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RE: reflective writing

Reflective writing is surely a matter of degree: I can write about a topic
in terms of another topic.  However, I can write about a situation i.t.o. my
own frame of values, not because I want to change that institution, but
because I need to understand it by taking a step back,  and I can't step
back into a void, but only into my as-yet-developing awareness of how "I"
would have done something.  So, then, at the simplest level, we are talking
about my own values being brought into awareness, for the sake of
understanding others-it is this relational aspect that I teach students of

-----Original Message-----
From: Jay Lemke [mailto:jaylemke@umich.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, July 14, 2004 4:51 AM
Subject: 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! --

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


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
>activity system, in which the activity of writing solves a complex problem;
>the writing has consequences; the writing occurs in an institutional
>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
>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
>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
>really can tell us? Or, is this an unacknowledged case of asking students
>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