Composition Pedagogy

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He will crush you like an academic ninja!

Been meaning to blog this one for a while: "He Will Crush You Like an Academic Ninja!": Exploring Teacher Ratings on Ratemyprofessors.com. It's definitely interesting; here are some excerpts that caught my eye (emphases all mine):

Students also commented on what information they value more at Ratemyprofessors.com: the statistical and visual elements (smileys, numerical ratings, chili peppers, etc.) or the actual written comments. Not surprisingly, students rely more on the written over the non-written portion of the evaluations. The students basically ignore the numerical ratings, but if they look at any, the easiness score is the one most consulted. The smileys, the students noted, are hard to ignore and are good for creating a first impression of the teacher and the course. For example, if the teacher has many "angry" versus "smiley" faces, this appears to influence their opinion of the teacher initially, but they will investigate further to read the actual written comments. The chili peppers are generally disregarded; students reported that they do not place importance on whether or not a teacher is rated as "sexy." One student summarized this idea by stating, "I think the hot tamale thing kind of takes away from the credibility of the site. If you're looking for a professor, obviously their level of attractiveness isn't really a top priority."

[. . .]

[Students] were confident that they could pick out the ones that are fair and honest and the ones that are vengeful and sarcastic.

[. . .]

Besides posting to pass along important information to other students, several of the students mentioned revenge or venting. If they had a bad experience in a certain class with a certain professor, posting to the site was their way passing along information, but also of "getting back" at that instructor. For example, one student shared her reason for posting. "I do it so people won't take that professor, but I think it's more my revenge in a way. It's my way of getting back at them."

[. . .]

One theme that emerged when discussing posting practices was the notion of posting a comment about a professor only if the students really liked or really disliked the professor. "I only post when I have a really strong opinion of a teacher, either really good or really bad," one student reported. In other words, neutral feelings about a professor did not motivate students to post. Students felt reporting about these specific instances would be most useful for other students.

[. . .]

The content of students' comments on the website and the statements recorded in our focus groups demonstrated an overall concern for teacher competence above other considerations such as appearance, race, or gender. Issues such as appearance and personality were less important to students as reflected in the present study. However, appearance and personality were related to ratings and to perceptions of instructors in general. We find confirmation of the primacy of teacher competence in the fact that focus group participants in the present study independently indicated that their posting priorities had to do primarily with the quality of the professors and the content of the courses. We cannot, however, rule out the importance of other factors such as perceptions of a teacher being easy, as we found a strong positive relationship between easiness ratings and overall quality ratings (cf. Felton et al., 2003).

Oh, also: "One interesting finding in [Ahmadi et al. (2001)] is that when asked if the results [of teaching evaluations] should be made public, over two-thirds said yes; students suggested publishing the information in newspapers and on the Internet."

More on Fulkerson

In comments over at Collin's latest Rhetoric Carnival post, Jenny writes:

The problem is that [Fulkerson's criticizing Critical/Cultural Studies approaches to composition pedagogy for stressing content at the expense of teaching writing] basically reduces writing to little more than a format, a formula, a genre. I don't like this argument much, but I might slightly revise his argument: one of the promises and potentials of composition is that we can re-imagine and re-create what "writing" is. . . or can be(come). So, for example, this leads us back to the technology question. Writing as digital design, etc.

Here's my honest question: Is it fair to say that CCS approaches (and lit, for that matter) don't emphasize this creative potential as much as the content of cultural critique?

In my post, what I meant was that CCS approaches (as well as lit-based composition courses, like those Jonathan teaches, who inspired that part of my post) don't necessarily do away with the basic grammar, style, coherence, structure, rhetoric, etc. (What's more, Jonathan would probably say that phrases like "the correct interpretation*," which Fulkerson uses, are horribly reductive.) So my answer to your honest question is that many teachers likely do emphasize the creative potential. I think Fulkerson knows this -- he clearly understands that writing courses can include a unit that could be described as CCS, another that could be described as expressivist, another that could be described as procedural rhetoric. That would be kind of fun, actually, to see which approach got the best response from students.

But yes, Fulkerson does have some pretty formalist assumptions about what "writing" is, and I'm glad Jenny brought that up.

