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The Writing Self and the Work of Care in Critical Writing Pedagogy

By Anannya Dasgupta

“Sir, we are not seen by them” – From “The Silence of the Subaltern Student,” Aniket Jaaware 

I am a writing teacher; in the last two years of professionally identifying myself as one in jobs that required me to set up the teaching of writing to university students, I have usually been tasked to do the following: come up with academic writing courses for all levels of university learners where the chief learning outcome is the ability to read, write and think critically. Writing in academia, in the forms and genres acknowledged as academic, hinges on critical thinking as any number of writing programmes or writing course descriptions will attest. Critical thinking in its popular perceptions is seen to be a cerebral exercise of the intellect to evaluate ideas objectively in order to solve problems. If one happens to click on a visual representation of critical thinking, it is invariably that of a disembodied head with a cog for a brain turned by arrows arranged to show the relationship between words such as analysis, decision making, reasoning, and evaluation.

Even as a more thorough and academic definition of critical thinking, such as in the Sage Encyclopaedia of Education Research (2018), expands critical thinking into two lists of six skills and seven dispositions, one may not come closer to teaching critical thinking beyond certain skills of recognizing and building logical arguments and shoring them up in carefully constructed textual evidence. If most students can actually learn to write arguments based on evidence, and the mechanics and conventions of academic writing, most of us would agree that the class is more or less successful. However, like other writing teachers, I have a front row seat to the travails of student writing when it doesn’t work, and have a chance to reflect on how all the emphasis on critical thinking can amount to uninspired dullness, that is, if the writing is not plagiarised in part or whole. As a writing teacher, I want to think about why we should care about writing that doesn’t work, and if a more nuanced understanding of care needs to guide the pedagogy of critical writing as we develop it for the Indian classroom.

Selfless Writing 

In academic writing classes or workshops, one question that I am often asked by students and faculty is whether it is okay to use the personal pronoun ‘I’ in academic essays. Quite apart from the question of conventions, I have learned to hear the question hidden in that question – am I allowed to be in my academic paper? In this context, an article, published in The Wire, by Avijit Pathak ‘Debating Plagiarism: Indian Academia is Producing Imitative Conformists’ (April 22, 2018) comes to mind. Pathak describes an incident from his student days when he had responded to an assignment on caste by writing from his experience and observations, only to be told, ‘No, you can’t write what you think, experience and feel. You are required to write the way the likes of M.N. Srinivas and Louis Dumont have thought about it.’ Pathak recounts revising his paper, ‘I followed his instruction and wrote a highly-mechanised but ‘academically impressive’ paper […].’ Pathak’s point in this article is that this kind of training teaches students to copy and conform with no training to become original thinkers. His choice of inverted commas indicates that what he learned about writing ‘academically impressive’ papers as a student, the scholar Pathak has unlearned and re-thought. The mechanized mimicking of scholars, as Pathak exiled himself from what he thought, experienced and felt, would have, at some point in his scholarly career, struck him as contrary to the kind of critical writing academia actually appreciates but falters in teaching. He would have had to find his way back into his writing, and learned afresh to think with Srinivas and Dumont and not simply like them. The question I have learned to hear – Am I allowed to be in my academic writing? – not only illuminates Pathak’s learning arc as a scholarly writer, it is a useful lead into understanding writing from students who hear or assume the answer to this question to be – No! It is an entry into a kind of writing that doesn’t work for being mechanical, uninspired or worse plagiarized.

One way to understand plagiarism is the complete absence of one’s self from one’s writing to the extent that the writing isn’t even one’s own. If we were to see plagiarism as a symptom of a larger problem it would point us to the works of Susie Tharu, Aniket Jaaware and Alok Rai from the 1990s, for example, and to the more recent volumes on the state of the Indian universities edited by Debaditya Bhattacharya in 2018 that document the complexity of our classrooms in colleges and universities where a large number of students come in already alienated. The alienation stems from a gamut of inequities: gender, class, caste, religion and region. To compound the distancing, students often don’t have the skill and access to the English language to the extent required by university level reading and writing. Seen in this context, plagiarism is symptomatic of how deeply students are disconnected from what they are learning and where they are learning. There is no meaningful, transformative academic writing possible in a classroom where there is a dissonance between who the students are expected to be in readiness and preparedness to learn, and who they actually are in their self-effacing or defiant presence. It is also not as if those students propelled by their relative privilege, claiming space in the classroom more confidently and better inclined to use the personal pronoun in their academic writing know how to use it. The absence of the speaking voice, or an overindulged and unexamined speaking voice bring the writing class to the same place of challenge where students have to learn that academic writing is the practice of reading and writing as a mediation of the self and the world with a mutually transformative potential for both the body of scholarship and the person of the scholar. If our classrooms are plagued by plagiarized work, it is possibly an indication that our instruction is not adequately allowing a space for the experiential selves of students to emerge and learn to derive the joy of owning academic work. But this brings us to the slope that academia has always thought to be slippery. What is the place of the personal in classroom instruction, in academic writing?

