Thirty Pages

My essay’s like a flock of birds,
It’s almost at 9,000 words.
—Anon.

It’s hard to have a conversation about UConn’s First-Year Writing courses without falling into a debate about how to gloss that most stubborn of lines in all of the FYW canon, that often featured phrase in trochaic pentameter:

 Thirty pages of revisèd writing.

It’s a line that’s been scanned and interpreted by scholars and pedagogues. There are the more orthodox literalists, who read it as a plain requirement to assign thirty pages of revised writing in each FYW course. There are the more liberal interpreters, who see it more as a guideline or recommendation that might flex to meet the needs of a particular situation. And, typical of English departments, there are the “philosophers,” who, drawing on theory from the ‘90s, argue for a ruthless critique of reified generalities. These anxious souls point to the absurdity of “pages” in a course that increasingly depends on digitally-created and circulated work, noting, too, the weirdly flat emphasis on a fixed quantity of writing rather than, say, quality or purpose. (“Positivists,” they exclaim, “there is no greater abstraction than this falsely ‘concrete’ criterion!”)

But enough about me. Let’s take a look at how this phrase is interpreted in the most recent Handbook for ECE English:

Thirty Pages of Revised Writing
Although expressed as a minimum page requirement, the impetus for this element is a desire to have all students in FYW seminars share similar experiences in composing and revising several major writing projects throughout the course. The nature and genre of the writing may shift and develop across multiple assignments, and some instructors may use a wider notion of project or composition that includes something more than just a quantity of pages (e.g., a multimodal assignment).

There’s something in this description for any FYW teacher. We might notice a shift away from sheer quantity of finished writing to an emphasis on project and composition. These terms allow for a more expanded notion of productivity in FYW, and both suggest a heterogeneity of “parts” within a larger goal. One’s project might include drafts, proposals or presentations, ancillary or complementary work, or a whole range of activity that includes writing. Likewise, a composition puts attention on how an assemblage of parts might come together for a particular purpose. In more explicitly articulating the work of the course as an ensemble of diverse modes of engaging with the world, we make room for a conversation in the course about what writing is and how it functions.

Speaking as a fellow teacher of these courses (and not as the arbiter of an exact policy), I will say that I continue to see the value in posing the course in terms of a small number of larger projects (e.g., essays plus a wide horizon of supports to and extensions of these essays). That is, I see the course as a site for pursuing a small number (3-5?) of larger clusters rather than, say, a long series of unrelated weekly assignments. “Project,” for me, connotes something that takes a fair amount of time and ambition to see through. Similarly, I prefer sequenced assignments that build on one another throughout the course.

It’s probably still meaningful to think about the relative work it takes to achieve the most conservative reading of the guidelines, those thirty pages. If I’m asking students to produce an audio clip or a graphic, how is this comparable to producing prose paragraphs? How do I support and evaluate this work? Do I simply subtract a certain number of required pages to make room for this other work? Do I combine, say, presentations and final drafts into a single grade? These are questions that, in a mature writing program like ours, are sometimes best left as questions, as negotiations between students, teachers, and writing program administrators rather than settled dogma. These are rigorous courses, requiring substantial work from students (and teachers). But, at this point, we needn’t count pages like Keats’ Beadsman, telling his rosary with “frosted breath.”

Stefano Della Bella, Thirty Archers and Thirty Pages (1633)

From Classroom to Constellation

Let’s, for a moment, imagine a fairly typical nightmare scenario for a writing instructor: a sudden increase of class size to 50 students. Of course, many instructors already have 50 or more students in total, but I am talking about 50 in a single course. My goal here is not to advocate for such a system (!) but rather to consider how a more sudden quantitative shift might necessitate a significant rethinking of instructor work that might not otherwise happen through the steady drip, drip of small, incremental class size increases.

Filippo Marinetti, A Tumultuous Assembly. Numerical Sensibility.

