Last week I trundled off to a Writing Across the Curriculum conference and the first session I attended on Thursday afternoon featured the recent progress of a writing program at a private university in North Carolina. The presenters had managed, by leveraging requirements of their regional accreditation commission, to score money for reassigned time, for program assessment, for their writing center, and to hire a prominent figure in the field of writing studies as their Writing Across the University Director.
In contrast, the next session I attended that afternoon was entitled “WAC in a Time of Budgetary Crisis,” in which all three presenters were from public universities experiencing funding cuts similar to those visited upon my own institution in recent years. Their discussion was of various strategies for survival and for achieving small, incremental steps regarding writing instruction at their institutions. Their narratives were similar to the one a colleague and I would recount the next morning about our own struggles at Slippery Rock University employing existing assessment structures to create some kind of coherent, and effective, approach to writing instruction within our undergraduate programs.
The obvious lesson was that private institutions, usually with yearly tuition charges of $25,000 or more, could currently act in a far more nimble and visionary manner regarding WAC programs than could public institutions afflicted by dropping political support and the consequent budget shrinkage. (The last session of the conference I attended, Saturday morning, included a presenter from a Jesuit college with class sizes for their first-semester, first-year written composition course of 17 to 18 students. At Slippery Rock the minimum size of such classes is 25, and for years prior they had ranged from 27 to 28 students.)
My purpose here is not to discuss that obvious contemporary contrast between public (ever dwindling) and private spheres but to reflect on the disconnect I experienced between the generally upbeat atmosphere of such events as the conference and the rather funereal state of my own consciousness, as I continue grimly to look for ways to strengthen my own school’s writing curriculum, a search that I might add is now entering its second quarter century. My reflections are helped along by a book review in the most recent College Composition and Communication by Nancy Welch, entitled “The Point is to Change It: Problems and Prospects for Public Rhetors.”
Welch discusses four books that “bear witness to the richness and the paradox of rhetoric’s public turn.” (That phrase always strikes me as a little odd. What would a “private turn” on the part of rhetoric look like, exactly?) The paradox is that while academic “activists” believe “public rhetorical work can result in substantive, even transformational change” (701), those same activists almost invariably content themselves with employing “local” tactics that may have an immediate benefit for their own programs, their own institutions and, not surprisingly, their own careers. Meanwhile, the external forces, most often represented by the “decision-making forums” (703) to which academic rhetoricians are denied access, remain notably untransformed by our efforts and continue to determine the conditions under which we struggle to make some small difference. Elected officials, voters with a conscious interest in higher education, and even university functionaries in the upper reaches of administration clearly have other things on their mind than our utterances, or our goals and ambitions regarding our students.
I get it that, given this situation, there doesn’t seem much point to the embrace of despair or rage or helpless frustration. None of those reactions would appear to be “transformative” either. Most of the attendees at last week’s conference are younger than I am, with lives to live and careers to pursue. Many of them may aspire to accumulate a curriculum vitae like that possessed by one of our keynote speakers, a vitae his introducer said “resembled in length a Tolstoy novel.” And in accumulating such vitae the attendees will possibly do a considerable amount of good, in terms of developing vital programs and educating many striving students. In the meantime, however, resources will continue to shrink, class sizes to expand, trained scholars to languish in temporary positions, and public institutions to desperately struggle to retain some semblance of viability. As Welch says, we prefer to “stress the primacy and even the exclusivity of the local, the subjective, and the discursive” (709), presumably because those are the elements of our professional lives upon which we can exercise some agency.
There will be no material reward for hitting the streets, or for even mildly remarking upon an emperor’s nakedness. Professional satisfaction seems equally unlikely. Raging Against the Machine does have rewards for rock artists. For academicians, we’ll always have our conferences.
This is my first posting in nearly ten months. I am writing it for two reasons--one is to explain why I can no longer keep up the blog as I did between January, 2010 and February, 2011; and the second is to express my gratitude to those readers who are still visiting the site and, in some cases, commenting on the entries.
