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Composition Forum 32, Fall 2015

Democratizing Writing: Reflections on the Great Revolution, A Conversation with Thomas Newkirk

Michael Michaud

Abstract: In this interview, Dr. Thomas Newkirk discusses his work in the field of Composition Studies over the past several decades. Newkirk argues for a vision of composition that maintains the connection between teaching and scholarship and re-affirms the significance of the field’s historical service-based mission of providing high-quality writing instruction to students across the age-span.

For close to forty years, Dr. Thomas Newkirk, Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and founder and director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, has investigated the ways in which human beings use language to make sense of their lives. His many books and articles examine the literacy development and practices of children and young adults from the elementary grades through the college years. An eclectic and restless scholar, Dr. Newkirk has written about research methodology, writing conferences, standardized testing, Michel de Montaigne, the intersections of identity and writing, popular culture, masculinity, and the Common Core standards. In his most recent book, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts (Heinemann, 2014), Dr. Newkirk argues that narrative or story is a deep structure that guides our reading and writing, regardless of the genre.

In 1994, around the midpoint of his career, Dr. Newkirk co-edited a collection with Lad Tobin which aimed to investigate the status of the field at that time (Taking Stock: The Writing Process Movement in the ‘90’s, Heinemann). After Dr. Newkirk’s retirement from UNH this year, I met with him for an interview so he could “take stock” of the field again. In the interview that follows, we share our conversation, which begins with a discussion of the relationship between educational research and the practice of teaching and then delves into a discussion on the changing nature of composition in the twenty-first century—its shifting research agendas and evolving identity within higher education. Newkirk draws on his recent experience conducting a national job search for a compositionist at UNH to reflect on and speculate about significant developments in the field and their implications for writing teachers and scholars. The conversation closes by broadening to a discussion of the Common Core Standards and the changing landscape of educational policy that affects us all.

Michael Michaud (MM): In your recent book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For (2009), you write of the historical relationship between educational research and classroom practice. This is a theme you have been exploring for many years, going back to your work with Nancie Atwell in Understanding Writing: Ways of Observing, Learning, and Teaching, K-8 (1987). There, you described what you called the “trickle down theory,” which explained the prevailing relationship between educational research and the practice of teaching. According to this theory, experimental studies were published in scholarly journals that were to be read by teachers who were to then translate the research findings into classroom practice.

This paradigm began to change in the 1970s and 1980s, as researchers like Donald Graves, Dixie Goswami, and Shirley Brice Heath initiated investigations into students’ literate practices in naturalistic settings, and engaged teachers, students, and families in the research process. As you and Atwell explain,

While lacking statistical rigor, [this] work had an impact on teachers because the information and insights presented began to match the experience of classroom teachers. This research also provided a model of inquiry that seemed within the reach of many teachers. Research was demystified, no longer the sole prerogative of a special caste. The careful observations of skilled teachers could count as research. (1)

Could you talk about what it was like to be a part of this paradigm shift?

Thomas Newkirk (TN): First, the top-down research paradigm was what I saw going on in reading. I don’t think writing has had a big experimental research component. Second, and as to “trickle-down,” it was almost like you were shut out, or that you didn’t count, that you were lower in this hierarchy—you, the teacher, or you, the qualitative researcher. The argument was that qualitative research could isolate some variables that could then be tested by experimental research, but that controlled experimental studies were the gold standard. You still hear this in reading—that anything that’s not experimentally tested and validated isn’t true. It’s a form of rationalism—that, essentially, history and tradition and lore and the sense of practice that a teacher develops over time don’t really count as knowledge, or they don’t count until they are validated by experimental research. It gives tremendous power to those who have the key and can create these rules, this kind of certainty, and then we, as practitioners or as non-experimentalists, have to kind of follow the laws.

That paradigm never made sense to me. I mean, in your own teaching practice, how much of what you do points to some experimental study to validate it? You point to your prior teaching, ideas filter in over time. Experimental research seems to bear no relationship to how teachers actually work. Additionally, classroom situations differ tremendously. I think you have to accept that there is a lot of uncertainty and imprecision in teaching. I think that the experimental paradigm would like to find certainty. I just think it’s a false hope.

