Until Finally a Carrier Stumbled

Especially the second paragraph:

Close to large tinajas [water pockets or pools] the trails converge like strands of a spiderweb coming to the center, and within a few miles of water, broken pieces of pottery tend to appear alongside. Mostly the pieces are plain: thick-rimmed, ochre ceramics called Colorado River buff ware. Clay vessels would have been hauled back and forth until finally a carrier stumbled. The stumbles added up in places so that over hundreds upon hundreds of years pottery became evenly scattered, in some places pieces on top of pieces. Along with the pottery a small number of shells might be found, brought from far oceans probably for adornment, wealth, or ceremony. Along one of these trails I picked up part of a shallow-water cockleshell, its delicate hinges still intact after being carried hundreds of miles from the Sea of Cortés.

I started calling these trails waterlines. Waterlines are the opposite of canals, moving people to water rather than water to people. This bestows a formidable significance on the origin itself, the tinaja, because that is where you must go. Must. It comes and goes over the year, or  over the days, while the location always remains the same. You can put your finger down and say here. Of all this land, all this dryness, all of these mountains heaped upon mountains, here. (31)

Childs, Craig. The Secret Knowledge of Water. New York: Back Bay Books, 2000.

For the talk I’m giving next month at Macomb CC, “Writing Desert Survival Kit,” I’m leafing Childs’ Secret Knowledge, struck by the shard trails, anticipating the desert metaphor (much like food deserts) as accounting for what diminishes, dehydrates, and becomes perilous in crawls across the writing barren, writing spare curriculum. Waterlines, in this extended metaphor, however, introduce a centripetal and extracurricular counterpart, desert traversals, travels that surfaces and circulate writing (also supporting it). These tinajas are comparable to the writing center, which, if you decline to provide a formidable writing curriculum (e.g., explicitly guided and supported writing experiences in every year of university education), you’d damned well better fortify your tinajas.

WIDE-EMU 2016

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We invite proposals for the 2016 WIDE-EMU Conference, a free, one-day event on October 15, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Please help us circulate the call widely. The complete call and details about the conference are online at https://sites.google.com/site/wideemu16/.

Phase 1–Propose–has just begun and continues through August 31. We are asking for proposals that will respond to the conference’s framing question: What does writing want?

As you will see on the web site and proposal submission form, we’re asking for titles/ideas for three kinds of presentations:

  • Talk: much like a typical conference presentation, only short-form. Propose a brief paper, a roundtable discussion, a panel, etc. Individual talks should not exceed ten minutes.
  • Do: a demonstration or a workshop. Propose a session focused on the “how to” related to a software application or pedagogical approach.
  • Make: produce something (or the beginning of something). Propose a session in which participants will “make” a web site, a lesson plan, a manifesto, a syllabus, etc.

During Phase 2–Respond–we’ll be asking proposers to expand their proposed ideas with something online to share ahead of the face to face meeting on October 15. What exactly this “something online” looks like is highly flexible: a blog entry, a slidedeck, a podcast, a video, etc. You could also think of this as a teaser or a preview for your session and a few of its key provocations.

The face-to-face conference will be on October 15, 2016 at Eastern Michigan University. We will announce the featured plenary speaker/activity later this summer.

Please visit the site at https://sites.google.com/site/wideemu16/, submit a proposal, and plan to attend. If you have any questions about the proposal process or the conference itself, please reach out to Derek Mueller at derek.mueller@emich.edu. We hope to see many of you of this fall.

Somehow

Somehow, the dark sun will illuminate us. (555)

This, leafing again through Sirc’s “Godless Composition, Tormented Writing,” for tomorrow’s grad class, third to last of the semester. Reading this line again makes me think that Bataille’s wonderment is thick in the ground just beneath the site where the still-unbuilt hacienda would if it could one-day stand.

Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA)

A few weeks ago, I attended a “Regional Faculty Conversation” about the new Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA), an effort to update and improve seamless transfer among Michigan’s community colleges and public colleges and universities. There were three such conversations across the state in three days. I attended the four-hour get-together at Washtenaw Community College along with approximately 50 faculty and administrators from other programs in SE Michigan (e.g., Jackson College, Schoolcraft, Washtenaw CC, Henry Ford, Wayne State, Saginaw Valley State, UM-Dearborn, and EMU). The new MTA is an update to MACRAO, which has been the acronym used to name a comparable agreement initiated 42 years ago (though not updated since) and also for the Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers.

