I’m trying hard not to take my inability to maintain a self-imposed once-a-month blogging schedule as evidence that I am, once and for all, exposed as a fraud. In fact, if my first few months as a new faculty member in an academic position have taught me anything, it’s that imposter syndrome ain’t a joke. In between lesson planning, grading, and research projects (which leave me feeling in a perpetual state of almost-caught-up and almost-far-enough-behind-to-have-a-crisis), I have to deal with the nagging feeling that at any moment in the day somebody will barge into my office and say “Hey, just what do you think you’re doing here, anyway?” I’m only slightly kidding. Honestly, the cure I’ve found for imposture syndrome is staying too busy to contemplate it in the first place. Taking on a bunch of different projects in one’s first year is usually seen as a mistake (even if an all-too-common mistake), and I’m certainly guilty of that. But one of the benefits I’ve noticed from staying hilariously busy is that I’m finding common linkages among my research, teaching, and service roles that I haven’t noticed before. One of the main arguments of my dissertation was that if we really want our field to be more public, then we need to reorient our questions to tackle public issues so that the work we already do is publicly engaged. And I’m finding myself seeing what that actually looks like in practice. Take for example my Business Writing course this quarter:
UCSB’s Business Writing course has a unique institutional history. It was originally aligned with the Business School, and is therefore not generally taught from a rhetorical perspective. Students routinely praise this course for giving skills-based training in practical skills that can help them succeed in their careers, and the business writing curriculum generally stresses mastery of business genres like memos, letters, emails, and long reports. I was a bit nervous that my background in civic literacy and public engagement might put me at odds with a course like this, but I’m finding it to be quite the contrary. As Dewey said in 1938, progressive education must preserve an “intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education.” And what better space to link actual experience to content than the Business Writing classroom? Since this course is devoted to training students to write and succeed in professional contexts they’ll likely encounter in their careers, I think it is actually the perfect place to practice writing for real audiences and also reflecting on the ethical challenges that come with communicative tasks in our professional lives. I organize the course into three written portfolios: 1) Effective Business Genres, a collection of responses to various rhetorical challenges in genres common in the business world; 2) Get a Job, a collection of job materials for a specific job they are applying to in their field; and 3) A proposal loosely modeled after a traditional Business Plan.
The project I’m particularly proud of, and one that I think most exhibits how my teaching philosophy straddles a middle ground among strengthening civic, professional, and public literacies, is the Business Plan. For this project I collaborated with the Big Ideas at Berkeley Contest, a yearly innovation contest where students submit proposals for $5,000 to fund an idea that impacts the public good. Influenced by Paul Heilker, who writes that “composition students have suffered for too long in courses and classrooms that are palpably unreal rhetorical situations,” I decided to align the traditional business plan assignment to the Big Ideas contest as a way to give my students a real audience and an exigency for their writing. One of the organizers of the conference even did a Google Hangout with my class to talk strategies and tips for winning proposals. I’m finding also that my students are motivated by the fact that someone else might potentially read their proposals. The Big Ideas portfolio is a follow-up their “Get a Job” portfolio, where they practice rhetorically positioning themselves as professionals capable of achieving success at a certain job. For the Big Idea proposals, they similarly have to assert that their idea is the most innovative, most exciting, and most groundbreaking of all the applicants. In order to make those kinds of claims, their ideas need to be well-researched, well-thought out, and well argued. Knowing that a real audience will judge their writing, I’m finding, is helping my students stay more attuned to the rhetorical features of their proposals, like the strength of their arguments, or the need to weed out hedging words like “hopefully” and “potentially.” After cultivating these skills on their job materials (“don’t say you helped on a project, tell the employer what you actually did and the results you achieved!”), they put those strategies to use for the Big Idea project. These skills are important for any writing classroom: making strong arguments backed up with evidence, composing visually appealing documents that conform to certain genre expectations, etc. And I’m finding that, far from training students merely to effectively accumulate capital in the global workforce, we’re using the workforce as a model for practicing the basics of written argument and intellectual inquiry.
Another Business Writing instructor told me recently that she experiences an ethical disconnect teaching a course like Business Writing when compared to other upper division writing courses that are more based in academic inquiry. On the one hand, our training in rhetoric and composition understands that writing is a social and rhetorical act, that writing “enacts and creates identities and ideologies (literacy itself is not ideologically neutral)” This is potentially at odds with a course that teaches writing for Business, which stresses a business’s financial viability, budgeting, and individual success. But I am required to teach it (and beyond that, as a good colleague, I have to respect the institutional history of the course and the committee that drew from their years of experience to design what they feel is an effective curriculum). It’s yet another example of the kinds of problematic partnerships many rhet/comp practitioners engage in every day. My colleague, in order to mitigate the ethical tension she faces when teaching this course, told me that she’d like to find ways to incorporate some of the more critical intellectual inquiries from other writing courses into her Business Writing assignments. As I was pondering that possibility, I decided that I think I’d like it the other way: I want to incorporate some of the immediacy and pragmatism of my Business Writing courses into the freshman composition sequence. In other words, what is incredibly effective for Business Writing is the way students immediately identify, relate to, and value the material. There is a massive incentive to revise their job materials because the stakes are quite possibly real. The incentive to make clear arguments in their Big Idea proposals—with a viable timeline toward completion and a meticulously laid out budget—is similarly high stakes. I have never seen students incorporate instructor feedback and peer-review sessions into their final drafts so comprehensively as I have in this Business Writing course. And it makes sense because these revisions immediately benefit my students’ lives. I want to see more of that motivation to write in my freshman comp class, at least more than I want to see more intellectual inquiry in my Business Writing course. Because here’s the thing: motivated students are naturally intellectually curious anyway. We’ve had so many discussions in class about the ethics of representing yourself in the best possible light even if your experience is a little less than stellar. We’ve even had lengthy class discussions devoted to the messages your wardrobe sends in job interviews. These discussions are inherently rhetorical, and by extension they lend themselves to intellectual inquiry—and so what if my students personally benefit from these activities? Shouldn’t that be the whole purpose of education? To benefit personally, intellectually, and—gasp—financially?
As I do more thinking and writing about problematic partnerships in rhetoric and composition, I see them everywhere. And I’m sure there are many community writing or civic literacy scholars who have to teach classes like these who feel the same kind of ethical tension my colleague mentioned. And for me, the point of theorizing problematic partnerships isn’t to make excuses for unprincipled collaborations, but to outline how we can stand by our principles and still fulfill our obligations, all while learning from and contributing to our collaborative experiences in meaningful ways. I am confident in this situation, for example, that I am successfully meeting the outcomes of the Business Writing curriculum. But I’m equally confident that teaching Business Writing is making me a better writing teacher. In fact, I am now very interested in how to harness my Business Writing students’ motivation to write in new and innovative ways in a myriad other potential writing courses.