Portrait of Thomas Newkirk

MM: So, if not experimental studies, what kinds of things were you reading during your early years in the field that made an impression on you, or that you said, “I want to do that kind of work”?

TN: The people I was reading were, themselves, really eclectic readers. If you look at Jimmy Britton, James Moffett, Janet Emig, James Kinneavy—you had these people who were reading everything. You read Language and Learning and Britton’s into developmental psychology, he’s into literary theory, he’s all over the place. That’s something I found really congenial—you’re not reading in a narrow experimental field, you’re reading everything and trying to pull it together. I think the models I had, where I said, “I’d like to be this kind of scholar,” they were really eclectic, comprehensive folks who were reading all over the place and building a kind of composite of theories from that.

MM: If that is the model of scholarship that you have sought to emulate, I think that you’ve succeeded. A glance at the works cited page of your recent book Holding onto Good Ideas reveals sources as diverse as James Moffett, Quintilian, Deborah Brandt, Michael Polyani, and J.D. Salinger! But I wonder, particularly in recent years, if people in composition still read or write in this “eclectic” way. We have, perhaps, become more traditionally academic in the sense that, while we may read outside the field, there’s so much inside the field to read.

TN: Yes, obviously you have a lot that’s being written in the field. And today I think you have all these niches, so you’re not just reading in composition, you’re also reading in your niche within composition. You’re reading in ESL or technical writing or composition history.

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the amateur reader—I’m not a part of any one field, but I can work my way into and steal from any field. And I’ll learn and steal just enough so that I can be dangerous. Or, more seriously, I’ll learn just enough so that I can borrow what I need in a way that is, I hope, appropriate.

Sometimes, I confess, I feel like I don’t read in the field as much as I should and there is a sense of guilt there. I am drawn by books outside of the field—Stephen Pinker’s work or, recently, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013). I go away and read these sorts of things and then I feel like I can come back and look at questions of literacy with these new powerful tools.

But what we see in composition, with this other kind of reading—maybe that’s just the natural development of an academic community. But then you think: What are the books that everybody in the field should read? It’s a little harder to figure out what those are these days because the books themselves seem to be written for niche audiences. There used to be certain books, like Steve North’s The Making of Knowledge in Composition (1987), that everyone read and everybody had an opinion about. I don’t know that there is any book now, and this could be my own lack of reading, but I don’t think there is any book now where you would say, “Everybody has to read that book.”

MM: What I find interesting is the way different people are trying to pull together their own vision of the field. For example, your work in More Than Stories: The Range of Children’s Writing (1989) is excerpted in the 2nd edition of Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle’s textbook, Writing About Writing (2014). People can argue about whether the reader is appropriate for first-year composition classes, but aside from this, it represents someone’s effort to pull together a vision of the field, for undergraduates, to introduce them to our field. And that vision is, I think, really inclusive. So, while they’ve included work by folks like Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, and Mike Rose, they also have pieces by Charles Bazerman, James Porter, and John Swales.

TN: Well, that’s good to hear. I appreciate efforts towards inclusivity. I fear we may have lost some of that along the way. Why, for example, do we have to be “post-process”—why does something have to be killed off for the next thing to survive?

MM: Can you talk more about that?

TN: I think that the way post-process theory has been presented, it seems like certain ideas are no longer even valid enough for us to pay attention to them because they’ve been superseded by other concerns about social construction and genre and maybe a more socialized view of the writer—as opposed to the more individualized view that, say, someone like Don Murray had in mind. Sometimes I have felt, like with Berlin’s typologies of composition pedagogies, for example, that there was a kind of dismissal of earlier work in the field. Instead of reading that work—expressionistic rhetoric, I think he calls it—generatively and seeing how it could open up space for new concerns, it was constructed as passé. In fact, it was constructed as more than passé, it was constructed as socially complicit in maintaining an inequitable status quo.

In some of the weirdest incarnations of this post-process vision, you hold your students as acting with false consciousness and you, as the critical theorist, are going to rescue them from the myths that the culture is imposing upon them. I think that teaching students how to be self-critical is really important, but when I read some of this work I found myself thinking, You’re going treat students that way? When I wrote The Performance of Self in Student Writing (1997) it was in response to this other way of thinking. I felt like: You’ve totally lost interest in who these people, our students, are because you are so keen to show them this enlightened view. It really pissed me off. I thought it was condescending, doomed to failure, and disrespectful.

