Sunday, May 2, 2004

Muchiri, 1996, "Importing Composition"

 Muchiri, Mary, et al. "Importing Composition: Teaching and Researching Academic Writing Beyond North America." On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998. Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin's, 1999. 352-371.

Big Idea
     Four university composition instructors collaborated on this article, "Importing Composition," to address the global reach of research and prevalent assumptions disseminating from the capital centers of knowledge in the field.  Composition research often suffers a narrowed utility when it makes its way into the variously removed, distant contexts.  Muchiri's group sets composition in the US against trends in English Language Teaching (ELT) abroad, where writing pedagogies are (almost always) combined with communication studies, where content reigns superior to personal narrative, where examinations hold greater assessment value than coursework, and where limited institutional resources make one-on-one mentoring and extensive essay-marking impractical. The project seeks to stir further conversations on these matters.  Other key issues are the political and institutional pressures proliferating a "dullness of correction and compliance"--the idea that students might not be willing to take risks because they fear failure or rebuke; Kenyan and Nigerian students often align into note-sharing groups whose solidarity is often seen as a form of resistance to the teacher's authority; the field's research map as a geography marked by "distant and powerful research centers"; and composition research's assumption that students have multiple chances and plenty of time to move toward proficiencies.

Terms of Export
L1 - primary language; L1 studies are language studies in one's primary, native language
English for Academic Purposes (EAP), English for Specific Purposes (ESP) - academic categories commonly used to name departments responsible for teaching practical communications in English aimed at mobilizing students' progression toward advanced study dependent on basic English literacy and "immediate needs."  
English Language Teaching (ELT) - Unlike L1, ELT sets out to work with students who come at English as a second, third or fourth language
mwakenya (Kiswahili, pro-democracy movement), Nondo (Kiswahili, crowbar), Kombora (Kiswahili, missile), Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States)--vernacular terms shared among students to name their systems of group resistance to institutional forces.  Such resistance takes the form of note-sharing and collaboration--collaboration that might be characterized as cheating in a rigidly individualistic assessment system

Monday Morning
    Near the end of the essay, the project turns to the clearly economic metaphor of import/export.  They note that throughout its draft stages, they preferred the term "export," but in the end, they switched to "import" because they didn't see research in composition as being fairly characterized by a neocolonial label or a term that suggests multinational monopoly.  It seems like an interesting turn; maybe all research is export--a produced knowledge-construct, delivered.  The farther and longer (in time) it travels, the greater its purported value and firmer its stance as essential(!) and centering. Their final set of questions--built up on the import/export logic--go, 

Imagine you could pack something of the world of composition, just enough to fit in a small box that would fit under an airline seat.  It is not for foreign aid, or for trade, both of which an be exploitive; let us think of it as barter. What would you pack in this box; what is essential in the composition enterprise?  That's the fun part.  Now here comes the hard part: Where would you send it?  And even harder: What would you expect to get in return? (370)

     I don't know where I'd send it, but a laptop with satellite wifi, loaded up with a blogging account strikes me as having greater compositional potential than anything else I can come up with.  (Shameful that I'd consider sending it to myself--if for only a brief, irresponsible moment...hehe.) 
     I thought the essay might have done better to complicate the language demographics of North America.  In places, it seems to gloss over linguistic diversities in North America and the deep challenges they present to composition teachers and researchers.  With something like 45 million US citizens (what, 13-15%) in homes where English is not the everyday language of the family, this becomes slightly more complex than a broad-strokes depiction of the US (even all of N. America!) as linguistically homogenous.  Of course, I come at this article after a year of teaching mostly international students in on-campus courses, and mostly domestic US students in online classes while they travel abroad.  So I wished for some acknowledgement of the cross-flow of compositional trade (if we must call it something like this...following the commerce metaphor).  In the fall, I taught a class called Reading and Culture for International Students on campus.  They were from Kosrae, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico, Brazil, Morocco, and Nepal.  It was an advanced ESL course, but the cultural interplay was magnificent.  This semester, in an on-campus section of second-semester FY composition, students were from Northern Ireland, Tanzania, Poland, Kenya, and Somalia.  Meanwhile, in a current intro to humanities course, I am working with native English speaking students who are in Korea, Uzbekistan, Germany, a classified location in the British Indian Ocean Territory and twelve different US states. I feel like my experience has distorted my sense of still-standing boundaries that place an embargo on increasingly globalized understanding and interaction.
     One other intriguing side to this project is its insistence on opening a discussion.  It's a discussion that I haven't looked for, but it's also a discussion that I'm not certain advanced much after this article showed up in CCC in 1995. Composition research continues to center on N. American contexts, yes?  Where has this discussion gone?  Whose work is guiding it?  How badly do teachers in other parts of the world need the comparatively well-established, well-funded research efforts in the US?  

Passages Passages
"The purpose of this paper is to open a discussion of what happens to the published literature on composition in these new [internationalized] contexts. [...] Composition research makes assumptions about students, teachers, language, and universities.  Some of the assumptions from US research are refreshing in these new contexts; some have to be questioned, and some seem bizarre" (353).

"While there is no composition industry outside the US and Canada, that is not to say that there is no interest or research in academic writing.  But most studies are done to support programs for students whose first language is not English--the idea of teaching English to English speakers (L1, or first language, students) is seen as rather odd" (353).

"Another way in which the journey is different is that university attendance remains in most countries in the world the privilege of a tiny minority.  It is easy to forget in the US just what a difference this makes to students.  Students in these countries may come to university bearing not just the hopes of their family, but the hopes of an entire village, for whom they will become an important link to the worlds of government and business. The pressure to succeed, or at least to survive, is enormous" (355).

"But composition teachers, too, regularly express annoyance with the dullness and correctness of run-of-the-mill essays they receive.  The annoyance arises when the dullness seems to arise from a rejection of academic challenges.  Are we saying that such dullness is (horrible thought) a cultural university? No, we suspect that a very similar dullness may have quite different social causes.  The fear of failure in North American university may not be so great (of course we cannot say). Certainly the fear of political persecution should be less. Essays may be dull because the university means too little to the student, or because it means too much.  Can we tell the difference between the dullness of boredom, and the dullness of linguistic limitation, and the dullness of fear?" (356).

"For monolingulas in the US, ideas like 'speech community' or 'code-switching' or 'register' have to be painstakingly established as abstractions and illustrated with data.  In Africa, as in all multilingual countries, people to sociolinguistics on every streetcorner.  Someone in Nairobi market who switches from English to Kiswahili to Gikuyu in the course of buying a kiondo (a bag) is changing footing, and knows just what is going on" (364).

"Lest the composition researchers get too complacent, one should look for places where composition is difficult to transplant, and ask if these difficulties don't sometimes arise closer to home.  We have mentioned the dull errorlessness of the prose, and wondered how it related to similarly depressing prose in North American students, perhaps seeing a variety of causes, not all of them matters of laziness or lack of imagination.  We have mentioned apparently absurd arguments from authority in essays, vague reliance on consensus, uncritical use of written sources, treatment of teachers as parents, invocation of religious belief, all of which can be dismissed as simply conformist, but all of which may be valued differently from other perspectives.  North American teachers develop ways of dismissing some kinds of resistance to their reforming message as not worthy, while other kinds of resistance are to be promoted as progressive" (370).

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