Marking the Semester’s Enough

I’ve asked students to write a semester-capping reflection in-class, today marking the end of the Winter 2018 semester at EMU and, with it, the final session of WRTG121: Composition II: Researching the Public Experience. The prompt occasions a letter noting takeaways in terms of attitudes and habits relating to writing, command of language, and grasp of research processes, although it’s a stacked ask insofar as its privileging ground and anchorage qua affirmations of footing, solidity, presumptions of growth that value lodging over dislodging, mooring over unmooring. Another way: might just as well be asking about attitude-habit upheavals, a churn of language, ungrasp of research processes. Whatever of the teaching-learning paradoxes, here are a few of the takeaways for me:

  • Our curriculum moves swiftly from establishing researchable questions and attempting, with the aid of systematic note-keeping, a brief proposal and cursory lit review, next to carrying out a microstudy documented with research memos that adheres to an appropriate research method, and finally to a pair of presentational moves, one in-class (elevator pitch to peers with careful consideration of slidecraft), one at the Celebration of Student Writing. Much of the semester felt to me to be balanced and right-paced, although at the end, two presentational gestures left one (the CSW) lagging secondarily a bit, without enough time to develop it fully.
  • That said, the curriculum remains promising in that there surfaced (for most?) a more obvious and followable connection among an evolving researchable question (or series of questions), sources gathered and annotated in association with the question, the enactment of methods chosen as ways of following rigorously the question out into the world, and the variations on presenterly circulation that care for translation of a nuanced research process into something shareable. Obvious and followable: this, according to students who informally related not having especially much experience with being guided to undertake research writing this way.
  • Our program’s bundle, Understanding Rhetoric and EasyWriter, primes this approach, introducing key ideas and standing readily by as consultatory resources for reminders and support, though at moments this reminding and support isn’t quite enough due to my assumptions about everyone’s remembering these materials as backdrop. I forget to say, use these books in this way (even after reading selections or pitching and modeling usefulnesses at the semester’s outset). Thus, the consultatory function of these books, this semester, seemed to fade, seemed to follow a declining use-trend, when I’d imagined an increase, expansion, uptick.
  • In future semesters, when teaching a class like this one, I may try to do more to poll students before the semester begins, to think together and ahead about thematic orientations. We ventured into environmental justice this semester, but I’m not convinced that the explicit and direct attention we devoted to EJ at the outset sustained as the semester wore on. It felt to me like the most prominent concerns of EJ quieted as our efforts shifted to more tightly tailored research projects; with this is that inevitable tension between the general and the acute, between the frame and the pixel.
  • Early-semester one on one conferences continue to be tone-setting for interpersonal rapport that builds as a semester goes. This practice is reasonably enculturated in the FYWP at EMU, carried out section for section for section, but it’s a practice I’d like to extend with focal intention to other classes I teach, doing more with these scheduled conversations while also thinking about how to keep them student-led and only in minor ways repetitive.

That is it. Enough for forty minutes of in-class writing. Enough to say the semester that was, was. Enough to mark even lightly a few of the details I’ll carry for a while hereforward.

As Sabbaticals End

I return to campus tomorrow, May 2, following a research leave that relieved me teaching and service responsibilities at EMU during Winter 2016. The four month leave allowed me to put the finishing touches on a collaborative monograph and to get the other book I have contracted with the WAC Clearinghouse #writing series substantially closer to a full draft. At the start of the sabbatical, the introduction and first chapter were already sent off, in the editor’s hands (these amount to 57 ms. pages). Over the past four months, I submitted three more chapters, which amounts to 129 ms. pages. I still have some work to do on Chapter Five, which I plan to send by the end of May, and Chapter Six, which I’ll turn over by the end of June. With that, a full draft of the monograph and then on to other things. I just turned off my email autoreply, and I’ll be in Pray-Harrold 613M tomorrow for most of the day, doling out numerous emails related to scheduling for this year’s first-year writing sections. Before the leave officially officially concludes, I wanted to capture a few impressions about the sabbatical, its accomplishments, and its occasional struggles.

