A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Between the Classroom, the Page, and the Profession: The Value of the Hybrid Essay in Graduate-Level Learning

Tara Lockhart, San Francisco State University
Galin Dent, San Francisco State University
Jennifer Saltmarsh, San Francisco State University

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/between-the-classroom
(Published November 5, 2013)

It’s a little after three p.m. Wednesday afternoon in room 217 on the second floor of the pale blue and brown Humanities building at San Francisco State University. Outside, wisps of fog and bursts of sunlight struggle against one another, vying for prominence, as Jen Saltmarsh asks her first-year English 114 students to consider, perhaps for the first time in their lives, if it is possible to “write for yourself and for the university at the same time?” Her question is met with silence. As we sit in this hushed and uneasy quiet I am reminded of the similar sort of “productive tension” that Kathleen McCormick describes in The Culture of Reading and The Teaching of English when she says “the most productive pedagogies develop from reading situations in which a tension between repertoires exists” (88). Watching Saltmarsh work these tensions, these intersections, interstices, and places in-between her students’ lives in the world and their lives in the university, I am reminded of how this sort of “tension” exists not only in the act of reading between “repertoires,” but also in the balancing acts of writing, learning, and teaching themselves—in the in-betweens of what it means to be a student, a citizen, and a beginning teacher of reading and writing standing before a classroom in one of California’s public universities right now. Still silent, Jen’s students look back at her, they look at one another, they look around. The silence blooms. The awkward, uncomfortable atmosphere becomes peaceful, even a little meditative. The seagulls squawk outside, airlifting scraps of debris from trashcans to the grass. We wait. Within the constraints of the writing act itself (the difficulty of formulating and expressing our complex thoughts and selves in a limited language), between the student writing in the university and the student writing in the world, between teaching, learning, and writing, lies the vivid potential for the institutionalized work we do in our composition classes to become meaningful, relevant, and consequential to readers and writers both inside the university and out. Can we imagine, Saltmarsh is asking, a writing better suited to work within and express this tense liminality? Between her question and our response, Saltmarsh waits along with us.1


Galin Dent, the “I” in the above excerpt, once told us that if he hadn’t found a place for writing like the writing you just read, he might not have stayed—might not have been able to stay—in the M.A. Composition program at San Francisco State. Although for somewhat different reasons, each of us concurred with this sentiment; together, we wanted to explore why. We wanted to know how writing that is messier, that spills over the boundaries of traditional academic discourse—writing that is difficult, less predictable, yet more explicitly situated—helped us as students and teachers to write our way in, across, and through our lives and disciplines, to connect and navigate, to proceed amidst the uncertain circumstances and competing forces of a culture seemingly at odds with our work and our ideals. And we wanted to know if the writing we found so generative might also help other students and teachers.

We began meeting in Tara Lockhart’s cluttered office on the fourth floor of San Francisco State’s towering Humanities building in the late fall of 2010. California’s intense economic downturn rippled across our campus and refracted in the discipline of composition. Tara was a second-year, tenure-track professor, Jen was a graduate student instructor considering the notion of pursuing a Ph.D, and Galin, also a GSI, hoped to someday teach composition at one of California’s community colleges. We could not yet see that what had presented itself as a temporary economic adjustment would turn out to be an historic sea-change in both our public’s willingness and ability to support higher education in California. But budget cuts, system-wide faculty furloughs, and cancelled classes were becoming the norm. Uncertainty was everywhere. Yet somehow optimism flourished in Tara’s tiny office. She laid the foundation for a philosophy of openness and exploration, and as young teachers at the disheartening end of an era, we all managed to remain oddly upbeat about composition’s inclusive potential, even as it was being unbuilt before us. Even amidst the dismantling of futures we had imagined, it felt as though anything were possible for ourselves, our students, and the writing we would do together.

These were the tense rhetorical conditions in which we learned, wrote, and taught composition, and this is the liminal “right-now” that bubbles beneath the surface of Galin’s opening description of Jen’s class. The “economic crisis” soon became social, political, and personal, seamlessly depicting how everything was becoming increasingly overlapping and more tightly tethered together—our worlds and our formal educations; our economic, foreign, and public policy; the aims of our universities and the mercurial marketplace; our occupations and our ideologies; the fates of our students and those of us trying to teach college composition in California. As we met together, these trying times compelled each of us to ask the question Paul Kameen finds so central to his work when he inquires, “what am I doing here?” in regard to his classroom, his writing, and his life in the profession (248). In the days to come, across California’s public college campuses, peaceful student protestors would be randomly arrested, beaten with batons, and burnt by tangerine waves of pepper spray. Teaching composition in California and all that it entails—its complex mix of intertwined social, political, personal, institutional, and economic concerns—was increasingly becoming anything other than a stable or secure pursuit. We wanted a kind of writing that was capable of both representing and confronting these realities.

In the multi-vocal essay that follows, we analyze excerpts from the hybrid, essayistic writing Jen and Galin completed while in San Francisco State’s M.A. Composition program in order to highlight the qualities of such writing, explain what we think it does, and discuss why we like it. Our analyses of these excerpts consider how highly reflective, locally situated writing that mixes a variety of theory, styles, genres, and knowledge domains, can help writers make strategic use of writing for the sake of deep learning. Such mixed, or hybrid, essayistic writing can be especially important and useful for M.A. students, we argue, given their diverse range of goals and limited time to pursue their studies. However, we also contend that the open, tentative, exploratory nature of such essayistic writing is also useful for graduate students more generally, as they try to orient themselves to new ideas, environments, and discourses.

In arguing for more flexible and varied forms of writing assigned and valued at the graduate level, we also call for more explicit attention to graduate-level writing instruction. We question the tacit assumptions in play when graduate students are (not) being taught to write: that graduate students arrive to our programs with a full arsenal of academic literacies ready to be deployed; that anything they don’t know they will pick up along the way, through what Laura Micciche and Allison Carr have recently characterized as “repeated exposure and an osmosis-like process” (485); or, that they must earn the right to more selective higher education through “trial by fire” apprenticeship, as so many have before them. Until recently, graduate-level writing instruction, and the kinds of writing assignments and discussions about writing we sanction, have gone largely unconsidered unless we turned to the field of ESL research and work by scholars such as John Swales which dealt with orienting graduate students, often international graduate students, to the genres and discourses of scholarly writing.

This is beginning to change in important ways. For example, in their excellent article, “Toward Graduate Level Writing Instruction,” Micciche and Carr have recently made a compelling case similar to the one we’ve advanced above: that we, as literacy professionals, should make an “explicit commitment to graduate-level writing instruction in English studies” (478). E. Shelley Reid’s work echoes these goals in her call for more attention to the writing we ask future writing teachers to compose. In her 2009 CCC article “Teaching Writing Teachers Writing: Difficulty, Exploration, and Critical Reflection,” she argues that writing teachers need to write more exploratory and critically reflective prose which, perhaps more than the researched seminar paper, will prompt them to experience and engage the difficulties of writing, strengthening their growth as teachers.

