From "dialogue around written work" to "taking initiative"
Report on Teacher-Research during the Fall 1999 CIT Faculty Seminar
Peter Taylor, Critical and Creative Thinking Program, Graduate College of Education

In the fall of 1998 I joined the Critical and Creative Thinking Program in the Graduate College of Education where I teach graduate courses to a diverse group of educators and other working students. For my teacher-research during the Fall 1999 CIT seminar I focused on a required CCT course, Practicum: Processes of Research and Engagement (CCT698). In this course students undertake a research project, preferably, but not necessarily, directed towards some educational change (and so it is not a conventional Practicum). This project is accompanied by weekly class workshops in which various techniques of research, writing, sharing work, and feedback are introduced and practiced. (For more details, including the syllabus and much of the course packet, see
I encourage considerable intrapersonal exploration in defining and refining research direction and questions. An important part of this exploration comes through dialogue around written work. Yet for many students, exposing their work to others and dialogue are fraught; some strongly resist being weaned away from the familiar system of "produce a product and receive a grade." I wanted to illuminate the gaps between my ideals and the actual teaching-learning interactions through questionaires, peer observation, and reflection in the context of the CIT seminar. And to use that illumination to take steps that might bridge the gaps.

My research consisted of two "questionaires," one completed by students in week 5, the other during the last class. Both questionaires had 3 parts: 1) review of relevant material from the syllabus, course packet, and, for the second questionaire, responses to the first survey; 2) guided freewriting (not submitted; see Elbow, P. 1981. Writing with Power. New York: Oxford U. P.); and 3) formulation of five statements or questions. Material in the syllabus and course packet described the ideal of "dialogue around written work" and the requirement for students to "revise and resubmit" in response to my written comments on the many assignments they submitted during their projects. The guided freewriting was intended to allow students to acknowledge distractions but eventually to expose some thoughts about the topic that had been below the surface of their attention. The first questionaire asked for five "statements, questions, or reservations about working under the revise and resubmit system as a student this semester." The second questionaire asked for "five statements about: working under the revise and resubmit system this semester; ways the system could be developed/improved; and/or different ways to achieve comparable objectives." The raw responses are included as appendices 1 and 3.

Such questionnaires were not intended to result in objective summaries of responses, or in a simple before and after comparison. Not only did the responses need to be interpreted, but they needed to be digested by me and my students and worked into our on-going teaching-learning interactions. To this end, dialogue with colleagues in the CIT seminar, students in the course, and other colleagues was pursued in spoken, email, and other forms.

Colleagues in the seminar helped process the responses to the first questionaire in the following manner. Each person read the concerns, questions, and comments of all the students about working under the revise and resubmit system. We brainstormed individually about what might characterize an improved system/ experience for students and expressed these ideas on large post-its. Together we grouped related suggestions on the wall and gave the five resulting clusters themes. These were:




The post-its and clusters are included as appendix 2.

I gave students copies of the complete brainstorming and the compilation of their original responses. We discussed what was for me most striking from the responses and brainstorming, namely, the tensions among the different clusters, e.g., between "Develop autonomy" and "Negotiate power/standards." We continued to refer back to these themes and tensions during the course. At the end of the semester, I formulated the following (sent out as an email):

"Yesterday I asked for help finding a replacement term for autonomy and independence, both of which some students interpret as going their own way and not responding to comments of others, including those of the professor.
The term my wife suggested last night was "taking initiative." That is, don't wait for the professor to tell you how to solve an expository problem, what must be read and covered in a literature review, or what was meant by some comment you don't understand. Don't put off giving your writing to the professor and other readers or avoid talking to them because you're worried that they don't see things the same way as you do.
Interaction with others doesn't mean bowing down to their views, but taking them in and working them into your own reflective inquiry until you can convey more powerfully to them what you're about (which may or may not have changed as a result of the reflective inquiry).
Carrying this idea of "taking initiative" further, it is not a substitute for "developing autonomy" in the list above, but applies to all five aspects:
Take initiative in building horizontal relationships, in negotiating power/standards, in acknowledging that affect is involved in what you're doing and not doing (and in how others respond to that), in clearing away distractions from other sources (present & past) so you can be here now. Perhaps "developing initiative" would be better, recognizing that for each of us there's a long process towards the goal of fully taking initative.
Of course, finding the term for the goal doesn't solve the problem of teaching/supporting students to take progressively more initiative, nor of expressing it in a grading rubric. Maybe that can be the focus on my teacher-research next time. In the meantime, I have still more to digest from this semester's surveys on the revise & resubmit system."

One member of the seminar emailed back to say: "I like the notion of developing initiative. My only concern is the term, by itself, can seem to represent an individual attribute rather than something that's socially-situated--that people learn to do in different ways in different social contexts." Peter Elbow (UMass Amherst; see reference above) also responded with his current formulation:

"The reader is in charge; the writer is in charge. That is, the reader always gets to say how s/he responded and what s/he thinks; no fair arguing. But the writer is always in charge of what to do about that feedback--and keeping control of the paper.
These guidelines are designed for peers. They become tricky when we're talking about teacher response. Because (unfortunately? trickily?) when it comes to teacher response, the teacher often DOES want to insist on taking some control AWAY FROM the writer and insist on certain changes. I cannot pretend I don't do this as teacher sometimes. But I think it is part of what disempowers students as writers. The main way I handle it these days is with a grading contract where, as teacher, I insist on substantive revision--but the student doesn't have to revise the way I might imply--doesn't have to agree with my reading or advice."

Reviewing the students' responses to the end of semester questionnaire and referring back to their earlier answers, I see almost all of them "developing initiative." However, I need more time, dialogue, and support to fully digest this research, so I plan to involve faculty in the CIT seminar in another brainstorming session. Results of this will be added to the website on which the appendices can be viewed(after 1/25/00), Please contact me if you want a printed copy, or have other input.