I began the blog after returning from a sabbatical during which I studied the writing lives of folks who had graduated from Slippery Rock University between 2001 and 2008. Much of the material had been drafted beforehand, which allowed me to sustain the blog even though I had returned to a variety of duties at the university, including teaching and co-chairing our institution's self-study for renewal of our regional accreditation. Now I am back to full-time teaching, which entails four sections of writing classes per semester. During those semesters most of my writing consists of responding to the work of my students.
People are still visiting the blog, reading entries, and occasionally commenting on their content or, more generally, on the educational value of the blog itself. I am grateful for those readers and I hope they continue to appear. For my part, I will continue to visit the site myself, to delete the spam comments and to respond when I can to queries and observations. When I began the blog I was hoping it would contribute to ongoing conversations about public and persuasive writing by college graduates, and about what that writing could tell us about current undergraduate writing instruction. I could have placed the blog on one of the commercial web log creation sites, but I wanted it to have a direct affiliation with my university. The blog's URL hasn't helped its accessibility, which makes me doubly grateful to those who have found it and read postings. Thank you again.
Every once in a while I need to remind myself of the impetus behind the research that has been featured in this blog, and behind the blog itself. The choice of interviewing political speechwriters and then graduates of programs that emphasized the development of writing was motivated to a significant degree by a desire to determine how undergraduate writing curriculum was influencing or could influence public discourse. That is why I cannot let the wide-ranging discussion of the nature of that discourse that has taken place in this country over the past week to occur without comment.
In general my own conclusions concerning how a college curriculum might contribute to the effective functioning of American democracy involve the expansion and intensification of students’ rhetorical education. The governing idea is that knowledge and awareness of how humans seek to persuade each other would help students reject jejune, fallacious, and egregiously manipulative arguments while attending closely, and employing themselves, those modes of argument and rules of evidence that might help the polity at least approach truth and discover the most appropriate policy choices. Such an idea is admittedly an “ideal,” something to continuously reach for without fully grasping. What is most interesting to me about the past week is that the horrific events of last Saturday in Tucson have probably driven home to Americans the idea’s value and relevance in a far more intense and extensive manner than could ever happen through the efforts of I and my colleagues in higher education.
At first the discussion featured the predictable position-taking of folks on one end of the political spectrum denouncing words and images that employ gun and war metaphors, and folks on the other end of the spectrum critiquing the evidence (or lack of evidence) that would allow their opponents to make connections they considered dubious. This debate had a value of its own, as it forced participants to consider the challenges involved in establishing cause, or even the mere correlations that may exist between the criticized rhetoric and the actions of the shooter.
But what may be even more valuable about the past week’s discussion is that, even while the argument about the possible links between violence-tinged political rhetoric and the shooting of a Democratic congresswoman and a Republican-appointed federal judge began to recede, the discussion of how best to argue about policy differences did not. Both Democrats and Republicans seemed to want to talk about the “tone” of political debate, about how differences in opinion should be explained and employed, and about how the participants in political discussion should be characterized and addressed.
I have my own ideas about why this discussion about public discourse quickly and decisively moved beyond the usual posturing. Here are a few:
· President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Senator McCain didn’t get to where they are in politics without possessing antennae highly sensitized to the shifts in mood among people who are not members of their core constituencies. Their public statements of the last several days denote an awareness of what people who are not avid followers of the partisan avatars of Fox News and MSNBC are currently thinking. I am always suspicious of both pundits and politicians who claim to speak for the “public mood.” But I also have a fair amount of faith in the well-honed instincts of “career” politicians like Obama, Boehner, and McCain. As Aristotle recommends, they know how to carefully and accurately assess just where the emotions of their audiences reside.
· Death and grave injury do have a way of making conversation more somber and reflective. The victims ranged from an elementary-school student to a youthful aide to elderly couples. Their characteristics don’t fit easily into radically bifurcated political arguments. Neither Judge Roll nor Representative Giffords are easily demonized by those who may not like their judicial or policy decisions. The shooting of these people forces onlookers to view them as complex individuals, not as constructs within feverishly imagined, and sometimes entertainingly fantastical, apocalyptic battles. By the same token, President Obama in elegiac mode doesn’t align with the idea of him as Kenyan interloper or Marxian acolyte.
