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.

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.

N-grams

In the few spare minutes I’ve had this week, I’ve been trying out n-grams as a comparable with other text-mining processes. This still fits squarely in the category of “a lot to learn,” but I’m happy to be running Perl and various Lingua::EN modules on this (nothing super-complicated in the switch, but all of my previous Perl tinkering was on a PC). Today’s corpus was perhaps too small to yield many insights: just 2300 words across 10-12 email messages sent via WPA-L on Tuesday, August 24. All the same, insights or no, here the top five bigrams, with T-Units enumerated to the fourteenth decimal place, i.e., something like hundred-trillionth or quadrillionth position. Such precision is useful, I suppose, for avoiding ties.

Bi-grams (T-Score, count, bigram)
2.22372310460229	5	audience awareness	
1.72376348313075	3	writing centers	
1.72376348313075	3	writing spaces	
1.41265204574184	2	develop new	
1.41109052911059	2	new ways	

It looks like “develop new ways” is part of a trigram that shows up twice in the corpus. This script–a fine one, by the way–renders those three words into a 2×2 bigram. But that’s exactly what it was assigned to do.

Power Adjuncting

The Chronicle published a piece this week by Douglas W. Texter,
"No Tenure? No
Problem."
Part-timers, it goes, can now make a pile of money (in the
neighborhood of $100k annually) by stacking teaching gigs at a couple of
different institutions. Texter offers ten principles useful for adjusting
one’s thinking while taking the plunge into the pot of gold that is
"entrepreneurial adjuncting." Among the guiding tenets: care, assume a
mercenary attitude, change what you read, change the company you keep, watch
Risky Business
, and so on.

Continue reading →

Multiple, Sequential, Reciprocal



This one is from the same Nagi Noda who made
"Sentimental Journey,"

the other when I’m observed, I watch this.

I think these three–multiple, sequential, reciprocal–ought to apply to teaching observations. Were I a WPA, I would prefer an approach to classrooms observations that involved
multiple visits in a sequence of classes, if at all possible. I would also
prefer to see teaching observations arranged reciprocally, where each person
involved observes the other.
One-time teaching observations are good for verification, for affirming that
one’s work checks off as acceptable on a list of program, department, and
institutional expectations. But that is the end. Until next cycle. This is
the typical approach, right?, the automobile inspection version of teaching
observations.

A preferable (perhaps also idealistic) model is one where senior teachers (i.e., those with experience)
opt in and enter into a mentorship arrangement with new, inexperienced teachers.
This could work for new and returning TAs, too, depending on the nature of the
program. Each would observe the other three times in a semester.
They would also sit down to talk about their impressions, about in-class
happenings, about the shape of the course, its successes, its shortcomings, its
surprises, and maybe even student writing. Much of this interchange could
be handled via email, if schedules conflict. The culminating piece would
be a brief (few pages) record of the conversation representing both
participants, with some evidence of what materialized in their conversations.
It could even be formatted as a dialogue. This would go to the WPA would would,
in turn, sign off on a small stipend (oh, say, $50 or $100
bucks). These conversation pieces could also be circulated internally, turned
into a resource for future practicums, colloquia, and so on. There is not money
for this? Then it isn’t important enough to do. But this is a weak
defense when money (or release time, other forms of compensation) are already
offered for some form of observation and reporting. I’m sure I’m
oversimplifying. I’ve just been thinking about teaching observations over the
past couple of days.