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My literacy is a wall. It is the constant and overwhelming desire to be understood on one side and myself on the other. My language, my ability to read and write, is always attempting to make it over the wall while knowing that the task is impossible. Language is both inadequate to the task and the only tool at my disposal. My own literacy developed to its current state when I realized this – something that I was only able to achieve when faced with a text which stripped me of my former ways of practicing literacy[1], Samuel Beckett’s Watt.

Language is a wall. I came across Beckett cold. I was young and thought I understood the way we tell stories and the reasons why. I started reading Beckett and was immediately unmoored from all reference points[2]. His work actively undermines his readers expectations, deconstructing character, plot, setting, and even time. Without the clear reference points of traditional forms, I was lost. I could hardly keep the novel’s form in my head let alone articulate my own thoughts about it. His work challenges the reader to even put into words descriptions of its most basic elements.

I could now see the wall. Forced, in a class, to continue to engage - over and over again[3] - I had no choice but to completely rebuild my own literacy. How I speak about the text, how I read the text, how I write about the text, all these things changed in the course of a few months. In this time, I began to take notes in my books (directly on the text itself), I revised my paper on Watt (itself a novel about the way we construct knowledge) more times than I could count. Working again and again to scale the wall in front of me. Writing on Beckett doesn’t feel like any other writing I do[4]. The words don’t come easily no matter how much work is done before-hand. Each sentence is a knowing exercise in futility and feels more like a fight with the text than a conversation or an analysis.

I know I can’t scale the wall, but I also know that getting higher up is all I have. I finished my class on Beckett barely understanding what I had read. But I knew that it had changed everything and I had been taught by a professor who stressed quality of composition as much as quality of argument. In a situation where I had trouble even forming sentences about the text, his insistence on quality work and willingness to work one-on-one with me pushed my writing to a new level. But still, I was only barely beginning to understand the effect that Beckett would have. I had not written enough. I had not revised enough. I had not read enough. I had not scaled the wall. I still haven’t. But I’m closer. I will never be done.

Beckett is a wall. As I continued my studies Beckett seemed to fade a bit into the background but the experience of the class stuck with me. Then I started my Masters program and suddenly Beckett was everywhere. He became a touchstone not only for my own work but for my own literacy. I began to read other texts through Beckett, consider how my development as a writer and reader around Beckett was coming to define my relationship to my own work and my own reading. The metatextual nature of Beckett’s work led me to research and read the writers who worked with and around him. But more than that, it has begun to seep into my own pedagogy and the way that I talk to and teach others about writing.

I can’t scale the wall, but from farther up I can see where I came from. The most direct influence that this reflective position and metatextual influence has had on me is to re-orient the way I work and how I teach around constant reflection. My pedagogy has evolved to focus on revision and drafting in composition and stresses a critical evaluation of my own point of view[5] even as I use that point of view to create my more analytical work. I try to teach, and practice, that there is a need to critique your own methods and points of view while you employ them.

Critical Theory became another plank in the wall. I quickly realized that my own lack of knowledge in this area did nothing but create more limits. I set out again to climb the wall, and discovered again that the wall was never ending. However, during the climb I found work that seemed compatible with my own focus on reflection. I was introduced to Foucault’s constant investigation of preexisting systems[6] and considered if I could turn it in on myself. I was challenged by the work of Fredrick Jameson and discovered a theory which stressed self-critical though so much that it included the idea of thought to the second power[7].

When language is a wall then using it to teach can seem impossible. How can I be expected to fully help my students understand what I cannot accurately express for myself? Again, through revision and reflection. Not only by assigning work based around those ideas but by practicing it myself. In our coursework, I have spent quite a bit of time discussing the power dynamics that exist in the classroom. For me, this is how I am choosing to take a self-critical look at my own actions and philosophies as an instructor. The more I think about it the way I act and choose to exercise my authority in the classroom via the power relationships that are pre-built in the system the more I have become focused on critical reflection and the more I, again, feel the limitations of my own ability to convey my experience to my students. Each article we have read seems to contain advice that is invaluable. However, if I attempt to include all their suggested techniques and perspectives then I will clearly end up with a class that fails to even come close to what communication is actually possible.

