College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

Serviss and Voss. Researching WPA Expertise in 21st-Century Paradigms. CCC, Feb. 2019. Posted 03/13/2109.

Serviss, Tricia, and Julia Voss. “Researching Writing Program Administration Expertise in Action: A Case Study of Collaborative Problem Solving as Transdisciplinary Practice.” College Composition and Communication 70.3 (2019): 446-75. Print.

Tricia Serviss and Julia Voss urge writing studies to recognize that “twentieth-century disciplinary paradigms” (448) have been replaced by twenty-first-century approaches to research that offer opportunities for rhetoric and composition/writing studies (RCWS) to assert the field’s disciplinarity in ways that highlight its particular expertise.

The authors draw on long-standing scholarship in RCWS to argue that the twentieth-century approach, in which “research” primarily involves building “agreed-upon content knowledge” (450), has “historically pitted RCWS’s teaching, research, and administrative mandates against one another” (446). They document efforts to develop recognition of writing studies as an academic field with intellectual weight that have led scholars to define administrative work as research or, in some cases, to suggest that RCWS practitioners engaged in cross-disciplinary work should consider “strategically downplaying” the field’s shared content (449).

In the authors’ view, conflicted views of what constitutes research in RCWS have further led writing professionals to focus on local, small-scale actions as sources for knowledge claims and to rely on “experiential narratives of WPA work” (448), strategies that the authors feel limit awareness of the transferability of WPA expertise.

Serviss and Voss cite Karen Bishop in designating the divide between research and administrative activity as a “false binary” (448). They argue that the shift in research paradigms specifically aligns with what they consider the expertise that RCWS is especially positioned to offer (449-50). They contend that new paradigms focus on activity and collaboration, the hallmarks of WPA work:

[T]wenty-first-century disciplinarity [is] characterized by a focus on wicked problems that demand the expertise of multiple disciplines, an emphasis on practical and applied research addressing real-world needs, and accountability of researchers to stakeholders. (450)

The authors cite Michael Gibbons, who claims that new research approaches must shift from benefitting only a specific discipline in order to address “the needs of society, government, or industry” and must circumvent “hyperspecialization” to allow experts from different disciplines to pool their abilities and “produce work that is greater than the sum of its parts” (471n4).

Among the concepts examined by Serviss and Voss is “new disciplinarity” in which disciplines become “communities of practice”; in such approaches, activity becomes central to a discipline’s identity (450-51). The authors further apply the precepts of “transdisciplinarity” in which the focus shifts to “how” disciplines deploy their expertise (451; emphasis original). They analyze the transdisciplinary approach of Justin K. Rademaekers, who proposes that in working together on a problem, disciplinary contributors “transcending” their disciplinary identities can create a narrow area of consensus that will enable collaboration for the problem at hand (451-52).

The example the authors present of RCWS specialists working across disciplines in problem-solving, in their view, demonstrates that disciplinarity need not be transcended and prior consensus is not necessary. They argue that their example illustrates how RCWS specialists can participate as experts in a transdisciplinary project, asserting their legitimacy in twenty-first-century research (452-53).

Serviss and Voss were two of the seven members of an interdisciplinary group with a shared concern about student writing, critical thinking, and information literacy. In addition to the two RCWS specialists, the group included faculty at different levels and professional staff expert in cross-campus learning initiatives, assessment, and quantitative measurement. One member specialized in comparative politics, another in communication, and a third in civil engineering.

This group, based at Santa Clara University, a “midsized private liberal arts university in northern California,” attended the four-day 2016 Teaching and Learning National Institute at Evergreen State College’s Washington Center for Undergraduate Education (454). During the Institute, the group developed “a three-year plan that became the SWIRL (Success in Writing, Information, and Research Literacy) Initiative.” This initiative addressed issues with student writing across campus, focusing on upper-level writing (455).

The authors report on SWIRL to highlight the “rarely documented methods of writing-program building in real time” (455), emphasizing how “activities rooted in rhetorical practices of RCWS” were integral to the team’s efforts (456).

The article recounts the roles of different disciplinary approaches in the first step of defining the problem, as members drew on different kinds of evidence, such as large-scale assessment data versus direct assessment research advanced by the RCWS faculty (457). The authors present the emphasis on problem development and an understanding of the social nature of problem “invention” as integral to the RCWS expertise contributing to the group (456). Team members had to “persuade” their colleagues of the validity and relevance of their data in order to “incrementally” arrive at a “shared understanding” from which to proceed (458).

The writers’ intent is to provide a thorough, concrete analysis of how “WPA program-building heuristics” functioned in a transdisciplinary context in which the diversity of disciplinary expertise enabled the development of a cross-campus initiative (460). A central feature of such twenty-first-century processes, the authors contend, is the way in which disciplinary difference brought a wide range of expert views into the collaborative effort without requiring team members to downplay their expertise (468).

