ART’s reflection on the Higher Learning Commission conference

**I just wanted to let you know that I’m also using the free blog this week–your very thoughtful blogs led me to want to share–I also posted this to my basically fallow personal blog.

I have not been a regular blogger in my academic life. But assigning blogs in the context of my composition theory class has made me reflect a bit on that. It feels like the right thing to do to reflect on a conference in a blog space, rather than always privately. Not an earth shattering insight at all, but a change in my habit.

So, I want to take a few moments today to think about some of the take aways from attending the Higher Learning Commission conference in Chicago.

Analytics and Apps for Teaching and Learning

Probably the talk that made the biggest impact on my thinking, in part because it confirms what I’ve been thinking about digitizing and the power of both database tools and analytics and also in part because I’m aware that that is not my wheelhouse, is the keynote by a representative (the CEO?) of civitas, which seems to be building incredibly smart, flexible, adaptable tools with colleges and universities, not just for selling to everyone. Regarding my wheelhouse comment: I don’t write code; I don’t manage databases; I don’t build apps. But even I can see that what he says is true. All education will soon be driven by big data that feeds down to faculty and students in the form of apps that will help them to make more informed choices and in/at the moment information.

In the context of teaching and learning, this is analogous to good formative assessment, but it can be accessible all the time and data keeps going into the system all the time. It should be much more responsive and complete information than we were ever able to collect before. This is the big data payoff. But I truly love the idea that students might have apps related to their education that is able to help them with constant, individualized advising. That is, we’re already collecting data about student success and demographic and preparation information that affects success, retention, etc. And if we aggregate that data for strong statistical trends, the apps can advise students by giving them a range of choices that typically work for a student like you and they might provide next milestones for success. Civitas is building these tools, but they aren’t alone. There’s an element of gamifying in all this; there’s an element of formative assessment, as I said before; there’s advising; there’s the potential for emphasis on choice.

So, how can I put this to work in efforts at NDSU? It reminds me to continue interacting with OIR (office of institutional research) and to support in my discussions with campus leadership the idea that we need to get the information flowing in usable ways to faculty and students. And if we can’t get campus leadership to buy in to good tools, figure out in the mean time which is the most powerful information and get it in the right hands, especially in the context of general education. Perhaps think about organizing a strategic thinking group with OIR and the teaching and learning people on campus.

Writing the Accreditation Report Narrative

The primary purpose for our team of faculty, staff, and administrators going to HLC was to continue to develop our knowledge and expertise with HLC accreditation processes so that we can have a successful narrative, materials, site visit, and institutional actions for improvement on the basis of our evaluation. I want to just capture a few of the key drafting/revising points that I gleaned from sessions at the Pathways workshop:

  • don’t restate the criteria in the narrative
  • think about weaving through the narrative the connections to institutional identity–what makes NDSU a land-grant, research, student-focused institution? How do the pieces of evidence we offer relate to that?
  • don’t paper over limitations. Acknowledge areas where improvement is needed and talk about plans for improvement
  • Use the criteria summaries well to overview the case made in the section.

Most flagged core components:

4.b assessment

5.a resource base

5.c planning

4.c persistence/graduation

4.a program quality

Composition and Cultural Studies: Subtle Connections

For once, I finally feel at home in one of our readings for this class. The chapter on “Cultural Studies and Composition” in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies is precisely the kind of theory I am familiar with. The mention of familiar theorists such as Henry Jenkins, Homi Bhabha, Michel de Certeau, Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, and Gayatri Spivak felt much more familiar than the majority of our readings introducing new names and unfamiliar narratives of composition theory.

And yet, as this chapter highlights, cultural studies seems to pervade composition studies rather than being a radically different set of theories in itself. Many of the readings we have already done in this class, such as Min-Zhan Lu’s “Professing Multiculturalism” and Victor Villanueva’s “Memoria is a Friend of Ours,” along with several composition-studies theorists like Trimbur, Lunsford, Matsuda, and Flower, are mentioned throughout this chapter. It would seem, then, that cultural studies is a field that has greatly influenced composition studies.

I found myself making connections to previous readings not specifically mentioned throughout this chapter, too. For example, Trimbur’s “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning” seems in many ways a product of cultural studies; his focus on dissensus may be read as an attempt to bring in marginalized voices to academic conversations and to collaborative learning projects. This endeavor would seem to fit in with the public turn of composition, particularly in relation to “a series of historical and contemporary studies of the literacy practices of marginalized or previously ignored groups” (George, Lockridge, and Trimbur 100). Any of the feminist readings we’ve done relate to cultural studies, some of them as examples of or discussions of activist rhetorics (Ritchie and Boardman comes to mind most readily).

