In the thickofit

Fun with the Rudolph app

Yes, it’s that week. The one where I’m jealous that you got all your holiday shopping done and can actually enjoy the season’s events: driving through Lights on the Lake, giggling at a rare public viewing of the Star Wars Holiday Specialsledding walking around the Woodland Reservoir. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. After the 21st, I’ll be set free from hard deadlines and teaching until mid-January. And it’s not like the work I’m doing is especially laborious. I’m reading some great stuff, writing a ton, and planning curriculum. But if you’re an academic and are interested in giving and not necessarily receiving, here’s my xmas list this week:

  • one publishable book review of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence (which I’m absolutely loving, btw)
  • a coherent reflection about blogging
  • 3-5 solid, seminal articles about teaching academic writing to undergraduates in the late age of print.
  • a list of free, private, web-based platforms that lend themselves to teaching undergraduates about critical research
  • proven assignment ideas for a critical research course for sophomores
I think that covers it. You can leave these gifts in the comments.

Silos and Intersections

Yesterday I wrote a quick summary of Jonathan Alexander’s excellent book, Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy, which considers how composition courses might teach sexual literacy. As Jonathan summarizes, LSP argues for

…creating pedagogical spaces in which writing instructors can approach the topic of sexuality in their writing courses as a literacy issue — a realization that becoming increasingly aware of how “talk” about sexuality is tied to some of the most fundamental ways in which we “talk” about ourselves, our lives, our communities, our nation, and our world. (178)

I ended yesterday’s post by asking how an instructor might avoid an add-on approach to sexual literacy in an already existent curriculum; we had an interesting conversation in class yesterday afternoon about that anxiety, specifically when the course already deploys a cultural-studies based critical pedagogy (as we do in our lower-division courses). The WRT 105 shared syllabus, for example, addresses many issues of difference, but does so through frames as “re-imagining the normal,” “contested space,” or “visual analysis,” so that students can choose to focus their analysis on a variety of cultural representations (that are constructed via discursive hegemonic scripts) in a variety of contexts. Put another way, our instructors are trained to teach students theory as heuristic, heuristics that could get at discourses of sexuality, but that also have an equal chance to getting at other silos of difference: issues of race, class, etc. The ultimate hope, however, is that students will address intersections of complex cultural phenomenon that traverse more than one of these silos. For example, one of the required readings in the shared textbook this semester is a article, “Does This Purple Mink Make Me Look Gay?” which discusses hip hop and homophobia so that students have to analyze issues of sexuality which are bound up in issues of race, which are ultimately bound up in issues of language.

Our Skype conversation with Jonathan yesterday helped make more sense of these problems. Although he makes this clear in LSP, he reiterated how tokenization should be a real concern for any critical pedagogue and shared some thoughts about this in a few different ways.

For example, when I asked him how he has implemented sexual literacy as a WPA, his response was, “I don’t implement. I invite.” He shared a perspective on the recent passing of California’s FAIR Education Act, or SB 48, which, starting in January, will require public schools to teach gay history in its social studies curriculum. According to Jonathan, this will inevitably lead to a checklist-like approach to covering the curriculum, obscuring more nuanced approaches to collective agency. Harvey Milk, he said, is a choice example. Milk was elected to the SF Board of Supervisors because he collaborated with other minority groups to change the way the those supervisors were elected. Yet a legislated curriculum is likely to ignore such a nuanced understanding of the complexities of that narrative.

Jonathan agreed that adding sexual literacy to a larger curriculum of difference, as we have at SU, is a smart approach since those intersections are always present (it also, perhaps, makes implementing said curriculum across a writing program a little more doable). A class on sexuality, for example, could be inflected with issues of race. The point for Jonathan is to push back on the normative functions of culture, which are always executing at rapid speeds. In another example, Jonathan critiqued the “It Gets Better” Youtube campaign if only because of the monologic effect such a campaign has on the discourse of LGBT youth (and, presumably, for normalizing postponement and tacitly tolerating anti-gay agendas that affect our youth).

