Kathleen Blake Yancey | Florida State University
[R]eflection is rhetorical […] only through
bringing the human and the world together to theorize
can a reflective knowledge and meaning be made.
(Yancey, A Rhetoric of Reflection)
The word reflection points in a myriad of directions; it means so differently—see, for example, the ways several writing teacher/scholars approach it in A Rhetoric of Reflection—that it can be difficult to define fully. But I’ll try to provide a point of reflective departure 😉, at least in terms of my own sense of reflection.
In advance, though, I think I should observe that this blog post wanders a bit. I hope it does so reflectively. I hope it prompts you to think about how you define reflection, how you include reflection in your life, how you include it in your teaching and learning.
So, a definition: reflection, which is both a theory and a practice, is a means of making meaning. Drawing from experience and more—others’ views, information, intuition, materials, objects in the surround—we engage in a practice requiring attention, multiple perspectives, and time so as to understand anew. Sometimes, that understanding is deeper as a consequence of reflection; other times, that understanding changes, sometimes radically. Our reflections benefit from being situated in community, from response, from support. Reflection doesn’t so much provide answers as point to and open other ways of seeing and being; it puts into dialogue the familiar with the unfamiliar, the small in the large, the large in the tiny.
In writing studies, we’ve long thought about reflection as a means of helping students develop as writers. Some of us ask students to describe their writing processes—in what’s conventionally referred to as a process memo. Some of us invite students to account for their development as writers—though the drafts and through the quarter or semester and through the years. Some of us require students to assess their texts according to outcomes—some of which may derive from a writing program, others of which students may create. All of these forms of reflection, which serve very different purposes, can be quite valuable.
Still, I wonder: are these the best questions to prompt reflection about writing? Put in terms of the definition above, are these questions that will prompt authentic meaning-making?
We reflect in our personal lives, too. Consider the idea and the practice of family. How would you define family? How does one create a good family? Is a good family a happy family? An extended family? A family by choice? Does one ever leave one’s family, and if so, when?
Or consider retirement. What is the purpose of retirement? Is it to sit back and rest after a lifetime of work? Travel around the world? Is it to care for our families in new ways? Is it to take up a new career or hobby? Is it to serve the public, perhaps by delivering meals on wheels or volunteering for a political candidate? What is the purpose of a good retirement?
What’s interesting about these sets of reflective questions is a point that is obvious: no one can reflect for another; each of us, often in community, reflects.
As teachers, we know about reflection and about the role reflection plays in helping us improve—but again, largely through practice, largely through response to an undeniable exigence. When students don’t respond as we’d liked or hoped, we have an opportunity to reflect, to consider their concerns in the context of our aims, and to understand what’s going on differently, especially from the perspectives of others who also inhabit our curricular and pedagogical space. Such an exigence provides an opportunity for growth. Organizers, too, it seems, as AOC commented during 2020: “I come from the lens of an organizer, and if someone doesn’t do what you want, you don’t blame them — you ask why. And you don’t demand that answer of that person — you reflect. And that reflection is where you can grow.”
All the (many) good teachers I’ve known have grown over time. For my part, one way I’ve grown—in response to student concerns—is in sharing with them ways I’ve organized a class. Because I design the courses I teach, it’s always been obvious to me how each unfolds, how the readings are arranged to motivate writing, how the class discussions and workshops will link to both. But students, they didn’t always see it this way: to them, my courses sometimes felt disorganized, they said. Was I disappointed? Yes. But I wasn’t angry. As AOC observes, there’s no blame here. I saw the logic of their response, and I also liked my intent, to include the potential for invention that a bit of ambiguity, per Kenneth Burke, seemed to provide. Through reflection, I effected a compromise: syllabi that were more detailed but that didn’t foreclose the chance of serendipity. In addition, I created a corresponding “course on a page” helping visually orient students to the way elements were linked and the times when assignments were due. Happily, I found that the course on a page also helped me; in drafting it, I could see where my rhythm of assignments needed an adjustment and assure that deadlines were relativized and reasonable. Reflection, in other words, includes more than taking stock or looking backward, although it includes both: as a meaning-making activity, reflection is also oriented to new understandings and future change.
About two years ago, faculty developers Tracy Penny-Light, Laura Colket, and Adam Carswell invited a group of international teachers, including me, to contribute to their edited collection Becoming: Transformative Storytelling for Education’s Future. The key word in the title, Becoming, signaled the editors’ interest in teachers becoming teachers in response to critical incidents, or episodes of difficulty, surprise, or struggle. More specifically, the editors were interested in how these teachers had experienced critical incidents, in how those incidents had contributed to their teaching practices, and in what the incidents might also suggest about how teaching practices, or the educational system itself, should be changed.
