Webber, Jim. ”Toward an Artful Critique of Reform: Responding to Standards, Assessment, and Machine Scoring.” College Composition and Communication 69.1 (2017): 118-45. Print.
Jim Webber analyzes the responses of composition scholars to the reform movement promoted by entities like College Learning Assessment (CLA) and Complete College America (CCA). He notes that the standardization agenda of such groups, intended to improve the efficiency of higher education, has suffered setbacks; for example, many states have rejected the Common Core State Standards (118-19). However, in Webber’s view, these setbacks are temporary and will be followed by renewed efforts by testing and measurement agencies to impose their own criteria for student success (119).
The standardization these groups urge on higher education will, they claim, give parents and students better information about institutions and will ultimately serve as grounds for such moves as “performance funding” (119). The overall goal of such initiatives is to move students through college as quickly as possible, especially into majors (119).
Webber recognizes two prongs of composition’s response to such pressures to portray “college students and parents as consumers” (119). One thread urges “reframing” or “redirecting” the efforts of the testing industry and groups like CLA and CCA. For Webber, this viewpoint adopts a “realist style.” Scholars who espouse reframing urge that compositionists work within the current realities created by the power of the testing and standardization apparatus to “expand” the meanings of terms like “college readiness” (120), adjusting them in ways that reflect composition’s inclusive, humanistic values (122)–that is, in Frank Farmer’s term, “insinuat[ing]” the professional ethos of composition and its authority into the standardization apparatus (qtd. in Webber 122).
Scholars who adopt this realist style, Webber claims, “figur[e] public policy as accommodation to the world” (141n5); moreover, in Webber’s view, they accept the description of “the way the world is” (133) put forward by CCA and others as “irreducibly competitive” and thus “[reduce] the scope of policy values to competition, efficiency, and instrumentality” (141n5).
Webber cites scholars in this vein who contend that the protests of scholars and writing professionals have been and will be effectively “ignored” by policymakers (137). More productive, in this view, is collaboration that will at least provide “a seat at the policy table,” giving professionals a chance to infuse the debate with their values (133).
Webber presents the 2011 Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing as an example of how the reframing position “work[s] within the limits established by the dominant discourse of reform” (123). He notes that Bruce Comiskey was unable to discern any “apparent difference” between the aspirations of the Framework and those of the reform movement (125; emphasis original). For Webber, this approach sets up composition professionals as “competition” for the testing industry as the experts who can make sure students meet the reformers’ criteria for successful learning (124). Reframing in this way, Webber says, requires “message management” (123) to make sure that the response’s “strategic” potential is sustained (121).
Scholars who urge reframing invoke Cornel West’s “prophetic pragmatism” (122), which requires them to:
think genealogically about specific practices in light of the best available social theories, cultural critiques, and historiographic insights and to act politically to achieve certain moral consequences in light of effective strategies and tactics. (qtd. in Webber 122)
Webber contends that reframers interpret this directive to mean that “public critique” by compositionists “cannot deliver the consequences they desire” (123; emphasis original). Thus, a tactical approach is required.
The second thread in compositionists’ response to the reform movement is that of critique that insists that allowing the reform industry to set the terms and limits of the discussion is “to grant equivalence between our professional judgments and those of corporate-political service providers” (125-26). Webber quotes Judith Summerfield and Philip M. Anderson, who argue that “managing behavior and preparing students for vocations” does not accord with “a half-century (at the least) of enlightened classroom study and socio-psycholinguistic research” (qtd. in Webber 125).
In Webber’s view, the strands of reframing and critique have reached a “stalemate” (126). In response to the impasse, Webber explores the tradition of pragmatism, drawing on John Dewey and others. He argues that reframers call on the tenets of “melioration” and “prophetic critique” (127). “Meliorism,” according to Webber’s sources, is a linguistic process in that it works toward improving conditions through addressing the public discourse (127). In discussing West’s prophetic pragmatism as a form of “critical melioration,” Webber focuses on the “artfulness” of West’s concept (128).
Webber sees artfulness as critique “in particular contexts” in which ordinary people apply their own judgments of the consequences of a theory or policy based on the effects of these theories or policies on their lives (128-29). An artful critique invites public participation in the assessment of policies, an interaction that, according to West, functions as “antiprofessionalism,” not necessarily for the purpose of completely “eliminating or opposing all professional elites” but rather to “hold them to account” (qtd. in Webber 129).
Webber argues that proponents of reframing within composition have left out this aspect of West’s pragmatism (128). Webber’s own proposal for an artful critique involves encouraging such active participation by the publics actually affected by policies. He contends that policymakers will not be able to ignore students and parents as they have composition professionals (137).
His approach begins with “scaling down” by inviting public inquiry at a local level, then “scaling up” as the conversation begins to trigger broader responses (130). He presents the effects of student protests as the University of Missouri in 2015 as an example of how local action that challenges the power of elites can have far-reaching consequences (137-38). Compositionists, he maintains, should not abandon critique but should “expand our rhetoric of professionalism to engage the antiprofessional energy of local inquiry and resistance” (138).
As a specific application of his view, Webber provides examples of how composition professionals have enlisted public resistance to machine-scoring of student writing. As students experience “being read” by machines, he contends, they become aware of how such policies do not mesh with their concerns and experiences (137). This awareness engages them in critically “problematizing” their perspectives and assumptions (131). In the process, Webber argues, larger, more diverse audiences are encouraged to relate their own experiences, leading to “a broader public discussion of shared concerns” (131).
For Webber, drawing on the everyday judgments of ordinary people as to the value of policies put forward by professionals contrasts with the desire to align composition’s values with those of the standardization movement in hopes of influencing the latter from within. Opening the debate beyond strategic professionalism can generate a pragmatism that more nearly fits West’s prophetic ideals and that can “unsettle the inevitability of reform and potentially authorize composition’s professional perspectives” in ways that reframing the terms of the corporate initiatives cannot (135).