Composition Pedagogy

Contracts and Capital

I just completed teaching a section of first-year composition using labor contracts, and I have some thoughts. I originally intended to post this last Saturday for thematic appropriateness, on May Day — but like I said, I just completed the semester, and so I was a little swamped — a little overworked, let’s say, which takes us back to thematic appropriateness.

I’ve written in the past about the labor theory of value and its implications for the economics of composition, and I’ve been following Asao Inoue’s work on labor contracts with excitement. I’m definitely planning on further investigating the applications of grading contracts in my future first-year composition teaching and theorizing, both as a result of my economic interests and as a result of the persuasiveness of Inoue’s arguments, but there are some aspects of the way Inoue theorizes labor contracts that differ from my own understanding.

Some of those aspects have to do with exigence: to me, labor contracts are an appropriate fit for composition because of the way I understand composition as economic: as I’ve repeatedly argued, technologies are defined by the ways they substitute capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes, and the substitution of capital for labor is definitionally an economic activity, and therefore — given that writing is a technology — all of composition studies is a suitable and necessary domain for economic inquiry. For me, that’s a methodological orientation. For Inoue, the exigence is not itself economy but equity: early in Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, he gives a big-picture overview of his argument that “all grading and assessment exist within systems that uphold singular, dominant standards that are racist, and White supremacist when used uniformly,” and that “This problem is present in any grading system that incorporates a standard, no matter who is judging, no matter the particulars of the standard” (16). So for Inoue, the overriding exigency lies in working toward an ultimately anti-racist pedagogy — the ends, rather than the method.

I share the desire to work toward an anti-racist pedagogy, but I came to thinking about labor contracts from an economic perspective, rather than the ecological perspective Inoue explicitly aligns himself in his critique of the “false” belief “that grading is just an institutional necessity, something we can ask students to ignore, at least while they are learning” due to the way that belief “ignore[s] the way grades work in classrooms, how they shape many aspects of the entire ecology, how they influence students’ and teachers’ actions” (18). Certainly, “ecology” has been a popular and apt metaphor in composition scholarship of the past 20 or so years (Marilyn Cooper’s original article was 1986, but my sense is that the metaphor’s use didn’t really take off in terms of citations and published scholarship—Edbauer, Dobrin, Syverson, and others—until around the early 2000s), but if we’re talking about labor contracts, then it seems to me to be a curiously misplaced metaphor: while appealing in its derivation from the biological sciences’ definition of a system of organisms interacting with one another and their environment, the emphasis therein is on organisms and nature. I suggest we might borrow the insight from Raymond Williams that in such a sense, the natural is opposed to both the cultural (with its sense from culture of the artificial human tending of growth, whether natural or otherwise) and the technological, both of which senses I see as being more firmly tied to what happens in the composition classroom, and if we’re talking cultural and technological systems of labor, exchange, production, and capital—as Inoue is doing—then a focusing theoretical lens that operates as less of a metaphor, and less multiply mediated, would seem to offer more analytical potential. The composition classroom, and its associated pedagogies and theories, seem to me to be more reasonably constructed as economy rather than ecology. As Inoue demonstrates, there is considerable abstract and concrete value at the levels of exchange and use being generated and appropriated in the technological and cultural context of composition as a discipline.

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The Syllabus as Ossuary

The common and ongoing complaint is that first-year composition (FYC) is a repository of dead forms. In composition’s associated disciplines in English studies, critical examinations of writing and reading technologies ossify into periodized media studies, and in first-year composition, radical experimentations in how college students continue to learn to write well become the formeldahyde frog in the wax-backed metal tray from Biology 101, its belly razored open and skin peeled back so that students might safely identify the intestines, kidneys, heart, and probe around inside, perhaps a little grossed-out by the process, but able to name its components and mark them on a final quiz.

The formeldahyde frog masquerades as object of inquiry, even inasmuch as everyone knows that the annual and ongoing mass death of millions of appropriately-sized frogs serves only the purposes of a school exercise that will be swiftly forgotten. The research essay in its current commonly accepted form is the frog with its belly-flaps pinned back, poked around upon in JSTOR and ProQuest and the Library of Congress subject and keyword headings like well-preserved amphibious digestive and evacuative systems investigated by the earnest and industrious student, indicating little more to that student than this is where food goes in and this is where poop comes out.

To shift metaphors: the research essay assignment is pedagogy as archaeology. In the information age, I am largely in agreement with the common and ongoing complaint about first-year composition pedagogy and dead forms, especially as that complaint indicts the research essay. As much as anyone else, I am guilty of teaching the dead form, the corpse of the beloved, knowing all too familiarly the workings of the forms of library research I insist to myself that students must know. Even if I frame the research assignment as “inquiry” or “documented argument,” even if I congratulate myself on helping students to see that writing research means something beyond the assemblage of regurgitated stale quotations about innovative environmental applications for hemp and cannabis ash or the burial habits of ancient Egyptians, I am still simply trying to animate a cadaver or vivify a golem, making the body of my own knowledge do what I want, and inflicting that upon the students in my class.

