Monday, March 20, 2017

The next four years of conferences on my radar

This was a crazy conference year -- CCCC, AAAL, TESOL, CASDW/Congress -- too much. Not even done yet -- I'm just starting the season and I'm spending all my PD money. I need to pace myself a little, and I think I can.

so, assuming 2017 is basically over for me conference-wise, here's what's on my radar:

2018: Basically nothing, which is fine by me. Save some of that pro-D money. Maybe I'll write something. Maybe I'll go to Congress (CAAL/CASDW) in Regina for a couple of days. Possible involvement in hosting a conference at end of summer, but TBA.

2019: Congress (CASDW/CAAL) at UBC first week of June = no-brainer. For sure. Not much else on the radar.

2020: AAAL and TESOL are in Denver, which is where my in-laws live. Pretty sure.

2021: CCCC is in Spokane, where my parents live. Pretty sure.

Not sure where SSLW/IAWE are but if they are in cool places I might try to hit each one up 1x in the next 4 years too.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

On doing writing but not composition

I wrote this on this bus this morning, inspired by Frederik DeBoer's piece " We Don't, In Fact, Know What Works in Composition.

While a large portion of my teaching and research involves the teaching, learning, and practice of academic writing (much of it at the undergraduate level), I do not or cannot primarily consider myself a “compositionist.” There are a two major reasons for this that I can discern:

1)    My academic training. I have an undergraduate degree in English literature and “creative” writing, and an MA in English, but after that I made a fairly clean break with “English” as a discipline. (I’ve talked about thisbefore, but like many people who plant their flag in a vague territory called “writing,” I’m obsessed with disciplinarity.) Even while I was in my MA program, I aligned myself mainly with applied linguists even as I enjoyed reading and writing things for more rhetoric and composition oriented courses. Doing a PhD in language and literacy education and becoming firmly ensconced in the world of scholarly applied linguistics and English language teaching (even though, again, I primarily have taught writing across my career) has made me feel more acutely the gap between what I know about and what people who work in English departments know about. I went to MLA precisely one time, and even though there were people whose work I’ve read and who you could say are somewhat “in my field” there, overall I felt alienated and bemused. I will attend my first CCCC this year; I have a feeling I’ll feel a little more at home there, but not as much as I would at AAAL, TESOL, or (especially) SSLW. I commented at SSLW two years ago that identifying as a second language writing scholar actually makes me feel more confident about being able to fall in with various crews at different conferences. I don’t know if I feel equally at home in all the conferences I go to, but I could imagine continuing to rotate between, say, AAAL, TESOL, CCCC, and SSLW (with a side of IAWE) for some time without feeling too out of place. (The ability to do this is probably largely thanks to Paul Matsuda, who is active in all those organizations, as far as I know. Matsuda is probably an unconscious model for many young L2 writing scholars, his prolific output and late-night hours notwithstanding.)

2)    My location in Canada. I’m only now, after 6 years of PhDing at UBC and 1 1/2 years into my first job at a Canadian university, coming to terms with the blessing (not curse) of working on writing in the Canadian milieu. At first I was frustrated that in Canada there is not much of a tradition of “college writing” in the way there is in the US, and that scholarship from Canadian universities is rarely recognized by those in the US who teach writing to university students. However, as I start to take another look at US-based composition studies – which I remember thinking was remarkably myopic and US-focused, even when I was an MA student 10 years ago – I’m thankful that I can do “writing stuff” in Canada without getting mired in the kinds of political and cultural issues that US composition does. Not that they don’t do good or interesting work – many of them do – but many (not all) US comp teachers, when I encounter them at conferences, seem to have an interest in doing something that doesn't look all that much like the work I’ve been doing at Canadian universities for the last 8 years. That said, work on academic writing in Canada is – or can be – a small community under a big tent. There are people who do political and cultural studies work under this tent, and there are teachers of technical writing, and people who run writing centers, and applied linguistics, and so on. It’s my hope – through my recently begun co-editorship of the Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse& Writing/Redactologie—to bring as many people under this tent together as possible. I don’t know what this means for our relationship to US composition – and I’m reluctant to use a word like “our” there or to even suggest that I know what it would mean for “Canada” and “America” to have a “relationship” in this field – but I hope to be able to play some part in building a small but broad community of scholars who care about, among other things, writing in higher education.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

On the artificiality and the realness of academic writing

I've been trying to articulate for a long time the tension I feel between the relatively staid, formulaic way we tend to teach writing in the places I've taught it, and the inherent sense of possibility and promise I intuit about the act of writing itself.

After a longish lecture on introductions, paragraphs, and conclusions yesterday, I attempted to explain this to one of my classes. (I tried again in the second class and was able to get it across in a more abbreviated fashion.)

