College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Lillge, Danielle. Conflicts in Professional Development for Writing Teachers. RTE, May 2019. Posted 07/02/2019.

Lillge, Danielle. “Uncovering Conflict: Why Teachers Struggle to Apply Professional Development Learning about the Teaching of Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.4 (2019): 340-62. Print.

Danielle Lillge examines conflicts that can affect how teachers charged with teaching writing in the schools apply professional development. She notes that such teachers are often pressured to improve student performance while feeling that their training has not been adequate (340). Teachers often turn to “disciplinary literacy professional development” programs (PD) (340). Lillge reports on what she calls “telling cases” of two teachers’ experiences participating in and applying such PD (341).

Writing that PD programs for literacy professionals emphasize “integrating literacy modes (e.g., reading and writing) in cross-disciplinary instruction” (341), Lillge focuses on her subjects’ encounters with Reading Apprenticeship (RA), a program notable for its concerns with both reading and writing and for its provision of a research-sanctioned PD experience: RA is “sustained over time” with a focus on collaboration and a “cohesive unifying framework” (344). Her two subjects, Abigail and Heloise, are white English teachers in a midwestern urban high school that is 95% African American (343). Lillge is also white, and is a professional in literacy instruction and professional development, with “[v]arying degrees of participantness” in RA programs. She represents her positionality as both ethnographer and participant-observer, and as both insider and outsider (345).

Lillge finds Erving Goffman’s theory of “frames” useful in understanding how Abigail and Heloise negotiated their use of the RA program. A frame, Lillge writes, is

a cognitive structure that reflects the “subjective context” whereby people work with and in relation to one another to interpret interactions by answering the question “What is it that’s going on here?” (342)

Frames, she contends, are social rather than individual, created through interaction, and can be invoked “both explicitly and implicitly” (342). Her study is meant to elicit how “framework conflicts” that teachers may not even be aware of can facilitate or hinder the application of professional development (342).

Lillge’s main consideration is how assumptions about teachers’ self-identity and positionality built into the PD framework may fail to accord with the frameworks the teachers actually bring to the experience (341). She contrasts her two cases, arguing that differences in the degree to which the two teachers’ frames aligned with the frames presented by the RA sessions affected their ability to make full use of the experience.

Both teachers were “eager learners,” were “acutely aware” of the challenges in their teaching environments, and reached out for additional guidance in order to improve as teachers of writing (343-44).

Lillge attributes some of Abigail’s personal frameworks around writing to her participation in a National Writing Project program and her own time in a college continuing education class; both of these experiences led Abigail to hope she could take students beyond “formulaic” writing, which she had found personally frustrating (350). However, in Lillge’s view, Abigail’s framework made it difficult for her to see herself as a writer and to feel confident in her understanding of “what good writers do” (348). Abigail wanted specific guidance to help her achieve her teaching goals and felt that the integrative approach of the RA materials foregrounded reading and in fact barely addressed what she saw as writing (348).

Heloise, as a drama teacher and playwright, could draw on “sustained involvement in disciplinary discourse communities” (355) in order to make use of opportunities for experimentation and integration suggested by the RA approach. She was able to choose specific ideas and adjust them to fit her students’ needs, revising as needed through her understanding of the different kinds of writing possible within an English classroom (352). Lillge presents Heloise as already aligned with an “experiential learning” framework that allowed her to see the “unifying rationale” in RA that connected particular writing activities to a more interlocking approach to writing and learning (352).

In Lillge’s account, Abigail struggled to see how a specific activity, such as students annotating their own texts, supported this broader philosophy and therefore found the outcomes disappointing, whereas Heloise, informed by the larger framework, was able to critique and modify her own applications in light of the unifying rationale (353-54). Heloise’s literacy experiences allowed her to draw on “multiple frames” that addressed her role as a white teacher in a largely African American community as well as “interanimated” the RA frames (354).

Lillge questions what she sees as the assumption in many PD programs that “teachers merely need help transferring their own experiences as writers to their writing instruction” (355-56). In her view, the diversity of the frameworks teachers bring to PD requires facilitators to actively address the differences among these frameworks and make potential conflicts more visible (357). She also challenges the “myth of English as a single discipline and writing as serving a set of commonly agreed-upon purposes” (356). Integrative approaches like those of RA, she contends, risk “artificially unify[ing] English subfields and . . . conflat[ing] purposes for writing,” in the process working against teachers’ efforts to introduce students to a range of writing genres and situations (358).