Like Reid, we argue that writing geared more towards exploration and hypothesis allows for more student connection: to scholarship and to the writing of others, to the material realities of the profession, to our students and our pedagogical work in the classroom, and to the complex worlds in which we live and write. These connections are crucial for M.A. students finding their feet, often in a new discipline and in a short amount of time, just as they are crucial for new teachers who are learning to put theory and practice together for themselves, their students, and the societies that ultimately support and surround them. In the excerpts below, we show how flexible, situated, and reflective essayistic writing provides a space for Jen and Galin to acclimate, test ideas, and develop thoughtful voices in conversation with their new and ever-changing field. Through such writing, we argue, we find ways to adapt workable ideas, building knowledge instead of just reacting to or reporting the scholarship and arguments of others. Moreover, this kind of writing allows us to situate ourselves alongside our students in powerful ways. Instead of writing as distanced or remote “English teachers,” we, too, are writers amongst writers, everyday language users, struggling in the here and now to make sense of ourselves and our ideas in our writing. Each of the three of us has used writing like this in inward ways—to create passageways for ongoing and fluent revisions of ourselves, our lives, and our occupations; to become recursively reflective practitioners who use essayistic writing, as Tara once put it, as a “literate technology of the self.” And we frequently have used such writing in outward ways, embracing the principle Bronwyn Williams has recently championed, that “people’s knowledge of and reflection on their lives and experiences is both valuable and necessary to enact democratic and sustainable social change” (6). Indicative of more than just an expressive desire to connect self to world, the kind of flexible and varied essayistic writing we promote below allows graduate students pathways to learning, integrating, and transforming the key ideas of our field. Although crucial for all graduate students, such connection and potential transformation is especially vital for M. A. students who bring diverse goals and needs to their programs, as well as our particular students at SFSU, where a social justice mission is paramount.

Therefore, although we find Micciche and Carr’s work, as well as Reid’s, very valuable, we also must note certain limits in scope. While Reid focuses specifically on the pedagogy course for writing teachers, Micciche and Carr focus on what graduate writing looks like specifically in Ph.D. programs, where their students’ critical writing is directed “toward the production of scholarship” in the form of published articles and conference talks (479). We want to combine and extend these arguments, stitching together Reid’s call for exploratory critical writing that embraces difficulty with Micciche and Carr’s call for more explicit teaching of writing at the graduate level. By extension, we argue that hybrid, essayistic writing, which favors exploration over argument, questions over conclusions, responsiveness to social and institutional realities, and which can take a variety of forms—coupled with space inside the graduate classroom for explicit response, revisions, and discussion of student writing—serves students better when integrated across the curriculum instead of being isolated to one seminar. Writers (and teachers) should continue to use writing to inquire, to unite theory and practice, and to reflect as they encounter new experiences, new scholarship, new students, and new challenges across their programs and beyond.

Finally, we extend and complicate much of the scholarship on graduate-level writing by focusing on a different site and population than usually considered: M.A programs and their students—programs and students who have tripled in the past twenty years, yet who rarely constitute our object of study.2 As calibrated by the recent 2012 survey conducted by the Master’s Degree Consortium of Writing Studies Specialists, there are now at least 179 M.A. programs in writing studies or related fields. Based on the 82 programs which participated in the detailed Consortium survey, the students attending and graduating from these programs are diverse. Nearly half of students are returning to school from a range of both academic and non-academic careers (7). And although many of the 479 graduates surveyed moved on to predictable employment situations in community college teaching (19%), K-12 education (12%) or further graduate study in composition (19%), 37% of graduates were employed in nonacademic careers and 12% went on to graduate study in other fields or other academic career pursuits (16). Brown et al note the range of careers M.A. graduates pursue, including “technical writing, public relations, editing, copywriting, web design, and science writing” (10). Given the various experiences and future goals with which M.A. students both enter and exit our programs, it is clear that we need more attention to how these students learn, and learn to write. How can we, through our assignments and our pedagogies, do justice to the diverse needs and exigencies that drive our M.A. students to join our programs?

We hope to use this essay to take a first step toward exploring such questions by focusing more deeply on the types of writing and writing purposes we want our graduate students to engage to promote their learning, followed by scrutinizing the ways that we are (or are not) promoting and teaching those types of writing. Asking these questions might prompt us to see the ways that we have ignored many of our own key beliefs about writing when it comes to teaching graduate students. To what extent does writing instruction at the graduate level simplify and reify reading and writing practices, relying on outmoded and product-oriented notions of meritocracy, individualism, an apprenticeship model of education, and the belief (undergirded by remediation) that advanced students should already know how to write, both “generally” and in the specific ways that graduate school asks of them? Or, asked from a pedagogical perspective: how might we teach graduate literacies in a way that builds on instead of ignores what we already know about writing and teaching writing, while also attending to the ways that graduate writing is more than an extension of undergraduate writing?

Consider what we value as central to graduate-level literacy. One key competency might be understanding what it means to enter a conversation—how to become part of a dialogue in class, in writing, and in professional spheres. More specifically, graduate students need to gain familiarity with the specific rhetorical moves available in such conversations, particularly as they negotiate their own authority in their writing. To this end, graduate students—like all students—often benefit from explicit discussions of genre conventions and expectations; but they also benefit from using writing for other purposes—exploring ways in which they can write to learn or write to engage the difficulties they’re encountering in the classroom, with readings and ideas, or with pedagogy. Equally important to us is the ability to situate our lives and ideas amidst the lives and ideas of others: to work and write collaboratively, to write reflexively, to connect theory with pedagogy, and to give and receive critical feedback about writing. Sometimes we encourage this wider range of literate activities and purposes, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we work with students on how and why to write productively in these ways; often, however, we don’t.

But we should. It seems incongruous to tout our most cherished and shared beliefs about writing as only applying to undergraduates. We talk with undergraduates about entering new discourse communities, new writing situations, new genres, and we help them negotiate those changes. We encourage revision and collaboration, writing for audiences and purposes that they choose, writing to learn not just to report. Although we don’t want to oversimplify this comparison, graduate students struggle with many of the same issues as undergraduates, and indeed, as all writers: how to find a place for their voices amongst other more seasoned voices, how to acquire the moves of the new genres they are asked to produce, how to make their writing mean something more than just a grade. As David Bartholomae has pointed out, the difference in the difficulties encountered by beginning and advanced writers are often “different in degree not in kind” (“Inventing” 648). We agree, and argue that even graduate students benefit enormously from classes that encourage a candid discussion of their writing processes and the successes and failures that shape the writing they are producing, instead of experiencing literacy demands as opaque, presumed, and unarticulated monoliths (20 page, unrevised, end-of-term seminar paper, anyone?).