LSP and our subsequent conversation with Jonathan has interesting implications for my teaching. I’m not sure how (or if) I will incorporate sexual pedagogy/literacy into my curricula any time soon, but I do have to come to terms with it when I think about the outcomes of our courses here at SU and, specifically, as I rewrite both WRT 105 syllabus for this course and WRT 205 next semester. Thanks to @activitysory, I’ve been working with folks at the Belfer Audio Archiveon developing a possible unit for WRT 205 that would have students writing scripts for Soundbeat, Belfer’s daily podcast. Implicit in that work will be issues of IP, remix culture, and at least some accountability to critical pedagogy. I don’t know how I will accomplish all that, but I’ll reflect more tomorrow.

Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy

In my Writing Pedagogies class this week we’re reading chapters from Jonathan Alexander’s Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies (2008), which is also on the CCR Exam List. The book calls our field to consider teaching sexual literacy, “the knowledge complex that recognizes the significance of sexuality to self- and communal definition and that critically engages the stories we tell about sex and sexuality to probe them for controlling values and for ways to resist, when necessary, constraining norms” (5). Central to this approach is the consideration of narrative since (1) it is the primary means of the “discursive turn” in sexuality studies (see Foucault) and (2) as Butler reminds us, gender performances are repetitions that (hetero)normalize and socially construct sexuality and sexual identity. By revisiting these normalized scripts through carefully designed curricula and instruction and drawing from insight of queer theory, Alexander proposes that we work with our students to interrogate our sexual “self and subjectivity” since it is central to a 21st century literacy. Sexual literacy thus means “knowing how to talk and communicate about sex and sexuality” and “coming into an awareness of the norms that figure sex and sexuality in certain prescribed and culturally normative ways” (63). Although Alexander doesn’t exactly offer up his ideas as a full fledged course in FYC, he does argue for at least portions of our curricula to incorporate objectives that would make our students sexually literate.

While I haven’t drawn from queer theory in the comp classroom, I did collaborate with Emily a few years ago to develop a unit in WRT 205 (our sophomore-level research course) centered on sex work and labor. In that unit our students had to synthesize diverse texts on gender and sex work such as Alexa Albert’s researched nonfiction text, Brothel (about the comings and goings of a brothel outside of Reno, NV), as well as her more scientific texts from the American Journal of Public Health. It wasn’t as comprehensive of a curriculum as Alexander advocates in Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy, but I do remember the unit was an easy sell and the class discussions were fascinating. I don’t remember any students feeling uncomfortable with the content either, so I’m not sure why I didn’t reprise it (though Emily has since developed and enhanced the curriculum since her MA dossier focused specifically on the narratives of sex workers, and specifically trans sex workers). I’m not sure if I’ll revisit a sexual pedagogy in the near future, and I wonder why that is. It’s not like I’m unconvinced by Alexander’s arguments; I do see value in drawing from queer theory especially to engage all students with narratives of sexuality. And I’m not too concerned with making a mess or mockery of sexual pedagogy, though I’d definitely show this amazing clip from SNL last year (trust me, it’s worth sitting through the commercial):

I suppose part of it is figuring out how to avoid the add-on, supplemental approach to this pedagogy when I’m not committed to going whole hog with the curriculum. Alexander has kindly agreed to Skype with us today, so perhaps I’ll ask if he has ideas on this.

Race, Rhetoric, and Reality: Adam Banks and Chuck D

For Steve’s class on Tuesday we read Adam Banks’s Race, Rhetoric, and Technology and was lucky enough to have Adam, a former SU prof now at Kentucky, Skype in. Then on Wednesday night, the family and I went to see Chuck D give a talk he called “Combating the Weapons of Mass Distraction” which was sponsored by our Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. Both experiences were inspiring, and both addressed issues of race and access.

There’s a nice summary of Adam’s book plus our conversation with him over on Hitt’s page, but essentially RRT argues that when it comes to the Digital Divide, our conversation has to be about transformative access; and in order for tech to be truly transformative we (the field of comp/rhet and beyond) have to go beyond material access to address other functions of technology, namely “critique, use, and design” (44). To get there Adam broadens the definition of technology to go beyond the artifact (somewhat out of necessity) to include processes, discursive practices, and tropes. So, for example, if racism is literally coded into various social constructs — the legal system is one example Adam uses since it imprisons a disproportionate number of blacks — then we need to think about how to undo that code. Drawing from Derek Bell, Adam argues that the jeremiad, “an African American rhetorical form that is both a warning and a lament” (95) is one such “countertechnology” that does this work.

