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The Embodied Playbook: Writing Practices of Student-Athletes
Date Reviewed: February 11, 2019
Michael Rifenburg begins and ends his book with the melancholy story of a student who didn’t make it. A freshman at Auburn University, “Trey” was a star on the football field, but a dud in his classes. Rifenburg – then a master’s student working as a tutor for athletes – tries to help him, but it doesn’t work. When the Auburn football team wins a national championship a few years later, Trey has already dropped out and disappeared.
Rifenburg’s book helps us understand what went wrong with Trey’s education. His ultimate argument – that writing teachers can better support student-athletes by understanding the embodied knowledge they bring from the playing field to the writing classroom – asks teachers to see the hidden talents in even those students labeled remedial. Rifenburg pushes past both the “dumb jock” stereotype and the tension that exists between academics and athletics in many colleges. He breaks down these misconceptions and boundaries to explain student-athletes as possessors of “a prior knowledge honed through bodily engagement with text and through writing practices that privilege the body as a central mode of meaning making” – a knowledge that has long gone unrecognized and untapped in the writing classroom, where the abstract practice of writing can seem disconnected from physical experience (5).
As a graduate of Division I sports powerhouses like Auburn and the University of Oklahoma – where he worked in a writing center dedicated to serving student-athletes – Rifenburg is well-poised to make this argument. He was embedded for a season with the University of North Georgia’s men’s basketball team, where he attended practices and interviewed players and coaches about how they make meaning on the field. He performs detailed readings of baffling football plays from Auburn’s thick playbooks. His conclusion is that student-athletes learn complex theoretical plays through physical engagement, with the implication that this kind of learning is multi-modal, exacting, and collaborative – and potentially transferable to the traditional writing classroom. He concludes that student-athletes learn their sport through three “cognitive processes”: spatial orientation (or understanding their bodies in relationship to other bodies on the field), haptic communication (or physical touch, as when a coach re-positions a player’s hips), and scaffolded situations (or the step-by-step process through which players build up to learning a complex play). For Rifenburg, these skills are not that different from what writers do: position their ideas in relationship to other peoples’ (or spatial orientation), understand writing as a communal activity that takes place within and between groups of people (or haptic communication), and build upon many early drafts to create longer, complex texts (or scaffolded situations). He ends by prompting the reader to ask how these cross-currents between writing and playing can be leveraged to support student-athlete writers in the classroom.
In the end, Rifenburg raises more questions than he answers. His description of the analogy between writing and playing sports is original and clear-sighted, but it remains only an analogy, as he stops short of offering strategies for putting this insight into action – an odd lacuna for a book that places so much emphasis on concrete, embodied experience. Indeed, I often found myself mindful of what is left out of Rifenburg’s book. While he displays deep familiarity with the field of writing studies, he does not acknowledge gender studies or disability studies, fields that are historically groundbreaking in exploring embodied meaning. Similarly, Rifenburg’s focus is exclusively on men playing high-profile, competitive, aggressive sports; do other types of athletes experience bodily knowledge differently? What of swimmers, runners, or dancers? Women athletes? Do student-athletes at small liberal arts colleges or community colleges – where athletics are not as prominent – experience a different kind of relationship between sports and academics? Rifenburg’s study opens the door for many important inquiries to follow. Ultimately, he provides a model for thinking about matter, mind, and underexplored student expertise.
The Indispensable Guide to Undergraduate Research - Success in and Beyond College
Date Reviewed: April 16, 2018
This brief handbook and reference work was designed for college and university students interested in doing research. Charity Hudley, Dickter, and Franz present scholarly research as an exciting way for undergraduates to make the transition from students who learn to scholars who join an ongoing conversation as “masters of knowledge and challengers of the status quo” (5). The authors purposely construct the guide to serve not only as a resource but also as a model of a research-based approach to scholarly writing; they frequently comment on their own working methods and the research process that went into the composition of this text. The resulting book effectively demystifies the world of academia and the work of scholars, making research approachable and appealing.
Throughout the guide, the authors encourage students to pursue their academic and personal interests by becoming researchers, and they provide an impressively comprehensive roadmap for the research process. The book takes a special interest in guiding first-generation college students and students from historically underrepresented populations. The tone is collegial, and the text abounds with concrete advice about navigating the concomitants of scholarly research, from how to email a potential research mentor (80) to how to identify and access campus resources that can assist with time and energy management (49). Chapter 2, devoted to getting started, describes what research looks like across several academic disciplines and details ways different schools support and reward undergraduate research. Personal accounts from student scholars provide additional relatable voices and create the sense of a broad academic community into which readers are invited. The authors also emphasize the importance of sharing research results with a variety of audiences; Chapter 5, “Writing and Presenting Research” (91-116), describes different venues for written and oral communication that increase the impact of a student’s project, including conferences, articles, books, and social media.
A particularly valuable contribution of this book is its focus on empowering students from underrepresented populations. In addition to devoting a chapter to describing challenges that students from minority populations face and some tools for overcoming those challenges (“Underrepresented Scholars in the Academy: Making a Way,” [117-142]), the authors consistently highlight the value of diverse voices and backgrounds, and especially of the new questions such diverse viewpoints can generate. They frame the importance of greater academic inclusiveness and equity in a larger conversation about the powerful impacts researchers can have on their communities, emphasizing the value of interdisciplinary scholarship and community-based research.
