First, some humble-bragging: The dissertation is defended, copy-edited, work cited, PDFed, electronically submitted, copyrighted, and embargoed. Library fines, graduation fees, parking passes are paid in full. Cap and Gown and hood have been ordered and paid for. All the hoops have been jumped through and I am finally in the last few days of my PhD program at TCU. I am getting excited to move to California in a few months and continue the work I’ve done here on community engagement, public rhetoric and civic literacy. I already have a few ideas for projects, and I’m anxious to hit the ground running.
In addition to my ongoing writing projects on the legacy of Linda Brodkey and public humanities assessment, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my dissertation can continue to serve as a springboard for more projects down the line. For example, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the feedback from my advisor on my chapter on “Intervention.” In that chapter, and in musing here on the blog, I defined intervention as a method of engagement where academics (and in this case, I mean writing studies practitioners) partner with groups whose interests are often radically different than their own in order to address a public issue. Intervention is a funny term to use, but I liked it for its sense of deliberateness: it comes from the Latin inter, or between, and venire, to come; so literally, it means to come between something, or interrupt. And usually you interrupt something because you don’t have a voice, you aren’t the one talking, or you are witnessing a conversation already ongoing and you decide to step in. So when I think of intervention, I think of practitioners in our field who lament composition’s lack of public relevance or who see conversations about writing or writing pedagogy and feel like they don’t have a seat at the table, and I envision intervention as their way of claiming that seat. And in the way I configured the term, usually these kinds of interventions happen through partnerships with groups who represent the dominant social order, or the status quo that we usually critique in other venues. So I gave two examples: the NCTE working with authors of the Common Core to provide feedback in the hopes of having an influence in the crafting of language policy; and three universities that received grants to partner with for-profit company Coursera to build MOOCs on writing at their institutions. But interventions happen all the time in a variety of contexts: an assessment researcher may be tasked with conducting an assessment of their program where they might have to deploy research methods they generally oppose in order to “get the job done.” Literacy scholars may partner with schools embroiled in accountability reform in order to study the impacts of testing. There are many ways we work with members of the status quo, the partnership of which is, in very real ways, problematic to us. This is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can expand my dissertation work to consider and define how problematic partnerships have been and can be central to our field.
Lately I’ve been reading Paul Feigenbaum’s latest book: Collaborative Imagination: Earning Activism through Literacy Education. One of the central tasks for Feigenbaum is to better enact a kind of activist rhetoric, one that rejects what he describes as “adaptive rhetorics” that “tacitly exhort adaptation to the cultural, political, and social status quo” (38). And my field has found lots of ways of thinking about and resisting activist rhetorics in community engagement: I’m thinking of Thomas Deans, Ellen Cushman, Paula Mathieu, and others. But how can we resist adaptive rhetorics in what I’m calling problematic partnerships? Or rather, most of our partnerships are with groups, organizations, or communities that more or less align with some of our liberatory efforts: groups that generally do not represent or speak for the dominant neoliberal social order. However, whether partnering with the federal government, educational measurement companies, for-profit corporations, or even day-to-day partnerships like Learning Management Software companies, plagiarism software, or quantitative discourses during program reviews, audits, and entrance exams–we engage in problematic partnerships at the same, if not greater frequencies. Part of my work moving forward is thinking more deeply about problematic partnerships, and how we can outline generative definitions, cases, and methods of engaging with groups and discourses that academics generally feel compelled to either critique or flee.
A working hypothesis for these questions is connected to my other research on humanities assessment: the main argument in that project is that writing assessment scholarship can be valuable to all kinds of assessment, not just assessment of writing programs or writing courses. Writing Assessment as a field of inquiry can help elucidate all kinds of assessment practices, whether we are assessing a writing program or a community event hosted by an Honor’s College. And in that piece I show from the data how working together with many different kinds of assessment practitioners whose methods and epistemologies differ from our own can be a fruitful partnership from which disciplinary interpretation and transformative exchange emerge. However, our practitioners can learn the language of psychometrics, understand statistical analysis and validity/reliability all we want, but it’s not until those folks across the hall are our friends and colleagues, that we can better elucidate the implications of problematic partnerships. What I mean is, as one of my goals is to better understand and outline methods for engaging in problematic partnerships, I have found through my research on writing assessment that it’s not just learning the language of establishment groups that matters, but creating lasting and sustained relationships with them. This might be a hard pill to swallow for some in our field. “I do not want to forge a relationship with the testing industry,” you might say. “I’d much rather help communities in need and not businesses whose practices are abhorrent to me as an activist,” you could retort. And yes, these are important criticisms. But I also think that by working within and situating the status quo as a site of research, and thinking of groups and institutions that represent the social order we generally oppose as sites of potential partnerships in which we can share our expertise and in turn learn something about our own practices–we can better develop strategies to resist Feigenbaum’s idea of “adaptive rhetorics.”
Over the next year I’ll be writing and presenting at conferences to flesh this idea out a bit more (I’ll be presenting at the inaugural Community Writing Conference in Denver this October, and just submitted a proposal on problematic partnerships to CCCC 2016 in Houston so, fingers crossed there), which will culminate in an essay to start the conversation with others in the field. I’m turning to Jeff Grabill, Linda Adler-Kassner, Sarah R. Robbins, and other interdisciplinary scholars like Timothy Eatman and his pals at Imagining America for lit reviews and inspiration. I will update as I make progress!