When I was an undergraduate in Delhi, I had met with a road accident and was laid up in bed for a couple of weeks with a cracked rib. I missed classes but managed to, at some point, scrape together something of the written work that was due as I made it heroically back to college. During the tutorial, I remember handing in my written work with an apology for it possibly not being up to the mark on account of being laid up with an injury. I was looking for sympathy and acknowledgement for doing the work in spite of being bedridden. My professor took the paper and said dismissively, ‘Let’s bracket out the personal.’ I took that lesson to heart and kept it close through the rest of my education in India and through the PhD in the United States. I wrote painfully, dispassionately, disconnectedly. I took a long time to finish the PhD that I derived such meagre joy in submitting that I thought it was a sign for me to quit academia. I didn’t quit academia partly because I loved teaching. What had sustained me in graduate school was learning how to teach writing that I was required to do as a teaching assistant; the joy of figuring it out was a guilty pleasure that I kept from informing my own writing which was still misguided by notions of what Pathak calls the ‘academically impressive’ writing. My journey to meaningful academic work and writing has come to me in the form embracing the teaching of writing professionally. As a teacher of writing, one conceptual tangle that I am working through is around questions of how to engage the personal, the experiential and the affective in classroom pedagogy as a pathway to impressive academic work that does not need qualifying inverted commas. To do that I am beginning to see the need for acknowledging inability, vulnerability and grief as places and processes of writing that make space to let denied selves emerge, and where pastoral care is in the form of concrete pedagogic support. But the question that is begging to be asked is how one squares vulnerability and grief with analysis and critical thinking. Are there other kinds of thinking available to a vulnerable, aggrieved or erased body-mind that analytical reasoning does not cover? Should we be paying attention to those as academics and teachers? I could not have anticipated the circumstances that brought me to pay very close attention to these questions.

Recovering the Writing Self

For me last year was a year of grief and care. Here I am decidedly not bracketing-out the personal. I cremated in quick succession more people, family and friends, than I had in all of my life, and spent some nerve-wracking time on more than one occasion, caring for family in hospital ICUs. I also made a big move to a new job that has brought me to a different part of the country where not speaking the language of everyday exchange makes my move feel like a dislocation. For months I was functioning mechanically in a state of numbness and alienation when I happened to pick up a book to read, that I had been meaning to for a while, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Published in 2003, it is a simple, stunning book that made it to the national bestseller list in the United States. An acclaimed playwright, fiction writer and journalist, Didion writes this book to understand the process of thinking it takes to turn the corner of grief.

Grief is extraordinary in what it does to the sense of self and in how one copes with it. In chapter 5, Didion writes for instance, about how she feels invisible: ‘People who have recently lost someone have a certain look […] The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness and openness. […] [They] look naked because they think themselves invisible. I felt myself invisible for a period of time, incorporeal.’ While grief is experienced as a loss of the sense of embodied self, this erasure of the self is accompanied by a rupture in the usual processes of rational thinking that one may have acquired in life or been educated to possess. In chapter 4, she writes about her first instinct to read, to read up on how to process grief, ‘In times of trouble, I had been trained since childhood to read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.’ But all the reading and all the processing of her rational mind does not bring her any closer to getting a handle on what she finds herself doing in that year of bereavement that she calls magical thinking.

Didion observes that she had slipped into two modes of thinking soon after her husband dies of a heart attack at the dinner table. She is reasonable, rational and objective as she makes all the arrangements that the irreversible finality of death demands; but equally she finds herself held in the belief that he would come back. As she waits and saves space for him, she is unable to give away all the shoes, for instance, because she is convinced that he’d need them upon his return. She keeps him alive for herself in her dwelling. She writes in chapter 3 about that covert, disordered thinking that takes over when she finds herself incapable of rational thought:

It was deep into the summer, some months after the night I needed to be alone so that he could come back, before I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally. I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome. In my case the disordered thinking had been covert, noticed I think by no one else, hidden even from me, but it had also been in retrospect both urgent and constant.

Didion has all her critical faculties about her, and as a professional writer and journalist she pulls out everything critical thinking has taught her to do at the time of distress, and for all that the world knows she copes gracefully, wisely and well. And yet, she is the first one to recognize that it is not rational, critical thinking that is helping her survive in her invisible, vulnerable state but the magical thinking of denial and comfort. As she looks back on her year of magical thinking, she notes that the disordered thinking was both ‘urgent and constant’ even as she is aware at the time that ‘the recognitions of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.’ The disordered, magical thinking helps her survive. What makes The Year of Magical Thinking a powerful book to read is precisely in that it invites the reader into the simultaneity of thought processes that keep us functioning and well, and critical thinking, in its narrowest requirement of rational, analytic thought, is only one way to process reality and, in a moment of grief or trauma, not even the most urgent option.