As a teacher of writing in a high-stakes "foundational" writing course which in some ways exists in relationship to the dreaded "writing-as-skill" discourse (which frankly I am not as scared of as some people), I feel a tension between:

a) the fact that what I teach, assign, and assess are basically "mutt genres," or rather all a part of the meta-genre that I call "Prove You Can Do What I Asked You To Do So You Can Pass This Class and Get On With It." (Formerly known as "Prove You Can Write an Essay," but not everything we assign in the course is an essay.) In other words, we have very specific types of assignments with very specific rubrics, and we do practice versions and then final in-class versions in which students are tested on whether than can write a summary, a critique, and an "essay" based on fairly explicit, strict conventions laid out in a textbook and/our lectures; and

b) the fact that I truly believe that aside from that somewhat artificial, overly school-ish rhetorical setting, which does not feel very "real" or "writery" -- not even when compared to what I believe/assume is assigned in other courses at the university -- when it just comes down to the rhetorical triangle of writer-topic-(imagined-or-real) audience, something true, good, and powerful can happen, that if somehow one of the in-class essays a student wrote blew away and ended up on a streetcorner in Saskatoon or Cleveland or Bristol or Mumbai, someone could pick it up, read it, and go "Huh! I never thought of that before! That's really interesting! That changes how I think about this thing!" ...Or that even I, the teacher who grimly sits down to grade 36 very similar essays, could have the same experience.

In a way this is a tension between camps in writing studies -- very broadly, current-traditional vs. expressivist (except I wouldn't claim either of those traditions, really, being an applied linguist by training) -- but I can't help feeling there's a dynamic tension here that could produce a new way of looking at the kind of class I teach.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Everything adds to being in another world."

The ideal lecture theatre is vast, truly vast. It is a very sombre, very old amphitheatre, and very uncomfortable. The professor is lodged in his chair which is raised high enough to see him; there is no question that he might get down and pester you. You can hear him quite well, because he doesn’t move. Only his mouth moves. Preferably he has white hair, a stiff neck and a Protestant air about him. There are a great many students and each is perfectly anonymous. To reach the amphitheatre, you have to climb some stairs, and then, with the leather lined doors closed behind, the silence is absolute, every sound stifled; the walls rise very high, daubed with rough paintings in half-tones in which the moving silhouettes of various monsters can be detected. Everything adds to being in another world. So one works religiously.

from an interview with a student in Bourdieu & Passeron's "Language and Relationship to Language in the Teaching Situation"

Monday, August 22, 2016

On the eve of a new academic year

1. In college an English professor once told us "papers are a chance to take care of little pieces of your soul." I sort of believed that then. I sort of believe it now. I hope I write now because I want to and because I care about what I write about, not because I feel I have to.

2.  I am not sure I could tell my students what my professor told me, and think they would believe it.

3. Even though I am not evaluated on research, I have been attempted to carve out a small program of it over the last year. It hasn't quite come together right. I've become obsessed, for some reason, with understanding writing and language from what I seem to think of as an "institutional" perspective, even though when I really think about it, I can't imagine what an "institutional" perspective would be. (That in itself is interesting, I suppose). I have been warned away, by multiple people, from doing this kind of research that digs into institutional policies, practices, etc., to avoid stirring up negative vibes. I understand this, and even though I think it would be arrogant of me to assume I'm important enough to be a nuisance to anyone who'd be implicated in this research, my goal really isn't to cause trouble. It isn't to tell everyone that they're doing it wrong.

I want to learn about the place where I work so I can do my work better, and I want to find a way to do this without getting in anyone's way. I'll probably have to think about this for a while longer before I can do it well. I am probably placing myself in the middle of conversations I don't really understand by trying to understand the 10+ year history of my institution's approach to writing and language.

4. This is going to be a much busier year than my first year was. I'm just coming off a glorious summer of parental leave (stressful in its own way, yes), looking down the barrel of a 2-2-1 year with 3 releases for admin work (including team teaching a course in the first semester, so it's really more like 3-2-1) and 4 or 5 conferences I need/want/hope to go to. Time management - never my forte - is going to be more important than ever.

5. I somehow wrote $15,000 worth of grants last year, which is really not bad considering I'd never written a grant before.

6. I also somehow became co-editor of a Canadian academic journal, which is pretty daunting, but exciting. So I'll be doing that.

7. What do I want from this year? To do my job better, to serve my students better, to collaborate with colleagues more on their projects, not mine, to avoid cynicism, to not work evenings or weekends. I don't know how much of all that will happen. Some can, I think.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What drives changes in writing course curriculum?

I am doing the first phase of a project on the history of a first year writing course. It's mostly document analysis of the founding documents of the course (recommendations from a curriculum committee, a proposal for the course, and ten years of syllabi of the course). The next phase will involve interviews with the people responsible for the syllabi (I hope).

I haven't found much in the literature on this -- historical studies of university writing courses, but I'm sure there must exist something like this out there -- and I find it fascinating.

When I started the project I proposed that it would be about the pedagogical, theoretical, and disciplinary influences on the way the course has changed its teaching and assessment methods over the years.

I was told again and again, though, that this didn't make sense because the idea that these things are the primary drivers of change is misguided. At first I didn't get it, or refused to go along with this idea. I still think that the way someone is trained, or the ideologies they bring with them about writing or teaching or language (which in academia are shaped in part by what disciplinary communities you align yourself with -- who you read) matter a lot when it comes to how the teaching of writing is actually carried out, and I probably will get to this eventually.