Now for my honest question: So what? Fulkerson has that handy-dandy "Forecast" section of metacommentary explaining his argument. We know he has some pretty strong reservations about CCS, that he thinks expressivism is a stealthy, Senator Palpatine type that is quietly gaining power, and that procedural rhetoric has been divided into three approaches. All right then. I'm wondering what the implications are. Fulkerson apparently thinks the implication is that we're about to have us some theory wars, but I'm not quite making that inductive leap. What does he mean by "theory wars," exactly? That we're going to argue for or against specific theories, or that it will be a more general anti-theory v. pro-theory disagreement?

By the way, has anyone emailed him to tell him about the carnival?

*Correction: Jonathan tells me this is a "composition-based literature course" and points out that he teaches a lot of different kinds of courses, not just lit-based composition courses, which I already knew and should have said here.

Rhetoric Carnival: Composition Theory, "Good Writing," and -- Impending Theory Wars?

The second Rhetoric Carnival is in full swing, and I'd like to weigh in on the article we're all reading (yes, article, it's more realistic than discussing a book, I believe), Richard Fulkerson's "Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century," from the June 2005 (56.4) issue of College Composition and Communication. The article is a comprehensive overview of some major pedagogical theories and approaches in composition studies: critical/cultural studies [CCS], expressivism, and procedural rhetoric. From the introduction:

I shall argue that the “social turn” in composition, the importation of cultural studies from the social sciences and literary theory, has made a writing teacher’s role deeply problematic. I will argue that expressivism, despite numerous poundings by the cannons of postmodernism and resulting eulogies, is, in fact, quietly expanding its region of command. Finally, I’ll argue that the rhetorical approach has now divided itself in three.

More on the argument shortly. First, I want to explain where I'm coming from: my personal history as a writing teacher, the experiences I'm bringing to my reading here.

I'm glad Collin suggested this article, because if nothing else, it's going to be a big help to me as I revise my teaching philosophy statement for the job market this fall. To be honest, it's going to be hard for me to identify my own teaching philosophy, because like most graduate students, I have been required to comply with institutional course designs to a significant extent at all three of the schools where I've taught. Starting out, I was in a program where, to use Fulkerson's abbreviation, CCS approaches were favored, at least tacitly; maybe we didn't have to do it that way, but many of us felt we did, and for my part, I didn't have any big ideas or designs of my own. CCS pedagogy, as Fulkerson describes it, involves "having students read about systemic cultural injustices inflicted by dominant societal groups and dominant discourses on those with less power, and upon the empowering possibilities of rhetoric if students are educated to 'read' carefully and 'resist' the social texts that help keep some groups subordinated" (659). We did a lot of analysis of cultural artifacts, including, yes, advertisements. Fulkerson's musing, "Whether cultural studies is as widespread in composition classrooms as in our journals is actually an open question" (659), was to me a welcome one; I know some of us at times felt a little ridiculous doing the kind of hermeneutic unveiling of the text-behind-the-text. But hey, what can I say, we were wet behind the ears, and we did the best we could at the time.

Then I taught at a school where the required textbook was The Prentice-Hall Reader, which we were expected to follow in our syllabi. The edition I used set forth a basic prose models (modes) approach, so, for what it's worth, I have some experience with that.

Now I teach in a department of Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication, and I recognized a lot of my institution's pedagogical approach in what Fulkerson describes as procedural rhetoric of the genre-based composition variety. You can see this influence in the course overview, the required textbook, and especially the course requirements. I've always taught at schools that wanted consistency across sections of first-year composition, and as a result, I don't have much experience designing courses or experimenting with approaches, although looking back on it, I recognize that I've learned a lot working with the three approaches I have used.

Still, it's extremely difficult for me to know, much less explain, what my teaching philosophy is, what I think "good writing" is, how to teach it, and what the larger goals of rhetorical pedagogy are. The one constant for me is the Classical paideia model, with its aim of making rhetors more thoughtful, socially responsible, and literate citizens, in which "literate" is taken to mean a few things. First is the ability to make meaning -- to convey a message to an audience: to have a message in mind to communicate, and to lay it out there for the audience clearly, so that a reader could, if asked to restate the message in his or her own words, do so in such a way that the writer would reply, "Yeah, that's exactly what I was trying to say." Second is the basic ability to evaluate evidence for an argument: what's credible, and what isn't? Third is the ability to engage and inhabit provisionally all points of view on an issue in the Elbow believing/doubting sense. Notice that the first one is more focused on writing, and the last two are focused more on reading, which is part of rhetoric too, a point not quite emphasized enough in the Fulkerson article. It seems Fulkerson would argue that in pedagogical approaches that emphasize reading (CCS, procedural rhetoric/genre-based), the teaching of writing is automatically compromised, that you can't have a good balance. I believe one can, and should, have a balance between form and content.