Our partners in other courses and departments have faced these numbers before, and the “solution” has often been to drastically curtail student productivity to that which can be sorted through standardized forms (like quizzes and tests) or truncated into a few minutes of discussion at the end of a lecture. Although most academics have, at fancy colleges or in graduate school, experienced (and now mourn the loss of) the seminar format, with its student-driven lines of inquiry and its long-form writing projects, the typical college course is still primarily modeled on content mastery that can be demonstrated through testing or in very formatted, conventional writing.

What I want to discuss here, instead, is an experiment with large-scale courses that might still be project-based and student-driven. Accepting that such a course can even be taught is a contentious, even obnoxious claim, perhaps, and, what’s worse, it can seem that I’m flirting with a model of teaching and learning that is complicit with the worst elements of educational corporatism. So, for the record, let me be perfectly clear: I think the ideal class size for writing course remains somewhere between 12 and 15. Within this range, you have enough voices to establish heterogeneity of outlook and experience, but you also have few enough projects to provide detailed feedback over many drafts. And, of course, you get to know students much more readily. A larger or much larger class size strains the capacity of an instructor to provide support for all students, and, in time, usually either necessitates a dismantling of the seminar model or unfairly impinges on the instructor.

But let’s get postprocess here and work within the constraints of our imagined situation. The class size question depends on an understanding that an instructor’s work is finite and that each added student subtracts from this finite sum. And, in terms of direct, one-to-one feedback, this is surely true. The pressure some teachers feel to live up to an often tacit but deeply felt standard of individualized feedback can be enormous. Too often, lengthy written comments on student drafts serve as markers of instructor diligence and time spent (see how much I cared about this one draft?) rather than an effective use of instructor time given the real conditions of many writing courses. So let’s exacerbate those conditions with our experiment with 50 students so that there can be no illusion that a modestly retooled pedagogy will work. What needs to happen, instead, is a remaking of student and faculty expectations for a writing course.

We can ward off that culture of guilt without capitulating to a model of standardized and rigid teaching and learning. But, to do so, we have to acknowledge that the courses themselves must change, and sometimes radically. Some of the things an instructor might need to do in this situation include:

  1. Break the expectation of instructor feedback as primary.
  2. Put responsibility on students to become readers of each other’s work. Sure, we already share drafts, but much more can be done to foster collaborative invention and response within the class itself.
  3. Put responsibility on students to co-author some projects. Consider class-wide composition.
  4. Design courses as environments for interconnectivity and creative composition rather than stages for performing a pre-existing repertoire of competencies.
  5. Introduce and develop key terms and concepts for reflecting on and learning from the composing that happens in the course.
  6. “Solve” the problem of audience by positing the class itself as an engine of both production and consumption. How are you contributing to the class conversation? How can you influence or change the people in the room through your work?
  7. Spend far more class time engaging with student work, openly and in detail. What do we have here? What’s possible here? What comes next?
  8. Save yourself from seeing a project in 100 versions. What a surprise to read a “final” project that isn’t something you’ve responded to before.
  9. Move the modes of communication toward audio or spoken feedback as well as alternative forms of visual feedback (up to, but not including, stickers (heh)).
  10. Ask students to become presenters and curators of their work, always situating larger projects alongside blurbs, introductory texts, working bibliographies, and brief presentations that help others see and anticipate these larger works. (Factor this assembling and presenting work into grades.)
  11. Use class time to develop and test provisional rubrics or evaluative criteria. What does successful work in this project do or look like?
  12. Give feedback that is not on a one-to-one ratio but which uses samples, excerpts, and volunteered student work.
  13. Use digital tools and spaces to more efficiently constellate and circulate student work.
  14. Use office hours or conference time for students who seek more individual feedback. (And lament the loss of more time per student.)
  15. Recognize that other colleagues who teach the other courses that students take have responsibility, too, for helping students become informed, generous, self-aware, and capable writers and communicators.
  16. Take note of what gets lost (and it is a LOT) in large courses, and advocate, when you can, for improvements and support.