To learn about this, the editors gave us the same reflective assignment:
1. Please write an educational autobiography in which you reflect on critical incidents in your experience as a student in relation to literature and theory about teaching and learning. In doing so, please consider the following questions:
How did those defining moments shape you as a learner? Are you able to identify an arc or any themes in your experience? What roles have your various social identities played in shaping your educational experience? What role did the contexts in which you were learning shape your experience? How did your broader social/cultural/political sphere shape your educational experiences? What main struggles did you face as a student? Did you have any resources, supports, people or strategies to help you overcome those struggles? What are you most proud of when you look back on your time as a student? What are you most surprised or concerned about? If you were to go back to talk to your teachers now, what would you tell them about how to better support you as a learner?
2. Please write your teaching or leadership philosophy. In doing so, please reflect on the following questions:
What are your key beliefs about teaching/leadership? What literature and/or theory supports your beliefs? What specific strategies do you draw on that align with your key beliefs? What critical incidents have shaped your beliefs and practices?
3. Please write a critical reflection about your experience thinking through these aspects of your teaching and learning experiences. What connections, themes, contradictions or new understandings emerged for you through this writing process? What implications might this have for your practice?
I identified three such critical incidents, two in college: (1) when I saw integral connections between two seemingly disparate junior-level classes, Victorian literature and geology; and (2) when I enrolled in a rhetoric class in communication studies whose orientation toward texts differed considerably from that in the English department where I was a doctoral student. As important, I also identified an earlier critical incident occurring outside school, when as a child living in 1958 West Germany, I understood the situatedness of certain holidays—Thanksgiving was the first—as uniquely American and also—if somewhat vaguely (I was, after all, just 8 at the time)—as a more general phenomenon wherein cultural practices are often historically motivated. For me, I said in the chapter, living in Germany “was Copernican: the US, with its unique Thanksgiving, was no longer the centerpiece body among planets and stars, but rather one planet among many.”
In the past, I’d often told this story about my surprise at learning about how un-German Thanksgiving was, sort of as a joke on myself: I was very surprised that my German friends were not celebrating the holiday, and my child-like naivete is pretty funny. But as I reflected on this experience in writing this chapter, I understood it another way, more as one source for my appreciation of history, my appreciation of difference, and my commitment to weaving both into my teaching, especially in terms of the way I begin classes:
history is important to me as a person and as a teacher. I began college as a history major and was certified to teach history to students grades 6- 12; along with rhetorical situation, the historical context—perhaps in part because of my living, as an impressionable child, in such an intense historical context in post-war Germany—functions as something of a standard intellectual framework for me. It’s probably not surprising, then, that I begin every course I teach with history, more specifically with students’ histories. I often open the first class period with an icebreaker focused on course content that taps student’s prior experiences; my first homework assignment performs the same task more discursively. This term, I am teaching a special topics course, Writing across the Curriculum and the Question of Writing Transfer, and the first assignment is what I’ve called The Snapshot Project:
In 1-2 pages (single spaced), identify three moments when your writing changed. For each moment,
a. describe it
b. analyze how your writing changed and why
c. consider whether this change was helpful or not
d. theorize about what this tells you about how writers
Tracing our own histories, as my students did this week and I have done here, allows us to distance ourselves from them, see them from other angles, and begin to make meaning of them.
I think one of the questions reflective teachers often have centers on the how of classroom reflection: what reflective questions should we ask students, and when should we ask them so that they are meaningful to students? That italicized part? That’s the kicker: it’s very difficult to decide in advance what will be meaningful to others. But in a writing class, or a rhetoric class, we are situated in an intellectual community where some questions, when reflected upon, have that potential. The list of potential questions, below, is hardly exhaustive, but it might provide a place to begin, for our students and for us, and it might also be that we return to these questions more than once.
What is the purpose of rhetoric? What is the purpose of your rhetoric?
What does it mean to write in the world?
What’s the most important text you’ve written? Why was it important? What did it teach you about writing?
What does it mean to write? Is it only words, or mostly words, or words plus—words and visuals and document design and sound? Are writing and composing synonyms? Are you a writer, a composer, or both? Why?
Why do we write? Why do you write?
What will you write and why?
At the end of the day, what difference will your writing—a given text, your writing generally, your efforts—make?