PHP Exam Rationale

For one of my two language requirements, I completed an exam in the computational language of PHP.

This is a screenshot of the programming language, PHP. In it, there are red, yellow, and green lines of code.

The purpose of this, in part, was to learn more about server management and the manipulation of the aesthetic and functional features of WordPress templates so that I might give myself some experience in managing a WordPress installation, just in case I’m ever working in a context that doesn’t already have one set up for teachers and students to use.

Additionally, over the last few years working as a Digital Pedagogy Specialist at Baruch and as a result of reading for my orals exam, I’ve learned a lot about critical educational technology from the scholarship and journalism of people like Mary Lynn Chambers, the FemTechNet community, Carmen Kynard, Elizabeth Losh, Sean Michael Morris, Lisa Nakamura, Jesse Stommel, Audrey Watters, and others.

So, part of the objective of completing this exam was also to gain an opportunity to foster my own critical transliteracy consciousness and to build a skill that I could one day teach to others.

I wrote about this process here, in a viewable Google Doc.

I’m putting this on my site because I think that this was an enormously useful process, and I hope to encourage other PhD students in the humanities to consider gaining some basic fluency in a computational language in order to satisfy or partially satisfy a language requirement. I learned a lot, even though the end result looks pretty basic .

I also benefited greatly from looking at the model that Erin Glass shared with me of her own rationale for learning Java Script. Here’s Erin’s website.  Thanks Erin!

Corpus linguistics, cosmopolitan English, and the trickiness of academic “communities”

Over the summer, I had an idea about how word processors (or other proofreading-focused software) could use corpus linguistics — rather than an (arbitrary) racist, classist, imperialist logic that privileges certain sets of conventions. I thought this might allow for a more capacious selection process when the writer was making a decision about which public(s) she invokes as she writes.

My idea was this: the program would come pre-loaded with a bunch of different corpi. Depending on the piece’s audience, the author could select the corpus that they wanted to use. The word processor would draw the author’s attention to the places where language that they used was in contrast to the most common usages in the corpus.

Put more simply, my word processor wouldn’t (necessarily) do this:

A screen shot of my Microsoft Word word processor with sentences that say "He don't go there anymore," and "She see it," and "He been trying," and which underlines pieces of the sentences with a green squiggly line, indicating that these are errors.
This picture is a little blurry, but you might be able to make out that MS Word is putting a green squiggly line underneath verbs that don’t “agree,” according to the conventions of Standard Edited English. The green squiggly lines are communicating that this language is wrong, rather than indicating the larger truth: that language is constructed within social, political, and historical contexts.

In Suresh Canagarajah’s “Multilingual Writers and the Academic Community: Towards a Critical Relationship,” he points out to the community of practitioners of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) the fact that discourse is socially constructed, that genres are living rather than fixed, and that very uneven power dynamics mediate what gets acknowledged and what gets labeled as an error, as incoherent, as insufficient. This would be partly acknowledged by this imaginary corpus-based word processor I wanted to will into existence.

But when dreaming of a corpus-based word processor that would be less fixated on tracking and flagging “errors” (i.e. violations of the conventions of the language of power), I still wasn’t acknowledging that a corpus, itself, is a social construction.

Which texts would we choose? Who decides?

In the case of the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English), there are millions of spoken and written texts (you can see what they are here). But even with millions of texts, do we go on majority rule? In this case, doesn’t the language of power still persist, and still perpetuate the status quo?

Let’s say that we were going to make a corpus for Comp scholars to consult when they were writing journal articles, and so we loaded in all of the journal articles that were ever written for a Comp Rhet journal which could tell us something about how well (or not) we were adhering to certain conventions.

Deciding on what constitutes a field’s journals is a political choice.

What gets in to a journal (and what doesn’t) directly reflects the habitus of the reviewers.

And, finally, a corpus-based processor would argue, invisibly, that the language of a field of academic practitioners is based on its history. It would not open up sufficient spaces for the language of the future.

Those the green squiggly lines would still be showing up to manage what was new, and to keep that status quo exactly where it is.

Back to the drawing board…

Basic Writing, handwringing about “standards,” and On Being Included

I’m working out some thoughts about parallels that I’m seeing between the hand wringing over academic “standards” that happened in the 1990s and contemporary hand wringing over “standards” surrounding plagiarism.

