I made a promise to myself that I would blog at least once a month on my research, but here lately I’ve lapsed. My excuse: the job market. These past few months have been incredibly hectic and (terrifying), but I’m happy to report that I accepted a position as a faculty member in the Writing Program at the University of California Santa Barbara. I’m incredibly honored for the opportunity to work in such a well regarded program and underneath one of my professional heroes Linda Adler-Kassner. My wife and I (plus one elderly cat) will be moving to the beach sometime in June.
In the meantime, I’ve been hard at work on the dissertation. After a lot of revising and scheduling, I’m now onto the conclusion, which is a deceptively simple document. The conclusion is an interesting genre: you need to summarize what you’ve argued. You need to show the salience of those arguments. You need to project how those arguments might impact the field. And you need to also address the so what of your whole project in general. It’s a place to be concise in your summaries and bold in your projections. In other words, it’s no easy task.So i want to get loose here and work out a few of these issues on the blog.
The first thing a conclusion needs to do is summarize your argument. In my project I think I’ve made the case that the field of composition needs to reconsider how they engage in public debates about writing. Instead of publishing for nonacademic audiences, I argue, we might do well also to consider how building relationships also make our work publicly engaged. And the first step toward building relationships that help us contribute to public debates about writing is cultivating viable public orientations (I suggest three: Agitation, Intervention, and Disruption). In my data chapters I turn to specific moments in the history of our field when compositionists cultivated these orientations to engage in public debates about writing: 1) Linda Brodkey’s disruptive stance on first-year writing curriculum during the so-called Battle of Texas in the summer of 1990; 2) The NCTE’s interventional orientation toward their partnership with the authors of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in 2009; and 3) Three grant recipients’ interventional relationship with for-profit MOOC companies in 2012. The successes and failures of these relationships showcase the history of public engagement in the field of composition, which reveals to me how the field has, in a sense, always been publicly engaged, but not always rhetorically savvy in its public engagement.
The second thing a conclusion needs to do, as I see it, is to project how your arguments might impact the field. This is difficult too, but articulating the impact of your research is probably the most important part of writing a dissertation project (which hopefully leads to getting a job in academia too). For me, I think the impact of my project has a lot to do with emerging research in civic engagement, community literacy, and public rhetoric. In these fields, there are active conversations about how the so-called public turn in composition impacts writing pedagogy, but not as much about the disciplinary motivations and academics’ orientations toward public debate. I think a more concerted mediation on how the field engages in public debates about writing will help broaden the concept of public engagement away from merely publishing for nonacademic audiences, and more toward the nuanced ways we are already publicly engaged, and how honing a repertoire of public stances will help us glean more meaningful and transformative strategies at building relationships with outside groups. And, in light of recent trends toward the corporatization of the university (the most recent of which is Governor Walker’s redaction of the “search for truth” in the public mission of the University of Wisconsin System), which belies some of the original purposes of public Land Grant universities in general–I think reflecting on how academics engage public debates through relationship-building is a worthwhile contribution.
The last thing you need to do in a conclusion is to address the so what, which, as far as I’m concerned, is both the easiest and hardest thing to do. For me, I see my work as an extension of Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship of Engagement, which famously argued that academia “must become a more vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic, and moral problems.” I think composition is in a unique position to offer expertise in those areas through viable relationships (with outside groups and across campus) that are both reciprocal and mutually beneficial. Also, we find ourselves in a curious cultural moment: the PEW Foundation recently found that there are “stark fissures” between the general public and scientific consensus, especially with regard to issues like vaccines, GMOs, or climate change. But the reason for that, I think, isn’t because the general public is stupid, or that they aren’t persuaded by reason (I have more faith in humanity than that). I honestly think the reason has more to do with the dysfunctional relationship between public problems and academic inquiry. So maybe the why part of my conclusion is that even though engagement, to a certain extent, does involve extending disciplinary expertise to areas outside of the academy, it’s also about building sustainable relationships (with the general public, establishment groups, or other disciplines) such that our values (and thus, our knowledge) can be communicated and heard and understood in new and transformative ways. This is why it is important for composition to think more deeply about how it orients itself toward public debates about writing. The field has long been connected to the public; and has long lamented its lack of relevancy in public debates. But we have a lot to offer (and a lot to learn) from other groups who have an interest in writing, rhetoric, literacy, and language (both with regard to public policy and social/cultural issues) in the United States.
As I’m writing my conclusion, I’m reflecting deeply about these things, both in terms of future projects and also in terms of future relationships on campus, like the one I’m about to work for in the Fall. 🙂