Fortunately, I think that view of students has largely faded. But I think it came from a desire to claim a kind of political efficacy. If you’re left-leaning, as many of us are, and you see things going on in the culture that you find regressive, you want to act politically and so many did through their teaching. How your politics plays out in the classroom is always tricky, though. Is it your job to lead students towards a certain form of politics? For me, I know that there is a certain way of thinking that I want students to learn to do, and maybe that’s political, but if they come in as Republicans and leave as Republicans, have you failed?

MM: Let’s back up for a moment and imagine that the 1990s and early 2000s in composition went differently. You’re concerned about the social turn that the field took, the rise of cultural studies and critical theory. What other direction might we have pursued?

TN: My hero is Mike Rose. He has this way of working at the micro and macro level that I have long admired. He’s always aware of these big social and cultural forces that are at work on individuals, but then he has the ability to look at and make sense of how those forces are playing out in, for example, an individual conversation between a teacher and a student in a basic writing class. Lives on the Boundary (1989) is a great example of this. So you have the big picture and the small picture and you see these big things enacted in these dramas of dialogue among individuals.

I thought that was really promising—the kind of approach that Rose exemplifies. I think what you lost a little in the 1990s and early 2000s was that microscopic ability to take apart a classroom and look at teaching and learning in a precise way. Not that people don’t do that kind of work anymore—it still happens in literacy education, for example, in the way someone like Peter Johnston focuses his work on classroom discussion. It’s a terrible generalization, but I sometimes feel like we as a field may have lost a little bit of that precision and that kind of empirical focus on teaching and learning and students.

MM: If I hear you right, you’re talking about precision in researching what happens in the classroom—the teaching interaction. Is that also what has happened as our focus has perhaps shifted away from writers and towards scenes of writing? In the early days, students and pedagogy were at the heart of most composition research. That’s no longer necessarily the case.

TN: Just based on a recent job search that we conducted here at UNH, and based on the 200-300 CVs that I read, I would have to say that teaching and learning, studying teaching and learning, are not a big focus in the field of composition. But I am greatly encouraged by work on “transfer”—particularly the work of Elizabeth Wardle, Kathleen Yancey, and others. There seems to be a new reaching out to psychology and cognition that I find heartening. A friend of mine jokes that there should be a new “take a psychologist to lunch” movement. I’m all for that.

MM: Perhaps the shift away from classroom research signals, again, that we are becoming more like other disciplines, most of which do not spend a great deal of time researching their own teaching.

TN: I always thought that was one of the great things about our field—that there could be some natural connection between teaching and research. If you look at the teaching of literature as a counter-example, so much of their day-to-day work is to engage inexperienced readers in making meaning. But none of their scholarship looks at that interaction. That disconnection has always confused me. Why shouldn’t there be a strand in literary studies where you are looking at readers and how they build competence?

MM: Interesting. But if we get back to your earlier point, what I hear you saying is that when you did the job search, most of the resumes did not report on studies of teaching and learning.

TN: Right. It seems that we’ve internalized a certain value system about research, perhaps because of our traditional location in English departments, which has drawn us away from the study of students and classrooms.

MM: Is it our association with literary studies that is influencing our judgment or is it that we are, for better or worse, maturing as a discipline?

TN: That could be it as well.

MM: We’re connecting to a question I was going to ask later, but I’ll ask it now. In your chapter Lunch at the Night Hawk: Or Kinneavy Moves His Office in Composition’s Roots in English Education (Lambert Stock, 2011), you compare yourself to an old Irish Republican soldier whose identity is rooted in an oppositional stance towards the power structure. You go on to express concern about a younger generation of composition scholars who seem perhaps more interested in embracing the culture of English Departments than were scholars of your generation. For you and many others, alienation from and resistance towards the values of English, traditionally defined, were key components of one’s professional identity (hence the Irish Republican metaphor).

