Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A tiny and deeply contextualized victory

On day one I had a student get up in my face.

I had suggested the style endorsed by the MLA isn't particularly useful unless you're writing literary analysis (because it isn't).

The student was aghast. He was good humored about it, but he didn't like hearing anything but praise for MLA style.

While those are not exactly fighting words, I actually appreciated the challenge.

It gave me a chance to explain why I prefer the social-science-friendly APA style when writing papers in composition and rhetoric.

The student listened politely, but he was not convinced. He is an English major, and MLA has worked perfectly well all this time.

We agreed to disagree...
Until today!

The course is a senior seminar, and we're investigating questions about writing skill transfer. Today we read Wardle's article "Mutt Genres."

As has often happened in this course, the students began discussing the following: The style of writing that has served them well for years in literature courses does not transfer very effectively when writing for other disciplines. This discussion typically revolves around concision. Other disciplines want more concision than these students are accustomed to.

One student referred to how "Mutt Genres" was concise, but claimed even that article could be trimmed down.

I challenged the student to point out something worth trimming in the article.

From the other side of the classroom, the student who had scoffed at my criticism of MLA style chimed in: "You know what could be cut, all the names of all the authors jammed into every sentence."

The student was referring to all of the references in Wardle's well-researched lit review.

And I had him!

You see, in MLA style, the first time you use an author's name in a sentence, you are expected to use both the author's given name and family name. When writing about literature, this convention is actually kind of nice. But that same convention is cumbersome when writing for a community that expects a paper to be loaded up with citations (looking at you, social sciences).

Mutt Genres" was published in College Composition and Communication, a journal that (frustratingly) requires authors to abide by the conventions of MLA style.

And I made a show of winning this battle.

I let the student know with a, "So, you're saying that there may be some scholarly genres that don't suit the MLA style?!?!?"

He conceded defeat, and I actually raised my arms in triumph.

Yes. It is a tiny and deeply contextualized victory, but it is my tiny and deeply contextualized victory.

Friday, September 18, 2015

On a Graceful Description of a Crucial Aspect of My Discipline

About a month before my graduation ceremony last June, my dad finally got around to asking a
potentially awkward question: "So, what exactly does it mean to be a professor of composition & rhetoric?"

It sounds worse than it actually is - that my dad only got around to asking about my discipline as I was closing in on a Ph.D.

It's a question practitioners of my discipline should be actively answering more often.

A lot of people have this question about comp/rhet. In fact, on day one of the comp/rhet seminar I'm leading this semester, one student had the wisdom/candor to ask the same question.

I think I did an okay job of answering the question on both occasions.

I described the Aristotelian roots of rhetoric as a discipline. Both my dad and my students understood that. As a starting point it particularly pleased my dad, because it vindicates my choice to major in philosophy as an undergrad (a choice he always supported).

I went on to describe a still-growing appreciation for the study of how different communities compose texts.

I used that to situate my interest in how students learn to write for various academic and professional communities.

I finished by explaining my dissertation's examination of resources in biology courses that help students learn to write like biologists.

My dad got it, and that felt good. My students actually seemed interested, which was important.

I'll tell you what I didn't describe: I didn't go into the four decades of upheaval and dramatic change that have impacted the teaching of writing at colleges across the country. It's an important part of the conversation, but I often steer clear of the subject. It seems too fraught with the pitfalls of university politics and endless arguments about the function of a college education.

This summer, however, Ed White demonstrated how to tackle this complex issue with grace and concision. I shouldn't be surprised. Everything I've read by White has led to a deeper understanding of my discipline. "What on Earth Has Happened to Freshman English?" however, is especially impressive. In under 800 words, White explains a massive shift in the approach to teaching writing in college. He does not oversimplify, but he also avoids getting bogged down by potentially distracting details.
The first-year course, no longer freshman English and more and more removed from English literature (in some institutions, from the English department as well), is now first-year composition (FYC) and often only one part of an extensive writing program extending from placement testing of entering students and a range of required first-year writing courses to upper-division writing requirements—often under the purview of a writing across the curriculum or a writing in the disciplines program and supported by a university writing center—and senior capstone courses usually involving writing in the major. The teaching of writing has recognized that most writing in this century is done in a technological environment and many classes submit work online, where peer review of early drafts is common, revision is routine, and e-portfolios determine final grades. And that first-year writing course, now well correlated with student success in college, is much more concerned with helping all students succeed than with getting rid of the unprepared.
 I can't recommend the entire essay enough.