I’ve been thinking about these things while reading this week: Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk and George Otte’s piece about the future of Basic Writing from 2010, Ira Shor’s 1997 article from the same journal likening Basic Writing to apartheid, some articles arguing against the “efficacy” of remedial education that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the mid-90s, Victor Villanueva’s “Subversive Complicity,” and returning to Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life: a book that has been really central to my thinking in the last few months. I also started Xiaoye You’s Cosmopolitan English and Transliteracy, which is informing some of my thinking.

As the Mlynarczyk and Otte piece reports, the 1990s were a time when scholars within the field began taking a closer look at the legacy and impact of remedial education. Scholarly critiques of BW focused on the way that the discipline extended hierarchical power relations and reproduced undemocratic systems of tracking and control (Shor 1997). Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu argued that basic writing curriculum was rooted in a lack of attention to the sociopolitical conditions that created “deficit” narratives. Evidence of this line of thinking is also found in Lu’s 1991 challenge to Mina Shaughnessy’s essentialist view of language in Errors and Expectations.

But there was also a lot of handwringing about standards in the 90s: handwringing that continues today in school reform movements, and handwringing that feels very parallel to the kinds of conversations I’ve heard people have about plagiarism and academic integrity.

Movement in the direction of some kind of rhetorical / linguistic pluralism seems like it is almost always met with fretting about THE STANDARDS. But when you look at the trajectory of that fretting in the 90s, it’s really interesting to note that all of the reform people seemed to want to draw on elusive “international standards” by which we should be judging our (largely American) basic writers, and now that the new basic writers ARE, in many cases, international students, there’s an outcry for promoting and enforcing new standards — “American” ones — around plagiarism.

A cartoon face looking thoughtfully up to the sky with the words "Hmm..." in capital letters next to it).

Here are some other fragmented thoughts. Also, memes!

1. Both within and outside of our field, it feels like there are, among others, some ludicrously xenophobic dimensions to the way that we A Simpsons character looks up at the sky and pleads while a crowd of other Simpsons characters look at her with a worried face. The words "Won't somebody please think of the children?" appear across the top and the bottom of the image.argue for the “protection” of the “value” of a college degree in the face of increasing international student enrollment. It’s hard to point to this argument in published material, but it’s certainly something that I’ve encountered in informal conversations, in Q&As at conferences, and on various professional listservs. These conversations are reminiscent of the kinds of “think of the standards!” conversations that we were having in the 1990s, like this one from Marc Tucker, which advocates for “higher standards” in “low-performing” secondary schools (read: schools with lots of minority students). The same logic that supported the particularly icky parts of school reform movements. These are not new conversations — we’re just having them about a new set students — and they’re still just as reductive and ignorant.

Doge, a shiba inu dog, looks at the camera very skeptically

2. There is palpable resentment surrounding the idea that international students (and their tuition dollars) are given preferential treatment over more “deserving” (read: American) students. Regardless of whether or not universities are actually making money off of international students, blaming the students, themselves, for circumstances that are both out of their control and that directly victimize them is not a good look.

3. Rigor, academic “excellence,” student preparation, and high standards are often placed in direct rhetorical conflict with goals relating to accessibility. All of these concepts are, of course, evacuated of meaning until they’re attached to something meaningful. A student becomes “high achieving” when what it means to “achieve” is defined: by test scores, by graduation rates, by GPA, by whatever metric a school decides to use. A student’s ability to access something is undermined when that student’s presence on a campus is not imagined in the first place.

4. While, as Ahmed writes, “diversity” can be a technology of excellence — a metric that we use to prove value — this can only happen when diversity doesn’t threaten excellence at it is currently conceived.

“Fake News” is a symptom. Not a disease.

In this #alternativefacts landscape, it feels almost heretical to take any side other than STRONGLY OPPOSE when it comes to the discussion surrounding fake news. As in, “fake news” bad, “real news” good.

To be clear, fake news and alternative facts pose real problems. We should address them in our classrooms. And yet, the entire debate around the issue feels like a symptom of a larger problem.

As a rhetoric teacher, some of my job revolves around getting students to consider the validity of information that they’re planning to incorporate in their work and the effect of that information on their intended audience. Students need to consider the provenance of a source, the agenda that the maker of that information had when crafting it (assuming, as I do, that none of us can be truly agenda-less, or even fully aware of what our agendas are), the source’s timeliness, and the likely audience that the source is trying to reach.