This leads me into some quibbles I had with Fulkerson's representation of CCS approaches. I find some of what he said about CCS to be sensible, especially his assessment of the Berlin/Hairston debate (665-666):

The standard response [to Hairston's contention that CCS teachers were indoctrinating students] accused Hairston of ideological naivete, arguing that she assumed her own pedagogy to be ideology-free but that since all pedagogies are always already political, she must be incorrect (and thus also unenlightened). Therefore, her critique of CCS courses could be denounced as well as ignored.

Logically that argument means no pedagogy can be accused of indoctrination, because the accuser’s hands would necessarily also be unclean. In other words, there could be no grounds for distinguishing between a teacher who overtly forces students to echo his or her politics in their writing and one who tolerates alternative positions. All education becomes equally indoctrinating; I take such a position to be an obvious absurdity.

Using Toulmin's logic, one could of course be more temperate and qualify it by saying that some teachers could legitimately be accused of indoctrination, and some examine, in Fulkerson's unfortunate terms, "the holy political trinity of class, race, and gender" quite productively without quelching divergent thinking. Only a Sith thinks in absolutes. Still, I think he has a point.

Anyway, one of my contentions is with Fulkerson's "content envy" observation: "Both the lit-based course and the cultural studies course reflect, I suspect, content envy on the part of writing teachers" (663). As I said before, I think that having a balance between form and content is a Good Thing; having a nice, coherent course theme grounds the writing and gives it some context. Maybe he's not arguing against having themed writing courses, but his criticism of mimeticism in writing courses leads me to think otherwise (662):

What we come down to is that the writing in [a CCS] course will be judged by how sophisticated or insightful the teacher finds the interpretation of the relevant artifacts to be. In other words, papers are judged in the same way they would be in any department with a “content” to teach. This is just the way a history professor would judge a paper, or a chemistry prof, or a business prof. Thus the standard of evaluation used is, I assert, actually a mimetic one—how close has the student come to giving a “defensible” (read “correct”) analysis of the materials.

But for an argument to be persuasive, doesn't a writer always have to provide a "'defensible' analysis of the materials," no matter what those materials may be? Fulkerson seems to be conflating CCS with procedural rhetoric here (though he admits that the distinctions among these approaches aren't clean and neat). Besides, there are practical reasons to have a defined theme in a composition course: preventing plagiarism, for example (read that post; it's excellent).

The other minor beef I had was with Fuikerson's representation of the goals of CCS and of expressivism. He claims that, rather than having the basic goal of helping students improve their writing, CCS has as its goal "to empower or liberate students by giving them new insights into the injustices of American and transnational capitalism, politics, and complicit mass media" (661). Expressivism's goal, Fulkerson suggests, is to "foster personal development," in other words, to improve students themselves rather than help students improve their writing. I just don't think it usually works this way in practice. I think that helping students improve their writing is always there. The people I know, for example, who teach "literature-based composition courses," do not simply evaluate writing for a correct interpretation. They attend to a host of other matters related to clarity in style, coherence at the level of the essay, the paragraph, and the sentence, and felicity in language (is that current-traditional?). The goals are more complex than Fulkerson's selected quotations would lead one to believe (I realize that my disagreement could be related more to Fulkerson's sources than to his representation of them).