But what is perhaps most interesting in this chapter, which is but briefly touched upon, is the “prevalence of the digital narrative in composition studies” which “might offer one of the strongest connections between composition and cultural studies” (George, Lockridge, and Trimbur 100). Jenkins is an apt theorist to evoke in this particular discussion, but he is by no means the only one to call upon when discussing new media and composition studies. The book Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet is a collection of essays on fan studies, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, that explores the connections between composition and new media through several sub-fields of cultural studies. Rather than delve into that particular book, I would like to use the title alone as a jumping off point for some questions:

1. Is fan fiction an area worth exploring for composition studies? What new insights might studies of fan fiction bring to the field?

2. What other ways might we explore interactions of new media and composition? (This is obviously jumping the gun a bit, as we will be reading about new media and online writing in a few weeks. However, I think it is a question worth bringing up now, given the brief attention paid to it in the Cultural Studies chapter.)

Posthumanism smuggling objectivity into interpretation?

Posthumanism offers interesting opportunities.  By incorporating non-human elements into analysis or foregoing any analysis of human activity, posthumanism as an interpretive frame might reveal intriguing new perspectives on our world.  To understand this shift from the human, Anderw Mara and Brian Hawk perform a service by narrating the inception and development of posthumanism within the context of technical communication.  Happily, I note the works by Foccault figure prominently (I preferred Order of Things and Archeology of Knowledge to Discipline and Punish). In regards to posthumanism, notice the similarities with object-oriented ontology, where humans are no longer the central focus, and in some instances, they are not even present save for the scholars doing the scholarship.

Posthumanism has me pondering the concept of objectivity – hence, my reference to the metaphysical system of object-oriented ontology.  On the one hand, the inclusion of non-human elements provides important insights, such as recongintion that the ecology is important, whether organic such as the bacteria in a human immune system or inorganic such as a server running algorithms on Twitter feeds and Instagram and Facebook to find correlations.  There is more to the universe than humans.  And often those systems have an indifference toward humans which necessitates de-centering or removing humans from focus.  Confusingly, I thought this practice has been advocated among sciences –  I turn and glance at a book shelf where theoretical physics has no ‘need’ for humans and most of the mathematical textbooks disregard the presence of humans and often find humans the main source of errors.

On the other hand, the inclusion of non-human elements seems to involve an intellectual chicanery.  It is challenging to engage with scholarship that avoids the phenomenology of humans in the world.  Thomas Nagel, the philosopher whom I forgot during the object-oriented onotology discussion, raises this particular issue when discussing “What is it like to be a bat?”  I find the posthumanist approach feigns the objectivity which so much scholarship has exposed as flawed.  The feint occurs through the treatment of non-human entities as involved in various processes.  Neil Badmington’s piece reminds me of the convoluted nature of this form of theorizing.  Badmington labels part of the theorizing as a trick: “the straightforward distinction between inside and outside is not always that straightforward” (19).  Okay.  That problem exists whether or not a theory factors non-human entities into consideration, so, I do not notice a contribution toward a more robust understanding of existence.

Furthermore, posthumanism also does not have a sense of freshness to it when viewed through most Asiatic writings.  But I feel as though my posts are too dependent upon the argument: guess what Americans, Buddhists / Taoists / Hindus / Sikhs / and an assortment of other philosophical traditions have already managed the concepts and offer more conscientious metaphysics and epistemologies.  An alternative phrasing is, sorry European scholars, you did not “get there” first but you are quite accustomed to planting a flag and claiming the ideas.  But I digress.

Perhaps, the primary distinction between Asian philosophies and posthumanism appears to be a fetishized interest of the latter in rather contemporary technologies such as computers and protein synthesis.  Undoubtedly these technologies warrant scrutiny and excellent criticism of these technologies occur.  However, the necessity of eliminating, de-centering, or diminishing the human seems an unnecessary feature – if not impossible.  It seems like a peculiar form of objectivity through objects.

What matters?

One think that should be remembered about trying to reform education is that members of institutions (every institution—but that would be another blog post) create both stated and unstated rules that seek to perpetuate the institution itself. Freire’s calling out of the concept of the “banking model” illustrates the way that model serves to reinforce sanctioned learning. When the instructors lecture, learning is received. This passive transfer actually does not endorse an education—instead it creates approved lines of “knowledge.”

