Sunday, September 28, 2014

Do You Write Assignments for Colleagues or Students?

Every year the university where I work as a writing consult has a school-wide book that all incoming first-year students must read. They've picked some good books-- The Geography of Bliss, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Devil's Highway, and most recently, Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. Every year, though, without doubt, we cringe at the department-wide first writing prompt that students are given based on these texts.

The problem is that every year, without fail, the question is convoluted and overwritten. As a consultant, I have to sit there with a pen, highlighters, and paper to try to make sense of what I'm being asked and how to approach the question. There are too many words on the page. The important information is wedged into distracting excess language. Sometimes, there is even discord between the question and the book's message. Sometimes, I feel like I don't understand the question and therefore can't help students. This year, I found the question particularly problematic because it asked students to analyze a specific high school writing assignment. We have a school with many returning adult students and veterans. This would automatically put them at a disadvantage.

Even more problematic is that this department-wide essay prompt is given for high-stakes writing assignments. For the first three years, the questions were used as placement exam questions. Now, they are being used for the first graded paper and a mandatory portfolio entry. When the question is confusing or even at a level they haven't yet been prepared to meet (first essay before class or first essay of class), it's unfair.

Now, it seems to me that the issue here is that question is being written to impress colleagues and those doling out accreditation. The words are overly scholarly. The ideas are complex. It seems that an incoming first-year student, who may never have seen anything other than the 5-paragraph essay, is a distant thought in the minds of the creator. And that's really unfortunate. If the goal of the department-wide writing prompt is to help students bridge the gap from high school to college while having a diagnostic writing sample, this type of assignment does not provide a clear picture of a students' capabilities.

On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure for this department to demonstrate their worth and excellence at all times. For outsiders, "worth" often comes from complexity, a belief that if something really demonstrates high-level thinking it will be hard for the average person to decipher it. It's not surprising that something like this would develop from that academic cultural tension, and it leads me to wonder what kind of choices I make for the sake of "accountability" or answering to higher ups in my writing assignments.

So what would you do if you had to design a book-related prompt for a large population of students in core classes? How would you approach the task? What would you consider the best theories or best practices to apply in this situation?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Happily Rejected

Over the summer, I considered taking on a full-time position outside of teaching (if you read my last post, you know I chose to leave adjuncting behind). One of the positions I applied for was the Tutorial Services Coordinator for the North Orange County Community College District. I didn't get the job.

What I did get was a rejection letter-- a real, hard-copy one on stationary. And I loved it.

Now, it sounds weird to appreciate rejection, but in an employers' market, there are so many times when hiring committees/managers won't bother to let you know they received your application, let alone tell you that the position has been filled. Job hopefuls are left sitting on their hands, wondering whether they're being considered or their resumes have already been moved to the trash bin. The letter was a classy move.

Here is the body of the letter:

Rejection can make you feel worthless, but this letter actually made a point to remind the person who they were rejecting that it wasn't anything personal. It wasn't a reflection of lack. It was simply that someone else had what they needed at that given moment-- a simple business decision. 

I feel that the North Orange County Community College District went above and beyond in preparing this letter for rejected applicants because, even though I know this is a form letter sent to other hopefuls, they took the time to put a name on the letter, and they mailed it to my address. They treated me as an individual. A small, but significant effort that made a big impact, one that can be easily replicated.

I think more employers, especially universities, could take a lesson from the way that the North Orange County Community College District handled the hiring process. It's not very difficult to form-fill with computers. A mass email could even be sent, even without the applicant's name. It simply gives applicants closure and the ability to seek out other opportunities, instead of waiting on ones that they can't be certain are open or closed.



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Bittersweet Beginnings: After Adjuncting

Yesterday, I did something I never thought I would do. I formally gave up my teaching position. This Fall, no one will call me Professor Papaioannou. I won't get to enjoy the shocked looks when someone asks me what I do for a living, and I tell them I teach at a university. I won't meet a new classroom full of new students who rely on me for guidance and support. I won't get to have the wonderful exchanges with colleagues during meetings and project building sessions. It's really a very bittersweet moment for me.

I love teaching. I do. I love students and collaboration and leadership and everything that comes with it-- except the system of adjuncting itself, which leaves you in a constant survival loop all for the chance of finding a job someday maybe. Leaving teaching behind really had to do with stability. I became anxious all the time, wondering how I would pay my bills or how I would find time to squeeze in writing my dissertation (which is costing me over $1300 a semester to write). I started to doubt that I was good enough to be in a doctoral program because I couldn't clear my head enough to make sense of my research. It made me feel like I would never finish or never get to reach the other life goals that I had for myself. This is something I hear almost every doctoral student starts to experience as they near the end phase of their degree. It might seem to some as impatience or not being able to deal with being uncomfortable, but it became about a basic quality of life.

