Monday, July 28, 2014

Why We Still Need Feminism: Just Another Day in the Life of a Female Academic

I've seen some of the arguments that we don't need feminism anymore that have been shared via #IDontNeedFeminism and #WomenAgainstFeminism on Twitter. They aren't very good arguments, as most of you can imagine, and usually play more into the rhetoric of feminism than the actual body of theory and work that is feminism.

It convinced me that I need to be more vocal about the experiences that shape my life as a young white female in academia. My experiences may not reflect all experiences, but I can bet that many women have found themselves in my shoes. Here are just two experiences--there are many more I could have shared-- that tell me why we still need feminism and have nothing to do with "man-hating."


I am writing consultant. I like to do online sessions. WCOnline has this great program that enables you to chat with a user in order to help them better their writing. The program allows each user to see what the other user is writing as they type, so it's more like face-to-face conversation. Well, I was working with a male today, and after saying "hello, how are you?" someone on the other end typed:

So I wanna fuck you...

This message was deleted before the "send" button was hit so that the comment was excluded from the transcript, but at some point, someone on the other end typed those words. All the person on the other end knew about me was that I was female, as it was a new user with no previous reports.

He claimed it was a friend, so I continued, but why should I have to deal with feeling uncomfortable and harassed when I'm trying to help you do better in school? I shouldn't. Unfortunately, patriarchy treats people telling women that they are sex objects as a joke.

So, then, this girl would say:

Except, feminism doesn't do that; it doesn't make me a victim. Feminism gives me the power to speak about this issue, and if I see fit, take action against it. Allowing you to see that something exists, like the dichotomy she mentions, is not the same thing as making it exist. Feminism makes me see that I don't need to be passive when someone says something that makes me uncomfortable or harassing.

Last Semester...

I stopped to speak with a former male student in the hallway about his school work this semester, something I would never have been able to do if the feminists before me didn't clear the way for me to achieve the same education as my male counterparts. The student pointed to a colleague coming up the stairs saying he was in his class. That colleague chose to make a snide comment, snarkily asking "Are you friends? Are you connected?" Because, you know, it would be impossible for a young female professor to have any legitimate academic relationship with a student.

Some people might think I'm reading too much into that one, but this was a colleague who was shocked when I said my students respected me in the classroom and even more shocked when I said my male students didn't make passes at me, after he insisted they must. The comment was intended to say the same.

On the surface, this might seem harmless to an anti-feminist, but people who believe these ideas, that young females can never be anything of real intellectual value, are the reason females are overlooked for promotions, publication, and leadership opportunities.

Then, the icing on the cake-- after lodging a complaint with my chair, I was told I should expect an apology and further discussion with the colleague or his department chair. Neither ever happened. My complaint clearly was not taken seriously by either of the two, who just happened to both be old white men.

We need feminism because...

women deserve to be successful if they put in their best efforts, and this can only happen if feminists encourage women to share experiences and to work against misogyny. No one should make me seem less than I am simply because I was born with the biological components of a female.

But then this girl says:

Look, I don't hate men. That's misandry, not feminism. This isn't about men treating me differently or buying me stuff or whatever crazy ideas are out there about what feminists want from men. This is about taking apart false perceptions created by patriarchal society that prevent women from moving forward, whether it's the idea that women are not as capable as men, not as smart as men, don't want to work as hard as men, are more complicated than men, don't want as much money as men, or are here only for the sexual pleasure of men. 

Here's just a few examples of what feminism does:
  • works against the idea that women are weak and dependent creatures and shows that women are only weak and dependent in situations where we have been socialized to be so and/or given no choice (e.g., laws demanding the mutilation of female genitalia)-- and hey, that doesn't sound like victimizing!
  • makes it safe for me to express my views and try to attain those things that are important to my existence as a human being, e.g., access to health education, not having to ask a man to escort me to a doctor's office, obtaining a driver's license, voting, using Twitter even when I'm saying stupid things...
  • fights against being threatened by rape or told I'm a hideous bitch every time I disagree with someone's political stance or am not interested in someone making a pass at me. 
  • demands women be treated as human beings instead of a source of sexual entertainment, especially, not only, in the workplace. 
  • advocates for men's ability to have and express emotions, their right to report and be respected as victims of rape, and their freedom to behave in non-violent, non-sexual ways without being degraded as "not manly."
Breaking down those barriers is the work of feminism. Given that I still come across people, male and female, who believe women are not as capable as men or that I should be subordinate or even silent simply because I have a vagina tells me we still need feminism, despite being surrounded by many wonderful men and strong women.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In Defense of First-Year Writing Done Right

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I have this awesome colleague who I admittedly disagree with often. This is one of the things I enjoy most about our conversations, though. I always leave feeling smarter. Either he has taught me something about the other perspective that I had not considered before, or I am able to better articulate my own stance on something for myself. Most recently, the latter happened in regards to First Year Writing (FYW or First-Year Composition/FYC).