The MTA was approved by the state-wide Council of Presidents last September, and it is scheduled to begin this fall. According to those who led the conversation, the state legislature prompted the update to MACROA in 2011. Generally, the agreement is a good idea. It is student-friendly and it stands to encourage efforts across two- and four-year colleges to make sure their lower division courses bear family resemblance. It brings Michigan into alignment with comparable efforts in other states. And it is long overdue. Forty-two years should not pass without such an agreement being revisited, but that’s the sort of thick-crust stagnation that becomes possible absent any high education authority in the state.

I’m writing a bit about MTA, though, and translating my notes into this entry, because the agreement includes a significant change related to writing. This slide sums up that change. Additional materials from the meeting are available at the Michigan Center for Student Success website.

Essentially, the highlighted lines indicate that the old agreement, MACRAO, required students to complete a two-course sequence in writing. MACRAO is clear about this point: students had to complete six credit hours in English Composition. The MTA, however, allows students to satisfy the agreement (and therefore, to become eligible for a full general education waiver) with one composition course and a second course in composition or speech. The new requirement requires less writing, and yet we are at the same time hearing continued pleas for more writing on all sides, particularly among campus stakeholders.

It might not seem like much, but this change creates conditions at odds with the design of first-year writing programs premised on a Comp I and Comp II sequence, in which Comp I offers foundational experience with writing in college and Comp II builds upon and extends those experiences to include research-based academic writing. The new MTA appears to create a path into the university along which students could satisfy general education never having explicit, direct experience with research-based academic writing. Stop for a moment to consider this. I mean this as a fair characterization of what the MTA sets up, and I would urge caution before weighing in with axiological conclusions, tempting though they might be. Late last summer, Michigan WPAs wrote, signed, and sent a letter expressing concerns about this change, but the Council of Presidents approved the MTA and assented to its Fall 2014 implementation in spite of the request for more consideration of the change to writing and input from faculty colleagues with expertise, training, and experience in rhetoric/composition/writing studies and writing program administration.

This preamble should be enough to catch others up on a few of the concerns that continuing faculty conversations might address.

  • At the May 15 Regional Faculty Conversation, there was quite a bit of discussion about convening a subcommittee who would suggest changes to the MTA that would clarify the focus of the composition course required to satisfy the MTA. Without such clarification, the MTA (as written) appears to allow one-credit writing courses (i.e., nothing explicitly prohibits this). It also allows combinations of Comp I and speech. Comp I could be online, accelerated, basic skills focused, or just about anything ranging from computationally scored five-paragraph themes to full-on project-based and portfolio-assessed courses. The subcommittee would, as much as possible, define common ground for the composition course. But would its input be incorporated into MTA? At the May 15 meeting, it remained unclear whether revisions, amendments, or footnotes could be introduced after this fall. Notably, the MTA doesn’t include any explicit provision for updates or future revisions.
  • Input throughout the process was either mishandled, miscommunicated, or never regarded as especially important by those organizing and leading the project. It’s not clear. Perhaps there was a sense that representation was adequate? To be fair, input would have slowed the process down, and it would have been resource-intensive to invite and involve more people. Math faculty were able to convene a group who collaborated to define the expectations for the math course. But writing did not receive a comparable invitation until recently, after the agreement was approved. Pressing this point–why, exactly?–brought to the surface different characterizations of how the MTA developed, from one version suggesting it was measured and deliberative, evenspread over the two years it was developed to another version indicating that the change to the composition requirement happened at the last minute.
  • The rationale for the change to writing is also difficult to pinpoint. Nobody would confirm it at the May 15 meeting, but it has elsewhere surfaced speculatively that the last minute change was an effort to bring Michigan State on board with the agreement. That is, because MSU only requires one composition course and a speech course, it creates conditions amenable to transferring to or away from MSU, which, once it was on board, was the largest public university in the state to participate in the agreement (i.e., University of Michigan does not). Whether or not this is valid, the changes to the writing requirement should have been based on something more substantive, e.g., evidence from participating institutions about how students with or without a two-course writing sequence during the first two years of college fare relative to their counterparts who do not take two writing courses. If they graduate at equal rates, maybe there isn’t anything more to consider here (aside from the caveat that high-achieving high school students oftentimes by-pass the two-course sequence because of exemptions and waivers).
  • Authority for the agreement remains ambiguous. That is, Michigan does not have a higher ed authority, and the MTA does not come with an implementation officer (even temporarily; its implementation is steered primarily by a 13-page handbook and a few similar documents, including FAQs and checklists. Who should programs contact for an authoritative stance on whether or not a program can require a course for MTA-eligible students, provided that same course is required for all FTIACs? The MTA seems to be rolling out with loose consent, and the agreement itself, as written, doesn’t spell out strict conditions that adopters must follow. For instance, at EMU, we’re told we can continue to require Writing Intensive courses as a fixture in General Education, but we cannot require all students satisfy ENGL/WRTG121: Comp II or its equivalent because that’s considered a “proviso,” and provisos are prohibited by the MTA.