You may have noticed that not much here is entirely new. What I’ve described is driven by a consideration of efficiencies, perhaps, but not all innovation must come from economic considerations. Critical pedagogy, for one example, has long advocated for the distribution of responsibility to all class members on democratic principles. Ecological composition asks us to design courses that make use of the affordances of place and technology. And multimodal composition reminds us that even academic communication need not always be lengthy prose paragraphs. Also, a lot of what is proposed here depends not only on instructors and students but on programs. If the goal of these innovations is to help writing teachers build what Byron Hawk calls “smarter environments,” the teachers themselves need to be working in a smarter environment, a site where implementing these changes is developed, modeled, and supported.

Nightmare scenario or vision of the future—tumultuous assembly or artmachine? What we know of the large class is that it is transformative. Now can the teaching we’ve been doing (and the programs we’ve been building) help us anticipate and engage with this transformation?

Piling On

Detail of Hartford Times Building

In late June, we had our first ECE English Summer Institute, a kind of 3-day seminar with a wonderful group of about 20 teachers of FYW courses. Our theme was “Composing Environments for Teaching and Writing,” which meant, in part, a focus on interrelationships between writing and our interaction with specific, local environments. We read a lot about assemblage and assemblage theory (two different things, really), and we thought about how our writing courses might make more use of our interactions with the non-human world and the understanding we gain by collecting, sorting, and assembling objects.

Because I had just a day earlier moved into my very first house, I made a lot of comments about “stuff” and its impact on my current mindset—“Do we really need all these books?” or “Does that pipe in the basement look right?” And, drawing on Jody Shipka’s words about the importance of cultivating a collector’s mindset, Anne (my wife) joked that she’s not a hoarder, she’s “enchanted by the world.” And, yes, if setting up a home is itself a kind of composition, a bringing together of already existing elements into a new space, we have—in bags and boxes in the attic, garage, and basement—resources.

In teaching composition, we sometimes overvalue clean, finite order or the “clarity of thought” that is clear because it is so abstract, so theoretical. Especially early in a writing course, and especially early in a student’s college career, it seems worthwhile to foster creativity, spontaneity, and a sense of the inexhaustible qualities of composition by asking students to be collectors and gatherers, to interact with their environment in exploratory ways and in ways that do not resolve to the simplification of “finding evidence.” Asking students to engage in what Shipka calls “rigorous-productive play” means valuing the work of writing down, photographing, recording, transcribing, interviewing, and juxtaposing.

At our new campus in downtown Hartford, we are experimenting with our new site as a resource for writing. We’ve borrowed some ideas about place-based learning from our neighbor, Capital Community College, and we’re encouraging students to consider the areas just beyond the campus, which include city streets, public buildings, historic structures, parks, cemeteries, a very complex mix of human beings, and so much more. If we want to be on the nose, we can even walk across the street to the Wadsworth Atheneum (free to students and UConn faculty) and gaze directly at a Joseph Cornell box. Enchanted, indeed.

If the individual writers in our courses gather materials from their wanderings, we can, from there, collaborate and invent through writing and composition that engages with this collection. That is, it might be wise to forestall exact matching of purpose (what’s your thesis?) with the work/play of discovery. To me, the FYW seminar shouldn’t be a course in how to write, which poses the real work of writing as a technical matter. It should rather be a course in helping students learn to have something to say, an investigation into writing as relationship, negotiation. When we place value on the collecting and gathering of materials for conversation and writing, we put students in a position to show us something and begin the process of dialogue through writing.

 

Work Cited

Shipka, Jody. “To Gather, Assemble, and Display: Composition as [Re]Collection.” Assembling

Composition, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey and Stephen J. McElroy, NCTE, 2017, pp. 143-160.