· We are in a different political moment than that of six months ago. Republicans were so thoroughly vanquished two years ago that they had nothing to lose when it came to how opposition to the Democrats and to Democratic initiatives might be expressed. But now a great many of the citizens who voted for a Republican in November expect that person to govern, not simply to oppose. On the other hand, Democrats can no longer ignore Republicans or their proposals, or characterize those proposals as the reality-challenged spouting of certifiable whack jobs. (The face of a potentially certifiable whack job has been splattered all over the media for the past week.)
Well, we could go on. And it isn’t being overly cynical to recognize that harshness, demonization, and mischaracterization will return to our political discourse quite soon. Still, my own sense is that the value of a different kind of political argument has been imprinted onto much of the public by the week’s ongoing discussion. Each time a politician returns to atavistic tribal language, someone else with prominence in the public sphere is going to recall what was said by politicians across the spectrum this week. For academic rhetoricians like myself, it is important to articulate even more than before what we want our students to take away from our classes. It is not, as Obama put it Wednesday evening, that “a lack of civility caused this tragedy,” but that “a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation.”
Since we began this blog a little less than a year ago we have profiled a variety of college graduates who were willing to discuss how they have applied their education to jobs in which writing plays a significant role. Almost all emerged from programs that featured the development of writing abilities. But it is also true that no set curriculum can anticipate all the possible turns and directions the careers of the profiled writers have taken and may take in the future. Their college educations must provide them with the ability to both learn and embrace the unanticipated regarding knowledge and skills. Research, analysis, and application are practices that must become habitual in the lives of our students.
At Slippery Rock University recent graduates are surveyed annually by the Career Services Office to determine if they are pursuing further education, are employed, and are employed in a job of their “choice.” It is difficult to determine the basis upon which a graduate determines she or he is employed in a “chosen” job, and a significant percentage of the graduates indicate they are employed in “another” rather than a “choice” position. My instincts tell me that we shouldn’t be surprised if many graduates report they are employed in activities not anticipated by their college curriculum. While the great majority of our students attend college for the expressed purpose of professional development, and often choose majors based on economic calculations, as well as a desire to pursue what holds their interest, those interests have a tendency to shift over time, as do the prospects for employment in certain areas.
Right now our most popular undergraduate major is Exercise Science, which draws close to a tenth of the university’s current enrollment. Upon reflection, it seems obvious that not all of those students will end up as employees or proprietors of fitness centers or athletic clubs, or as teachers of the field, or as trainers, or as physical therapists. Many will, but many will not. So it behooves those of us who contribute to the experiences those students have at Slippery Rock to make sure the curriculum provides them with flexibility and the ability to continually educate themselves. If we so focus on the content of exercise science that the development of the aforementioned traits is neglected, then we have done a disservice.
It may be that even major programs more clearly oriented towards specific vocations than the ones traditionally associated with the humanities will come to function in ways similar to those humanities programs, as gateways to a larger world, a world of research, intellectual deliberation, and knowledge formation, but not necessarily as gateways to a lifelong career. In doing the research, in doing the deliberation, in understanding varied material, students will become valuable, first to themselves and also to others. That experience will have economic value, but that value will not be a simple correspondence between course work in an undergraduate major and paid work.
I sometimes share with students my own interesting path through my twenties. During college I was a History major. It was study I enjoyed—the reading, the research, the writing. But when I got to my senior year I experienced something of a crisis. Did I really want to go on to graduate school in that subject? Instead, I applied for and was accepted into a Masters program in Journalism, following that up with employment at a couple of newspapers. In the meantime, I also spent five summers working at summer camps with children ages eight to sixteen. So when I experienced my next crisis, and wondered if I really wanted to spend the rest of my life in a newsroom (or, as it later turned out for many journalists, sporadically employed), teaching seemed a viable alternative. And when I began preparing for my certification, it would not be in History but in English, and more particularly written composition. From there I proceeded to a Ph.D. program and to stints teaching high school, then two-year college, then university. If someone suggested to me back when I was 18 or 22 that this was how I would occupy my life, I would have been incredulous. At the same time, that practice of inquiry, deliberation, and expression that occurred while I was an undergraduate certainly did prepare me for what followed.