Although the book is addressed directly to an audience of undergraduates who are or who seek to become researchers, the authors also model numerous ways to offer such students practical support. Therefore the text may also serve as a valuable resource for teachers, mentors, and advisors who assist student researchers and ensure their success.
Recently, my burden, challenge, and task was to write my father’s obituary. Obituaries typically allow 800 to 1,200 words to depict and describe a person’s entire life. As a writer, this was a daunting task. As a daughter, it was impossible. How to proceed? After reading the obituaries of other ...
Assessing Students' Digital Writing: Protocols for Looking Closely
Date Reviewed: September 19, 2016
Assessing Students’ Digital Writing: Protocols for Looking Closely collaboratively addresses teachers who want to know about how to give feedback on digital writing. The book provides six digital writing protocols used to give feedback to teachers about student learning. The authors of the protocols are teachers themselves; Erin Klein, Julie Johnson, Jeremy Hyler, Bonnie Kaplan, Jack Zangerie, Christina Puntel and Stephanie West-Puckett wrote this book as a part of the National Writing Project in Berkley, California.
Each teacher in this project uses a digital format to teach a specific lesson. At the end of each chapter the teacher discusses the implications of the digital process for instruction and assessment. At the end of the book the editor discusses broad themes and issues about curriculum, instruction, and assessment. This discussion is based on the study of student work in the writing as shared through conversations among the various authors and teachers of the project. As stated earlier, this book is a collaborative work and evidence of this is seen throughout each chapter.
A weakness of the book is that it may be difficult for those who are just entering into digital writing because of the use of many technical terms associated with web-based learning. Although in general I find this book very valuable for gaining a better understanding about digital learning, I would like to see more information about the students who were part of the writing.
The book is intriguing because of its focus on youth and their learning through digital writing methods. It is also timely in that it gives rise to more conversation about the remnants of the No Child Left Behind era and the very present views on Common Core State Standards that are sweeping across K-12 public education in the United States.
Additionally, the rise of many digital formats for classroom teaching gives one reason to take the book seriously. As the author points out, this conversation is even more in vogue because of the accessibility of teachers and students to web-based services such as Google Docs, Wikispaces, and Voicethread. All of these services can be accessed on digital devices that are mobile. I can personally relate to what the authors are saying because I am presently teaching in an online platform that pushes me to look at digital writing very seriously.
Furthermore, the book is interesting because the voices of the teachers in conversation about student learning are present throughout the book. I find this to be important in a time when much effort is made to assess student achievement where it seems student learning is not at the core of the assessment concern, although on the surface it may seem to be. Overall, this book is a valuable asset especially for those interested in assessment and digital writing.
Teaching Writing While Standing on One Foot
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
This book is an invitation, and is itself a somewhat circuitous reflection on teaching and learning. Directed at writing teachers, much of Danberg’s advice applies to teaching in general, and not just because faculty teach forms of writing in class. The title borrows an image from a famous rabbinic story in which Rabbi Hillel was asked by a nonbeliever to teach the whole of Torah in the time the nonbeliever could stand on one foot. “That which is hateful to you do not do to others,” Hillel instructed, “The rest is commentary; go and learn it” (13). Danberg reminds us that standing on one foot is a posture of instability, the position of both teachers and learners. He encourages teachers to remember their own difficulties in learning. Following Rosenzweig, Danberg suggests that Hillel did not mean “the rest is only commentary… To know Torah is to know the lesson, but also to participate in an ongoing conversation… into the lesson’s value” (14). Students often seek facts, principles, or methods that they can then apply, but good teachers are able to set them on a path of lifelong inquiry. A series of autobiographical vignettes in prose and poetry, the book is punctuated by reflection prompts, or “commentary.”
The author employs several metaphors, but cooking images dominate. A good cook has learned not just to follow a recipe but knows how to see the possibility of a meal in the ingredients on hand; a good cook knows what a dish needs and when it is done. The implied parallel perhaps works best with the craft of writing but the larger point is about what Danberg calls “enfolded knowledge.” Teaching involves confronting the tension “between what we must tell students and what they can only know for themselves” (71).
He offers a compelling description of his own learning disability – his struggles, the strategies he developed, and how teachers reacted to him along the way (47). Danberg laments that schools often define gifts narrowly and he suggests the following exercise: “Spend a couple of days observing the people around you and see how many gifts you can identify… Think of yourself as a zoologist whose great pleasure it is to wait for a butterfly they’ve never seen before” (58). Later, he describes class as “an invitation to inhabit forms of attention and attunement, patterns of caution and regard… If all goes well, it is no more mysterious than the heart and mind, that tangle we are always entangled in” (73).
Danberg invokes the kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, the contraction of the divine making space for creation. (This comes in a piece entitled “Four Principles and a Fifth” – but I counted six!). A good teacher knows when to get out of the way in order to make space for learning: “You can shape the problems and anticipate the obstacles. You can decide what a student encounters and the time it takes. But in the end, you simply must get out of the way, and leave them to do the work of learning” (98-99).
Reading this book is a bit like ruminating on a Zen koan. Danberg contradicts himself and revels in paradox. The bizarre organization and genre shifts can be frustrating. This is a quirky book, but one with many moments of glittering insight into the difficult joys of learning and teaching.