There are millions of resources that can help with this work: videos, library guides, textbook chapters, articles, classroom activities, professional development workshops, clever heuristics that use funny acronyms. I feel fully supported in helping students to choose between what my own discourse community would consider “valid” or “fake” sources. That has also been an important practice in my own life: being able to sort through and evaluate truth claims in an information-dense world makes me feel a little less anxious.

And yet, I think there’s much less of an emphasis on helping students to navigate the embedded logics of institutions like colleges and universities. For me, the salient questions are “How does knowledge get produced and certified?” and “Who certifies it?” and “What gets to ‘count’ as knowledge? What doesn’t? Why not?” rather than “What is ‘fake’ or ‘real’?”

Or, even trickier questions: who has historically benefited, and who has historically not, from the institutional logics that govern knowledge production? What kinds of information gets excised from the record for appearing unserious or inadequately rigorous? Tricia M. Kress’s chapter, “Can’t You Just Know? Critical Research as Praxis” points to this dilemma. In it, she compares the articulated lived experience of a young student of color to the critical work of a university-certified “expert.” They’re identical conclusions with a notable exception: one has clout, and the other doesn’t.

I’ll admit that my own pedagogical practice currently skews toward teaching students how to find and incorporate “valid” research. But in the past few semesters, I’ve had interesting and generative conversations in my classroom that have caused me to want to reconsider this.

The most enriching conversations have generally involved student push back. Why can’t the Bible be used as a “credible” source to determine when life begins, asked a Catholic student. How can we be sure, in conducting an ethnography, that we’re ethically representing a community with which we have only a limited experience, asked a white first-year investigating a subreddit for a WAC class that I taught last spring. Why doesn’t our lived experience count as research, but someone else’s lived experience of us can count, asked a student of color.

These are important questions. But the tools that I’ve mentioned above don’t really help students to grapple with them. Telling the first student that the source of authority cannot be verified rings hollow to her experience, but inviting her into a conversation about how authority is determined seems like a much more generative avenue. In the case of the second and third student, I’ve grappled with some of these very questions, but mostly in graduate school — once I’ve shown sufficient deference to institutional logics. Not as a first-year.

My question is this: why should students have to wait until then?  Why shouldn’t we interrogate our own knowledge production / certification with students, and be honest about the fact that our institutions are flawed, complex social constructs made up of human beings with histories of discrimination and exclusion based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, colonialism and empire building (not an exhaustive list). We need to communicate that our institutions have been slow to change (or to even recognize problems), and that we remain adamant that they do so while we also remain surrounded by evidence to the contrary that they can or will. If we do this, rather than presenting institutions as perfectly reliable and seamlessly objective Fact Factories, wouldn’t we stand a better chance at gaining the trust of the public?

I want students to develop a greater appreciation for the processes that we use, as well as a healthy and critical skepticism of some of those processes. Maybe then, they wouldn’t feel like we’re demanding their fidelity so much as we’re inviting them to help us shape even better processes. Maybe this will encourage students to look at the way that other institutions produce and certify knowledge.

Is this an unrealistically optimistic hope to have in our post-fact reality?

Intersectionality, assemblage, and energy-field imagery: unpacking theories of identity

In the last two weeks, I’ve been reading Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening, some of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work anthologized in this compilation, and this article by Jasbir Puar, which explains what she identifies as the “friction” between intersectionality and assemblage theory.

The other day in an advising meeting, I tried articulate the relationship (is there one?) between Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages and Ratcliffe’s energy-field imagery in Rhetorical Listening. I couldn’t, really. So I’m going to keep working through it here.

I see Puar and Ratcliffe articulating similar questions. How are bodies — human bodies, post-human bodies, institutional or governmental bodies, etc. — discursively produced? And then, how do specific configurations of individual bodies push back on / transform discursive identity construction?

In order to parse Puar and Ratcliffe, I think it’s important to first discuss intersectionality since it’s so central to both of their own critiques (and most conversations about identity, for that matter).

The legal scholar and an important figure in the field of Critical Race Theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw, developed the theory of intersectionality. At its inception Crenshaw was using intersectional critique to examine particular anti-discriminiation laws that failed to account for an uneven impact on women of color. The basic takeaway was this: we need to understand how bodies are simultaneously marked as raced, classed, gendered, nationalized, able / disabled (this is not an exhaustive list), because intersections unevenly impact the way that structures (like laws, policies, institutions, etc.) affect people. Put more concretely, the material effects of an implemented policy on spousal abuse might differently impact a trans woman of color and a cis white woman. Any policy, version of feminism, advocacy effort, curriculum, etc. that doesn’t take this into account risks further marginalization.

