community, experiment, and the future of composition

The SUNY Council of Writing's annual conference was held yesterday in Buffalo. There were a number of interesting panels. Richard Miller and Kelly Kinney gave excellent plenary talks. Here I want to think about some of these conversations in relation to what we are doing at UB and my own vision for composition's future. 

Kelly is the director of the Writing Initiative at SUNY Binghamton, which recently won an NCTE CCCC award as a program of excellence. What are some of the program's defining features?

  • Autonomy from the English department: this means independent space, budget, and hiring decisions, including deciding which TAs to admit as teachers.
  • Class capped at 16. Binghamton has other courses students can take to meet their writing requirement, so the FYC class is limited to 1st year students only. Still 70-80% of first-year students take the course.
  • 7 full-time faculty: some are traditional ladder faculty housed in the English department (including Kelly) and some are "clinical" faculty (non-research). I think they are at the instructor rank.
  • Adjuncts make $4500 per course, which in part seems doable as I believe she only has two adjuncts.
  • Common syllabus, which includes a portfolio worth 70% of the grade that is evaluated by at least two instructors.
  • Portfolio instructor groups that meet on a weekly (bi-weekly?) basis, which is a great opportunity for professional development.

If there is one area the program is lacking it might be in moving toward digital composing, which is something that Kelly mentioned.  Digital composing was a central issue in Richard Miller's talk yesterday. It was a wide-ranging and well-received talk, and I will only settle on a few salient points. Miller discussed the struggles that students have with the directive to "be interested" in something that leads them to write. He observed that the superabundance of information and media stimulation is a significant factor in our students' (and, let's face it, our own) capacity to sustain a focused interest on a subject. We are all familiar with this argument, I think. We are, I think, equally aware of the countervailing argument that our always connected context facilitates opportunities to do incredible things with our "cognitive surplus." Miller also discussed this. Most importantly, he outlined the ways in which our traditional practices, hinged on the precepts that information is scarce (you have to go to the library and there's only one copy of the book) and mastery means content expertise, no longer applies. Instead, in a condition of information superabundance, mastery comes in the form of "resourcefulness:" having the skills to find the information and put it together for a digital community. For readers here, this message is familiar, but it was very well pitched to the audience yesterday (and still a message that the bulk of my discipline, to say nothing of the rest of the humanities, has failed to hear or understand).

One notable quality of Richard's pedagogy is his emphasis on helping students discover their passions and facilitating their exploration of those passions in a wide range of media and genre. It's a pedagogy that requires flexibility and improvisation from the instructor, which in turn requires a high level of expertise in rhetoric and composition. It also demands a specific pedagogical focus which puts the emphasis on the student where the connection to rhetoric and compositional processes arrives organically. You can check out some of Richard's students' work here. True, these are not FYC students. My point is not to say "look how well the students write." This isn't a heroic pedagogy narrative. Instead, my point is that the kind of appraoch that Richard takes would be difficult to accomplish in Kelly's program.

Or at least so we might think: that there is a tension between a standardized program and a classroom that faciliates this kind of open experimentation and pursuit of student interests. 

I've been thinking about these issues in our own program as we move to adopt a common textbook for our 101 writing course. The convention in the humanities (and elsewhere in the academy) is that professors choose the topics and readings for their courses. This is based, first, on the principle that professors teach a subject rather than teach students, and second, that professors are masters of the subject content. As such, the depiction of FYC as an experimental zone focused on student interests, while not uncommon in the field (at least once upon a time), is quite atypical otherwise.  FYC has become more disciplinary as the field has become more professionalized over the last 20 years (e.g. with the expansion of PhD programs in rhetoric and composition).

However I don't see these different emphases as necessarily opposition; they do require some tuning though. Without expertise in rhet/comp and commitment to its principles, the open FYC class becomes a free-for-all zone where the "content-less" nature of the course links with the conventional humanities impetus of the professor teaching according to her own content mastery to produce a curriculum where students are asked to write on whatever subject interests the instructor. With less experienced instructors it is very hard to get around this situation on some level, even if we attempt to negotiate some middle point where the writing topics represent some hoped for overlap between instructor and student interest/expertise. This is what we typically see with the "readers" publishers produce for FYC. 