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Siha, Alfred. Using iPads and iPhones as Teaching Tools. TETYC, Mar. 2019. Posted 04/28/2019.

Siha, Alfred. “In the Palm of My Hand: The Efficacy of Mobile Devices in a Community College Developmental Writing Class.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 46.3 (2019): 192­-209. Print.

Alfred Siha conducted a qualitative study to determine how students reacted to instruction delivered through iPads and iPhones using iOS apps in their developmental writing classes.

Siha notes that despite some instructors’ concerns about the presence of phones and other electronic communication devices in classrooms, technology is becoming more and more common in learning environments, earning generally “positive” reviews in studies (193). Evidence indicates a number of benefits from incorporating technology, such as improvements in motivation, collaboration, and interaction as well as engagement beyond the classroom (194). Siha feels, however, that more research is needed into students’ actual responses to the use of such devices as teaching tools (195).

Siha recruited students from two semesters of face-to-face developmental writing at a community college. Twenty-three of the thirty-eight students enrolled consented to participate. Names of the participants were shielded from the researcher/instructor until after final grades were awarded (196). Participating students allowed their work to be used and were interviewed at the end of the semester (196).

The course was designed around the use of iPads and iPhones; students were notified of the need to have a device. Seventeen study participants already owned a suitable device, while six purchased one (196). Siha writes that the students were also required to open an Apple ID account (204). The textbook for the class, developed through the educational software in the apps, cost $1.99. Students were able to make their purchases through the college bookstore and to use financial aid (204).

The course was built around iTunes U, which Siha characterizes as a “public and private quasi learning management system, or LMS” (192). This platform allowed the instructor to create his own interactive textbook, notify students of new posts, link posts to chapters, and connect directly and immediately with students (200-01). In order to promote a more interactive student-centered experience, Siha assigned a companion “visual project” for each of the five major writing assignments (198). Siha notes that despite being “digital natives,” students did require some help using the new tools (199).

The study yielded many positive responses from the participants. The “simplicity and mobility” provided by the devices allowed students to work on class assignments in any location, even in the company of friends (199-200). Students found responding to notifications sent to their devices to be more helpful than having to check email for posts (200). Siha found that students appreciated being able to communicate more easily with the instructor; he cites one student who “claimed that this class was the first time he ha[d] ever communicated with a professor outside of class time” (201).

Siha advocates an “intentional pedagogy” to make best use of the features devices and apps like the iOS systems provide (201). Student responses indicate that students reacted well to a textbook written by the instructor and specifically paired with posts and assignments, so that components could be accessed with a touch (201). The students responded that they felt the instructor was ‘“talking directly to’ them” (qtd. in Siha 201); this kind of relationship, he maintains, “elicits self-confidence and allows them to feel invested and cared for in their educational experience” (201). Siha also posted sample student work from previous semesters. He writes that such pedagogical approaches are important in any writing classroom but argues that properly “leverag[ing] mobile devices” provides “complete and unfettered access to high-quality course content . . . at their fingertips” (202).

The author found that varying screen sizes did have a small effect on the ease of reading and writing, with some students planning to use different devices in future classes with similar design or working on desktop computers before posting work to their devices (202-03). Compared to iPhones, the iPads used in the course did require students to be near a safe Wi-Fi network in order to receive immediate notifications (203).

As a developmental writing class, the study course required students to pass with a C or higher to move on to credit-bearing college work. The 74% pass rate for the course compared favorably to the 70% institutional pass rate (203). Siha argues that in addition to pass rates, courses should be assessed on their contribution to student confidence and understanding of writing. He cites student responses indicating that students did find the course a positive influence as they considered moving forward in their college careers (203-04).

Siha notes both his own bias as a researcher and the small sample size of his study (204). However, he states that his sample was a “diverse participant group in age, gender, race, and ethnicity” (205).