  • Winter 2016 was only the second semester in 18 years that I didn’t teach a class. And the summer ahead, which is filled with administrative responsibilities, will be only the second summer in 16 years that I won’t be teaching a class. These patterns crept up on me; as I counted them and as I write them here, it seems like too much. I understand better than ever before the risks of burnout (or call it boredom, disinterest, complacency, checking out, whatever), and I have realized this winter how precariously close I have been to shrugging off many of the priorities I held when I started began down this career path during doctoral work.
  • As this was my first sabbatical, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect about work rhythms. The nearest I’ve come to having this kind of time to devote entirely to scholarship was all the way back in 2008 when I was working on the dissertation. A sabbatical takes some getting used to, and I suspect this is especially true when the leave is taken from a quasi-administrative post, such as directing a first-year writing program. The interim director and associate director did a fine job, as far as I can tell, but the hand off involved a fair amount of leading communication, pointers to where various documents were stored, how to handle everyday operations, and so on. Likewise, as the return from sabbatical approaches, there has been in uptick in email, requests for scheduling various things for the first half of May. I’m not sure I was especially well prepared for the fuzziness of transitioning onto sabbatical and back off again, particularly as relates to this administrative work. And the lessons about how to transition on and off more gracefully, although they are fresh with me now, probably won’t be especially helpful when my next sabbatical comes around.
  • I’m reasonably pleased with my productivity on sabbatical. I didn’t travel much–only a couple of out of town trips, primarily for conferences and an invited talk and workshop. I asked around, and some colleagues said things like, “don’t expect to get anything done during the first month” and “remember to rest.” These were helpful reminders, and now looking back, I suppose I could have worked harder and gotten more done, but I am more or less still on track with the timeline for the book, and I don’t at all have the sense that I squandered huge chunks of time.
  • Sabbaticals are isolating and on some days very strange. This much free time? I worked out. I read a few books that don’t have anything to do with my writing. I shitted around. Watched TV. Cooked. Dabbled at home improvement stuff. I regard most of this as run of the mill and routine–nothing here I would describe as radically transformative. The bouts of isolation got me thinking a lot more about social balance, about how much of my social world is constituted by work interactions, conversations with colleagues who are also friends. But sabbaticals are socially bizarre in that people want to leave you alone and respect your time, which is at the same time, of course, estranging from familiar routines and conversations that can prove supportive or generative. At one point I considered trying to convene some kind of writer’s group, but after talking to another colleague who was sabbaticalling at the same time as me, I decided better of it. No need to attempt to be a social leader at the same time my purest focus should be on the book’s development.
  • I can’t say yet whether I am fully restored, recharged, rested, and ready for what’s ahead. I jump back into the directorship of the first-year writing program, and while I was away there were a handful of institutional changes that make my return cautious insofar as I can’t quite tell how some of these questions will settle out (most of them relate to labor; who teaches composition as well as how composition sections are weighted for equivalencies). I thought long and hard beforehand about extending the sabbatical for four months through September 1, the start of Fall 2016, and while I could have chosen this alternative, by returning early I am able to earn additional pay in the summer months and continue as director.

Now having listed these few notes, they re-read to me as banalities, though not as too banal to post, if only so I can return to them in a few years when I put in for another research leave. And I think I will. That is, I know people who swear they don’t want or need a sabbatical, but as I have been reflecting on this time for the past ten days or so (the reprieve window of repatriation and conserving effortfully to make the most of what remained), I regard this time as invaluable to my well-being, to my research and scholarship, and to my sense of reinvigorated responsibility as a tenured professor. It surprises me a little bit that I am both excited to return to campus and that I got as much done as I did. I suppose that in itself is as much conviction as anyone can have about a sabbatical’s worth.

New Echo, New Narcissus

Kopelson writes,

Yet, as composition studies is distinct in its penchant for ‘borrowing,’
we are also, in my opinion, unrivaled in our proclivity for
self-examination. I am not arguing that this is an unimportant
activity, but only that the costs are indeed high when self-scrutiny comes
at the expense of taking up other critical concerns and of making other,
more innovative and far-reaching forms of knowledge (775).

This appears in the final section of the essay, the part titled "Conclusion:
Banishing Echo and Narcissus." Here, Kopelson takes exception with the
field’s self-reflexivity, the growing heap of self-interested and self-absorbed
assessments of where we are or where we are heading. There is an
unidentified villain here, and I wondered as I read whether Kopelson has any
favorite ‘misses’, accounts that get it terribly wrong or that are built up on
marsh-lands of mushy data.