Yes, but: Doesn’t it operate as an introductory form? Doesn’t it do work that helps prepare students for other more sophisticated tasks? Doesn’t it help alert students to modes beyond Google of navigating our rapidly-expanding tombs of information?

It could. I wrote about this challenge — about the essay as database, the database as essay — in 2007, but I’ve been thinking it about it since 1998, when I was working on a Microsoft Access database during my day job and taking an evening research methods seminar with another young graduate student named Becca, who had a complex journalistic research project she was undertaking and was looking for a way to manage it as part of her class project, and I suggested building a database. I don’t know if she took my suggestion, but that woman was Rebecca Skloot, whose research project became The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Part of what’s so impressive to me about Rebecca’s book is that it attends deeply to research as an evolving process: she talks very carefully about how she’s doing it. I’d like to see more of what Becca does in the first-year composition research project assignment.

My FYC students begin their annotated bibliography essay tomorrow, their second essay assignment, as a lead-in to their third, which is ostensibly the research paper assignment. I love the perspective I heard from a colleague yesterday, who posed the annotated bibliography as edited collection, complete with introduction and conclusion: yes, I said, that’s it. That’s the production of new knowledge, focused enough to be interesting, acknowledging its antecedents, edgy enough to push the boundaries. I’ve been reading a lot about information these past few years, and the idea I keep returning to is that information is the work and process of building itself, and as the asset itself that gets exchanged, aggregated, built upon. Information, and the work of research, is labor become capital.

Veterans, Hearing Loss, and Disability

Am I allowed to claim the status of struggling with a disability? I feel like I’m not — I’m a hetero cisgendered white male in a position of privilege — but I’ve lately been thinking more and more about ability and disability.

I’ve lost a portion of my hearing and suffer from persistent tinnitus. I don’t know how much of my hearing I’ve lost, but I saw the otolaryngologist (the ear doc) today, and have an appointment to see an audiologist. I’m fairly certain that what I’m dealing with now is related to shooting firearms and being close to things blowing up from my times associated with the military. As a young man, I was sometimes dumb about wearing ear protection, and as an older man in Afghanistan, there was some stuff for which I was inadequately prepared.

Sometimes in crowded social spaces, I can’t hear what people across the table are saying, or I have to watch a person’s mouth very closely to figure out what he or she is saying, both of which can make people uncomfortable. So I wondered aloud to the Orientalist whether this is a disability — most people my age can hear better than I do — and she strongly resisted that idea, or at least strongly resisted the idea that I might characterize myself as a disabled person.

I think disability is a continuum. As someone who teaches writing, I know there will be students in my classroom who don’t outwardly show their disabilities: students who are on the autism spectrum (including those who identify as Aspies), veterans with PTSD, people who struggle with clinical depression or major depressive disorder. Hearing loss happens to most of us as we get older, as does loss of vision. (I’m noticing it’s probably about time to start thinking about reading glasses, too. Is that a disability?) Many universities, including the one where I work, require syllabus statements about disability and reasonable accommodation, which I think is a good thing. I also wonder, though, whether such statements reinforce the idea of there being such a thing as “normal,” from which any difference is deviance and must be in whatever sense “accommodated.”

In other words, do statements of reasonable accommodation keep us locked into a pernicious series of value judgments? It’s an easy thing for someone like me (hetero cisgendered white male) to ask. I’d like to work toward being in a sociocultural space where that privilege isn’t so often assumed.

The Forensic Imagination and the Commodification of Process

In his discussion of William Gibson’s Agrippa, Kirschenbaum notes that “while the title _Agrippa’s_ immediate referent is to a brand of photograph albums, it also hearkens back to Renaissance mage Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim” (230), and while the reference is appropriate, it apparently overlooks what I believe is a much more relevant reference: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and his son Agrippa Postumus, so named because he was born after the death of his father. Agrippa the senior was elaborately memorialized by Augustus, while Agrippa Postumus was executed following the death of Augustus, and his step-father Tiberius became emperor. These figures seem much more closely connected to the subjects of Gibson’s ephemeral poem in their representation of father-and-son relationships and in their relation to memorialization.

