building a campus culture of writing #sunycow2014

Below is the text of my presentation at the SUNY Council of Writing conference, delivered yesterday in Syracuse as part of a panel of the role of student desire in developing writing programs.

Building a Campus Culture of Writing

On a campus like UB with nearly 30,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff spread around the planet studying abroad, conducting research, attending our Singapore campus, and here in western New York, we might say that writing is a non-stop activity. We might say that writing is a integral activity in virtually all the communities on campus from the football team to the contractors building the medical campus to the admissions office, the various deans’ offices, and of course every academic department to say nothing of all the media composition at work and play on a campus: emails, text messages, selfies, tweets, and so on.

We might say that. But if we did, what would the word “writing” mean? What, if anything, holds these activities together to create something we might call a “culture of writing”?

The discourses surrounding the notion of “student need” offer one approach to this question. More than 20 years ago in his book Fragments of Rationality, Lester Faigley offered an observation about student desires in his description of the intra-disciplinary conflicts within rhetoric and composition at that time. As he writes, “many of the fault lines in composition studies are disagreements over the subjectivities that teachers of writing want students to occupy” (17). We can read this two ways. First, Faigley was observing that the disagreements among composition scholars could be understood in terms of the different ways they theorized subjectivity and desire. This is perhaps still true, though the theories have changed somewhat. The second more complicated reading focuses on the desires of teachers for students to occupy particular subjective positions. That is, fault lines emerge over our desire for students to think and feel, or at least behave, in certain ways.

I believe this condition is only intensified in our failed attempts to develop campus wide cultures of writing. All too often we hear ego-driven heroic pedagogy narratives that begin and end with an assertion of authority and expertise that seeks to ground arguments about the subject positions that students should occupy as writers across the campus. That is, what students should be doing, what they need to be doing. Understandably, rhetoric and composition, as a discipline, has much at stake in these narratives. When, in his 1991 essay “Three Countertheses: Or, A Critical In(ter)vention into Composition Theories and Pedagogies,” Victor Vitanza’s seriocomically wonders if the CCCC could ever have as it’s conference theme the question “Should writing be taught?” he is pointing to a paradigmatic disciplinary foundation in a particular view of writing, as well as the necessity of teaching it. It’s a view that drives our desire to build a “culture of writing,” a desire that rises as “writing,” whatever that is, becomes increasingly untenable. Indeed I imagine anyone in our discipline can already feel the response welling up within them to say “Yes exactly. It is because we are losing grip on writing as a culture that we rhetoricians need to hold on that much more tightly.”

But allow me to return to Lester Faigley, this time in his 1996 CCCC address where he imagined that “If we come back to our annual convention a decade from now and find that the essay is no longer on center stage, it will not mean the end of our discipline. I expect that we will be teaching an increasingly fluid, multimedia literacy” (40-41). Of course that didn’t really happen. Eight years later, in her 2004 address to CCCC, Kathleen Yancey echoed Faigley: “New composition includes the literacy of print: it adds on to it and brings the notions of practice and activity and circulation and media and screen and networking to our conceptions of process. It will re-quire a new expertise of us as it does of our students. And ultimately, new composition may require a new site for learning for all of us” (320). One one level, it would simply be impossible for any academic discipline to remain unchanged in the wake of the Internet revolution. Every academic in every field has seen the ways research is published and accessed shift.  However, the essay remains at center stage of our field, as a genre of scholarly production and as a classroom assignment, and if there is a new site for learning, as Yancey describes, few have travelled there and even fewer have stayed.

The essay has remained the standard of humanities scholarly production, as well as the typical genre of the humanities curriculum. But much has happened in the 15-20 years since Faigely was offering his prognostication. According to the US department of education around 40% of the majors offered at US colleges today didn’t exist in the early 1990s. The majority of these majors are in professional schools, which in turn point to a proliferation of activities that we might loosely characterize as writing on campus. For anyone who has been an academic during this period, this shift would have been hard to miss. It would be equally hard to fail to recognize that our students, along with many others around the world, are now communicating by a plethora of digital means. Today, we still often refer to the excellent longitudinal study of student writers carried at Stanford by Andrea Lunsford and her colleagues. That study revealed the extensive amount of self-sponsored and multimedia writing undertaken by students. However that study ended in 2006. Just to put that in context. There were no iphones in 2006 and Facebook had 12 million users, as opposed to the more than one billion today. Compared to a decade ago, our communicational environment today is unrecognizable. As is evident across the spectrum of academic discourses from articles in the Chronicle to journal articles and even curricular and classroom policies, we may want to call those activities writing, so that we can lay claim to them, but we also want to refute their status as writing in the name of some other “culture of writing.” For even Faigley and Yancey, with their unrealized visions of the future of our discipline, still imagine something called “writing” at the center of it. But if so, what does that word mean?