Final thoughts, for now: In my feminist theory courses, we sometimes talked about "post-postmodernism." Fulkerson's article made me think about the return -- if they ever really left -- of some notion of voice, of emotion and affect, and of writing about personal experience, especially in light of composition's recent focus on studies of violence, trauma, and mourning. I agree with him that expressivism, in one form or another, is widespread and will continue to be (not that that's a bad thing). Also, are theory wars really on the horizon, as Fulkerson suggests? I don't think we'll ever agree on what "good writing" is; should we? Isn't it possible to use a procedural rhetoric/discourse community approach while still respecting students' own languages? Does this approach necessarily have to be hegemonic and disrespectful? Don't all these approaches have merit? At times I felt that Fulkerson's persona in this article was that of a real crank. As I read it, I wanted to defend these pedagogies against his charges and explain the virtues of each, then I wondered if that could be the reaction he wanted. (Now I'm expecting someone to leave a comment saying, "Ummmm, I think you were reading a different article, honey.")

Other carnival posts so far: Derek, Donna, Jeff (twice), Collin, Jenny, and Robert.

UPDATE: Two more posts from Donna.

UPDATE: A post from Amardeep.

Related links: WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition and a recent-ish Kairosnews discussion, which again saddens me that John Lovas isn't here to provide his rich, intelligent, and insightful observations with us.

Miscellany: I find it odd that Peter Elbow isn't mentioned in the article, not even in the list of works cited. Seems to me a somewhat conspicuous absence.

Around the Web

It's my own little Inside Higher Ed over here. First:

Ulysses is public domain in the U.S. now. Artists and writers can use passages of it freely, create derivative works, etc. Don't miss Logie's post on it.

Arnold Lee, creator of Ecolanguage.net, emailed me to tell me about his short film, Social Security: The Real Connections. I watched it, and while overall, I think his use of shapes, arrows, and animation is a good way to make his argument about Social Security, I don't yet find it to be credible. The whole time I was watching it, I was thinking, where do these numbers come from? It's a problem I have with most new media compositions, to be honest -- and I know this won't be a popular opinion -- but I am still an old fart stickler for full bibliographical citations of all data, especially numbers and statistics. In the ones I've seen, and I'll admit I haven't seen hundreds of them or anything, the sources are not well-documented. I'm going to be very skeptical of any argument that doesn't cite the evidence it uses. I want to know who wrote the sources, what their political advocacy angle is, when the studies were done, and where the sources were published so that I can investigate the research design of the sources, and all that. If Lee puts a bibliography on the site, though, and I find the sources to be credible, I'll be sending the link to everyone I know with my highest recommendation. I know it's difficult to integrate source citations gracefully into multi or new media compositions.

Please go and read New Kid's systematic criticism of an article in the Chronicle on educational technology. My thanks to her for writing it.

Good thread over at Prof. B.'s about childrearing. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Remembering John Lovas

I want to join Cindy, Samantha, Mike, Jenny, Collin, Joanna, Derek, and Jeff in expressing my sorrow at the passing of John Lovas. I plan on reading and contributing to the festschrift, but for now, I don't know what to say. Too soon. He did what he loved -- taught writing -- until the very end. He cared so much about all of us. About his students. They kept in touch with him after they took his classes. He was proud of them; you could tell by the way he wrote about them on his blog and the way he talked about them in person. I only met him once, last March at CCCC. I'm glad I did.

At the beginning of his CCCC presentation, he made some remarks about his reasons for starting blogging. From my notes on his session:

John's presentation was titled "A Writing Teacher's Blog: New Knowledge and New Colleagues." In it, he talked about his motivations for starting his weblog. He said he was hearing "time's wingèd chariot hurrying near" and was worried that his words wouldn't end up having an impact. He has a wealth of accumulated knowledge about teaching writing, having done it for forty (!) years now, and he was concerned that what we as writing teachers do isn't understood well by the public (he referenced the "Well, I'd better watch my grammar around you!" joke we all know). So he decided to start a blog.

They did have an impact. I'm so grateful that he started and maintained his blog. I am a better teacher for having read his words, for having known him. I'm sure I'm not the only one. One time one of my students wrote something on the class blog that alarmed me, and I was afraid it would have a negative effect on the class morale. John was the person I emailed in panic, the person I trusted to give me the best, fairest, most caring advice, and he wrote right back and made me feel much better.

He will be missed. He already is.

Computers and Writing 2005 Link Roundup

For my own and others' reference, links to posts about the 2005 on-site (as opposed to online) Computers and Writing conference.

