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RE: reflective writing

In my perennial catching up with xmca, I felt a strong response to the issues Ann raised about institutional contexts and reflective writing.

Not that I have a special interest really in writing pedagogy as such, but it resonates with a larger concern. Much as we use it as a shorthand for more complex shortcomings, the notion of "decontextualized writing" is of course an impossibility. All writing, all activity, all meaning-making is always already embedded in multiple larger, longer-term contexts, agendas, institutions, etc. So I have to agree with Ann's misgivings about how authentically "reflective" students can be when writing about their experiences in the field (or anywhere), if that writing is done as part of some larger activity defined within the university or some academic institution, tradition, discipline, etc. One could, and people have of course, said the same thing about academic writing of a radical political nature (it's still conventional enough to get published, get you tenure, etc.), or the institutionalized genres of ethnography, or even --horror! -- art.

The romantic solution (e.g. in art, but not much less for many intellectuals) is to get outside the institutional structures, or to write against them. But you CAN'T get outside them, not honestly and authentically, and if you could, you would not be able to say much that would make sense to people still inside them (or really to anyone, probably even yourself). You can write against from within, but I find the arguments fairly persuasive that this mainly has the effect of reproducing what you oppose in an inverted or negative image.

I hope many of you will already be anticipating the resolution of this uncomfortable dilemma: that the only thing which really matters is CHANGING the institutional contexts. I think that the activity that Ann is looking for is the activity of working for institutional change. Critique of the present institutions, but for the sake of working to change them (or replace them, often easier). Reflection on experience and practice, but of a form and with a cumulative logic of argument and development shaped by the project of change (subversion, revolution, replacement, re-engineering ... however you like to call it).

We all of us work within existing institutions, but we are not usually very vocal in denouncing them and advocating for very substantial change, internally, to our colleagues, students, etc. It's not polite, it's not comfortable, it can be counter-productive to our own interests. But it can also bring a surprising clarity to our discourse, so that it enters into a succession of changes of its own which are not merely clever and inventive, but are supporting a larger change in material conditions. I am not saying these are the only discourses of value, but only that this is a value we often regret that our discourses lack.

Can authentic reflection be anything other than a moment in processes of change?


At 09:03 AM 7/13/2004, you wrote:
Mike: Thank you for you response. Here's my concern:  when we talk about
reflective writing we slip into an unexamined school-based view of writing
instruction that belies all that activity theory has to recommend
specifically for writing instruction and more generally for learning. That
is, we see a decontextualized, consistent self, examining his or her own
learning processes and producing a verbal description of them.

You say: The students spend time in community organizations helping out by
doing the writing that occurs in those organizations.

Yes. Students spend time in community agencies doing writing that those
agencies have said they need - press kits, brochures, web page copy and the
like. My interest is in identifying a context for writing instruction, or an
activity system, in which the activity of writing solves a complex problem;
the writing has consequences; the writing occurs in an institutional context
and is informed by a history; and the writing activity is carried out

You say: The students write reflective journals or papers, or perhaps both?

I say: This supposition gets at the crux of my dilemma. Your students as
well as mine engage in highly contextualized writing as part of an activity
system. The clinical field notes are particularly interesting because, as
you say, they are embedded in this activity and will be used for something
later - perhaps diagnosis.

But then, I'm guessing,  your students (and mine as well) shift back to a
tacit, school-based activity system to write reflective papers. (We are
experimenting with an on-line portfolio system  --
http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~syverson/olr/ -- in which students log daily
observations, class projects, perhaps photos or link to websites and then
finally develop an argument for what they have learned.)

I want to dig deeper into what we mean when we say, as you did, "We
encourage students to reflect both on the connection between their academic
reading . . . . and their experiences at the site. . ." Here's my question:
Doesn't the very nature of embedded participation belie the ability to
reflect on it in any veridical sense? Isn't the reflection always a
construction? And if so, what difference does it make for how we ask
students to reflect?

We work so hard to design educational contexts in which students can learn
in a rich context of lived participation and come to understand that what
may have been characterized narrowly as individual development is now seen
as part of a complex scene.

I've gotten myself into a bind here. When we ask students to "write about"
or "reflect on"  I fear that we have returned to a model of the individual
learner looking inside and using writing as an unexamined conduit to carry
forth the learning to a teacher-audience. We take this report at face value,
as though one can shine a flashlight on a bundle of internal knowing and
bring it to light for others to see.