Since Crenshaw’s theory emerged, lots of others have taken up the paradox of how to talk about the material effects of race and racism without reifying (constructed) categories. In other words, if race and gender and ability and nationality and sexuality, etc., are all made up, how do we talk about them (or study them) while recognizing that the boundaries are constantly shifting?

Puar seems to be working through that with assemblage.

Puar is worried about what she calls “the automatic primacy and singularity of the disciplinary subject and its identitarian interpellation” (Terrorist Assemblages, 206). In order to do an intersectional critique, we have to insist upon the realness of an identity category (giving “black” or “female” or “straight” a kind of credence that they do not inherently possess). We also have to “freeze” identity in a particular historical, geographic, temporal, and contextual moment.

Puar pushes back on this with assemblage theory, which was introduced in Deleuze and Guattari’s book, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). In it, they argue for a more fluid model in which relationships within and between bodies (human and otherwise) of component parts form temporary and ever-shifting constructions of identity. In Terrorist Assemblages, Puar uses assemblage to consider the way that liberal multiculturalism has cultivated (stable) identities. She thinks specifically about the ways in which gay rights discourses (mobilized, in part, by these fixed ideas around identity) have potentially furthered US imperialism and Islamophobia.

This is really interesting work that I could further unpack, but I want to move toward how I see assemblage interacting with what Ratcliffe calls “energy-field imagery,” which she uses to conceptualize identification (and disidentification).

Energy fields, like the ones depicted in the (trippy) photo below (thanks, by the way, to some website that is literally called seem to me to be somewhat akin to assemblages. Ratcliffe imagines each of the colors of the field as a discourse constructing a body. But the current image is a snapshot of a particular moment. The discourse is in motion, just as the body is in motion. And as one beam of color passes through the head or the leg, it changes (incrementally). It comes into contact with what was already there, and what was surrounding it. If there were two bodies in the frame, the colors between the bodies would shift, which might, in turn, shift the colors inside the bodies.

A human silhouette with several colors of gas passing through it (purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red)
An energy field

If this model of identity rings true, I think Ratcliffe’s imagery helps us to do a few things. First, while it shows both the possibilities and limitations of personal agency, it doesn’t totally discount it. Second, as she puts it, it makes visible how identity is discursively produced (which makes discourse a primary place of interrogation because of its transformative potential).

It also helps us to understand the limitations of research methods in rhetoric and composition which ask us to use a snapshot to make generalizable claims and to form and interpret broader conclusions. It seems possible (or, more possible) to do this if we’re using intersectionality as a model, because intersectionality helps us to make claims about groups of people who ostensibly “share” the same set of identity categories. Energy-field imagery and assemblage recognize the real effects of these identity constructions while also recognizing that individual people can experience different concentrations of what Ratcliffe calls “shared atmosphere” (71). These nuanced concentrations can impact individual agency and the possibilities for identification or disidentification with dominant discourse.

This cannot mean that identity can be dismissed in critique in any way.  It is, instead, perhaps a way to inject some nuance. Ultimately, it feels to me that both Puar and Ratcliffe are simply trying to account for more than a snapshot of a cross-section. Am I reading this correctly?

Questions I still have: what do these theories mean for the possibilities of collective action? When we call for feminism (or anything) to be intersectional, it seems like what we mean is that we take multiple simultaneous realities into consideration at once. Can assemblage / energy field imagery help us to do this, too? How might these theories account for the impulse of cosmopolitan English to focus on the porousness of language potentially at the expense of flattening uneven individual histories (I write about that a bit in this post). Who addresses these things in our field, or outside of it?

Anti-racism, graduate education, and Cosmopolitan English

Early in the morning after our nation elected Donald Trump as our president, I watched this short video by David Billings: an anti-racist activist at the Anti-Racist Alliance.

I was so particularly struck by this quote:

There is not one field of study in these United States where you cannot earn the highest degree that this nation has to offer — the PhD — that requires you to have a mastery of this country’s race construct and its impact on the citizenry today. That’s sick, when we can graduate doctors, we can graduate lobbyists, we can graduate social workers, we can graduate teachers…and they never learn what the construct of the nation is.

How true.

How resonant with my experiences as a graduate student interested in the intersections between faculty development, translingualism, and technology.