We have one more profile of a Washington speechwriter to post. Before we do, I would like to call attention to my article in the most recent issue of College Composition and Communication. The article pulls together in a more coherent and extended fashion than can be mustered in blog postings the implications of the study results we have presented here in the form of writer profiles and discussion posts. It’s entitled “What Our Graduates Write: Making Program Assessment Both Authentic and Persuasive,” and I hope readers of this blog will get an opportunity some time to take a look at it.
I thank the editor of 3 Cs, Kathleen Blake Yancey, for the opportunity to present my ideas to the readers of the journal, and my two anonymous reviewers for the specific and very useful suggestions they made for revision of the article. As I was cutting and reorganizing what was an unusually long submission to the journal I also obtained invaluable help from two of my colleagues at Slippery Rock University, Nancy Barta-Smith and Danette DiMarco. Thanks to the scholarship of innumerable composition researchers, we now are much more aware of the collaborative nature of written communication, an awareness that now permeates writing classrooms across America. I am grateful to my collaborators because, through a lifetime of journalistic, organizational, and scholarly writing, I have come to realize just how important they have been to my work.
Cosgrove, Cornelius. “What Our Graduates Write: Making Program Assessment Both Authentic
And Persuasive.” College Composition and Communication. 62.2 (December, 2010):
Back in May, I wrote a post entitled “One Size Never Fits All” that discussed the difficulties created by the imposition of the five-paragraph form onto evaluations of writing ability, either in the classroom or as part of state-wide testing. Two weeks ago, in my College Writing I sections, I decided to emulate Gerald Graff and “teach the conflicts” in composition studies by having students read three essays that appeared in English Journal a few years ago. Two of them, by Kerri Smith of Fairleigh Dickinson University and Byung-In Seo of Saginaw Valley State University, defended the use of the five-paragraph essay as a way to teach structure and idea development to writing students. A third article, by ten members of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative, vigorously disputed the position of both Smith and Seo.
I wanted to give my students a sense of the kinds of arguments that erupt among writing teachers as they go about doing their jobs, and to introduce them, as freshmen, to the ways knowledge is thrashed out within disciplines. A few of them indicated to me that this dispute bored them silly, but I also knew that others would think seriously about what these three articles had to say, if for no other reason than the experience they have had with the five-paragraph form during their prior schooling.
In fact, some students have commented on the dispute in their weekly writings. There has been agreement with Smith and Seo about the value of the form, and also agreement with the UNC-Charlotte group about how limiting the form can be, especially if the student, often out of habit, continues to call upon the form when seeking to execute college-level writing. I’m not sure I would call it a consensus but some students conclude that the form could have value as a way to learn about the importance of clear organization when writing, while also realizing that complex arguments in need of careful reasoning and convincing evidence require a different approach. Students also sent the message that the main problem with the form is that it is so hard to escape. Using the five-paragraph form as one teaching tool among many could be useful. But using it as the standard for demonstrating writing ability, and therefore ensuring it will be revisited over and over again by teachers intent on obtaining the best test scores for their school and district, can build general resentment towards the task of academic writing.
Seo, Byung-In. “Defending the Five-Paragraph Essay.” English Journal 97.2 (November, 2007):
Smith, Kerri. “In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay.” English Journal 95.4 (March, 2006):
UNC-Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative. “The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model
Of Education.” English Journal 98.2 (2008): 16-21.
The other day I was sitting in my office reading student work when the voices of two young women sitting in the lounge down the hall penetrated my consciousness. One was telling the other that the one sure thing they could do with their undergraduate degree in Professional Writing was to go to graduate school.
I couldn’t resist. So I got out of chair, walked down the hall, and told the three students then occupying the lounge that they would probably soon regret carrying on their conversation at a high volume level. I explained that I had spent much of a sabbatical year investigating the kind of writing being done by graduates of writing programs at Slippery Rock. Providing them with the URL of this blog, I invited them to take a look, as they would discover our graduates involved in quite a variety of occupations other than graduate student.
I didn’t deny that the English department’s writing programs were primarily liberal arts degrees, designed to give flexibility and choice to the students enrolled in them. Still, it is remarkable how many of those students do end up in jobs in which writing is an important feature. We have, in American higher education, created a large amount of degree programs that are obviously vocational in nature. Pursuing them puts students on very direct, and some might add confining, career paths. Left unspoken are the experiences of many students who leave college in their early twenties, and who spend the next decade in a variety of positions before they possibly settle into something that at least looks long term.
