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Bastian, Heather. Affect and “Bringing the Funk” to First-Year Writing. CCC, Sept. 2017. Posted 10/05/2017.

Bastian, Heather. “Student Affective Responses to ‘Bringing the Funk’ in the First-Year Writing Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 69.1 (2017): 6-34. Print.

Heather Bastian reports a study of students’ affective responses to innovative assignments in a first-year writing classroom. Building on Adam Banks’s 2015 CCCC Chair’s Address, Bastian explores the challenges instructors may face when doing what Banks called “bring[ing] the funk” (qtd. in Bastian 6) by asking students to work in genres that do not conform to “academic convention” (7).

According to Bastian, the impetus for designing such units and assignments includes the need to “prepare students for uncertain futures within an increasingly technological world” (8). Bastian cites scholarship noting teachers’ inability to forecast exactly what will be demanded of students as they move into professions; this uncertainty, in this view, means that the idea of what constitutes writing must be expanded and students should develop the rhetorical flexibility to adapt to the new genres they may encounter (8).

Moreover, Bastian argues, citing Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi, that students’ dependence on familiar academic formulas means that their responses to rhetorical situations can become automatic and unthinking, with the result that they do not question the potential effects of their choices or explore other possible solutions to rhetorical problems. This automatic response limits “their meaning-making possibilities to what academic convention allows and privileges” (8-9)

Bastian contends that students not only fall back on traditional academic genres but also develop “deep attachments” to the forms they find familiar (9). The field, she states, has little data on what these attachments are like or how they guide students’ rhetorical decisions (9, 25).

She sees these attachments as a manifestation of “affect”; she cites Susan McLeod’s definition of affect as “noncognitive phenomena, including emotions but also attitudes, beliefs, moods, motivations, and intuitions” (9). Bastian cites further scholarship that indicates a strong connection between affect and writing as well as emotional states and learning (9-10). In her view, affect is particularly important when teachers design innovative classroom experiences because students’ affective response to such efforts can vary greatly; prior research suggests that as many as half the students in a given situation will resist moving beyond the expected curriculum (10).

Bastian enlisted ten of twenty-two students in a first-year-writing class at a large, public midwestern university in fall 2009 (11). She used “multiple qualitative research methods” to investigate these first-semester students’ reactions to the third unit in a four-unit curriculum intended to meet the program’s goals of “promot[ing] rhetorical flexibility and awareness”; the section under study explored genre from different perspectives (11). The unit introduced “the concept of genre critique,” as defined by the course textbook, Amy J. Devitt et al.’s Scenes of Writing: “questioning and evaluating to determine the strengths and shortcomings of a genre as well as its ideological import” (12).

Bastian designed the unit to “disrupt” students’ expectation of a writing class on the reading level, in that she presented her prompt as a set of “game rules,” and also on the “composing” level, as the unit did not specify what genre the students were to critique nor the form in which they were to do so (12). Students examined a range of genres and genre critiques, “including posters, songs, blogs, . . . artwork, poems, . . . comics, speeches, creative nonfiction. . . .” (13). The class developed a list of the possible forms their critiques might take.

Bastian acted as observer, recording evidence of “the students’ lived experiences” as they negotiated the unit. She attended all class sessions, made notes of “physical reactions” and “verbal reactions” (13). Further data consisted of one-hour individual interviews and a set of twenty-five questions. For this study, she concentrated on questions that asked about students’ levels of comfort with various stages of the unit (13).

Like other researchers, Bastian found that students asked to create innovative projects began with “confusion”; her students also displayed “distrust” (14) in that they were not certain that the assignment actually allowed them to choose their genres (19). All students considered “the essay” the typical genre for writing classes; some found the familiar conventions a source of confidence and comfort, while for others the sense of routine was “boring” (student, qtd. in Bastian 15).

Bastian found that the degree to which students expressed “an aversion” to the constraints of “academic convention” affected their responses to the assignment, particularly the kinds of genres they chose and their levels of comfort with the unusual assignment.

Those who said that they wanted more freedom in classroom writing chose what the students as a whole considered “atypical” genres for their critiques, such as recipes, advertisements, or magazine covers (16-17). Students who felt safer within the conventions preferred more “typical” choices such as PowerPoint presentations and business letters (16, 22). The students who picked atypical genres claimed that they appreciated the opportunity to experience “a lot more chance to express yourself” (student, qtd. in Bastian 22), and possibly discover “hidden talents” (22).

The author found, however, that even students who wanted more freedom did not begin the unit with high levels of comfort. She found that the unusual way the assignment was presented, the “concept of critique,” and the idea that they could pick their own genres concerned even the more adventurous students (18). In Bastian’s view, the “power of academic convention” produced a forceful emotional attachment: students “distrusted the idea that both textual innovation and academic convention is both valid and viable in the classroom” (20).

Extensive exposure to critiques and peer interaction reduced discomfort for all students by the end of the unit (19), but those who felt least safe outside the typical classroom experience reported less comfort (23). One student expressed a need to feel safe, yet, after seeing his classmates’ work, chose an atypical response, encouraging Bastian to suggest that with the right support, “students can be persuaded to take risks” (23).

Bastian draws on research suggesting that what Barry Kroll calls “intelligent confusion” (qtd. in Bastian 26) and “cognitive disequilibrium” can lead to learning if supported by appropriate activities (26). The students reported gains in a number of rhetorical dimensions and specifically cited the value of having to do something that made them uncomfortable (25). Bastian argues that writing teachers should not be surprised to encounter such resistance, and can prepare for it with four steps: ‘openly acknowledge and discuss” the discomfort students might feel; model innovation; design activities that translate confusion into learning; and allow choice (27-28). She urges more empirical research on the nature of students’ affective responses to writing instruction (29).