Among the features of the collaboration drawn from WPA expertise are the use of “backward design,” that is, beginning with outcomes and working backward to determine how they can be met (472n9). WPA practices like “collaborative visual invention” (for example, the use of chalkboards to capture ideas and processes) (464), and “collaborative programmatic scaffolding and planning” (WPAs were among those recommending the use of a GANTT chart) (461, 466) were central to this effort. The authors emphasize that the choice of these tactics did not emerge from prior discussion but rather from the diverse expertise brought to bear as the team defined and worked toward its goal (461). The focus was on “a common problem” rather than “common knowledge, vocabulary, and methods” (469; emphasis original).

The authors urge more explicit research on the WPA practices that align with the twenty-first-century paradigm. Such research, they argue, can make more visible “the value of the complicated work we do” (467).

Like all research traditions, WPA scholarship needs to account not only for our work as deliverable products . . . but also the expert methods that we develop, refine, adopt, adapt, and master as we work with others on these deliverable products. (467)

 


Marotta, Calley. University Writing as White Property. CE, Jan. 2019. Posted 02/20/2019.

Marotta, Calley. “Who Has the Right to Write? Custodian Writing and White Property in the University.” College English 81.3 (2019): 163-82. Print.

Calley Marotta analyzes the ways that custodial workers at a “Midwestern, predominantly white, public university” (166) experience writing through their positions as support staff in a cultural institution in which writing is central. Stating that studies of people in such positions are rare (163), Marotta reports on observations and interviews from a “larger qualitative case study” (166) to make her case that in such settings, writing is “White property” with which the minority participants she studied have complex relationships (164).

Marotta states that 53% of the fifteen custodial workers at the university were Latino; the seven who took part in her study were Latino and male. All but one were first-generation immigrants (166). She drew on “feminist and critical race theory,” as well as “Latino/a critical theory” (165) to examine the workers as writers both in terms of their social interactions and the material aspects of writing, such as access to equipment and production of artifacts (167).

Her research addresses scholarship that views writing as having cultural and exchange value, thus coming to serve as “property” in power hierarchies (165). Marotta sees this property as “constructed as white” by “those who regulate writing” and its circulation within power configurations (165). She cites scholars such as John Trimbur and Jenny Cook-Gumperz to argue that safeguarding literacy is an ongoing function of “dominant castes” who attempt to block access for those not considered deserving (164).

Her study presents cases in which the Latino staff members find their access to and use of writing affected by what critical race theorist Sara Ahmed calls “institutional whiteness” (165) as manifested within a “writing-intensive” setting (164). Marotta argues that even though the workers are seen as outside the privilege associated with writing, they “are indeed workplace writers, because they write in, on, and for the institution as well as for themselves” (164).

Her research results in four categories of analysis: ways in which the workers and their writing were surveilled and “overwritten” as well as ways in which the workers used “writing back” to create agency in their positions and were positioned to “serve” through their writing (168).

To illustrate her category of surveillance, Marotta describes her observations of “Roberto,” a recent hire at the institution who had been in the United States since the age of seven (168). For Marotta, Roberto’s job as collector of discarded materials is that of protecting the writing that goes on in the privileged spaces of classrooms and offices (169). Roberto discusses his uncertainty over being allowed to use “public kiosks” for computer work during breaks even though, in a training session Marotta observed, workers were told they could use these resources (169).

Marotta recounts that in this training session, a “white, male, English-speaking facilitator” drew on an anecdote of a “custodian” using a professor’s office computer while the professor was “log[ged] in remotely” to remind employees that they were not authorized to use computers in private spaces like offices (169). In Marotta’s view, this kind of admonishment “cultivate[s] an atmosphere of danger circulating around custodial writing, and specifically, the use of university property to create it” (169). Within this atmosphere, Marotta writes, Roberto brings his brother’s laptop to work to study for his GED, thus “negotiating university property figured as white” in order to act as a writer (170).

“André” illustrates Marotta’s claim that workers’ products are “overwritten” as the white institution reasserts that writing is White property. A native-born U.S. citizen identifying as Puerto Rican who previously attended the university as an engineering major, André took time off to reconsider his goals and signed on as “lead worker on the custodial crew” because he had an unfulfilled student housing lease (171).

André reports on a scatological graffito scrawled on a notice about proper waste disposal he posted in a restroom. Acknowledging that the graffito may have been the kind of joking text common in restrooms, Marotta argues that for the writer of the scrawl, the “joke” was “the idea that custodians could make requests and even demands of those around them via writing” (171). Similarly, when a wallet disappeared, André believed that flyers instructing employees to ask “suspicious individuals” if they needed help led three different people to ask him such questions while he was posting official notices. Marotta argues that “this flyer functioned to metaphorically overwrite” André’s notices, thus, again, claiming writing for whiteness (172).