A picture of me taken by a student
while teaching my first writing course
I started teaching 4 years ago as a doctoral teaching fellow during the 2010-2011 school year. The next year, I became an adjunct. I drove to Queens from central New Jersey once a week and spent my whole day on campus. The next year, I spent a semester on the Staten Island campus, which was a much shorter commute, before returning to Queens. Then, I took a job at my alma mater. I took the job because I was told it would be good prep for the possibility of a full-time position in the department, a Composition position that they had just gotten a line for. When that job came around, though, I was still working on my dissertation. I wasn't qualified for the position, and so I was passed over. I decided to stay on as an adjunct anyway because I loved the department and the students. Since the job search failed the first year, I figured I would try again the following year. Again, though, doing a qualitative study takes time, and I still didn't have the degree to qualify me for the position when the next year's job search came around. They found someone (who I happen think is a great fit), and I was left with the option to continue adjuncting at a university that was 86 miles away from home.

I intended to stay on this year, figuring that I needed to be teaching to be relevant after graduation and that the department was pleasant and the students were engaged. At the same time, the more I thought about this semester, the more anxious I became-- tuition, healthcare costs, commuting expenses that were topping out in the $3500 range per semester, hours spent in my car, and a lack of socialization because I couldn't afford to do anything anymore. I felt like I was paying to go to work. Some people would say to look at it like an internship, earning my way to a higher position, but let's be real-- no on wants to be an intern for 5 years. I also felt like every time I tried to go above and beyond, I was pushed back down, either by time constraints or unnecessary bureaucracy/micromanagement. I was afraid to talk to my advisor because I thought she'd just tell me I was being silly, that all doctoral students struggled, that real academics stayed in academia (she didn't, for the record). This all made me an unpleasant, unproductive person. I found myself complaining all the time to those around me. I didn't like the person I was becoming.



So I struck out and did some research to see what else I could do. And you know what I found? Lots. Lots of things that still involved education, writing, working collaboratively, making a positive impact, and being a leader. I realized that I was clinging to teaching in part because I liked the job, but also in very large part because I simply liked the respect that others outside of academia gave me for being a professor, especially because they always thought I was too young to be one, and because I felt that it was what was expected of me as a doctoral student. But liking that people are shocked at your title or living up to others' expectations for you aren't very good reasons for continuing to do something.

The minute I heard back from my supervisor acknowledging my resignation, I felt a huge weight lifted. For the first time in a long time, I didn't feel like I was hanging off the edge. I felt closer to completing all my goals, including my doctoral degree. I went to work at the writing center that day not stressed about making money to afford gas to get to work or finding time to revise syllabuses, but making a schedule to work on my dissertation and plotting what I could do with the money saved. It felt wonderful.

I am still a writing consultant, so it's not like student interaction and writing pedagogy have been completed yanked out of my life. And while I'm sure I'll miss teaching, I also have some fantastic opportunities on the horizon. I feel re-energized by the possibilities I find as I explore my options.

Does this mean I will never teach again? I don't know. At the moment, though, I'm pretty committed to the idea that I will never adjunct again. In truth, I'm not sure what this all means for me in the long term, but I do know that I'm excited to find out and that's way better than what I've been feeling for a while now.

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."

Today...

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

image from pixbay.com
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

image from pixbay.com
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: http://meaningfulwritingproject.net/, 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!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

IWAC 2014: Where did the currents take me?



I just returned from the 2014 IWAC (International Writing Across the Curriculum) Conference at the University of Minnesota, and I have to say it was one of my best conference experiences yet. The presentations were engaging, the people were open and friendly, and Minneapolis was a great city.

During my brief two days there, I managed to sit in on 5 panels, one in which I presented, a keynote, and an incredible plenary session. In truth, it made me a little sad that I'm not a WAC WPA because I would have loved the opportunity to implement some of the ideas that were discussed at the universities where I am involved in writing pedagogy.

