New Job and Old Research Projects Made New Again

I feel like I’m in Confession every time I begin a new blog. “It’s been 10 months since my last entry.” I originally conceived of the blog to keep me on task with research projects and deadlines, but teaching 8 courses a year–and in my case, 10 last year–really took the sails out of any impulse to blog. I have some time now though. I just turned in grades for the Winter quarter; I’m almost done planning courses for the Spring quarter, and I have about a week before classes start. So I thought I’d talk about several of my writing goals I’d like to meet over the next 6 months or so.

Also, I got a new job! Starting in August I’ll be a tenure-track Assistant Professor of English and Associate Director of Composition at the University of Toledo in Ohio. I’ll be really, really sad to leave beautiful California but I’m also excited to start somewhere new. I’ll be building/developing curricula for some new initiatives in the English department, which I’m really excited about, and I’ll be teaching fewer classes so I can build up my research profile and tenure case. So, while there’s so much I can say about what it’s been like on the job market this year, how awesome it’s been teaching, and where my head’s at regarding moving to Ohio, I think I’ll just keep this post strictly research-based and summarize the projects I’ve been working on sporadically. I’m really just grateful and privileged to be able to have more time to work on all these over the next few years.

Business Writing in Departments of English

I’ve been giving this project a lot of thought over the past couple years. It’s partly due to me having to teach Business Writing over and over again. But also because I think we have a lot of wiggle-room as a field to claim Business Writing as our own. I’ll be presenting a paper at the CCCC Summer Conference in San Jose this June about how to inject more elements of “critical literacy” in the Business Writing classroom. My main argument is that Business Writing is one of the most important courses in the Writing Studies curriculum but we don’t treat it that way. The traditional way we teach the course is outdated, unhelpful, and prepares students only for the “textual etiquette” of the business world. But if Writing Studies applied actual Writing Studies theories to courses like Business Writing we would begin to see the opportunity we have. We can use the course to help students think critically about work, workplaces, and the role of writing in mediating human experience. By making Business Writing more aligned with Writing Studies’ best practices, we can better distinguish this course from its other iterations across academia and re-theorize the course as one primarily situated in a humanities-based mode of inquiry.

This presentation in San Jose is part of a larger essay on the history of the Business Writing Course in Departments of English. My argument in that piece is that courses like Technical Writing rose to prominence in Rhetoric and Composition because it was humanities-based, while Business Writing was distributed among many fields and disciplines on an ad hoc basis, which stifled theoretical growth or innovation. I am using this concept of “Renovation” (been watching a lot of HGTV with my wife lately), and I think it’s about time we do some reno-work on the course. My self-imposed deadline for the article is August 1, and I want to submit it to College English before I start work in Ohio in the Fall. Excited to get some good feedback in San Jose, too.

Public Partnerships: The NCTE and the Common Core

I’m also really excited to open up my dissertation and go back to the Common Core. And luckily, I was accepted to the CWPA conference in Knoxville, TN this June to present my research on the strange relationship between the NCTE and the authors of the Common Core State Standards in 2008. I’ll finally be able to really crank out some presentations and get some good feedback for an article! The main idea between the research is that in our current climate of austerity (which is the theme of the conference), it’s more important now than ever to argue for the value of writing to public audiences. One way to understand this work is through the lens of partnership. Partnerships, as opposed to Mortensen’s argument that scholars need to “air [our research] in the most expansive, most inclusive forms imaginable,” are ways of engaging the public by forging relationships where we leverage disciplinary expertise to work on public problems. In this presentation to my colleagues in Knoxville, though, I’ll discuss a specific partnership that wasn’t so peachy: the NCTE’s feedback in 2009 on a draft of the Common Core’s English Language Arts Standards. This partnership, in many ways, was a failure. But through this failure we can better understand the challenges we face as WPAs trying to impact public issues related to writing. Through this case study, we can open a dialogue about the interaction between writing partnerships, public engagement, language policy, and WPA work. It’s part archival, part old-school textual analysis, and part interview-based. I’m really excited to get cracking on this. I need to get started like, right now, in order to have a strong draft of a presentation by July. My goal is to use the feedback from the conference to submit an article-length version to CCC by the end of my first semester at Toledo.

Public Ecologies: A Micro Case Study of Public Writing Pedagogy

Another project that had to hit the back burner last year was a piece on Public Writing Pedagogy. I collected data from a Writing for Public Discourse Class in the Fall of 2016 and asked students series of questions about what it means to be a member of a public and how the work of the course is helping them think more deeply about writing for public audiences. I have all the data, but I haven’t been able to write it up yet.