The case of “Henry” explores how, in Marotta’s view, employees are both subject to “demands” from the white institution and able to “make demands of [the institution’s] actors in ways that, for some, may be worth the risk” (175). A lipsticked note on a washroom mirror asked questions about maintenance that Henry saw as attacking his work. Moreover, he found that his professional background as a college-educated electrician during his life in Cuba was discounted due to what he considered racism (174). At the same time, despite his difficulties with English, Henry wrote on garbage containers to instruct faculty and staff where to correctly deposit trash (174-75). This act of “writ[ing]back,” for Marotta, both “made [Henry’s] job a little easier and asserted his presence in the university space” (175).

Marotta reports that custodians wrote notes when turning in found property and often received notes of appreciation in return, writing that, for Marotta, documents their value to the university (176). This aspect of “writing to serve” is further illustrated with her study of “Jesus,” whose friendliness and collegiality across the university class tiers earned him written testaments to his worth to the institution from both the university and an individual student (176-77). Jesus is shown using his own literacy abilities to make signs that further the university’s mission. According to Marotta, when custodians are able to “negotiate” the university’s limits on writing in such ways, their efforts

reflect how the difference between custodial writing that is institutionally resisted and accepted is the extent to which participants seem to be writing to serve students and staff. (177)

Marotta urges composition faculty and staff to address workplace writing of the sort she describes as an issue of access and of who counts as writers. This project “can play a role in exposing such structures of whiteness and shifting expectations about who writes and has the right to do so within university spaces” (178).


Leave a comment

Larson, Holly. Epistemic Authority in Two-Year Colleges. TETYC, Dec. 2018. Posted 02/13/2019.

Larson, Holly. “Epistemic Authority in Composition Studies: Tenuous Relationship between Two-Year English Faculty and Knowledge Production.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 46.2 (2018): 109-36. Web. 9 Feb. 2019.

Holly Larson questions the relationship between community-college faculty and the larger field of composition studies. Based on data showing that in 2016, 49% of first-year college students attended a two-year institution, Larson argues that community-college exigencies should be “central” to the field’s mission (111). Larson builds on Howard Tinberg ‘s designation of community-college faculty as “border crossers” or “mestizas” (109) to claim that these faculty do not function as “thirteenth- and fourteenth-grade” high-school teachers, yet, despite their centrality to composition’s mission, are not recognized as full members of the university community (111).

Larson draws on “standpoint theory” to note with Marianne Janack that two-year faculty are not granted “epistemic authority” by their university-level counterparts (111). This theory, which she characterizes as growing out of feminist scholarship,

examines how a group of people with socially constructed identities views and experiences the world differently and highlights the social conditions a group encounters in power relations, thus emphasizing its shared common experiences. (112)

In this view, dominant groups look down from a standpoint above, a position that makes it impossible for them to recognize the complexities below them and thus allows them to shut these complexities out. In contrast, groups lower in the hierarchy, looking up, see the many different points of view and confront the necessity of interacting with them (112-13). The standpoints thus constructed are not “objective and universal” (112); rather, they are the partial views of those who occupy the relevant spaces. For Larson, composition faculty in the traditional university culture claim the dominant standpoint and therefore fail at the kind of inclusive vision necessary to understand standpoints below them (113).

Larson argues that this failure manifests in both graduate preparation and in scholarship and publishing. She cites her own experience in assimilating theory during her preparation and then, as she moved into her first professional position at a community college, “spen[ding] the semester constantly translating the theory into a practice that is realistic and achievable for my students” (118). What she calls “canonical literature,” while providing rich insights into the history of the field and its guiding ideology, turned out to be “tone deaf to my students’ reality” (118).

Larson cites other compositionists calling for the inclusion of preparation for teaching at a two-year institution (116) and notes that the TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College emphasize how “notions of professionalism are distinct at community colleges, with teaching, service, and scholarship valued in different configurations than at most four-year institutions” (qtd. in Larson 119; emphasis Larson’s). In this view, theory derives from a “pedagogical imperative” that serves students’ needs (119).

Mainstream scholars in the field, Larson argues, do not recognize community-college practice as making knowledge (120). Meanwhile, constraints of time and energy prevent faculty like her from “disciplin[ing] our teaching experiences into theory” (119), as the exigencies experienced by writing teachers in general are exacerbated in a community-college environment (120). Not only do these faculty have limited time to develop standard academic essays, their time constraints make it difficult for them to cite widely and demonstrate deep acquaintance with the theory and research that scholarly reviewers expect (121).

In fact, Larson writes, she and her colleagues do not necessarily have degrees in rhetoric and composition (121-22). While acknowledging the pressure on composition to establish itself as an academic field with a “common body of knowledge” (122), Larson notes that scholarship grounded in practice will not be accepted into this body of knowledge if it is seen as “too general or anecdotal” (121) or unoriginal (123). She contends that the kind of knowledge produced in two-year settings fits Gloria Anzaldùa’s definition of “kitchen-table conversations,” a form of knowledge that is “devalued in academia unless some critical theorist validates it” (121).

