Navigating the Matrix: An Interview with Paul Rogers

Posted: December 22, 2009 at 1:04 am, Last Updated: December 21, 2009 at 11:15 am

By Amelia Cohen-Levy, NVWP Staff

Paul Rogers. Photo courtesy of Paul Rogers

Paul Rogers. Photo courtesy of Paul Rogers

Housed in the Mason English Department, the Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP) is a cooperative effort of the university, Northern Virginia Community College and the public and private schools of Northern Virginia. NVWP is an affiliated site of the National Writing Project, the largest staff development project for teachers in the country.

The program was featured in a Washington Post article on Dec. 17. The program has been directed since 1978, when it was founded, by English professor Don Gallehr.

Assistant professor of English Paul Rogers, who is currently associate director of NVWP, will soon take the director’s reins. Rogers is the winner of the 2009 National Council of Teachers of English Conference on English Education’s Janet Emig Award and the 2008 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award.

NVWP staff member Amelia Cohen-Levy recently interviewed Rogers about writing and the writing process, as well as the future of NVWP. Following are some excerpts from the interview.

How would you describe the ideal reader-writer interaction and response?

The goal is to foster a really rich environment in which, as a writer, you’re receiving certain kinds of input that would be ongoing from people that know you and know your writing strengths and weaknesses. They look at your writing on multiple levels, so you need someone that can be candid with you. You need someone who is skilled in the knowledge areas, someone who knows about writing, and you need someone who knows how to articulate themselves about writing. I think, as a writer, it’s really cultivating that kind of network. There’s nothing that gets me through revision faster than getting other people to look at my work. Sometimes, I’ll just write and hit the wall. If I can get someone to look at it right away, I can write through that wall and keep on going. I think writing development is very much about response. It’s not just a one-off response from a teacher or a one-off response from a peer. It really takes a relational response, at least from the writer’s perspective. My research shows me that type of ongoing, personal, candid, expert response is what helps writers grow the most. I’m really committed to fostering those kinds of environments.

In a classroom environment, since it’s your job to set the stage for this, what kind of exercises or guideposts do you leave along the way or establish so that your students can say, “This is how I know I’m being candid,” or “This is how I know I’m giving what needs to be given and getting what I need”?

It’s no easy task, I’ll say that. On the undergraduate level, where I teach composition, it’s very much about making the class a community of learners. I think that the whole goal has to be to foster a community within the classroom. I do that with lots of sharing, lots of different kinds of group work, constantly having the students talk to each other and sharing their writing with each other. It’s just about establishing a classroom culture where students just accept the fact that their writing is public and they’re sharing it. I would also say that everything I do as a teacher is about fostering that conversation, so I recognize that I have a unique place as a teacher in terms of the response I give to students. Each individual writer is at a different stage in their journey, and in order to provide good quality feedback you have be very writer specific. I do that informally by having everybody working on tasks and going around and talking with students and with required conferencing in my office.

How do you think other teachers, writers and students can create this environment? What is their responsibility, especially in terms of the students, other than the obvious task of showing up to class?

I guess my thoughts for students are this: we live in an information economy, we live in a knowledge economy, and writing is what they call a “threshold skill.” I know many engineers, and I always ask them how much writing is a part of their day-to-day. It’s amazing how much time professional engineers spend writing. For the student, it’s really a matter of being engaged with writing as an ongoing area of development and seeing the value in writing and understanding why mastering writing is important.

How would you define “knowledge economy”?

Very specifically, it’s saying that written products form a great deal of the value that’s in the economy today. I hate to be cheesy, but it’s almost like we’re Neo in [the film] “The Matrix.” We live in a symbol-rich world, and the goal is to gain mastery over one’s own communication ability so you can both decode all the messages that are coming at you and you can also shape the organizations that you’re a part of. With the new media landscape, the tools for communication that are available to people − whether it be the Ning or the blog or Twitter or Facebook, whatever these tools are that people are using so much, and e-mail probably more than any other thing − knowing how to manage all of that is really important.

Everyone has their natural ebb and flow in writing; some days it’s working and some days you just know that no amount of coffee is going to get things moving. How do you address this in the classroom?

The first thing is to not take oneself too seriously. I mean, no matter how great you are and no matter how great they are, what can you really accomplish with a writer in 14 weeks? The first thing about understanding writing development as multidimensional and nonlinear is that you have to take a long-term view. Writing develops across the life span. So, as a teacher, I have to situate myself within that life span trajectory and really think about what I can actually accomplish. I think it’s important to provide strategies and reinforce them so that students can take away some sense of their writing process. For me, I want students to be really clear about what I want them to take away from my class, realizing that knowing about something and the ability to do something are not the same thing. Writing development takes time. You can’t force it. You learn it by doing it.

Where do you see the NVWP going? What do you see as its evolution?

Because the writing project is rooted in the teachers, it constantly renews itself. The Summer Institute is the heart and soul of the writing project because it brings new teachers every year with the current issues and challenges that teachers are facing. The challenge right now that we’re facing as the writing project is that the public school environment is becoming increasingly restrictive and the classroom is becoming increasingly scripted. As policy-makers try to get more control, the writing project represents the best hope for the teaching profession because it honors the teacher’s knowledge. One of the things I’m working on now is putting together a research project to evaluate professional development so we can get some better program evaluation. We’re going to have to be very flexible. It’s a transition period already for the project and the greatest asset is its culture. That is not something that is negotiable.

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