I'm struggling to understand what is actually going on in this school-based
request for reflection and how to design a situation in which students can
become more aware of the features of it as an activity system and therefore
the way that the "reflective paper" is shaped by all those aspects of the
situation that ride below the tip of the iceberg that is their written

I'm struck by the recent work by Vivian Gornick. (The Situation and the
Story, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001) who examined her own assumptions
about memoir - which is, after all a sort of reflection. Gornick, a feminist
journalist, had written a memoir called Fierce Attachments_. Many of us
might take that as a reflection on her experiences, albeit artistically
shaped and crafted. She later wrote another book, "reflecting," if you will
on that earlier experience, coupled by years of experience teaching the
memoir in MFA programs. She argues that we have to separate the situation
from the story and, more importantly, she tells how, in writing _Fierce
Attachments_ , she had to create a persona who could tell the story that
needed to be told. That need comes from the situation, not the story. And
this reflection, itself, _The Situation and the Story_ , is not a school
assignment. It makes a contribution to the academic field of English
studies, or more specifically,  to the teaching of  what is called creative
non-fiction. So it is an activity conducted as part of a larger activity

When we ask students to reflect on their learning are we imagining that they
really can tell us? Or, is this an unacknowledged case of asking students to
adopt a persona? Shouldn't we examine the activity system in which this
occurs and create opportunities for students to understand what the
situation calls for?

. .. . Obviously, I'm still working on this. . . How can we make sure that
reflection is the social process that Vygotsky (I think) intended?  How can
we keep from slipping back into the language of the individual
learner/knower who reports on his/her internal awareness?

Ann M. Feldman

-----Original Message-----
From: Mike Cole [mailto:mcole@weber.ucsd.edu]
Sent: Saturday, July 10, 2004 7:46 PM
To: xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
Subject: reflective writing

Ann-- I found your questions about reflective writing interesting. The
project you describe makes perfect sense to me, as far as I understand

One part I was not clear on was this. (Maybe more points, you straighten
out my mis-perceptions):

1. The students spend time in community organizations helping out by
doing the writing that occurs in those organizations.

2. The students write reflective journals or papers, or perhaps both?

To get closer to understanding what you are doing to be able to respond
to your questions (we really ought to get some of the writing experts
that are on, or were on xmca to help!) I am curious about how what
you do contrasts with what I do, that has some similarities.

In my situation, students spend time in community organizations where
they implement a specially designed activity for the afterschool hours
that mixes play and school-oriented learning in social interaction
with same age, younger, and older folks. Their "older peers" are the
college students, but there are kindergarteners to 6th graders there.

The students do the reading/writing that comes up routinely in the
They read instructions of games, write hints and letters to a benevolent
figurehead who writes back, they go on the internet and do homework
assignments or try to find out about their favorite band, or...... etc.

Then, they write a "clinical fieldnote" (I model these on Luria's writing
about his patients but you could call them "cognitive ethnographies" so
long as emotions are allowed in) with three parts: The overall scene
they encountered, a narrative about what they did with whom in as much
detail as they can remember afterward, and a reflection. At the end
of the quarter, they write two papers. the first is a reflection on the
whole experience based on reading their fieldnotes from first to last
and the second is an "academic" account of some phenomenon they
encountered at the community site --- a case study of a kid, gender
in all sort of things, age differences, differences according to the
particular activity (narrowly defined) that kids engage in (mancala,
Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, the arts and crafts area, homework
help, etc.).

In this system, reflection is a scripted part of the adtivity. We encourage
students to reflect both on the connection between their academic reading
(Dewey, Smagorinsky, Guitterez, Vygotsky, etc.) and their experiences
at the site and on the interactions they encounter twice weekly.

As a consequence, there are several kinds of writing, some of them
reflective by "fiat," some more narrowly instrumental.

How does this differ from what your students are asked to write about? Do
go from writing in situ to reflective writing ABOUT THAT WRITING or ABOUT

If we can establish the structure of where writing figures into the
your students and mine engage in, perhaps we can approach the questions you
ask more likely to be on the "same page" (so to "speak.").

Thanks for the references I have not read!

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276
Email. JayLemke@UMich.edu
Website. www.umich.edu/~jaylemke