All this may seem rather fatalistic, but developing my literacy and climbing higher has become the end unto itself. The failure of language has become the means through which everything is possible. In his masterwork The Unnamable Samuel Beckett ends his complete deconstruction of the Novel by saying “I’ll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any – until they find me, until they say me[8]. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it is done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.) It will be I? It will be silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know. You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” (Beckett ). Language itself has failed the novel’s nameless narrator but he does not end by giving up. Failure is itself no reason to give up. I must continue to climb the wall.

Failure itself has become my literacy, and it has become indivisible from my role as a teacher. Students will fail. They will come up against their own walls. As their instructor I am not only responsible for helping them grow but also in helping them understand that failure is what we learn from[9], it is in many ways more valuable to the student than any success. I must, more than almost anything, help my students to understand that they must go on. That failure is not an end, it is a starting point.

Works Cited Edit

Bartholomae D. (2005) What Is Composition and (If You Know What That Is) Why Do We Teach It?. In: Writing on the Margins. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

Beckett, Samuel. Watt. Grove Press, 2009.

Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring. Pearson Longman, 2008.

Harris, Muriel. “Assignments from Hell: The View from the Writing Center.” What Is "College-Level Writing"?. Assignments, Readings, and Student Writing Samples, National Council of Teachers of English, 2010, pp. 183–207.

Ianetta, Melissa, and Lauren Fitzgerald2. The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors: Practice and Research (9780199941841): Lauren Fitzgerald, Melissa Ianetta: Books. 2015.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form; Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton, N.J. Princeton UP, 1972. Print.

Yancey, Kathleeen, et al. “Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing.” African Studies Review, Cambridge University Press, 2009, muse.jhu.edu/chapter/1194981.



[1] Many students share a similar experience when writing for the first time in college. We expect them to do things have never had to before with their writing; in many ways, we deconstruct a student’s writing identity as part of the process of teaching them our conventions.

[2] I can see my own experience with Beckett’s work before I read Watt as prime examples of what Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak, call a “critical incident” (Yancey, Robertson, Taczak 104). I failed to even understand the text I was reading or even produce any meaningful writing about that text. But recognizing that failure has allowed me to see it as a point of departure for my own literacy.

[3] This serves as the beginning of my obsession with the recursive nature of writing and teaching writing. Process based pedagogy embraces this idea, teaching students to understand that “these stages are recursive” and that “to achieve the best effect, a writer does not move lockstep through these stages but will shuttle among them” (Ianetta & Fitzgerald 30)

[4] Beckett has reshaped my literacy by almost creating a new genre for him alone. Developing the skills to write in a genre that is new and difficult is exactly the task that we, as teachers, are working with our students to achieve.

[5] Much of the reading we have done this summer has been focused around how to effectively engage with our students writing but in Dr. Teague’s class we read a short piece by David Bartholomaue which suggest that this kind of self-reflection is exactly what we should be teaching. He says that that he conceives of a writing course that makes its central work teaching students “to question the text by reworking it” (Bartholomaue 28). I agree. We must teach not only technique but also critical thought, about ourselves and our texts.

[6] Much of the reading we have done discusses how writing centers can be, as Mary Luise Pratt says, “Social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in context of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (Gillespie quoting Pratt 149). I am trying to understand the way that the writing center as a contact zone can be understood via Foucault’s ideas of power in observation. While we can arrange desks, and sit in ways that appear to even out normal power situations the student is still constantly aware of the tutor’s gaze. I am also curious about how students writing for the audience of their instructor constitutes a passive use of power by the instructor (which influences the student to write in ways we desire, and ways that may be anthetical to a student’s cultural identity).

[7] My own spiral metaphor for writing is derived much from my own understanding of the dialectical relationship between form and content that Jameson outlined in Marxism and Form.

[8] Returning to the idea that writing centers as places where cultures meet and clash I think of a student’s identity as a writer to be constructed much like Beckett’s narrator’s – via their words. When a student, or myself, choses specific words they speak their own identity into existence and I worry that by curating a student’s voice to become more academic that we are changing their identity in a small way.

[9] At the risk of quoting Becket too much, he says in Westward Ho, “Fail again. Fail better”. I do not think that I would have made it through my masters without those words and I think that I will say them again as I work on my PhD.

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