English literature and composition

Essay on whether writing instructors need to assess themselves

Are we holding ourselves to the same rigorous standards we apply to our students? Are we practicing enough of what we preach?

The recent document the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, posits eight "habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success": curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition.

In a recent exchange on the WPA listserv (subject heading “Measuring the Habits of Mind”) several scholars in writing studies have debated the slippery question of whether these habits of mind can or should be measured or assessed. Most respondents replied with horror at the idea of such motivational terms being put under the scrutiny and micropolicing of assessment. In a passionate reply, one respondent wrote, "If we're going to assess anything, maybe we should start by looking at the conditions in which students are supposed to learn. A student can bring all the curiosity and creativity in the world into a classroom, but it won't help much if what she encounters there is an uninspired, poorly designed course taught by an ill-informed, unreflective dolt who dislikes students as much as the job of teaching (or just spends every hour lecturing 'facts' to students in the manner of Gradgrind)."

In reply to this and other posts, another respondent brought up the fact that a bibliography of selected research accompanies the framework. This teacher-scholar suggests both the importance of and the difficulty inherent in trying to assess (let alone "measure") sociological and psychological habits of mind: "I am sure that it is an odd and willful gesture of our profession, which deals with human beings, to toss so radically out a century of effort by psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychometricians to measure habits of mind — an effort still going strong, though not without plenty of caution, doubt, and resistance within those professions. Indeed, both yearning and qualms have attended the measurement of habits of mind in psychology from the beginning."

While both respondents argue important points to consider in relation to student performances in learning to write and writing-to-learn, the first one above also suggests an important consideration for writing teachers in relation to the eight habits of mind: the fact that these habits of mind should apply just as much to instructors as they do to students. If we ask students to exercise curiosity, then it is only fair to ask: Are we curious as instructors? How do we express that curiosity? Same for openness, engagement, creativity, and all the other terms. It would make little sense, one might argue, to preach to students that they should be exercising (or showcasing or practicing or honing) their engagement and creativity if they are subjected to a teacher in the classroom who drones out boring and uninspiring lesson plans in the classroom.  

Unfortunately, I do not have any magical answers to this dilemma. And I certainly do not have the type of psychometric knowledge our more social-scientifically minded colleagues possess. But I do feel the issue is a crucial one for us to consider. The best I can offer fellow teachers of writing is, let’s continue to practice metacognition in our theory and practice. Continue to read books like John Bean’s second edition of Engaging Ideas for tips, pointers, and expert guidance in ways to design inspiring and motivational writing curriculum. Continue to reflect on what students say about us in our course evaluations, and act on revising our teaching performances (and the habits of mind and action that undergird those self-reflections) if we don’t always like what they say. Perhaps readers of this article can offer further suggestions.

There’s a line from one of my favorite films, "Blade Runner," that applies to this situation. Deckard (Harrison Ford) gives a test to Rachel (Sean Young) to see (assess, measure) if she is a replicant (android) or a human being. Later, while visiting Deckard at his home, Rachel asks, “You know that void-comp test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” Deckard does not reply.

I believe Rachel asks a crucial question that we as teachers should be asking ourselves at least every so often (if not every day). When students — almost always implied — ask us the same question, I hope we can learn how to offer a human-as-possible reply.  
 
 

Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.

 

New book on aging and the academic

Smart Title: 

New book takes a tragicomic look at aging in literature and academe.

Report finds literary research an inefficient use of university money

Smart Title: 

A new paper by an English professor argues that literary research, much of which is rarely cited, is not an efficient use of university resources.

Essay on what an English professor learned teaching soldiers

When I entered graduate school, my goal was to become an English professor. I had loved literature from an early age, and teaching as a graduate student only deepened my resolve to be a professor. But the job market for humanities professors was wretched, and the gallows humor of my professors and other graduate students was enough to send me scurrying on my way. I finished my master’s degree and went to work for the Department of Pensions and Security, a part of the welfare program in the State of Alabama.

It was only later when I took on work as an adjunct that I cobbled together the courage to finish what I had started by getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor.  And the wherewithal came from an unexpected place: my students.

I signed on to teach general education classes as an adjunct at Troy University’s campus at Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of my students were soldiers. I brought to the class all of the assumptions that often afflict young, smartass humanities graduates. I was opening the eyes of the nearly blind. I certainly never expected my students to open my eyes. I didn’t even know how blind I was or how little I knew about literature or about teaching — about life itself.

Wilfred Owen’s "Dulce Et Decorum Est"  taught me to see my students in a new way. I had taught it many times as a teaching assistant, finding the anti-war theme of the poem one that resonated with me and the traditional undergraduates I taught. The narrator discovers what I supposed all of us in a post-Vietnam War America had learned: that Horace’s famous phrase "it is sweet and becoming to die for your country" (in Latin Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori) is a lie. Since Owen was a soldier who died in World War I, I thought the poem would be particularly interesting to my soldier students. But the single phrase “fitting the clumsy helmets [gas masks] on just in time” opened the poem in an unexpected way.

The narrator describes mustard gas canisters falling on his platoon as he and his comrades are marching. They struggle to get the "clumsy helmets on just in time." One in the group is not fast enough with the gas mask. Helplessly, the others watch him die. A private in the room stopped me on the word "clumsy."

"All soldiers complain about the gas masks," he said. "There’s not an easy way to put ‘em on, Sir." He then demonstrated the process of putting the mask on.  Looking around at the fatigues, I realized that I was the only one in the class who didn't personally know what it felt like to put on a gas mask. I had never even seen one except in movies.