How often, as a result, our neglect feels benign rather than vivid. How often it arrives unannounced in the organizational and institutional cultures we create and reproduce. In our coded language about “motivation” and “rigor” and “high expectations” and “academic aptitude.” In our research and methodological assumptions. In our either / or thinking. In our fear of open conflict.

How easy it is for me: a white, college-educated, middle class, cis-gendered, able-bodied, urban American — a progressive one, even, who is dedicated to public education, who is trying to learn how to organize, who is seeking out what to do other than reading and writing — to neglect the sickness right in front of me. To feel timid. To not bring up anti-oppression, to fail to center it.

Catherine Prendergast calls race “the absent presence” in Writing Studies. We talk about the politics of remediation, about assessment and curricular design, about teaching. We talk about training faculty. We take (or design) graduate classes and practica.

But how often do these things structure themselves explicitly around our deep histories of white supremacy and oppression? How often are our syllabi or our classes or our programs “inclusive” of difference instead of responsive to difference? When is difference allowed to transform sick systems rather than merely propping them up?

I worry about this decentering, the absence of this presence, in my own work: both in the work I do as a faculty developer, and in the work I’m doing to prepare myself to write a dissertation. As I’ve been reading Xiaoye You’s excellent book, Cosmopolitan English and Transliteracy, I’ve been so struck by his idea about the porous boundaries of language. Our histories have caused us to demarcate the way that we communicate: by nation (or nationlessness: “non-native” speakers), by ethnicity, by constructed identities. These things make us ignore the “margin of error” — the way that languages actually work. We sublimate porousness. We call it an exception to the rule, when in fact, it is the rule that we simply ignore.

And at the exact same time that we should be pointing to the constructedness of these (linguistic, or otherwise) identities, how do we also acknowledge the violence of their material effects?

Because while it is critical to “shake loose the confines of the bounded perspective to nation, culture, and language,” we can’t approach this task by continuing to be wildly neglectful of the histories of race and racism that have shaped (and that continue to shape) so much of our work (107). We can’t do this work without accounting for, without fully understanding, white supremacy. Until anti-oppression is centered in our field, in our graduate programs, rather than the province of “the race person” or “the disability person,” might there be a dangerous flattening effect that results from pursuing a less bounded approach to language?

Post-Watson thoughts: translingual pedagogies and reciprocal recognitions

At the beginning of my Orals process, one of my sub-lists focused on the divide between L2 and translingualism. I started with the L2 letter. I read Canagarajah’s reply. I read some of the “defining translingualism” texts in our field (like the Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur piece and the Lu and Horner piece). I read outside of our field (like Jenkins’ work on English as a Lingua Franca, and Garcia and Seltzer’s work on translanguaging, and Flores’ and Rosa’s work on appropriacy).

And I tried to wrap my head around some of the push back. I’m going to paint in very broad strokes here, but just to distill some of it: (1) translingualism ignores students’ interest in learning the English of power; (2) translingualism isn’t practical; (3) translingualism (in Comp Rhet) doesn’t have any, or enough, “concrete” strategies aside from code-meshing; (4) translingualism encourages linguistic tourism and reifies linguistic fixedness.**

After reading, and after attending this year’s Watson conference on mobility work in composition, I think I’m starting to figure out my own place in this debate — at least, my position right now. I want to reflect on that here.

Translingualism has been described as an orientation to language rather than a set of prescriptive methods for teaching it. As a former language teacher, a current teacher educator, and a current Comp teacher, this orientation feels so urgent. But so do strategies. Especially strategies that involve more than just our students.

I’ve been thinking about that inescapable paradox that Eli Goldblatt raised in his keynote address on the last day of the conference: how can we acknowledge the undeniable social fact of difference and its very real and life-threatening material effects while exposing the lies that carefully crafted those social facts in the first place? And I keep coming back to the complication — the violence, really — of placing disproportionate individual “responsibility” for navigating these social facts of difference back on the students whose “difference” is marked without asking for a complementary effort from faculty.

But at Watson, I thought a lot about the contradiction of selling some of the proffered translingual strategies to students in class (i.e. code-meshing, translanguaging, research projects in cross-cultural comp sections) while, in our very own professional spaces, rooms full of people (including myself!) used what I think a lot of people might recognize as the academic discourses of power to communicate with one another. This discourse is, of course, shifting and imaginary. We were, of course, code-meshing: we do all the time. And yet, I don’t know that other people reading our work would recognize our code meshing as such. At least, not in the way that we point out the code-meshing our students are doing in our own paper presentations.