Throughout, Siha emphasizes the importance of course design to ensure that “the technology is being implemented wisely into the class curriculum” (204). Instructors, he urges, should receive adequate training and should have administrative support (205). In his view, an “intentional pedagogy” using applications and devices like iPads and iPhones should aim to exploit the “potential technological advantages” in order to move beyond “merely replacing paper handouts with PDFs” (197).


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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).


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Witte, Alison. CMSs as Genres. C&C, Sept. 2018. Posted 11/20/2018.

Witte, Alison. “‘Why Won’t Moodle. . . ?’: Using Genre Studies to Understand Students’ Approaches to Interacting with User Interfaces.” Computers and Composition 49 (2018): 48-60. Web. 9 Nov. 2018.

Alison Witte addresses the difficulties her first-year students faced when they encountered the Course Management System (CMS) in use at her institution. She surveyed students in first-year courses over six semesters to discover the factors that may have caused these problems (50). Witte found that examining the CMS interface as a genre provided insights into how students interacted with the program.

The author notes that the use of a CMS has “become a normalized part of many educational institutions’ landscapes” (48). The program’s power to shape interactions between students, instructors, and the institution, she writes, can generate “tensions” (48). She describes Moodle, the CMS in place for her university, comparing its “static” features with the more interactive and responsive features of social media sites; she notes in particular the “teacher-driven design” that permits the instructor to determine what sections to create and to provide the content (49). Witte quotes a faculty mentor who supports the university’s commitment to Moodle because the students are familiar with it from high school and “like it,” even though, according to Witte, there is only “anecdotal” evidence behind this claim (49).

In Witte’s view, if students are indeed comfortable in electronic environments, they should not exhibit the level of difficulty she observes (49). Her survey investigates which kinds of interfaces students have experienced and how these experiences might influence their reactions to Moodle (50).

Drawing on genre theory, Witte proposes, highlights the ways an interface cues users to control what behaviors and actions are acceptable, requiring users to determine the “appropriate response” in the rhetorical situation established by the interface (52). Citing Carolyn Miller, Witte considers genre “a way of understanding how a text responds to a particular recurring situation” (50). Just as Microsoft Word’s presentation of a blank page cues an essaylike response rather than a social-media post, the CMS signals certain kinds of “typified” actions (51).

Arguing that writing studies has not explored electronic interfaces through this theoretical lens, Witte contends that interfaces have generally been seen as tools to produce other things rather than as “text[s] with both expectations and formal conventions” of their own (50). Instructors, she proposes, are like other users of electronic environments in that their use of these familiar programs becomes “unconscious or invisible” because they are so accustomed to the process (51). Her study foregrounds the need for teachers to be more alert to the ways that their use of a CMS acts as a genre students must interpret and positions them in certain ways in the classroom environment (50). Teachers’ understanding of this interaction, she maintains, can help students use a CMS more effectively.

Witte notes two common models of CMS use. In many cases, the system attempts to “replicate” a classroom environment, allowing students to complete familiar academic tasks such as taking quizzes and completing assignments. A second model treats the CMS as a “repository” where students go to procure whatever they need for the class. These models share a “top-down” quality in that the teacher decides on the categories and sections and provides the material (52-53). The models limit students to responding in ways determined by the instructor and indicated by the conventions incorporated into the interface (53).

For Witte, a “guiding assumption” in the study was “that people learn unfamiliar genres by determining how they are like and unlike genres they know and by observing how the unfamiliar genre is used in context” (50). Hence, her survey asks the 68 participating students which interfaces they normally interact with (54). It also asks multiple-choice and open-ended questions about students’ experiences with Moodle, including ease of use and kinds of use across classes. Finally, students were asked what they liked about the CMS and what improvements they might suggest (54).

The majority of the participants were in their first college semesters. Witte proposes that while these students might be among the most likely to report problems with the CMS, surveying this particular population yielded good information on how best to help students navigate their early exposure to such platforms (54).

Data revealed that students used a variety of social media, Word tools for producing documents, and “Miscellaneous Web-based Interfaces” like iTunes, E-bay, or YouTube (54). They most commonly relied on the CMS to “complete course work and to find the information necessary” to do so (55). All of the students used Moodle in some of their classes. Grounded-theory coding of the open-ended responses produced four categories of “likes” that focused on availability of materials and information and ease of completing tasks. Students’ suggestions for improvement addressed usability issues, “Mobile Device Compatibility,” and inconsistency in the ways teachers used the CMS (54).