Even if we limit ourselves quite narrowly to the communication practices undertaken in undergraduate course, one unavoidably recognizes that different departments will teach their students different genres. What status do we attribute to those genres in relation to the more nebulous disciplinary abstraction of “writing”? Do we simply rehearse the devaluation carried out historically against rhetoric by suggesting that learning to write in a given genre is a formalistic, stylistic, superficial task, one that is necessary, of course, but not truly intellectual? If we manage to make this argument then we allow ourselves to maintain some imagined domain over what “writing” really is: “the” writing process, critical thinking, reasoning, logic, argument, audience, expression, voice. All the familiar watchwords of our disciplinary legacy. It also conveniently allows us to assert our enduring essayistic practices as foundational to some generalized notion of writing. We can claim the lasting value in continuing to do what we do, as well as impose expertise in our field over a larger “culture of writing.” It allows us to argue that the ways we teach writing, the curricular structures we have developed, the conceptions of argument, thinking, audience, rhetoric and so on should inform writing practice and pedagogy elsewhere.

While clearly I am skeptical of such familiar maneuvers, we are still faced with the task of helping students develop as communicators. We still encounter students, faculty, and departments that are dissatisfied with writing instruction. Theirs and ours. And I certainly think there can be a role for rhetoricians in addressing these challenges. It’s not enough to simply pose problems or offer critiques. Bruno Latour describes an analogous situation in the work of sociologists.

Too often, social scientists—and especially critical sociologists—behave as if they were ‘critical’, ‘reflexive’, and ‘distanced’ enquirers meeting a ‘naive’, ‘un- critical’, and ‘un-reflexive’ actor. But what they too often mean is that they translate the many expressions of their informants into their own vocabulary of social forces. The analyst simply repeats what the social world is already made of; actors simply ignore the fact that they have been mentioned in the analyst’s account. (Reassembling the Social 57)

In working with our colleagues across disciplines, rhetoricians have a similar tendency to translate their colleagues’ expressions into their own vocabulary. In doing so, we learn nothing except to confirm what we already know. Latour, of course, would offer us a method that involves following the trails of associations out of a given node in a network of writing actors and listening to the actors’ explanations for their activity, what makes them do what they do rather than leaping suddenly to spectral social forces for explanations. This is a different notion of student and faculty need and desire. In speaking with students and faculty about their coursework, they will often describe what they need to do. And those needs are generally externally located, as in the familiar faculty explanation that they don’t have time to focus on writing in their classes because they need to do this or that.

However, being made to do something is as much about gaining agency as it is about constricting it. The student in a chemistry lab is constricted in her activities, limited by what she needs to do there, but she also gains the ability to run chemistry experiments and construct disciplinary knowledge. Writing technologies, genres, and practices are all actors in that system. In conjunction with these actors, the chemist and chemistry student are made to write lab reports. In conjunction with these nonhuman actors, student needs, desires, affects, and thoughts emerge.  We might say the same for the student sitting on his darkened dorm room bed, surrounded by a half-dozen wi-fi enable devices pulsing unpredictably and generating dopamine loops urging him to seek out new information, to check Facebook and email; a sugary venti coffee drink sending caffeine to block adenosine receptors in the brain, making him stay awake; the ambient glow and hum of the laptop with its backlit keys, bevelled architecture, cheerful icons, and rigorously user-tested and focus-grouped interfaces; the pillow that still smells like home resting on otherwise institutional furniture; and his notes and results for the same chemistry experiment that he needs to turn into a report. In this context, we would expect that a familiarity with the genre supports a network of distributed cognition that allows him to write the report he needs to meet his objectives as opposed to writing something else. The genre not only organizes pre-existing thoughts, it also participates in thinking. Through his interaction with the lab report genre, the student is made to think in certain ways rather than others. Of course the genre is not all-powerful or over-determining. It is just one actor among many in a network.

There is the culture of writing, if indeed there is such a thing. In following such trails, we can uncover our degrees of freedom, those sites where we might put our networks together differently. Can we sit in a different room, work at a different time, drink more or less coffee? Does developing a self-awareness for the actors that participate in our thinking and composing shift our relationship to them? As rhetoricians participating in universities do we view our objective as supporting student ability to be successful authors of specific genres? Maybe sometimes. Do we also establish a broader goal of investigating how and why composing happens and then sharing that knowledge with students and colleagues in a manner that might be of use to them? I would think so.

I’m going to end by going even further back in time. Coincidentally I was teaching our TA practicum students about the history of the process movement this week, and we were reading Maxine Hairston’s well-known essay “The Winds of Change” from 1982. There Hairston insists that

We have to try to understand what goes on during the internal act of writing and we have to intervene during the act of writing if we want to affect its outcome. We have to do the hard thing, examine the intangible process, rather than the easy thing, evaluate the tangible product.(84)

Things have changed some in the last 30 years. We may be less likely to think of writing as an “internal act.” And, as I have been arguing, the concept of writing itself has been attenuated to the very limits of its conceptual utility. And, we have developed new and varied methods for studying these activities. However, the core tasks remain of understanding these compositional activities and developing means for intervening in them. This is what “building a culture of writing” means from my perspective: the slow ant-like task of following trails and constructing brick-by-brick, actor-by-actor, networks of composition.

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