But perhaps such contestation is part of the point Kirschenbaum makes: a reading is always only ever a reading, informed as much by the reader’s material and social and historical contexts that she brings to the reading as by the forensically unique allographic textual artifact itself. On page 185, Kirschenbaum uses a screenshot of multiple windows running different electronic versions of Michael Joyce’s _Afternoon_ to demonstrate how digital texts are not purely virtual, and so shows us what revision means, in its re-use, re-reading, and re-attending to a text from a position located within and conscious of a particular material context. Revision is always situated in a kairotic moment. In Kirschenbaum’s words, “formal materiality. . . serves to fetishize via the computational distance (or torque, or simply effort) necessary to. . . access certain objects in certain ways. In my own case, the first time I successfully opened a first edition of _Afternoon_, I was exquisitely self-conscious of something very much like bibliophilia, precisely because I had to couple the file itself with the right Macintosh operating system and the right version of Storyspace, thereby imposing a formal regimen on the binary object that was _Afternoon_, which then led it to execute, consume system resources, and ultimately present itself for my inspection and manipulation. This kind of access and recovery will, I suspect, ultimately prove more enduring th[a]n a collector or connoisseur’s sensibility, which seeks to acquire and possess” (186). If formal materiality is effort or work, Kirschenbaum’s example also demonstrates that it can be pleasure, as well. It’s both the process and the kairotic/phenomenological moment of the experience of a text that remediates it and reforms/performs/deforms it within a specific material context, to and from which there are specific material and textual inputs and outputs that negotiate between different levels of textual, social, and technological systems. In other words, the process Kirschenbaum describes is economic: value and labor are circulating, and in texts just as in computers, “[v]ersioning. . . exposes the cumulative labor that attends a piece of software” (202). The process is an instance and an example of the economic aggregation problem, by which we cannot measure all the inputs and outputs of any economic activity.

This is what happens, then, “whenever process collapses into product” (Kirschenbaum 253): the forensic imagination takes the meaning of a text as its material form and that form then takes on secondary meaning and value in its aestheticization and commodification. Such a move is also performed by the corpus of composition pedagogy (in its theorized condition) does.

Literary Texts and Solipsistic Pedagogies

I’m glad to see Michael Faris has prompted a blog CCCarnival around Geoff Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy”: like Faris and others, I found Sirc’s review essay provocative, and I’m currently reading one of the books he reviews, Byron Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition. With Sirc’s essay, Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole has leapt to the top of my to-read pile.

I certainly agree with a number of Sirc’s points, especially his indictment of Berlin-inflected politicized pedagogies that seem to take as their primary goal the alignment of the students’ political ideology with the teachers’. Sirc’s critique that while “there have been too-precious lit profs, . . . there have been too-zealous comp-as-critical-pedagogy teachers as well” (510) echoes the spot-on point Peter Elbow makes in “Pedagogy of the Bamboozled.” However, like many who’ve already responded to the carnival, I also take issue with a lot of what Sirc has to say, both about literature and about pedagogy.

Clancy wholeheartedly endorses (“He’s RIGHT,” she enthuses) his position on the place of literature in the composition classroom, asking affirming Sirc’s question, “If you’re not going to teach a course exclusive of outside reading, why not use the most interesting reading there is?” I’m somewhat (not entirely) in agreement with her and Sirc’s strongly implied distaste for Downs and Wardle’s practice of bringing composition scholarship into the composition classroom — it seems like a bit of a self-indulgently grad-studenty practice — but I’m not sure about the “most interesting reading” statement. (I’m with Steve Krause in this regard: if you want to diminish the possible number of future readers who will enjoy Henry James, assign him to freshmen. I say this as someone who enjoys Henry James.) Clancy’s Sirc’s question seems to put a slightly more positive spin on Sirc’s the indictment of “using a literarily thin corpus of nonfiction readings as prompts” (511), and my response to Sirc and Clancy would be: what are the readings that we’re assigning that are so terribly dull? I’m aware that Sirc has taken exception to Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading, but for me, the readings in that collection — John Edgar Wideman’s “Our Time,” Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Susan Griffin’s “Our Secret,” Richard E. Miller’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (hey! That’s composition scholarship!), David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” — are breathtakingly sexy and engaging and beautiful and smart and cool. When I remember myself as a college freshman, I wish I’d had the good fortune to encounter texts like that in the FYC course I took, in which we focused on literature, and wrote essays about Hamlet and “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”: it felt rote and dull, like we were being made to take our medicine.

That medicinal approach is what I think Clancy is pointing to when she notes “that not everyone talks about composition pedagogy with the passion and seriousness that Sirc does, the warnings that if composition cedes any territory to literature, then first-year writing classes will become literature survey courses using essay exams, or worse, author-title-significance quotation-based short-answer exams. The dreaded slippery slope.” Alex Reid acknowledges a similar concern when he talks about his writing program’s instructors who are forbidden from “turning composition into a literature course. The primary concern is that such courses would lack a focus on writing. A secondary concern is that graduate students would turn such courses into versions of their dissertation projects. . . And one of [the primary concern’s] interesting assumptions is that courses in literature don’t pay (much) attention to writing.” From my experience at West Point and elsewhere, I’d revise that last statement to say that courses in literature often don’t pay (much) attention to how writing gets produced: the writing-as-product is assumed to simply exist, an artifact of an encounter with language to be evaluated, graded, and returned, with the point of focus being on the presumedly beautiful object of analysis, rather than on the student’s act of writing. That’s why we moved away from the literature model. As Steve Krause contends, “It’s not that literature cannot be an engaging part of a first-year writing course; it’s just that a first year writing course shouldn’t be about literature, and it turns out there are a lot of texts and subjects and ideas that can ennoble and enrich students’ souls and minds other than literature.” My sympathies are again with Steve: first, we can like certain texts as an aspect of teaching first-year composition (FYC); second, the study of capital-L Literature has no exclusive hold on being ennobling and enriching. But arguing about whether or not we’re engaging “the most interesting reading” indicates to me that we’ve missed the point: the focus of an FYC course should not — must not — be on the outside texts that we introduce. The focus of the FYC course should be on student writing, and to that end, literature is going to be a distraction. This is the flip side of the problematic that Sirc engages: what does it look like to teach composition? Is it mentoring-as-you-go, the Donald Murray method; is it about the process and work and circulation of writing, as Sirc takes aim at with his indictment of the uses of peer review in pedagogy; is it about forms, products, models?