But I’m thinking about my own generation and my own occasional feelings of alienation, which are in some ways similar to yours and in other ways different. Like you, I work in an English department and am frequently reminded of my differences from colleagues. Unlike you, I wasn’t there for the peak years of the writing process movement, the years that established and perhaps solidified this kind of oppositional identity that you describe. I was socialized on stories of the revolution but mostly missed the revolution itself. In some ways, this can cause a different kind of estrangement—a kind of alienation from one’s own disciplinary “parents”—like, Must we, too, always adopt a posture of resistance? Is an oppositional stance the necessary “way of being” in composition?

TN: Interesting. I’ve always just wondered if it's a temperamental thing—an elevation of a certain dysfunctional psychology into an abstract principle of virtue.

MM: I think it is or has been seen as a virtue and perhaps a necessity, in composition, to be oppositional.

TN: For me, the question may be about whether such a stance is intellectually generative. I mean, clearly, I always feel more comfortable when I’m working outside of orthodoxy. My book Misreading Masculinity (2002) would be a good illustration of this.

MM: But I’m talking more about institutional politics. It’s different to work or define yourself professionally in a way that is oppositional towards your colleagues and their academic traditions and value systems as embodied in these real people you pass in the hallway each day. While there will always be plenty to oppose, I’m thinking about the extent to which people of my generation feel the need to be oppositional in that way. I’m also thinking about the extent to which they want to feel oppositional in that way. Or, at least, I’m thinking about the extent to which I want to feel oppositional in that way.

TN: There is an attractiveness in feeling that there are still great battles to be waged, even though maybe there are not. I think that there is an admission that I make in the Night Hawk piece, that having a chip on my shoulder is just how I tend to go about things. So if somebody were to say Look, the battle doesn’t exist any more! You’ve gotten virtually every award that your department gives! You’ve been supported! You’re no longer on the margins! I still would have a hard time believing it. I can’t imagine operating without that chip on my shoulder.

MM: And you’re saying that this is just a quirk of personality?

TN: Well, I think there are people who find it motivating—you have to prove yourself. You have to work harder. There is a sense, maybe, of a historical injustice that you feel motivated to correct or work against. I think that if I felt fully accepted, well, that would be a weird, deflated feeling. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

MM: It does. And I think that if we look around, there’s plenty of work for us all in composition to do—to continue to try to change the way our colleagues and the public think about literacy. But I can also imagine wanting to say, “I just want to do my work and earn the respect of colleagues. In terms of changing the paradigm—well, that’s a high bar!”

TN: I don’t have an easy answer for that one. But I think that to be able to ask “What aren’t we doing as a field and what’s keeping us from doing it?”—I think those are important questions to continue to ask. If you were to look at the applications we had for the position we just advertised and were asked, “Based on this sample, how is this field reaching out to the most vulnerable students, to find ways to help them become more successful writers?” well, you would be hard pressed to answer that question based on the kinds of research our young scholars are doing. To some degree, the research many are doing is research of convenience. It’s easier to study kids who are in an intact first-year writing class at a state university where the average income, as at UNH, is about $100K a year. But are those the kids we should be looking at? I guess I feel oppositional to that—to that kind of professional blindness. And there are a lot of people who are exceptions to that, of course, but based on what I saw, very few of us are teaching graduate students to investigate such questions.

MM: Perhaps. But then there’s this other field, literacy studies, and people in composition identify with literacy studies to varying degrees, but if you’re reading, for example, Research in the Teaching of English (RTE), there is plenty of evidence that people are working with marginal or non-mainstream student populations. So is it that the folks who identify more with literacy studies are doing the kinds of work you describe while those who identify primarily with composition or rhetoric have moved on to other kinds of questions—questions that perhaps connect less directly to classrooms and students?

TN: I think you’re right. In literacy studies, they cut their teeth on folks like Shirley Brice Heath or even Mike Rose, if you place him in that group. They cut their teeth on studies of students for whom schooling, traditionally conceived, has not been successful. I think you’re right to say that in literacy studies that kind of work has been front-and-center.

MM: Could what you’re describing be the unintentional outcome of what appears to be a kind of split between English Education and composition, where many who earn Ph.D.s in composition these days lack experience teaching outside of traditional college settings?

