National Writing Project

Collaborative Dialogue: When Writing Becomes a Social Act

By: Mary T. Mackley, Carole Jonaitis
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4
Date: Fall 2000

Summary: A writing exchange between classes of high school and college students invites a kind of social act that makes in-school learning more like out-of-school learning.


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In many ways, this four-month correspondence between "students" and "teachers" invited a social act that gave both groups of students the power to become ethnographers of their own thinking.

Student voices, ages 15-18:

"This one sounds like a geek."

"Really? This one's cool. Look."

"This one sounds too smart; can I trade with you?"

"Oh my god . . . I've got somebody's mother!!!"

"Hey, I thought these were supposed to be college kids."

Student voices, ages 21-39:

"How personal should we get with them?"

"What do I do if we've got nothing in common?"

"How can I talk to them about things I like without them thinking I'm weird?"

"I think I'm feeling like their mother would when I read some of this stuff."

"How in the world am I supposed to respond to this? I'm the teacher, right?"

The beginnings of honest questioning. The initial effects of a semester-long letter exchange between college and high school students. The foundation of a collaborative teacher-research project that asked, "What can we learn through and about writing if we view it not as an academic exercise, but rather as a social act?"

During this four-month correspondence, our respective students—twenty-one of them in a teacher-preparation class entitled "Literature for the High School Student" and forty-two of them in a high school class entitled "Contemporary Writers"—exchanged more than 400 letters. We, ourselves, as teacher-researchers, assumed a dual role: we became observers, and we shared many of those observations with both sets of students in order to facilitate and encourage the metacognitive insights which they naturally and spontaneously shared with us.

As we listened in on their conversations, we heard echoes of James Britton: Find ways to make in-school learning more like out-of-school learning. We heard echoes of Jerome Bruner: Language is the medium of dialogue, and in dialogue knowledge of language per se develops. We heard echoes of Louise Rosenblatt: The development of an efferent, aesthetic reader requires a listener. We heard echoes of James Berlin: Language is never innocent; it is the terrain of ideological differences.

We heard one long, reverberating echo from Kenneth Burke (1974, 110-11):

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, too long for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for awhile until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you. . . . However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still in progress.

Conversations Our Students Have

In teaching, we always come late to our classrooms—too late, that is, to have heard the beginnings of the kinds of conversations in which our students have been engaged for years, those "real" conversations about life and school and literature and teaching and learning and difference, the ones that take place in the hallways, on the telephone, at their lockers, in their study halls, at lunch. As teachers, we know instinctively, or perhaps through some primal memory, that those conversations are important, vital, intelligent, true. However, nowadays, circumstance often dictates that we come too late to hear them—perhaps because our ears are filled with the curriculum we are called upon to teach, or perhaps because those ears are covered with doubts as to the appropriateness, within the academic confines of our classrooms, of those kinds of conversations. Or, perhaps, because high school students, aware of both of these predilections, are savvy enough not to permit us to hear them.

The college students involved in this project were, on the other hand, new to teaching. Their ears were as yet uncovered, and they wanted to hear everything—well, almost everything. For they, in seeking to become effective teachers, quickly saw how the expressive writing recorded in those letters could, upon analysis, serve as a scaffold to transform the implicit knowledge of their high school correspondents into explicit meaning for them.

"Now what are we supposed to do with these, again?" asked our high school students after reading their first letters from the university.

Tell them what they want to know. Tell them what you know . . . about the things they want to know about. They're going to be teachers. What do you know that teachers need to know. . . about reading and writing and teaching and learning . . . about you? Be honest . . . tell them what you really think.

We can't.

Yes, you can.

And they did. And the college students listened . . . and heard.

Susan, the eager new college student of reader-response theory, listened to her high school student Brian's voice in response to The Color Purple.

Brian's letter to Susan was short, direct, and honest—perhaps too honest:

I think [the book] sucks. It's the most feminist piece of literature I have ever read. I think Alice Walker is a lesbian, man-hating bitch.

Then Brian continued:

Right now I'm 17, but I'll be 18 in January. I'm a senior and after graduation I'm going into the army.