English departments are a battleground for the idea of what is “acceptable” instruction via the “banking system.” Obviously, inclusion of works by non-white and non-dead authors threatens the bank. After all, we all know that the world will fall apart if students “never read a word of Chaucer” ( Poor, struggling “English departments are now held so completely hostage to fashionable political and theoretical agendas that it is unlikely Shakespeare can qualify as an appropriate author” Yes, yes, they all have value—Chaucer is funny and writes about real people. Shakespeare gave us a bazillion idioms, and Milton is epic, but so is Star Wars.
Freire writes that students must deal with “problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will fell increasingly challenges and obliged to respond to that challenge (81).” I don’t think traditional banking methods work anymore, and I don’t understand why the pushback is concentrated in the humanities. After all, if I taught a class on computer programming on Fortran, but I would not teach the language past 1966 (that should be considered ancient enough to equal Shakespeare), I would be derided.
Q1: Does the “banking” metaphor extend further? Are these ideas “owned” but the Institution of Culture? Are the ideas loaned out on credit to students? What if there is an intellectual bankruptcy? How can the institution get the ideas back?
Q2: What would a new “canon” look like? Who would you want “everyone” to read?

Diving Into Critical Pedagogy

The more I move through the semester, the more and more I realize how much I love Shaughnessy’s “Diving In.” I think that her piece can help us dive into one of the most compelling questions brought up in this week’s reading: “How closely [do] critical teachers actually align themselves with the ‘oppressed’” (George 87)? What does it mean to preach the woes and oppressions of the capitalist patriarchy while living a “’system-supporting, system-supported, pro-capitalist, American capitalist life’” (North qtd. in George 87)? George addresses this question by drawing on feminist and poststructuralist thinking to revise the “decidedly uncritical use of empowerment rhetoric. First. Empowerment suggests an agent who does the empowering and an object whom [sic] receives power from another” (87). The intent is to “move beyond the class-based binaries of oppressor and oppressed and academic binaries of teacher and student” (88). Shaughnessy’s metaphorical call to dive in does this kind of work. Diving in means becoming a “student of new disciplines and of [the] students themselves in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence” (297). The dive disrupts the teacher/student binary because it demands for the teacher to become a student. The terms “teacher” and “student” then become a little empty. Shaughnessy’s description of the dive also includes the students “incipient excellence,” meaning students already have the capability for agency in the world; we don’t need to hand over the football of power.

If I can draw from my exam a bit, we can also see how darn hard this is to actually do. Ong writes that “Human knowledge demands both proximity and distance” (48), but writing increases the distance and gap between knower and known (37-8). Basically, the default position for the academy is a view from a distance. After all, writing’s theorizing power comes from its ability to see from a distance, to cover a lot of ground. This is also implicit when Shaughnessy brings up the fact that it isn’t until the first batch of essays that the teacher’s “alarm” is rung (292). The distance face of writing makes generalizable what was not so beforehand; the students are conditioned to think like this, too–that writing is for “magnifying” (visual metaphor!) their “deficiency” (292). To allow for genuine conversation, learning, and success, we may need some new methods as theorists and teachers to help collapse this distance and normalize it.

Q: What kinds of activities and methods do we already use to collapse the distance between teacher and student, research and study subjects, knower and known?

Q: How do we define ourselves to our students so that the proximity between us can be genuine? How do we address the definitions already given to us by the institution and society?

Ong, Walter J. “Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” The Written Word: Literacy in Translation. Ed. Gerd Bauman. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 23-50.

Jatwell Digs Freire

What I particularly enjoy about Freire’s piece is his rejection of the “banking model” of education. I’ll be honest, when I was a student, I enjoyed a good lecture from some of my more old-school professors, but I certainly learned more from classes that encouraged participation, discussion, writing, presentation, etc. One of my favorite metaphors for teaching styles is the binary of the guide-on-the-side vs. the sage-on-the-stage. Arguably, teaching styles lie more of a continuum  than the false dichotomy these metaphors make them appear to be, but it’s a nice, crystalizing way to think of two different approaches in the classroom, and as much as possible, I attempt to be a “guide-on-the-side” rather than droning on as Freire’s “bankers for teachers” do.

This entire concept of encouraging students to teach seems (as most things) strongly tied to the idea of alerting students to the fact that they operate within diverse systems of Discourse communities. Freire claims that reformation of education “must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contraditction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students” (72). Lester Faigley makes a similar argument in his “Competing Theories of Process.” He asserts that social views of composing such as those pertaining to Discourse communities operate under the assumption that “individual expertise varies across communities, [and] there can be no one definition of an expert writer” (535).