But now that I've been working (properly working, not as a grad student) at a university for about a year, I am starting to understand this. This must be incredibly obvious to anyone with more experience than I have, but I see now that:

Local and institutional social/political/ideological factors drive curriculum/ pedagogy/assessment more than "current theory and research" in a discipline drive these things -- for a few reasons, but mostly because the people at the top who make the decisions have different ideas and priorities than the people at the bottom who actually work with students.

This doesn't only affect how we teach and assess, etc (though this is important and something I need to learn more about for my project), but it affects who is teaching and assessing etc, and this is important I think.

At my own institution (well before my time) there have been administrative decisions which resulted in, among other things, the dissolution of a writing center, the creation of two subsequent writing-focused units that folded into other units and eventually disappeared, the implementation of a writing-intensive learning initiative which gradually lost its administrative infrastructure but still remains on the books, the re-emergence of student writing services in a new unit, and the establishment of an English-language support-focused unit (which seems to be part of a shift in the discourse I'm seeing across certainly my own geographical context if not more widely, from universities perceiving a need for 'writing support' to 'language support,' which is mostly a good thing but brings of some interesting and contentious issues when it comes to disciplinary divisions of labour).

All or most these decisions resulted in people being hired or losing their jobs, in instructors getting or not getting help doing their jobs, in students having or not having access to more help with their writing. In other words, these decisions added and subtracted people who bring with them all the stuff I talked about in the 4th paragraph above.

Anyhoo...more on this later, I hope.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

"Students Suck and Are Horrible" - Professors

"Those of us who have been doomed to read manuscripts written in an examination room -- whether at a grammar school, a high school, or a college -- have found the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions. Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their commencement without making blunders which would disgrace a boy of twelve years old."  - Adams Hill

Look, I get that it's frustrating to work with students who aren't into what you're teaching. It happens to all of us. And maybe I am naive. I have after all only been teaching at universities for nine years. But I am still sometimes amazed at the negative attitude toward students' writing and linguistic abilities that appears to be the default view of many university faculty.

It isn't that some, or even many, university students aren't "bad at writing," if by "bad at writing" we mean something like "don't meet the expectations of excellent writing by undergraduates in their field." But of course, that's not what people usually mean -- they mean "bad at writing" in the sense of "based on my cobbled-together idiosyncratic understanding of what 'good writing' is," which for most people (including me!) is so maddeningly vague as to be irrelevant.

I have heard more than once since I started at my current institution, from more than one senior academic with presumably years of experience teaching young people, that students "can't write." This is often applied to "international students," but then whoever says this usually follows it up with some version of "it's not just international students -- there are plenty of native speakers who can't write at all!"

Three things come to mind.

First, the assertion that "students can't write" has literally been conventional wisdom since people started caring about "university writing" as a thing. Guess when Adams Hill, who ran entrance exams for Harvard, wrote the quote at the top of this post? In 1879, a hundred and thirty seven years ago, that's when. So: either all students, from the young white dudes at Harvard of the late 19th century to the Canadian immigrants of the early 21st, have been always and forever horrible at writing since the dawn of time, or this is that thing our professors warned us about: a discourse.

Second, and this is something I have trouble understanding maybe because I am a language person and not a "content" person (which doesn't really make sense but whatever), I'm interested in what I perceive as the personal offense or even anger with which faculty seem to talk about this topic. Here are some quotes from the media from professors at my own institution:

"The grammar sucks and the writing is awful...There’s this emphasis on expressing yourself, on this idea that if you get it on the page, it will be fine.... It’s not.” (1
" ...insofar as [ESL] students are academically or linguistically unprepared to enter the broad cultural debates that animate the educational conversation, their presence in the graduate classroom and in some cases, their receipt of Canadian credentials, occurs to the detriment of the Canadian students and institutions." (2)

These are just two (relatively different) examples of how faculty talk about students. There are a lot of other things you'll hear every day on campus. I'm not necessarily taking it upon myself to "combat" those who seem to be unduly dismissive of student writing (though I have been known to use the phrase "this is what we're up against" from time to time with colleagues). I think this attitude itself needs to be studied; people like me should look more into why faculty feel this way, how language ideology works in the university,  and so on.

Third, I have to say, as a teacher of what might elsewhere be called "basic writing": my students, the vast majority of them, can write. They know how to make sentences and paragraphs and even essays. I would estimate that in any given class of eighteen students there are one or maybe two students whose basic grasp of syntax and/or vocabulary feels to me like it has the potential to cause them serious problems throughout their university career if they don't attend to it assiduously*.

This is just how I feel, by the way -- there are empirical questions about students' writing/language ability that can be answered  (and some have been) , vis-a-vis their success in later studies or the workforce or whatever. But why do I think my students can write when some of my colleagues don't? Am I wrong? Or could it be that someone like me, whose career is devoted to studying and teaching English language and writing to university students, is worth listening to on these questions?

[* Incidentally, part of my current work at my institution is with a unit that is charged with helping these students, and that is what we are trying to do. But it's not "students" who "can't write." It's maybe 10% of students.]