The Panels


Here is a brief overview of the titles of the panels that I attended:
  • Role Reversal: When Students Teach Faculty in WAC Programs - Deanna Daniels & Brandy Grabow, Kate Ronald & Lucy Manley, and Greg Skutches
  • Writing Beyond the Curriculum - Nicole Papaioannou, Dan Reis & Caroline Klidonas, and KaaVonia Hinton & Yonghee Suh
  • Interrogating Disciplinarity in WAC/WID: An Institutional Ethnography - Anne Ruggles Gere, Naomi Silver, & Melody Pugh
  • Teaching Meaningful Writing: What Faculty Say About Writing Assignments in Their Disciplines - Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, & Neal Lerner
  • Multimodal Literacy: Writing, Reading, & Transfer - Andrea Glover, Maggie Christensen, and G. Travis Adams
I will take some time to address the larger issues in each of these panels in separate posts, but I wanted to recap some of the big questions that I've started to ask as a result of these panels and some of the discussion that followed. I picked one large question that was sparked by each.
  • Does the campus culture empower students?
  • How can on-campus organizations make use of student writers and also enhance student writing?
  • How do we frame disciplines? Should we moving toward a theory of centers rather than a theory of boundaries?
  • What makes a writing assignment meaningful?
  • Should we shift to a WRAC model (writing and reading across the curriculum)?
These questions may be brief in text, but responses are complex, and the ways in which those responses shape student learning experiences and faculty development are important.

The Plenary


The plenary session focused on creating sustainable WAC programs and was led by an A-team of scholars-- Chris Anson, Kathleen Blake Yancey, Chris Thaiss, Linda Adler-Kassner, and Bob McMaster-- who role-played how they would deal with a failing, under-resourced WAC program (a very cool divergence from the traditional plenary talk). Anson would propose scenarios, building the complexities facing the school bit by bit, and the 5 others would respond on the fly. They did not know what they would be asked beforehand.

 As some who hopes to be a WPA one day, I was really intrigued by how the scholars embodied the different thought processes, concerns, and strengths of each individual involved in a WAC initiative, ranging from department chairs to WAC directors to provosts to students. I thought, aside from having a bit of fun, they were incredibly in-tune with those that they served and incredibly empathetic. It helped me see what I might come up against should I someday be invited to try to enhance or save a WAC program.

The speakers reminded the audience that sustainability went beyond a current context and a current moment and planned for the future. The solution also had to be built within the framework of the local context with input from all stakeholders (as much as possible, that is). Top-down initiatives would feel imposing and oppressive and often fail to effectively use the strengths of the parties involved. Collaboration, where possible, is a wonderful thing.
The most important things I took away were:

  1. Understand the campus climate and be prepared to work within it, even if the aim is to change it. No model is one-size-fits-all when it comes to campus writing initiatives.
  2. Be sensitive to people's fears and frustrations. See challenges as moments for reflection, negotiation, or collaborative education.
  3. Bring joy into the work. Focus on the pleasures of learning from one another and the pleasure of writing.
What seems evident from these talks and discussions is that the people here really care about their students and their colleagues. While many people were doing serious research, it was easy to see how much of it could be put into practice and was largely aimed at contributing to a positive learning environment for everyone involved. IWAC really made me excited about the work I'm doing, the field that I intend to contribute to, and continued interactions with the people who I am privileged to call my colleagues. I'm looking forward to (fingers crossed) attending again in 2016.

I would love to hear from IWAC-attendees about their experiences at the conference and from those interested in campus writing initiatives what to make of some of these big questions and themes.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Back to High School: What Do High School Students Want to Know About College Writing?

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting 7 high school senior English classes with three of my colleagues from the writing center. Our mission was to introduce high school students to the world of college writing before they got there. It was a great day, and I really enjoyed getting to learn what high school students thought about college writing.

While we prepared a great handout that talked about being context-appropriate, making arguments, and campus resources, etc., we wound up turning our original formal lecture with some discussion plan into a Q & A session. Our icebreaker was to have each student write a question or something they'd heard about college writing down and put it in a basket. Then we would read a few anonymously and discuss in conjunction with our planned lecture/handout. This wound up being the heart of each presentation, which tackled most of the stuff we had written down for them anyway.

