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

Daniel, James Rushing. Freshman Comp as “Precarity.” CE, Sept. 2017. Posted 09/14/2017.

Daniel, James Rushing. “Freshman Composition as a Precariat Enterprise.” College English 80.1 (2017): 63-85. Web. 6 Sept. 2017.

James Rushing Daniel explores the concept of “precarity” as a means of understanding and acting on the challenges engendered by a “new economy” characterized by “hypercapitalism and wealth polarization” (65).

Daniel takes as his starting point Lynn Z. Bloom’s 1996 article, “Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise,” in which she represented college writing as engaged in the production of “good citizens” whose roles were characterized by “safety, order, cleanliness, efficiency,” thus providing then-dominant economic and social structures with the kind of well-disciplined bodies necessary for their sustenance (qtd. in Daniel 63). Agreeing with other scholars about the importance of Bloom’s article as a discussion of how class impacts writing instruction, Daniel argues that changes in economic and social configurations since its publication have called on compositionists to rethink class issues (63-64).

He cites scholars who have begun to question the homogeneity of entities like “the working class.” However, he contends that these critiques have not fully addressed the effects of recent upheavals in current economic realities (64). These include “the ascendancy of the market, the abrupt shifts of the 2008 economic collapse, and the unsteady transition to the so-called ‘knowledge economy’” (64). He turns to the theory of precarity, developed in the social sciences, as a more productive lens through which to view the impacts of these changes (64).

“Precarity” refers to the “dislocations and uncertainties faced by those relegated from stable, salaried labor” (64). Such uncertainties are partly driven by the “casualization” of labor Daniel sees taking place. He points to increasing assaults on higher education that threaten the stability of faculty authority and the well-being of students as evidence that universities are sites of precarity such that the “ordered, middle-class identity” described by Bloom no longer pertains (65).

In Daniel’s formulation, precarity refers to individuals’ loss of agency and the destruction of their sense that “they belong to an occupational community steeped in stable practices, codes of ethics and norms of behavior, reciprocity, and fraternity” (Guy Standing, qtd. in Daniel 66). Most pronounced among lower-income groups, this “alienation” from the forces that determine the quality of people’s lives, in Daniel’s view, permeates social and economic populations once considered belonging to clearly defined working- and middle-classes.

Daniel writes that the result has been to upend the possibility of demarcating classes as theorized by Marxist scholars. Unlike Marxism, which “assumes the coherence of the proletariat as a discrete and uniform class with apparent interests . . . and the reconciliation of its immediate economic ends and its long-term political goals,” the “precariat” comprises disparate individuals inhabiting many social and economic strata, “a fragmented and disconnected population” (67). These conditions of difference make collective action more difficult to initiate or sustain (67).

Daniel reviews a number of scholars who have challenged the notion of “deterministic and categorical notions of class” (68). He argues that these scholars tend to be divided into factions, with some arguing that class is a linguistic, rhetorical phenomenon characterized both by the loss of voice for individuals and processes of naming and demarcating that usurp people’s ability to define their social identities. As a rhetorical phenomenon, class becomes a matter of “discursive negotiation” (69) that is “tied to the ebbs and flows of public discourse” (70).

Another faction identified by Daniel focuses on material conditions (68). This critique sees insecurity and loss of agency as governed by hierarchical structures intended to stratify individuals and solidify the differences among social levels (71). In this view, material inequality and impediments to economic mobility lead to an insecurity that pervades all reaches of social and economic activity, so that, in fact, students and faculty in different strata of the university actually share the condition of precarity (71).

Other scholars call on theorists studying class to address both rhetorical and material sources of precarity. This view calls for “[a]knowledging the blurring of identities” (John Tassoni, qtd. in Daniel 72) and, as Daniels says in quoting Isabell Lorey, “view[ing] the economically marginalized as collectively gathered in “social positionings of insecurity” . . . rather than stratified by class” (72).

Daniel traces scholarship drawing on this recognition of collective insecurity and loss of agency to suggest that teachers and students share membership in the precariat regardless of the many differences in their lived experiences and the differences imposed upon them by the “institutional divides that artificially partition the various groups within higher education” (73). Working to bring students to critical consciousness might be augmented by teachers sharing their own sense of instability and dislocation (72).