But no longer! I was accepted to the Community Writing Conference in Boulder this October, where I’ll finally have a deadline to write up my results. I’m excited too, because despite calls over the last few decades to become more publicly engaged, writing teachers still don’t quite know how to meet or assess those goals in the writing classroom. My data will hopefully show us a glimpse into the kinds of concrete teaching practices that resonate with students. Or, I should say, with one particular class. I’m doing what I’m calling a “micro-case-study,” because I don’t want to presume that you can generalize an outcome like “publicity.” However, by analyzing one class and their writings and responses to survey questions, I hope to showcase how just one classroom navigates through a course on “public writing,” and how their understanding of “publicity” changes and morphs and functions in tension with that of the instructor over the semester. Because ultimately I think our field’s compulsion to teach public writing is necessarily determined by how we define and theorize publicness, and also how students understand their own public ecologies—their networks, their friends, their contacts, the genres available to them—as both enablers and inhibiters of public engagement. My goal is to have that data written up in the first few months on the job in Ohio.

Writing about Writing during the Trump Administration:

A recent idea I’ve been working on is how to think about and teach writing from a Writing about Writing perspective in an era of misinformation, “fake news” and anti-intellectualism. I went ahead and threw a proposal at an MLA 2018 CFP for a panel in New York next year, but I’m already working on some ideas in the classroom. This Spring I’ll be teaching my favorite course at UCSB, Writing 105PD, or “Writing for Public Discourse.” I was a collaborator in the 105-sequence outcomes and the 105PD outcomes were my own little pet-project, so I’m very partial to this class. My idea for the class is to conceive of publics like John Dewey, who said publics come into existence to address particular problems. In that way, publics are fleeting, contingent, contextual, time-bound, and action-oriented. Thus I arranged my class not as a genre-based class on public writing (Unit 1 = grants; Unit 2 = Op-Eds, etc.), but as a series of “public problems.” For our class, I chose three “problems” we will unpack throughout the quarter: Free Speech on College Campuses, The Role of the Public University in Public Life, and Fake News and Media Literacy. These three issues are super relevant in our lives right now, and they’re also significant public problems in that they’re fleeting, contingent, contextual, time-bound, and action oriented. My goal is that we read how authors address each of these issues in various ways through various mediums. So my”Reading List” for the course is very much issue-based, but my intention (I’ve been laboring over this for a couple weeks now), is to get students deeply immersed in the arguments surrounding a public issue as a way to get them familiar enough to “put in their oar,” so to speak, with their own instance of public writing. But as we know from Writing Studies, writing doesn’t have to be formulaic essays. Writing is determined by our own discourse communities, and “good writing” varies depending on audience needs and expectations. So I’ll ask students: What are your discourse communities? What are your audiences? What networks do you belong to? What kinds of relationships can you utilize or forge in order to make an impact on these issues? Feel free to check out my reading list and make suggestions if you like. I’ve also included the assignment here as well. I’d like to use this next quarter as a gestation period for the idea, and we’ll see what MLA says. If accepted, I’ll have a year to really start plotting out a project designed around John Dewey, Public Discourse, and Donald Trump.

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll post a bit less infrequently from now on.


“Dispensed of Necessity and Without Enjoyment”

My first year at UCSB has been quite a ride! I think that’s why it’s been 6 months since my last post. I’ve been planning new courses, developing curricula on my committees, finalizing revisions for my book chapter on MOOCs and our piece in College Composition and Communication (which was finally ACCEPTED, by the way), and grading student papers. I also presented at the 2016 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Houston, where I gave a talk on problematic partnerships on a panel with Jeff Grabill, Sarah Robbins, Todd DeStigter and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl. Oh yeah and I co-authored a piece for WPA, and then one more book chapter. Let’s just say I’ve filled out my punch card at the UCSB Coffee Cart a time or two.

As I reflect back on all my teaching and research this year, and also as I re-read my previous blogs on grading and business writing, I’m really struck by the ways the courses I teach and the research questions I pursue are fundamentally intertwined. As I work more and more with students in academic writing, business writing, writing for public discourse, and starting next fall, writing for the teaching professions, I’m starting to think more and more about how students understand themselves as writers. In my academic writing course, for example, I’m having students conduct an empirical study on their own writing habits and then analyze those habits for interesting trends and patterns. Students often ask questions like, “does text-messaging count?” or “what about things like shopping lists or notes to myself? Does that count as writing?” It reminds me a lot about conversations in our field about “real-world writing,” in addition to another study by Grabill et al. from the WIDE Research Center that found that while students write overwhelmingly in digital genres they tend to value them less than other “official” genres. I wonder what it would look like if students understood their own literate practices as complex, audience-driven, and genre specific. It makes me want to do away with “essays” entirely—or at least think more deeply about the role of the essay in our field. Adam Banks recently declared the essay “dominant genre emeritus” in the 2015 CCCC Chair’s address (which started its own unique debate about “essayist literacy“).