I thought it was really a great moment. We saw how much high school students already knew and what they feared most. Here are some of the most asked questions:
How much writing is there? 
Is college writing really hard? 
How long is a typical paper in college? 
How many research papers will I write in a semester?
How serious is plagiarism?/Is it really important to use MLA citations?
Of course, most of our answers came with a "it depends" disclaimer, though we told students that they should expect to write in every major and that it was "harder" but only in the sense that it was more advanced (like high school had been in comparison to junior high). My colleague explained that work was scaffolded, typically, and that they wouldn't be expected to write 25 page papers on day one and that different disciplines had different approaches to writing. She also explained that college writing was like going to the gym-- on day 1, no one picks up the 100-lb. weight, but with time, we can lift much more than expected. We reminded them that they were students, and that they were there because they had something to learn, that they shouldn't be discouraged if they didn't find immediate success, but be open to constructive criticism and learning experiences. We also encouraged students to be proactive and to talk to their professors when they had questions or concerns.

Some of the other things they heard about college writing weren't as easy to respond to. For example, one student said something along the lines of "I heard college professors are biased and will grade you poorly if you don't agree with their views." We had to say that, though this wasn't the majority, it was at times true. We  also explained that teachers were people and that inflammatory writing would likely be met with inflammatory grading and that they would have to work harder to prove something they knew a teacher wouldn't believe to be true on the surface. We encouraged students not to go in with the attitude that their teachers wanted them to buy into whatever they thought, though, and to stand by what they were passionate about while being aware that they might have to work hard to make others see their perspective sometimes.

We also had students ask, "Will essay writing be useful outside of school?" This was my favorite question, of course. The one thing I really emphasized was that they needed writing in life. They might not need to write essays, but they would need to be able to show people how their logic process worked and to provide evidence for their claims. They would also be able to use writing to help them reflect and record, something oral communication couldn't do. It was necessary to help them make sense of complex ideas in class and help them succeed in the professional world, but also to be able to change the world in the ways they wanted to. This seemed to resonate with them.

Aside from the advice we offered them, I really learned a lot about how much high school seniors know, how much high school English has changed since I graduated high school 10 years ago, and also how little has changed since I was in high school. The students were still a little immature, loud in the hallways, chatty when they first walked in, etc. At the same time, they were engaged in the conversation about college writing. Their teachers were showing them how to write something other than the five-paragraph theme essay, giving them more non-fiction texts to read, and talking to students about analysis and critical thinking. We were expecting shock when we said you could write something other than five paragraph essays, but there was none; they already knew. It seems like they are better prepared for FYW and college-writing than I was.

Meeting with the high school seniors makes me look forward to teaching FYW again next semester, and of course, I hope they all find success in college and beyond.

Friday, May 30, 2014

4 Things I've Learned from My Dissertation:

That Don't Actually Have to Do with My Research Question


I've been working on my dissertation for two full academic years (plus one long summer), and if you've read my earlier posts, you know it hasn't been all rainbows and butterflies. Now that the struggle of the recruitment process has eased up a bit, though, I'm able to finally enjoy my research.

So far, I've held four full sets of interviews and five half-sets with undergraduates and recent graduates. I feel incredibly lucky to have had such great participants who were willing to share so much of their lives, identities, and experiences with me. What I'm learning, beyond the stuff that I'm supposed to be learning about my research question, is also pretty awesome and exciting for me.


1. Undergraduates are incredibly articulate. 

This is the one that really stood out to me. I spend a lot of time with undergraduates, and I hear them talk about their ideas, but it's usually when they're struggling that they come to me, not when they're feeling confident or accomplished. I was wowed by the way these undergraduates talked about complex theories and hands-on approaches to tough problems. I was also impressed by the way they interacted with me and how they thought about my research project. As I spoke to these undergraduates, I was reminded how incredibly sharp and articulate undergraduates can be when they take pride in what they have done. 

2. The art of response is definitely still an art.

One of my biggest challenges as an interviewer has been responding to students, especially those who are incredibly articulate, and especially when I'm focused on listening and absorbing what they're saying. Sometimes, they get way ahead of my thought process. Sometimes, they say so much more than I can take in. At times, I am so awestruck that I have a hard time finding my next thought. It's no different than I feel in class when discussion takes an unexpected turn. Responding on the fly is definitely still a skill that I need to further develop. Though most people think questions shape the interview, I am learning that responses can also have a large impact on the direction of the conversation. They direct the conversation and either put the subject at ease or do the opposite.

3. People from the Midwest talk a lot faster than I thought they would-- and other ways that my own biases have been revealed to me. 