I was reminded of the jeremiad on Wednesday night when Chuck D addressed a group of mostly black undergrads. Although the talk was informal and a little scattered at times, Chuck’s main point was this: “You chasin’ the money, you runnin’ in the desert.” He called attention several times to the Occupy Wall Street as a sign of inequality that is going to lead to a social collapse, and encouraged us to think about what it means to “get money.” “If you don’t know what money is how you gonna get it?” If you’re not “a nerd at your goddamn major,” you’re going to finish college with nothing but debt. Although Chuck underscored these warnings (and framed them through hip hop many times), he was also funny and hopeful. He often reflected on what’s possible in college based on his experiences, at one point talking about the importance of brotherhood and collaboration: “I got four majors out of friendship and paid for one.” And at one point Chuck, also an avid Tweeter, held up his smartphone and said “There ain’t no excuse for you to not have an answer today … it’s impossible to not see somethin’ comin’ at you.”

Throughout Adam’s book, which was written six years ago (read: a long ass time in tech terms), I did wonder what role mobile devices are playing in the black community and how that changes the access game when it comes to his axis of critique, use and design. It makes me think about some of the affordances and limits of those devices as reading and writing tools. In a way we did talk little about this when a classmate of mine asked Adam about the role of Twitter in the black community, which does have a proportionately high rate of use among nonwhites. Adam had some interesting ideas about future work in those areas which was rich for discussion about the role of public and private discourse, counterpublics, and the underground.

There were other interesting, subtler connections between Adam’s project and Chuck’s talk: the function of hip hop in both liberation and domestication, African American intellectual identity, and the role of language in all of it. But both experiences also have me thinking about how I can bring some of this work back in to the classroom next semester since I’m betting on getting a WRT 205 course that I’d like to center on either remix culture or countertechnology, hip hop, or countercultural music more generally. Adam had some cool ideas in this regard; the intellectual mix tape, a petcha kutcha style assignment and other ideas are worth trying out. I’ll be revisiting those when the time comes.

“Inventing the University” and Critical Pedagogy: Bartholomae and Shor

In Studies in Writing Pedagogy these last few weeks we’ve read two landmark texts from the 80s: David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” (1983) and Ira Shor’s Critical Teaching and Everyday Life (1987). Both are on the Program’s exam list. “Inventing” has literally been cited at least a thousand times since it was written; Critical Teaching, at least 655 (thanks, Google). Heavy duty. On top of this, we’ve had the awesome privilege of Skyping with these scholars in class. We spoke with David last week and we’re IM’ing with Ira in a few more.

I don’t want to pretend I know a lot about how these texts have been taken up in the field since their publication, but my distant understanding is that most folks would not put Bartholomae’s pedagogy hand-in-hand with Shor’s. Word on the street is that the former is often interpreted as conservative and the latter as radical. Yet, as Steve likes to say, those are the “cartooned” versions of these folks. The truth seems that while there are important differences between them, they also share some attitude toward students and student writing and both see their pedagogies as liberating.

In “Inventing” Bartholomae argues that students struggle to produce academic writing because they cannot fully invent/imagine their readers as scholars, whose discourses are privileged and specialized. When students do write for us, then, they instead parrot the language of authority (teachers, coaches) instead of writing from genuine invention or inquiry. He analyzes examples from a set of 500 placement essays at Pitt, claiming a text that “continually refers to its own language and the language of others” (412) is the superior text. But getting to that level is tough — if not impossible — for a freshman writer. Language, as “code,” should demonstrate an understanding of one’s own position that “can work self-consciously, critically, against not only the ‘common’ code but [their] own” (413). So-called sentence-level deficiencies found in basic writers are not symptomatic of illiteracy, then, but of a writer trying (and often failing) to understand “key words with the complete statements within which they are already operating” — the utterances of academic discourse.

Given this knowledge, then, what would Bartholomae do with basic writers?