If we take this argument seriously, we need more examples of what a range of productive graduate-level writing might look like in our composition programs. Below, we offer examples of Jen and Galin’s work which demonstrates some of the different ways that we, as both readers and writers, might use the hybrid essay to learn to write, teach, and be engaged students and teachers of composition. This is hybridity that might exist either on or off the page; importantly, it is hybridity used for the purpose of bringing together genres, activity spheres (such as work and life), and methods in order to investigate each facet more deeply. We offer our own responses and commentary alongside these excerpts, in order to simulate and suggest the sort of intertextual classroom conversation that could support and promote such work and, perhaps, better engage graduate writers, as well as their teachers.

Excerpt from Galin’s essay, "Teaching to Diverse Competencies, Connecting Why We Write with How We Write,” written for ENG 704 (Pedagogical Grammar)

At the end of each semester the English Tutoring Center at SF State asks its tutors to complete evaluation forms for each of their students. I always encounter difficulty when I come to the question “would you recommend this student for further tutoring?” It is difficult because it compels me to reflect on my own difficulties as an undergrad in English class and the curious role reversal involved in my current position as a teacher of the very same courses that nearly two decades ago I struggled, and in some cases failed, to complete. When Wesley, my current student, arrived for his first day of tutoring his “Tutoring Referral Card” had check marks beside every category of error ranging from tense and agreement to thesis, organization, spelling, and punctuation. In the “additional comments” section his instructor had written, “W needs help with a lot of things.” Yeah, I thought, when I was Wesley’s age I needed “help with a lot of things” too, and in many ways I still do. So regardless of my students’ progress the previous semester my immediate answer is always “yes, of course I would, I would recommend that all students receive further tutoring in their writing.” How could I say otherwise? I would, after all, recommend myself for “further tutoring.” While I understand the institutional impossibility of this answer, I want to respond in this way because I believe that all of us can always be better writers, that all of us everywhere can always benefit from “further tutoring” in our writing. I want to answer this way because I wonder why anyone would want to work with struggling writers unless they too struggled with writing, unless they saw all writing everywhere as always in need of update, revision, renewal, and repair. Human beings keep language alive and language, in turn, allows us to go on revising. We write to restore, sustain, and advance. Our work with words is never done. We are like the constant crew of bridge-workers on the Golden Gate Bridge—recursively repainting our subject from one end to the other then back again.

In his history of our discipline, Introducing English, James Slevin states bluntly, “for good or ill Composition has always been at the center of the reproduction of social inequality, or of the resistance to that process” (6). For those of us who are planning to teach in one of California’s Community Colleges it is crucial to understand that to teach Composition in California is to teach a state mandated general education requirement, one that each and every college student in California must pass before receiving a baccalaureate degree. We are trying to teach writing to the world’s widest, most varied, and perhaps most discouraged college demographic. If we embrace the difficult responsibility inherent in this diversity then we put the difficulties of the “basic writer” and our work with them at the center of what we do. We might more honestly approach the true complexity of our task if we understand that teaching Composition is the opposite of “preaching to the choir,” that it is about teaching struggling students in struggling state-run institutions who are majoring in other things and who, for a variety of very valid reasons, probably wouldn’t, in fact, show up unless they “had to.” Composition is swimming in a sea of other required courses that students “have” to take in order to get someplace else, to do something they find more worth doing. Most of our students don’t see the importance of language in their lives as a subject worth studying; addressing this allows us to realize and validate their actual concerns—to put their difficulties at the center of our enterprise. Asking our students to explain why composition sucks for them, to define what they think it is and why they dislike it, allows us to better understand how our discipline functions in relation to their learning desires.

Or, as Mina Shaughnessy says: “the greatest barrier to our work with them [students] is our ignorance of them" (317). My weekly meetings with Wesley provided me with an utterly complex portrait of a remediated “basic” writer. He arrived here twelve years ago at the age of six from Cambodia. Since then he has been growing up in a three bedroom duplex with his mom and dad, three brothers, two sisters, and an ever changing extended family in east Oakland on the rougher side of MacArthur Blvd. Our conversations revolved around all that his life involved—sharing video games, clothes, a room and a computer with his older brother; taco-trucks, tricked-out cars, and girls; his minimum wage job on the nightshift at a local food distribution warehouse; his alcoholic neighbors Cindy and Lou with whom he shared a wall; what he liked about tattoos and the graffiti that blanketed the freeway overpass that cut through his neighborhood; how to sneak home in the early morning without getting arrested, robbed, or beaten up. Yet Wesley’s complex and nuanced understanding of his life and these issues was nowhere apparent in the writing he was being asked to do on the values of vegetarianism in his remedial English class. This was not so much a matter, as Slevin points out in his book, of Wesley being unprepared for the university, as it was a matter of the university being unprepared for Wesley. My weekly meetings with Wesley became a matter of admitting that what our students say about us is true: we have not yet made composition a discipline relevant to them.

Tara responds: "Recursively repainting our subject from one end to the other…like the bridge-workers on the Golden Gate.” I can see that so clearly. Granted, perhaps some have never seen the Golden Gate Bridge, its bright vermillion standing out against the blue of sky and sea, and disappearing in and out of the fog so the top of the bridge hovers in mid-air. But this situated metaphor works for me as a reader. It gets at the issues Galin is talking about: changing views of writing that are grounded in remediation, replacing them instead with a sense of ongoing work and re-vision. Galin uses the Golden Gate Bridge, Slevin, and his own experience with Wesley, to think anew and recursively about each one—and then uses these connections to keep going, to extend his thinking in new directions. As his teacher, I might name this engagement. Galin puzzles through how he might make writing more relevant for his students, linking together the ideas, situations, and theories that surround him, making them more relevant to each other and, ultimately, to himself.

Jennifer responds: I love this excerpt because Galin uses Slevin to intimately grapple with one of my favorite difficulties as a new teacher: student resistance to (the kind of) writing (that we ask them to do). This kind of writing allows Galin to cut through the bullshit and confront his difficulties as a writer, student, and teacher, rather than avoid them, or worse yet, cloak them in grad-student arrogance. Galin engages Slevin theoretically and puts him to work on a particular, grounded pedagogical problem. Galin is not just consuming. He’s digesting, absorbing, living what he’s read. This is praxis, I think. This kind of writing allows us to walk around inside theoretical thunderstorms, to wear ideas out in the world, like a slicker and galoshes, to play and splash around in ideas that might otherwise be confined to a few scribbles of marginalia. This makes me think of a book Mary Soliday assigned us: Salvatori and Donahue’s book The Elements and Pleasures of Difficulty. It told me what I already knew (somehow), but thought I wasn't supposed to talk about in grad school. I began using difficulty openly as a tool—a move we see published writers making but are rarely encouraged to do as grad students. That book also helped me understand how we might ask students to write in a way that doesn’t suck for them, so writing has a use value in their lives. Galin writes: “students ‘have’ to take [composition] in order to get someplace else, something they find more worth doing” and that “we have not yet made composition as a discipline relevant to them.” It makes sense that we bring our lives to bear in our academic ruminations, and practice the kind of writing we want our students to practice—writing that asks them to work on their real world interests and difficulties while they work on their academic writing.