Analysis of her data suggests to Witte that students receive conflicting genre cues about the function of the CMS, sometimes assuming it is more like social media sites than it is in practice and in fact asking for more interactivity with their mobile devices and other media choices (56). They may see certain cues as inviting informal, interactive responses while other require a more “school/professional response” in which they become “passive consumer[s] of information” (56). In Witte’s view, instructors do not always articulate clearly exactly what role the CMS should play in their individual courses; moreover, students may approach the CMS with a different idea about its purposes than the instructor intends (57).

Seeing a CMS as a genre, Witte contends, helps instructors think about their use of the program in terms of audience, redirecting the focus from “its technological affordances to what it does or how it is used in particular context for particular people” (57). She urges instructors to plan CMS structure in accordance with course design, for example, arranging a course built around weekly schedules by weeks and courses meant to provide materials without regard to due date by topic. The survey reveals that students may need specific direction about the type of response indicated by CMS features, like text boxes or discussion forums (57). Instructors are urged to clarify their own purposes and expectations for how students use the resource and to communicate these explicitly (57-58).

Witte also argues that casting a CMS as a genre provides an opportunity to introduce students to genre theory and to understand through a concrete example how audience and purpose relate to the conventions of a particular form. In this view, students can explore how to use their exposure to other genres to situate new genres like a CMS in their contexts when they encounter them (58); they may then carry the experience of navigating a CMS into their interactions with other texts they may be called on to respond to or produce.


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Cox, Anicca. Full-Time Lecturers and Academic Freedom. Forum, Fall 2018. Posted 10/05/2018.

Cox, Anicca. “Collaboration and Resistance: Academic Freedom and Non-Tenured Labor.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 22.1 (2018): A4-A13. Web. 01 Oct. 2018.

Anicca Cox, in the Fall 2018 issue of Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, discusses a case study of her institution’s decision to replace non-tenure-track part-time faculty (PTLs) with full-time, non-tenure-track lecturers (FTLs) on two-year contracts. She interviewed three of the ten new full-time hires and three part-time instructors who taught in the program (A6).

Noting that the percentages of FTLs in higher education is increasing, Cox reports that this change has entailed better working conditions, more access to benefits, and more job security, among other positive effects (A5, A7). She suggests that this trend may reflect institutions’ “response to the increasingly publicized problems of an outsized reliance” on contingent labor that constitutes a “seemingly altruistic move” (A5). She writes that the more stable teaching force provides institutions with more predictable costs than hiring based on shifting enrollments (A5).

Cox focuses on how the PhDs most likely to be preferred for such positions negotiate possible constraints on their academic freedom and professional identifications. The program she studied hired ten new FTLs, nine of which were either literature PhDs or were completing doctorates, as well as a new tenure-track writing program administrator (WPA) to implement a revised first-year writing program (A6). Part-time instructors who had previously taught at the institution were not hired for the new lines.

The new WPA “designed a heavily scripted curriculum” in which all components, including textbooks, were prescribed (A6). The full-time instructors were given office space and professional development specific to the program; they were evaluated much more broadly than the part-time faculty and often included ongoing research in the evaluation dossiers they prepared (A7).

Cox’s study asked how these instructors

perceived themselves fitting into the institution and department relative to their own sense of professional identity, and how those feelings shaped and otherwise intersected with their work as instructors both inside and outside classroom. (A6)

Her study, part of a larger analysis, emphasized both the effects on professional identity of the new context and the question of how collaboration among teaching professionals was impacted by the new alignment (A7).

Interviews with FTLs revealed that they “did not feel like hired mercenaries” but did not feel fully integrated into the department (A8). A focus of their concern was the sense that they were not considered “intellectual contributors” and were enlisted to perform a “role” that did not jibe with their professional preparation (A8). One respondent expressed concern about being issued a “teacher proof” curriculum dismissive of her scholarship and expertise (A8). In comparison, the PTLs, while accustomed to being given scripted curricula, expressed concern that the new program materials were not appropriate for the actual student population they were used to teaching (A9). These teachers felt less conflicted over identity issues because they saw themselves primarily as teachers, not researchers (A9-10).