To argue for the value of these conversations, Larson cites an approach in social science in which theory and practice are more firmly integrated (122). She questions why community-college faculty must follow the standard academic form for their work to be valued (124). Sharing their knowledge through course materials and accounts of classroom experience, she argues, should be a way for these faculty to enter the larger conversation (125). In addition, she suggests that programs can build in important concepts from the larger body of theory in order to make them useful and meaningful in the specific settings of the community-college classroom (125).

Larson sees this grounding in actual classroom practice as especially important because, for the many students who inhabit these classrooms, the community-college setting is “the only academic space they belong to” (125-26). The two-year institution, in this view, functions as a “third space” that can encourage a sense of “belonging and investment” that students will not get in any other place (126). Community-college faculty, Larson writes, are the only faculty who will “see [these students] on a regular basis”; therefore, the field must commit to the “diverse ways of knowing” that will welcome both these students and non-traditional knowledge-making based in their classrooms (126).

Larson lists venues where community-college faculty can “submit all these diverse ways of knowing intimately about the third space” (127). Contending that these are “still limited,” she proposes two specific actions that she believes will facilitate the efforts of two-year faculty to enter the field’s scholarly conversation. “Acknowledging Alternative Knowledge” includes adjusting the “hierarchical professional ladder” from “vertical to horizontal” so that it allows for more inclusive formats (130). Part of this adjustment for Larson would be the recognition that “lore,” as described by Stephen North, is more than an assertion about “what works for me” but is rather the result of ongoing conversations in which theory is collaboratively built from practical experience in ways that are endorsed within feminist thought (130).

Second, Larson recommends “Shifting Peer Reviewers’ Role from the Gatekeeper to the Gateway” (130). She envisions a relationship between a four-year faculty member and a community-college faculty member in which the mentor would shift from the “punitive and judgmental” practice Larson attributes to the usual review process to an effort to provide an “entry point into the theoretical conversation on the topic” (131; emphasis original) as well as an incentive to two-year faculty to invest their limited time in scholarship. Larson asks that work of this sort on the part of the mentor be valued and rewarded; she quotes Lisa A. Costello in calling for “a radical revision of the institution itself to include different kinds of knowledges and ways of being” so that theory and practice can become symbiotic components of the field (qtd. in Larson 131).

 


Leave a comment

Daniel, James Rushing. Student Debt and Composition Classes. CCC, Dec. 2018. Posted 01/30/2019.

Daniel, James Rushing. “‘A Debt Is Just the Perversion of a Promise’: Composition and the Student Loan.” College Composition and Communication 70.2 (2018): 195-221. Print.

James Rushing Daniel addresses “debt” as a pervasive force in current culture and in the lives of students in writing classes. He argues that a course based in the study of debt’s history and effects is a useful and pedagogically appropriate composition option.

Daniel presents statistics illustrating the increasing financial pressure associated with a college education, in particular the influence of the student-loan industry. For example, in the early 1990s, 51% of students graduated with debt averaging $10,200, while in 2012, 71% owed loans averaging $29,400. Time to repayment has risen from 10 years to 19.7 years (196).

In Daniel’s view, this phenomenon is part of a larger component of the neoliberal “fast capitalist economy” discussed by Tony Scott in Dangerous Writing: Understanding the Political Economy of Composition (199). Daniel writes that debt, in such theories, is “an ideological apparatus with significant bearing on the agency of subjects in contemporary global society” (197). As such, it drives choices of educational environment and direction, career, and life events such as marriage or home-owning (197, 215). Debt also carries moral weight that further reduces citizens’ abilities to resist the pressures of neoliberal culture (201). Moreover, it forces students to view education “increasingly . . . through an economic framework” (198). Daniel sees debt as a ubiquitous and pervasive element students will face in college and beyond.

To Daniel, composition scholars and the academy in general have failed to properly attend to debt as a component of students’ lives (215). He cites robust efforts to retain students that ignore these students’ financial burdens and thus actually exacerbate the conditions that drive many students to leave college without completing their degrees (201). While, for Daniel, scholars like Marc Bousquet, Chase Bollig, and Pegeen Reichert Powell address debt as a factor in the political economy of writing classrooms, with some exceptions such theorists tend to “gloss its enduring effects while overstating composition’s capacity to prepare students to navigate it” (201). He quotes Bollig, for example, as arguing that a critically active writing class can help students “resist and thrive” in the face of capitalist exigencies (qtd. in Daniel 201).

The author cites scholars from varied fields, such as anthropology, sociology, and philosophy as well as literary studies to enlarge his discussion of debt. Among insights gleaned from those fields is a critique of “debt’s most disempowering aspect,” which is “its narrative of impermanence” (204). Accepting that most people will be “in debt forever,” in this reading, means disabling the illusion that any debt is a “temporary financial transaction” on the path toward an affluent, entrepreneurial future, replacing it with a more accurate awareness of the function of debt in fast capitalism (205).