Reading this section and the quotation above in particular, I had the
sense that Kopelson wasn’t as interested in "banishing" Echo and Narcissus
as in giving them overhauls, in renewing them, even in teaching them how to
resonate
and reflect less recklessly. In other words, what is
wrong with many self-reflexive disciplinary accounts (or "discipliniographies"
to lift and bend a term Maureen Daly Goggin introduces in Authoring a
Discipline
) is that they succumb to a localist impulse. That
is, they un-self-conciously extrapolate from local experience and anecdotal
evidence onto the field at large, projecting some local knowledge onto the
expansive abstraction that is the discipline (however we imagine it to be).
The localist impulse can take many different shapes; often it is akin to reading
patterns through the course of an individual career (i.e., "in my thirty years
at Whatsittoyou U.") or by cherry-picking from an exceedingly thin selection of
data (titles of conference presentations or tables of contents for teacher
training manuals). We all do this to some extent–making sense of the field at
large through our local, immediate experiences, but it is dangerous to arrive at
conclusions about the field (or world) at-large solely by examining one’s own
neighborhood.

What I’m getting at is that I don’t have any beef with the disciplinary
practice of self-examination. Perhaps there are more than a handful of
fields in the academy that would benefit from more of it. I hold history (the calling of others who’ve navigated this canyon) and
reflection in high regard (perhaps not to the ill-fated extremes of Echo and
Narcissus). Resonanceresonanceresonance and reflection are valuable, especially for newcomers,
for the "new converts" Kopelson mentions. But they will not be successful–or
very useful–until they get beyond that localist impulse, until they involve
earnest field-wide data collections and collaboratively built databases. I
don’t know how well this matches with Kopelson’s "innovative and far-reaching
forms of knowledge," but it is increasingly where my own interests lie.
If those far-reaching forms of knowledge included disciplinary data (even simple
stuff, like how many programs offer undergraduate writing majors), they could
generate insights about disciplinarity. In the meantime those full-view
insights will continue to elude us as long as we leap from local knowledge to
widespread pattern, without addressing sufficiently the intermediary scales.

Kopelson, Karen. “Sp(l)itting
Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition.” CCC 59.4
(2008): 750-780. [Carnival]

Washback

D. asked me about this term yesterday, and I had never heard of it before,
perhaps because I haven’t taught many courses where tests were involved.
As I now understand it (freshly, sketchily), washback describes
pedagogical revision, the on-the-fly adjustments teachers make after they have
evaluated a set of exams. The test, depending largely upon how well it is
designed, should report general strengths and weaknesses among the group;
washback is how the future lessons and activities are adapted in light of the
patterns indicated by the test.

I don’t know whether I will get much use out of the term, but it did get me
thinking about similar phenomena in writing courses. There is a kind of
going back over things–something like washback–that sometimes happens
depending on how a sequence of assignments is envisioned. It reminded me of a
mild tension in my MA program between those who thought a complete course of
study–including all writing assignments, prompts, and activities–ought to be
laid out from the outset and those who thought a course of study should be
designed to allow for those inevitable contingencies. To the extremes: the
first type is top-down, water-tight and risks being inflexible; the second type
is like taking to the air without a flight plan: improvisatory and roomy.
The first regards the contextual peculiarities (and surprises!) very little; the
second sets out with the proposition, "How can I devise the second unit of the
course until I know what happened with the first?". One values teaching
everything as if it is channeling toward week fifteen; the other lives and
teaches for today and wants not to overdetermine the what’s-to-come.

I am, at times, drawn to each of these extreme positions; they appeal to me
for different reasons. What I have come to understand is that, in moderate
forms, both are simultaneously possible, and good teachers understand–and
perform–them–a balancing act of managed flexibility. By now I have
wandered away from washback as it relates directly to tests and measurements,
but I only wanted to generalize it to the scenes of teaching I know best.

Corder, 1976, “What I Learned at School”

 Corder,
Jim. "What I Learned at School.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 43-50.

Big Idea
Jim Corder’s essay playfully reconsiders his overeager commitment to write
nine essays in one semester–projects written from the same nine calls issued to
his students.  Corder lays out a few important lessons, and goes on to
explain the antithetical teetering between the openness of invention and the
closed-ness of structure. He acknowledges that much of what he wrote during the
semester-long experiment stemmed from ideas he’d been thinking about for some
time.  To that end, Corder concludes that "a semester affords precious
little time for genuine invention, exploration and discovery" (44), and
students often labor against inadequate inventive time.  Corder’s lessons, however mundane and ordinary, are important, common-sense
reminders about rethinking what we teach and frequently returning to questions
about what we do and why. The
second half of "What I Learned" is a reprint of "Half Thoughts on a Whole
Semester," the ninth and final essay composed by Corder in fulfillment of his
promise to his students.  It’s a self-reflective critique of his
teaching, of his pedagogical emphases (invention and structure), and the
assorted tenets about composition drawn from the experiment (to write one’s own
assignments with students). 

