redesigning fyc and instructor motives

I was reading Elizabeth Wardle’s article "Can Cross-Disciplinary Links Help Us Teach ‘Academic Discourse’ in FYC?" in Across the Disciplines. I won’t seek to summarize the article here, but one of the things that struck me reading it regarded the way that instructor beliefs about writing, education, and discipline inform the delivery of an FYC program.

Ostensibly, FYC is a "program" with agreed-upon goals and perhaps even methods. However the program is often delivered by instructors with a wide variety of education and teaching experience. There’s little or no disciplinary identity there. Compare this with our literary studies general education courses–Intro to Lit, Intro to Fiction, Intro to Poetry, etc: there’s never any discussion about how to teach these courses or how the courses should meet their goals. Why? I suspect it’s because our instructors have a strong sense of disciplinary identity when it comes literature, even though they don’t necessarily agree with one another.

In the case of FYC, we have instructors who value personal expression; formal style and correctness; critical thinking; adhering to a rigidly defined "academic" discourse; and/or a humanistic, loosely English-disciplinary mode of literacy. We have faculty who are technophiles and others who oppose technology. We can all agree that "students don’t write well" and that this malady/deficiency can be remediated through FYC, but there is significant resistance to the idea of actually changing one’s own class.

If there are three things I’d like to see change in the overall balance of the program, they would be:

  1. Tone down the attention to correctness.
  2. Tone down the near line-editing performed on student drafts by instructors.
  3. Increase the attention paid to non-print media.

In all fairness, this is tantamount to asking others to teach more like me and in that way I’m as guilty of that as anyone. However, I also see this as an authority issue. I believe there is an authority crisis in our FYC program that comes from the fact that our instructors are contingent faculty and also that they do not see themselves as part of rhet/comp (i.e., they have no disciplinary authority). Correcting and editing then become ways of asserting authority in practice; avoiding technology is a way of staying clear of areas where one’s authority is in doubt (i.e., being literate means writing as I write and reading as I read). As such, part of the challenge here lies in building the ethos of the community.

Ultimately, I would like to see us define some general common goals, have conversations about how to achieve those goals, and then allow instructors to figure out how to best achieve those goals in their own courses. Quite simply if we don’t trust our instructors to be able to do that, then we ought not to rehire them.

In terms of the program, we need to move away from our product-orientation. I’m hardly a "process" guy, but our program hinges on a high-stakes portfolio evaluation that is totally a product event. The result is a significant amount of effort placed in the course on creating these products for evaluation. I find this antithetical to my own pedagogy, and my tendency is to subvert/ignore the portfolio evaluation. The portfolio evaluation assumes that it is possible to become a significantly better writer over the course of a semester. This may happen in some cases, but as a general rule I think it’s pretty absurd. I also think it’s fairly unusual to become a significantly better chemist, psychologist, economist or what have you in one semester too.

Finally, the idea of the portfolio as a gatekeeper is just misleading to me. I don’t think any course can assure future performance of any kind. The fact that a student hands in a certain kind of product (after running the panoptic gauntlet of a series of drafts, conferences, and workshops) is absolutely no promise of any kind of future composition, particularly since the contexts of future assignments will be so different. Again, I think it is a question of an authority crisis. I can prove my authority/expertise b/c my students pass the portfolio.

That’s where the issue lies.

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