2013 journal round-up

My annual notes on what interested me in r/c journals during the past year will be much shorter this year, a reflection of how busy I’ve been this summer (mostly with taking over editorship of the journal Composition Studies–a much longer, more complicated process than I thought it would be). This will probably read more like notes to myself than anything else. Considering that I’m the main reader–this thing is my own little r/c pinterest–maybe that’s to be expected.

I focused my energies on the following journals: College English, CCC, WPA, Composition Studies, and RSQ (also browsed online journals: Kairos, C&C Online, & Enculturation).

from WPA 36.2 (2013)

Mark Mullen’s “Students’ Rights and the Ethics of Celebration” is much more than a cranky reading of celebrations of student writing (though that tone is certainly evident). Raises some good questions about the use of student writing in public “celebrations” and links those questions to the scope of SRTOL. Tone and style is colorful, as when Mullen claims 4Cs has done little “more than pose with the [SRTOL] resolution for a touching family portrait” (101) or charges that celebrations are more about teachers and their need for affirmation than students/student writing. Who owns student writing? When “celebrating” it, are faculty doing so in an ethical way that attributes writers? > some questions this piece evokes.

from Composition Studies 41.1 (2013)

Christine Denecker’s “Transitioning Writers across the Composition Threshold” explores a dual-enrollment program in a way that made me check my knee-jerk reactions to/against DE. If there’s no avoiding these programs–if they come down from state mandates–then this is a must-read. Really thoughtful conversation about the value of creating better communication and partnerships between high school and college writing teachers.

from College English

Who hasn’t sat through a pedagogical workshop in the past five years that required participants to begin with outcomes? You know, build-it-backwards course creation? Start with what you want the students to be able to do by the end of the course and then work backwards from there? Chris Gallagher’s “The Trouble With Outcomes” (75.1) helped me figure out why I’m usually so annoyed and even slightly offended by this seemingly universal approach to course design. My sense is that a course has goals that guide curricular choices, but it’s also an exploration, even an art, that depends on the students in the room, the cultural moment, the latest article that just came out on X, Y, or Z, and in general a sort of ecology of flux. Outcomes-driven course design always strikes me as terribly presumptuous in its adherence to predetermined goals and outcomes that end up bracketing what can’t easily be known in advance: how you will come together with a particular group of people and what will come of that interaction. I know, I know, they’re just templates; they’re meant to be adapted…and yet, they are so central that we can’t possibly think of course design without starting here first. Of course, Gallagher develops a much more nuanced, eloquent, and convincing (and 100% less whiny) argument about the impoverishment of outcomes obsession than I do here. The gist of his argument is that outcomes limit and compromise the learning experience for teachers and students, while a focus on “consequences” does a better job of enhancing that experience. If you’re sick to death of outcomes as the determining sign of “best practices” (help, I’m stuck in this terminology, and I can’t get out!), then you’ll get some affirmation reading this one.

Amy Winans’s “Approaches to Engaging Difference” describes teaching multicultural lit classes to primarily white students in a segregated college setting. She offers a compelling case for addressing race and identity as embodied and emotioned experiences/encounters. Focus is on emotional literacy and contemplative approaches to emotion, drawing from mindfulness as a framework for cultivating the latter (related note: Gorzelsky draws from Nhat Hanh’s guided meditation process in her discussion of literacy practices that instigate change (75.4)–definitely something going on in the culture and the field reflected here).

Difference emerges again in Horner and Lu’s “Translingual Literacy” (75.6), in which they argue that language differences aren’t deviations from “sameness” but are “the norm of language use” (584). Their goal is to remove the burden on students marked as linguistically different and to refocus teaching strategies on language–and this is my view–as that which is always deviant. In 64.2 of CCC, Sullivan, Zhang, and Zheng look at student writing samples from the U.S. and China and discuss how culture and rhetorical traditions inform writing instruction–very pragmatic and interesting study that in some ways grounds the more theoretical discussion forwarded by Horner and Lu. Another grounded study of language diversity appears in CCC (64.3). Perryman-Clark presents a case study of African-American student writers and their use of Ebonics-based phonological and syntactical patterns in fyc assignments.