My colleague definitely falls into the First-Year Writing abolitionist group. He believes it's useless. After all, outside of the FYW classroom, where would students ever need to write essays like that again? At the university where we work, the FYW course also has a social reform focus, which can sometimes wind up confusing students-- they feel forced to choice a side that they might not buy into based on what they think their teacher feels about the issue. It seemed to me that my colleague had a singular vision of FYW and what it could do, though. 

Why We Need FYW Courses

The NCTE makes a strong argument for the FYW requirement in the research brief, First-Year Writing: What Does It Do?  The NCTE notes that FYW courses foster engagement and retention, enhance rhetorical knowledge, push students to develop metacognition, and increase responsibility. These all sound like good things to me!

Through my own teaching and consulting, I've also seen that First Year Writing is a social experience. It is a chance for first-year students to struggle through their first year in college together and to meet students from across disciplines (which they might be prevented from doing later in their major). It is a chance for them to become acclimated to college academic expectations. It's not surprising that the NCTE did not find test-out options particularly useful, then, as those options negate the social experience that helps students to develop as intellectuals and human beings. 

Where the Anti-FYWers Get It Right

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The reason many argue against FYW courses is because these courses are often limited in scope. Academic writing comes to mean a very specific type of "academic essay." Academic texts comes to mean a narrow cannon of writing textbooks and literature. Students come to see the writing in their FYW courses as divided from any other types of writing, especially those performed beyond academia. Professors in other disciplines become frustrated that they "didn't learn to write" in FYW when students fail to master grammar or citations (which is often a result of conflating convention and style with grammar, but we'll save that talk for another day). 

Where those against FYW do get it right is when they note that a limited scope is counterproductive. That is not to say that all types of writing must be taught, all students' grammar skills must be perfected, etc. What it means is that sometimes, especially in cases where the course is taught by someone with little teaching experience or study of writing pedagogy, FYW gets too caught up in preparing students to do tasks rather than preparing students to solve problems. This happens when students learn formulas for essays rather than questions to ask to approach a writing situation.

Reclaiming FYW

I think if we are going to continue requiring FYW classes, a shift does need to happen. It's not a very radical shift. I see many instructors who already are doing this and already know this is where the future is headed. FYW needs to start focusing on a set of learning outcomes that privilege the following: 

1. Conceptualizing rhetorical contexts: The big question students should learn to ask in a FYW writing course is: What are the elements of this writing event, and how can I best communicate within this framework? As I said in an earlier post about losing job opportunities because of poorly written cover letters,
"Every writing event will not call for the same performance or product, even ones that seem extremely similar. Those who cannot locate the elements that influence the writing event and ask the right questions of themselves will be unable to perform and produce effective writing, and they may miss out on real opportunities as a result." 
Teaching students to conceptualize rhetorical contexts would include everything from how to figure out style and citation to what form or genre would be most effective for communicating with a particular audience and/or purpose. 

2. Research Skills
  • Performing academic inquiry: Students need to learn how to apply depth and breadth of inquiry appropriately. They should be asking themselves, "what questions do I need to ask to get closer to the truth?"
  • Evaluating source materials: It's important, especially in the digital age, that students learn how to evaluate sources, and not just scholarly ones. They need to learn how to assess bias and know that biased doesn't necessarily mean useless. 
  • Learning how to find information: Where can I find reliable (not necessarily scholarly) information to help me consider my argument or inquiry?
3. Dealing with complexity: As an undergraduate, this is something I really didn't learn about until the Spring semester of my senior year, and when I did, it was mind-blowing. I always thought you could only "make an argument," "take a side," or "provide evidence." That isn't how the real world works or even real scholarship. In world beyond FYW, things are rarely set in simply defined binaries. Students need to learn to make arguments while dealing with complexities (thinking about inquiry instead of argument can help this, too) and to see how complications can actually further their thinking or make their thinking more sophisticated. 

Teaching a class with those learning goals might be messier and require more energy than a "here's how to write an academic essay" formula-based course, but the students will reap the rewards in the long run.

Food for Thought

I'm clearly not the first one who has thought about whether or not there should be FYW and/or how it should be taught. Here are some online sources that reflect multiple perspectives (but is in no way a comprehensive bibliography or in proper MLA format).

Bamberg, Betty. "Alternative Models of First Year Composition." 1997.

Berrett, Dan. "Freshman Composition is Not Teaching Key Skills in Analysis, Researchers Argue." Chronicle of Higher Education. 2012.

Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. "Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning First-Year Writing as 'Introduction to Writing Studies.'" College Composition and Communication 58.4. 2007.

Duffy, John. "Virtuous Arguments." Inside HigherEd. 2012. 