His model is found in Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts: A Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course (1986), which he published with Anthony Petrosky a year after “Inventing.” Their curriculum includes multiple strands: students read a mix of required texts — including Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, Mead’s Blackberry Winter, among others — but also read books of their own choosing. At the same time, they write their own compositions, sometimes based on the readings but more often on the course themes and their lives. Most importantly, they read and respond to each others’ texts in seminar. The purpose of such a curriculum is stated early in the book:

We want students to learn to compose a response to their reading (and, in doing so, to learn to compose a reading) within the conventions of the highly conventional language of the university classroom. We are, then, teaching the language of the university and, if our course is a polemic,it is because we believe that the language of the university can be shown to value “counterfactuality,” “individuation,” “potentiality,” and “freedom.” (4-5)

For Bartholomae and Petrosky, then, teaching students to navigate the conventions of the university is a liberatory act because the university itself values liberation. Introducing students to these academic moves, gestures, ways of reading and ways of writing will lead to better things for them, and, presumably, for (and possibly because of) their various subject positions. The place to begin, then, is with student writing:

A course in reading and writing whose goal is to empower students must begin with silence, a silence students must fill. It cannot begin by telling students what to say. And it must provide a method to enable students to see what they have said — to see and characterize the acts of reading and writing represented by their discourse. (7)

Shor’s book, partially an account of CUNY’s Open Admission period in the 70s, starts with a scathing critique of the community college system (the “budget college”), and vocationalism in particular. At best, community colleges do absolutely nothing for their students except dole out meaningless state-controlled credentials; at worst, they “disguise inequality” (23) and further domesticates them. Community colleges absorb workers at times when the economy has a surplus pool of laborers. It’s a mechanistic structure that denies worker-students full participation in labor while at the same time requires them to work part-time at shitty jobs that enslave them. Vocationalism in particular:

“…is a way of keeping workers materially and ideologically in their place. Vocationalism economically reproduces stratification and politically retards alternative thought. The curriculum enforces the rules of working life. Employers do not want workers who think for themselves or who demand and deserve raises and advancement.” (24)

Vocationalism “narrows human development” because is encourages subjects to remain acritical, to be duped into false consciousness which “conditions people to police themselves by internalizing the ideas of the ruling elite” (55).

In response to such false consciousness, Shor applies many of the concepts Freire laid out in Brazil in the 60s (see Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness). He advocates flexible agendas/lessons based on listening and open dialogue; he expects teachers to “wither away” so that student discourse may be privileged; classes have a strong sense of community where authority is as de-centered as possible; classes are fun; but most important of all (at least in terms of Freire and conscientização), objects, events, texts, etc. from ordinary life must serve as the primary text (i.e. hamburgers, marriage contracts, work) of study.

Like Bartholomae and Petrosky in FAC, Shor lays out his ideas for such curricula. At times they feel equally scripted as Bartholomae and Petrosky’s, but the “plans” themselves are not as mapped (perhaps because Shor describes himself in his classroom, alone — a point I want to return to in a moment). His courses get students to examine the world around them through the ordinary: to reflect on the nature of work, to criticize the present by way of an ideal future (Utopia), and to rethink gender via marriage contracts.

One of the key differences between Shor and Bartholomae, though, is the timing and amount of reading that is done in the course. For Bartholomae, students must fill the silence, but the texts are the primary starting point — literature and nonfiction alike. For Shor, however, the primary text is “daily life” and “ordinary routines.” Although he does assign readings, they aren’t introduced until after they’ve written a significant amount. In his chapter on the work unit, for example, Shor says he doesn’t introduce readings until “the class dialogue has matured enough to support the introduction of readings coordinated with the problem-theme” (140). That is, the class does not deal with readings until students have: spoken and written with each other about their jobs, participated in several pre-writing exercises (including freewriting), practiced dictation and voicing, sketched a prototype for a bad teacher, analyzed their own job experiences (and limited power in those jobs), and reflected on some essential questions about labor more generally.*

We talked a lot in class about definitions of critical pedagogy and whether or not we practiced it. At Syracuse, I’d argue that we endorse a pedagogy that leans more heavily toward Bartholomae than Shor. Our shared curriculum starts with reading, as a critical encounter. The required 600-page textbook, in fact, is called Critical Encounters with Texts, and features multiple genres. Many of the readings are abstract (if not downright theoretical) and challenging for freshmen who are mostly used to a curriculum of canonical literature in high school. At the same time, those readings are purposefully edgy (meant as literal encounters) and provide an occasion for students to see the world differently. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.

