Skimming for Exams (Part 1)

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My list of unread works in Zotero

Today I managed to take a bite out of the 15 books I haven’t read from the exam list. In most cases I skimmed TOCs, published reviews, and some notes from coursework that my peers were generous enough to share. This was enough at least to allow me to produce a one-sentence summary of the text and tag them for future reading. This took about six hours. I used my Apimac timer to limit myself to ten minutes per text — which was awesome — but took time in between to organize files, search for book reviews, etc. I have to admit that reading scattered like this felt unnatural and wasn’t much fun, but I feel like it’s helping me to strategize how I’ll approach various ideas and readings later — not to mention that it’s pretty amazing how much you can familiarize yourself with in just ten minutes. So much so, that I think I’ll keep using this method over the next few days with the whole list just so I can make abstract, distant connections as I begin to zoom in closer to specific ideas.

And to return to an idea I discussed yesterday, because of this approach, I’m starting to respect the syntopical nature of these texts. Janice Lauer’s Invention in Rhetoric and Composition, for instance, could have been read as a secondary text for ancient rhetoric, an important tool for comp pedagogy, or even just a general history of the field. Byron Hawk’s Counter-History is historical, pedagogical, and theoretical at once — oh, and he critiques Lauer (something I would not have known that if I read linearly or stubbornly). Tomorrow I hope to get through 20 texts that I’ve had some contact with previously. If I succeed, that’ll bring me up to 35 — and close to skimming the whole list.

Warming up to Comprehensive Exams

After taking what feels like a month-long academic hiatus — replaced by community engagement, caregiving, Wire-watching, traveling, and dubbing — I’m feeling refreshed and finally ready to get serious about my comp exam prep this summer. That’s not to say I haven’t been preparing for the exam all along. A few years ago Syracuse moved away from a process that favored co-generated reading lists to a prescribed one where many of the works are sprinkled throughout coursework. So I’ve already read or skimmed roughly 50-60% of the list. Still, there are several seminal works I haven’t touched (including Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, and Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations). My first step, then, was to use Zotero to organize the core list into groupings somewhat based on the courses, but that also made sense to me — a dubious enterprise for sure. At this point I have ancient rhetoric, history, pedagogy, technology, and then methods and theories. I also have a folder dedicated to stuff I haven’t read. Although it might be smarter to choose books that straddle a number of areas (Brooke’s Lingua Fracta, Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives and Cintron’s Angel’s Town come to mind), conceptually and temporally it’s just easier – at least initially — to use a taxonomy to develop a strategy.

Seeing the 40+ works together in the list is a bit intimidating, and between taking care of two kids, researching a new course for Spring 2014, and maintaing general summer mojo, my study time feels incredibly limited. So rather than trusting myself to jump right in and tackle everything pell mell, I started by making some room to re-assess my study habits — namely by reading Mortimer Adler’s classic text How to Read a Book (recommended by one of my faculty members years ago), and revisiting Greg Colin Semenza’s excellent (and much more recent) book, Graduate Study for the 21st Century (1st ed)a text I blogged about two summers ago when I was about to be a real grad student again.

Based on Semenza’s advice in the “Exams” chapter, I’m glad I made some space to do so. As he puts it, “[t]he preparation for examinations — rather than the examinations themselves” (137) is what’s important. He suggests focusing on the process for studying since the questions that will be asked — likely to compare a broad disciplinary concept in 20 pages or so — will not match the scope of the works studied. He identifies this as a major trap of the exam process. Many people study incredibly hard and are then are eager to show off that work only to realize that the exam tests such a limited amount of knowledge. The other trap he mentions is shutting yourself in for months and months, jettisoning any sort of structure that had previously made your life livable. Thankfully my wife and kids preclude that from happening, but I’ve already scheduled a study session with at least one person in my cohort. I’m also running fairly regularly.

Arguably Semenza’s most controversial suggestion is to make the exam process work for you, using the process “as a starting point for dissertation research and advanced teaching” (138). Although he assumes readers are working within a exam structure that requires a co-constructed list (that is, not a master list like ours at SU), I wondered what it would mean to read selectively those books most relevant to my future. At the same time, he recommends reading widely, focusing on the basic aspects of each work, such as its “argument, methodology, contribution, and … context” (144).

I’ve really struggled with this part of the process, as it would be more fun to read deeply (in Adler’s terms, “analytically”) those works most important to me and my future work: Selber’s Multiliteracies, Shor’s Critical Teaching and Everyday Life, Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition, and Lauer’s Invention in Rhetoric and Composition. But the solution is likely somewhere in the middle — read deeply occasionally, and widely often. There are six exam questions representing each of the six core classes; these are split up between two weeks, with students answering one of three questions per week. With that structure, then, you can afford to ignore two area/core class lists (let’s say ancient rhetoric and theory) and still be relatively prepared to answer the questions (since one would be left over if both those topics were asked the same week).

I don’t know if I’ll ignore two areas, but since I’m not particularly strong in ancient rhetoric and I don’t foresee myself doing too much with that area in the future, I’ll study that list the least. It feels like I’m hacking the system, but I think Semenza would be perfectly okay with my approach. As he puts it: “By the time you finish your reading for examinations, you will understand perfectly well that no examination will be able to test you effectively on how much you know” (136). Again, he uses that frame to suggest focusing on the process and not the exam is the key to surviving your comprehensive exams.

Tomorrow I’ll blog a little bit about Adler’s advice for reading syntopically (that is, across texts) as I prepare to start my studying by focusing on an area that I generally neglected in coursework: composition histories. Have advice on this process? Please post your ideas 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.

“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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10 Ideas from Community Day

NFL preseason football is dreadful, regardless of affiliation. Aside for the obvious reasons, it’s a signal that summer’s winding down. And SU has its own preseason to be mindful of in mid August: the Minus One week, the week before classes. But rather than getting tangled in WCOnline schedules, planning consultant meetings, or generally solving logistical admin clusterfucks this year, I was privileged to huddle with the whole CCR contingent for Community Day, contribute to a thoughtful professional development workshop on WRT 307 (our professional writing course), and attend the Writing Program’s annual fall conference (“The Writing Program: A Quarter Century”), which celebrated 25 years of independence. While I have stuff to say about the latter two, I want to comment briefly on Community Day, which this year was subtitled, “Beyond Subsistence.”

The essence of CCR Community Day, which is held the Monday before fall classes every year, was summarized best as a “collective pep talk” by the always witty Becky Howard. Renditions of graduate study circulated as stories of self pity, celebration, admonition and promotion were (re)cycled by veteran students and faculty. But when I look back at my notes for the day, I’m struck by some of pithy snips that have been sticking with me ever since. Here are 10.

  1. Consider “the necessity of a generous disposition,” by being mindful of what pushes us or bothers us, or by thinking of why we’re reliant on certain theories or histories. (Berry)
  2. “Don’t think of grad school as just a step” (Berry). Or, “This is real life. Endless deferment is not good” (Schell).
  3. “STOP reading linearly” (Howard).
  4. “I have always flourished in collectives … You are intellectually stronger collectively … There are always other people going through similar shit. (Parks).
  5. “You have to be open to allowing the future to unfold” (Agnew). Or, you are not always the better candidate; sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time (Watson).
  6. Always be on the prowl for a study party (Watson and Navikas).
  7. Lean on those who came before you (Ostrander).
  8. What a difference a year makes (Doughtery).
  9. Talk through your different ideas (with mentors) to figure out how to make sense of them. Don’t pre-assess endlessly (Caton/Schell).
  10. Different faculty offer different relationships (Luce).