NOTES ON Shafer, “A Christian Fundamentalist in a Reader-Response Class: Merging Transactions and Convictions” (2007)

Shafer recounts his experience with Danielle a student he worked with over two semesters (lucky him), a student who in her reading and writing was overdependent on authority figures (particularly her pastor) for her interpretations.  She would say things like, “I checked with my minister and he pointed to these passages in the Bible” (qtd 320).  (She was “bright and congenial,” (326), not at all an overtly resistant student)

“Whether the discussion revolved around a woman’s place in the home or the policy toward gay and lesbian marriage, Danielle appeared to rely on the perspective of her religious teachings and specifically the Bible in all her opinions” (321) [and I would add – her INTERPRETATION of the Bible…]

Shafer does a good job of showing the aspects of Rosenblatt’s description reader-response theory which apply to this situation.  “For Rosenblatt… a text becomes a poem when it is imbued with life by the experiences and values of the reader” (320).

Rosenblatt: “In the modling of any specific literary experience, what the student brings to literature is as important as the literary text itself” (Rosenblatt 82 qtd in Shafer 321)

[It is imperative that the instructor] “create a setting that makes it possible for the student to have a spontaneous response to literature […]. Once the student has responded freely, a process of growth can be initiated” (Rosenblatt 108 qtd in Shafer 321).  Shafer continues, “Reading, then, must be a dynamic moment in time, not a mechanical recollection of embedded, monolithic truths. Reading must be fluid and new with each transation” (321).

spontaneous, free, dynamic, fluid, new… (helpful cluster of adjectives)

I.e., no authority figures appropriating a reader’s responses (ldm)

“In addition to preventing an understanding of what is read, rigid attitudes may seriously impair the reader’s judgment even of what he has understood” (Rosenblatt 101 qtd in Shafer 321).

Cf. my ethnography

Shafer then moves to “Reader-Response Writing,” focusing the rest of his article on the ways in which he tried to create a space for Danielle in which she could own, investigate and express her view for different audiences. Cf Dively (for emphasis on self-discourse-investigation) and Carter (for emphasis on audience). Danielle “had to write for the atheist and the communist as well as those who shared her views” (322).

Shafer then brings in Probst here, Probst pointing out that “the writer must have integrity, which means not unthinkingly accepting the judgments of others (71 qtd in 323), and that students should draw upon “an awareness of the reader…” But I would think a compositionist wouldn’t even have to quote another scholar to make this point about audience – just seems like a given in the field. Shafer does quote Probst that “this is the case ‘even if the reader is never anyone but the writer’ her- or himself,” but that seems a given, too.

In the beginning of the semester(s), Danielle would say things like, “It’s hard to understand if one is not a Christian. I can’t explain it, but I believe it” (qtd 323). Telling quote, brings out the unexamined-ness.

Here Shafer brings in Vygotsky emphasizing the need for “play, experimentation, introspection, and the learning that they afford” (323). Cool.  Playing (risk free playing) = crucial to learning.

I think Danielle represts a fairly extreme case of over-dependence on authorities. Or, she represents an extreme case of when a teacher KNOWS the student is over-depending on authorities. I can imagine a male “fundamentalist” student, instead of saying, “I’ll have to check with my pastor,” saying, “This is just what I means. I just know!” (hiding the authority behind the opinion).

Then Shafer brings in Frank Smith’s “reminder that we all learn to read and write by identifying ourselves with a “club” or group of people who think and speak like us – people who accept and celebrate our common beliefs” (324) Yes, discourse community.  This is interesting, though: “According to Smith, people ‘learn the language of the groups to which they belong (or expect to belong) and resist the language of the gorups they reject or from which they are rejected’” (Smith 21 qtd 324).  I don’t think I’d heard or thought much about the part about rejecting (how consciously?) other discourses. That could be a helpful point.  - related to Brandt’s literacy sponsors.

So Shafer reminded his students – who had become fairly intolerant of Danielle’s religious devotion – that “we all are part of a language tradition and that Danielle’s approach is no different from those of others who might refer to the Founding Fathers, Karl Marx, or MLK Jr as a paradigm for reading and universal truths. Indeed, the very fact that so many referred to our Founding Fathers might suggest that we have elevated these very falllible men – men who held slaves and denied women the right to vote – to the position of secular gods. Throughout the semester, I was forever reminding my writers that authority figures are part of our language and culture, and it is part of the academic setting to question them but to do so with respect” (324) Yes, excellent point and well put!