I've been lucky to travel more than many people, but I admit still have preconceived notions of how things are that sometimes colors my judgment of things. It's a been a "check your privilege" kind of moment for me. At the same time, it's also been a little bit of a "your privilege is made up in your head" moment. Being from the NYC metropolitan area, I've experienced New York City and all the diversity of life it has to offer, including Broadway plays, knowing people of many races and religions on a personal level, and living in an environment that supports professional women rather than pulling them back to home and religious spaces. That has definitely colored my experienced, and I realize that I am privileged to have access to all of that. On the other hand, I've always been told my life that I was "privileged" because others didn't have those experiences in a way that made their experiences seem lesser. Different is not lesser, though; it is only different. Interviewing people from across the country has made me acknowledge some of my biases and really think about how they influence my decision-making and communicating.

4. We're all human.  

Talking to people I have never met before has really reminded me that we're all just human. We typically enjoy sharing experiences, storytelling, and helping one another out. Despite our differences-- age, region, ethnicity, etc--, at the core, I've found that we are more alike than different. We all just want to achieve our goals and find our purpose in this world. 

I've been really lucky to have these experiences. At this point, I've spoken with 9 different students/alumi, and they are all incredible. They have done amazing things spurred by their own volition. I'm looking forward to analyzing their experiences and writing in more depth and using what they've taught me to help teach others about constructing positive learning environments.

Even if you're not doing formal research, I really encourage everyone to reach across the table and talk to others about their experiences-- whether that's faculty talking to students, talking to people who come from a region of the world you've never been to, or talking to someone who has lived through things you have little experience with. What you learn from narratives and from conversation affect you in ways that books and research may never be able to. They remind you that we all have a journey to fulfill, and even if we're thousands of miles apart, we're all in this world together.

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Wizard's Words of Wisdom

"Think of the solution, not the problem."

That is a line from one of my favorite books, The Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind. The book is mostly about Richard Cypher, a woodsman who faces enormous tragedy and learns that he is a wizard--- I think of the Sword of Truth Series as an adult version of the Harry Potter series (and highly recommend it to everyone!). In this moment, as Richard agonizes over all the way things could go wrong while trying to pretty much save the world, Zedd (Richard's mentor) tells Richard  he must "think of the solution, not the problem." This line stuck with me from the first time I read it nearly ten years ago.

This year, I've really tried to make this my mantra, and I thought that, in the midst of the chaos of the end of the semester/academic year, it was worth sharing with all of my educator and student friends out there.

In many ways, this mantra stands against a lot of what I've learned as a graduate student, where I've constantly been encouraged to problematize everything. Problematizing isn't a bad strategy for getting started, recognizing what's not working, but when it leaks into all facets of life, including your ability to complete tasks, problematizing can become a problem. I think many of us spend way too much time focusing on what's wrong instead of how to fix what's wrong, and all it does it give us things to fret about, to complain about, to write Facebook rants about.

But when it comes to practicality over intellectualizing, action over hypothesizing, sometimes, we just need to stop problematizing and focus on simplifying. This is especially true during finals season when things tend to pile up in sometimes conflicting ways. Sometimes, agonizing over all the ways that these problems can negatively impact you can actually prevent you from being able to take action, simply resulting in more stress.

When I stop thinking about everything on my plate or all the ways things could not work out, I become a better person. I focus in on my strategy and deal with problems as they come instead of panicking about problems that I may never face. I am less edgy and more productive (hey, look, even got a blog post done in the middle of conferencing and grading) because I have less floating around in my head to clog up my problem-solving abilities. I am nicer to the people around me. Even though I'm stressed and there are 600 things that need to be done at any given moment and a bunch of life-altering decisions to be made, the struggle is actually mostly internal.

I know some people will argue, "well, I can't do that," and I am sometimes one of them--I am not an ideal being and fall into traps sometimes too- but I promise you, you are capable of applying this philosophy. It takes a commitment to yourself. We have to remember we are strong, we are resilient, and we can take whatever comes our way, as long as we focus on our strategies and our abilities to tackle these issues rather than focus on the problem itself and how terrible it is. We can do this by not only telling ourselves to "think of the solution, not the problem," but by breaking things down into manageable tasks instead of focusing on everything as a whole. We can also ask for help when help is needed. Things will or will not get done regardless of how much anxiety we make ourselves feel. The key is to focus on what is within our control and let go of that which is not if we are to be our best selves.