However, theorists of precarity note that the divisive tactics of capitalism and the heterogeneity of the precariat itself make achieving productive solidarity difficult (73). Daniel notes the tensions between part-time and tenure-track faculty and the ways in which the “managerial work of writing administration” participates in imposing class division (74):

By way of precarity theory, we may understand that all faculty are variously dislocated by contemporary conditions. Such a position promotes the flattening of our professional hierarchies and the creation of collectivities of common cause among academic ranks. (76).

In Daniel’s view, precarity theory works pedagogically to provide students with an intellectual space in which to take part in an active political life (76-77). This effort includes even those students “who leave” and are usually considered failures; attention to their “daily working lives” allows the classroom to illuminate the potential of all students (77). Understanding the pervasiveness of the precariat state can mean precarity itself “can function as a site of solidarity and political action” (77).

Daniel advocates forms of critical pedagogy that equip students to recognize how current political rhetoric exacerbates divisions that preclude effective collective responses; in his view, such efforts can redirect anger from scapegoats and toward responsible entities like the “financial sector” (79). He argues that rather than hoping students will discover this redirection, teachers with the security to risk doing so must guide students to the recognition that they can acquire political agency through solidarity with others who share the effects of exclusion and can practice that agency through acts of “localized dissent” (78). A central tenet is the sustenance of individual identities and differences; alliances formed through shared precarity become a “pluralistic mode of resistance” (80).

Daniel provides examples of solidarity among disparate actors drawn together by common cause, for example, the resistance at the University of Missouri (78) and in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline (74). Although conceding that such actions and the pedagogies that foster them cannot completely counter “the decline in American opportunity and the dismantling of higher education,” he contends that an approach grounded in precarity theory “attempts to bring our practices into alignment with our values and to theorize a more collective negotiation of the insecurity of composition” (82).

Leave a comment

Gallagher, Chris W. Behaviorism as Social-Process Pedagogy. Dec. CCC. Posted 01/12/2017.

Gallagher, Chris W. “What Writers Do: Behaviors, Behaviorism, and Writing Studies.” College Composition and Communication 68.2 (2016): 238-65. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Chris W. Gallagher provides a history of composition’s relationship with behaviorism, arguing that this relationship is more complex than commonly supposed and that writing scholars can use the connections to respond to current pressures imposed by reformist models.

Gallagher notes the efforts of many writing program administrators (WPAs) to articulate professionally informed writing outcomes to audiences in other university venues, such as general-education committees (238-39). He reports that such discussions often move quickly from compositionists’ focus on what helps students “writ[e] well” to an abstract and universal ideal of “good writing” (239).

This shift, in Gallagher’s view, encourages writing professionals to get caught up in “the work texts do” in contrast to the more important focus on “the work writers do” (239; emphasis original). He maintains that “the work writers do” is in fact an issue of behaviors writers exhibit and practice, and that the resistance to “behaviorism” that characterizes the field encourages scholars to lose sight of the fact that the field is “in the behavior business; we are, and should be, centrally concerned with what writers do” (240; emphasis original).

He suggests that “John Watson’s behavioral ‘manifesto’—his 1913 paper, ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’” (241) captures what Gallagher sees as the “general consensus” of the time and a defining motivation for behaviorism: a shift away from “fuzzy-headed . . . introspective analysis” to the more productive process of “study[ing] observable behaviors” (241). Gallagher characterizes many different types of behaviorism, ranging from those designed to actually control behavior to those hoping to understand “inner states” through their observable manifestations (242).

One such productive model of behaviorism, in Gallagher’s view, is that of B. F. Skinner in the 1960s and 1970s. Gallagher argues that Skinner emphasized not “reflex behaviors” like those associated with Pavlov but rather “operant behaviors,” which Gallagher, citing psychologist John Staddon, characterizes as concerned with “the ways in which human (and other animal) behavior operates in its environment and is guided by its consequences” (242).

Gallagher contends that composition’s resistance to work like Skinner’s was influenced by views like that of James A. Berlin, for whom behaviorism was aligned with “current-traditional rhetoric” because it was deemed an “objective rhetoric” that assumed that writing was merely the process of conveying an external reality (243). The “epistemic” focus and “social turn” that emerged in the 1980s, Gallagher writes, generated resistance to “individualism and empiricism” in general, leading to numerous critiques of what were seen as behaviorist impulses.

