Paper #6: Seeking Confluence
Imagine for a moment three creeks, running parallel, and flowing in the same direction. This semester has been me canoeing down each of those creeks, intermittently as is my habit, trying to find confluence. This paper seeks to visit briefly each of those creeks to illustrate what I’ve found and where I need to keep exploring.
The first creek has to do with my childhood dream of being a teacher. As a little girl, I begged my mother to take me to the teacher supply store, with shelves lined with curricula in all subjects, all grade levels. And all I wanted to do on Saturday mornings was play teacher with my sister, which she hated.
I got my wish. I became a teacher. And I am surrounded by teachers. I choose that term purposefully. I teach and I don’t want to be out of the classroom.
I think that’s why the notion of praxis matters so much to me. I’ve been steeped in practice and pedagogy. And, I’ve chosen this program to seek out the theory that anchors that practice. Now, I want to know where that space is where the two meet, so that I can help guide other teachers to that same exploration for themselves, especially those who do not and will not enter doctoral programs.
To enter this territory thoughtfully, I need to recognize and catalogue the ways that the field of Rhetoric and Composition values praxis. I know of that value from scores of pedagogical studies, but I don’t yet see that serving instructors as well as it could. For example, I often hear recommendations for untenable pedagogies– those that suit the privilege of tenure, those with time and energy that isn’t already spent in 4-5 classes per semester (for the lucky ones), often relevant only to those who with the space to fail.
In order to begin answering questions like these, I need to closely examine feminist epistemologies and the methodologies of care, maybe even theories of “interrogating boundaries” (Moore) and making the otherwise voiceless more visible.
My husband was a first-generation high school graduate and college student. I try to see higher education through his eyes whenever I can, trying to discern the appeal and the return on investment of students just like him today. Consequently, I respond to the pragmatic application of our course design, that which “applies” in recognizable ways to the mission of civic literacy, personal empowerment and marketable skills. Inherent here is the cultivation of a “sense of self and a sense of agency” (McDonald) mixed with tools for a pragmatic working society (that which is marketable). While these two are positioned as adversaries (the marketable and the democratic), I see them as parallel possibilities.
So, how do we realize those possibilities? We all want good things for our students, so nothing I’ve said here is particularly new, I know. The question of how we get there—and how that journey is complicated (or advanced) by Core Composition classrooms— is a much more complicated series of conversations that I’d like to enter into.
What I need to enter into this territory thoughtfully is a greater understanding of the experiences of at-risk students beyond my own family, insight into how students perform and/or are constrained by academia and the role of English courses in that performance. I also need to closely examine feminist frameworks of study, I think, that could help and potentially the methodologies of ethnography as a means of closely examining the experience of at-risk students in composition classrooms. And to be conscientious of the boundaries of literacy, I need to keep challenging myself with work like that of J. Elspeth Stuckey in Violence of Literacy.
This last creek has to do with fear. I’m no technological pioneer. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want an email account and only conceded when my first teaching job insisted.
And while I adored rhetoric for its philosophy, its pragmatism, its heuristic for reading anything in this world and found, as Garrison notes,
“…an epistemological position that views knowledge as contingent and as constructed by social discourse communities.”
I knew that a large portion of those communities were in networked spaces, but I shied from digital rhetoric. There was a real gap in pedagogy. So, I sought out the challenge of DMAC (at The Ohio State University) to work with Dr. Cindy Selfe, Dr. Scott DeWitt and Dr. Margaret Price. I was terribly nervous and sure I’d be identified in the first hour as a hopeless luddite, but nothing about Cindy Selfe is marked by exclusion.
I got the chance to face my fear and find a way to embrace the change. And I inherited an interest in the scholarship on multiliteracies, and specifically, multimodality. As Selfe makes clear in her “The Movement of Air,” multimodality isn’t just something we add on to composition for a little new aesthetic to please our students, making education “fun.” It’s not about fun. It’s about honoring the reality of multiple modes of making meaning and to hand that panoply of possibilities to our students’ bank of composing processes. It’s about being engaged participants in society, both marketable and empowered. It’s all about increasing access, especially to those who have been systematically denied via false constructions of what constitutes literacy.
Narrowing in, I want to pursue research that explores online learning spaces from the lens of access, inclusion, rhetorical situatedness and multiliteracies.
The enter this territory more thoughtfully, I need a lot of things. I need much more experience with instructional design theories, particularly online learning theories of constructivism and connectivism, and learning analytics. I need to keep looking more closely at multiliteracies and accessibility (those are not synonymous, but there are powerful intersections). And I need to continue to chip away at my fear of technology as a catalyst for change. I’ve been reading Feenberg’s philosophies of technology as a start, but see a wealth of others to engage with.
And, I need to keep reading about Digital rhetorics and the work of the New London Group, Cheryl Ball and her work with Kairos, and Anne Wysocki.
When I seek the places where these three creeks meet, I see common confluence, common denominators, in the attempt to make accessible that which has otherwise sought to exclude. For students, I see possibilities for access in widening the purview of the types of writing that suit particular rhetorical situations more honestly. I see the inclusive models of access to education—to at-risk students, to shy students, to remote students, to active duty, to teachers (as well), to those who want to work for a better life or to those who want to change the world, using all the available modes of meaning-making. I see multiliteracies and, specifically, multimodality at the heart of our pedagogical considerations and our rhetorics, and the transfer of skills that our students need to be marketable and gain access to a greater autonomy and agency.