Seeing how Galin draws together himself, his students, theory, community colleges, the politics of remediation, and more to locate and theorize the teaching of writing, prompts us to think more specifically about the training that our M.A. programs could and should provide. Paying attention to what Galin and Jen achieve by using a more exploratory, connective, reflective type of writing—and how this might better fit their particular purposes—provides a different line of sight than our usual focus on Ph.D. programs in Composition and Rhetoric.

As Peter Vandenburg and Jennifer Lemon-Clary have recently shown us, M.A. students may have quite different desires and needs and M.A. programs must support students in a wider range of literacy training and practice. Vandenburg and Lemon-Clary go on to argue that this is a particular strength of M.A. programs. They are incredibly flexible, more diverse than Ph.D. programs in terms of both students and curriculum, and often function as highly situated sites that are more responsive to the exigencies of their local communities in ways that more discipline-oriented Ph.D. programs often are not. As a field, we must broaden our objects, subjects, and styles of inquiry to these programs and our students within them, which in turn can give us a way to consider the wider range of literacy sites these students circulate out to and go on to influence. This includes community and professionally oriented writing positions and projects, as well as a wider range of literacy-education sites, from K-12, to prisons, to after-school and life-long learning literacy work, as well as the vast array of community colleges and their growing populations. The multi-dimensional, multi-purposed, mixed genre writing we are suggesting scales itself to this vast range of purposes and locations; its open, reflexive, and hybrid approach recognizes the multiplicity of the worlds in which we write. Because it is both flexible and inclusive of these varied purposes, students can inhabit their words and worlds in new and highly individualized ways, using essayistic exploration as a way to excavate and engage the beliefs, values, ideas, goals, and struggles that arise when we start to think hard about what it means to compose, what it means to teach composition. As Galin says about his own students, there are many places our M.A. students are trying to get to. Making a space for more open, essayistic, and self-directed writing, at least some of the time, might help all of our graduate students get to the places they’re going to as well.

Excerpt from Galin’s essay "Within, Amidst, and Against: Writing Between the Article and the Essay." This essay began in English 700 (Introduction to Composition Theory), elements of it were revised for English 706 (Socio-Linguisitcs of Composition), and a final version was included in Galin’s cumulative teaching portfolio for English 899 (Capstone) and graduation.

I turned the corner at Fulton and Russell streets. Although I had rounded this corner in the flat southern streets of Berkeley nearly every day for some twenty years, this time the sidewalk seemed slanted—the whole world seemed to run downhill from here. It was my first week as an M.A. candidate in the English Composition department at SF State and I had been called home early from school by my wife who was in labor at our little one-bedroom apartment about a block away. Everything, it seemed, was tilting away from my life of relative independence and isolation and pulling me into the collective and interconnected worlds of people, family, and the university.

A few weeks later, amidst all this, I read Patricia Bizzell’s seminal article, “Cognition, Convention, and Certainty,” while our baby boy slept on my lap. In her article, Bizzell argues that “we cannot formulate universal rules for context bound behaviors” such as writing, and then, later in her conclusion to this same article, she says startlingly “there should be no disgrace in discovering that one’s work and the understanding that guides it cannot be achieved autonomously” (405, 409). This made sense to me—our learning is contextualized by the worlds in which we live and vice-versa. I began to see writing not as an isolate act, but as connective and highly contextualized. I began to see the potential for more tentative, flexible, hybridized, forms of connective writing in our composition classrooms, forms that more comprehensively mirror the interconnected worlds in which we and our students write. My world was one in which I was both increasingly crowded as well as utterly alone, both isolated and buoyed by others; a world in which I may never get to know my neighbor but am able to communicate effortlessly with someone in another country. Everything seemed overlapping. News-copters, covering the student protests at Cal, hovered over our neighborhood all day and late into the evening. Their blades thumped inside our tiny apartment. Our schools were going broke while our country’s fortunes were sunk in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. Composition, I thought, might be the last best place in our university to address these kinds of overwhelming, comprehensive, contradictory, and even unanswerable connections; and our language—variable, shifting, and unique—might be one of the only places where a student has the chance to balance the seemingly disparate relationship between their complex lives and what they want to achieve in school.

Jennifer responds: Babies and Bizzell. Galin uses Desmond’s birth to make sense of Bizzell, and vice versa. He confronts and engages these seemingly disparate spheres (fatherhood, the budget cuts, writing instruction and theory) to create an important conversation. In “The Rhetoric of Deproduction,” John Trimbur argues that, post-Enlightenment, the ways texts are oftentimes presented creates the illusion that knowledge is something we grab and put into writing, rather than something that we labor over and create. Here, Galin shows that production value. Writing like this is a stage upon which we can tap-dance with ideas, see the muscle that goes into our moves, analyze the kinetics driving our scholarly and pedagogical personas.

This kind of writing can be an object of study, for our future selves hoping to analyze the rhetorical moves that we have used to become who we are, or with our students with whom we discuss our composing lives. Galin once said: “From our lives, experiences, ethics and philosophies right down to the sentence level, our writing seeks to demystify and clarify who we are and what we are trying to do, in and with the university. In some important ways it reminds me of the math teacher who asks us to ‘show our work’ ”. We document our purposes and our processes to ourselves and our readers. We show the architecture of our tentative conclusions.


Given the constraints most M.A. programs and students face—a limited time for study (usually 2 years), full-time work to fund education, faculty with less release and research time—possibilities for a full class devoted to graduate-level writing, as Micciche and Carr suggest, rarely exist. Despite these realities, we argue that space might be made across classes in an M.A. program, spaces that would encourage a range of writing practices in addition to the more frequently assigned, but differently purposeful, seminar paper or reading response. So far, we’ve seen how Galin has crafted that space for himself and below we offer a more extended example of Jen’s work in this regard. This writing is “critical” in the way that both Reid and Micciche and Carr, as well as we, value: it makes strong use of others’ work, “keeps ideas in play,” and generates reflexive knowledge that can be put to use.3 As Nancy Mack describes, we believe this writing allows students to “do theory as a way of critically rereading their personal and professional lives in order to initiate the ethical changes that they envision for themselves in relation to others” (our emphasis, 452).

This critical rereading and rewriting of both texts and lives can thus allow graduate writers to do the important work before them. Micciche and Carr identify this work as “assessing, critiquing, and revising the most pressing conditions, theories, beliefs, practices, and assumptions” within a graduate student’s own situation—her own teaching and the particular demands of her location—in order to discover, reflect on, and respond to “potentialities yet untapped” (480). To our mind, although this writing might reach and speak to other audiences, a central audience is always the writer/learner herself. This is to argue that in addition to (or sometimes instead of) the drive toward “publishable” or “usable” research writing, space should be made for graduate writing that is “critical,” yet not always (or primarily) outwardly-directed. This critical writing would still make “strong use of other’s work;” however, those others might be both published scholars, or as we show here, colleagues, students, or even our own teaching selves.