TN: I think so. Maybe.

MM: As composition scholars have become more recognized and established within higher education—well, has that perhaps been the downside: a reduced emphasis on scholarship on teaching and learning and a reduced field of vision as far as student populations go?

TN: Yes, but I also think there are probably a lot of perfectly understandable things that mitigate against the kind of research I’m describing, the kind I didn't see when reviewing CVs for our job search.

MM: Where do you go these days to continue to find high quality teaching-focused research?

TN: Heinemann. My connection to Heinemann goes back to 1984 or ‘85. They have “Dedicated to Teachers” right there on the cover of their books. I feel a huge sense of loyalty to them and to the kind of work they publish. It’s that sense of advocating for teachers, advocating for good instructional practices, and of never thinking it’s beneath you to talk about practical things. I’ve always been in awe of these amazing Heinemann authors, folks like Nancy Atwell, Tom Romano, Lind Rief, Penny Kittle, Amy Ray. Most are classroom teachers who write books from their own teaching experiences. My pride comes from being associated with these great teachers.

MM: And yet, to what extent does Heinemann think of their audience as post-secondary composition teachers and scholars?

TN: They can’t reach that market. The public school market is so much bigger. There’s not much cross-over these days between those two markets.

MM: There was cross-over at one point, though, right? I mean your book, The Performance of Self In Student Writing (1997) was read by many in the field of composition and it was published by Heinemann.

TN: I think there was a time when authors like Macrorie and Moffett were able to cross over. Murray crossed over. Sometimes I wonder where the people who teach writing in college these days get their methods from. Maybe from textbooks? Probably not from reading books by folks like Murray and Macrorie, though.

MM: Do you mean where do they get their teaching methods?

TN: Yes. I sometimes wonder where people in college composition who are just starting out today get their methodology. Is there even a market for teaching-focused books?

MM: Let’s back up for a second. This question is really interesting. As we know, in most fields, you don’t receive a lot of training in how to become a teacher. One of the things that I think many of us have always felt proud of, in composition, is that our scholarly training does focus, among other things, on pedagogy. But what happens if we come to a point where the people who are becoming composition Ph.D.s actually have very little training in the teaching of writing? We would become like the sociologists or the psychologists or the historians who say, “In my graduate training, we didn’t really talk much about teaching.”

TN: It seems to me that your identity as a compositionist should be tied to the pragmatics of teaching. I think some people say that our professional identity is too tied to the classroom. Maybe I’m just speaking personally, but it’s that sense that as a compositionist, you’re maybe closer to being a plumber than a scholar.

MM: That’s going to be a hard sell!

TN: As a compositionist, you’re a practitioner and a scholar and you see an organic relationship between the practice of research and the practice of teaching. I’ve always tried to guard and hold onto that idea. If you start splitting research and practice apart, so that your work is teaching writing but your scholarly interests are remote from that and don’t feed that, then it seems to me that you have kind of lost the great virtue of the field as it was originated.

MM: But then your academic life would more closely resemble those of many others in higher education.

TN: Exactly.

MM: This question of how to place your scholarship and teaching in productive conversation seems really, really important and it’s something I think about frequently. Most of our colleagues teach their classes and then they go do their research and they are teaching their students the research of their fields, but they’re not studying the process of teaching their students their fields. That’s the distinction, right?

TN: Yes. And I think that when you divide up a career in that way, there is a tendency to focus too much on teaching the most sophisticated students because you can more fully bring your scholarship to bear on your teaching. But I see composition, ethically, as standing for the dignity and integrity of teaching the least-prepared students. So what is the kind of scholarship that can help us work towards that goal? In any kind of rational world it would seem that it’s more important to direct your intellectual resources towards the preparation of the most vulnerable populations.

MM: Yes, but it never works that way in our very irrational world.

TN: It works exactly the opposite way! So in the field of composition, if you start getting this system where folks feel like, “Okay, it’s a waste to have you teach a first-year writing class because anybody can do that,” I think that’s a real corruption. It seems to me you can almost flip it and say it should be more important for full-time faulty to teach the less-prepared.