There’s a strong implication in Sirc that it is about models, and I reject that focus on models for a couple of reasons. First, for all Sirc’s would-be radicalism, I think the focus on texts-as-models is inherently conservative, just as a focus on canonical literature is inherently conservative. Sirc notes that he “wouldn’t expect, for example, to learn vocal technique by listening merely (or even mainly) to recordings of other music students; I would need to listen and learn from Caruso, Bjoerling, Corelli, Doming” (516), suggesting that one learns to write by reading the great old texts. I disagree. To paraphrase one of my mentors, Charles Moran, I favor the direct method of instruction: one learns by doing. As I tell the West Point cadets I teach, if you want to be a better runner, you run; if you want to be a better shooter, you shoot; if you want to be a better writer, you write. Occam’s razor places the burden of proof upon those who would argue otherwise.

Second, focusing on literature brings up questions of the necessary scope of a FYC course. If one of the starting points for the ways of talking about how literary texts get produced is Aristotle’s Poetics, and one of the starting points for talking about how persuasive texts get produced is Aristotle’s Rhetoric, then I would trace one of the starting points for the vocabulary of literary criticism — which constitutes the basis for any literary approach — to Longinus and On the Sublime. That’s way too much ground to cover in an FYC course. Sirc, I’m fairly certain, is aware of these distinctions, given the mocking way he dismisses the value of publishing student writing because it “is generated from such a third-degree simulation scenario [that] the only use value [he] can see in such counterfeit scrip is in the board-game world in which it was generated” (516). There’s an obvious nod in such dismissal to what Scholes in Textual Power characterized as the problematic distinction between “literature” and “non-literature” and their simulacra in the “pseudo-literature” of the creative writing classroom and the “pseudo-non-literature” of the composition classroom (7).

But if one is going to make such distinctions, one has to take into consideration questions of purpose and scope. In a 15-week semester, you simply can’t teach an introduction to literature and its accompanying methods and an introduction to composition and its accompanying methods and and introduction to creative writing and its accompanying methods. It doesn’t work. I like to think that my MFA in creative writing might give me some authority in this regard: there’s so much work to do in helping students see how to produce and talk about producing poems and stories, and there’s so much work to do in a literature class in helping students see how to figure out how poems and stories work and what they do, that there’s no possible room for what we do in a composition course. We teach the habits of a writer’s investigative imagination and discovery; we teach how to manage and sequence prose; we teach audience and purpose and how different types of writing do different things (and I think exploring and extending Britton’s taxonomy still holds considerable use here); we teach how to seek out the kinds of feedback and input that will help you revise (and I here wonder that if Sirc is so opposed to editorial input, then what business does he have sitting on Clancy’s dissertation committee?); we teach (most importantly to me) the work and habits and rhythms of becoming a good writer and help students set up the rhetorical spaces in which that regular work has to take place. In accomplishing those tasks, there’s so much to do that I cannot see how any sort of literature- or creative-writing-inflected pedagogy can take place: I’ve got too much to do in my FYC course, not too little.

These objections I’ve raised to Sirc’s arguments lead me to agree with Alex Reid’s summing-up that “this is less about texts than it is about methods. There are two mainstream composition pedagogies that come under critique here. The first is the avowedly political, James Berlin-inspired, cultural studies classroom [and] . . . [t]he other is the even more conventional writing process pedagogy that is only modestly political in its claims for empowerment. What these pedagogies share is an abandonment of affect, imagination, voice, and experimentation for an emphasis on a more mechanistic, predictable, and replicable writing practice.” Now, I’ll admit that my pedagogy is likely vulnerable to some aspects of that second critique: I do believe in the value of habit and regular work that could be characterized as “mechanistic, predictable, and replicable.” At the same time, I certainly don’t think I’m abandoning “affect, imagination, voice, and experimentation,” and for West Point cadets — especially for the plebes — the FYC classroom can be an exciting place where they have the freedom to do risky things and write about what they like and what they imagine and what actually interests them, but it’s also a place where they learn that to do so effectively, to do justice to the things that excite them, takes work — and when they put in that work, they can produce astonishingly good texts. And they like seeing those astonishingly good texts.