Two important pieces in 75.3 on basic writers and issues around remediation. Very timely discussion of underprepared students at American institutions. At my university, these students have been essentially deposed to the school’s branch campuses (except for international students and athletes, who are getting “basic” instruction but through back-channels that aren’t terribly public). “Digitizing Craft” (75.4) is an “it’s about time!” kind of article. Writer Adam Koehler urges creative writing practitioners/theorists to acknowledge that digital technologies have “reshaped genres, contexts, and even authors of imaginative texts,” amounting to transformed understandings of acts of composing (383). 75.5 is a special issue on intellectual property and western cultures–for a dandy overview of some of the pressing questions/problems around intellectual property, DeVoss’s review is a great place to start.

Moving on to CCC…

In terms of weight, I was surprised by how heavy and over-loaded 64.1 is (252 pages plus a Forum insert). As a bright-eyed journal editor, I’m looking at this and thinking that major conversations don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, largely take place in one journal. How to generate a more dispersed scholarly output? I recognize that my reading and reporting is selective and that folks are obviously publishing in other venues, but can’t help but interpret the sheer mass of this issue as significant…plus the fact that nearly all of the contributors are established scholars. If the names are recognizable, we’ll read the journal; if they’re not, will we? File this under “more to say.”

And so, THIS ISSUE is all about research practices in the field. David Gold offers a really useful overview of r/c historiographies, connecting new research questions to the body of historical research that spans radically local to alternative sites of study. Followed up by Gaillet’s solid piece on archival research methodologies–thinking I might have to teach this one, particularly because archival research seems to be hitting a high-water mark in the field as of late (another essay on archival research in 64.2; this one positions archival work as a valuable form of professional development). This is an exciting turn, particularly because of the changing state of archives. No longer brick-and-mortar sites exclusively, digital archives have changed the landscape (and so, the methods) pretty significantly.

When I was in grad school in the mid 90s, there was a lively conversation around doing rhetorical histories, and much of the research was textually based (analyses, rereadings, recontextualized descriptions, reconstructed texts, etc.). This was good work, to be sure, and has stuck with me, informing my view of the field. It’s also the case, though, that I find it refreshing to see so many scholars engaged in active, creative research projects that seek to reach beyond conventional texts and sites of study. As Gaillet’s title indicates, researchers are “performing” research, not just writing/reporting it (if anyone ever really did this at all, that is–still, the intentional shift in vocabulary resonates). Other pieces in this issue go on to discuss ethics and archival research; the importance of local research, particularly in places where formal archives don’t exist, and of developing archives for future use; engaging in institutional ethnography, which shifts focus from sites to how people co-create sites, to conduct writing program research; the promise of eye-tracking technology for understanding reading and writing (definitely assigning this one in class on theories of composing); data-mining as a valuable research tool; and more.

There’s too much–just want to give (myself and other random readers) a sense of what’s bubbling to the surface.

Running out of steam, but just want to note that 64.4 features pieces on MOOCS and on digital humanities. We seem to be late to the party, but at least we arrived.

My reading practices privilege a small number of hard copy journals. While I do consult online journals, I tend to read hard copy much more carefully than I do electronic sources. Blame it on old eyes or old heart; not sure. Based on this selective reading, my impression overall is that we are in a research-rich period in composition studies. Archives, field research, local research, classroom and program research–hot spots right now. This is most definitely a good thing, as writing specialists will never be able to answer, once and for all, how and why people write, compose, engage in rhetorical activity of one kind or another. We’ll always seek out better ways to teach, theorize, and “capture” writing practices through various frameworks of understanding. Another theme throughout is the emphasis on classroom practices and materials, especially as they relate to language diversity.






three cheers for the octopus!

Learning from the Octopus by Rafe Sagarin should be required reading for everyone–yes, everyone! A marine ecologist by training, Sagarin draws on his knowledge of the natural world to explain how ecological processes can help us better respond to national security issues, treatment of diseases, and scores of other situations. Key features of successful adaptation in his model include a ground-up process of adaptation, learning from success, decentralized organization of problem-solvers, and useful redundancy. Change created by “experts,” in this model, is the least efficient, adaptive, and imaginative. This aligns in interesting ways with the guiding ethos of composition (whether or not that ethos shows up in practice) entangled as it is with student-centered learning practices, collaboration, process, and repetition. But, I’m not so interested in those basic similarities; it’s the kind of thinking he’s doing in this book that really intrigues me.