Shafer then goes on to discuss how he facilitate Danielle’s learning / empowerment. Key = earning her trust. Shafer and Danielle talked about the way in which media and Amer culture “depict religions as dogmatic and provincial” (325). Shafer agreed with her that pop culture “is often unfair to the sincere and diverse beliefs of religious organizations” (325).

SPECIFIC pedagogical (advice): Shafer let Danielle focus on “luminaries from her church” as sources in her FINAL draft, let her ignore sources from “mainstream academic sources” because, as he explained, “she insisted that I did not respect the luminaries from her church that she was using” (325). He wanted her to feel empowered (in addition to learn to be sensitive to audience and use other sources).

“This demonstrated my willingness to acknowledge her ownership over her writing and reminded her that I wasn’t trying to change her” (325).  “At the same time, of course, I was committed to her right to believe in absolute truths, in tenets that are insulated from social change and transcend the ideological. The goal was not to undermine to trivialize these beliefs but to animate them in a broader, more critical, more probing fashion. This distinction, I believe, is important. Each student’s passionate beliefs must be respected, and it is not the writing teacher’s job to undermine time-honored values. If I were to trivialize D’s religious experience – or her fealty to her minister – I would simply replace one authority figure with another [yes!!]” (325-26).

Challenge = “enliven D’s language experience” while respecting her “claimed identity” (326). IDENTITY – Cf. Rand 2001, Swearingen 1997, Williams 2005, Moffett 1990.

Shafer brings in historian Howard Zinn’s notion of thinking beyond the obvious (326). Students (of course) must examine traditions – traditions must “stand the test of of the scholarly classroom” (327).

Shafer invited Danielle “to persuade [the class] by scrutinizing the nuances of her creed” (327). “Each of her sources, including her church members and her minister, had to fit the profile of an expert and her notions of scholarship were scrutinized in student forums” (327).   He encourage D to celebrate and interrogate her ideals for herself and the class.  “Now she had to emerge from the sahdows that Rosenblatt discussed and put the spotlight on her transaction with the various texts she encountered” (327).  Reader – center stage.

Danielle wrote an essay on marriage and role of women. She wrote/said, “Despite what many of you might believe, the traditional values of the stay-at-home mom were good for the country and good for the family. Traditional marriage is good for society and good for individuals” (qtd 327). Yes, this way she makes a cause-and-effect claim (as we require in WR 121 classes for their research papers). And she even sets up a thesis with tension, a “they say, I say.”  Danielle uses evidence, the divorce rate, confusion in society re how to support a family. 327

Shafer concludes that Danielle was “eventually compelled – through the class’s invitation to defend her ideals – to transcend the tenets of her church and rely on her own transactions with texts as a way to defend her positions” (327-28).   Students had asked her to supply statistics [yes!] and told her “I don’t care what the Bible says.”  [Ooh, makes me think I should try a similar plan when I teach the research paper next term – have students try to persuade fellow students.]  Danielle even successfully included a nay-sayer.

“Being thrust into this kind of academic torrent [of fellow-student responses / disbelief] required D to begin to transcend her strict dependence on her minister…” (329).  And “her need to play the role of instructor in a class-wide forum create a need for her to be engaged in the texts she read and to assume an active role. She was, in short, a more reflective person within a conservative discourse community” (329).
“We must always invite [students with zealous convictions] to play but never suggest that their speech community is not valid” (330).

Nice quote from Rosenblatt: “Above all, the word cannot be understood in isolation; it must be seen in the varity of its possible contexts” (112 in 330).

“Some of us try to speak from the perspective of the academic community with which we feel a connection. Others want to mirror the religious congregation that animates their thoughts. All approaches need to be respected” (330).

Terry Dean argues that “with increasing culturel diversity in classrooms, teachers need to structure learning experiences that both help students write their way into the university and help teachers learn their way into student cultures” (Dean 105 qtd 330).

[Dean in 3rd ed of Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook – rats, I have the first and fourth eds]


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