MM: Given my own schedule, even at a non-research intensive institution, I can see how one can be drawn away from teaching first-year composition.

TN: And nobody asks any questions about it.

MM: Right. But I’ve been teaching first-year composition almost every year since I started teaching writing fifteen years ago. When I don’t teach it, I’ll be truthful, I don’t always miss it.

TN: The danger comes in feeling that one is over-qualified, because then I can forget how hard it is to teach that first-year course while I’m teaching lots of other less challenging courses. As I advance in my career, I can put myself in situations where I’m less vulnerable in the classroom. When I teach first-year writing, I feel more vulnerable because there are likely issues of motivation that are going to arise—students are taking the course because they have to and so there will be times when the classroom dynamic will be difficult to manage. All of this humbles me, in a good way. So I think that in continuing to teach writing to first-year students there is a kind of credibility we have, an acknowledgement that we work in systems where we can’t control everything, where we reach some students and not others. There is humility in dealing with students who don’t have the conventional skills, the “studenthood,” so to speak.

MM: There is humility in that, yes, if what you are accustomed to doing is working with students who do have those skills. But for those who don’t work with graduate students and who are clawing to introduce upper-level English majors in literature-focused English departments to composition, it may look and feel different.

TN: Okay, I can see that. And maybe we’re talking about different kinds of institutions. But I think there is a draw in higher education, to pull away from teaching the students who need us most. I mean, I don’t teach first-year writing that often, maybe once a year, and yet when I do, people inevitably say, “Jeez, it’s really great that you do this.” I’m like, “This is our field, you know.”

MM: Let’s shift gears. I have a final question, two parts. In Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones you argue that today “there is a push for a rational (research-based), centralized set of specifications for education, an unholy alliance between educational research and powerful educational planners—leading to a totalitarian logic” (9). We might say that there was a similar kind of logic that had a grip on the teaching of writing prior to the years of the writing process movement. My first question is this: What was it like to be a part of that movement, to be among those working to dismantle the totalitarian logic of an earlier epoch?

TN: When Donald Graves did his research on children’s writing I thought we at UNH were at the center of the world. What he discovered was so important I thought that it would forever alter how we view children and their ability to write. I mean, even with the Common Core Standards, whether they get it right or wrong, embedded within the standards is this sense of the capability of children as writers. That’s all Graves.

MM: Did you see the significance of Graves’ work while he was conducting it or did it hit you after his first book came out?

TN: I saw it when I went down to Atkinson to watch him and his team do the research. I remember thinking, “This will change everything.” Of course, it didn’t change everything. Teachers are still asking students to do all kinds of mechanical things with writing, but I thought that in terms of our sensibilities, Graves’ work would change everything. And it did. Nobody can argue that you have to wait until fourth grade to have kids write, as they did back then, or that before you can write you must master penmanship or correct spelling or whatever.

MM: It’s difficult to imagine—it’s such a part of our culture now that children can write that it’s hard to fathom a time when people made those other kinds of arguments.

TN: To me, this isn’t a theory, this is a fact: children can write. They want to write. You can see it on the DVD that comes with the book Penny Kittle and I recently put together. There are the first-graders, writing in those classrooms in Atkinson. It’s on tape! We can not allow them to write, but we can’t pretend that they can’t write.

MM: So for you, that was it, that was a big moment, Graves’ work. But were there others? What about, for example, the work of someone like Janet Emig? Her book came out before Graves’.

TN: Yes, Emig’s work was important and I probably read it during graduate school, but for me what was really significant was the discovery that we, as humans, have this innate desire to express ourselves. We have these passions and identities and themes in our lives that are so compelling, and if we, as writing teachers, can find a way to engage those themes and topics then there is this latent power of composition that we all have. Britton talks about shaping at the point of utterance, this kind of innate capacity to shape language. If, as teachers, we can help students find that, then they will write better than we could have ever imagined.

I think that for me, what was so important was the feeling that we were democratizing writing. So, as opposed to writing being this skill that only a narrow subset of people have, writing is something that everybody has, or can have. I still think that was a great revolution.