The basic idea is simple: apply what you know about natural ecologies, especially how they address conflict and difference, to human-created problems/tensions/conflicts. Build insight and new ways of seeing from what’s already always operating around you. The intellectual migration operation (sometimes called “traveling theory,” though Sagarin isn’t dealing exclusively with theory) of taking from one place to reveal something heretofore unnoticed in the other is one that I’ve tried many times to apply in my own work (sometimes successfully) and to teach my students (no easy task in our highly disciplined silos and scenes of increasingly narrow specialization). This movement from known to unknown can be refreshing, surprising, downright intoxicating.

This book is all about natural processes of adaptation and change that evolve as creatures learn more about their environments. When new threats confronted sea anemones, they developed stingers in their tentacles for protection. Sagarin uses this and loads of other examples to demonstrate the adaptive capacities nascent within diverse environments. He contrasts this with the often heavy-handed, top-down security responses we see from the U.S. government–airport searches and body scans are perhaps the most memorable examples. Rather than adapting to a flux environment composed of creative threats, threats that are themselves flexible and highly adaptive to changing environments, airport searches (and color alert codes–no longer in use) announce their intentions through intrusive and expensive measures. These measures are so specific, so dependent on certain kinds of threats, that they practically challenge determined predators to create inventive work-arounds. And they are up for the challenge, as we’ve seen numerous times in the recent past.

Sagarin writes, “For organisms in nature or organizations in a bureaucracy, harnessing the power of learning from environmental changes is a key first step in becoming more adaptable to changes that will inevitably come in the future” (35). (A good lesson for wpas!) Helps me ask what central environmental changes comp should recognize in order to learn from them (and leads me to think about the value of observation as a research method for inquiry in our field–I’d call it “slow looking”). Throughout the book, Sagarin insists that we have misinterpreted Darwin; evolution is not about perfection (common interpretation of “survival of the fittest”) but about adaptability, a mind-set that we can see at work all over the place (not just in the government). He notes that adaptation “requires leaving or being forced from your comfort zone and into a place where you observe and experience new threats to your security” (1). While the context for his work is life-threatening security issues, the principles he describes are relevant to a wide range of settings…wherever people gather to get things done.

One possible application of these ideas to my field: the tendency in comp to announce theoretical shifts (survival of the fittest!)–i.e., we’re not process anymore; we’re postprocess–can be understood as a heavy-handed attempt to deal with the reality of changing material realities (e.g., textuality ain’t what it used to be and neither is audience, self, etc. etc.). This “shift” or “movement,” as postprocess advocates name it, is meant to represent a hard break rather than an evolving, adaptive response to changing conditions. What are the costs of this constructed move? What’s embedded in an intellectual value system that needs breaks and refutations to see difference? Who are the main beneficiaries of this move? The losers? What’s at stake in announcement of difference, this intention to dissociate? Just a teensy way to begin putting some of S’s ideas into play.


Some notes on Sirc’s English Composition as a Happening

This book makes an argument for the value of aesthetics, play, fun, and unsystematic design to writing. An argument for writing as art, an argument against writing as rote skill, prefab universality, as already genred–basically, against modern Composition Studies as it is currently practiced, particularly in large gen ed programs across the U.S. (though Sirc never quite puts it this way).

Drawing from avant-garde movements, modernist painters, punk rockers, and 60s radicals, including Composition teachers, Sirc develops an unabashedly idealistic argument for making composition classrooms spaces that students don’t want to leave, “happening” spaces. His inspirations are almost exclusively male mavericks like Pollock, Duchamp, Barthes, Cage, Bartholomae, Sid Vicious, and so forth. The world where language is play, spaces are indeterminate, form is invention, and “the mainstream” opposes ART-making, love, and adventure is a world apparently populated by aloof mythic (mostly white) male figures. Big gestures (early death! blood! violence! failure! enigmatic statements!) and big cliches. Notable mention of a woman–Jane Tompkins–who tries to write against academic convention presents an opportunity to dismiss her attempt as “smug, sanctioned transgression” (10). I don’t necessarily disagree with this assessment…but STILL! Does he have to be so…so strenuously boiler-plate?