The 1011 Pivot

I’ve been teaching literature again lately. It sounds, I know, like the admission of a vice (e.g., “I’ve been gambling on horses again.”) But, after so much time dedicated to First-Year Writing and writing-intensive courses, I am teaching my very first UConn undergraduate course without a “W” somewhere in its name. That doesn’t mean that writing isn’t important in this class, but it does mean that, for a change, I must prioritize content coverage and literary analysis. And yet I find that my many years of swimming upstream in promoting the 1011 mindset, writing through not just about literature, have greatly influenced my teaching of literature. I find myself teaching 1011-style even in upper-level courses. In honor of the recent passing of Charlie Murphy, I will describe myself, in this way, as a “habitual line stepper.”

Steven Roberge, Fulcrum
Steven Roberge, Fulcrum (Creative Commons)
When I’m describing how literary texts function in an ENGL 1011 course, I often mention something I call the “1011 pivot.” I use this phrase because I see the course as necessitating a shift in purpose from serving the text (writing to assert a reading of an established authoritative text) to making use of the text (writing to pursue a question or problem that extends beyond the text). Let me be clear about this: much or most powerful literary analysis at least implicitly conjures this use, this extension. But because ENGL 1011 is both cross-disciplinary in purpose and an introduction to habits of mind of academic work, its equally rigorous engagements with literary texts put more emphasis on implications, new sites, and student-driven exploration. The “pivot” moves the center of gravity of the work over toward student goals.
Here’s how I recently described it to my students:
Although it can seem that your performance in an English course hinges on what you can say about something you’ve read, consider inverting this relationship. What can a literary text help you say about something else? That is, how does the literature crystallize complex forces in ways that become useful and illuminating to you? You might review the texts we’ve read in this course. Notice how each serves as a resource for things we still think about today. Each offers expressions and demonstrations of complex social phenomena, and, as time passes, each sheds light on historical processes and transformations, sometimes unwittingly. The goal in writing with literary texts, then, is not merely to offer a “reading” of the text (although interpretation is important). The goal is more purposeful and urgent: how can you make use of this text as an instrument for engaging with the world?
I don’t suppose that FYW pedagogy will have much influence with the English courses on campus, as the faculty teaching these courses are almost wholly distinct from FYW instructors. But in ECE classes, the debate is more active and fluid, as so many teach literary studies concurrently with ECE/FYW. Those teachers who merge AP Lit and ENGL 1011 are especially familiar with these questions. Even so, it’s fair to say that all of us need to be engaged in exploring and working out our own understanding of the literature/composition relationship at the heart of “English.” How have you come to terms with the literary within composition?

What Can Improvisers Teach Us about Composition?

A surprising (but, for me, sustaining) fact about Connecticut is that it is a hub for improvising musicians. Some of this, of course, has to do with proximity to New York, but other factors, including Anthony Braxton’s tenure at Wesleyan and the long-running Improvisations series at Hartford’s Real Art Ways, contribute to a remarkable and ongoing creative efflorescence right here in the so-called “land of steady habits.” And, because this month brings two of the most notable figures in creative improvised music, Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith, to our state, I thought I’d take a moment to frame a writing question in their honor. The question is, what can improvisers teach us about composition?

Braxton, Composition 372

Both of these musicians were key early members of the still-active Chicago collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and both took from that experience a life-long commitment to improvised music, composition, and, what might surprise us, teaching. Even at its inception as a modestly funded workspace for South Side black musicians, the AACM took on students and encouraged them to become composers, to make things, not just learn to play. (Muhal Richard Abrams, who played a wonderful concert at Wesleyan just this past February, was a key figure in this pedagogical component.) In his magisterial history of the AACM, A Power Stronger than Itself, George Lewis writes that Abrams “draws upon a tradition that regarded ‘composition,’ or the creation of music, as a cooperative, collective practice, responsive to the conditions and histories from which the individual musicians sprang” (103). Even for these students, composition suggested an interface between one’s own ideas and a larger social context, playing their own and each others’ compositions rather than merely rehearsing music from another time and place.