Wondering About
I’ve never tried the Corder experiment (if I might rightly assign the name
of the experiment to him), but I think remember hear such practices mocked as
preposterous.  How wildly adventurous and glutton for punishment would a
teacher be to do all of the assignments with students?  This essay is
forthright and fun; it’s a glimpse inside Corder’s self-consciousness about the
problem of realizing a gap between writing as we stage it for our students and
writing as we engage with it ourselves (habits and purposes rifts, I guess). It’s not exactly clear what Corder would
do differently as a result of the experiment.  It’s illuminating stuff (albeit
striped with functionalism), but I came away from the essay with more questions
than answers about what this means for designing a writing course. 

I can think of a few occasions when, like Corder, I was tempted to backpedal
or scrap plans–the souring of a pre-semester planning buzz.  The flops
were never disastrous; I learned, corrected, made changes for subsequent
semesters.  Teaching is endless experimentation, after all.  Even when
it’s perfect, student dynamics assuredly flip, redouble.  Corder is modest about his
commitment, too; he downplays the significance of following through on his word,
of keeping his end of the agreement rather than changing course, explaining
himself out of it, leaving students with their work. He certainly could have
said, "I take it back."  Some
occasions should allow for flexibility, but I admire that Corder actually wrote
the essays and acknowledged the cumbersome, inherent challenges in so doing.

Corder mentions his work with the TUTO rhythmic method.  Any idea what
this is?  I Googled around for the method, but didn’t come up with
anything.  Has anybody heard of this?  My hunch is that it involves
invention, pre-writing and generative heuristics, but that’s a long shot. 
I can’t find anything on the TUTO acronym, period (TUTOrial?).

We won’t win Braddocks for it, but I like the idea of formally writing
through our lessons learned following a term of teaching.  I suppose many comp
programs encourage this sort of self-reflection for their TAs and other folks
who take seriously improvement in their teaching.  But lots of part-timers
(and perhaps too many long-term full-timers) stop working through their teaching
questions.  Could be a matter of not recognizing the rough spots, not
having the time/energy to devote to self-reflection, or resigning to the
inevitability of grand performances sometimes sailing and other times sinking
because of variability. And so I’ll sneak in a plug for blogs as teaching registers.
Constantly thinking about how much information to reveal here keeps its
exigency, but post-term reflections about assignments, pace, successes and
would-do-differentlies are blogable, I think, and, as such, reflective blogs can
be done responsibly and in ways that build toward an improved teaching manner. 
Of course, private teaching notes can serve this purpose, too (and probably ought to if a blog isn’t part of the mix).

Here are a few more pieces from Corder.  His short essay is worth a read,
especially if you’ve ever entertained the idea of doing assignments with
students or if you’re interested in the pull between invention and structure.

His lessons:

1. I learned that writing out one’s own assignments is a marvelous corrective
to any tendency one might have for using merely habitual assignments or for
witlessly making thoughtless or stupid assignments.

2. With some of the arguments and assumptions that undergird freshman
composition I am familiar.  I know that "the ability to write a literate
essay is the hallmark of the educated person." I know that "a competent student
out to be able to produce a decent piece of writing on call."

3. I learned that I often did precisely what I urged my students not to do: I
hurried; I waited until the last moment, because that was the only moment there
was; I accepted available subjects that came easily to mind; I wrote some "nice"
essays and some "acceptable" essays; once or twice I turned in rough drafts as
if they were finished papers.  Perhaps I should add that I did usually get
semicolons in the right place.

4. I need to say more about items 2 and 3 in order to tell what I really
learned, to tell why writing nine essays is a task very nearly not doable. 
Perhaps what I really learned is that I have not learned enough.  Or
perhaps what I really learned is that part of what I know about writing (though
right enough in its way) is not germane or immediate or companionable when one
is doing the writing.

One more quotation

"I was sitting there looking at the assignment when another dark thought
came: ‘I know how to write this thing,’ I remember saying to myself, ‘but
why in hell would anybody want to?’" (45).

Corder’s Laws of Composition (thinned version)
Ninth law of composition: Everything comes from somewhere and goes some
place.
Eleventh law of composition: Some things precede other things. Invention
precedes structure. Thinking and feeling and being precede writing.
Eighteenth law of composition: You are always standing somewhere when you say
something.
Twenty-fifth law of composition: Invention is an invitation to openness.
Twenty-sixth law of composition:  But structure is a closure.  You
can’t organize an essay or a sonata unless you have ruled out other
organizations.
Twenty-seventh law of composition: Invention and structure, then, represent a
way of being in the world.
Thirty-second law of composition: What follows feeds, enlarges, and enriches
what precedes.