Another difference between Bartholomae and Shor is the contexts of their curricula. Bartholomae articulates a classroom at a private college with a team of several other compositionists sharing the curriculum. Shor, as near as I can tell, is working alone at CUNY during Open Admissions. From this, some questions:

  • How do these contexts affect the arguments and curricula? Would Bartholomae use a similar curriculum with students who aren’t basic writers? Would Shor teach differently at a private university?
  • How does the pressure of the WPA affect the outcomes and sustainability of a curriculum? (At Syracuse, I would be hard pressed to defend a Shor-like curriculum, especially as a graduate student, since we are accountable to the college and to our students via grades.)
  • Are community colleges still instruments of vocationalism? Or going the other way, is an undergraduate education — regardless of context — now vocational?

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NITE, the New Left, and the NCTE/CCCC Caucuses

In the first few weeks of Studies in Writing Pedagogy, Steve is trying to establish a context for the current problems in the field by having us dip back into the late 50s/early 60s to see what tensions were mounting composition studies. It’s an interesting an unexpected choice (for me, anyway) and led to a great discussion last week in class about how the field positions itself among its own members, to the academy, and to its students.

We started by reading “The National Interest and the Teaching of English” (NITE), a report from NCTE in 1961 that articulates a crisis in English pedagogy including:

  • a major shortage of English teachers (as much as a 27% deficit),
  • a lack of properly trained teachers (25% of elementary teachers were not college grads and 40-60% of English teachers didn’t major in the subject in college),
  • a lack of state or national standards necessary for an improvement in student writing

The paper argues that since high school students were in enrolled in English more than any other subject (92.9%, as compared to 55% in math), there was much at stake in the report’s findings.

As we discussed in class, the Cold War, specifically the launch of Sputnik in 1957, fueled much of the underlying anxiety in the report. Take statements like the following for example: “…simple literacy is not enough. Today industrial firms are spending millions of dollars each year for men, modern counterparts of the ancient scribes, who can rewrite the repots of research engineers into clear and grammatical English. Business are employing the graduates of liberal arts colleges in order to secure executives who can bing a sense of human values to the transactions of the marketplace.” In other words, literacy was a fundamental economic utility and we the field of English wasn’t taking that seriously enough (J. Elspeth Stuckey  provides an interesting counterpoint 30 years later).

Alongside the NITE document, Steve paired readings from first SDS president Al Haber, C Wright Mills‘s seminal letter to the New Left, a recently edited collection called Listening to Our Elders, which chronicles a (mostly) oral history of the caucuses in NCTE/CCC, as well as Marianna White Davis’s history of the Black Caucus, in order to show the kinds of responses the NITE document got from the radical left at the time — and ever since.

Haber and Haber’s piece is particularly interesting as it summarized the Radicals in the Professions Conference, held in 1967 in Ann Arbor, a conference that brought together leftist professionals who struggled with their ideals outside of their schooling, where they became increasingly isolated, alienated, and professionalized or conformed. The frustration became a “shared, articulated experience” at the Conference and identified two barriers living professional, radical lives: (1) the language of the movement and (2) the strategies of the movement. In a sense the conference asked “how do you be a professional and a radical?” In class this led us back into the caucus readings, but also into discussions of basic comp pedagogy. Should we teach ESWE or academic writing, for example, when it subverts and undermines some of the values that radicals/critical pedagogues espouse?

This week we’re continuing our explorations of the 50s/60s by reading David Fleming’s recent book From Form to Meaning, a history of composition in UW-Madison in that era. His case study connects the events at Madison to the larger national trends and problems in composition at the time. We’re also reading selections from The Black Panthers Speak and some primary sources from the New University Conference, a radical organization based in Chicago and mid-west.


Blackmon, Samantha, Cristina Kirklighter, and Steve Parks, eds. Listening to Our Elders: Working and Writing for Change. Utah State University Press, 2011. Print.

Davis, Marianna White. History of the Black Caucus. Urbana, Ill: NCTE, 1994. Print.

Haber, Barbara, and Alan Haber. “Getting By With a Little Help From Our Friends.” The New Left: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Priscilla Long. Porter Sargent Publishers, 1969. 289-309. Print.

Kampf, Louis. “Notes Toward a Radical Culture.” The New Left: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Priscilla Long. Porter Sargent Publishers, 1969. 420-434. Print.

Mills, C Wright. “Letter to the New Left.” The New Left: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Priscilla Long. Porter Sargent Publishers, 1969. 14-25. Print.

National Council of Teachers of English. The National Interest and the Teaching of English; a Report on the Status of the Profession. Campaign, Ill: National Council of Teachers of English, 1961. Print.

Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Boynton/Cook, 1990. Print.