Although the far edge of improvisation is often associated with a quest for absolute freedom (e.g.,“free jazz” of the mid or late ’60s), and, often, a privileging of individual expression, a fairer take on improvised music since the late ‘60s is that “freedom” can only make sense within contexts, interactions, and communities that support it. The inquiry and exploration of improvisation needs to be situated within and in dialogue with a framework provided by what we might call composition. Composition subsequently becomes valued not as an end product but rather as a research tool and activity for bringing people together into productive interaction. Smith and Braxton have become renowned composers, but, as their scores suggest, this doesn’t mean that their compositions aren’t undergoing constant transformation and renewal by the musicians who make use of them.

Smith, “Seven Heavens” (2005)

We might expect that notions of composition coming from the creative arts would tend toward the more “aesthetic” aspects of the term, that composition, in the arts, means putting together something to be admired or studied. But it is in fact the academic notion of composition, especially as it is sometimes used in writing courses or contests reinforcing evaluative hierarchies, that is often more stubbornly fixed on a passive admiration of aesthetic qualities (“good writing”). For these musicians, however, composition is entirely purposeful. That is, a composition is something to be used, a mechanism for fostering further exploration and research. As Braxton puts it himself in the liner notes of his recent 3 Compositions (Echo Echo Mirror House Music) 2011, “Nothing starts or ends in this model, and as such, more and more the analogy of an ‘erector-set’ might be the best way to talk of structural, conceptual and imaginary experiences in a relational system/entity. This is a ‘tool-box’ of materials that can be utilized for positive experiences, serious research, and hopeful speculation.”

Teaching Writing: Our Common Purpose

chat sketch

Much of the discussion between administrators, university faculty and high school instructors involved in concurrent enrollment programs like UConn’s Early College Experience is necessarily around compliance of high school-based courses with college standards. But if this remains our only focus, we lose a meaningful opportunity for critical communication across institutional boundaries about what we teach.

At the end of his last book, Rhetorics, Poetics, Cultures, compositionist James Berlin writes

No group of English teachers ought to see themselves as operating isolated from their fellows in working for change. Dialogue among college teachers and teachers in the high schools and elementary schools is crucial for any effort at seeking improvement to succeed. For too long, college English teachers have ignored their colleagues in the schools, assuming a hierarchical division of labor in which information and ideas flow exclusively from top to bottom. It is time all reading and writing teachers situate their activities within the context of the larger profession as well the contexts of economic as well as political concerns. We have much to gain working together, much to lose working alone (178).

Berlin argues that current English departments are dominated by scholars who have ignored rhetoric in favor of an aesthetic approach to language which hides an unconscious elitism: “The English department’s abhorrence of the rhetorical…works to exclude from the ranks of the privileged managerial class those not socialized from birth in the ways of the aesthetic response” (14). Berlin favored a re-conceiving of the English discipline to be more rhetorically minded, arguing that “the English classroom should…provide methods for revealing the semiotic codes enacted in the production and interpretation of texts, codes that cut across the aesthetic, the economic and political, and the philosophical and scientific, enabling students to engage critically in the variety of reading and writing practices required of them” (88). Berlin makes the argument that the emphasis of English literature courses on the aesthetic analysis of revered texts both reifies class lines and occludes from study the politically interested context in which language is produced and received. This practice prevents students from developing a critical understanding of all language as rhetorically charged, an understanding that can help them navigate their worlds professionally, personally and politically.

While writing instructors at the university level often feel outnumbered and marginalized within English departments, they can find the benefits of a large community through connection with teachers of writing in concurrent enrollment programs. In Connecticut, only a handful of full-time professors at the five UConn campuses teach First-Year Writing courses; however, there are about 180 teachers of college writing in the high schools. As Berlin emphasizes, we have much to gain from speaking to each other as colleagues with a common sense of investment in writing education and a diverse array of experiences that inform our individual senses of purpose. Public high school teachers also bring an experience-based understanding of the need for a more egalitarian approach to language instruction than do college professors who only have contact with the upper tiers of high school students.