Monday, March 10, 2014

What's in a Name?: A Response to Katrina Gulliver's "Too Much Informality"

A recent article on Inside Higher Ed called "Too Much Informality" by Katrina Gulliver sparked controversy when it proclaimed that every professor should call themselves by title (Dr./Professor), call students by their title (Mr./Ms.), and expect the same treatment from students. It claimed that using first names promoted a lack of respect and professionalism. Her ideas definitely didn't sit well with me.
For starters, it really upsets me when people blame students and generalize entire populations of young adults as rude and disrespectful. I would argue that those students are the minority. I would even go so far as to say that many of those who blame the students for having no respect, often do not respect the students and consider them beneath them, as I think Professor Gulliver does.
At my first teaching job, I used my first name--Nicole. As a doctoral student, I didn't quite feel comfortable being addressed as professor, and I use more of a guide/coach strategy than acting as the authority, so I thought using my first name reflected my values. Some of my students did not feel comfortable using just my first name, so they called me Professor Nicole or Ms. P. We had a great relationship. They wrote evaluations that praised my teaching and continue, years later, to ask me for advice on school and writing and recommendation letters. I earned their respect by showing them I had their best interests in mind and that I knew my stuff. I didn't simply expect the "professor" title to make me a professor.
I carried that same notion into my next teaching job. After reviewing course evaluations, where students referred to me as "Nicole," I was scolded by the chair who asked me not to be be so informal. I explained my position and why I allowed students to use my first name and was told, "you are the authority." In other words, I had no choice but to refer to myself Professor Papaioannou, even with my returning adult students. Don't get me wrong. My chair isn't a bad-guy figure. I respect her and find that she is an advocate for pedagogy based on scholarship. This is one area, though, where I am forced to comply with a policy that I think is dated.
Regardless of what I call myself, I see little change in students' perceptions of my ability to help them improve their writing. It is as Will Miller states in his rebuttal "Professionalism and Formality": "I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees." If you're doing a good job, your work will demand respect.
Furthermore, what many people consider rude, may just be opportunities for teachable moments. Emails like the "Hey prof" may be based on a lack of understanding of the rhetorical functions of an email to a professor or may even be a sign that they find you likable enough to say "hey." Most high school students are unaccustomed to emailing their teachers, and most high school jobs are set in casual atmospheres-- camp counseling, waiting tables, working a register, babysitting-- that would not require formal transactions with bosses. Students can't be expected to know what they've never been taught.

Moreover, how you are addressed is often tied to culture. As Gulliver points out, she became more conscious of this shift after seeing how students referred to her in different cultural contexts. She writes: "Perhaps this [tendency to use first names] has struck me particularly as I went from living in Germany, where even to colleagues I was 'Frau Gulliver,' to teaching in Australia where students seem surprised I even have a last name." For one, it upsets me that she positions the German way as better than the Australian way. And of course, Australia is not alone in the first-name basis method. Again, what appears evident is that names have very little, if any, impact on students' ability to act as professionals. The article seems to promote elitism far more than professionalism.

And finally, it made me extremely upset that Gulliver decided that the "Miss" or "Sir" students had used to refer to high school teachers was inappropriate because professor is a much higher position than a mere teacher. First, she disregards that students are, in fact, trying to show respect and makes them seem foolish, instead of recognizing that they don't know what they haven't learned yet. But even more problematic is that she is creating a hierarchy where professors are better than other types of educators. We are cut from the same cloth. 

Most importantly, professionalism is context-based. Professional means something different in different disciplines, cultures, and spaces. In some cases, people are even offended by over-formality in professional settings. Students develop professionalism by participating as members of their field, learning the conventions of their discipline,  and reading scholarship related to their future prospects. It has little to do with what they call their teachers. I called teachers by their first names if they asked to be called that, and it did not influence whether or not I respected them. If anything, it made me more likely to email them when I had legitimate questions or to collaborate with them. Just think of it this way -- Do you call your boss by their first name? If you do, does it make you respect them less? I'd bet not. 

Instead of emphasizing formality, Gulliver should emphasize teachable moments, close reading skills, rhetorical analysis skills, and opportunities for exploring professional discourse. Those are the skill sets that lead to proper, context-appropriate interaction and success in professional settings.

So before you judge a student, consider your own perceptions and treatment of them. Then, select a name for yourself that you are comfortable with.


*This post is a revision and expansion of a previously submitted comment to Miller's "Professionalism and Formality."