We have adopted a common 101 textbook, Mike Palmquist's Joining the Conversation, which is a "rhetoric" (i.e. it offers instruction on rhetorical/compositional practices). The text does little, in my view, to limit the capacity of students to pursue their own interests as writers. As a "purpose-driven" rhetoric, it does introduce students to different purposes student-writers might identify in relation to their interests: evaluating, reporting, proposing, etc.  As such, students in a class might be asked "to evaluate," which might take the form of different genres–all different kinds of reviews (movies, books, performances, restaurants, a product etc.), an op-ed evaluation of a politician or law, an evaluation of a piece of research, a progress evaluation, a self-assessment, and so on. We can then make these genres more varied by intersecting them with different media (a slidecast, a blog post, a letter or memo, an internal report, a classroom essay). In theory, beyond the dictate "to evaluate" a student in a class using this text might choose among many genres depending on what suited her interest, purpose, and audience. In practice, an instructor might require all students to write movie reviews (for example). And in a way this might be understandable, especially for the novice instructor, as handling a wide range of topics and genres is challenging. This is particularly the case when an instructor adds topical readings (to extend my example: sample movie reviews and maybe some more academic/intellectual essay on film). At least in this example, we can hope that most FYC students can stir up some personal interest and expertise in movies. I have made this same choice in desiging the common syllabus taught by our incoming TAs: identifying specific topics in which I hope students and TAs will have some interest/experience–education, creativity, social media, etc. I have also narrowed the genre of a given assignment to make the task more manageable. 

Now I am wondering though if this is really the best decision. I would like to see a curriculum that opened up more opportunities for student interest and experiment, especially across media, while still introducing students to basic rhetorical concepts like purpose, audience, and genre and helping students identify and develop their compositional practices. I am sure the fear would be that chaos would ensue, but my experience is that when FYC students open a word processor they have a hard time writing anything that isn't basically essayistic (i.e. like what they wrote in high school). That's why the digital assignments are so interesting, because they push students into a different compositional network where they can't just replicate what they once did. We would still want students to write essays and draw on academic sources as part of the course. However I think part of the task would be to demonstrate how students can explore their interests and achieve purposes with audiences they seek to address by writing academic essays.

And part of the way I see that happening is in my vision of the future of composition. While I remain skeptical of much of the MOOC bizniz, I am interested in the largely untapped potential of creating real audiences and communities for/of student writers. Skip the 50K random MOOC participants and think for a moment of the 2500 UB FYC students in a given semester. Can we create a digital community that would allow them to share their work with other intersted students (and perhaps a larger web public)? Would there be value (for example) in 1000 students writing reviews of current movies, books, products, local hangouts, bands, events, etc? I think there could be. What if the proposing assignment led 500 students to write proposals to improve some aspect of local university life? What if another 50 wrote proposals to improve a neighborhood? Could something actually emerge from that? Maybe one student in a class wants to analyze fracking and no one else in her class does, but there are 15 other students similarly interested across the program. Could they form a research group together? Give feedback on each other's work? Maybe they could end up producing a collaborative website with academic reports and a multimedia presentation. 

This what I think about when I think about "cognitive surplus." Not untapped brain power necessarily but the way a network creates opportunities for thinking and creating that are not otherwise possible. A common textbook and curriculum would faciliate these kinds of activities, encouraging and empowering experimentation rather than operating in opposition to it. It's an approach that would recognize, as Richard Miller pointed out in his talk, that composing is no longer a cloistered activity.

2 thoughts on “community, experiment, and the future of composition

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    1. That could be. There are “clinical faculty” in the SUNY system who have a parallel structure (i.e asst. prof, assoc. prof, prof) and can rise in rank. They perform different functions across the university but certainly they could be teaching centric and not require research.

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