I believe Nelson Flores’ idea that students’ actual practices are, in part, what an audience hears them say or reads them write. A few weeks ago at the Graduate Center, Flores used the bilingualism of Tim Kaine and Julian Castro to illustrate this point. They both speak Spanish. Kaine’s bilingualism is lauded and Castro’s criticized because Castro is “expected” to speak “perfect” Spanish while Kaine can get by with much less because he is white. What actually matters is how much power an audience has to make determinations about whether a speech act failed or succeeded. What the gatekeepers are able to hear and read often has much more to do with the gatekeepers than it does the speaker/writer. What are we doing to help those gatekeepers (whether they’re faculty or students who will eventually be faculty) to listen and to understand their own situatedness and what they think that they’re hearing and reading?

The strategies that Victor Villanueva outlines in his description of a Basic Writing Across the Curriculum program get closer to addressing the issues that I’ve had with pedagogies that primarily pivot around individual student language practices: so, code-meshing, or literacy / linguistic narratives, or cross-cultural composition sections, especially when the numbers of “marked” and “unmarked” students are disparate.

Villanueva describes the tension between what we’re called to do as instructors of writing (assimilate and enculturate) and what we (and many disciplines, of course — not just ours) believe that we should be doing: fostering critical consciousness. A program at his institution called CLASP (Critical Literacies Achievement Success Program) addresses this problem by “[operating] from Fanon’s ‘reciprocal recognitions,” that whatever the students don’t know about how professors operate, the professors are equally ignorant of how these ‘New Students’ operate” (105). The program mandates (and prepares students for) office hour visits. It trains tutors at the Writing Center in “grammars of the dominant dialects of the students who participate in CLASP,” and shows them “the workings of contrastive rhetoric” (105). The program also trains faculty in how to read and engage with student writing in a way that helps them to become “conscious of the conventions-as-conventions” — conventions as ideologically constructed, as motivated, rather than as hard evidence of “good” or “poor” writing (106).

I like this practice because it’s really about mutual listening. It asks both students and professors to consider how “deficient” or “proficient” subjects and codified linguistic codes are constructed (and emphasizes their constructedness). It assumes that professors and writing center consultants need to learn things, too. So, instead of putting the burden back on (already marginalized) students, the burden of inventing the university and of laying bare its institutional logics is distributed.

To add to this idea, I’m wondering if a curriculum that uses critical cosmopolitanism or critical race theory to interrogate the university and its knowledge-making practices themselves (rather than any one student’s individual practices) in order to investigate who gets labeled as a “language learner” or a “remedial writer” or “deficient” or “proficient” — and who does not — could make for an interesting object of investigation across multiple disciplines.

Could rhetoric classes teach students how to do rhetorical analyses of university spaces, of university marketing materials, of strategic plans, of policies, while professors also learn (in a practicum? a pilot?) about contrastive rhetorics, about rhetorical listening, about reading and responding to student writing? Could anthropology classes consider models of schools and schooling comparatively across cultures and places? Could historians consider histories of remediation, histories of honors colleges, histories of austerity and public funding? Could business classes think about the organization of university management structures, tenure and promotion processes, ethics? Can we teach each other, and learn what we don’t know?

If I think back to some of my most productive moments as a Comp teacher, they revolved around pulling back the curtain and letting students in on how the university works. They often don’t know. I didn’t, and still don’t know, so much about these things. I look at them directly a lot more than the average graduate student does, and I still find them mystifying. And yet, if we don’t know what we don’t know, then how can we know how institutions work on us, or how we work on or in them? Are we continuing to obscure institutional practices by focusing so exclusively on individual ones?
**Here’s my extremely brief reply to these critiques:
(1) The uncritical reproduction of the English of power doesn’t empower anyone: it just upholds the legacy and effects of white supremacy.
(2) Dismantling systemic oppression is hard. We often confuse “hard” and “not practical.”
(3) Yeah, that’s a good point. I want more strategies too.
(4) Yes, in some cases. Translingual pedagogy, like all pedagogy, is context-dependent.

As If Teaching Mattered: On “Quick” Fixes and Slow Professional Development

In my work for the Center for Teaching and Learning, my colleague and I have lately been on what she’s called our “active learning junket.”

We’ve been designing a lot of workshops with this edu-buzzword in the title. And people tend to show up for them in a way that they might not show up for something called “Student-Centered Learning,” or “Constructivist Teaching.”