In fact, thinking about how student writers value one anothers’ finished products leads me down another pedagogical path. Sirc, in criticizing Joseph Harris, says he “could never teach. . . a course” that “use[d] student text as the primary focus” (516), and and expresses his dislike for the ways such “courses are focused on the artifice of peer response, rather than on an actual writer’s single most important need, the notebook” (517), explicitly contradicting his enthusiastic endorsement of Shipka’s grasp of “how much of a writer’s work is done while walking, watching TV, doodling, shopping, listening to music, even daydreaming in class” (514). That grasp is what I try to capture in the reflections (or production narratives) that I ask students to write on the days that they turn in their assignments. I think I’d like to revise my own pedagogy somewhat so that students not only pay attention to one another’s completed texts, but also to one another’s production narratives, to share their reflections with one another in order to attend to the ways good writing gets written, and how much it’s bound up in the material contexts of individual writers and their interactions with their worlds.

That’s what Sirc ignores. He admits that he’s “received good feedback from editors, but never such that [he] radically rethought a piece or even did more than tweak” and that “[o]utside feedback never really enters into what [he’s] doing” (518). Good for him: the lone genius, beyond critique or response. But not all students have that genius: some actually have something to learn, and want to learn. Not all students are English majors with an instinctive love for Henry James. And I reject the projection of Sirc’s solipsistic pedagogy onto all students.

Writing with Students

There’s been a thread running on the Writing Program Administrators’ listserv lately about the virtues of writing with one’s students. The idea is that doing the assignments with students — writing what you assign them to write, when you assign them to write it — has considerable pedagogical benefit for both student and teacher. I’m familiar with the idea and endorse it, and have been ridiculed (here, if memory serves, in the comments) for doing so. I think the resistance to the idea of writing with one’s students that such ridicule suggests necessarily involves notions of mastery: perhaps the teacher is too smart, too well-educated, too familiar with the topics he or she teaches to do something as wasteful as writing with one’s students. Certainly, in my classroom — where we write for at least 20 minutes out of every 55-minute lesson day, for 40 lessons — I can see how a visitor might say, “But why aren’t you teaching?”

What does that question mean? Why am I not delivering knowledge? Well, yes, sure; compositionists mostly know enough to wave away the lecture model, to follow Freire in avoiding the banking model. Knowledge doesn’t simply transfer from the teacher’s mouth to the student’s ear via the medium of language. Why, then, are we not engaging in the social-epistemic model of knowledge-building via discussion or group problem-solving activities? Well, we are, in part: there’s that other entire portion of class when we’re not writing, and that’s a lot of what we do. I’m particularly fond of the group problem-solving (and problem-posing) activities as applied to specific rhetorical situations and strategies: students in groups of three talk over and write out strategies for engaging a particular rhetorical situation, and then (in my technologically privileged environment) we throw those strategies up from their laptops onto the six large-screen monitors around the perimeter of the room and talk about their relative advantages. Often, following Peter Elbow’s idea of the journey out (from the individual to the social) and then the journey back (from the social to the individual), we’ll go back to and do some follow-up writing after the group activity that I then encourage them to incorporate in some form into their essay drafts. But yes: the primary focus and the pedagogical center of classroom work is on the activity of composing. That’s because I believe that students can learn more from a well-designed writing activity — from actually doing the work of writing — than they can from anything else that other people can tell them, including me. Practice matters. Habit matters. I know from experience that the best thing I can do as a writer and scholar is to write. (To paraphrase Charlie Moran: I believe this argument is sufficiently self-evident that the burden of proof lies on those who would argue otherwise.) Still, though, I see plenty of composition classrooms where teachers talk about ideas for 55 minutes and where teachers assign writing as homework. Where and when do they anticipate that writing will get done? Why do they anticipate that writing will get done? How do they anticipate that writing will get done? After all our empirical studies of what happens when we teach writing, isn’t the act of writing what we should be teaching in our classrooms?

Well, yes. I’m sure I’m being somewhat unfair: when teachers — myself included — talk about heuristics or strategies or approaches, we’re teaching writing. I’ve got a potted 20-minute talk that uses a mnemonic device (SEAR: situate, embed, analyze, relate) that I hope helps students remember the things they need to do in incorporating quotations from sources into their own writing. Later in the semester, I often come back to that topic of working with sources using Joseph Bizup’s BEAM (background, evidence, argument, method) taxonomy. So, yes, I “teach,” for vexed values of that term. But for me, the work of composition is almost always best done in class, where we can talk about it — and the work that supports that teaching can always be done outside of classes. If it’s discussion, discussions can be handled asynchronously on blogs. If it’s reading, well, most reading to my mind is best done outside of class, but there is still often considerable pedagogical benefit to working with reading during class, especially early on, so one can assess how best to help each student, including those who might not read as carefully or as slowly (yes, slowly: many of my students have a difficulty with reading too fast) as some of their classmates.