Daniel asks compositionists to recognize how writing programs are “necessarily entwined with the problem of student debt” and to consider the costs that students ultimately pay to join a college writing class (202). He presents his own intervention, a course designed to introduce students to the ways debt functions in neoliberal society. He contends that this course stops short of promising to free students from debt’s powerful influence. Rather, he hopes that by bringing the issue of debt to the foreground, the course can provide students with a deeper awareness that may lead to more informed choices and one day inspire them to “strive for financial justice in public contexts” in whatever ways they feel are open to them (203).

Suggesting the first-year students will need more scaffolding than students taking the course in later semesters (206), Daniel responds to several potential critiques of his course plan. To the concern that the topic may be too narrow, Daniel responds that because of its influence in all aspects of current life, the topic of debt speaks to the field’s goal of making coursework meaningful to all students (207). While Daniel notes that some students may find the topic irrelevant if they haven’t borrowed to attend college, or if they have already made debt commitments they can’t change, he points out that many may need to borrow later and will benefit from the broader awareness that can inform future decisions (207-08). Some students, he argues, may be reluctant to share personal information, but this resistance can be addressed with work on personal writing as part of a composition curriculum (207).

He responds as well to concerns that a focus on a single topic may not teach the more general competences that have been defined as the field’s obligation to students (213). Drawing on the scholarship of Patricia Bizzell and others, Daniel argues that “taking up social issues and viewing them rhetorically” aligns with compositionists’ goal of creating writers who are critically aware of the power of writing as social action and able to engage in public discourse effectively (213-14).

The course Daniel introduces begins with an introduction to basic economic concepts, then moves to personal writing that encourages students to situate themselves in the matrix of capitalist economics by sharing their experiences of the financial system (208-10). A third unit may involve rhetorical analysis of financial documents and advertisements so that students can assess how debt is presented as impermanent and empowering when it may be a more complex factor in students’ lives (211-12). As a final focus, the course examines possible ways of negotiating or resisting common narratives about and normalized interactions with debt to present “models and opportunities for activism that could be emulated if students so desired” (213). He provides readings, assignments, and examples of student work.

In Daniel’s view, it may not be possible for students to “resist” and “thrive” simultaneously (214). He reiterates that writing professionals should temper their expectations that critical awareness can free students from capitalist exigencies. He encourages the “short term” goal of “present[ing] students with more agentive modes of thinking and acting in the context of neoliberalism while being clear that there are no panacea” (214). To this end, he urges writing studies to respond to his claim that the field “has largely failed to acknowledge debt’s vast material and ideological function” (215).

In particular, he notes, future research should address how debt as a necessary adjunct to education affects how students understand and value the writing they find themselves viewing “through a financial lens” (216). By correcting its neglect, he claims, the field can address the degree to which debt as a permanent reality in capitalist culture has endangered “the fundamental connection between education and democracy” (215).


Leave a comment

Worthy et al. Teacher Educators’ Perspectives on Dyslexia. RTE, Nov. 2018. Posted 01/05/2019.

Worthy, Jo, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey. “‘What If We Were Committed to Giving Every Individual the Services and Opportunities They Need?’ Teacher Educators’ Understandings, Perspectives, and Practices Surrounding Dyslexia.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.2 (2018): 125-48. Print.

Jo Worthy, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey discuss a study on approaches to dyslexia in teacher education. The authors note that while research has not been able to clearly define dyslexia or agree on an ideal intervention, many states are passing legislation that treats dyslexia as a specific condition with specific treatment protocols (125).

Worthy et al. address the discourse surrounding dyslexia through the Bakhtinian categories of “ideological becoming” and “internally persuasive discourse” as opposed to Bakhtin’s understanding of “authoritative discourse” (AD) (126). “AD” consists of dicta handed down by those claiming expertise; it tends to take over conversations and silence those it does not credential to speak (127). In the authors’ view, AD surrounding dyslexia is based on a medical model in which dyslexia is a narrowly defined “deficit,” which is described in medical terms and which can only be treated by those specifically trained to do so (127). This discourse, the authors state, views educators as inadequately informed and unqualified to deal with students diagnosed with the condition (130).

The authors, in contrast, address the issue through the “field of disability studies in education,” which sees “variation among learners as natural,” as well as “socially constructed” and influenced by “context and social interactions, as well as social, political, and historical systems and discourse” (127). “DisCrit” scholars or those practicing “disability critical race studies” further note the degree to which matters of “race, class, privilege, and power” affect how labels are assigned and addressed (126; 127-28).

Surveying research in dyslexia studies, the authors note that none of the “top 10 most published authors, . . . none were educators” (126). According to Worthy et al., research has failed to find any specific causal or measurable factor that separates students believed to be dyslexic from other students in the reading continuum (128). Brain imaging studies have thus far been inconclusive (129).

Worthy et al. report consensus that “there is no best method for teaching reading” (128), yet many state legislatures have mandated specific treatments like the Orton-Gillingham program (O-G), even though its “multisensory” processes have not been shown to be effective (130). Programs that focus primarily on decoding, the authors state, also show little effect in themselves (130) and should be part of, rather than the core of, “comprehensive, meaning-based reading instruction” (129).