Berlin believed that “Education exists to provide intelligent, articulate, responsible citizens who understand their obligation and their right to insist that economic, social and political power be exerted in the best interests of the community” (52). Writing instructors at colleges and universities can see today, more than ever, the absolute necessity of our work in supporting just societies. It is our job to help students learn to consider language critically, to understand that language, including poetry, fiction and drama, is always historically, socially and politically situated with rhetorical ends. With this, we help produce a citizenry who are both savvy communicators and savvy audience members, less vulnerable to manipulation than those who take language, especially that which flatters their personal interests and sense of identity, at face value.

I see the UConn ECE English program as providing a unique opportunity for discussion about the teaching of writing between college and high school instructors. One of the existing ways this happens is through site visits which are, on the one hand, about compliance, but also an important opportunity for communication between professionals about our common work. We are currently re-conceiving the fall conference to serve as a better forum for high school teachers both to lead discussions and have more opportunities to engage in dialogue. It would be exciting to see ECE English become a vibrant site of stakes-driven discourse among high school and college instructors around our common work, even a site for re-conceiving the discipline along the lines Berlin envisioned toward more socially relevant ends.

 

Writing Beyond the Teacher

Picture of a Balloon (1860)I like to kick the tires of the FYW courses, looking for places that might need reinforcement or further thought. One soft spot I am always noticing in my own courses is my delivery on the promise that the writing we do in the class is not just a performance of competence or a simulacrum of engagement that effectively goes nowhere, what I refer to as “writing for the teacher.” I do act on this promise. Each new iteration of my FYW courses pushes further toward more circulation of student work, more collaboration, and more focus on student-driven commentary. I see the FYW courses as essentially environments designed to feature and support communication by students to students. The writing seminar is most of all a place for students to see their writing, perhaps for the first time, as something purposeful and context-specific, designed for others’ use. As we explore—verbally and through drafts—our various interactive encounters with texts and ideas of others, we all learn from the discourse that begins to flow out of the course itself. And supplementing this work with a range of supporting articulations such as presentations, abstracts or introductory statements, and responses to other projects allows for further recognition that the learning in a writing seminar happens in this open exchange. For the most part, I am delighted by this evolution toward exchange that makes the other courses I teach (often content-driven literature courses) feel a little old-fashioned, wooden, unidirectional.

And yet, in my FYW classes, the final drafts of formal projects are usually delivered to and read only by me. The individuating work of assigning grades to essays, a task with a value that seems less clear to me than it once did, effectively closes the conversation. I don’t want to overstate the case here. Most students feel that they do learn, more or less, what other students are up to. But, unless we decide to have students share or present final essays to each other, the last wave of revision and writing remains a private exchange between student and teacher.

I’ll admit that I’ve never liked writing contests for FYW courses. Stripped of their contexts, student essays “compete” in ways that, to me, run counter to the values of the courses. Is the goal to demonstrate a kind of mastery over a generalized form? Is it to give pleasure to readers? Contests do provide opportunities for students to see their writing beyond the course context, and this is important. But I’d like to imagine ways to do so in ways that might retain the more purposeful goals of the academic writing students produce in FYW courses.

At UConn’s Hartford campus, we’ve begun to think about an idea that could offer an example for something like this. Because our campus is moving next year to downtown Hartford, we will all be adjusting to and learning about the city. I’ve floated the idea of having FYW sections broadly address themes that might relate to this transition. Texts and assignments might take up questions related to cities, Hartford itself, public space, museums or libraries (we’re next door to the Wadsworth and the HPL), and so much more. Many teachers already teach courses with content that easily folds into these topics, and no one would be obligated to participate. But an end-of-year event related to this transition that features student work happening within and beyond the FYW courses might create a forum that would invite students to see their work as potentially meaningful in a greater context. The event would be more recognizable as an academic conversation, an inquiry into an ongoing set of questions, than merely a contest. It’s not an entirely new idea, and it is only in an embryonic form. But I’m hopeful it can become a sustainable site for FYW work.

