Monday, April 17, 2006


Just had the first meeting of a departmental "technology" ad hoc committee. It's exciting to think that we might get some conversations going, across the department, of the ways that technology can change what we do in teaching both writing and literature. Today was just a starter meeting, and so we won't really get going until the fall, but I think we're likely to bring someone to campus next year to help jump start the conversation, and just the likelihood of that small step excites me.

Talking to R. afterwards about trying to also get such conversations going in the class we teach for new composition teachers, I started thinking, dejectedly, about my own largely failed efforts last year when I taught the course. The objection seemed to be that technology gets in the way. And I know there are a whole host of ways of responding to that objection, but what really cheered me up was reading Alex Reid's most recent entry just now, which I'm quoting from so that I can remember to use it next time I teach the Theory and Practice of Composition:

In truth, for me, the fundamental error in composition is its founding institutional raison d'etre: students cannot write (well). That is, composition is founded upon the identification of a "problem." The problem, however, is built into the institutional hailing of the college student; i.e., a college student can be defined, in part, as one who does not write well (or at least as well as professionals or college faculty). A related part of the definition is that a college student is one who does not know (much) (or as much as faculty).

Who can deny such definitions? Any individual exceptions only serve to prove the general rule, eh?

This lack (of discipline, ability, knowledge, experience) serves the Nietzschean mechanism of ressentiment and bad conscience that leads to the ascetic ideal upheld by the pedagogue: learn this habit of thought, develop this disciplinary practice, master this body of knowledge, and your lack may be mitigated.

So I would begin any approach to composition with setting aside this notion of lack. Instead of mitigating some absence, writing might be understood as the proliferation of thought. I think this is generally recognized, and instruction often seeks to limit the potential for proliferation by sequestering it within "brainstorming" or invention. Writing instruction quickly turns to controlling this proliferation and targeting writing toward a purpose: completion of an assignment, approximation of the simulacrum of "good" academic writing, and achievement of pre-established course goals.

And, certainly, what Alex is saying here reinforces what many others say: Geoffrey Sirc comes to mind. And as Victor Vitanza says in that movie the Audio Archives folks showed at RNF: I was always told what I couldn't do in my writing. What I wanted to know is what I could do.

I was astounded, actually, at the number of new instructors from my class who decided to use the age old text Writing with a Purpose. I mean, sure, there's a place for that. But how tragic to limit writing to developing thesis statements. How tragic and how sad.

I mean, even George Bush can write a thesis statement. That doesn't make the world a better place.

I do understand the attraction of teaching a very constrained curriculum in the first-year composition class: for new teachers, it seems to offer solid place to stand. What I hope to do the next time I teach the course for new teachers is to involve them in more kinds of writing, to make the course itself one of proliferation of writing, which then opens up the possibilities of proliferating pedagogy.


jeff said...

"at the number of new instructors from my class who decided to use the age old text Writing with a Purpose"

Quite astounding. I spend a lot of time w/this textbook in my manuscript - how its legacy works against the legacy of new media writing. No just that folks - like some of your colleagues - use it but that many of the so called media-based textbooks we currently see are still based on Writing with a Purpose's ideology.

Marcia said...

I have to admit...I was one of those students that flirted with using that textbook. Have you seen the 14th ed? The cover looks new media-ish, like there might be something experimental inside. And, when you look inside, it's not just about writing thesis statements. Each chapter ends with a web design assignment. Chapter 2 talks about using a computer in the planning stage, which seems good at first glance, because most texts don't even cover this topic in this much detail. Chapter 5 is about designing writing. Hey, there are images, charts, graphs, and color!

Still, I know, it's using a computer to do x., rather than getting into more experimental writing, or composing. And, yes, it does proceed from a formualic view of writing.

However, (imho) unless the requirements for comp at MU change from an emphasis on persuasive "papers" that must be composed at more than one "sitting," rather than an emphasis on producing better better writers or better compositions, then not much will change in the big scheme of things.

Donna said...

That's interesting, Marcia--I haven't looked at WWAP in a long time, so I didn't know they were trying to look new media-ish. But, yeah, that does seem to further support what Jeff is talking about: old stuff in new packages.

But you're right: some things about the program here would need to change to allow for more experimentation. Still, I think it's possible to be innovative within the constraints. It all depends on what we mean by "argument."

Marcia said...

Oh, and I meant to say at the very top: I don't think 8010 failed!!

One other thing I wanted to mention -- what about location? It might help to have 8010 scheduled in a different room -- a computer classroom, or a classroom that has tables vs. desks. Of course, if the tables are fixed, then that is a problem too. It's hard to circle up when we're all in rows. Then, I think the MAC classroom is going to be redesigned over the summer.

Donna said...

I just meant that the part about trying to get people thinking about using technology largely failed.

I do think the class could profitably spend more time in a computer classroom to do some actual composing with various media. But because none of the computer classrooms on campus really are set up for discussion, I wouldn't want to meet there all the time.

Scot said...

Great post. The (dis)connections between new media and "traditional" comp pedagogy has been on my mind a lot this semester. Partly, this has to do with the FYW course I'm teaching (working from Jeff's Writing About Cool) and my WPA grad seminar, where we've been talking at length about first-year writing courses and their (institutionalized) curricula.

That said, I think you're right to point to the relative inexperience or anxiety new TAs bring to introductory writing courses. Even for those of us who have taught previously at other levels and in other programs, there's some comfort to be found in the model syllabus. "Don't worry about what you know and don't know about writing pedagogy, we've prepared a well-researched document for you to work and learn off of." I don't mean that to sound snarky--thoughts like this can be quite welcome news for new TAs. At UW, I hear from quite a few TAs in the literature track who lean heavily on argument and thesis statements in their classes--and less if at all on new media--precisely because of this anxiety (and not, as some might suggest, because they just don't care about writing instruction). The challenge, as you suggest above, is introducing new media and its possibilties for writing instruction to TAs and faculty--in effect, creating a departmental climate in which instructors are authorized and feel equipped to experiment with new media in their classes. Of course, this is easier said than done...

Donna said...

Yes, indeed: easier said than done. But at least we have some movement here, and that's nice to see.

It's interesting, and instructive, Scot, that you feel the conflict as you're taking a class on WPA work. Once a collection I'm editing with Jeanne Gunner gets accepted and published, you'll be able to read Jeff's excellent critique of conservative WPA discourse. It seems to me that right now there's practically no space available for engaging in non-instrumental (or at least critical of instrumentality) discourse when it comes to writing programs.

Scot said...

That collection sounds great--I'll be sure to keep an eye out for it (Btw, is Jeff's piece published anywhere else? Sounds like I could use it in my paper).

Jeff said...

It's only in the collection Donna is working on.

Just to tie this thread with the earlier one on this blog, I do have a short piece about networks that will come out in a special seciton on the future of English in College English in November. I bring that up only b/c there might be relevance for the questions you're asking regarding the curriculum, connections, and of course, disconnections.

Scot said...

Thanks Jeff! I'll look forward to checking that out in Novemener.