In the critical, reflexive writing above and below, we see Galin and Jen using the essay genre as a type of literacy sponsor, to borrow Deborah Brandt’s term. By assaying their own theories and practices in dialogue with those of others, they create a generative, critical pressure in their thinking that, to refer back to Micciche and Carr, pinpoints “potentialities as yet untapped.” The particular form of the essay they have chosen clearly builds on the intellectual, philosophical tradition of essay-writing, embracing the form’s propensity for openness, reflexivity, and hybridity. For the purposes of graduate-level writing, however, we argue that these essays might work best to promote graduate-level literacy when they carry other traits as well: when they are situated, local, and contextualized; when they are materially oriented, connected to lives and realities inside and outside the academy; when they are pedagogically oriented in terms of work on the ground; and, when they inhabit a central space in graduate work and in the graduate classroom. For us, working within this critical essay space in an ongoing way has allowed us to personalize and integrate new ideas into our thinking, create a more reflexive practice, both conceptualize and revise our identities as writing teachers, and attend to the very pressing material realities that are currently shaping public education in California. They’ve allowed us to write our way in, as well as write our way “out” to reflective action in the world.

Below, Jennifer offers us an extended example from one of her hybrid essays entitled “Enculturation” (parts of this essay were originally drafted for ENG 890 Seminar in Composition Research and were later revised for her Culminating Masters Project).

In dialogue with the essay, Galin provides an example of the sort of intertextual response and attention to writing we hope to encourage more often in graduate classes.


Over a somewhat tense phone call, my friend Isaac, a new composition teacher, relays to me his conversation with the dean of Humanities at one of the community colleges he teaches at:

She said that I’m probably too much of a cipher for the students.

What does that mean?

I’m not legible enough, they don’t know what to make of me. They need to be able to categorize me.


That way they’re more comfortable.

What do you mean?

Don’t you ever do that? Give your teachers a label?

Galin responds: Jen's notion of teacher as text gets at the uneasy relationship between presentation and interpretation, summed up in the Dean’s insistence that Isaac be a more intelligible, or classifiable, character as a person and teacher. Jen's hybrid writing, attempts to bridge this gap; however, it does so not through simplifying, but by making these relationships more complex. There’s real pedagogical potential in this sort of generative discomfort. It reminds me of one of my favorite students who said to me last semester "it blows my mind when I think of you as a father" and another of my students who, after I had explained my own numerous failings in gen-ed English, raised her hand and asked quizzically, “so, how and why exactly are you an English teacher?” Jen seems to be suggesting that daylighting these (il)legibilities in our lives and our writing might be a good thing for all of us.

Sure. But you’re saying we have to be predictable? The same person every day?

I think there’s a comfort in that. For students.

So, they’re not comfortable with ambiguity, and that means we need to be consistent in our personas? I can’t be a goofball one moment, a hard-ass the next? Or even both at the same moment? I’m not sure I buy that. Or maybe I just don’t like it.

Well, I’m just telling you what she told me.

Interpreting Interpretations

It’s 10 p.m and I’m on the couch, analyzing the raw data for a qualitative case study of the first course that I have ever taught. I am trying to code, or categorize, the things my students wrote in their final codas, the reflective introductions to their final portfolios. I’m hoping that this process will give me some sort of insight into my students’ learning and writing. In “Qualitative Research,” Sharan Merriam warns that although collecting data is a relatively painless experience,

Analyzing these data is a much more daunting task…In my thirty years of experience doing, teaching and advising doctoral students conducting qualitative studies, data analysis is the most difficult part of the entire process. This is the point at which a tolerance for ambiguity is most critical and often where the novice researcher will say to me, “What if I don’t find anything”? (175)

Contrary to Merriam’s warning, I’m not so much concerned with not finding anything, but rather, with finding so much, that I will be unable to categorize or codify what my students have said. Since this has been such a daunting task for me, my friend Paul emailed me the introduction to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, in which she outlines the intersections between imperialism, history, writing and theory, to get underneath the ever-shifting discursive challenges facing Indigenous peoples and the ways that outsiders attempted to discover and then control their words/worlds. She writes:

Another problem is that academic writing is a form of selecting, arranging and presenting knowledge. It privileges sets of texts, views about the history of an idea, what issues count as significant; and, by engaging in the same practices uncritically, we too can render indigenous writers invisible or unimportant while reinforcing the validity of other writers. If we write without thinking critically about our writing, it can be dangerous. Writing can also be dangerous because we reinforce and maintain a style of discourse which is never innocent. (36)

Galin responds: Throughout these introductory sections Jen subtly sets up her analysis of the values and pitfalls of labels and categories, exploring the (dis)comfort our methods class provoked in her. This section is even more evocative because it reflects back to address the dean’s seemingly cryptic comment, as well as Isaac's interpretation of it. As Jen moves between sections, there’s a wonderful mix of analysis, theoretical probing, documentary, and creative non-fiction. There is something about its honesty that leaves room for the reader’s interpretation, for complexity and texture—somehow this kind of writing lets the reader decide. This is a quality that I find in my favorite types of research, research that lets us think it through for ourselves and make up our own minds about the findings. It compels us, as readers, to also be critically reflective.

This tension, this massive chasm between Merriam and Tuhiwai Smith, between categorizing and rendering invisible, might be a productive space in which to think about what exactly I’m trying to do here.

I return to the Merriam chapter section; there are tables, charts, flowcharts, and diagrams, but they don’t make much sense to me, in terms of my project. Merriam suggests that I’m supposed to impose order on the data my students turned in to me, but codification in this instance seems more akin to a pioneer’s relationship to the wilderness, when what I’d rather do is some kind of literary analysis, with the aim of pedagogical and human growth. The coding instructions seem to directly conflict with what Merriam writes next: “Think of yourself as having a conversation with the data, asking questions of it, making comments to it, and so on. This process…is also called coding” (178). I cannot help but see Conversation in conflict with Categorization, with Coding. At least in this situation. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe there is some thing I’m not getting.

Merriam goes on, paraphrasing Glaser and Strauss (1967), “…these categories have a life of their own apart from the data from which they came” (181).

Galin responds: I’ve been thinking about this little sentence for a while now both because it makes me laugh and because I think it is cool and insightful. Jen is saying "this is crazy talk," but she is going ahead and exploring the idea anyway. She recognizes that she has reached a limit in this line of thinking and writing, yet she is pressing on anyways. In some ways I also think she is asking her readers to be patient as she circles around her subject. She is allowing us to wrestle with these problems and this conundrum alongside her, she is allowing, even asking, us to figure it out with her. It's just so intimate, and frank, and forthright. But it’s also so carefully and artfully orchestrated; she gets these "loops" going and they are always looping forward and looping back, creating both narrative and intellectual momentum.