What ideas do you have for how we might get past the hushed finality of “final draft submission”? I’ve tried to unlock the comments for posts feature. Let me know if you have trouble responding.

 

*Image: Miyagi Gengyo, Picture of a Balloon (1860)

What Are First-Year Writing Courses For?

It’s an impossible, multivalent question, but it’s a question we should continue to ask as our teaching—sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes by design—develops and changes over time. Surely FYW courses are primarily writing courses, and it is writing that most explicitly defines the work we do in them. Defending the required college writing seminar means arguing that students learn something about writing by the course’s end. And yet I have always been resistant to and even a little alarmed by a course that would merely present writing as set of techniques or tools to be acquired and perhaps mastered. If a writing seminar is just shop class for words, count me out.

In recent years, I’ve given increasing attention to the general education context of the First-Year Writing courses. I started to include the “Habits of Mind” from NCTE’s “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” because they speak to values that reach beyond the instrumental skill of writing. Writing, here, is described as emerging from and contributing to activity that prioritizes openness, engagement, creativity, curiosity, and the like. And this year, I even added to my syllabus some of the exact phrases of UConn’s General Education Guidelines, which emphasize “critical judgment,” “moral sensitivity,” “awareness,” and “consciousness of the diversity of human cultures and experience.” In the narrowest, most technical sense, FYW courses serve as introductions to students’ writing requirements at the university and to the information literacy competency that all students are expected to achieve. Greater literacy and more writing (especially writing within shared, collaborative contexts) undoubtedly implicitly supports the development and practice of critical judgment and moral sensitivity. But, at a time when very little about the goals of education can be assumed, it helps to make explicit the close connection between inclusive, ongoing, evidence-driven inquiry and the broader practices of informed citizenship.

Theodor Adorno is probably the writer I turn to most often to both support and challenge my teaching. Many of his essays explore the interface between large, standardizing entities (like universities, government offices, etc.) and the malleable individual, who desires to be legible and connected to larger systems but who is also subject to the distorting and sometimes even cruel elements inherent in such systems. Adorno, who witnessed Germany’s fall into fascism, remained allergic to mass movements or standardization of any sort, but he saw a clear role for teachers: “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again” (191). I’ve triggered Godwin’s Law just mentioning this, so I will move away from any hastily drawn historical comparisons. Still, Adorno’s plain declaration is directed at any technologically advanced society that exerts pressure on the individual:

One can speak of the claustrophobia of humanity in the administered world, of a feeling of being incarcerated in a thoroughly societalized, closely woven, netlike environment. The denser the weave, the more one wants to escape it, whereas it is precisely this close weave that prevents any escape. This intensifies the fury against civilization. (193)

Adorno poses education as a process of historical inquiry, self-reflection, and confrontation with fear. Although he speaks out against the hardness and coldness that can come from educational models too focused on training and discipline, he dialectically rejects the premise that love could be ”summoned in professionally mediated relations like that of teacher and student” (202). Rather, he asks us to engage with one another in manner that combats isolation without superimposing a unifying order. Education provides a site for community building and interaction, but it also offers students the prospect of some autonomy, of exercising “the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating” (195).

When I think about what an introductory writing seminar should be, I think of it as a site for staging this activity, this dance of connection and differentiation, through writing itself (and through the subsequent circulation of this writing). Although Adorno’s contexts are grim and we hope quite distinct from our own, we should perhaps heed his warning about a model of learning that is too certain of its goals and methods, too quick to privilege reproduction of the system over engagement with its members.

*All quotes from Theodor Adorno’s “Education After Auschwitz” in Critical Models (Columbia UP, 2005).

Concurrency

Anon, they fierce encountring both concur’d,
With griesly looks and faces like their fates
But dispar minds and inward moods unlike.
—Thomas Hughes, The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587)

When I first started to explore the partnerships that my university writing program had with local high schools, one phrase that got my attention was “concurrent enrollment.” It was a foreign-sounding term, with hints of bureaucracy. At first I favored the related term “dual enrollment” to characterize this negotiation of high school and college curricula in one place. Surely dual nicely describes these two things happening at once. And, in emphasizing two elements, one can stress balance as the appropriate skill in managing the work.

