I was busy last week. On Monday I served as a consultant for the Eagle Mountain Saginaw Independent School District, working with high school seniors who failed the STAAR test, the state-mandated standardized test for Texas. The next day I taught morning classes for a colleague who was away at a conference. Our task that morning was to brainstorm public arguments for action-oriented essays, or what Lynn Z. Bloom called “goal-directed communication.” And the next day I served as a guest lecturer in a graduate course called “Writing for the Professions,” where I talked about the risks and rewards of writing for nonacademic audiences. I could expand on my thinking for each experience in three separate blogs, but I think for now the two things I want to say about this week is that it solidified for me how fundamentally rewarding it is to do publicly engaged work: at a basic level it is an opportunity to teach, connect with, and learn from new, interesting, and diverse people and experiences. And on another level, it showcased for me how important it is to be able to differentiate among the different kinds of public engagement available to academics. In my case, for example, working with high school students within the institutionalized structures of standardized testing needed a kind of interventionist orientation, which is the main topic of this blog. But first, some context.
When I was working with graduate students in the Writing for the Professions seminar, the students seemed locked into this idea that publicly engaged academics are in the business of writing for mass audiences, explaining our research to nonacademic audiences, or making our work useful for society (all good things, by the way). But one student in class, who worked on connecting K12 teachers to scholars in the fields of language, literacy, and communication, was reluctant to call her work publicly engaged. Another student said taking the work of writing studies public involves writing for newspapers and angling to get our views on television or radio. There are lots of reasons for this perception of public engagement, many of which I’ve written about here previously. But the idea that to be a publicly engaged scholar means writing for mass publics in the New York Times or communicating with other pundits on CNN probably explains why so many academics are reluctant to experiment with public engagement or reluctant to call the work that they do as publicly engaged. It also explains why, as Julie Ellison and Timothy Eatman explain in their report on tenure and promotion for public scholarship, that publicly engaged work is seen by many as “unorthodox and risky,” especially for early- career faculty and/or faculty of color. What if, I asked them, we expand what counts as engagement and what counts as public? What if working with K12 teachers and students is just as publicly engaged as Cornel West on CNN? In other words, how might changing the way we characterize the impact of our work change the nature of that work? We then brainstormed different strategies to become publicly engaged with that in mind, from publishing your engagement, collaborating with others, considering the situatedness of public engagement, and becoming (celebrating) your membership in your own communities (our brainstorming work is the picture on the left). The general sense I came away with from this experience is that doing public work doesn’t necessarily mean building reputations, it means building relationships.
Take for example the theory I’ve been proposing on this blog, and the main argument of my dissertation, that engagement functions as a range of orientations toward public issues as opposed to singular, insulated academics publishing disciplinary knowledge in a form that a mass public can efficiently consume and understand. One of the ways academics can orient themselves toward public issues, I argue, is through a stance I call Intervention (I expand in great detail on intervention in my introductory chapter in my dissertation, and I analyze interventional engagement in both my chapters on the Common Core State standards and the field of Writing Studies’ engagement practices in the MOOC debate in my dissertation). Intervention, I argue, is an orientation that privileges intentional collaboration. Or rather, I think of intervention as a disposition toward public problems in which counterpublics, or groups in a power-deficit (in this case, let’s assume we’re talking about compositionists, or writing studies academics) collaborate with establishment groups in positions of power and control (administrations, institutions, districts, government organizations, etc) on a shared goal of mutual interest. It requires rhetorical savvy to communicate the interests of the counterpublic to the establishment, and it requires a sustained seat at the bargaining table–all risky and difficult tasks. But think of the different ways we use interventional orientations all the time: from arguing in grant proposals for the need to establish a New Media Writing Studio, or working with the authors of the Common Core State Standards to establish meaningful English Language Arts Standards, or working local school district leaders to develop effective test-taking strategies. These interventional orientations help us make productive, sustained, and transformative headway into the situated and local problems in our communities. Thinking of interventional work as public engagement helps us name this work as publicly engaged and it also helps us develop strategies to improve, grapple with, and sustain this work. Below I outline three aspects of interventional engagement that scholars of writing can use to understand their work as publicly engaged:
- Interventional orientations require setting aside (however weighty) your ethical reservations about the establishment groups with whom you are working. As a scholar extremely resistant to standardized testing and the accountability agenda sweeping higher education, I approached my work with the school district from an interventional orientation, which means no matter how ethically abhorrent I considered those practices, the students won’t graduate without our calculated intervention. High School teachers have been doing this for a long time, and their work, especially in Texas, is not celebrated enough. An interventional orientation means working within structures of power to solve a problem of mutual interest.
- Interventional orientations require reciprocity and collaboration. By intervening in a public problem, compositionists must first appeal to the interests of establishment groups. In my case, I had to study the STAAR tests, develop strategies for writing timed essays, and teach those to impressionable young people who already told me they “hated writing.” At the university level, a team at Ohio State had to collaborate with the Gates Foundation (the financiers of their MOOC experiement) as well as Coursera (a for-profit MOOC platform) to develop a writing and rhetoric MOOC. But the rhetorical savvy comes to bear in interventional orientations when the counterpublics, or groups at a power-deficit, simultaneously bring their disciplinary knowledge to bear on situated needs of the community. In my case, however, subtle, we practiced invention and brainstorming activities, and I stressed to them the rhetoricity of writing tasks. In the case of Ohio State, the MOOC team built their own peer-review software to implement into the MOOC and then scaled the MOOC back down in subsequent semesters—in other words, they used their collaboration with establishment groups to generate new knowledge about teaching, technology, and assessment without significantly compromising their ethics.
- Interventional engagement is public work. Whether working with a small group at a local high school, administering an online course with over 50,000 students, or even applying for a grant to create a literacy center on campus, interventional orientations (or stances that help counterpublic academics intervene in public problems) is public in the sense that brings disciplinary knowledge to bear on local and situated problems in the community, and it is engagement because it is bridging, connecting, or sometimes confronting different kinds of groups with varied interests and expectations. Naming this work as public, I argue, can help academics better situate their professional identities as publicly engaged, and also expand on the ways academics can work within their local and situated contexts toward the betterment of what some people might call “the common good.”
My dissertation is nearly complete, but my work as a publicly engaged scholar is necessarily ongoing. The more I engage the community in different capacities and through different orientations, the more I learn about public engagement and the different possible ways we can make a difference through our teaching, research, and service.