Tensions in the FTL position also affected collaboration in that the new lecturers felt constrained from “simply asserting their purported academic freedom” and, rather than challenging the program structure, began devising ways to adjust the curriculum without “getting caught” (qtd. in Cox A10-11). Collaboration, in this study, became a way of “spread[ing] the blame” so that renewal at the end of the two-year contract would be less likely to be threatened (A11). Part-time lecturers, in contrast, relied on long-standing patterns of “informal collaborations,” sometimes making “radical changes” in the prescribed teaching materials (A11), despite having lost the opportunity to share practices with many of their colleagues in the new configuration. These teachers posited that the failure to hire from within their ranks reflected a desire on the part of administrators to eliminate “the baggage they carried over from previous iterations of the first-year writing program” (A11); Cox posits that they acted to modify the curriculum despite recognizing the precarity of their situation in the new program (A11).

Cox supports the shift toward more full-time positions but notes that the particulars of the arrangement she studied drove instructors to invest energy in sustaining a coherent professional identity rather than working together to improve student outcomes (A12). She writes that the benefits of the full-time jobs were “not enough to neutralize the frustrations” engendered by the lecturers’ compromised fit within the department (A12). She recommends that should these kinds of readjustments become more common, they be constructed

in a way that recognizes and honors the laboriously forged and deeply felt professional identities of workers by supporting continued professional development and encouraging autonomy in curricular design. (A12)


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Ray et al. Rethinking Student Evaluations of Teaching. Comp Studies Spring 2018. Posted 08/25/2018.

Ray, Brian, Jacob Babb, and Courtney Adams Wooten. “Rethinking SETs: Retuning Student Evaluations of Teaching for Student Agency.” Composition Studies 46.1 (2018): 34-56. Web. 10 Aug. 2018.

Brian Ray, Jacob Babb, and Courtney Adams Wooten report a study of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) across a range of institutions. The researchers collected 55 different forms, 45 of which were institutions’ generic forms, while 10 were designed specifically for writing classes. They coded 1,108 different questions from these forms in order to determine what kinds of questions were being asked (35).

The authors write that although SETs and their use, especially in personnel decisions, is of concern in rhetoric and composition, very little scholarship in the field has addressed the issue (34-35). They summarize a history of student evaluations as tools for assessment of teachers, beginning with materials from the 1920s. Early SETs focused heavily on features of personality such as “wit,” “tact,” and “popularity” (38), as well as physical appearance (39). This focus on “subjective” characteristics of teachers asked students to judge “factors that neither they nor the instructor had sole control over and that they could do little to affect” (38).

This emphasis persisted throughout twentieth century. A scholar named Herbert Marsh conducted “numerous studies” in the 1970s and 1980s and eventually created the Student Evaluation of Education Quality form (SEEQ) in 1987 (35). This instrument asked students about nine features:

[L]earning, enthusiasm, organization and clarity, group interaction, individual rapport, breadth of coverage, tests and grading, assignments, and difficulty (39)

The authors contend that these nine factors substantively guide the SETs they studied (35), and they claim that, in fact, in important ways, “current SET forms differ little from those seen in the 1920s” (40).

Some of composition’s “only published conversations about SETs” revolved around workshops conducted by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) from 1956 through 1962 (39). The authors report that instructors participating in these discussions saw the forms as most appropriate for “formative” purposes; very few institutions used them in personnel matters (39).

Data from studies of SETs in other fields reveal some of the problems that can result from common versions of these measures (37). The authors state that studies over the last ten years have not been able to link high teacher ratings on SETs with improved student learning or performance (40). Studies point out that many of the most common categories, like “clarity and fairness,” remain subjective, and that students consistently rank instructors on personality rather than on more valid measures of effectiveness (41).

Such research documents bias related to gender and ethnicity, with female African-American teachers rated lowest on one study asking students to assess “a hypothetical curriculum vitae according to teaching qualifications and expertise” (42). Male instructors are more commonly praised for their “ability to innovate and stimulate critical thought”; women are downgraded for failing to be “compassionate and polite” (42). Studies showed that elements like class size and workload affected results (42). Physical attractiveness continues to influence student opinion, as does the presence of “any kind of reward,” like lenient grading or even supplying candy (43).

