Saturday, July 23, 2005

Mandatory-ness

Since the original blog post that Chris just responded to has now moved to the archives, I'd like to snip a bit from her comment and also draw from some other comments to think a bit more about the issue of comp's status as a required course. Chris says:


I really believe we have to look hard at that mandatory part when we start to discuss implications for cultural studies pedagogies and how we might look at our own selves through that lens, as well as understanding the fundamental difference between our discipline's foundations and that of other academic departments or disciplines.
I agree: composition studies *is* unlike any other discipline because it has come to exist, historically, in order to supply departments with people who can manage the required first-year course. This is basically the argument I make in my article "The Managerial Unconscious of Composition Studies" and will make, in (let's hope) a more historically informed and nuanced way in my book. And, like Chris, I think the field hasn't really dealt with that historical uniqueness in any very critical or informed way.

Chris's comment follows comments by Derek and bowerr, all bringing up the issue of accountability in first-year composition programs and how that outside pressure, both real and felt (might we call it a kind of panopticism?), might lead to programmatic uniformity. IE, we teach academic argumentation here, folks, not personal essays. (And, really, just based on my general immersion in a variety of programs, this does seem like the default position of many programs, so it seems odd that Fulkerson detects a lack of attention to argumentation in the field--is it maybe that argumentation has become a new kind of "current-traditional" rhetoric in that it's what we think students need and so it's what textbook companies tend to offer?) And why do we teach academic argumentation (or whatever it is we teach)? Because deans and provosts want to know what the heck we're doing in that first-year comp class. They want to know why the heck juniors and seniors "can't write." And if we can't provide a nice tidy answer for them, well, maybe we just won't be allowed to manage the first year composition program anymore. Maybe this person without one of those fancy PhDs in rhet/comp will do better (they don't have all that theory to distract them). It happens. I've seen it happen in more than one place.

So what's to be done? I'd like to believe that rhet/comp could more convincingly make itself into a discipline that studies writing and that the first-year course could simply become an introduction to the major in the same way that a first-year course in philosophy, biology, or what-have-you is an introduction to the major. But even then there are wrinkles: there's introduction to biology for science majors, and then there's introduction to biology for everyone else, right?

Where I find it to be a truly tricky game to play is in teaching the course for new graduate teaching assistants. I'm expected to provide a kind of party line, right? That is, I need to prepare the new GTAs to teach for the program at my institution. (I'm talking in general here, not specific to my institution.) At the same time, I feel compelled to introduce them to the richness of rhet/comp: not so that they will be impressed with rhet/comp, but so that some of that richness will seep into their teaching. After all, they won't always be teaching at this institution. Why provide them with a very limited sense of what it means to teach writing? Doesn't that just foster more and more narrowed ideas about writing and the teaching of first-year writing? But, well, it gets complicated, doesn't it? Since it seems some at all levels would be happy if a narrow view of writing were indeed perpetuated. (I'm getting vague, yes--can't help it.)

So and so and so. Chris, I would be very interested in hearing more from you, especially if you wouldn't mind fleshing out what you mean when you say, "in other ways it really bothers me, and it's because of that mandatory standing of the course." What is "it" and in what ways does it bother you?

And other comments welcome, of course. This question is something that's always bubbling around for me.

5 comments:

Chris Geyer said...

Thanks for bring this back to the front. I was on the road when the carnival began, and wanted to read the Fulkerson article before commenting, and thought I'd say more about that, too, but will do so in my own blog.

The "it" in this case is the variation on the readings for the same section of a required course - in this case, the FYC. Realizing this is not the case at all institutions, my comments really only apply to those institutions, like my own, where teachers of FYC get to select their own reading material for students to work with. If there are 100 teachers, there is a possibility of 100 different courses, all titled WRT 105, all carrying with them the institutional expectations (however vague and undefined those often are) and yet 100 ways any given student could describe their experience, 100 different FYC experiences and learning.

I know the arguments in favor of allowing teachers freedom in their course design and all that, but the "it" that concerns me is that the requirement assumes a similar experience for every student. It assumes that all students will come out of that required course knowing how to do certain same things. On paper, it seems perfectly plausible that 100 teachers all with different reading material can all give the same basic assignments and have students come out knowing the same writing skills and forms appropriate for academic writing. On paper. In reality, I don't think it's that neat.

I have harped on this too much in other conversations, and my colleagues are certainly sick to death of me saying it, but the mandatory course assumes a mandatory content. In this case, that's not a content of specific books or articles, it's a specific set of forms and methods for producing an essay in various disciplines within the academy. Any reading material has the potential to distract from that objective. In my institution, we have a "prohibition" on using literature for the FYC course. Why? Because it's too easy to teach the literature and not teach writing. I argue that the problem is exactly the same with any "themed' course reading. It's always easy to teach the content of the reading and not the forms of writing. So every variation on reading in an FYC section amplifies the potential that students get a different experience under that mandatory heading.