Gallagher attributes much tension over behaviorism in composition to the influx of government funding in the 1960s designed to “promote social efficiency through strategic planning and accountability” (248). At the same time that this funding rewarded technocratic expertise, composition focused on “burgeoning liberation movements”; in Gallagher’s view, behaviorism erred by falling on the “wrong” or “science side” of this divide (244). Gallagher chronicles efforts by the National Council of Teachers of English and various scholars to arrive at a “détente” that could embrace forms of accountability fueled by behaviorism, such as “behavioral objectives” (248), while allowing the field to “hold on to its humanist core” (249).

In Gallagher’s view, scholars who struggled to address behaviorism such as Lynn Z. and Martin Bloom moved beyond mechanistic models of learning to advocate many features of effective teaching recognized today, such as a resistance to error-oriented pedagogy, attention to process, purposes, and audiences, and provision of “regular, timely feedback” (245-46). Negative depictions of behaviorism, Gallagher argues, in fact neglect the degree to which, in such scholarship, behaviorism becomes “a social-process pedagogy” (244; emphasis original).

In particular, Gallagher argues that “the most controversial behaviorist figure in composition history,” Robert Zoellner (246), has been underappreciated. According to Gallagher, Zoellner’s “talk-write” pedagogy was a corrective for “think-write” models that assumed that writing merely conveyed thought, ignoring the possibility that writing and thinking could inform each other (246). Zoellner rejected reflex-driven behaviorism that predetermined stimulus-response patterns, opting instead for an operant model in which objectives followed from rather than controlled students’ behaviors, which should be “feely emitted” (Zoellner, qtd. in Gallagher 250) and should emerge from “transactional” relationships among teachers and students in a “collaborative,” lab-like setting in which teachers interacted with students and modeled writing processes (247).

The goal, according to Gallagher, was consistently to “help students develop robust repertoires of writing behaviors to help them adapt to the different writing situations in which they would find themselves” (247). Gallagher contends that Zoellner advocated teaching environments in which

[behavioral objectives] are not codified before the pedagogical interaction; . . . are rooted in the transactional relationship between teachers and students; . . . are not required to be quantifiably measurable; and . . . operate in a humanist idiom. (251).

Rejected in what Martin Nystrand denoted “the social 1980s” (qtd. in Gallagher 251), as funding for accountability initiatives withered (249), behaviorism did attract the attention of Mike Rose. His chapter in Why Writers Can’t Write and that of psychology professor Robert Boice attended to the ways in which writers relied on specific behaviors to overcome writer’s block; in Gallagher’s view, Rose’s understanding of the short-comings of overzealous behaviorism did not prevent him from taking “writers’ behaviors qua behaviors extremely seriously” (253).

The 1990s, Gallagher reports, witnessed a moderate revival of interest in Zoellner, who became one of the “unheard voices” featured in new histories of the field (254). Writers of these histories, however, struggled to dodge behaviorism itself, hoping to develop an empiricism that would not insist on “universal laws and objective truth claims” (255). After these efforts, however, Gallagher reports that the term faded from view, re-emerging only recently in Maja Joiwind Wilson’s 2013 dissertation as a “repressive” methodology exercised as a form of power (255).

In contrast to these views, Gallagher argues that “behavior should become a key term in our field” (257). Current pressures to articulate ways of understanding learning that will resonate with reformers and those who want to impose rigid measurements, he contends, require a vocabulary that foregrounds what writers actually do and frames the role of teachers as “help[ing] students expand their behavioral repertoires” (258; emphasis original). This vocabulary should emphasize the social aspects of all behaviors, thereby foregrounding the fluid, dynamic nature of learning.

In his view, such a vocabulary would move scholars beyond insisting that writing and learning “operate on a higher plane than that of mere behaviors”; instead, it would generate “better ways of thinking and talking about writing and learning behaviors” (257; emphasis original). He recommends, for example, creating “learning goals” instead of “outcomes” because such a shift discourages efforts to reduce complex activities to pre-determined, reflex-driven steps toward a static result (256). Scholars accustomed to a vocabulary of “processes, practices, and activities” can benefit from learning as well to discuss “specific, embodied, scribal behaviors” and the environments necessary if the benefits accruing to these behaviors are to be realized (258).