Thus, students coming into the class with all sorts of writing experiences bring valid writing knowledge to the table. Alerting students to the fact that the Discourse communities they operate in and the dominant Discourses of society are simply different and only exist in a social hierarchy rather than any sort of actual taxonomy that ranks students’ home Discourses as “less than” is an important first step in helping students to understand Discourse communities and how to successfully operate in academia and other communities.

Q1: Freire claims that there exist many well-intentioned teachers who “knowingly or unknowingly” wind up using a banking approach to pedagogy and knowledge (75). How does an instructor become aware of this?

Q2: Is the banking model something we can wholly avoid? In the Faigley piece I mention above, he claims that the reason many people struggle in the discourse community of the academy is not because they are incapable as writers, but simply because they lack the necessary knowledge of their field/vocabulary to succeed. This knowledge has to come from somewhere, yes? I understand that exposure to the discourse itself is helpful, but at some point we have to tell students what to notice in a discourse, yes? Isn’t this teetering on the precipice of the banking model of teaching/knowlege?

Should we save the word on our own time?

As I read Ritchie and Boardman on Feminism in Composition, Ann George on Critical Pedagogies, and Paulo Freire one issue kept bothering me. Drawing from stasis theory I could assert that there is a central question of definition that has to be addressed. Knoblauch and Brannon ask: “who is to be liberated from what?” (cited by George, 87)

I believe that feminist movements can be particularly effective in questioning orthodoxies when the question of gender functions as a metonymy for the larger question of privilege and lack of privilege, power and disempowerment, enfranchisement and disenfranchisement. Underprivileged people can be male and female, they come from all countries, belong to all possible ethnic groups, speak many different languages or dialects. The oppressed are the students who participated to Brodkey’s commendable and eye-opening study on discursive hegemony. They are oppressed because the very people who should help students find ways to actively participate to social life and the construction of culture are unwilling to listen to what these students have to say. Booth’s rhetoric of listening might be considered utopian in scope but is a sine qua non for the liberation of the oppressed. But teachers Don and Rita can only offer tangential replies to the issues raised by their students. They don’t really listen, they are too engrossed in the narration of their own story, in the reproduction of safe orthodoxies and topoi. Whenever they are invited to empathize with the plights of the oppressed and establish what Freire would call a “dialogical relation” with their students, bourgeois teachers lapse into paternalistic social action by clumsily diminishing the import of a statement, by changing the subject or by simply deluding themselves that situations are not as bad as they seem: got evicted from your apartment? Buy a house.

Who gets to do the liberating? Maxine Hairston and Stanley Fish scorn privileged teachers who put “politics before craft.” Perhaps they have a point, perhaps we should save the world on our own time and focus on the best way to serve our students because that’s what they expect. I don’t have a neatly wrapped answer for this question, especially when an advocate of diversity like Victor Villanueva voices doubts about enforcing our liberating agenda on students who just want to be successful.

It is hard to dispute the idea that we have better chances of being successful when we conform, when we accept dogmas, when we use prestige languages, even prestige accents.  That’s what English learners want: in my 10 year experience as an EFL teacher in Italy I have never met a student who did not fret because he/she could not exactly reproduce the British accent. In “Living-English Work” (College English 68.6, 2006: 605-618) Min-Zhan Lu reports on news stories of tongue surgeries in developing nations, where people’s goals are to speak “accent-free English” in order to be successful in the global marketplace.

Perhaps students are right, perhaps Hairston and Fish are right; perhaps we can disrupt the status quo only when the times are ripe, when we have become insiders and we speak the language of power. Good. Does this mean that we have to accept the idea of tongue surgery? Do we have to accept the mutilation of students’ identity for the sake of being competitive and successful?

Finally, Elizabeth Ellsworth raises the very important, and often bypassed, issue of context. In what context is it effective to adopt critical pedagogies? Should we carefully assess class dynamics before we decide on our pedagogical strategies? Ira Shor argues “that not all students or teachers or institutions can accommodate an activist agenda” (86).  I agree with Shor and Ellsworth but I still can’t answer to the questions below. Perhaps you can, dear friends.

“Are we all equally credible as liberators?”

“Should we adopt critical pedagogies regardless of context?”

“When do we draw the line between students’ needs and our moral obligations as educators?”