There, got that out of the way. Now I’ll show some restraint in the interest of scratching down some ideas valuable to my evolving thinking…

  • teaching as curatorial work: “we teach connoisseurship” (4); composition as “opportunity to reflect on textuality, its craft, wonder, problems” (8)
  • impoverished view of writing in the field (9), loss attached to banishment of poetics (replaced by politics), and lack of “broad definition of artistry” (117) as well as failure to address desire in composition theory (197)
  • writing as “lived genre” or “way of being” (158); Duchamp-inspired concept of writing as “whatever catches the eye” (44)
  • interesting attention to his reading process (13-14, 44, 47, 53) and to value of reading allegorically, reading divergent source material as a way to invent a new take on the field
  • what’s the emotional mood from which writing emerges? For him, disenchantment and disappointment after the promising work of 60s writing teachers who didn’t follow a professionalized script for teaching and learning; codification of writing in the face of disciplinarity has led to flight away from “expressivist or art-writing, a writing for non-academic (or non-ideological) goals” (25)
  • Bernstein on digression and teaching (89)
  • the importance of new materials to writing/creation (129)


My research leave has more or less officially begun. Last winter I wrote a description of how I planned to spend my time, detailing a book project that grows out of an article I published on what I call slow agency. That project includes case studies to enlarge the general claim I make in the article and its applicability to other writing programs: working slow has its benefits and calls our attention to the role of objects and minutia in the everyday workings of program administration. Just as I focused on Jim Berlin’s doorstop, a remainder passed on to me from a previous writing director, I anticipated looking at objects in other writing programs to understand their weird energy and symbolic value to what goes on in different spaces.

I might have already begun this project in my head, but I haven’t yet written a word toward it. Having recently transitioned from an administrative position that was extremely consuming, I’m feeling a little bit adrift. I am in control of my schedule. I don’t have to squeeze writing into 15 minute intervals throughout the day. I don’t remember what it’s like to write in long segments; when I tried earlier this summer for an invited essay, I hated it. I did push-ups, ran around the block, held plank, and paid more attention to my cats than they found desirable. My ideal writing situation would run like speed dating–a few minutes of really focused attention followed by change. Repeat, repeat, repeater. Another form of circuit-training.

For now, I’m reading to get ideas, learn stuff, stay off guard (just finished a biography of Freddie Mercury that was too idealized and gushy but had great content–editors, please!). I’ve realized that this is how I do some aspects of “research.” I read for inspiration, unexpected insights and connections, for interest, and with a mix-tape aesthetic. Why not put Freddie next to Toward a Composition Made Whole? So different from the kind of reading we do for qualifying exams–really can’t imagine being able to muster the mental and physical stamina for that experience again. As a reader, I want to wander around some, especially since reading has been hard for me to sustain with any regularity over the past four years or so.

Coincidentally, also want to wander in my writing. Rather than formulating a straight-forward thesis-driven argument, I’m thinking about Kathleen Stewart’s work as an interesting model for combining lived, embodied, and scholarly realities to increase readability and that hot concept in comp, transfer. In fact, I think making visible the value of what we do in RC is vitally important if we’re ever to stop being limited–some might say haunted–by our history. And this entails writing to a non-specialized audience more so than to an expert one.Yes, more so rather than writing equally to both. Chewing on this…

on (not) being left behind

As I make my way through the journals stacking up around me, and review lists of new books I want to read (just ordered Frankie Condon’s excellent sounding I Hope I Join the Band), I have that familiar anxious feeling of being on the edge of withitness. Maybe that’s the default state of academic work. What’s required is constant learning and openness and a deliberate refusal to give oneself over to provincial gravitational pulls, so alluring in the midst of repetition, habit, convention. The sheer volume of work (both within and beyond a particular field), and the pressures of time, make withitness daunting. What I’d like is a group of curators to organize timely contributions to the conversation in and around r/c on my behalf–a collective archiving project…a tumblr…really, we should be doing this (maybe “we” already are?).