Fish, Stanley. "What Should Colleges Teach?" New York Times. 2009.

Thaiss, Chris. "What Should First-Year Composition Students Learn about Writing Across the Curriculum." 2002.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

IWAC 2014: Meaningful Writing

More from IWAC 2014 today! What a wonderful conference!

This time I'm going spend some time considering the presentation by Anne Ellen Geller, Michele Eodice, and Neal Lerner about the Meaningful Writing Project, a massive grounded theory study that questions what makes writing assignments meaningful to students and how faculty that have composed these meaningful writing assignments think about writing and writing pedagogy. This particular presentation was focused on the latter.

Disclaimer: I have a very positive bias towards the panel I'm going to write about in this post. I strongly believe in the importance of student-centered research when it comes to describing student learning experiences. I love to hear the voices of writers and educators; narratives are exciting. I also admire an approach that works from a strength-based concept of student learning experiences rather than a deficit one. And of course, Anne Ellen Geller is my dissertation chair, and one of the most kick-ass women I know (for lack of better words).

During the presentation, the team of scholars asked audience members to consider, through writing and discussion, their most meaningful writing assignment. They followed this up by sharing interview responses from three professors whose assignments had been nominated as most meaningful by students involved as participants in the Meaningful Writing Project.

Their big takeaway for the day was that there was no magic formula for a meaningful writing assignment, but that there seemed to be something about student-faculty relationships built into these assignments that shaped their reception. How teachers saw students and how students understood the role of that particular professor really had an impact on how that assignment was done--something I've seen in my own research.

My Meaningful Writing Assignment

In the meantime, what I really want to share is the thinking that I was allowed to do within the context of the discussion of the research. As I said, faculty audience members were asked to consider what their most meaningful writing assignment was. Here is what I wrote:

My favorite writing assignment is the Write for a Change assignment in my first-year writing class. It's a multi-part project where students begin by thinking about what they want to change in the world, no matter how small or big (I encourage them to think locally and consider the ripple effect-- what change could you actually implement?), and then to find a way to advocate that change through writing. First, they write a proposal that includes what they want to change, what form they will use, who their audience(s) is, and why that form and audience is most effective for causing change. Then, they actually all do their projects. They go through a multi-draft process with peer review, but as the projects vary, they can also vary greatly in the drafting process. Some people are writing pieces of websites, some are writing chunks of script, some are doing multiple marketing/PR-like pieces, etc. I typically  have the whole class read each of their proposal drafts and workshop as a whole class. At the end, they each do a very brief presentation on their final project, which sometimes includes the showing of short films or presentations.

The learning goal is to get students to use what they have learned about writing to help them achieve personal goals. I want them to think about genre, audience, and writing as a social transaction. I also want them to learn to use research in real-life scenarios, not just a research paper, and see how it actually part of life beyond academia.

Students only get a grade on this project if they turn it in as part of their final portfolio, as I use contract grades throughout the semester. I give extensive feedback, though. Typically, students are passionate and do a great job. It is hard to assess sometimes, though, because projects can be so different.

I love seeing students learning to use writing to empower them and to help create a better world, in whatever small or large way they think that is. I like giving students opportunities to vent their frustrations, but also learn how to deal with them in productive ways. It is hard to assess them, as I said. I also find it frustrating when students think picking an "easier" topic will get them a good grade. Inevitably, they become bored over the course of the month-long assignment and don't do as well as they would have if they actually thought about what they wanted to change, rather than what they wanted to get in the class.

Students are asked to see the way writing can be used in other contexts based on their own personal view of the world. They have to research and figure out how to do things/forms they may not be familiar with or information they didn't know before that they will have to communicate. They're also being asked to learn writing terminology, such as form, genre, and audience. 

The second part of that process was to talk to a colleague and then to think about what similarities we saw in our assignments and experiences. I really enjoyed hearing about the work a colleague, who I had only met the night before, was doing with her history students, and I saw how, though very different from my own, her assignment also focused on getting students to think, make connections, and engage with the course content. We both agreed that an indicator for a "good" assignment was typically that we were excited to read the student products.

My Meaningful Writing Project

Finally, something that we weren't asked to formally consider, but I couldn't help but think about was their interview question for faculty-- what was the most meaningful writing assignment of your undergraduate experience?

That question was hard for me. I had lots of great writing experiences in college, which is how I wound up teaching college writing. As an English and Communications major, I was always writing. I do see that some of the best writing experiences I had, though, were maybe not the best writing I did, but the ones that let me think about things in new ways or the ones where the professors engaged me in the feedback process. So what were those meaningful writing projects for me?

I loved my independent research project on Children's Fantasy heroes, not only because it was an impressive feat for an undergrad and well-received by others at the school's research conferences, but also because I learned so much from the mentorship process. For example, I didn't know how accept information that didn't fit a box or examine the complexities before this project, but in a one-on-one meeting, my professor explained how that worked. I felt the same way about my poetry independent study, where I worked very closely with faculty and another student who was doing short fiction.