It didn’t take me long, however, to see that an instructor of one of these courses faces far more than two elements. Within the same class, an English instructor may have to address a school-wide focus on a specific theme or activity (e.g., a scholarship application or a letter of thanks), a state-wide emphasis on particular texts or articulated skills, a nationally produced exam such as Advanced Placement, the university-driven FYW curriculum, and more. Other forces include parents, school boards, program coordinators offering suggestions, seemingly endless curriculum reform and development, etc. No, “dual” is overly simplifying. And, after a foray into the OED  and some reflection on what it means to “concur” or to be “concurrent,” I warmed to the term concurrent enrollment as having much greater potential for truly capturing the many elements flowing through these courses.

The epigraph above includes one of the earliest uses of the term, “concur,” a meaning which at the time had a much greater element of clashing, contesting forces than today’s almost polite associations with concurring. “I concur” can signify an absence of debate or “dispar minds.” But the earliest definitions of “concur” included: “To run together violently or with a shock” and “To run together in hostility; to rush at each other.” In time, our more placid, cooperative use of the term has become primary, but we should not completely forget or elide the trace of chaos in the “currents” of these relationships. Concurrency, which suggests flows of water, money, or electricity, has a more dynamic quality, a suggestion, too, of power or of burgeoning force.

When I think of what we are trying to do in these courses, I favor a discourse of circulation and extension rather than one of balance or equivalence. Dual enrollment sounds like compromise. We should not look at these partnerships as sites for simply moving college courses to high school sites, as if doing so could happen without consequences. Concurrent enrollment more fully describes the running together of sometimes competing and contesting forces that have the potential to produce something more powerful and more active because of their combination. Balance may be out of the question, and some chaos may be inherent. But concurrency at least marks the attempt to link and enable something that cannot exist without this experimenting.

 

A First Post (Introduction)

The world does not need another blog, so let’s not call this one.

And, anyway, most blogs lose steam quickly if they are just a one-way communication from a source to an audience. As faculty coordinator of UConn’s Early College Experience English courses, I communicate with teachers through emails, official ECE documents, and at conferences. Why do I (or we) need yet another place to store more commentary?

Well, I wanted to have an informal “meeting place” where conversation might come out of our experience with teaching these courses. Our ECE English program is massive, and I feel like I am still only just beginning to glimpse and appreciate how ECE teachers harmonize the various requirements and suggestions that come from UConn, their home schools, AP, school boards, and more. Part of my work in 2017 includes getting a much closer look at the ECE courses themselves, including student writing. When I see something in a course that seems exciting, fresh, or just insightful in some way, I hope to, with permission, comment on what I see or have that teacher write a word or two about this aspect of the course.

I do also expect to use the site as a place to “say more” about things I have said in more official places. The teaching of FYW courses continues to evolve nationally and at UConn, and I will want to comment on those things. Early posts will likely reflect more of my own thinking. But I want to foreground collaboration and what teachers (and students) are doing in ECE whenever possible.

Things on this site might change as I learn more about what can or cannot work, but, at this point, my goals in setting up this site include providing a forum for:

  1. Ongoing discussion of the teaching of writing in First-Year Writing courses, especially UConn-branded FYW courses. This includes the circulation of ideas and practices that are currently working in our ECE sections (as well as issues and constraints that we face). Ideally, much of the material in this space will come from teachers themselves.
  2. Ongoing discussion of high school teaching as it relates to college-level writing and general education requirements at UConn and elsewhere.
  3. Further articulation and annotation of evolving program-specific policies.

Finally, because the university-provided WordPress sites attract armies of spambots, the comments section of these posts is turned off. Please contact me with any suggestions, comments, or questions. I will be sure to post relevant discussion followup when it comes to my attention. Thanks for reading!