Until then…a recent piece that’s turned my thinking in new directions: essay in CCC (63.2) by Horner, NeCamp, and Donahue on translingualism and comp scholarship. My initial reaction: felt out of my depth and a little annoyed by what struck me as an utterly impractical call for scholars to write and research in various languages. The more I sat with this piece, the more it agitated me. I wanted to dismiss it but found myself circling back, questioning my own response and lingering over my defenses. We are a field of exhortations (maybe they all are?); it’s sometimes fatiguing.

Still, what I think compelled my return to this piece is the way it upends everything…the materials we build with…words/language/ideas/signifiers. Perhaps this translingual model might be considered another branch of multimodal composing — using all of the available means of composing (rather than limiting ourselves to those available in English) to communicate something. In practical terms, this article is the best case I’ve seen for continuing language study at the graduate level (a practice I’ve been against, for the most part, because of the soulless implementation). It also, and obviously, interrogates the limits of monolingual composition studies and so generates potentially interesting links to broader movements in global studies and digital humanities (the latter in a somewhat circuitous way).

writing and reality

Skipped over to another book focused on writers talking about writing–Writing Environments edited by Dobrin and Keller. In an interview with Annette Kolodny, the editors ask about the relationship between experience and writing. Here’s what she says:

“[T]he writer is never writing about what truly happened; no matter how hard writers try to capture what they understand as reality, in a sense, they are writing about the process of writing. They are writing about how they understand reality in the terms and language and story patterns made available to them by their culture. But the reader doesn’t know that. What comes out, finally, is the writer writing about what he or she has been able to understand of their experience through the narratives that have been available to him or her through culture.” (9)

On first encounter, I kept doubling back to reread that first sentence, particularly the last clause in which she states that writers are always writing about the process of writing. Writing is always a meta-operation, never quite dislocated from acts of transcribing words/ideas/stuff from body to surface. She doesn’t really indicate (here, at least) what’s entailed in “process,” but looping back to Haraway in previous post seems an interesting move. The next part of K’s reply, focused on story patterns and culture, has enriched my recent reading of the CCC issue devoted to indigenous and ethnic rhetorics (63.1). Up until very recently, there’s been no culture within the discipline to recognize (let alone understand) diverse rhetorical traditions; there’s been classical rhetoric, and then everything else. I appreciate that the authors skip efforts to explain the importance of this work in light of classical rhetoric’s dominance…the work doesn’t need justification, doesn’t need to be seen as an extension of or challenge/addition to…it’s important in its own right.

So, some fragments. I like to keep these short.

Notes on Writing

I’m rereading a book called Critical Intellectuals on Writing (Olson and Worsham), which compiles interviews with established scholars; the conversations orbit around writing and its many functions. Might try from time-to-time to transcribe little bits and then offer some thoughts alongside. I’m not the kind of person who decides to initiate new habits and then sticks to them, so I may do this just once…right now…when doing it sounds like a good idea.

Here’s Donna Haraway when asked if she considers herself a writer:

“The particular tissue of writing became more and more interesting as a part of my work. I have friends for whom the injunction to be clear remains right at the top of their moral, epistemological, and political commitments. It’s always struck me that the injunction to be clear is a very strange goal because it assumes a kind of physical transparency, that if you could just clean up your act somehow the materiality of writing would disappear. This is a psychological problem, as opposed to exactly what’s interesting about working in that medium.” (109)

Something about these words appearing on a screen in a clean design, neatly tucked into an automated format, seems to push against the very idea that H. is driving at. The materiality does disappear. You can’t see, and I’m not going to recreate, the strikethroughs and edits, the pauses and interruptions (G. just called to say he’ll get some scallops for dinner), the conditions of the writing scene, the kind of computer I’m using, the labor and economic conditions that made this computer possible, the home I sit in and the literacy time-line that made it possible for me to be sitting here doing this, encountering this text of all texts, and on it goes. Instead of all that, what’s left are the marks on the screen that both clarify and obscure what writing is. What is interesting about working in this medium?