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.

The Most Fundamental Purpose

Decluttering email and here’s a missive I received as a reminder: purpose, audience, context, then analysis and practice, genres and texts, circulation. But the second paragraph (ensuring background) complicates the first, or at the very least positions the first set of fundamentals in relief–sharp contrast!–with professional development and meaningful experiences sustaining instructors of all rank. Even when the purpose (para. 1) is lucid and visible and constantly tended, the eidos in the second paragraph requires resources that too easily ebb and flow with the changing tide of administrator mindset and fiscal-budgetary conditions. Not at all meaning to be vague or inconclusive with this, nor suggestive hint-hint wink-wink with this, nor anything much other than reminded that re-reading principles’ statements is measures affirming and measures yes, difficulties and challenges remain.

10. Sound writing instruction extends from a knowledge of theories of writing (including, but not limited to, those theories developed in the field of composition and rhetoric).

The most fundamental purpose of classes devoted specifically to writing instruction (such as first-year or advanced composition courses) is to engage students in study of and practice with purposes, audiences, and contexts for writing. In practice, this means that writers engage in supported analysis of these purposes, audiences, and contexts and through supported practice with genres and texts that circulate within and among them.

Institutions and programs emphasize this purpose by ensuring that instructors have background in and experience with theories of writing. Ideally, instructors have ongoing access to and support for professional development, including (but not limited to) attendance at local, regional, or national Composition and Rhetoric conferences. Institutions employing graduate students from outside of the discipline of Composition and Rhetoric to teach writing courses support development of this background knowledge by ensuring students receive sufficient grounding in and practice/mentoring with regard to key concepts associated with theories of writing.

Source: Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing

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.

Drift Types

Early this morning I read Michael Finkel’s recent GQ article, “Here Be Monsters,” about three Tokelauan teens who survived fifty-one days adrift at sea. It proved an uncanny read on the Kindle, considering I pushed it there mostly to try out Readability’s new “Send to Kindle” option, and I have also been slow-slow-Kindle-reading Arum and Roksa’s report on the failures of colleges, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Some sort of reading device-based juxtaposition in this, I guess.

The fruits of this pollenation, if they can be called fruits and not flotsam, include a hypothetical reading list for a course I will probably never teach on different types of drifting (dreaming it up, so let’s consider it a course on curriculum).

From “Here Be Monsters,”

Some-times boats are blown off course; there’s even a Tokelauan word for this: lelea. It’s theorized that the very existence of people on the island–is has been inhabited for a thousand years–is because a Polynesian canoe drifted off course. But there is also another, more complicated Tokelauan word: tagavaka. This applies to boats that have purposely sailed away–for love, adventure, or suicide.

What, for example, comes of viewing academic drift in terms of lelea and tagavaka? And what of the here/there reference to monsters (in the article’s title) might productively refocus academy drift characterizations on drifting from and drifting toward?

And we would need additional readings in this speculative scenario: Singer’s “The Castaways,” Menand’s “Live and Learn” (an ENGL328 student just shared this one with me), Haynes’ inestimable “Writing Offshore,” and, why not?, something on The Essex. And, it’s undeniable, I wrote an entry a lot like this one just about four years ago. I have continued in the intervening years to drift away from and, having surrendered to currents, back toward ideas like these–ideas rekindled, of course, by my dissatisfaction with academic drift-states cast too singularly as a problem to be buoyed simply by resetting drifters on a fixed, positionally precise course.

The “Here Be Monsters” article includes a nod to assessment from a New Zealand psychiatrist who examined the boys: “‘They won’t ever forget this,’ he says. ‘It won’t be put out of their minds. But young people tend to be resilient, able to work through tragedies with reasonably good long-term results.'”

New Forms of Connectivity

I just glanced Gerald Graff’s IHE column, “It’s Time to End ‘Courseocentrism’,” which urges greater transparency in the designing and teaching of classes and greater cross-curricular coordination, especially in the humanities. Humanities courses, Graff suggests, confound students with jumbled messages (fwiw, this rings of Fulkerson’s concerns with philosophical confusion in composition programs created by all of the mixing, borrowing, and blending). Graff would have us unmix the messages, prefer coherence, and even out the scenes of teaching.

But how?