Also left unspoken is the amount of demand for employees who can communicate well through written language, as well as the sheer amount of written language that is produced during the quotidian activities of ordinary people engaged in economic and civic endeavors. Skill in written expression and rhetorical awareness are not given the prominence of the subject matter mastery associated with specific fields of inquiry. Writing is always present but often invisible, in part because we have often discussed writing only within the frames of pedagogy and formal publication. Even within the academy people often only notice writing when it is done poorly, and not when it is functioning as the engine that propels both knowledge and social action forward.
When I first began teaching, more than 35 years ago, I habitually thought that writing courses were among the cheapest an educational institution could offer, requiring little other than a room, a set of desks, pens, and paper. No expensive labs or other kinds of instructional equipment. The digital age has changed my perceptions somewhat, since visual, and sometimes even audio presentation has become more and more integral to a writer’s thinking and text production. Still, I’m guessing that writing instruction remains one of the cheaper educational endeavors in regards to per-pupil costs.
Unfortunately, that truth hasn’t resulted in writing instruction, based in the humanities, the sciences, the arts, or the social sciences, having a firm and secure place within the academy. Too often, it is still associated either with belle lettres or with academic tests of knowledge, and not with direct learning of knowledge or as one very significant way in which things get done. Budget cuts at public universities like Slippery Rock are resulting in less writing instruction, not more. One reason is that writing classes must be relatively small in size, and if required of all undergraduates there must be an awful lot of them, in general education programs that do not attract, as majors do, students to your school. If the answer is to move away from the traditional first-year instruction in composition and rhetoric, then building writing programs that emphasize use across the curriculum would seem a logical next step. However, whether universities have either the will or the money to build and strengthen such programs remains in doubt.
In the short term, such neglect of writing could result in a heightening demand for people who can write well. An activity so integral, and yet so invisible to many, will grow in importance, not lessen.
It has been three weeks since our last blog posting and for that I apologize. The school term has begun and all manner of obligations have gotten in the way. We will resume the profiles of speech writers later this week. But today I would like to address an issue pressing upon our English department that may sound familiar to some readers.
Ever since I came to Slippery Rock, more than 23 years ago, the English department has taught three courses required of every undergraduate—two first-year composition courses and an introductory literature course. The first semester composition course has been dedicated to helping students become more fluent in their writing, more used to drafting and revising their work, and more aware of the necessity of adjusting to different audiences and writing situations. The second semester course focuses on researched argument. Even though we have exempted, via the evaluation of writing samples, an increasing number of incoming students from the first-semester course in recent years, the great majority of our students still take both courses before they move on to upper division courses.
During the past decade, our university’s budget has become increasing strained, primarily because of waning state support. Class sizes for the introductory literature course have stood at 49 students a section for quite some time, virtually eliminating the possibility of giving students extensive writing practice within that course. Still, our department has held onto the two composition course approach while other universities have given up on it, and I believe that at present we are the only member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to feature such a requirement.
At this moment, however, things are about to change. This summer the system’s Board of Governors decided that general studies programs should contain a minimum of 40 hours (one-third of the required 120 hours needed for graduation), presumably in response to pressure for increased course work in student majors. Our general studies program, known as Liberal Studies, currently requires students to complete 48-49 credits. So now the discussion within the university is on about how Liberal Studies might be revised, which most faculty members seem to accept as meaning a cut in the number of required hours. And dropping one of our required first-year composition courses is becoming a likely prospect.
Our provost has suggested that perhaps developing a “competency” in researched writing could be taken over by major programs developing a writing component within a course or courses that addressed that learning goal. Under this proposal, major programs could still allow our College Writing II to address the competency, or they could develop their own writing component. Other universities, we know, have taken a similar approach, and scholars of writing-in-the-disciplines may look with favor on placing such an emphasis on major programs.