The question, I suppose, is why it should bother me only because of the mandatory status. I'm not sure I had a good answer for that, except that it seemly patently dishonest, in some way, for teachers to assume the guaranteed filled seats are a forum to advance particular social or political agendas through the selection of readings without acknowledging a) the fact that but for that mandatory requirement said teacher wouldn't have the luxury of guaranteed filled seats to teach said material to (evidence the frequent cancelations of theme based upper division writing courses for lack of enrollment), and b) that the focus of the course should be the student and the student's text.

I'm tired already of the folks who bemoan the FYC as a "service course," who believe by introducing these different readings and agendas to the required course they can make it different or make it into some "more important" work. The work of teaching students to write well in the academy, to understand the difference between, say, the academic argument and an opinion paper, or the personal vs. the academic essay, etc. is a perfectly respectable, difficult profession in its own right. That the FYC is "in service" to other disciplines or to the institution as a whole doesn't bother me at all, because I believe it is first "in service" to those students who have made the comment to get to the far side of the college experience.

I also believe that if we, the disciplinary professionals of comp/rhet, really want to make a difference, we will build the kind of discipline you describe above, Donna. The kind of program Sharon Crowley proposed - a series of writing courses over the entirety of the college career, building from an introduction to the more specialized genres and creative forms. Does it really come as a surprise to anyone in this field that students forget all they learned in the first semester of their freshman year by the time they write as juniors and seniors in a specific discipline? Any one of us that didn't continue to write all the time would lose skills, too. Why not work to build, not a separate major, but a complementary writing track that supports students all through their college years and keeps them writing all along?

That's enough for now, I think. I'd like to write more about the whole graduate student/TA training thing - maybe as a separate comment.

Donna said...

Sorry to be so late responding to your very good comment, Chris. And I do hope you'll say more about the grad student/TA thing, because for me that raises a really big issue around the question of one curriculum or many curricula. Don't get me wrong, I can imagine things getting really crazy if everyone truly does whatever. But where to draw the line? On the WPA-L, some people have drawn the line at "outcomes": as long as instructors choose books and assignments that allow them to meet the outcomes, they're allowed to do what they want. But as someone who has worked in a program with announced outcomes, I would make two observations: (1) often outcomes are so vague as to allow almost anything (if a big goal is rhetorical flexibility/rhetorical knowledge, for instance, what isn't allowed?), or (2) outcomes might sound vague but really mean something different to those who are in the know (ie, in the profession of rhet/comp). So there always seems to me to be this problematic gap between the vast majority of those who teach composition and those who direct programs and establish the outcomes for a program. I've almost always (though not now) been part of programs that actively discourage use of literary readings. But how can we in the discipline blame new TAs for using lit when that's what they know? How can I, someone who's been studying rhet/comp for something like 12 years now, expect a new TA who has only studied lit (or maybe creative writing) to be able to intellectually and emotionally embrace a set of outcomes that I've designed?

I'm really glad you raised this issue because it's allowing me to articulate some things I find I almost never get to think about "aloud."

Chris Geyer said...

Well, the last time I took up this issue it became a seminar paper, but here are some shortish thoughts (and as a warning, I am pretty opinionated, though I do welcome discussion and alternate ideas):

First, I don't have any problem with the idea of using literature to teach composition. It happens in many schools. I took my FYC with a fiction writer who taught from a lit for comp reader and I learned quite a bit about academic forms (I also got inspired to joing this crazy discipline). Literature provides some excellent material for critical thinking and writing, especially when examined as produced text; that is, as a piece of text produced by an author who has made a series of choices about words and structure in order to convey certain ideas. The tricky part of using any text in a writing course is to get past the discussion of the text's content to the student's response, analysis, and expression in writing about their thouights.

This is where I think the "training" of grad student/TAs comes in. TAs need to be taught how to take what they know, literature or otherwise, and turn it into an assignment for other students that meets different goals than what the TA learned it for. Let's say the goal is an analytic essay. The training part is not so much how to draft the assignment, but rather what to do in the classroom space with discussion and other pre-essay assignments that keeps the focus on analysis and not on the content of the reading. I think that's a practical, hands-on, workshop type of training, and it goes against the seminar model, but I'm okay with that. I don't think you learn how to teach by taking a seminar in composition. I think you learn by doing, and by observing others doing it. There has to be a distinct focus on the how and not just the what or why. The bonus of this practical format is that is transfers to other institutions and other types of reading material because it focuses on the process (hmmmm, where have I heard that before???)