That’s the part that doesn’t seem to me to get enough pixels in this column. Graff embraces “amazing new forms of connectivity” as one kind of solution, but connection doesn’t by natural progression bring about coherence. Also, connection demands a degree of participation: faculty ought to be putting their syllabi online. (I don’t mean for this to be a slight, but I couldn’t find any of Graff’s syllabi on the WWW). Courseocentrism–any kind of -centrism that neglects to take an interest in what is happening elsewhere–is akin to negligent specialization, perhaps a byproduct of it. There are many ways to complicate courseocentric tendencies at a programmatic level, provided teachers are willing (or made) to do so. In fact, as I prepared to teach this semester, I was impressed to find that the Writing Program had collected more than 250 syllabi and made them available online (albeit as static, unsearchable PDFs). I looked at no fewer than ten of them as I prepared my syllabus, just to develop a sense of what others had done. I ended up doing something slightly different (a courseocentric gesture?); I didn’t adapt anyone’s stuff, in other words, but this was possible because the syllabi were published online. Who doesn’t relish being able to glance syllabi for smart, engaging courses taught at all levels, whether at their own institutions or elsewhere?

In a roundabout, courseolliptical way, this brings me to my larger point (and unavoidable concern): When will the MLA develop a robust relational database for the systematic archivization of syllabi? Why not provide a platform for indexing (pre-coordinate and folksonomic), storing, and interrelating course syllabi (and materials, assignments for that matter)? Looking for a course on contemporary rhetoric? The platform would return a few by direct search and also suggest near-misses, following a “feeling lucky” algorithm. I understand that such a database is something that’s been on several people’s wish lists (and it’s also been technically possible) for some time. No telling whether it would narrow curricular gaps or level out the disjointedness in any curriculum, but it would be a start toward a more systematic use of “new forms of connectivity” to address chronic “courseocentrism.”

Serial Consulting

As expected, today’s Writing Center work was the most demanding yet–eight
appointments in seven hours (with a brief break for lunch). I don’t
mention it to complain. Rather, in those five-minute lapses between
appointments I was thinking of the surprise and exhilaration in the unknown of
what was to come. What is in store? How long will it take to get our
bearings and decide what to do next?

Stacked appointments require a generalist’s deftness (even if one is not
steadily capable of this)–there are great leaps from this to that, from one
thing to another. A first and second appointment do not make the third
appointment easier. But the language from the previous hour re-surfaces
again and again in subconscious performance residue: how many times did I say
"prime" or "primes" between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.? Three? Four? Maybe too
many, as if in caught in a strange loop, some phrase or concept pops up
unexpectedly in fits of over-talking while searching for the elusive right
words. Serial consulting: in certain ways it’s like being locked in the media closet with
a flickering television set all day, sometimes fancying coherence and
intelligibility, sometimes doubting whether this or that thing fits with this or
that other thing, and sometimes marveling at the great range of possible
directions lurking everywhere in a draft.

Now I can’t remember them all: a "professional statement" for a
made-for-television movie production internship, an essay on music as argument,
a comparison of Hindu epics, Rubin Carter as inspiration for law school,
contending worldviews between Hmong Brahmanism and Western medicine, a close
reading of Huck Finn (requiring specific references to ‘semiotics’, ‘reader’,
and ‘interpretation’), early planning and exploration on a five-page piece that
will get at gender roles, mass media and the Cold War, and, finally, a
discussion of Obama’s vague references to "they" in the Iowa victory speech. At
the end of it, two senses: one is a kind of merry-go-all-directions spinning
around–the disorientation in rapid sequence conversations engaging all of this;
the other is a (cloudy) surprise at the degree to which a long string of
consulting appointments is like drilling a core sample of the curriculum (as if
boring into a glacier).

Carnival: Trimbur and Writing Studies

Following Donna’s

renewed call
for the late February Trimbur carnival, here are a couple of
floats
in response to

"Changing the Question: Should Writing Be Studied?"
from Composition
Studies
31.1 (2003).

For now I’ll try to keep it to just two or three ideas. I’ve heard
passing mention of "writing studies" as an alternative name for the knot (bow?)
where rhetoric and composition are tied together. When I used it myself
once, I think someone suggested that the "writing studies" designation is
typically claimed by discourse analysts–those whose encounters with texts are
measured for pattern and (ir)regular features. Perhaps that’s only of value
inasmuch as it sheds light on my own baggage with the phrase: a moment of
correction, definition, and re-association. And whether this is right or not is
less the point, I think, than the contemplation of writing studies’ orientation
to particular methods and research agendas. As I read Trimbur’s article, I also
thought about another passing conversation with a colleague who described
someone else’s work in film this way: "[S.h]e does film studies, not production.
Students who take film classes want production rather than all of the history,
theory, and methodology that go along with film studies. They’re impatient
and even bored with film studies." That was the gist of it, anyhow.
Out of this half-remembered conversation comes one question about a shift from
workshop to seminar room and toward writing studies: at the cost of what?
If the answer is that we study writing (n.) at the expense of writing (p.v.),
the proposition becomes considerably messier. Of course, nobody is saying
this explicitly, but to what degree is a quiet displacement of something else
implied by the asking?

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