Worthy et al. position themselves as experienced public-school teachers and teacher-educators who began to question the current discourse on dyslexia when it failed to jibe with their own experiences. They began to find similar discomfort with the AD surrounding dyslexia among students and colleagues (130-31). For their study, they recruited 21 women and 4 men from a range of universities in Texas; the participants, who had many levels of experience both as teachers and as teacher-educators, engaged in semi-structured interviews (131). The authors explain their coding process, which yielded three “a priori” categories and three “inductive” categories (132).

“A priori” categories were “definitions and understanding about dyslexia”; “compliance with dyslexia policies”; and “confidence about dyslexia” (132). The researchers found that their interview subjects reflected the conflict between the AD of dyslexia and a more questioning stance that recognized that research did not provide the same degree of certainty as the prevalent AD (133). The participants reported increased official attention to the question of dyslexia and increased oversight of curricula (134). They reported complying with mandates but, in some cases, “present[ing] the state’s information about dyslexia with a broader discussion of struggle and literacy, where they could contextualize and complicate it” (134).

Participant response regarding “confidence about dyslexia” varied, with five of the educators “express[ing] unqualified confidence” in their ability to address the condition. The authors characterize the “remaining educators” as questioning their own experience in light of the dominant discourse (135); these teacher-educators “stopped short” of claiming they were prepared to work with students identified with the condition (135).

“Inductive analysis” of the interviews (136) led to three categories: teacher-educators’ expertise in teaching reading; their responses to AD; and their use of “critical perspectives” (132). Participants shared a belief that teaching reading should be an observation- and assessment-based, individualized process (136-37). In this view, decoding was important but only as part of a curriculum that engaged students in the whole process of reading (136). New teachers, the educators agreed, would benefit from a “more nuanced perspective” that would allow them to recognize their own ability to teach reading across many skills levels (137).

Participants challenged “the vague definition and subjective identification procedures” (137) that most felt led to “overidentification” and to early labeling that called for unnecessary interventions (138). Some felt that the dyslexia label could remove a stigma from reading difficulties; others saw being labeled as conveying a judgment of “something wrong” (138). The teacher-educators questioned the efficacy of programs like the O-G method that foreground “skill work” and interventions that remove students from classrooms to receive instruction characterized by “a lack of alignment” with classroom work (140). The authors note that these views accord with DisCrit analysis that favors “inclusion” rather than “segregation,” which AD seems to advocate (140).

Challenges to the exclusion of educator voices informed participants’ critical perspectives, with one respondent calling the medical community’s adherence to medical models “cult-like” (“Patrice,” qtd. in Worthy et al. 141). Participants noted that the problematic claim that dyslexic readers were highly creative and intelligent has actually made the label desirable for more affluent parents, with dyslexia “the socially acceptable learning disability” (141) that can shield children from “probable consequences of low achievement” (142). According to “Marty,” discrimination in labeling results in the view that “White kids are dyslexic. Black kids are stupid” (qtd. in Worthy et al. 142).

The authors argue that despite being positioned by the current AD as unqualified to teach students with identified reading disabilities, the teacher-educators they surveyed “are more than qualified—by virtue of their preparation and experience—to teach reading to all children” (142). They advocate for the role these educators can play in helping their preservice teaching students negotiate the rigid political landscape they will encounter when they take their knowledge about teaching reading into the schools (143).

Worthy et al. also recommend that proponents of critical perspectives adjust their use of jargon to communicate with wide audiences rather than falling back on a “righteous authority” of their own (144). Their hope is that research and practice in teaching reading can align more comprehensively, drawing on the contributions of classroom educators to complicate what they see as an ineffective, limited approach to the wide range of variation in children’s paths toward reading skill.


Leave a comment

Earle, Chris S. Habermas and Religion in Public Life. CE, Nov. 2018. Posted 12/21/2018.

Earle, Chris S. “Religion, Democracy, and Public Writing: Habermas on the Role of Religion in Public Life.” College English 81.2 (2018): 133-54. Print.

Chris S. Earle discusses the issue of students’ inclusion of religion-based argument in writing classrooms. He links this concern to the problem of democratic deliberation in a diverse society in which religion plays an important role for many citizens.

He notes scholarship in composition regarding non-religious students’ resistance to argument drawn from religious belief and the concomitant problem of religious students’ need to bring their deep convictions to bear on questions of policy (134). He finds two often-used pedagogical approaches: encouraging critical thinking by asking students to recognize the existence of multiple viewpoints, and a focus on audience by developing reasons that would be persuasive to people who lack a religious commitment (134-35). In Earle’s view, these approaches do not address aspects of the problem that he considers additional “obligation[s] of democratic citizenship” (135).