Susan, in an attempt to compose an effective response, chose to share Brian's letter with her college classmates.

"Look at this," she gasped, "You can't believe it's okay for students to say stuff like this. It's not fair to the book or to Alice Walker."

As the class talked, they reflected upon the question of just what do we mean when we ask our students to give their opinions? To discuss? To say what they think? One classmate asked Susan, "What did you ask him in your letter? That's important."

Wrestling with Theory

Thus began a scaffold. The ensuing dialogue throughout the semester became an analysis of texts—the text of the literature, the text of the letters, and the text, both written and spoken, between and among our students and ourselves. Susan discovered that she had indeed asked for an honest response from Brian: "What do you think about The Color Purple? How does it make you feel? Do you like it or not and why?" However, Susan and others in the class still had trouble with students who thought like Brian and who were willing to believe, when asked about those perceptions, that it was okay to be honest in stating them. Another of Susan's peers, Emily, spoke passionately about what many of her classmates felt. "Susan, I can't believe you can allow him to say these things about the book and about women. I don't think I could handle my students saying these kinds of things—it's prejudice."

And so the college students began to wrestle with theory and with the implications and effects of its concrete, practical application. Through this searching process, they sought answers to questions asked daily by the classroom teacher. Questions such as: How can I encourage my students to read and to develop pleasure in reading?

Cora went in through the back door of Burke's "parlor," so to speak, as she sought her high school partner Kent's insight into the issue of wanting-to versus having-to read:

What kind of literature is your favorite (or who is your favorite author)?

What do you think about poetry? When I was in high school, poetry seemed really meaningless and confusing. I used to groan at the mere mention of the word.

In this bit of collaborative college/high school dialogue, Cora, perhaps unconsciously, plays the role of listener, a role which Rosenblatt assumes is necessary in the development of those efferent, aesthetic qualities we say we look for in our students as readers. And Kent, in his responding correspondence—sounding "smarter," by the way, than he ever did in his own classroom—testifies to the validity of Rosenblatt's assumption:

The last book I've read is The Dead Zone by Stephen King. I don't read enough to have a favorite author, but if I had to choose it would be him. I like poetry because it takes your imagination but when your tested on it I always get the wrong image. I think it dumb to have a certain point you have to pick out of it.

Further along in his letter, Kent talks about The Color Purple, and asserts his hope for Celie:

I'm up to page 60 in the book and hope Celie learns to stand up for herself. One other thing I thought was funny is when Sophia beats up Harpo. It reminds me of me and my sister.

Kent's honest, real, and non-"academic" response to his reading causes one to wonder: What kinds of readers of literature do we want our students to be? Are our students naively yet intuitively aware of much of the current research in reading and responding to a text?

Cora provides a scaffold for Kent in her direct, honest response to the text of his letter. She invites him to join her as a coreader of Walker and as a colistener to each other's aesthetic-efferent probings:

How did you like The Color Purple? I really enjoyed it. It's so different from the other literature I've been reading lately. Some parts of the book were quite shocking. Did you find anything strange or shocking? I had a hard time at first with the book. The language is hard, isn't it? I kept translating everything Celie wrote into my own way of speaking or writing. I guess I had to make sense of the book through my own English. Many social problems come up in the book. Which one bothered you the most? Why? A lot of what occurs in the book does not apply to my own life. Growing up in the suburbs in a middle class family does not really compare to Celie's life does it? However, I learned a lot from this book about how life should be lived. Did you learn anything? In your last letter, you mentioned how funny it was when Harpo was beat up by Sophia. I thought that was funny because he lied to Celie about how he received the bruises. Celie saw right through him; she knew what really happened. I really enjoyed the ending of the book, but I won't say another word in case you haven't finished it.

In his subsequent letter, Kent piggybacks off Cora's comments about her reading. As he does so, something important seems to happen. He (happily) commits an age-old, always to be guarded against, student faux pas—never admit that you haven't been keeping up with your homework—because his mind seems to be occupied with other matters, namely the social issues raised in the novel and a previous class discussion that seems to have provided him with an entry point to his own feelings.

