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

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).

 


1 Comment

Gruwell, Leigh. Wikipedia’s Gender-Gap Problem. C&C, May 2015. Posted 08/19/15.

Gruwell, Leigh. “Wikipedia’s Politics of Exclusion: Gender, Epistemology, and Feminist Rhetorical (In)action.” Computers and Composition 37 (2015): 117-31. Web. 28 july 2015.

Leigh Gruwell examines Wikipedia’s “gender-gap problem,” the fact that only 13% of its editors are female. Gruwell recounts interviews with three women who regularly contribute to Wikipedia to argue that a number of aspects of the Wikipedia process are not welcoming to women.

Gruwell reports that Wikipedia is widely used by both men and women and has earned the approval of a number of composition scholars who see it as “a collaborative site of writing and knowledge production that emphasizes revision and challenges traditional models of textual authority and authorship” (117). Compositionists have valued wiki technology in general and have incorporated Wikipedia into classroom assignments (119). Gruwell points to scholarship that casts Wikipedia as a way of showing how texts arise through a “socially constructed, ever-unfolding process” that does not stem from “a single, unified identity” (119). Scholars also value Wikipedia’s public nature and its message that knowledge is not limited to “credentialed experts” and is, in James Purdy’s view, “framed as up for debate” (qtd. in Gruwell 119). But Gruwell argues that Wikipedia, like any technology or text, emerges from its culture and encodes “biases and assumptions” that scholars should be alert to (119).

Gruwell examines Wikipedia as a discourse community; she notes that the scholarship on such communities demonstrates how, within the community, some modes of communication are sanctioned while others are discouraged or even denied. Gruwell argues, however, that members of one discourse community are also members of other communities and that these varied simultaneous memberships shape individuals’ relationships across communities. Wikipedia, she writes, does not acknowledge the diversity or multiplicity of the people who contribute; for example, the site does not ask editors to register and minimizes the information users have to supply. As a result, Gruwell states, “it is difficult to discern who these users are” (121). She contends that a user’s “standpoint”—his or her “allegiances . . . , politics . . . , [and] social positioning”—affect the knowledge that the user incorporates into the Wikipedia interface (121).

This dissociation from users’ lived experiences is further enforced, she writes, by the site’s style preferences. She demonstrates these preferences with a screen shot of the entry for “Feminist movement,” which is deemed unacceptable because it is “written like a personal reflection or essay” rather than in the mandated “encyclopedic style” (Wikipedia entry for “Feminist movement,” qtd. in Gruwell 118). Gruwell critiques this style choice through the lens of feminist standpoint theory, arguing that Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” requirement, which, according to the site’s guidelines, asks writers “to describe debates rather than engage in them” (qtd. in Gruwell 121), excludes writing from an “embodied” positionality reflective of the kind of “lived experiences” that shape knowledge and that characterize a feminist approach to discourse (119).

Gruwell details her own experiences with Wikipedia. After regularly turning to Wikipedia for “quick run-down[s]” when needed, she fulfilled a graduate seminar assignment by enlisting as an editor (122). Discouraged by the difficulty of the “idiosyncratic” mark-up language then in use and by seeing her edits revised, Gruwell returned to using Wikipedia solely as a resource. However, the discovery that only 13% of editors were women encouraged her to see her experiences as grounds for investigation (122).

After promised help from Wikipedia recruiting women study participants failed to materialize, Gruwell located a “Wikimedia Australia gender gap listserv” (123) populated by women who contributed regularly to Wikipedia. Participants took a short survey on their experiences and then responded to a request for a longer interview over Skype or phone (123, 128-29).

Gruwell focuses on three interviews that provide useful insights into women’s relationships with the Wikipedia community (123). The three women were “relatively privileged . . . , well-educated, [and] economically advantaged” (123). Gruwell posits that these women’s positions may have enabled them to engage successfully with Wikipedia because they had both the time and the skills to do so (123). The women cited their emotional commitment to Wikipedia’s goals or to the community, with one explicitly expressing a political purpose, calling attention to issues she considered important. Gruwell notes that all three wrote “about topics that mattered to them, as individuals and professionals” (124) and with which they had a personal connection.

Gruwell’s interviews suggest three reasons why women fail to thrive at Wikipedia. First, her participants note that even professional women are still burdened by traditonal women’s duties and thus cannot prioritize becoming expert users (124-25). Second, though Gruwell notes that Wikipedia is making its coding simpler (123n4), historically learning to edit has presented a considerable learning curve. Her participants suggest that because IT has generally been a male-dominated domain, people comfortable using the interface may well more often be male. Finally, Gruwell emphasizes the degree to which the discourse expectations at Wikipedia exclude the kinds of knowledge many woman may bring to the project (124-25).

Gruwell explores these issues by examining how her three interview subjects have succeeded as Wikipedia editors. Beyond bringing some IT expertise, as one participant does, the women exhibit “a sophisticated sense” of how Wikipedia operates that enables them to meet the rigid community requirements (125). They recognize the mandate to direct their work to “the widest possible audience” (“Lekha,” qtd. in Gruwell 125); they copy and develop templates to structure their work in formats that will be accepted (126). Gruwell especially addresses the epistemological standards the women must meet. Of particular note is the need for “sourcing” that will be considered “reliable” (126). The women’s experiences in academia, Gruwell posits, makes meeting this standard easier for these women than it would be for others. However, she provides examples of how this standard excludes individual and local knowledge, as does the site’s sense of what constitutes the “notability” necessary for inclusion on Wikipedia (126). In Gruwell’s view, such practices create a “homogenous” body of information that claims authority as decisive when it fact it excludes rather than enables debate (127). Moreover, citing Andrea A. Lunsford and Lisa Ede, Gruwell identifies Wikipedia as an example of “hierarchical collaboration,” in which differences must be smoothed out rather than acknowledged (127).

Gruwell cites Wikipedia’s recent efforts to address the gender issue, but argues that these efforts do not challenge the limiting epistemology the site endorses (127). She introduces #tooFEW, a feminist group hoping to change the Wikipedia culture rather than simply “align with” it, and notes composition journals that do similar work (127-28). She reminds composition scholars that academic fields also value the “‘objective,’ detached writing” privileged by Wikipedia, and urges feminist scholars to take the “risks” involved in resisting such standards (128). Teachers should bring Wikipedia into classrooms for examination of the assumptions underlying its concept of knowledge and driving its discourse conventions (128). Finally, teaching Wikipedia critically can identify other excluded positionalities in its depiction of reality (128).