I don't think it's enough to teach the history of the field, or even the recent theory within the field. All that is fine for the student's studenthood- the work of preparing to be a scholar in the field, but the part about teaching other students needs a different focus. For example, it needs to address not just the discourse around language diversity, but rather include guides for how to value the writing of an urban black student whose language of nurture is Ebonics, or how to comment on such a student's written work to both value the student and his language while working toward to goals represented in the Language of Wider Communication.

I think TA training should include work with real student texts from a range of socio-economic and regional locations, with a goal to developing a descriptive view of student writing as it is actually executed. While it would be difficult for any one teacher to acquire a portfolio of such texts, it seems a very appropriate project for CCCC or the WPA to assemble such packets. Training should also include a series of essay assignments from the several disciplines around the specific campus, so that instead of imaginingg what academic writing is expected to be by other departments, TAs can see it, discuss it, and ponder on ways to marry the outcomes or goals of composition to those actual assignments.

I think TAs should have to know the instituional expectations for the FYC - not what the sponsoring department or program thinks, but what the recruiting folks say about it, or what the provost or the general catalog requirements say about it, and should be able to articulate those goals in a set of concrete assignments for the FYC. This helps take the often vague "outcomes" out of the abstract and into the doable. It also sparks some lively and, at times, agonistic classroom discussion.

I think there should be some training in linguistics taught by linguistics professors, both in the short course that serves as the TA training seminar and a whole semester long requirement for aspiring rhet-comp PhDs. I think TA training should include on-site work with students in a variety of settings where writing happens, including local public schools and higher ed institutions that differ from the student's own. I think TAs need to be familiar with the requirements of state standardized testing, particularly when they (like me) graduated high school before there were such tests, so they better understand what their students bring with them to the classroom.

I do think the history of the field and study of the various schools of thought about composition are important. But neither are as important as good principles of education for the new TA in that teacher stance. Teaching the teacher to be a teacher first and a composition teacher second seems much more effective to me. Some schools have the luxury of conducting the TA training seminar in the year before the TA goes into the classroom. Others have the training concurrent with the teaching, which is always harder. So I know there are real constraints on what can be done. I also know there can never be enough agreement within the field for such a program to become widespread. But in the world of "what I would do if I were in charge" these are things I'd like to see.

Donna said...

I would say I more or less agree with the spirit of what you've outlined here, Chris. Especially the idea that "I don't think it's enough to teach the history of the field, or even the recent theory within the field. All that is fine for the student's studenthood- the work of preparing to be a scholar in the field, but the part about teaching other students needs a different focus." I've always felt like it's a mistake to teach the course for new TAs as if it were an introduction to the field of rhetoric and composition (so that, for instance, students are introduced to the various "schools" of thought, as in the Tate et al book that appears in the Fulkerson essay--it's a useful book, but more as an overview for aspiring rhet/comp professionals). But to do everything you outline, and to help students learn enough to be good teachers *and* good writing teachers in one semester--well, that's a big job. But what I really don't want to do is to reduce things so much in that course that TAs come out of it with a narrow idea of what it means to teach writing. I think that's just deadly for everyone. So how to introduce new TAs (many of whom, in the programs I've taught, are newly minted BAs in lit) to strategies for teaching in general *and* to the richness of writing. I've often thought something more like the approach of the National Writing Project might be better (where teachers are encouraged to write), but I've never actually participated in a NWP site (though I hope to next summer) and it's also not an exact match: NWP participants are usually already teaching.

Chris Geyer said...

We seem to be having the conversation on our own, so let me just accent what you said above: "But to do everything you outline, and to help students learn enough to be good teachers *and* good writing teachers in one semester--well, that's a big job." It is indeed, and I don't imagine at all that it can be successfully done in a single semester. I think it gets a lot easier on everyone if we change "good" to "successful". I don't think all incoming TAs who are asked to teach FYC will be "good" teachers no matter what we who train (or aspire to train) them do. Not all of them want to be teachers. That's okay. Not all who want to will be good. That's okay. Those who are invested will take the initiative, and those who aren't will probably resist everything. But, I believe there is a way to set up all incoming TAs to be successful teachers in the TA years, and I think that has an awful lot to do with focusing on the student (here, undergraduates enrolled in FYC), and the separation, at least in some way, of the teacher of the TA as teacher and the teaching of the TA as grad student in (lit, comp, creative writing).

I'm beginning to feel like I've said this so much it must be time for me, as a now 2nd year PhD student in comp/rhet, to design a proposed TA training course that would do what I propose and then open it up for comment. Risky proposition, that, but it does seem like the way to take real accountability for my opinions. Who knows? Maybe I could get a job in the field someday.... :)