The “Insider Knowledge” of Student Writers

One of the things I like about Nelson’s “Reading Classrooms as Text” is the focus she places on being in a class as an act of interpretation: how students interpret (or “read”) the classroom in more or less accurate and more or less helpful ways, the practice of interpreting the classroom as a social space and developing ways of “doing school,” and the role teachers/professors play in reifying those interpretations, bringing them into being or making them “real.”

First thing we get is a nuanced and somewhat paradoxical perspective on student learning.  Nelson claims early on that our vision of new students as novices seems misguided, since they bring such a wealth of knowledge about schooling to college.  At the same time, she suggests that students often adopt roles in class that are somewhat antithetical to learning, such as the role of “text processor” who generates “accurate recitals” of material in order to get a good grade on their “final product[s]” (p. 412).  They adopt roles in class and writing practices out of their investment in the authority of certain classroom texts (like assignment sheets), relationships, and activities.

That is, they have been taught to “read” a classroom like a text in particular ways, and they do it.  They have beliefs about how to do school, and sometimes those beliefs actually shortchange learning.

Where do these student beliefs about school come from? Well, in part, their “insider knowledge” about what school is and does:

In a very real sense, such students are the true insiders, able to read the often implicit clues that reveal what really counts and what can be ignored in completing a particular assignment. And too often teachers are the naive outsiders, unable or unwilling to read classrooms in the same way students do and, thus, unable to anticipate how students might interpret assignments in surprising and sometimes counter-productive ways.  (413)

This is a more well articulated version of a concept I stole from Mary Louise Pratt’s essay on “contact zones”: something like school is more about following the rules they DON’T tell you.  But it also points to another thing we know about classrooms: what teachers say they want and what they do want (or how they grade) can conflict–leaving us the unenviable task of deciding for ourselves how much we risk when we write, or how we balance our need for creativity with our need for a solid grade.

How does your “insider knowledge” help and hinder your approach to writing tasks?

I think clues from her article will point us in different directions.  For example, here are Nelson’s stated research questions:

In attempting to understand the factors that influence students’ interpretations of their writing assignments, I have found it useful to ask the following questions: Where did each student assign the most authority for defining the task-for example, to the textbook, to the teacher’s instructions, to themselves? What features of the classroom settings did students appear to focus on in deciding who or what had authority over their choices as writers?

Perhaps we should examine each case study so that we can figure out some tentative answers?  In groups of 4-5, please select one of the following student “cases” Nelson discusses:

  1. Kate (notice that a mentor–a “Writing Fellow”–helps her!)
  2. Art and Debra
  3. Brian (look through Art and Debra for comparison)
  4. Helen

What do we learn from these case studies?  Take each one and help us see how the author answers her own questions:

  • Where each student assigned the most authority for defining the task.  For example, to the textbook, to the teacher’s instructions, to themselves?
  • What features of the classroom settings students appeared to focus on in deciding who or what had authority over their choices as writers
  • Why you think they made these decisions.  Were they reasonable choices, given the circumstances?

In the end I’d like us to consider ourselves as mentors and tutors who can intervene in these “readings,” these student interpretations.  Point us to a couple of places in the Nelson text that might help us think through our support for writers.

Would you want to help students alter their writing to fit their “reading” of the class, or alter their reading?  In other words, how might you be in a position to help them change their interpretation of what’s important in a piece of writing?  If we assume tutors and mentors CAN change students’ sense of what’s authoritative in a writing task, should you?


Hey! I'm a professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the English dept. at Chico State. Also disc golf player, indie music listener, and vanilla Marxist.

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