Teaching writing happens when students are writing and teachers can talk to them about that writing. If the writing doesn’t happen, there’s no point in worrying about the teaching, because teaching isn’t going to happen. That’s why I ask my students to write in class. And that’s why I write with them, both in class and out of class, and in, where I require them to write. If I’m going to value the work of writing as the coin of the pedagogical realm, I’d better do it all the way.

The Pilot Course, Wrap-Up

Yeah, I know: I’ve been going on about this for a while. This is the last entry. I think I’ve said and thought enough here to be able to turn these entries into an article, and I’ll have the IRB permissions to do it. I’m happy about that. As I’ve noted before, I think this is the first large-scale project I’ve been able to implement that’s drawn together my process-oriented pedagogy and my scholarly interest in the rhetoric of technology as it plays out in composition and connect both through my work on the economics of immaterial labor and a renewed attention to the labor theory of value. In other words: everything clicked last semester, and I’m trying to figure out why and how, so I can develop this approach (which, according to our blind tests and number-crunching, is empirically and statistically successful, and I think that’s no small claim) into something that might in some small way be adaptable or generalizable to other college writing courses.

The Framework I’ve been trying to apply to what we did last semester describes eight “habits of mind essential for success in college writing” and then offers five approaches or forms of experience that “can foster these habits of mind”:

Rhetorical knowledge — the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts. (In my class, we get pretty good at that: we write for multiple and various real-world audiences for various purposes and in various contexts, and I’ve encouraged students to send off their end-of-semester real-world documents to the audiences who they thought were both most in need of being convinced and in the best position to make a difference. In so doing, I’ve benefited from the cadets’ confidence in themselves, but I’m also one of the people who helps to build that confidence.)

Critical thinking — the ability to analyze a situation or text and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research. (This is the criterion I hate for its bland, euphemistic triteness. Is anybody in academia opposed to “critical thinking”? Of course not. It has no positive opposing term. It’s a fancy way of saying, “Just be smart,” or — for many instructors — “Agree with my political opinions and endorse the ways in which I unmask for you the grim and terrible functions of hegemony.” Too often, the would-be Freirean pedagogue simply becomes a counter-Freirean, substituting one set of banking-method perspectives for another. Yes, one can critique, but if you’re going to critique, you’d better be pluralistic in doing so, even if you don’t like the answers you get. I avoid use of the phrase “critical thinking” because it’s a hackneyed term and a more-or-less empty signifier, but I do demand that students engage multiple perspectives and carefully evaluate the motivations that stand behind the sources they engage.

Writing Processes — multiple strategies to approach and undertake writing and research. (Yes, the approach we used in last semester’s pilot course did this in a huge way: we showed and worked with our students on multiple approaches and processes and then asked them to engage them in enormously flexible ways, trying out one approach after another and carefully monitoring and self-monitoring what worked and what didn’t work. The first and most important thing: we wrote, every lesson, and we wrote a lot. Students got good at composing fast; at putting together words. That’s a first and foundational skill, and perhaps more than anything else what helped them to succeed. They admitted as much, nearly unanimously, in their anonymous evalutations at the end of the semester: if you’re going to learn to write well, the first step is writing, and writing regularly. The next step was to try it out in various ways and with various approaches. That engagement with the multiple processes and approaches — the various forms of work for composition, but most of all with the down-in-it work of actually composing — is precisely what leads me to mistrust any compositionist who self-characterizes as “post-process,” as if we can simply glide over or elide that absolutely essential attention to how we do what we do. If someone self-characterizes to me as “post-process,” my first question in response will likely be: How many of your students still write their papers the night before they’re due? Uh-huh.)

Knowledge of conventions — the formal and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate, or incorrect and inappropriate, in a piece of writing. (We have here our share of would-be grammar nazis — often self-identified, and often unable to adequately explain what they mean by the term “grammar” and how it might differ from punctuation, mechanics, or usage — who are mostly as ill-informed as they are at any other institution as to the proper use of the subjunctive voice, the particulars of em dashes and en dashes as opposed to hyphens, or why certain students struggle with the use of determiners. Perhaps because of that, I work hard to illustrate to my students how such conventions are always dependent on context, and work hard with junior faculty and with other departments to talk about how conventions shift according to context and audience.)

Abilities to compose in multiple environments — from using traditional pen and paper to electronic technologies. (We totally rocked this last semester. We worked in pencil and paper, on laptops, across multiple information systems for multiple purposes. I opened lesson 1 and closed lesson 40 with the use of pen and paper and 63 sealed envelopes; in between, we worked with Microsoft Word,, email, chat clients,, Blackboard, beta-testing the Eli peer review software, blogspaces, presentation software, movie editing, wikispaces, and that reminds me that I need to test out Etherpad analogues this semester. In fact, we changed environments so often that students got good — or perhaps were already good — at changing environments.)

Conclusions? The work of writing has value. Students get better at it by doing it in various ways that focus their attention on the very specific contexts in which they write. And this pedagogy — a pedagogy of writing as work, of writing as regular work — works.