That’s enough for now. Like I said, I don’t see much urgency in guessing how this is going to play out. I put my name in for the committee and would consider pitching in if and when such a group convenes. I suspect we already have more consensus across programs than we have had much chance to explore, much less articulate. And in fact, one of the most promising take-aways from the regional faculty meeting was a sense that we could begin exploring something like a SE Michigan alliance of writing programs that would help us tremendously toward articulating what we hold in common curricularly and also bench-marking for the persistent WPA arguments concerning part-time lecturer (over)reliance, full-time lecturer teaching loads, course caps, and so on. Other than that, as far as the MTA is concerned, we will continue to seek better institutional data that can tell us how FTIACs who take the two-course sequence compare with FTIACs who take only ENGL/WRTG121: Comp II compare with transfer students, in all matters of retention and graduation rates as well as performance in upper division WI courses. Better data will help us understand whether we have cause to be concerned, whether we have exigency to make further adjustments to the writing curriculum at EMU.

Ideology of Wording

Don Angel’s viejito repertoire, it seems to me, implied a relationship to words that is distinguishable from the ideology of wording that is common in mainstream life to the extent that such life has been shaped by schooling. In this sense, there is much in schooling that encourages logos at the expense of the theatrical, distance at the expense of involvement. I am reminded of my own markings of student papers or my own student papers marked by teachers: “exact word?” “shift in diction,” “redundant,” “too wordy, tighten up,” “clarify!” “verb tense shift,” “awkward,” “dangling modifier,” “your thinking is not coherent here,” “is this logical?” “verb agreement problem,” “what?” and so on. During such practices the word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and discourse become objects of consciousness and begin to create what I am calling here an ideology of wording whose ultimate goal is the mastery of both discourse and the lifeworld that the discourse points to. An aspect of this ideology of wording is that the theatrical becomes a set of effects, important in their own right and in certain contexts but potentially deceptive in knowledge-making contexts. Indeed, much of Don Angel’s knowledge—curanderismo, stories of the supernatural, and divining practices—were so far off the professional logos map as to be considered merely theatrical. In this sense, Don Angel’s narrative style reinforced the marginalization of his narrative content from the professional and mainstream styles of the modern world. (65)

Ralph Cintron, Angel’s Town

Over the two-week break between semesters (more on the front end of it, actually), I spent a few minutes with Cintron’s Angel’s Town, mostly because I wanted to trawl back through a good ethnography to refresh my sense of why ethnography is so demanding, so time and methods intensive. The First-year Writing Program I direct now has a number of instructors who frame research as ethnography, which is another reason I felt compelled to pick this up.

Cintron’s “ideology of wording” has stuck, this passage has held on, since I read it a few weeks ago. The viejito—here set in relief against a schoolish ideology of wording—is a punning language game with so much vernacular nuance and layered innuendo that Cintron freely admits how incomplete any representation of must be. Nevertheless, this tension between viejito and an “ideology of wording” stands as a terrific example of the hard-to-mix qualities of academically situated discourse practices (i.e., writing, speaking, and “reading” in school) with their legacy logoi, and, on the other hand, the everyday rhetorics that operate powerfully and cogently elsewhere.

In both classes I’m teaching this winter, a grad seminar in Computers and Writing focused in particular on “ecologies of practice” and an undergraduate class in style and technology, I have felt like this passage is trailing me around, shadowing me. Cintron’s account of viejito parlays gets at something akin to an “ecology of practice” for how the exchanges bloom, transcending and exceeding mainstream language conventions. Grasping this, then, by studying the viejito up close, requires what Richard Coe would have described as an eco-logic, because their systemic manifestation that cannot be explained by analysis of isolated parts. And in the (online) style+technology class, there has been quite a bit of discussion wordiness (Holcomb and Killingsworth 47). Concision has its time and place, of course, but wordiness (or the charge of wordiness) constrains the kind of theatrical, involved wordplay Cintron notices and calls our attention to.

Finally, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Cintron’s contrastive pairings of logos vs. the theatrical and distance vs. involvement in the second sentence. The pairings accomplish some of the distinction that moves his analysis forward, but it also hints at a question about the tidiness and convenience of these conceptual frames. To break from this, for a second, for example, what might the combination of distance and the theatrical make possible? Is there already a distant-theatrical quality in Cintron’s (or, to be fair, any ethnographer’s) observing and filtering for insights? I’m interested in whether the distance-theatrical can advance other methods, too (or rather, by carrying out the distance-theatrical, explore other yet unasked questions). But this—as well as the tension between viejito and the ideology of wording—seems like a big deal for ethnography and especially for the kinds of ethnography attempted in first-year writing or by researchers who are just starting out in rhetoric and composition/writing studies.

