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.

Wicked and Tame

This afternoon I finished re-reading Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004), which we’ve picked up in ENGL516 for its tightly applicable yet expansive heuristic: functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies. For Tuesday we’re also looking at a complementary tier, network literacy. There’s not a lot I want to recount or highlight about the Multiliteracies book in general this time through, but one specific section drew me in more this time than when I first read the book a few years ago.

Under rhetorical literacy, the section on deliberation (152), Selber refers to a 1973 article by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Both professors at Cal-Berkeley, Rittel (Science of Design) and Webber (City Planning) differentiate between wicked problems and tame problems. Selber summarizes their position this way:

Although tame problems can be enormously complex, their complexities are largely technical in character, as are their solutions. In contrast, wicked problems are more intractable in that wicked problems do not have single solutions, only interim and imperfect solutions. Adjustments in tax rates, changes in school curricula, procedures to reduce crime–these problems can all be understood, addressed, and resolved in countless ways because there are elusive social dimensions that muddy the causal waters. (153)

Selber continues for another page or two to apply the wicked/tame distinction to challenges facing interface designers. That design planning and implementation is wicked, not tame, reminds us of the important limitations of technical rationalism for addressing situated social problems at a variety of scales (e.g., poverty to usability). I am inclined to accept the proposition that follows for Selber, which is that deliberation ensures a humanistic perspective in response to HCI challenges. Among questions that remains for me, I still wonder after tracking down and reading the Rittel and Webber article whether deliberation makes a wicked problem less wicked. In other words, what does deliberation do to the problem? Does it make it appear more tame? Does it blunt (or defer) its wickedness? I find it easy to value deliberation, but I wonder whether deliberation sometimes seduces us to conceiving of wicked problems as tame.

To enlarge the context–and with it these questions–a bit further, here is one point when Rittel and Webber compare tame and wicked problems:

The problems that scientists and engineers have usually focused upon are mostly “tame” or “benign” ones. As an example, consider a problem of mathematics, such
as solving an equation; or the task of an organic chemist in analyzing the structure
of some unknown compound; or that of the chessplayer attempting to accomplish
checkmate in five moves. For each the mission is clear. It is clear, in turn, whether or
not the problems have been solved.
Wicked problems, in contrast, have neither of these clarifying traits; and they
include nearly all public policy issues–whether the question concerns the location
of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the
confrontation of crime. (160)

They also say that wicked problems are notoriously difficult to “define” and “locate” (159). Perhaps this is what deliberation increases–our means of defining and locating problems, of sorting out “what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition” and “finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies” (159). Curriculum, which both sources list, is a fine example. But so is just about any composing situation, isn’t it? Writing and rhetoric strike me as deeply, constantly, willingly entrenched in wicked problems, and perhaps only in reductive notions of techne and in formulism do we find disappointing instances of writing-understood-as-tame(d).

For a closely related thought-exercise, I scraped from the Rittel and Webber article the ten traits they assign to wicked problems. Selber draws correspondences between the first three and interface design problems, which profit “from a more rhetorical and less rational view of things” (154). Others on down the list might prove more difficult to align with interface design, specifically, but they do match up intriguingly with other problems encountered by writers.

  1. “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (161)
  2. “Wicked problems have no stopping rule” (162)
  3. “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-and-bad” (162)
  4. “There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem” (163)
  5. “Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly” (163)
  6. “Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan” (164)
  7. “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (164)
  8. “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (165)
  9. “The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution” (166)
  10. “The planner has no right to be wrong” (166)

The original article is worth a read, particularly for the way they elaborate each of these qualities of wicked problems. The degree of overlap between composing problems and wicked problems piles up, making this both a theory of problems/planning worth returning to and one I wished I’d noticed (and also deliberated) more fully a long time ago.

Five Minutes?

If you can spare five or ten minutes, Ph. is working on a school project for his Government class. He has been asked to develop an argument concerned with public policy, and he has been thinking about a focus on smoking in public places: specifically about recent changes in smoking bans in public spaces, indoor and out. This afternoon we spent some time together getting his questions set up on Survey Monkey.

Basically, I’m just trying to help him get word out on the survey, which you can complete here. If you can spare five or ten minutes.