I was not a key player in it. I wasn’t of that generation. I was kind of the next generation. I remember Don Murray said something to me once that I never forgot. He said: “We’re the pioneers, you’re the engineers.” Lad Tobin and I talked about that and I think that to some degree it’s true because what we were trying to do, folks like Lad or me or Nancie Atwell, we were trying to work out the applications of a paradigm shift that we didn’t create. So, for example, when I talk about boys and writing, I’m still talking about a kind of opening-up, a freeing-up of expression and openness on the part of teachers to the cultural pleasures that kids have. There’s that sense of working out a paradigm that folks like Murray and Graves initiated. It’s like they opened up this huge territory that they couldn’t fully explore but the rest of us could. We’re still exploring it. There’s so much land, so much still to look at.

I think that we, my generation, we always felt enormous loyalty to them and gratitude, too, because they opened things up and they saw us as being able to do things that perhaps they couldn’t. Working with Murray, for example, I brought in a kind of reading that he never had. I would see Montaigne in this discussion or Dewey in that one. Those would not have been connections Don Murray would have made, but those were connections that Don Murray was very much interested in when I began making them. So it was this terrific gift and I think we knew it and we ran with it.

MM: I understand the pioneer/engineer metaphor, but I’m wondering where or how you situated yourself within this movement. Was it all one, in a way—elementary school, high school, and college? Or were you mostly interested in the teaching of writing during the K-12 years?

TN: I think we thought that the principles Graves and Murray were developing applied at all levels. I mean, in high schools, obviously you have the English or literature curriculum. Writing always has to find its way. I started the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes in 1980. We thought these five or six basic principles—choice, response, time, models, practice—applied in many settings. Then Linda Rief’s book came out and she was talking about how to apply these principles in middle school. I think we thought Graves and Murray got an awful lot right and that their descriptions of key factors in the classroom for students to succeed as writers were a good foundation. The economy of it is really quite brilliant.

MM: So you were a part of this really important moment in the history of literacy instruction and you were able to contribute to it, too, but now you’re writing about this new standards-based, high-stakes moment. This is the second part of my question: What advice can you offer folks who seem to be facing this more recent kind of totalitarian logic?

TN: It’s a complicated question. You have the Common Core State Standards and they are very much top-down. I was talking to the head of the high school here in town and he said that basically what they have is a strategic plan, which is theirs, things they want to do to make the school better. He said, “Our faculty won’t get excited about the Common Core. It can be in the background. But these are the things that we think can make this a better high school. These are in the foreground and they’re what we’re excited about.”

I think it’s smart to maintain your sense of agency in a time when things are being asked of you. But it’s also tricky because there will always be a propensity towards a more panicky kind of response, where people are saying, “We have to do this and we have to buy these products to align to the test.” That sort of thing. A big part of it is to know what the standards are, but also to know how to use them to your advantage without giving up what matters to you. If you start doing that, it’s slow suicide.

Also, I still believe that if the goal is to prepare students for standardized tests, the best way to do so is to have them read and write a lot. Reading builds vocabulary, and the more you write, the more you can probably deal with almost any kind of writing situation that’s put in front of you, no matter how artificial. In the end, though, I think that teachers and schools need to maintain a sense of agency, to maintain that feeling that, “I really believe in what I’m doing,” instead of, “I’m just responding to these demands.” If they can do that, they’re going to do much better. They’re going to teach with conviction and obviously, that’s a very, very important thing.

MM: Teaching with conviction seems like a really good place to draw this interview to a close. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. I think I speak for many in composition, generally, and at UNH, in particular, when I say that your work has been a continual source of insight and inspiration.

TN: Thank you.

Works Cited

Berlin, James. Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class. College English 50.5 (Sept. 1988): 477-494. Print.

Newkirk, Thomas. Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009. Print.

---. Lunch at the Night Hawk: Or Kinneavy Moves His Office. Composition’s Roots in English Education. Ed. Patricia L. Stock. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2011. 61-71. Print.

Newkirk, Thomas, and Nancie Atwell. Understanding Writing: Ways of Observing, Learning, and Teaching, K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987. Print.

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared. New York: Free Press, 1989. Print.

Wardle, Elizabeth and Doug Downs. Writing About Writing: A College Reader. 2nd Ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. Print.

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