The Pilot Course, Part 4

I started to offer some additional detail in my last post about how the technology- and writing-intensive version of our plebe composition course that I led and co-piloted last semester supported the “habits of mind” detailed in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing document developed and produced by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Writing Project, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

Here’s the short version: the adaptability across multiple information systems that the pedagogy we developed in our eight sections and the regular, rigorous, and reflective practice and instruction in writing that we gave our students (1) aligns well with nationally accepted pedagogies and outcomes and (2) produced a positive and statistically significant correlation between how much students wrote and how well they performed on blind-graded end-of-semester writing assessment measures.

In other words, what we did worked. Here’s how we tried to develop the other four (out of the total of eight) habits of mind that I started to describe last time.

Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects. (As Clancy pointed out, this is the habit of mind in which our students have perhaps the most significant advantage: at the nation’s premier and highest-ranked military academy, where our students compete for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships with students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, we don’t lack for high-initiative self-starters. Our students are trained and temperamentally inclined to do what they’re asked. The plebes come straight out of the military basic-training rigors of “Beast Barracks” into our classrooms, and many of them have express their adherence to the maxim, “Fake it ’til you make it”: the notion that even if you can’t yet do it, keep trying and going through the motions until you can. That attitude is a remarkable asset in the classroom, especially when they’re also consistently urged to take advantage of every resource possibly available to them, including instructor advice. If I encourage them to do something, and model it convincingly, they’ll do it, and give me reports long after they’ve departed my course about how well they’ve done. I kind of love that.)

Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others. (Perhaps more than anything else, this is what sets Academy students apart from others. The demand for persistence and initiative, coupled to the forthrightness necessitated by the cadet-run honor system and its implementation of the Cadet Honor Code, and the command structure set up in the Corps of Cadets in which cadets take on increasing responsibility for the actions of cadets in classes below them as they advance through the ranks from plebe through yearling and cow to firstie, all lead to a system in which personal responsibility is foremost. Cadets eagerly give credit to those who have helped them out, and seek recognition for their actions. When they fail, they’re almost always the first to acknowledge it, and typically follow up that acknowledgement with a request for advice on how to improve. They own their actions, and they give full credit — good and bad — to the actions of others, as well.)

Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands. (This is another advantage I’d argue Academy students tend to possess over others. Before they get to our FYC classroom, they’ve gone through Beast Barracks. The Army’s developed plenty of ways to help them learn to “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.” And their instructors run the range from cuddly civilian nice-guys to officers cycling into West Point fresh out of command of a Ranger or Special Forces unit. We demand that cadets excel in all three domains — athletic, military, and academic — rather than just one. And their strengths in the athletic or military domains can contribute to their performance in the academic classroom in surprising ways. They tend to understand the idiosyncrasies of the rhetorical situation in ways that some instructors at more conventional institutions might not anticipate.)

Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge. (I’ve tried to actively promote reflection-as-metacognition in the service of knowledge transfer since I arrived at West Point, but I worry that I’ve been largely unsuccessful, in part because the Army’s institutional structures and discourses have to a degree co-opted research on reflection and metacognition: it’s become an often contentless buzzword here. The Army does After-Action Reviews and thinks of it as metacognition, rather than paying attention to the constraints and processes that led to a given outcome, and that leads in turn to the ways many of my students don’t want to think about constraints and processes, but only about actions and outcomes. Method and motivation seem sometimes not to matter, even as we pay them lip service in the interest of reflection. The best thing I might do, I think, would be to keep a dual-column index of my end-of-paper comments and their end-of-paper reflections for all their assignments, and maybe even to make it a triple-entry notebook, with their reactions to the intersections between the first two columns in the third column.)

So: the pedagogy in the pilot course I’ve led has promoted, I think, significant advantage on the part of students here in many of the habits of mind that lead to success in postsecondary writing, and I’ve got a ways to go in some other areas. I’ll talk next time about how I work in terms of the five approaches the Framework recommends in order to promote those habits of mind.

The Pilot Course, Part 3

I’m going to continue here my response to Clancy’s recent comment that I started in my last post. The new semester is underway, and with it not quite as much freedom as I had last semester — I’m teaching EN302, our Advanced Composition course for cows (juniors), rather than EN101, our Composition course for plebes (first-year students), and the course leadership is different and the course structure is more regimented. Still, I’m engaging in most of the same writing-intensive practices (I’m requiring students to write in every lesson day, where I’m currently composing this blog entry, and requiring them to write 30,000 words to earn a C) and some of the same technology-intensive practices (we’re using the Eli peer review application again this semester, for which I’m very happy; as I’ve said before, if you’re a writing teacher and you haven’t yet tried it, you really should: it’s that good) that I piloted last semester. Here’s the basic point I’m trying to make: my approach both last semester and this semester brought together my process-based pedagogy, my interests in digital technologies, and my scholarship on the political economy of writing instruction in a remarkably integrated way. It all fit together, and I’ve got the numbers that show that it worked, and I’m very happy about that.