I can't believe you read that book so fast. I guess it's just because I read so slow. I'm [still and have been for the past two weeks] on page 60 and so far I find the book kind of bizzare. It's weird how the husband can just screw around and it seems like the wife doesn't even care. The thing that bothered me the most was the incest between Celie and her father. Our class had a discussion on which of the social problems bothered us the most and most chose the same one I did. I can't really compare anything in my life to this book because I grew up in an environment much like the one you did. I guess I can be thankful that I didn't have to deal with any of these problems and I hope I never will. I'm glad you didn't give away the ending because I probably won't finish the book for another week.

Both Kent and Cora, through their honest, white-middle-class language, have become engaged in one of Burke's "parlor conversations." Alice Walker is also present. But even she is unable to "pause and tell [them] exactly what it is about." However, even though no one was "qualified to retrace for [them] all the steps that had gone before," both of our teachers/learners took the risk, "caught the tenor of the argument, then put in [their] oars."

As Cora and the other more experienced college students began to see what they could learn from analyzing discourse with their high school correspondents, they became more reflective student teachers. And, likewise, as the high school students began to see, and to believe in, their roles as "teachers," they became better learners, better students, and better students of their own learning.

And all of us involved began to better understand Michel Foucault and Clifford Geertz's observations about power as discussed in Marilyn Cooper and Michael Holzman's Writing as Social Action (1989, 210):

[T]he source of power within a discourse [community] can be seen to arise not from the meaning, form, and objects of one's discourse, but rather from one's position in the structure of [the] society.

During this four-month letter exchange, all of us found ourselves in the middle of a wrestling match going on between our "teacher" role and our "learner" role—a state of mind, we eventually concluded, which is perhaps indigenous to a transactional model of teaching.

After trying out possible responses to Brian's letter with her college peers, Susan wrote him the following letter. Which role did she choose . . . which kind of "power" is she attempting to exert here . . . which of her many honest "voices" is she using?

I suppose you expect me to start lecturing you on the finer points of literature. I won't. I'm sure you already understand them—everyone does—they just don't all know the right words. I am, however, going to be honest with you again. There is no way, just from reading the book, that you can define its author. The whole point of fiction is that the author is making it up. It's not a textbook, not history full of facts and dates. The Color Purple is how Walker imagines that a woman in Celie's situation would behave and react.

I have enclosed a poem that demonstrates what I have just said. Very rarely is the author the "speaker." This poem is about a man whose wife is dead—he imagines her spirit is in the vacuum cleaner. That's no big deal—it's just a poem. The point is that Nemeur's wife (he is married) is not dead. There was a big scandal when it was first published because of that. The literary critics felt that he could not adequately deal with the death of his wife in poetry because it hadn't really happened. Nemeur's poem, however, stands on its own—obviously he cannot be the speaker. But the poem is still powerful, moving. You see, the writer/poet doesn't have to have experienced what they write about. They don't even have to agree with it. I myself write horror stories that give my mother grey hair—and yet I got freaked out the first time I saw Gremlins. So who am I (or you) to say anything about Alice Walker, just on the basis of one book?

Why did you think of the book as `feminist?" Nobody really got "liberated." There are still a lot of unanswered questions at the end. Celie has to get to know two grown children that are hers, but she isn't their "mother." So really, she is all alone at the close of the book—there is really a lot of sadness. So how is it feminist? Did Celie really "win" anything? Did the men in the book "lose" anything? Did they lose their manhood—or finally gain it?

Can you guess Brian's response to this letter?

Assessing the Dialogue

In the subsequent weeks and months, Susan and her peers wrote other letters, and shared, reflected upon, and analyzed their high school students' responses. Since the basis of that analysis lay within the context of the theorists they were reading at the time, the extended dialogue grew to include the voices of Rosenblatt, Probst, Britton, Corcoran, Evans, Knoblauch, and Brannon. Together, they searched the research for practical answers to difficult theoretical questions:

  1. How can teachers effectively listen to a student's honest, expressive response without reacting personally to a "skewed" interpretation? Is this possible or even educationally desirable?
  2. How can teachers lead students from an expressive, gut reaction to a text toward a textually based dialogue with the author of that text?
And as teachers (of a teacher-preparation course and of a high school English course), we searched for our own additional answers to these questions:

  1. How do our students hear what we say when we ask for textual support for their opinions? Do they hear us saying "You didn't get it right again," when what we really mean is "I want to hear more about what makes you think like this"?
  2. How does our role as the power figure in the class affect the transmission of language? Whether we label our philosophical stance as new critic, reader-response, student-centered, feminist, or something else, do we really want to hear the "why" of their beliefs? Do we really need to overlook the language of a Brian's voice as we roll our eyes and tap our toes while we wait for the "right" interpretation expressed in the "appropriate" language of the classroom?
  3. What do our students, both high school and college, understand already, in a metaphysical sense, about this subliminal language of power which permeates and controls classroom dialogue?
"Language is never innocent," James Berlin said in a recent talk. "It is the terrain of ideological differences." When we question our students, when we evaluate their responses, when we respond to their questions, we are indeed treading, as both of us discovered, through a minefield of ideological differences. Every now and then, during the course of the correspondence, somebody would inevitably step on a piece of conversation that blew up, so to speak. And the question then became one of how to handle those differences in student-teacher ideology, those divergent interpretations of language, those dissonant philosophical stances, if you will. Those differences affected the roles they were trying to play—with us, with each other, and with their high school/college correspondents.

When it came right down to it, the greatest difficulty lay in handling the "oars" with which each side—student and teacher—navigated. The one single force that seemed to underlie our advice to high school and college students seems so simple: Be honest. Both groups of students struggled with issues of "I can't say that" or "I want to tell them this but . . . " or "I don't want them to think I'm weird" or "I don't think they'll care about this so I won't tell them" or "This is what I want to say but you can't say that to kids" or "You can't say that to teachers."

Creating Honest Dialogue

One strategy for creating honest conversation is reflected in what one of the college students was willing to do with her high-school collaborator very early on in the correspondence: Give someone permission to drop his/her "oar" into the conversation.

In this letter, Marian gives Tim permission to assume the "teacher" role:

Dear Tim,
In order to gather your input in a different and fun way, I am making you the teacher and myself the student . . . do the best you can and remember, you're the teacher so have fun making your own rules.

She continues by asking her partner what their class syllabus might look like:

Let's suppose I just received your syllabus with a list of assignments. Could you tell me what some of those assignments might be? Would I be expected to do a lot of reading and writing? If so, why? Are reading and writing important to you? What would these activities do for me, the student? What types of literature would you ask that I read? Does the literature deal with romance, sports, tragedy, humor, or beauty? Any other topics? Why do you think these topics are important for me to experience? Am I to read poetry, short stories, novels, essays, song lyrics, biographies, or cereal boxes? Are there advantages to reading each type? Oh, and by the way, teacher, what the heck is "literature" anyway?

As other readers of Marian's letter, we, along with Marian's classmates, found ourselves curious about what in the language of her text created a social context that allowed Tim to respond this way:

Dear Marian,

I find this Pen Pal thing between us neat. It's something new. Let me tell you a little about myself. I love sports. I play hockey and plan on playing in college. I also play football and baseball. Sports is a big part of my life. Music is something I can't live without. . . . I also love partying and being with my girlfriend.

Let's talk english now. I'm the teacher huh? Sounds [like] fun. My syllabus for you would have a variety of different assignments. First I would have you write me a few papers on simple topics like, who am I, etc. Just to get to know ya as a writer. You would have to write on things you find comfortable writing on. I would also have you write a fiction paper on anything, a short story. Just to see what imagination you have. To tell you the truth writing really isn't that important to me. Reading on the other hand is. I feel reading br[oadens] your mind. You can learn alot if you read. I would have you read nonfiction like sports stars, etc. Then for fiction I would have you read the classics all the way up to some of the authors of today. As for other types of literature, I like reading poetry. I would have you read a little [of it]. You get alot out of them. Short stories we will definatly cover some. I've read a little short story once and it taught me alot. I also find that reading up on current events is something that should be done. Reading things like George Will etc. Articles in Time, Newsweek and Reader's Digest. I really think it's good to keep us [up] on things going on around you. I think I will have you write on things we read in class. Your output would be good. It would tell me how you think about certain kinds of literature. Your input will definatly help in my class. It will help me plan my class . . .