This is crazy talk. How is this Life Of Their Own even possible? I can’t imagine this working for the kind of case study I’m doing. How can my categorical observations about my students’ writing have a Life Of Its Own that stands distinctly apart from what my students wrote? Would an ideal teacherly persona, or sense of authority, make this possible? It seems that I would have to disentangle myself from the conversations my students and I have had, so that my thinking about their thinking about the topics that we’ve generated for discussion could be distinct entities. The aims and ways of qualitative data analysis confound me; I can’t believe this sort of research and writing will help me be a better teacher, and I worry that putting my own course, my students’ interpretations of the course, under a high-power microscope, won’t help me do anything besides see things at the cellular level. I worry that I am scrutinizing my pedagogical ways of being to the point of paralysis, when I may really need to stand back and gaze from afar.

Thinking about Clifford Geertz’s work helps me to re-conceptualize my task: “In finished anthropological writings…this fact—that what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to—is obscured because most of what we need to comprehend a particular event, ritual, custom, idea, or whatever, is insinuated as background information before the thing itself is directly examined” (9). We need to understand the context, before we can understand whatever specific context-related phenomenon we wish to understand. And, I suspect I may be too immersed in the context myself to really be able to parse the context from phenomenon. I wonder if I can, ought, or even want to parse these things, not to mention how I would go about doing that even if I wanted to. And, could it be unethical to separate my students, and what they say, from myself, and what I’ve said to them, and what I’ve heard everyone else before me say? It’s a tangle of ontology. Or maybe epistemology.

I go back to Geertz’s characterization of ethnography as thick description and the challenge the ethnographer faces: “a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render” (10). I know he’s not talking about the university, or the writing classroom per se, but this stuff seems to loosely map onto the cultural tensions, the messiness, the personal work that is teaching writing, onto the situation that I am creating and confronting with this project. This project is my attempt at what Geertz calls, “finding our feet, an unnerving business which never more than distantly succeeds” (13) But I’m not sure how I might go about finding both of my figurative feet inside of the academy at the same moment, even if I wanted to. So, I bring myself back to where I am. The couch. 11:30 p.m. Reading Joanne’s final coda:

Several times I found myself needing to backspace because I was contradicting myself. This truly disappointed me because I remember upon getting it back from you, I reread it and had plenty of thoughts of where I can expand. Now I am not so sure I agree with my former thoughts… If I had more time, I would follow my argument or arguments and maybe even try to meld both in some way, because as I revised this essay, I found that I stand very strongly on both sides. I support solitude. I also believe that human connection is highly important.

It might be absurd to attempt to codify what my students wrote in response to what I wrote in response to what they wrote, in response to, well, you get the idea. Where would the ricochet cease? In this absurd wrassling match with “my data," I can think of maybe twenty different codes to create for these few sentences that Joanne wrote: “Student wants to argue a side; student accustomed to arguing a side; student finds ambiguity in her own thinking; student comfortable with ambiguity in her own thinking; student uncomfortable with ambiguity in her own thinking; student describes her writing process; student refers to teacher comments/expectations; student attempts to adapt her writing to her perception of academic expectations; student recognizes writing as a means of creating, rather than simply expressing opinions; student negotiates truth(s?) with herself; student (perhaps?) unaware that teacher wants her to explore and embrace contradiction, rather than iron it out; student frustrated with writerly self; student has sense of control over writerly self; student confronting and squirming with uncertainty.”

I don’t know which of these codes are excessive, which repetitive, which important, which unimportant. Nor do I quite know what I should do with them, or to them. Am I supposed to put all of my students’ work into the same categories, or buckets, like we talked about in methods class? I’m not sure how to best understand the assumptions that would inform the coding, categorization and the buckets, in this given situation. Maybe it’s better to listen to Geertz instead,

We are not, or at least I am not, seeking either to become natives (a compromised word in any case) or to mimic them. Only romantics or spies would seem to find point in that. We are seeking, in the widened sense of the term in which it encompasses very much more than talk, to converse with them, a matter a great deal more difficult, and not only with strangers, than is commonly recognized. ‘If speaking for someone else seems to be a mysterious process,’ Stanley Cavell has remarked, ‘that may be because speaking to someone does not seem mysterious enough’…Looked at in this way, the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of the universe of human discourse…culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly—that is, thickly—described. (13-14)

Galin responds: Jen builds so much of her work out of elegant hypotheses like these—it shows the value of being able to say what we "would like to do," why we want to do it, and why it might be difficult, challenging, or even, in some ways impossible. Rhetorical moves that highlight this ambiguity—that suggest "maybe" or “I don’t know”—show that learning often begins in curiosity and uncertainty, in wonder. Bill Coles encourages us not to ignore, but to explicitly “make a partner of our confusion” with and in our writing—to say “I don’t know” and to detail and explicate all the reasons why we don’t know. Jen’s work shows us how having space to confront difficulties can help writers push toward deeper understanding.

Is it wrong, or too simplistic, to say that Geertz advocates conversing with Joanne, whereas Merriam advocates speaking for her? What really concerns me is that Joanne might think I’ll punish ambiguity in her writing. Perhaps I did not make it clear that I value such a thing? Maybe she’s uninterested in uncertainty—in life, in her schoolwork—and I’m trying to force it upon her? Maybe I’m misinterpreting her? Maybe I’m the one who has trouble with ambiguity. My roommate stumbles out, sleepy-legged, cloaked in a brown sleeping bag: “A full lunar eclipse!” she squeaks, slippering her way across the ancient hardwood, out into December’s moist air. I follow her out, never having seen an eclipse, except in photos. When the clouds pass, revealing the burgeoning eclipse, I am unimpressed by the disc of Earth’s shadow, creeping across the moon.

How is this different from a normal night, a normal moon? I sense that somehow, this astronomical anomaly, this human interpretation, ought to feel more profound. I ought to be experiencing the awe of being composed of the same space dust that makes up the stars. Mythology follows us to the moon. I should be experiencing some sort of timeless connection to the millennia of stargazers before and after me, to the light years coursing through our centuries, confronting me here and now. But I don’t. I watch, impatience burbling; Earths’ shadow reduces the full moon to a crescent, then mere sliver, the entire monthly lunar sequence happening in the span of one hour. Expecting the silver sliver to simply disappear into an unspectacular no moon within a few minutes, I head back inside, returning to Joanne’s final coda:

I learned that I should do revision early on to avoid shifting opinions…Doing this portfolio has taught me about myself…When I wrote, ‘she didn’t know the meaning of the word melancholy and not knowing any words to describe the rush of peace and sadness and fear she felt made it all feel so much more mysterious and intense,’ and you commented that that was a nice nod to the power of language, I realized that language, even one specific word, possesses great influence.

Perhaps I failed to encourage in her an excitement for shifting opinions, but I’m glad that she has at least developed an awareness of her own awe of language. Or at the very least an awareness of my awe. Geertz calls the work of anthropological writing, “explicating explications. Winks upon winks upon winks. Analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification—what Ryle called established codes, a somewhat misleading expression, for it makes the enterprise sound too much like that of the cipher clerk when it is much more like that of the literary critic…”(9). I’m finally getting somewhere when my roommate launches back into the dry heat of the living room: “Hey! You’re missing the best part!” I go back out and see a moon that conjures telescope memories of Mars, a rust-red, cratered orb. Perplexed at how the moon could disappear, only to shortly reappear, bursting and reddening like an omen, I search for answers and find a short news article:

Why red?