On the other hand, I also loved putting together the final portfolio of public relations writing for an imaginary fundraising event in my Public Relations for Non-profit class, even though I had far less, if any, interaction with the professor one-on-one. It was different, and it was fun. I don't remember the grade, but I do know that I left feeling like I learned something valuable, applicable to the world outside of class, and actually, to this day, I use what I learned while putting that project together whenever I write an email, a memo, web content, or other professional writing genres.

These experiences definitely shaped how I have gone on to teach my own students. I really like project-based learning, and I try to make myself available to students as much as possible, to act as a mentor or role model where possible. For the most part, I came from the same place as my students, nearly literally, as I teach in the same classrooms where I was taught as an undergrad, and I want them to see that my success is not the result of some magic gift of intelligence, but of applying myself, connecting my passions to my school work, and of being willing to put in the time to do something exceptional rather than mediocre. In these ways, I see again how my concept of the ideal student-faculty relationship shapes my assignments. I can also see how understanding what I consider meaningful as a student and a teacher will have an impact on those relationships.

With all that said, the Meaningful Writing Project has a great website:, and the work is set to be published in book-length detail sometime in the near future. I highly recommend everyone read about the methods, the findings, and the interesting stories involved in the research, if for no other reason than to reflect on your own experiences with meaningful writing.

Monday, June 16, 2014

IWAC 2014: Considering "Discipline"

As promised, I'm diving into some of the things that the 2014 IWAC (International Writing Across the Curriculum) Conference presentations prompted me to consider. Today, I'm going to talk more about the wonderful talk given by Melody Pugh, Naomi Silver, and Anne Ruggles Gere called "Interrogating Disciplinarity in WAC/WID: An Institutional Ethnography."

The scholars framed the discussion around what began an institutional review of the Upper Level Writing Requirement (ULWR) at their university, which lead to interviews with faculties and students about their expectations and experiences with these ULWR. What they found was a real struggle with defining disciplines/disciplinarity and whether their concepts of "writing in the discipline" would actually serve students. Many students and professors expressed a desire to explore more genres, but felt that was outside the bounds of "writing in the discipline," which largely seemed to boil down to write academic-journal-style papers. They also recognized the tension between forcing students to learn to use disciplinary writing as a researcher in the field when most of them would not be going on to do that type of work. Students questioned value while professors questioned ethics. It was extremely interesting.

The trio will likely continue working with the extensive data and perhaps publish some of their findings, so I don't want to give away all of their secrets, but I do really want to use their work to think about what it means to be "in the discipline," as they asked the audience to think about. What does it mean to "write in the discipline"? Is "the discourse of the field" only the work published in journals and books? Where do disciplines start and end? How does the way we conceptualize discipline affect how we assign writing?

I thought some of the audience members' questions and comments were very insightful. Here's just a few:
  • Would it be better to consider disciplines as centers rather than closed-off spaces with boundaries?
  • Is the WAC/WID version of disicplinarity just a selling model that positions us in a power relation  over other departments?
  • Is the WAC model more useful than the WID model? Does wider help, or is "honoring of the occasion more helpful"? 
  • It seems that when we consider disciplinarity in writing courses, we get the rhetoric and epistemology stuff, but we seem to miss the "activity systems" part. How can we/should we be more focused on activity systems in the disciplines?

As I prepare my own Writing in the Disciplines course, where my uses of multimodal texts have been minimal and semi-traditional in that they are fairly linear and usually called "papers"-- write a blog, use a screenshot and hyperlinks in an essay, etc.-- I wonder how my own notions of disciplinarity have shaped and possibly limited my students' learning experiences. I thought they should be learning to write as scholars in their disciplines, learning to mimic the style of academic journals, and that there were other types of writing courses to prepare them for those other types of writing (business writing for memos and executive summaries, for example), but I'm not sure they really are getting it elsewhere., especially if this narrow idea of discipline is pervasive throughout the university.

Though I say I focus on genre diversity and teaching students to address contextual/situational elements, I'm now beginning to question my own understanding and application of these terms in my pedagogy. Am I simply (as a panelist said in another presentation) "putting old wine in a new bottle"? What are the alternatives that come with a new definition, especially one that would be more focused on disciplines as centers or conscious of activity systems?

I will be teaching Writing in the Disciplines again in the fall, and while I thought I had pretty much got my syllabus together, I'm now prepared to go back and scrutinize the application of my conception of "discipline." I'm also considering how I can informally replicate some of the work these women did, finding out what they expected from a course called "Writing in the Disciplines," what they learned that was unexpected but valuable, and what they wish they had learned. Suggestions are much appreciated!