The authors emphasize their finding that a large percentage of the questions they examined asked students about either some aspect of the teacher’s behavior (e.g., “approachability,” “open-mindedness” [42]) or what the teacher did (“stimulated my critical thinking” [45]). The teacher was the subject of nearly half of the questions (45). The authors argue that “this pattern of hyper-attention” (44) to the teacher casts the teacher as “solely responsible” for the success or failure of the course (43). As a result, in the authors’ view, students receive a distorted view of agency in a learning situation. In particular, they are discouraged from seeing themselves as having an active role in their own learning (35).

The authors contend that assigning so much agency to a single individual runs counter to “posthumanist” views of how agency operates in complex social and institutional settings (36). In this view, many factors, including not only all participants and their histories and interests but also the environment and even the objects in the space, play a part in what happens in a classroom (36). When SET questions fail to address this complexity, the authors posit, issues of validity arise when students are asked to pass judgment on subjective and ambiguously defined qualities as well as on factors beyond the control of any participant (40). Students encouraged to focus on instructor agency may also misjudge teaching that opts for modern “de-center[ed]” teaching methods rather than the lecture-based instruction they expect (44).

Ray et al. note that some programs ask students about their own level of interest and willingness to participate in class activities and advocate increased use of such questions (45). But they particularly advocate replacing the emphasis on teacher agency with questions that encourage students to assess their own contributions to their learning experience as well as to examine the class experience as a whole and to recognize the “relational” aspects of a learning environment (46). For example:

Instead of asking whether instructors stimulated critical thought, it seems more reasonable to ask if students engaged in critical thinking, regardless of who or what facilitated engagement. (46; emphasis original)

Ray et al. conclude that questions that isolate instructors’ contributions should lean toward those that can be objectively defined and rated, such as punctuality and responding to emails in a set time frame (46).

The authors envision improved SETs, like those of some programs, that are based on a program’s stated outcomes and that ask students about the concepts and abilities they have developed through their coursework (48). They suggest that programs in institutions that use “generic” evaluations for broader analysis or that do not allow individual departments to eliminate the official form should develop their own parallel forms in order to gather the kind of information that enables more effective assessment of classroom activity (48-49).

A major goal, in the authors’ view, should be questions that “encourage students to identify the interconnected aspects of classroom agency through reflection on their own learning” (49).

 


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Lynch, Paul. Writing as Spiritual Exercise. CE, July 2018. Posted 08/17/2018.

Lynch, Paul. “Shadow Living: Toward Spiritual Exercises for Teaching.” College English 80.6 (2018): 499-516. Print.

Paul Lynch writes about a state of mind experienced by some seasoned writing teachers that he equates with Thomas Newkirk’s “emotional underlife of teaching” (qtd. in Lynch 500). Drawing on Paul Kameen’s depiction of this state of mind in Writing/Teaching, Lynch describes it as a point at which a well-developed set of teaching practices ceases to make classroom practice meaningful (499-500).

Further exploring this phenomenon, Lynch considers Bill Readings’s contention in The University in Ruins that teachers who see themselves as a “rhetor rather than magister” find that their “mastery” of teaching practice may not mesh with the need, as a rhetor, to “redefine pedagogy as ‘a relation, a network of obligation” rather than as a platform from which to dispense knowledge (qtd. in Lynch 500; emphasis original). Recognizing the contradictions between the accumulation of professional expertise and an understanding of teaching as relational leads, in Lynch’s view, to questions like Kameen’s “What am I doing here?” In Lynch’s view, teachers cannot easily resolve this contradiction and should consider instead, in Kameen’s words, “living in the shadow of [the question’s] imperative” (qtd. in Lynch 501; emendation in Lynch).

