourselves, and based on our experience, education, and training, we can’t help but form some sort of mental image of an “ideal” solution for any given writing assignment. True, no text in the real world (including our own) is likely to match our ideal, but like the ideal apple, the ideal text can still serve as a useful guideline.

    As up-and-coming writing consultants in the BSU Writing Center, we’ve learned that it’s not productive to beat the student writer over the head with a litany of prescriptive rules. That’s a given. But if we consultants are, as the venerable Stephen North says, working to help students become better writers, we must know what better means, right? In my opinion, then, an ideal text is one way of defining better. In our English 303 (Theory & Practice of Tutoring Writing) class last evening, however, we heard experienced teachers say that they don’t have an ideal text in mind when they give an assignment, but rather, they have expectations for how students will respond to the various requirements spelled out in their assignment rubrics. To me, though, this is merely an argument of semantics. Comparing a student’s work to expectations or to an ideal text—what’s the difference? What it all boils down to is that we writing consultants and teachers have some standard, whatever the label, to which we are comparing a student’s work.

    I agree with Professor Keith, too, because I don't define ideal text as a snapshot of a completed paper, especially when I don't have the disciplinary specialization or expertise necessary to write a paper on a specific topic. Instead, I define ideal text in terms of in terms of coherence, organization, sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, etcetera. In other words, I don't have to be an expert on a topic in order to determine whether or not a paper is well written; I only need to understand the accepted standards for good writing, and it is those standards that I refer to as ideal text.

    Am I making sense here, or am I all wet?

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  4. Yep. Makes sense to me Michael. I especially enjoy the way you refer to North as the "venerable North."

    One other thing that Professor Keith and I discussed about Newkirk's article is that it's written for teachers (who are more apt to have specific writing assignments and agendas) vs. writing consultants.

    For this reason, Professor Keith also mentioned that having Newkirk's article in the Longman's Guide for Writing Centers is a bit odd and out of place, but that there is enough material in common with our field of study to be beneficial for us too.

    As for Platonic metaphysics... I would guess the old man wouldn't have problems with particulars that are merely once removed from the ideal; if Plato were the teacher or writing consultant, even he would be OK with a student's own personal approach to their topic. The philosopher's wrath would instead be aimed at the student's lazy poet friend who used the same paper, word for word, one semester later and tried passing the work off as their own for the same class.

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  5. Dangit, Shaun, and I'd already drawn up sketches for the "WWPD" bracelets. Why must you crush my dreams?

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