To explore these obligations and suggest fruitful approaches to them, Earle proposes the “translation proviso” of Jürgen Habermas (135). In Earle’s reading, this theory recognizes the possible contradictions underlying “Value pluralism.” Habermas finds religious conviction important in democratic life because it can provide “a counterweight to forces . . . that threaten to instrumentalize human life” (135). But, Earle writes, Habermas also contends that reasons given in public debate must ultimately find expression in “terms acceptable to all involved” (135). These tenets set up a tension between “inclusion and reciprocity,” concepts Earle presents as central to “translation” (136-37).

Inclusion, in this view, means that all voices are heard. Reciprocity requires all interlocutors to express these views in ways that audiences will accept. Paradoxically, Earle argues, the need for inclusion requires religious views to be honored, yet reciprocity requires religious views to be subject to “validity claims” that they may not be able to accommodate. The result can be that arguers end up bringing “private reason” to decision-making, resulting in an “irreducible moral pluralism” in which stakeholders’ insistence on being included clashes with the refusal to subject their viewpoints to full debate (137).

Earle presents John Rawls’s solution as the elimination of “reasonable comprehensive doctrines” from “public debate” (137). Citizens would be limited to arguing for their positions through “the public use of reason” (137). For Rawls, public reason is founded on widely shared democratic and constitutional principles, whereas for Habermas, public reason can include “any reason that can be ‘defended as being in the best interest of all considered as equal moral and political beings’” (Seyla Benhabib, qtd. in Earle 137).

According to Earle, both Rawls and Habermas offer the “translation proviso” as a means to overcome this problem. For Rawls, religion can enter public debate, but religion per se does not provide the kind of reasons that can be accepted across the broad audiences engaged in such debate. Religious arguers must, “over time,” produce “a public translation” that will lay out their claims in terms accessible to all (139). Earle draws on the example of Jeffrey Ringer’s student who linked his religious convictions to “the democratic principle of free will” (139).

For Habermas, Earle contends, this version of the proviso means that religious arguers often may find the need for their positions to be “watered down”: was the student forced to “background his core beliefs in order to satisfy an audience or assignment requirements” (139)? If so, translation burdens religious arguers more than non-religious ones.

Earle writes that Habermas tackles this limitation of translation, first, by adding “an institutional filter” that would require public translation only in specific public settings like “courts, legislative bodies, and the discourse of elected officials and candidates” (1140). Earle claims that for Habermas, this adjustment allows religion to work as a moral force in the larger public while being converted to what Habermas called “generally acceptable language” in formal policy-making environments (qtd. in Earle 141). Working with this distinction can encourage students to distinguish between claims based on doctrinaire religious authority and those appealing to a broader “moral insight” (142).

Earle recommends setting this process in motion by encouraging students to write for many different audiences, assessing how reasons may need to be translated for different contexts and genres (142-43). Still, he contends, excluding religious claims from formal decision-making contexts may cause religious students to be constrained in ways that non-religious students are not (143). As an approach to addressing this problem, Earle presents Habermas’s depiction of translation as “a cooperative task” (144). In this view, a process of “reciprocal-perspective taking” in which respondents “listen to each other, reflect upon the limits of faith and reason, and [are] willing to modify their proposals and commitments” can result in more equitable exchanges across divisions (144).

Earle cites the critique of Maeve Cooke that generating broadly accessible reasons, even through reciprocity, may prevent students from accepting reasons that do not match “what sounds familiar” or is “compatible with what they already know” (145). Reasons that embody difference, Earle notes, may often be those of “less powerful groups” (145). He posits that, responding to Habermas’s proviso, students working together to generate diverse claims may learn to hear a fuller range of voices. Instructors should especially help students locate “real opposing voices” rather than generating their arguments prior to engaging specific points of view (150; emphasis original).

To reinforce the emphasis on listening inherent in reciprocity, Earle examines Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” used by both Rawls and Habermas to illustrate translation (147-49). Earle illustrates the ways in which King articulated his understanding of the views of those who opposed his practice of civil disobedience before “drawing connections and identifying shared premises between God’s law and, when just, constitutional law” (148). Earle contrasts this act of translation with the rhetoric of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses on the grounds of religious freedom. Paramount for Earle is the refusal of Davis and her supporters to listen to and examine in good faith the views of those she opposes, with the result that she did not try to justify her positions to those audiences as true translation and reciprocity would require (149).

In Earle’s view, Habermas’s understanding of translation would move writers away from seeking out opposing views simply to recognize or rebut them (150). He acknowledges that hoping students, regardless of their religious commitments, will truly hear views that they find unacceptable and, in the process, “critically reflect upon the partiality of their perspectives” (150) is an “ideal” rather than a common result (152). He urges accepting the role of religious as well as non-religious points of view as a crucial component of “accepting as unavoidable what Habermas refers to as the democratic confusion of voices” (152). In such an ideal, Earle writes, members of a democratic society “might find a basis for agreement and even consubstantiality on something other than the content of our beliefs” (152).


Leave a comment

Estrem et al. “Reclaiming Writing Placement.” WPA, Fall 2018. Posted 12/10/2018.

