CCCC07 A01: Institutional Forces

(Note: I’ve made some changes at the request of presenters.)

Joanna Castner started this session by offering an initial overarching framework of techné, based on Janet Atwill’s conception of an always changing, never static, transformative “productive knowledge” that works to disrupt lines of power. Techné, Joanna suggested, can be used as an operating procedure and a way of looking at overdetermined (q.v. Althusser, Freud) situations as spaces of possibility. In this sense, techné is not knowledge but the production of knowledge, deeply associated with the kairotic moment and the importance of local factors. Castner then used John Alberti’s hierarchy of differently classed institutions of higher education to assert that so-called working-class institutions — second-tier open-admissios regional institutions where many students hold jobs and other material concerns that lie beyond the scope of the classroom — are now to be considered the norm or the typical case in higher education. (Castner here also cited Johnathan Mauk’s scholarship on working class students.) In such a way, Castner asserted, Mauk’s physical and human material geography of the institution (or, perhaps more properly, the material context of the institution) constructs student identities and the way those identities intersect and interact with the classroom context.

Rebecca Ingalls followed Castner with a presentation titled, “‘She Taught Me More Than I Thought She Would’: Resisting the Dumbing-Down and Reconstructing the ‘Rank’ of Basic Writing.” Ingalls’s title comes from a student evaluation of her basic writing course, and points for Ingalls toward a fundamental tension or contradiction at the heart of the course. As described in the course catalog, Ingalls noted, the course is largely defined by what it is not, and thereby constituted as a space of negation or lack. To Ingalls, this indicates a struggle on the part of the institution to figure out precisely what basic writing is; a collision of multiple educational paradigms. Such struggle or collision devalues both the course and the students, and teachers wind up devaluing the students as well, constructing the students as inherently lacking, which leads to a conception of their own roles as performing a gatekeeping function: in Mina Shaughnessy’s language, guarding the ivory towers. Students guard their own towers as well, telling themselves, “Certainly, I don’t belong here.” The institutional rhetoric of basic writing sets up walls between instructors and students, and denies what we all know: that basic writers are capable of doing cool, smart things with words if given the chance. How, then, to construct a revised institutional ethos for the course, when the public characterization of it has clear and direct implications for pedagogy? We need to turn our gaze back to ourselves and the tower, Ingalls suggested, and ask ourselves why we insist on staying there.

Anne Meade Stockdell-Giesler then offered a paper on “Voice and Identity: Putting First-Year Writing in Its Place.” She began by pointing out the remarkable diversity in types of academic departments that offer first-year composition, and expressed a concern with how institutions define themselves. Her own institution, she noted, is currently attempting to define itself as a mid-size comprehensive private university with a liberal arts orientation at the core of its curriculum. And yet Stockdell-Giesler finds reason for concern in John Alberti’s contention that a liberal arts curriculum is ineffective at so-called second-tier schools: the University of Tampa (hereinafter UT) is in an identity crisis, in which they want to see themselves as operating in the Harvard model yet engaging the middle class/working class construction of the degree as commodity. How does composition as practiced at UT negotiate its identity between the marketplace and the ivory tower? Not well, according to Stockdell-Giesler, particularly given the widely prevalent attitude among instructors that composition is both atheoretical and ownable by anyone who’s taught it. This attitude reinforces students’ sense of the disjuncture between the school’s representation of itself and what they’re seeking from it; the conflict between the liberal arts and so-called real world skills — the visionary and the practical. Stockdell-Giesler acknowledged that she finds the idea of the university as mere worker preparation as outrageous, and greatly prefers the humanist ideal over the business orientation, and yet suggested as well that the discipline of rhetoric can serve as a middle ground between the two: there are worthwhile and useful things to be gained by negotiation rather than seeing one side or the other and mediating the space between the ivory tower and the marketplace.

Tracy Ann Morse’s talk asked, “What Does Physical Space Say About Our Perceptions of Who We Serve?” The University of Tampa is a gorgeous campus, she pointed out. But how do we gain access, both literally and metaphorically, to such a space? Morse described Plant Hall, where the Writing Program resides, and then illustrated issues of ability and access in the front and back of the building, offering a parallel to two tiers of entrance to academia, and using that parallel to introduce insights from disability studies, particularly the concern with reducing barriers. Such a notion, Morse asserted, is elegant in its simplicity and the intellectual inheritance it draws from philosophies of universal design. Furthermore, it has significant implications for composition pedagogy: adaptations for a wide range of users ought to be built into syllabus design. Morse’s presentation then went from the theoretical to the practical and offered an array of teaching suggestions that she seemed to indicate were drawn from such philosophies of universal design: the classroom is a physical and geographical space that seldom offers left-handed desks or other such accommodations; we need to move desks from rows into circles; information should be distributed in multiple genres and formats to support diverse styles and abilities of learning; use student evaluations of teaching to redirect pedagogical methods; ask students to engage with one another in class; and so on. While such suggestions are useful and well-taken, they are also likely unsurprising to those who attend CCCC, and their provenance is not unique to disability studies: one wishes Morse might have considered her audience more carefully, and spent less time on such teacher tips that for many practitioners stand as fundamental and self-evident principles. At the same time, though, I think it’s a usefully political move, to (re)claim practices compositionists take for granted under the banner of disability studies in order to productively illustrate how much of an unacknowledged debt our discipline owes to ways of seeing conventionally associated with pedagogies of alterity.

Mike Donnelly concluded the panel with what he confessed was a radical departure from the presentation he’d written, titled “Glimmers of Hope, Moments of Despair: Reflections of an Untenured WPA.” What he’d written, he suggested, was too much on the despair side, but he still wanted to talk about the dilemma he faced in having taken a tenure-track position as director of first-year writing and now no longer recognizing who or where he is, personally or institutionally. It’s difficult here for me to maintain the last-name distance and decorum associated with the common conception of the academic endeavor, given the affective freight Mike’s experience bears and its implications for so much of what we do as professionals in composition. Donnelly’s voiced and situated unease about institutional place, context, history (“but that’s the way we’ve always taught it”), and practice drew together this UT panel’s threads in a way that was deeply troubling and impossible to avoid considering, and I can’t adequately summarize what he said except in the broadest terms of the department history of stasis he described and its impulse to do things simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done — and the change in sense of self that the failure of institutional change produced for him.

The question and answer session that followed was productive, with — as one might imagine — expressions of similar experiences and similar senses of disconnect. The connections between the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” attitude described by Donnelly and the “anybody who’s taught it owns it” attitude described by Stockdell-Giesler seem particularly crucial today as the academic rhetorical commonplaces we need to struggle most against if we’re to overcome the widespread dismissal of our scholarly expertise and the institutional resistance to systemic pedagogical change.

CCCC07 A01: Institutional Forces