Central to the kind of mastery composition specialists commonly value, Lynch proposes, is faith in reflection as a means of becoming a critically aware teacher. Citing Kathleen Blake Yancey’s discussions of reflection, Lynch writes of the assumption that reflection can aid teachers just as it can students by allowing them to “consciously and therefore critically reflect on their own success and failure with an eye toward improvement” (502). Such reflection commonly involves exploring one’s experiences through writing. Donald Schön, in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, further develops the view that by combining “technical knowledge and practical experience” (503), experts like teachers can assemble a set of responses to the problems they encounter.

Lynch turns to critiques of reflection as a means of resolving the problem of the “emotional underlife” teachers may encounter. From Kenneth Burke he takes the concept of “trained incapacity” to argue that a teacher faced with a loss of faith in his or her professional practice may resort to reflection as an attempt to increase mastery, which may make responses to complex relational engagements “automatic” (Schön, qtd. in Lynch 504) and, in Lynch’s view, a grounds for “boredom, burnout, and breakdown” (504).

Casey Boyle similarly suggests that reflection as commonly understood “operates on a destructive subject-object distinction” that assumes that people can separate their “agency” from the environment in which it is created and perpetuated, examining their actions rationally to improve them based on technical assessments of success (505). Lynch also draws on Robert Yagelski’s views, in Writing as a Way of Being, that written reflection as often practiced sees writing “simply as a way to record and express one’s experience,” whereas writing can also be viewed as “an experience in and of itself” (507).

Lynch proposes that the feelings expressed by Kameen and Newkirk “cannot be addressed by a reconsidered lesson plan or a revamped pedagogy” (507); indeed, in his view, resorting to these strategies compounds the problem. He suggests instead the use of writing as a form of reflection as experience that he calls “spiritual.” Spirituality, in his view, need not be specifically religious but can serve as a way of “liv[ing] in the shadow of questions that do not seem amenable to reflective thinking” (507-08) and thus avoiding the need for control that may lead to “demoralization,” defined as a feeling that, for the teachers in question, moves beyond frustration that old ways no longer work to an awareness that “they’ve lost any sense of which ways might” (505).

Lynch draws on Foucault to propose a regimen of “care of the self” (qtd. in Lynch 508) that includes “practices through which subjects might shape themselves” (508). This self-formation addresses character through, in Debra Hawhee’s words, “intensive attention and discipline, painful repeated exercise” (qtd. in Lynch 509). Among the exercises that promote self-re-shaping is a form of writing related to the development of “[p]hilosophic wisdom,” which, for Lynch, is not about acquiring topic mastery but rather “a matter of living a certain way of life” (509). This view counters the view that Lynch, via Foucault, attributes to Descartes, in which the self can be held apart from the knowledge it acquires, with the result that the knowledge does not affect “the structure of the subject itself” (qtd. in Lynch 510).

Similarly, Lynch cites the philosopher Pierre Hadot, for whom the “study of philosophy in the ancient world was more concerned with how the student lived than with what the student knew” (510). As an example of how writing furthered such a “spiritual program,” Hadot and Lynch reference the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which they present not as exercises to portray experience but rather to engage more deeply with it (510-14). The spiritual exercise of writing for this purpose allows Aurelius “a chance to examine his conduct” each day (511) and to prepare himself for “the challenges of . . . daily living” (512). Aurelius’s view, quoted by Lynch, is that

The art of living is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s in this regard, that it must stand ready and firm to meet whatever happens to it, even when unforeseen. (512)

In order to develop this stance, Lynch proposes, philosophical wisdom requires engaging rather than lamenting “the writer’s daily struggle (shadow boxing) against himself” (512). Lynch sees this kind of self-formative writing as important in the effort of “dwelling within a network of obligations,” which teachers must accept if they are to survive their encounters with the emotional underlife (512).

Contending that more experienced and capable teachers are among the most prone to confront this emotional quandary, Lynch concedes that reflection as most often understood can increase knowledge, but argues that knowledge alone is not sufficient (513). The kind of written reflection as spiritual exercise practiced by Aurelius and other philosophers, he asserts, can offer a way “to practice interdependence” rather than increase control (513). He argues that such exercise may bolster what Hawhee calls “a pedagogy of association” (qtd. in Lynch 514), that is, a pedagogy based on relationship and obligation:

Why would our students want to associate with us? And how will we be formed by the association? These are the kinds of questions that we might answer by practicing writing as a spiritual exercise. (514)