  • Part 1 and Part 2 of Mike's plans for his presentation
  • Notes from Mike, Charlie, and pictures from Bradley on the Drupal workshop
  • Collin wins the 2005 Best Academic Weblog award and accepts humbly and gracefully
  • Notes from Bradley and Mike on "Politics of Digital Literacy: Cases for Institutional Critique"
  • Notes from Mike on "Copyright Anxiety"
  • Notes from Bradley on "Self Representation and Agency in a Web of Commercialization"
  • Notes from John on Todd Taylor's keynote multimedia presentation, "The End of Composition"
  • Notes from Bradley on "Community Building through Weblogs"
  • Notes from Bradley on "Assessing Students' New Media Projects"
  • Notes from Bradley on "Databases and Collaborative Spaces in First Year Composition
  • Notes from Bradley on "Rhetoric, Writing and Hypertext"
  • Notes from Bradley on "Teaching Visual Literacy"
  • Photos from the conference
  • Fashion commentary from Matt Barton
  • Kim White's notes on the conference

If you blogged the conference and aren't listed, do let me know!

OpenCourseWare Browse

I realized yesterday that I hadn't poked around on MIT's OpenCourseWare in a while. I spent some time browsing the courses on Writing and Humanistic Studies, Women's Studies, STS, Literature, and Comparative Media Studies. Some finds:

I wish I could do more browsing, but I have work to do. I know that back in 2002(?) when MIT OpenCourseWare went live, it was hailed, the only objections -- the only ones I heard, anyway -- being from some who thought that teachers shouldn't be required to make their course designs publicly accessible. Pshaw. How could anyone argue with the clear benefits to students and prospective students? Students can find the courses that are most interesting and challenging to them, allowing for a more individualized program of study, and OpenCourseWare provides by leaps and bounds more insight into the design and content of the course than a title and little blurb in a course catalog does. The one argument contra that does have merit, in my opinion, is the claim that instructors don't have any way to control the look and navigation of the course's site; everything has the uniform MIT OCW look.

What I was really irritated and dismayed by, though, is the sentiment I heard a lot of people express that went something like, "Oh. Well. They're MIT, so they can do that." Eeeyaarrgh! I can't stand this kind of thinking, that you can only do certain things if you're a Big Name. It seems to me to be, if anything, the opposite: that if you're a Big Name, any endeavor you undertake is going to be more high-stakes, and any possible failure is going to be more large-scale and public, so being a small name would give one more freedom to innovate.

Information on works for hire appreciated

One of the projects I'm working on for CCCC-IP is a basic guide for teachers who want to create online teaching materials, especially online courses, and whose institutions' intellectual property policies are vague. For those unfamiliar with what I'm talking about, teachers who create online courses are interested in whether they or the universities own the copyright to works they create. In other words, could they take their online courses with them if they took a job at another university? TyAnna Herrington was good enough to send me some citations of case law and articles written on the topic. I also noticed the definition of work for hire in this document and the definition on Form TX found on the site where you register for copyright:

What is a “Work Made for Hire”? A“work made for hire” is defined as (1) “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment”; or (2) “a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the works shall be considered a work made for hire.” If you have checked “Yes” to indicate that the work was “made for hire,” you must give the full legal name of the employer (or other person for whom the work was prepared). You may also include the name of the employee along with the name of the employer (for example: “Elster Publishing Co., employer for hire of John Ferguson”).

This definition would seem to favor strongly the university's ownership if the ownership ever came into question, even if the material is hosted on the instructor's own web space, given #1. If this is the definition of works for hire, it makes me wonder why the question is ever raised. I guess the argument would be that the teacher didn't understand the terms of work for hire. But then it could be argued that research universities are paying faculty to do research, too, but faculty members retain the copyright to their articles (or, as is more often the case, they sign it over to Elsevier, Sage, etc.). At any rate, I'm told that case law tends to favor teachers' ownership, so I'm curious to know how that would work.

Of course this gets more complicated when we throw Creative Commons in there. If faculty members negotiate in the beginning that the online courses will be licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike license or an Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license, even if the university owns them, you get that "viral" effect of derivative works shared alike, so faculty members could teach the courses at other universities anyway. As if most universities would agree to that, though...

I'd love to hear your reactions, especially if you have firsthand experience with the problem.

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