**update 5/30/14 -- A student recently pointed out to me that using Miss/Mr. to refer to students is also a problem because it assumes their gender identity. She also pointed out a moment where a student was referred to by the wrong gender label (Mr. when she was a Miss) and horribly embarrassed her and set the tone for student interactions in the class for the rest of the semester. The use of first names would easily have prevented that issue from occurring.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Measure of a Scholar: Doubt and Insecurity During the Dissertation

Right now, I'm at the beginning phases of my dissertation study. It's been quite a journey getting to this point. One I'm not sure that I was prepared for. One that has taken much longer than I thought it would. I'm writing this blog post because I'm sure there are others out there, like me, who will be totally surprised by the path their graduate work takes them, who will be a bit shaken when things don't go quite according to plan, but who probably also need to know that that's ok.

In May 2012, I passed my comprehensive exams. I was so excited! I figured, "it's go time!" In my Virgo over-planning mind, I figured I'd have my prospectus done in the middle of the fall semester, I'd write my first chapter by the middle of Spring, knock out the rest by the following year and defend soon after that. I figured it would take just a little longer than my lengthy thesis for my masters program. I couldn't wait to be Dr. P!

It's been almost 2 years, and I haven't even started writing chapters. 

Instead of the process I imagined, a year and a half to write a dissertation, it took me a year and a half to get a prospectus approved. It wasn't because I was lazy and put things off. I was writing and reading the whole time. I think I have something like 31 drafts. When I sat in my dissertation workshop week after week and heard my peers get their prospectuses approved, start chapters, and defend, it made me feel really inadequate. The hardest one for me to swallow was when a student who began her work only a bit before me-- and who seemed to have followed the same path from lit to writing studies-- managed to complete her dissertation in about a year. I didn't understand why I was falling so far behind. From time to time, I even thought maybe I just wasn't cut out to be a doctoral student, that I wasn't of the caliber to do that kind of research.

Sometimes, I still have those thoughts. It's almost mid-semester, and I've been working on recruiting undergrads for my dissertation study for a few weeks now. I guess because I strongly believe in the work I'm doing, I thought on some level that others would be equally excited. I imagined being overwhelmed with responses rather than underwhelmed. I didn't really take into consideration how difficult it would be to find participants. I thought I'd be doing interviews and have notes already.

My biggest challenge is managing myself.

The dissertation comes with many challenges. It's time consuming. You must learn the conventions of your discipline as you research and write. Sources can be hard to track down. Participants might not flock to you. None of these will be as difficult as managing yourself, though.

It's much more difficult to stop thinking about your insecurities-- how much you don't know, how many times you mess up along the way, how many times you had to ask for help, how slow you must be because Suzie Q is so much further along with her project, how your writing is no where near as good as Dr. X's, how you can't even process thoughts as deep and insightful as the great-and-all-powerful Oz. The worst one for me... how my friends are buying homes, getting married, and having babies while I had to move back in with my parents and am working part-time jobs to make ends-meet.... There's just an endless list of doubts and flaws. You can get lost in the way you don't measure up.

If you're like me, or if you might be about to be like me, then, I have three words of advice for you:

Knock that off!

Seriously, the hardest lesson for me to learn and something I have to constantly remind myself of is that I must stop comparing myself to others in a competitive way. It's great to look at what someone else is doing and use it as inspiration or just notice how well what they are doing is working for them, but saying "why can't I be like that?" is only counterproductive. It clogs up your focus and makes you feel incapable of things you are certainly most capable of. Sometimes, it even makes you want to throw away years of work and sacrifice to have it go away. In simplest of terms: it's bad; don't do it.

Once I figured that out, things got a little better. I try to keep in mind that I am my own person with my own journey. In my case, I have to give myself a little credit for shifting gears and remember that it takes time, probably a lot more than the 2-3 years I've had, to become fluent in a discipline. Changing over from lit to writing studies left me with some things to learn. And qualitative studies definitely take more time and have more variables than making an argument about published texts that are not in flux. I'm also younger than many of my peers in the doctoral program and had some growing room to take up. Plus, assuming I don't get hit by a bus or fall off a cliff any time soon, I'm looking at an 80ish-year life expectancy with plenty of time for buying houses and making babies that I'm not sure I want yet anyway. It will be much harder for my friends who have all that responsibility to decide to pursue my level of education for the next 25 years or so at least. I'll get where I need to be as long as I stay focused.

So, next time you're feeling down, think about this:

If you're working on your doctoral degree, you have an opportunity that most people will never have in their lifetimes. Not just one person, but a whole committee of people, agreed that you were the right choice for that program when pooled with a giant pile of program applicants.

And if you're working on a dissertation, there is a committee of people who believed enough in your ability to perform scholarship that they were willing to take time out of their work to see you complete yours.