Also, I feel like I’ve turned a corner with Business Writing. Not only did it inspire me to think more deeply about student motivations to revise, but it also inspired me to dive into contract grading. I’m really indebted to the research from Asao Inoue on this, not only because he offered a basic template for how to word grading contracts, but also for his research that argues for grading labor over content as a more ethical and valid form of writing assessment. Most writing assessment practices, he writes, judge quality of writing. But when you evaluate labor practices instead through contract grading, you’re evaluating whether or not students are “demonstrating a defined degree of effort, quantity of written products, and/or amount of time spent on an activity such as reading or drafting.” In this way, evaluating labor values the “noncognitive dimensions [of writing] such as conscientiousness, persistence, and motivation.” At Fresno State, where Inoue conducted a study on contract grading, he found that grading labor “did not reduce the quality of writing in program portfolios assessed by blind readings.” And, perhaps more importantly, he also shows that this was consistent across all racial populations (343). It seems to me that contract grading based on labor failure not only frees me up from conjuring up some wonky writing rubric; it also seems to maintain fairness, validity, and quality, because, as Inoue says, “students find reasons to learn and grow as writers when their labor is truly honored, and they listen more carefully to feedback when grades are out of the way, perhaps especially because their writing labor is being acknowledged and quality is assumed to be a consequence of that hard labor” (343). As this applies to my business writing courses, I found that instead of taking off an arbitrary number of points on each resume faux pas, or even trying to distinguish between an “excellent” and a “good” cover letter, why can’t I just give copious feedback on student writing, let them revise (or not), and be done with the assessment as quickly as possible? It’s the feedback and intellectual exchange that matters in writing pedagogy anyway!

And then…that leads me to another question, which is, well, what is the goal of business writing in departments of English, Writing, or Rhetoric? This is actually the question of a research project I’ve been pursuing lately. Filed under the larger umbrella of investigating “problematic partnerships,” or the ways writing studies practitioners negotiate the weird and sometimes ethically fraught institutional relationships common in our profession, the role of business writing in rhetoric and composition is actually quite confusing. Right now I’m reading everything I can find, but my findings so far are fascinating, yet limited. Aside from a College English piece in 1960 by Karl Murphy analyzing the role of Business Writing in departments of English (his survey found, actually, that business writing, in some form or another, was being taught in between 75% – 80% of American colleges and universities, and that was 55 years ago); and a piece in the ADE in 1980 by William E. Rivers called “The Place of Business Writing in English Departments: A Justification,” I haven’t seen much else on where Business Writing “fits” in my field. The field of Business Communication is thriving, though, with several prominent journals and conferences and methodological quandaries (take for instance, Margaret Graham’s 2004 Journal of Business Communication essay that describes Business Communication as a “loose federation of academics and consultants who claim to teach and research something called business communication”). In my field of rhetoric and writing, we often lump Business Writing in with Professional Writing and Technical Writing (in the UCSB Writing Program we include Business Writing in the “107” sequence, which includes writing for accounting (107A), writing for business (107B), news writing (107J), and technical writing (107T), while the “professional” and “multimodal” writing courses are housed in the “105 Sequence”). However, in the almost 40 years since the last critical investigation of the role of Business Writing in departments of English, what has changed? How do we teach business writing? Are these courses housed in departments of English, Writing, and Rhetoric, taught any differently than the “loose federation” of academics teaching them as “communication” courses in departments of Business, Marketing, and elsewhere? Can we “claim” the W in Business Writing? These questions are on my mind lately—especially as I read Murphy’s 1960 article on business writing that speculated, “In many English departments the course or courses in business writing, if taught at all, are under-the-counter products, dispensed of necessity and without enjoyment.” I wonder how much has changed? As I assign Wardle and Downs “Writing about Writing” reader for my summer sections, I also wonder how I can begin to claim this class as my own, to make it an intellectual inquiry, to have it align with some best practices in the field, etc. I think we need an updated survey! I’m working on it.