One way into talking about why I think it worked is for me to respond to Bradley’s question about how I “addressed whatever writing of essays they did outside of the in-class writing.” To put it in crude economic terms, I valued both the labor and the product: out of a 1000-point syllabus, 450 points went to the the final products of the four homework essay assignments, and 160 points went to their daily writing assignments. I gave them a minimum of 20 minutes in class every lesson to work on their daily writing assignments, for which I often gave them prompts designed to help them build their homework essays, and I encouraged them to recycle their daily writing into their homework essays. I’m still somewhat surprised at what a success the simple act of giving students at least 20 minutes in class every day to write was, but it really shouldn’t be surprising: butts in seats is what gets writing done, much more so than talking about writing. My thinking here is that the immaterial labor of producing and organizing information is much more responsive to the labor theory of value, especially given that immaterial capital — the product of immaterial labor — is an experience good.

That takes me to the “habits of mind” that Clancy asked about. Clancy’s referring to the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing document jointly developed and produced by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Writing Project, and the National Council of Teachers of English. That document (which merits attention if you’re not already familiar with it and reading this blog) outlines eight “habits of mind essential for success in college writing”:

Curiosity — the desire to know more about the world. (In most conventional composition classes, class discussion is what tends to drive and foster curiosity. Because we did more writing than talking in class, and because I didn’t do a very good job of promoting the use of the class weblog for out-of-class discussion, I think this habit may have suffered somewhat. The fact that plebes were coming to EN101 straight out of “Beast Barracks,” West Point’s version of the Army’s basic training, where curiosity and a spirit of inquiry were the absolute last things to be fostered, didn’t help matters.)

Openness — the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world. (Again, more discussion would have likely promoted this more, but I also think that the course readings we select should promote openness. To me, that’s one of the few shortcomings of Downs and Wardle’s “writing about writing” approach: it focuses on only one aspect of the world. On the other hand, the way we used Eli for carefully crafted anonymous peer review work did some good work promoting openness.)

Engagement — a sense of investment and involvement in learning. (I think this is one of the hardest things for any curriculum to promote. West Point’s mission, in part, is to “educate, train, and inspire” future Army officers, and that requirement to inspire is fundamentally rhetorical, and what creates engagement. It means being involved in cadets’ lives and activities, as well as persuading them of the importance of the connections between their classroom pursuits and what happens beyond the classroom.)

Creativity — the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas. (Recently, I’ve tried to promote this habit more and more by requiring cadets to compose and deliver multi-modal, multi-media presentations involving graphics, music, video, speech, and text, and directing them away from the familiar, comfortable, and terrible Army PowerPoint standard. Initially, they’re lousy risk-takers, but once they figure out that being risk-averse is actually a hindrance and a danger for future military officers, and once they realize that I’m requiring to try out new methods, they’re pretty amazing.)

That’s the first four, and I think that’s enough for tonight. I’ll talk tomorrow night about how I’ve tried to promote persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition.

More About the Pilot Course

Clancy responds to my last post by noting that she “completely agree[d] with [me] that it never would have worked without a group of strong students,” and writes that she could “imagine that at a lot of places, upper administration might shut down a project like this if faced with complaints from students and/or parents.” As I prepare to depart this place at the end of this academic year, I’m feeling a little conflicted about the assumptions she makes about my students. Do I think that West Point cadets are that much better than students I might encounter elsewhere? Perhaps in some ways yes: every student I teach is nominated for excellence by a member of Congress, and that’s part of what makes this place magic, and part of what makes it so intensely rewarding to teach here.

But the answer’s more complicated than that, too. Clancy’s comment makes me feel a little awkward, because I don’t think I ever actually said that our pilot course “never would have worked without a group of strong students.” And I want to believe that the approach I’ve developed, with its deep theoretical and pedagogical investment with the notion of the value of work, could work elsewhere.

At the start of the semester, I sold our approach to the cadets with every bit of persuasive enthusiasm I could muster, because I knew they’d be suspicious. Writing every day in class? Writing 750 words every lesson day, just to earn a C?

A funny thing happened. They figured out that writing 750 words is easy. They figured out that they can do it on demand. And the most important thing that has happened — and it only happened recently, for some of them — is that they figured out they can write. For me, that’s huge. That’s the battle I’ve been fighting since I first started teaching composition. Every semester, I had the students who were sure they couldn’t write, and so they didn’t. They didn’t write until it came down to crunch time and they had to write their essays the night before the final drafts of those essays were due, and they did. Until this semester, I got those essays all the time. You know what they look like, because you’ve seen them. They’re essays produced at the last minute by students who are certain that doing so is the only and best way of writing. Those essays are why they hate writing.

What’s happened this semester, though, is that writing has become almost like athletic performance: it’s a matter of getting it done, putting in the practice, and pretty soon, practice translates into improvement. There’s value in the work of doing. In August, I asserted my primary reservations about most university-level writing instruction: that it’s “too easy to allow the classroom work associated with composition courses to focus on activities other than writing,” and that

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