The difficulty for English faculty is that we are wary of the funding considerations which seem to be driving this movement towards WID. It may be educationally valuable if a Writing Across the Curriculum program is created to support the development of a discipline-based writing curriculum, but not if such a curriculum is seen as primarily a cost-saving move that will receive no funding in return. The English faculty, of course, also worries that the elimination of one composition course will be followed by the further loss of tenure-track positions, a process that has already begun. Instead of having faculty who could be employed to strengthen our undergraduate programs in literature, and creative and professional writing, we would be left with just enough to again meet the demands of teaching two required Liberal Studies courses instead of three.
English faculty members have already bandied about some other ideas for adjusting to a shift in the Liberal Studies. They include:
· Creation of a single-semester composition course that would combine the learning goals of the two existing ones in some way.
· Revision of the current Interpreting Literature course so it could feature researched writing. Such a revision would require a fairly drastic cut in the enrollments, from 49 to something like 25.
The English department at Slippery Rock is well aware that its concerns about the role of writing in the undergraduate curriculum, and the trend of diminishing the role of the liberal arts in that same curriculum, are hardly unique. And some in other institutions may even be envious of how we have hung on to our requirements as long as we have. Your comments are welcome, from the Slippery Rock community, from students, from alumni, from folks with different affiliations but similar concerns.
We’re back after the summer, and after the university’s changeover to a new web-site that left this humble blog off the internet for a few days. Our blog on the persuasive and public writing of college graduates will start off this academic year with a familiar feature—writer profiles. But these will be different from the profiles of graduates of Slippery Rock’s writing programs we posted last year.
Between April and July, 2006 I interviewed five speechwriters, thinking that would be a good way to learn how one kind of political discourse was executed and why it took the forms that it did. As I have reflected on what those interviews reveal I came to recognize that what the speechwriters told me would be most useful for the career paths they revealed and the genres of writing they discussed. To some extent their experiences were narrow, in terms of the worlds they inhabited and the kinds of writing they had done. Moreover, their work for the most part was the public discourse of “political and cultural elites,” to use David Fleming’s words. While it was fun to hear from people who had written for Presidents Carter and Clinton, Senator Bill Bradley, a CEO or two, and the chief administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, I knew that the persuasive and/or public writing of our recent graduates may have a different function while still contributing to the country’s civil discourse. Still, I believe the profiles derived from the interviews I conducted in 2006 add to knowledge of the forms of the literate practices of citizenship, and place my more recent investigations of writing by Slippery Rock graduates in a larger context.
The first interview took place in April, 2006 and was of a non-traditional undergraduate student who had become involved in various forms of political discourse in Pittsburgh through her interested position as the mother of three school-aged children. (There is some parallel, therefore, between the initial impulses for her writing and that of the single mother graduate student we last featured in a writer profile, who writes letters to the editor of a local newspaper and conducts an ongoing correspondence with school district officials about her son with chronic asthma.) The undergraduate, in turn, connected me with an organization called the DC Speechwriters’ Roundtable in the Washington area. I was allowed to send a general e-mail to the Roundtable members, explaining my interest and my desire to interview a set of speechwriters.
Through this process I obtained four recruits, who initially responded to questions via e-mail and supplied an example of their work. (They also signed release forms which allowed me to use their responses and materials, while I pledged to preserve their anonymity in any work I published or presented.) Then I drove down to Washington, D.C. and interviewed all four in one day—July 7, 2006—beginning at 9:30 in the morning and ending around 5:20 that evening. The two morning interviews took place within walking distance of each other in downtown Washington, at the headquarters of the Washington Metro and of the Federal Aviation Administration. The first afternoon interview took place in a private home at the extreme northern end of the district, practically across the street from the state of Maryland. The final interview took place at another private home, in a residential area of Arlington, Virginia.
During the next several weeks, I will post these speechwriter profiles, beginning with that for the mother in Pittsburgh, who has since received her baccalaureate and enrolled in graduate studies. Watch for it early next week.
As it is summer, many readers and potential readers of this blog are probably taking periodic breaks from their professional lives and interests. So we will too, and will resume postings around mid-August. In the meantime, we hope readers who visit will read our Discussion and Writer Profile postings and leave comments. I will check in at least twice a week and promise to respond to comments, as well as to delete the pesky spam containing links to everything from personal beauty products to medications meant to treat the afflictions of unfortunate middle-aged and elderly men.