A quick trip to the Moon provides the answer: Imagine yourself standing on a dusty lunar plain looking up at the sky.

Overhead hangs Earth, nightside down, completely hiding the sun behind it. The eclipse is underway.

You might expect Earth seen in this way to be utterly dark, but it's not. The rim of the planet is on fire! As you scan your eye around Earth's circumference, you’re seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world, all of them, all at once.

This incredible light beams into the heart of Earth's shadow, filling it with a coppery glow and transforming the Moon into a great red orb. (Phillips, 2010)

“Every sunrise and every sunset…all of them, all at once." I shudder, considering the reflective power that Earth’s ring of fire has on the Moon, and of the luminous power of the phantom Sun, which reddens the Moon by indirection. A prism of refraction. Horizon feedback. I realize I’ve had things a bit backwards. What did my students walk in the door with? Where did their writing, their ideas – where did they – come from?

Galin responds: By stitching together competing ideas, theories, and even worlds, Jen shows how hybrid writing enables her to confront a significant intellectual challenge. Jen's multi-vocal writing encourages us to see ourselves as active users of language and information, writers at work, active producers (not merely consumers) of knowledge, doing intensely difficult work amidst explicit and site-specific rhetorical conditions. She shows us that what Geertz says is true, “we don’t study villages, we study in villages” (22). Or to put it another way: no one ever really writes alone. Jen's writing opens the door and lets the world, and us, all in.

I was trying to figure out what I had done to my students before sitting down to think about who they were, and what they brought in with them. Mariolina Salvatori suggests that the field of composition is currently “…producing and expecting scholarly work that makes it unlikely to acknowledge how students and their work are instrumental in teaching us how to teach; in pointing out possible, albeit inadvertent, shortcomings in our own teaching; in deepening or revising our understanding of how humans learn” (307). Maybe I’ve given myself too much credit as an authority figure. My students may have influenced my thinking just as much as I have influenced theirs. If not more. Or at least I hope so. Isn’t that what remaining a student among students is about?

I wonder what understanding eclipses has to do with understanding my students and my pedagogical and scholarly inclinations. How might we use writing to find our feet? To keep one foot inside of the academy, and one foot out? To better understand our students’ feedback? To allow the foot inside the academy to accomplish something more live? My students reflect something back to me that didn’t originate with me to begin with. It’s not just about the reflective power that I have on my students, but the reflective power they have upon me.

Tara responds: This excerpt from Jen’s longer paper is one of my favorite examples of what hybrid essay writing can achieve. I remember bits of this paper—images, conversations, quotes—emerging in other places in her writing over the years as I read and responded to her work. Here Jen has managed to make these quite disparate sources, inspirations, situations, methods, and people speak to one another powerfully and cohesively. She uses everything she has at her disposal to make sense of the world and her (and her students’) shifting places within it. She uses what she has to create something more. And to borrow a phrase from Bronwyn Williams, she is not afraid to let her theorizing “unfold in narrative and elegant writing” (5).

Galin responds: Like Jen always says, "there are so many things that writing can do for you.” Traditional forms of academic writing can, at times, obscure some of these things. Like the high-tech connectors inside the new span of the Bay Bridge, our pedagogies need to be built to bend. Jen demonstrates how we must have the courage to interrogate our limits and struggles. As we progress in our careers as writing instructors we can forget how hard writing in school actually is. How we learn to write, to produce "finished" pieces of writing, becomes second-nature and subconscious, but our unconscious assumptions inform our teaching and threaten to obscure key points of difficulty, both for ourselves and our students. Jen's writing encourages me to remain aware of the difficulties writing always entails and to struggle to avoid the “rut of expertise” that wrongly characterizes writing and the teaching of it as a skill we can seamlessly master. Her writing forces our hand, asking us to make our “assumptions” visible, and to question them as we ask the hard questions about what it means to teach composition.


Amidst every sunrise and sunset all at once, Jen stitches Isaac and his dean, Joanne and Geertz, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Merriam together in conversation, sewing (and sowing) deep reflexivity about what it means to write, to teach writing, to be a writing teacher and scholar. Jen’s work demonstrates the qualities that Reid advocates – engagement with the difficulty of writing and learning, empathy with students in light of that difficulty, exploration, and metacognition put to use on real teaching problems (W198). By using a flexible, hybrid form and an essayistic approach to her disparate subjects, Jen does the hard work of making the realm of school speak to the realm of the world and lived experience. She achieves what Reid describes as the “engagement, flexibility, and inquiry that are vital for new writing teachers, without leaving behind the discipline of composition pedagogy” (W200). In fact, she and Galin do even more. Hybrid writing allows them to deepen their understanding of and commitment to the discipline of composition. If we seek work that, as Salvatori says, “acknowledge[s] how students and their work are instrumental in teaching us how to teach…in deepening or revising our understanding of how humans learn,” we find it here (307). Critical, reflexive, hybrid, essayistic – this type of writing allows us to theorize our pedagogies, prompts us to more fully recognize our students, and encourages us to continue to own and revise our own productive identities as writing teachers. It helps us get to the many places we are going.

Some Traditional and Untraditional Concluding Thoughts…

When we think of graduate writing as only or primarily aimed toward the narrow realm of published or presented scholarship, we overlook the important function writing can play for graduate students who are orienting themselves to new ideas and the new positions they find themselves exploring or inhabiting. We also overlook those students for whom regular academic publishing will not be a key goal, reality, or viable marker of their contributions as professionals. And we overlook much of the writing that all of us, as teachers and writers, do on a daily basis. Thus, we need to identify practices which have reified and formalized reading and writing practices at the graduate level in ways that often run contrary to our most fundamental and shared beliefs about writing. And we need to think about how our pedagogies for M.A. students — for whom disciplinary professionalization plays out in even more accelerated ways, and for whom “professionalization,” itself, might mean a wider range of things — could better acknowledge and engage those students’ realities and goals.

Just as important, we need to thoughtfully raise questions regarding the perpetuation of the beliefs (and the reward system) that position the publication of academic articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals as the most important kind of writing we do, even for those of us for whom this does not considerably factor into our work and despite the ways that this outlook significantly excludes the many kinds of writing which shape our professional lives, our personal lives, and our communities. Where our programs too often delimit the range of possibilities for productive writing at the graduate level, they might instead authorize and cultivate diverse forms of writing and new ways of research that better connect to the exigencies we feel in our local contexts.