That makes sense. Active learning has gotten a lot of media attention lately, and think pieces that decry or defend the lecture model have been everywhere in the last few years (including on this podcast, for which I was briefly a research intern). Some people want to learn more about the practice. And many of our attendees are already active learning experts interested in picking up some more tips or meeting like-minded faculty.

We do get occasional push-back, though, and that’s to be expected. Some instructors (and students, for that matter) find the techniques that we demonstrate to be too “game-like.” Some instructors worry that departments or students will think that they’re not doing their jobs if they set the conditions for collaborative learning (with significant guidance) instead of explicitly lecturing. Many instructors have been burned by shoddily executed group work when they were students, or experienced life-changing lectures that inspired them to go into the field in the first place. Many worry, also, that adopting more active strategies will prevent them from covering all of the material that they’re supposed to cover on a department-mandated syllabus.

I could write separate blog posts elaborating on what the research (and my own teaching experiences) have to say about all of these things (and more!). But the concern that I don’t have a good answer for — or, a satisfying answer, I should say — has to do with the time and commitment that it takes to employ more active strategies.

Last week, near the middle of a demonstration of Guided Discovery, an instructor raised her hand.

“This is great and all,” she said, signaling that it wasn’t actually. “But how am I supposed to actually do this in my own class? This will take forever!”

I gave her an inadequate answer.

I walked her through my planning process, told her that there are lot of resources available online (which there are) if you have access to the right keywords, and assured her that we could help at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

But I didn’t answer the actual question she was asking. Or acknowledge how right she was in her assertion. And that’s because I’m still figuring out how to give that answer.

This will take forever.

She’s right, it will.

And she’ll be undercompensated if she decides to try it. And she might be told by a (male) colleague — someone who has never formally studied teaching or learning — that she really could be “more like a stand-up comedian” than a facilitator. And it’s likely that it won’t matter very much for her career advancement, that pursing additional certification will be a dead end. Some students might resent it, finding it less “rigorous” than their other classes because they’ve come to equate learning with incomprehensibility. It might even make it harder to get a job or to finish a dissertation.

Learning more strategies for teaching and learning will not only be unrecognized: it will be actively discouraged.

Learning takes forever, and teachers are forever learning how to teach. Teaching and learning (and measuring efficacy) are intensely complicated processes that deserve much, much more time, energy, respect, resources, and thought than institutions give to them. I say this with no shade to my own institution, which is, in some small way, trying to make some of this space and time and respect and energy by offering some resources like this workshop.

But it takes time. It just does. Teaching and learning isn’t quick or easy. It can be fun, immensely rewarding, even life-affirming. But it takes forever.

As of this year, I’ve been tutoring, or teaching, or facilitating teacher development, or writing material or curriculum, or a mixture of these things for nearly a decade. I’ve put in a lot of time researching, talking, attending workshops and trainings and conferences, designing stuff, reading stuff, teaching and revising lesson plans, and observing other teachers — both new and experienced. It’s not like I started thinking about constructivism last week. And I still think it’s hard. I still get nervous before I teach a teaching workshop or a class. I still rework my sessions, and stuff still comes up that stumps me or makes me think about something differently than I did last week. I still spend too much time lesson planning only to throw out the plan when an interesting question or discussion topic or distressed face pops up.

That’s why teaching is fun. But that’s also why it’s not fast.

Ethnography, authentic inquiry, and As If Learning Mattered

For the last few weeks of orals reading, conversations with colleagues and students, and general grad studenting, passages of Richard Miller’s As If Learning Mattered keep popping up in my mind like new vocabulary words that I’ve heard once and now suddenly see everywhere.

This one, namely:

…research on educational history has been further constrained by a profound sense of “embarrassment” about how little is actually known about the implementation of educational principles, and about what was taught and what was learned. To probe beyond the central, most visible documents of debate, legislation, and public policy only further exacerbates this sense of embarrassment since probing of this kind inevitably reveals that there is no necessary or direct correlation between what gets said about education and what actually happens in the schools” (17).