New School, New Syllabi, and Dynamic Criteria Mapping

After defending my dissertation, graduating from TCU, packing my belongings, moving back home to Oklahoma for a couple months, and then driving 21 hours across the country with wife, mother-in-law, and elderly cat in tow (and mother-in-law now having flown back to Oklahoma, tissues in hand), I am finally settled in beautiful Santa Barbara and I am ready to get back to work.

But I did manage to get several things accomplished this summer despite the craziness of moving and driving.

  1. I submitted final revisions for the chapter on community engagement and service learning in the humanities for Cambridge Press. We are hoping the Handbook for Community Engagement and Service Learning, the first of its kind, comes out in 2016. It should be a vital contribution to engagement scholarship across disciplines.
  2. My team conducting the program assessment finally wrote up our report and submitted it to a top journal in our field. It’s currently under review and I have high hopes for its placement.
  3. Everyone on the CCCC panel on Linda Brodkey revised their presentations and we combined them into a single essay, thanks in large part to the editorial acumen of David Bleich, and we have submitted it to another top journal in our field. Again, high hopes there and I’m extremely happy we were able to get everything organized and in print.
  4. I responded to a CFP on MOOCs, where I hope to turn my MOOC chapter into an argument for better problematic partnerships in the field of writing studies.
  5. I couldn’t help but submit to the CFP from Cheryl Ball and Drew Loewe on some “Bad Ideas about Writing.”

Other items on the agenda this year: Publish my Common Core material from the dissertation, and work on a larger framework for a book project. Yeah, the B-word. My goal is that all the writing and teaching in store over the next few months will work as an incubator for a broader understanding of these “problematic partnerships,” which, as I’m starting to see, and what I’ll eventually argue, is a huge part of the work we do and have been doing in the field for some time.

But, not to get too wrapped up in research. I also have been assigned two courses this fall at UCSB: Business Writing and Writing II. My new director casually suggested while chatting in my office the other day that there’s this really neat website where you can make infographics–and then 5 hours later, I emerged with two funky syllabi that I plan on introducing on the first day of class.

Below are images of my infographic syllabi for Writing II and Business Writing. I’ve provided links to web versions here and here, and I’ll also make both PDF and Microsoft Word version available, as the folks at WebAIM recommend in their “Principles for Accessible Design.” Much of the inspiration for these syllabi also came from Dr. Julie Platt’s infographic syllabus for a Technical Writing course at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Hers is much better, obviously, but I tried! The main thing here is that in a general sense I want to reimagine a tired old genre of the syllabus. It’s boring, and frequently serves mostly as outlining the “mundane, bureaucratic requirements of the University” as Adam Heidebrink-Bruno writes in a Hybrid Pedagogy article. In an attempt to bridge the gap between teacher and student, and also to make a document that more students might actually read, I attempted the infographic genre as a place to show both my attempts at understanding and my compassion for students needs and realities. Also, I think it might be a good entry into genre discussions. What are the genres and conventions of an infographic? How do genres determine what is valued (and in turn, not valued) in our writing? Also, it was a lot of fun.


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Excited about Writing Assessment

So again, I’ve violated my one post a month policy. But on the bright side, the dissertation is done and the defense is scheduled for April. Pausing real quick to do a happy dance……

I also just got back from the 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication in lovely Tampa, FL. My panel: “Twenty-Five Years since the ‘Troubles at Texas’: Linda Brodkey and the Risks of Writing Pedagogy” was a huge success. The panel reflected on the infamous writing course English 306: Writing about Difference, which never ran at UT Austin in the Summer of 1990 because it was censored by administrators after several dissenting faculty members took their grievances public in the form of a moral panic. I presented on a chapter from my dissertation which argues that Brodkey’s efforts that summer should not be seen as a “failure” to gain consensus but as a disruptive stance toward the status quo of writing and writing pedagogy. Libby Allison from Texas State gave a wonderful historical take on broader discrimination lawsuits underway in Texas leading up to and following the “Troubles at Texas;” David Bleich from the University of Rochester spoke passionately about the ways university censorship has proliferated throughout its institutional history; Mary Boland from the University of California San Bernardino spoke passionately about how the folklore of our field unfairly characterizes Brodkey as a hero when we should in fact see her work as the standard we should all strive toward in the field; and Shelli Fowler, former graduate student of Brodkey’s and current professor at Virginia Tech, gave a beautiful response reflecting on her time at Texas and the political tension we all face as writing instructors. The Q & A that followed was lively, and I couldn’t have asked for a better conference. I made a Storify document of all the live-tweeters during our panel that you can see here. Also, major kudos also to Paul Butler of the University of Houston who chaired the panel (and offered a lot of help organizing behind the scenes). Continue reading