We are encouraged, for example, by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s recent Ubiquitous Learning initiative, which studies the intersections between writing and everyday objects and events, in order to characterize the dispersed nature of “writing and learning, not as punctual events, but as emergent flows” that occur across dimensions of our lives, doing justice to the broad and various literacies we practice every day (2). We believe our project dovetails with their argument for “new learning paradigms that highlight the dispersed times and places in which knowledge is constructed” (8). Similarly, we take heart in Julie Lindquist’s recent work on slow research, a term which aptly describes how the three of us wrote this essay across more forums, genres, and years than we care to count, as well as the reading, percolating, eating, talking, synthesizing, collaborating, and reformulating that planted the seeds for this essay and sustained its many revisions.4 Lastly, because of our recognition of the ways that M.A. programs and their students have consistently been erased or marginalized despite their overwhelming contributions to writing instruction in perhaps the most wide-ranging forms and locales within our field, we are encouraged when Thomas Miller suggests, “if we quit looking up to elite universities as the center of our field, we might be able to come to terms with the fact that more broadly based departments of English have already become departments of literacy studies”—programs that cultivate and analyze the range of writing and literacies that assist and educate our students and communities (154). In dialogue with this emerging scholarship, we argue that expanding the types of writing we allow, promote, encourage, and teach—and figuring out how that writing works and when it might be more useful than familiar genres or assignments—not only helps us to embark on a different kind of “visibility project” for overlooked aspects of our field (such as M.A. programs and community college teaching).5 It also points the way forward to richer practice in those aspects of our graduate programs which have seen scant attention, such as graduate-level writing instruction. Most importantly, perhaps, it helps our graduate students get to all the many places they need to go, in their writing and beyond—whether that be a Ph.D. program, a professional writing job, community literacy work, community college teaching, or even outside, under a solar eclipse, where we feel the need to consider, through writing, what the horizon feedback reflects back to us.

We hope we’ve shown how critical, hybrid, essayistic writing provides an auxiliary, or perhaps parallel path, to an outmoded, one-size-fits-all way of writing. In the writing we have shared above, we see students using their own difficulties to not only reconceptualize ideas and professional identities, but to create a productive genre of graduate student writing based in, and born out of, their individualized purposes, struggles, and reflections. Only when we allow students to diversify in these ways—to individualize their writing practices to suit their needs, desires, difficulties, and exigencies—can we truly diversify the human product the university creates. Using hybrid writing to engage complexities between theory and practice, school and life, or one’s multiple subjectivities, positionalities and voices, prepares our graduate students to engage the diverse problems they, and their own students, will encounter in their lives as "writers." This is a path we are interested in taking. We hope you’ll come along.

We were encouraged amidst our work on this lengthy project when one of our peers and readers, Martin, reminded us "teaching writing is one of the most difficult things you can do." He didn't say that it was one of the most difficult things you can do "academically," "financially," "intellectually," or even "emotionally." He said, "one of the most difficult things you can do" period. Martin is a high school teacher and an avid cyclist so his comment somehow managed to mix teaching writing into the category of "all things difficult": things like mountain climbing, surfing, engaging with something that is larger than one's self, long distance running, behaving ethically while getting something done in the world, maintaining relationships, growing up, falling in love in the first place—all things difficult, thrilling, and utterly worthwhile. Like these pursuits, we believe that Composition is worthwhile not in spite of, but because of its dynamic and always overlapping personal, political, institutional, and theoretical difficulties. Mixing current scholarship with valuable bits and pieces from the history of writing and writing theory and our own praxis—or, using hybridized essays as an active platform for combining, complicating, contextualizing, and going deeper into our current difficulties—helps us to see and work with such vital connections. Difficult, yes. But worth doing.

In an era where everything about our educations, including the writing we do therein, threatens to become simplified, streamlined, and commodified—where teachers, our labor, and the unions that protect our profession are increasingly coming under fire, and where many excellent teachers cobble together a living by adjuncting at multiple institutions—we hope that our kind of edgy, honest, and at times unmanageable, writing might shine some light down on such difficult positions. By placing the sheer difficulty of writing alongside the sheer difficulty of teaching others to write in these trying times, we have often recalled David Bartholomae who reminds us that "writing problems are also social and political problems" ("What is Composition," 336). Here, at SF State, amidst our Freirian intentions to build a better world we continue to connect, confront, and build out of these complex difficulties in our words and our worlds even as our institution shifts around us, threatening to crumble like Highway One, whole sections falling into the sea.

Amidst this potentially disabling uncertainty we have tried to use our writing as a way of evolving our project and ourselves; we have used our writingto move forward in our thinking and our profession, to seize new opportunities, and to stay connected—to our occupations and commitments, to our students, to our lives, and to one another: Tara Lockhart continues to teach composition to both graduates and undergraduates at SF State and has begun to coordinate the first-year writing program; Jennifer Saltmarsh has gone on to build a meaningful place for herself in the Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh; and, Galin Dent has taken the calling of composition inland to the rural community he grew up in.

And just as we have continued to encounter the difficulties inherent in writing and teaching writing, we have continued to use a hybridized, essayistic style of writing as a way of embracing a truly generative approach to difficulty. Whether this kind of hybrid composing takes place on or off the page, it is one which, at its core, fuels a deeper engagement with the central intellectual and pedagogical questions that we must constantly confront as writing teachers; at its core, this kind of writing constitutes difficulty as fundamentally generative, as opposed to the kind of confounding difficulty that ushers in hopelessness, indifference, and despair. As teachers of composition in our troubled times we must always be wary of letting an honest assessment of our stark and ongoing difficulties hem us in to either apathy or surrender for, as Richard Miller warns, "despair of this kind can be quite reassuring to those who have decided to retire from the world of social action" (37). And we haven't retired. In fact, we have just begun.

1 Excerpt from Galin’s essay, "The Art of The In-Between: Jennifer Saltmarsh's First Year Writing Course and Kathleen McCormick's The Culture of Reading and The Teaching of English," originally written for English 709 (Seminar in Teaching Integrated Reading and Writing).

2 See Rhetoric Review’s 2004 survey of M.A. programs (Brown et al).

3 Reid relies on Stephen Brookfield’s text Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, since her argument is more focused on critical reflective writing; Micciche and Carr rely primarily on Joseph Harris’s book Rewriting for their definition of “critical” writing, particularly Harris’s injunction to “read carefully so as to represent faithfully another’s work and to build from that work in order to keep ideas in play and advance knowledge” (480). Our definition is in line with both of these dimensions, however, it also draws on an additional facet of Harris’s definition of critical writing: “reflectiveness about one’s own aims in writing” (“Revision as Critical Practice” 577). In defining this kind of writing as a critical, intellectual practice necessarily driven by revision, Harris offers us a useful and rich description of what critical writing looks like.

4 In her recent JAC article, Lindquist considers how the field benefits from “slow-cycle and less easily circulated research practices (e.g., longitudinal research, some forms of narrative inquiry and research that includes multi-mediated forms of data) [that] don’t’ fare well within the knowledge market of Writing Studies” (645).

5 See Phelps and Ackerman for more on the Visibility Project for Ph.D. programs in Rhet/Comp.

Works Cited

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Lindquist, Julie. "Time to Grow Them: Practicing Slow Research in a Fast Field." JAC: Journal of Advanced Composition. Forthcoming.

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