Daily Bread

In her 1990 “A Personal Essay on Freshman English,” revised and published in 1998, Sharon Crowley writes,

In fact, I wager that Freshman English will continue to exist in its traditional form for a long time to come, despite the efforts of leftist composition teaches to alter its focus toward social change. I have several reasons for suspecting this. First, the traditional required course reassures taxpayers that their children are getting one final guaranteed dose of “correct” English. Second, Freshman English is a cheap way for university faculty to salve their guilt about their own teaching, which is discipline-centered and which forces students to accommodate to the discipline’s ways of knowing or to fail. Third, the emergence of composition studies has enabled a few writing teachers to do research, to publish professional discourse, to get grants, rank, and tenure, and thus to assume power in English departments and university politics. Freshman English is our daily bread. Newly enfranchised professionals will want to think twice before tampering with a sure thing. In short, I doubt whether it is possible to radicalize instruction in a course that is so thoroughly implicated in the maintenance of cultural and academic hierarchy. (235)

I suppose one of the worst things a novice, yet-untenured WPA can do during the first semester steering a large-scale writing program is to read every last word of Crowley’s Composition in the University, again. Another worst: to bring the new cohort of first-time writing teachers along on that reading. Worst meaning best, of course.

Here’s more:

The repetitive and repressive curriculum of Freshman English is directly linked to its institutional status as a required introductory-level course. Freshman English is attached to a huge administrative enterprise on almost every college campus in the country. Its very size subjects its administrators, teachers, and students to unprofessional and unethical working practices on a scale that is replicated nowhere else in the academy. (229)

But that’s where we’re headed this afternoon in ENGL596. Crowley’s rationale for the get-rid-of-it polemic resonate still today, and what better than an encounter-cumdissoilogoi (if you’ll please forgive the Latin-Greek mix!) with Crowley’s well-defined, hard-set stance to resolve, for now, why and to what ends we are doing what we are doing.

613M

PH613M

I changed offices this week, moved from the smaller, windowless interior office that is standard issue for junior faculty in my department to the larger, windowed outer office pictured here. This is one among the incentives for taking on responsibilities as Director of the First-Year Writing Program–a role I formally stepped into earlier this month. The larger office is warranted because it is spacious enough for meetings with small groups of 3-4 people, or that’s the main rationale for the up-sized office, I’m told.

There’s quite a bit of new work that comes with being WPA, and I have been daily trying both to tick items off a long task-list I’m keeping in Astrid for now and to keep short-term priorities in clear view. In the mix: (anti)textbook decisions, curricular fine- and coarse-tuning, drilling down on outcomes that read to too many–me included–as over-general goals, getting publishers to say anything-more? about their pricing and margins, scrounging for budget, setting up online spaces (e.g., WordPress and Mediawiki installs), scheduling for fall, prepping a summer materials PDF for new GA cohort, and on and on. I’m not sure how the size of this FYWP compares, but I’d guess it is larger than most with 140+ sections per year, more than 3000 students per year, and an instructional staff of more than 50.

Along with all of the challenges, the transition into this role is generative in that it is pushing me to re-think my research agenda, reconsider my teaching philosophy, formalize an administrative philosophy and plan (almost certainly rooted in chreods and chreodologies), and reflect on what worked well in my graduate education. I have every indication so far that EMU is a hospitable place for tending to the strength and solidity of the first-year experience and Gen. Ed. There are many smart, supportive people involved, which always helps.

I have half-kidded on Twitter that in addition to Writing Program Administrator, WPA means Writing Program Atavist and Writing Program Adhocrat: atavist for throwback tendencies (returning to my own TA training, unearthing relic teaching influences, leafing through the 1936 Sears catalogs as Jim Corder did, and finding it fixed, stale: “We mustn’t try to live forever with only the knowledge we now have.”), adhocrat for the gut-trusting making up of this thing as we go, leaning hard on practical wisdom and the proceed-as-way-opens Quaker maxim LWP has always been fond of. I’ve ordered a few other books about contemporary WPA thinking, but right now this is where I’m at.

Clocking Composition

The WIDE-EMU 2012 countdown widget ticked to single digits earlier today, which means I’m past due–delinquent!–with the Phase II teaser for a session called “Clocking Composition: Exploring Chronography with Timeline JS.” My co-presenters, Joe and Jana, have written smartly about what we have planned, and when we met a couple of weeks ago, we decided the Phase II piece may as well be a timelinear representation of the conference program, which is what we’ve created, since I would be working on the ordinary program, anyway.