Tim (your teacher)

As the college students reexamined the language of their own letters, they began to see them as texts that, in effect, did create sociocultural contexts for their high school partners.

Each reflection on and reexamination of their own language prompted these college students to revisit the theorists whom they were studying in their assigned readings. They began to engage in new conversations (and debates) regarding ideas they were often certain they had completely understood and were in agreement with. Earlier in the semester, for example, before dealing with the voices of our Brians, these future teachers were certain they agreed with James Britton: dissonance and disagreement need to be explored as a part of the talk of the classroom. Now, after hearing the language of the real students, they were not sure that these voices needed to be heard in order for effective learning to occur.

We, too, debated this issue—and others. We viewed the letter writing as a "social act"; we scrutinized and analyzed the "honest conversation" which these sixty-three students "created" over a period of four months. And though we often argued about the merits and/or appropriateness of their creation, we had to agree that the very structure of this collaborative discourse had in some way provided the high school students with a position of power from which they were permitted a voice in which they could respond honestly. Each learner in this particular discourse community was truly a "teacher" of the others.

We saw, too, that the letter-writing structure enhanced a desire to connect with the "learner" rather than a desire to control. The drive to "get it right" (whatever that ambiguous educational "it" might be) seemed to be genuinely supplanted by the desire for connection. The high-school students needed to "connect" in order to teach the future teachers what they knew about real learning. The college students needed to "connect" in order to learn all they could from these "teachers" about literature, about reading, about learning, about motivation, and about their most not-so-secret desire: to become a great teacher.

In discussing the complex issue of literacy, Jay Robinson suggests that we reexamine the role of ethnography in the lives of our students (1990, 254):

A proper aim for writing programs in colleges and universities, maybe even in schools [emphasis ours], might well be to invite and help students to develop as ethnographers of thought—as careful and reflective participant-observers, critical thinkers of their own thoughts, able to reach beyond the constraints of discourse, able to escape from narrow perspectives, able to move from restricted and restricting ways of being and behaving in the world, able to assert and make a place for themselves as makers of meanings that are personally satisfying, no matter how constrained by the language they must use.

In many ways, this four-month correspondence between "students" and "teachers" invited a social act that gave both groups of students the power to become ethnographers of their own thinking.

And, in some sense, it seems that we, too, as teacher-researchers in our forty-fifth year of combined classroom time, have accepted Jay Robinson's invitation. When we entered Ken Burke's "parlor" in September, our ears were perhaps "covered" by "curriculum" and by "appropriateness"; our student's voices were, perhaps, muted in those ears. Perhaps they still are. But each of us has come to realize that we will never be able to hear those voices clearly as long as we allow other voices to fill our heads. Crisis-management administrators, grade-happy parents, test-obsessed departments of education—all possess very loud voices. And those voices will continue to drown out those of our students until we, as a profession, learn how to stand up for the right to be able to hear theirs. Perhaps this project has "taught" us the most subtle irony of all: In order to be able to hear their voices, we need to develop one of our own.


Barnes, Douglas, James Britton, and Mike Torbe. 1970. Language, the Learner and the School. New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Berlin, James. 1988. "Subversion and Sophistry in the Writing Class." Mind in Society: The Contexts for Writing Conference. Durham: University of New Hampshire.

Burke, Ken. 1974. Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Cooper, Marilyn, and Michael Holzman. 1989. Writing as Social Action. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Robinson, Jay L. 1990. Conversations on the Written Word. New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Rosenblatt, Louise. 1978. The Reader, the Text; the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

About the Author Mary T. Mackley is director of the Connecticut Writing Project at Storrs. Prior to coming to the University of Connecticut in 1987, she taught high school English for seventeen years in a department that also included her coteacher and researcher Carole Jonaitis. Their professional relationship, born over two decades ago, continues to thrive today.

Reprinted with permission from Teacher Research: Guess Who's Learning, a publication of the Connecticut Writing Project.

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