In reading Didion’s book, I found a surprising convergence of disparate ideas and feelings that I have been mulling over as an academic who has had a hard time writing; as a writing teacher who thinks about the processes of writing; and as a person, like others, who inhabits the precarities of life. Processes of thinking are not unconnected to our sense of self; who we are is how we think. While grief and trauma are extreme examples of experiencing disembodiment, it does offer a way to think about historically denied selves that become invisible in spaces such as classrooms. Aniket Jaaware writes about one such moment in “The Silence of the Subaltern Student” (1998) when he meets, outside class, the habitually quiet group of underprivileged students and asks, in Marathi, about how classes are going and if they have adequate help. To this one student replies, in Marathi, ‘Sir, we are not seen by them’. Why this is important to consider is because it brings up the inadequacy of teaching detached critical thinking to students who are scrambling to survive the education system. One student who did not survive the education system was Rohith Vemula. His suicide note cut a deep groove in me for his repeated wish to be ‘a writer, a writer like Carl Sagan,’ knowing that the caste humiliation he faced in his university held little scope for that. If anyone needs evidence for what historical alienation does to a sense of self, his note will bring it home. As a writing teacher, I think about what I could have done for a student like Rohith and for students like Rohith who are currently in our classes. And the answer I come up with is that I could have shown more care. 

The Work of Care

I made a startling discovery as I was working through the idea of care in pedagogy. The etymological roots of the word care are in the old High German words chara and charon that mean grief and lament. To care has come to mean a show of concern or to pay a great deal of attention to something; the etymology locates such care in an acknowledgment of the state of grieving selves. In the context of university classrooms to show care would mean enabling spaces and vocabulary to help students locate the sense of an embodied self in relation to others, to get students to a place where the tools of critical thinking become useful things to learn. This makes the work of teaching writing both daunting and an exactly appropriate place to begin the process of self-recovery because as it turns out writing demands an engagement and examination of the self like few other activities. But how does one even begin to approach such a pedagogy for the classroom where the only point of access between teachers and students is supposed to be disembodied heads with cogs for brains and the thought bubbles that emanate from them? Here the better researched academic definition of critical thinking that The Sage Encyclopedia of Education Research provides has more room for extrapolation: ‘The general consensus is that critical thinking involves metacognition or involves thinking about thinking to maintain awareness and manage one’s thoughts.’ And what is Didion’s book if not exactly an exercise in metacognition, an awareness and albeit inability to manage her thoughts for that one year? It prompted me to look at the list of skills and dispositions again; I spot ‘self-confidence’; there can be no confidence in the self without the self. What is open to extrapolation here is the idea that critical thinking is not actually only skills in analysis, the list of dispositions, with self confidence in it, are to be learned and taught too. That a classroom is a place to encourage dispositions makes it easier to locate the work of care in writing pedagogy.

Care in a writing pedagogy classroom is made palpable in creating the kind of habitat in the classroom where the practices of reading, writing and thinking thrive as an activity of individuals in a community of peers who become resources to each other. Payal Singh’s essay in this anthology speaks to this experience. In other words, writing pedagogy is equally about teaching students how to write a paragraph or revise an argument as it is about producing the environment which enables the sharing of vulnerable early drafts, the exchange of critique and the ability to take feedback without feeling humiliation. Care also makes itself visible in the processes of teaching writing in terms of how student responses are elicited and their voices heard. Madhura Lohokare writes about the process of giving feedback on student papers as one concrete pedagogic practice in care. A writing pedagogy classroom assumes that those who come into the ambit of its safe space, including the instructor, are vulnerable and all class activities come from a place of support.

Not burdened by content, writing classes have been free to develop a pedagogy that has focused on the processes of teaching and learning and on building a caring environment of learning. However, much of what the writing classes are developing as concrete pedagogic practice can travel to other kinds of classes as well. After one of my courses concluded, not so long ago, I learned that one of my students in the class had lost a parent; and though I had noticed that she had missed a few classes, I did not know the reason for it. She had not told me. When I ran into her the next semester, I offered her my condolences and said that I was sorry that I did not know at the time. She told me, in all earnestness that I have no reason to disbelieve, that being in that class helped her cope. That class was not a writing class. It was a seminar on the obscure topic of magic and science in renaissance literature. I teach my literature courses quite like my writing classes. I offer this story not in self-aggrandizement but to suggest that the pedagogy of care makes the classroom a space to be present in our full and sometimes literally grieving selves. The imperative to understand the nuances of the work of care in pedagogy is also not only a response for its pastoral need, but for the role it plays in the processes of making knowledge. One is motivated to learn well what one cares about. In the course of their education, if students learn self-care and to extend the self in empathy to connect with what lies outside the bounds of the self, and see that as the work of critical thinking and writing in academia, I think we could all safely agree that that would be an undeniably successful education.

Anannya Dasgupta
Directs the Centre for Writing and Pedagogy at Krea University. She trained to be a writing teacher at the Writing Program at Rutgers University while she was a doctoral student in the English Department. Back in India she organized the teaching of writing at Shiv Nadar University and set up the Centre for Writing Studies at OP Jindal Global University. In 2015 she received a two year collaboration grant to partner with the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University to develop writing pedagogy and global writing transfers. She is grateful to Suchismita Chattopadhyay and Madhura Lohokare for their revision feedback on the early drafts of this essay and to Anusha Hariharan for long conversations that have shaped some of the thoughts in this essay and also in the introduction to this collection.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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