Estrem, Heidi, Dawn Shepherd, and Samantha Sturman. “Reclaiming Writing Placement.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 42.1 (2018): 56-71. Print.

Heidi Estrem, Dawn Shepherd, and Samantha Sturman urge writing program administrators (WPAs) to deal with long-standing issues surrounding the placement of students into first-year writing courses by exploiting “fissures” (60) created by recent reform movements.

The authors note ongoing efforts by WPAs to move away from using single or even multiple test scores to determine which courses and how much “remediation” will best serve students (61). They particularly highlight “directed self-placement” (DSP) as first encouraged by Dan Royer and Roger Gilles in a 1998 article in College Composition and Communication (56). Despite efforts at individual institutions to build on DSP by using multiple measures, holistic as well as numerical, the authors write that “for most college students at most colleges and universities, test-based placement has continued” (57).

Estrem et al. locate this pressure to use test scores in the efforts of groups like Complete College America (CCA) and non-profits like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which “emphasize efficiency, reduced time to degree, and lower costs for students” (58). The authors contrast this “focus on degree attainment” with the field’s concern about “how to best capture and describe student learning” (61).

Despite these different goals, Estrem et al. recognize the problems caused by requiring students to take non-credit-bearing courses that do not address their actual learning needs (59). They urge cooperation, even if it is “uneasy,” with reform groups in order to advance improvements in the kinds of courses available to entering students (58). In their view, the impetus to reduce “remedial” coursework opens the door to advocacy for the kinds of changes writing professionals have long seen as serious solutions. Their article recounts one such effort in Idaho to use the mandate to end remediation as it is usually defined and replace it with a more effective placement model (60).

The authors note that CCA calls for several “game changers” in student progress to degree. Among these are the use of more “corequisite” courses, in which students can earn credit for supplemental work, and “multiple measures” (59, 61). Estrem et al. find that calls for these game changers open the door for writing professionals to introduce innovative courses and options, using evidence that they succeed in improving student performance and retention, and to redefine “multiple measures” to include evidence such as portfolio submissions (60-61).

Moreover, Estrem et al. find three ways in which WPAs can respond to specific calls from reform movements in ways that enhance student success. First, they can move to create new placement processes that enable students to pass their first-year courses more consistently, thus responding to concerns about costs to students (62); second, they can provide data on increased retention, which speaks to time to degree; and finally, they can recognize a current “vacuum” in the “placement test market” (62-63). They note that ACT’s Compass is no longer on the market; with fewer choices, institutions may be open to new models. The authors contend that these pressures were not as exigent when directed self-placement was first promoted. The existence of such new contexts, they argue, provides important and possibly short-lived opportunities (63).

The authors note the growing movement to provide college courses to students while they are in high school (62). Despite the existence of this model for lowering the cost and time to degree, Estrem et al. argue that the first-year experience is central to student success in college regardless of students’ level when they enter, and that placing students accurately during this first college exposure can have long-lasting effects (63).

Acknowledging that individual institutions must develop tools that work in their specific contexts, Estrem et al. present “The Write Class,” their new placement tool. The Write Class is “a web application that uses an algorithm to match students with a course based on the information they provide” (64). Students are asked a set of questions, beginning with demographics. A “second phase,” similar to that in Royer and Gilles’s original model, asks for “reflection” on students’ reading and writing habits and attitudes, encouraging, among other results, student “metaawareness” about their own literacy practices (65).

The third phase provides extensive information about the three credit-bearing courses available to entering students: the regular first-year course in which most students enroll; a version of this course with an additional workshop hour with the instructor in a small group setting; or a second-semester research-based course (64). The authors note that the courses are given generic names, such as “Course A,” to encourage students to choose based on the actual course materials and their self-analysis rather than a desire to get into or dodge specific courses (65).

Finally, students are asked to take into account “the context of their upcoming semester,” including the demands they expect from family and jobs (65). With these data, the program advises students on a “primary and secondary placement,” for some including the option to bypass the research course through test scores and other data (66).

In the authors’ view, the process has a number of additional benefits that contribute to student success. Importantly, they write, the faculty are able to reach students prior to enrollment and orientation rather than find themselves forced to deal with placement issues after classes have started (66). Further, they can “control the content and the messaging that students receive” regarding the writing program and can respond to concerns across campus (67). The process makes it possible to have “meaningful conversation[s]” with students who may be concerned about their placement results; in addition, access to the data provided by the application allows the WPAs to make necessary adjustments (67-68).

Overall, the authors present a student’s encounter with their placement process as “a pedagogical moment” (66), in which the focus moves from “getting things out of the way” to “starting a conversation about college-level work and what it means to be a college student” (68). This shift, they argue, became possible through rhetorically savvy conversations that took advantage of calls for reform; by “demonstrating how [The Write Class process] aligned with this larger conversation,” the authors were able to persuade administrators to adopt the kinds of concrete changes WPAs and writing scholars have long advocated (66).