Now, go be productive :) and remember....






Saturday, February 8, 2014

Starting My Dissertation Study - YAY! - Call for Participants :)

I am proud to announce that I am beginning my dissertation research! I am looking for undergraduates/recent grads to participate in a qualitative study on writing through the classroom and beyond. Do you know a student who used class writing-- no matter how formal or informal-- to springboard to a larger project beyond the class without being required to do so? I would love to talk to them!

Seeking nominations and/or interested parties. 

Please feel free to forward or share this call for participants. Thank you! 

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1K0xbY8lSemh9WothJ59sb40WRje59q18jHfwHmqWVs0/edit?usp=sharing

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Class, Upward Mobility, and the History of Literacy

Recently, I've been thinking about the issue of upward mobility, especially how education plays a factor in that process. Theoretically, a college education will help ensure that an individual winds up within or above middle class, but the ability to complete that education or make use of that degree is becoming more challenging, especially for those who do not have the advantage of wealth.

In thinking about these issues, I stumbled onto "Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital" by Richard Ohmann in my Cross-Talk in Comp Theory book. The first part of the essay describes the development of the terms "literacy" and "illiteracy" as we use it today. One idea becomes very clear. The term is tied directly to class. Ohmann explains "[literacy education] was a top-down discourse from the start, and its participants almost invariably took the underlying question to be: how can we keep the lower orders docile?" (701). Indeed, the main purpose seemed to be for white men to keep immigrants from taking the country into moral ruin and crime. Ohmann continues on: "Once the lower orders came to be seen as masses and classes, the term 'literacy' offered a handy way to conceptualize an attribute of theirs, which might be manipulated in one direction or the other for the stability of the social order and the prosperity and security of the people who counted" (701). In other words, the people at the top developed education to continue reaping the benefits at the top. I have to admit that reading this brief history of the development of mass education made me feel pretty grimy, but I also have to admit that this 19th century view of education sounds very much like the 21st century view.

Ohmann's history delves into the economic reasons for literacy discourse, as well. He notes that the "dangerous classes" were created by industrialism and the fierce competition. Attempting to avoid falling profits, businessmen continuously cut the wages of workers, which "led to all but open class warfare" (702). This also led to the development of "monopoly capitalism," the type of capitalism that is characterized by large impersonal corporations with multiple tiers of management. All of this was occurring at the end of the 19th century, about the same time literacy discourse, as we know it today, was developing. In Marxist terms, "docile bodies" were needed to work.

Ohmann extends his conversation on literacy to include mass culture and computer literacy. Though published in 1985, his predictions about computer literacy are hauntingly spot-on:
Graduates of MIT will get the challenging jobs; community college grads will be technicians; those who do no more than acquire basic skills and computer literacy in high school will probably find their way to electronic workstations at McDonald's. I see every reason to expect that the computer revolution, like other revolutions from the top down, will indeed expand the minds and the freedom of an elite, meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been hallmarks of monopoly capitalism from its onset. (709)


 Is this not our reality today?

In opposition to this top-down regulated literacy construct, Ohmann offers the Cuban campaign to improve the literacy of illiterate peasants. Instead of teachers, brigadistas, tutor/mentors as young as 10-19 years old, volunteered to help their fellow countrymen. The peasants wanted to learn because they saw being literate as a step towards revolution. The system worked well because the people felt they had a purpose, and it was important to their own well-being.

So what can we learn from Ohmann's piece, even though it was written nearly 30 years ago? Literacy crises are made up to suit capitalist needs (What's that? You have bad teachers. Don't worry, we'll make fool-proof scripted curriculums for $1 million dollars a pop. What's that? You don't know how to tell if kids are smart or not. We've got a great billion-dollar testing package for you to try out). It creates problems that need products and services, and it creates consumers who are committed to buying products to help them succeed. At the same time, literacy has become tied into the reality of the world we live in. In order to help individuals succeed, we cannot treat literacy as morality. We can't assume those who struggle with reading, writing, or computer skills are "bad" or "poor" students (just look at the terms we used to describe them). Furthermore, we need to show people how to use literacy for their own purposes, not just to pass exams or get a job, whether that's filling out a form for financial aid or writing a text to a friend.

Ohmann ends with these lines, and I would like to, as well: "It's worth trying to reconstitute literacy as a process of liberation-- but also to remember that work for literacy is not in itself intrinsically liberating. The only way to have a democracy is to make one" (713).