Last semester, I did a lot of thinking about method|methodology and about the project of studying human beings and human behavior. As a shy humanist with training (and a sense of comfort) working with texts instead of with people, and as a person who reads most ethnographic accounts (or, really, any research involving people and interpretations of human behavior) with a heavy dose of skepticism and a bit of a gross feeling, I spent a large chunk of my research methodologies class feeling very conflicted about what I was hearing (and probably overly vocal about this fact…)

I didn’t object on the grounds that I think that ethnographies can’t be “objective” or that what academic research is aiming for is some sense of objectivity, of course. I’m firmly disinterested in “objectivity” as any kind of authentic goal for research, and I’m suspicious of any project that doesn’t make almost over-the-top qualifications about all of the reasons that what the researcher reports (and what is obscured) is shaped by his or her own identity, place in history and time, culture, etc. etc. And in some ways, a method|methodology that we studied — authentic inquiry — is an attempt to do this qualifying. Students are “co-researchers” instead of subjects. Interpretations are interpretations rather than facts. Things change. Generalizability is called into question. The method | methodology invokes William Sewell’s idea of “thin coherence” in which discernible “patterns” are contingent and contestable classifications that speak only for that local context at a specific moment in time (defining “moment” as a millisecond rather than a decade or a day). A journal article is like a photograph of a moment rather than a proclamation of The Way Things Are And Shall Remain.

I really think that this is the best that we can hope to do, and it still gives me pause.

How can anyone’s account of what is happening and why actually tell us anything other than something about the person who is accounting it? How can educational research ever be anything but “me-search,” and why should we pretend that it is? It’s not, by the way, that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with “me-search.” I think it’s an extraordinarily valuable exercise in faculty development, and I happen to think that faculty development is extraordinarily important despite the academy’s insistence on undervaluing it.

But, like a teaching philosophy or a statement of purpose, the practice of research writing feels so much more falsely stable to me than we seem to pretend that it is. This tension, then, that Miller notices between “what gets said” and “what happens” in schools feels impossible to resolve.

I think this is what draws me to textual or cultural criticism. This is ultimately why I’m still in an English program, despite the fact that sometimes it feels like the department doesn’t really know what to do with Comp Rhet students. Literary criticism always starts with the premise that the critic is not “reporting” what “happened” as much as she is interpreting a version of what happened based on what she was able to observe, and that ability is shaped inherently by the critic’s identity. So, a movie critic’s job isn’t to say “this is what happened in this movie” as much as it is to say “here is a way to think about what happened in this movie, and here is why I liked it or didn’t.” The point is to make interpretive, debatable claims. And in the ecosystem of criticism, it is this conversation and critics being in conversation that forms the methodology. This is a process that is not possible in quite the same way when the “text” is a human being, since only the people who are in the room can really comment on what they interpreted to happen when they were in the room. Right?

I digress enormously…

The reason that I’m thinking about all of these things in relation to Miller is to balance his claim that no one is studying what students and teachers say against his claim in Chapter 5 that “the ethnographic approach always embodies the author’s attempt to control the rebellion of the material, and the outcome is always a visible, suspicious, often clumsy attempt to master the material and make it behave” (191). When we study something, we categorize it, we make generalizations about it, we make a theory of the case: even if our methods are rigorous, and skeptical of absolutism or even generalizability. We do these things not to suggest some sense of capital-T Truth to the reader but to make claims, and to make our data legible as evidence of those claims.

But how do we actually measure “what happens in schools?” Miller measures it by archival materials: “textbooks and book collections produced by educators alongside their reforms, personal accounts of the educators’ teaching practices, moments when educators quote students in their texts, and, in one case, course evaluations” (21). Why do these things tell us “what happens in schools,” though? Why do we think that students — who have been told that good learning happens in very particular ways, and that certain things should happen in schools and others shouldn’t — would be any better judges of “what happens in schools” than someone who may have formally studied the way that people learn or than someone who have had more access to many models of ways of knowing? How do personal accounts of educators’ teaching practices (told from the vantage point of the educators in question) tell us about how students perceived the same event discussed in these accounts, or how parents would, or how employers would, or how other teachers would? What does an analysis of textbooks tell us, other than something about the biases and ideological lenses of the person analyzing them?

To me, it feels like the conversation between teacher, student, other researchers (and perhaps outsiders) is what might produce a valuable set of contradictory and complementary readings. But this is not the way that dissertation work is done; it’s not how journal articles are written or how conference papers materialize. This is not ethnography, really.

We work as siloed, specialist experts who produce things that other siloed, specialist experts read.

We critique or analyze things instead of making them.

We mean “a contingent, temporally specific snapshot version of ‘what happened’ interpreted through a very specific and ideologically blinded human lens” when we say “what happened.”

We do me-search.