I’m more or less pleased with the result. I suppose I’ve tempered my enthusiasm because I’m still learning quite a bit about Timeline JS, figuring out whether it’s better to tune style in-line or adjust it in the CSS files. Earlier today, for example, I asked a colleague to check out the time-lined version of the program and much of the text on the landing page was clipped, unreadable. I adjusted, and the new version should scale more elegantly to smaller screens, but, well, these are the nuances that take more time to get to know. I plan to continue experimenting with Timeline JS this fall in part because we”ll be using it for a project in ENGL505 soon.

Before next Saturday’s conference, I need to duplicate enough copies of the Timeline JS sandbox files (basically create about 10-12 .html pages and create the openly editable Google spreadsheets that will feed into each of them) and figure out the best way to make these accessible during the session. I doubt we’ll dig too deeply into how to set this up on a server or why to consider abandoning Google spreadsheets for JSON, but I suppose we can drift in these or other directions as suits all who attend next week.

The OOOist Writer and the Great Outdoors

I’m re-reading Chs. 4-5 of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology to prepare for the second meeting of our summer reading group this afternoon. Ch. 4, Carpentry, sets in tension writing and the making of things; Ch. 5 proposes wonder as a way of doing OOO, as a means of grasping the ways objects orient (124). Last week’s meet-up attracted seven readers, and I’ve heard we’ll have several more joining today. I’m not leading the group with any particular goals in mind. It has very simply been an opportunity to engage with a book–and a philosophy–that a handful of our graduate students have wanted to talk more about since Eileen Joy, Tim Morton, and Jeffrey Cohen visited for last semester’s JNT Dialogue, “Nonhumans: Ecology, Ethics, Objects.”

To prepare for today’s conversation, I’ve been dusting back over a couple of recent blog entries here and here and here (as well as the comments, which begin to explore some lingering questions I have about OOO), and I also took a look again at Bogost’s entry from 2009, “What is Object-Oriented Ontology? A Definition for Ordinary Folk.” The point about OOO needing a “simple, short, comprehensible explanation” leaves me wondering to what extent the elevator pitch has been satisfactorily laid down and also whether a short-form version can adequately answer to its skeptics (e.g., those who, upon reading a bit about OOO lead with,”Yeah, but what about X?”). I suppose what I’m thinking around is whether OOO can really be boiled down to a 100-word account and whether, especially considering what looks to me like a surge of interest in units/objects/things/nonhumans, there could be a coherent statement that many of the main participants would stand behind. Yet another way, just how raging are OOO’s debates, now? And how much are new/cautious/fringe enquirers capable of exploring those debates?

Looking again at Chs. 4-5, I felt this time like writing, as counterpart to carpentry, isn’t given much of a chance. Writing is a foil–a thin backdrop against which a preferable set of practices are cast. The generating question follows: “[W]hy do you write instead of doing something else, like filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening?” In this context (and in this contrastive framing), writing is something of an attention or activity hog. It gets overplayed in the liberal arts; it gets over-valued in exceedingly strict economies for tenure and promotion. According to the chapter, these are cause for concern because 1) “academics aren’t even good writers” (89), and 2) writing, “because it is only one form of being” (90) is too monolithic a way of relating to the world. I generally agree with Bogost’s argument that scholarly activity should be (carefully!) opened up to include other kinds of making, but I’m less convinced that the widespread privileging of writing is the culprit here. It’s fine to say that academics aren’t good writers (though I’m reminded that we should never talk about writing as poor or problematic without looking at a specific text/unit in hand), but why would they be any better at “filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening” or coding APIs?

So while I’m interested in the call for an expansion of what can be considered scholarly activity, it remains unclear to me why writing should be at odds or brushed aside with that expansion. Instead of “Why do you write instead of doing something else?”, I would rather consider “How is your writing and making and doing entangled?”, whether gardening, drinking beer, or even welding (the second slide here suggests that writing and welding are compatible, though paper-based dossiers are already heavy enough; also weld-writing does not correspond to slideshow-encoding). It’s a relatively minor tweak of an otherwise compelling set of arguments about scholarship-in-computational-action, and yet with just a bit more nuance, rather than concluding that “When we spend all of our time reading and writing words–or plotting to do so–we miss opportunities to visit the great outdoors” (90), perhaps we don’t have to scrap composition to get beyond the limited and limiting definitions of writing still in circulation. And this may be one of the reasons an object-oriented rhetoric remains a promising complement to OOO.