Finally, I find confluence in a fact we all know is true: we live in a system that is deeply unequal. To that I’d add: in some ways, academia serves to perpetuate that inequity. In other ways, it serves to challenge inequality and close the gaps in access. But we have a long way to go. In my own scholarship, I like to think I can enter into the conversation from a position of closing those inequities.
I can keep doing that by finding the ways to empower the voices of at-risk students and voiceless instructors through critical awareness, and access to the functional, rhetorical and critical tools of literacy, and the wherewithal to both consume and compose all the modes of texts that shape our experience in this world. I think that’s where I might fit into the rich body of scholarship that has come before me in Rhetoric-Composition.
Garrison, K. “The scientist, philosopher, and rhetorician: The three dimensions of technical communication and technology,” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 44.4 (2014): 359-380.
McDonald, Marcia. “The Purpose of the University and the Definition of English Studies: A Necessary Dialogue.” In L. Ostergaard, Ludwig, J., Nugent, J. (Eds.), Transforming English Studies: new voices in an emerging genre, p. 143. West Lafayette: Indiana Parlor Press.
Moore, Kristen. “The technical communicator as participant, facilitator, and designer in public engagement projects.” Technical Communication, 64.3 (2007): 237-253.
Selfe, Cynthia. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” College Composition and Communication 60.4 (2009): 616-663.
PAB Source: Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication, 56.2 (2004): pp. 297-328.
“Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key”—Yancey’s CCCC address from 2004—likens out current “tectonic change[s]” in literacy to the one experiences in the 19th century (with reading and access to texts). The questions that educators are facing about what it means to be literate and prepared for civic and/or professional responsibilities—and, consequently, what we privilege and what we exclude in our institutions, are being forced to the table by technological shifts that can’t be ignored.
She writes about this tectonic change in four quartets, with marginal notes that provides a metacognitive narration of the way the text came together.
The first quartet notes where we are by looking at literacy outside school historically.
Yancey looks at the shifts in literacy as a product of technological changes and social contexts: steam printing press and cheaper paper making more texts printable and accessible, serially-published novels like Dickens’. The reading public exploded with possibilities.
Now, we face the “writing public made plural” with possibilities, making writing intrinsically motivated outside school with no promise of grades or credit. In fact, highly complex rhetorical choices are being made absent out direct instruction of such negotiations.
She details the current state of disappearing English departments (conflation with other disciplines, presumably) and the decline of English majors.
“Our daily communicative, social and intellectual practices are screen permeated,” with metaphors like close up, flask back, frame, cut to the chase, segue, etc… (p. 305).
Quartet 2: deals with what these shifts in literacy habits, particularly outside the classroom, have to do with composition. In many ways, this is the question we’re still facing: what do we make of this “tectonic change” in our classrooms and our scholarship? Some of us want to stay focused on print literacies, if not exclude all else entirely. However, we clearly already inhabit a model of communication that embraces digital manipulation of texts (even if only by using LMSes and digital interfaces to compose).
Couple these challenges with the number of students who cross our paths (it is estimated that 65% of all students do attempt college courses, p. 307).
Quartet 3: Yancey names three changes that we must focus on immediately: developing a new curriculum, revising our writing-across-the-curriculum efforts and developing a major in composition and rhetoric, though she details only the first.
Her list of what students are not currently (currently, as in 2004, though I think the list is still highly relevant) asked to do includes:
- Consider intertextual circulation or how what they compose relates to “real world” writing.
- Consider the best medium and the best delivery for particularly communicative goals
- Think explicitly about what they might transfer from one medium to the next
- Think about how these practice help prepare them to become members of a writing public.
What she’s asking is to be more explicitly teaching the negotiation of the rhetorical circumstances using the panoply of modes of meaning-making. She sums up her request as:
Circulation of composition (or Activity Theory, to put it in Charles Bazerman and David Russell’s terms): Essentially, “writing is alive….when it is a part of human activity…So to study text production, text reception, text meaning, text value apart from their animating activities is to miss the core of text’s being” (Bazerman and Russell).
So, circulation refers to the way we enable students to understand the epistemology and the conventions of the different “animating activities” of the disciplines and their genres (Yancey, pg. 313).
Canons of rhetoric: Yancey seeks to expand our perception of the canons in lieu of the affordances of certain mediums. For instance, she narrows in on invention and claims that “you can only invent inside what an arrangement permits” and so to widen what varied arrangements might permit, we must not narrow ourselves to the alphabetic print alone.
Deicity of technology: taken from deixis (or terms that are relative to time and space in which they are uttered, like now and then). Her claim is that literacy is deictic, limited moreso by our ability to adapt as quickly as the technology changes.
Quartet 4: If we don’t seek to shift along with the shifting literacies prompted by technological change, we do more than just fail to acknowledge the range of rhetorical possibilities on behalf of our students but, even worse, we allow students to “complete someone else’s software package; they will be the invention of that package” (pg. 320). That means we allow our students to be governed by the technology, passively subservient to it, rather than creators, masters of that technology.
What I make of Yancey’s call to action is the application of this material to online learning spaces, where I think we’ve largely ignored the imperatives and the professional development necessary to enact those imperatives.
Bazerman, Charles and David Russell, eds. Writing Selves, Writing Societies: Research from Activity Perspectives. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and Mind, Culture, and Activity. 1 June 2004.http://wac.colostate.edu/books.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication, 56.2 (2004): pp. 297-328.