 


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Lamos, Steve. Writing Faculty Job Security and “Negative Affect.” CE, Mar. 2016. Posted 03/27/2016.

Lamos, Steve. “Toward Job Security for Teaching-Track Composition Faculty: Recognizing and Rewarding Affective-Labor-in-Space.” College English 78.4 (2016): 362-86. Print.

Steve Lamos addresses the need for improved job security for “teaching-track” faculty: “faculty members whose jobs primarily or exclusively consist of delivering undergraduate instruction off of the tenure track” (362). Lamos argues that the ongoing discussion of this need, especially within composition studies, fails to adequately address the degree to which pervasive “negative affect” (363) prompts constituencies within higher education to devalue the kinds of work these teachers do.

Lamos reviews the literature on labor conditions for teaching-track faculty, which often advocates for tenure for these positions (362). He underlines the exigency of this concern with statistics showing that in today’s “neoliberal environment” of higher education, 75% of all hires and 95% of hires in composition do not include tenure (363).

To define “affect,” Lamos turns to discussions by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth as well as Sara Ahmed. Their work theorizes what Lamos calls a “precognitive sensation” that exists below conscious levels and “circulate[s]” in ways that, in Ahmed’s words, “mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, between the individual and the collective” (qtd. in Lamos 363). Such circulation of emotional forces around teaching-track work, Lamos writes, is predominately negative, rendering the labor involved in this work “unimportant, uninteresting, and ultimately unworthy of attention” (363).

Lamos contends that efforts to promote job security must address this negative affect if they are to succeed, but many advocates for improved labor conditions fail to do so. For example, he argues that the claims of Marc Bousquet that solidarity with other labor movements will result in change actually requires the field to downplay its unique commitment to emotional work in order to align with larger groups, thus failing to acknowledge the ways in which negative attitudes toward emotional work within higher education will spur resistance to productive change (369-70). Similarly, calls for various forms of review and credentialing, including one of his own, fail to explain how such a credential, even if awarded, can come to be seen as valuable enough to improve the status of teaching-track work (371).

To progress, in Lamos’s view, composition theorists must develop means of making the various constituencies with the power to address teaching-track status “feel good” (363) about the work such teachers do. His article particularly focuses on larger institutions that generally privilege research over teaching because these institutions function as “higher education trendsetters” (364). Although emotional labor is devalued across most educational contexts, Lamos writes, within more prestigious research universities it is especially “subject to a kind of gendered dismissal” based on a sense that it involves work that women find “inherently satisfying” and thus not in need of other compensation and that, by its nature, consists more of “pandering to difference” rather than enforcing academic standards (366).

For Lamos, negative affect revolves, first, around this view that emotional work is peripheral to the mission of higher-education (365-66), and second, around a failure to understand that the success of emotional labor requires “educational spaces” where students’ minds and bodies can engage with “smart environments” (367) in which students can experience the pleasure of intellectual work. However, such spaces are seen by the institutional elite as “idiosyncratic,” needing to be replaced by spaces that produce “universal, acontextual, and easily assessable” results (367).

Lamos makes the case, however, that the work done by teaching-track faculty in these contexts is essential to learning. Emotional labor in general works to make students “comfortable enough to learn” (364); the kind of emotional labor specific to composition, moreover, strives to “mak[e] writing processes themselves . . . feel good and right and natural” (365). To argue for the value of this kind of work within the overall education mission, he presents the “‘studio’ model of basic writing instruction” developed by Rhonda Grego and Nancy Thompson and the “Accelerated Learning Program (ALP)” promoted by Peter Adams and colleagues.

These program augment “‘regular’ curricula” with the specific kinds of support needed for all students to advance (372). The example of a specific engineering student in Grego and Thompson’s project sheds light on Lamos’s view that affective work with students enhances learning when it makes them “more comfortable” in academic settings and helps them understand how interpersonal components color learning environments (372-73). A second focus of these programs has been demonstrating their ties to retention and graduation rates. Lamos presents data indicating that ALP in particular has generated quantitatively documented evidence that providing students with affective support can reduce attrition and costs (374).

Lamos makes three “assertions” about how best to improve job security for teaching-track faculty engaged in what he calls “affective-labor-in-space” (375). He first recommends explicitly imbuing this labor with the kinds of associations that larger constituencies within higher education will feel good about. Doing so means not only citing evidence on retention and graduation but also continuing to make the case to authoritative stakeholders that emotional labor is “profoundly important to the future of higher education” (377) and that it is “unique,” a kind of intervention unlikely to be undertaken elsewhere in the academy (375, 377, 379, 380). He argues for the effectiveness of such an approach at his own institution.

Next, he urges that the ability to perform such labor be “institutionalized” as a factor in assessment and hiring (377). Expecting documentation of this ability allows it to be “emplac[ed]” so that it becomes “part of our institutional fabric” and thus becomes a stepping-stone to more secure employment (377).

Finally, he advocates emphasizing the importance of job security to teachers providing this kind of instruction. However, he notes that there is little likelihood that tenure will rapidly follow (379). Political barriers such as “right-to-work” laws often prevent direct activism, and some skeptics may note that faculty have demonstrated that they can perform affective labor well without substantive reform (381). To counter such resistance, faculty have worked instead to promote improvements such as “soft reappointments” and “‘evergreen’ contracts,” measures that make securing ongoing employment less onerous and less contingent (381).

While Lamos urges national educational organizations like NCTE and MLA to make job security a focus, he emphasizes finally that “[s]uch work must be made to feel good and right and essential to individuals from across the political spectrum” if progress is to be made (383).