When we got to the passage in the poem where Owen describes the soldier who dies — "guttering, choking, drowning" — because he doesn’t get the gas mask on in time, a sergeant raised his hand. "Mustard gas causes the lungs to produce fluid, Sir. This man is drowning on dry land." I then read aloud the narrator’s description of the body of his fallen comrade, thrown into the wagon as the platoon continues to march:  "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs." We were all suddenly inside the poem, living together the horror that Owen described.  It was 9:15 p.m. on an average Wednesday night.

I had gotten up at 6:00 a.m. to prepare for class. I had worked all day at my state job. Most of the soldiers had reported for drills at 5:00 a.m. Some of them had come from the field so late that they had not had time to put their weapons away. They lay on the floor near their desks. And yet at that moment, every eye in the room was focused hard and tight on the page. Through the power of Owen's words, brought to life by my students, we were living the poem together, caught in its deadly magic.

When we got to the end of the poem, I stumbled upon the most important surprise of the evening. Most of the soldiers in the room agreed with Owen: Horace did lie -- it is not "sweet and becoming" to die for one's country. Still, like Owen, they had taken that risk for the array of reasons that people do what they do. Some were there because their fathers and their father’s fathers had served and it was in their blood; some because they felt called to defend their country. But all of them had taken the oath to sacrifice themselves if the occasion arose. And yet as far as I could tell, nobody in the room disagreed with Owen. In fact, they had earned the right to agree with Owen in a way I never would: by taking the risk that their time of service would coincide with a war, that they too would be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.

I taught as an adjunct professor at Troy State at Fort Benning for three years. Some of my students were distracted and uninterested, just the way most college students sometimes are. But others were the smartest, most well-informed, most disciplined students I have ever taught. More important, they brought to the literature classroom an array of experiences that I had never had. For that reason, they taught me to teach literature. They also taught me about real-life choices, real-life risks, real-life consequences: the reality that stands behind works of great literature.

When it works the way it should, a beginning literature classroom is a place where teacher and student sit at the knee of the storyteller. And through the vehicle of the story, they help each other piece together the mystery of human existence. The teacher brings to the classroom a knowledge of literary form and history that the students most likely do not have. But the students will often have an array of experiences or reactions that the teacher can never guess or predict. This is particularly true in a class of nontraditional students. Again and again at the end of long, weary days, with the help of my soldier students, we summoned long-dead poets to life, brought fictional characters into flesh and blood, and pondered words that had rung in the ears of generations of men and women. And when I left the classroom, there was inside me a kind of awe. In part, it was for literature, which despite my years in school, I had never really understood before.  But another part of it was simply for the students. They gave so much of themselves to be there, and while there, they brought my classes to life.

The final gift I got from my students was the willingness to tread uncertainly into a profession that was at best a dare, given the bleak job prospects for English Ph.D.s in the 1980s. I did not take half the risk that my students did — the risk of dying in the midst of enemy fire. I did not take the risk that Wilfred Owen took. After writing some of the best war poetry we have and discovering just how much a wretched lie Horace had told, he was killed one week before World War I was over. He died on November 4, 1918, and his parents got the news of his death on November 11th as the armistice bells were tolling. But I did in those years find the courage to risk failure. I went back to school, earned a Ph. D. in English, and became a professor.

So what if there were no jobs?  So what if I finished a Ph. D. and had to go to work as a hack writer or a sales associate? It was worth the risk because of those classes and those students. And I knew then what I still know: that every day of my life, they and those like them took a much larger risk than I ever have.

I have never regretted my decision, nor have I ever forgotten the students who taught me how to make it. I will forever be in their debt.
 

H. William Rice is chair of English at Kennesaw State University.

Will's Quill or Not Will's Quill …

Smart Title: 

… that is the question, but scholars are arguing over whether they should ask it.

'The Managerial Unconscious'

A familiar story about the modern university goes something like this: Once upon a time, the freshman arrived already knowing at least the basic mechanics of writing: what a paragraph was, how punctuation marks worked, the existence of nouns and verbs (and the obligation that they agree in a given sentence), that sort of thing. But the expansion of higher education throughout the 20th century, and especially in its second half, meant that a steadily growing portion of the student body needed basic training in such things.

The job naturally fell to professors of English, even though composition stood in relation to the study of literature roughly as long division did to algebraic topology, over in the math department. Still, it was necessary. Teaching this basic (even remedial) course helped justify offering the more advanced sections in literature. As the demand for writing instruction grew, it ceased being one task among others that the English faculty performed. It was became a function planned and administered separately from the courses on literature, and sometimes it even broke off from the department entirely, to do its own thing.

And that is why there is now a writing center on campus, probably in a basement somewhere, largely staffed by graduate students. There are faculty who specialize in composition studies, every single one of whom remembers that Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors, once called them “comp droids” pursuing an activity devoid of any real intellectual content. That was more than 10 years ago, and in the original context it was a critique of literary scholars' attitudes. But the comp people still quote it sometimes, with bitterness, as if they've made a slogan of the militant online group Anonymous their own: “We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget.”

There are various problems with this narrative, including the fact that happy compositionists do exist. (I have met them.) But the most important is the fable about the golden age when secondary education produced literate students, so that the English faculty could keep its attention focused on higher things. In The Managerial Unconscious in the History of Composition Studies, published by Southern Illinois University Press, Donna Strickland quotes various exasperated statements issuing from Harvard University in the 1890s. Professors were obliged to instruct “bearded men [in] the rudiments of their native tongue,” so that “a large corps of teachers have to be engaged and paid from the College treasury to do that which should have been done before the student presented himself for admission.”

Teaching composition was the manual labor of the mind: “In quantity,” said a committee appointed by the Harvard Board of Overseers in its report from 1892, “this work is calculated to excite dismay; while the performance of it involves not only unremitted industry, but mental drudgery of the most exhausting nature.” And keep in mind that the students in question -- the raw material to be processed in the sweatshops of the Harvard English department – were typically the product of prep schools, in an era when the only distracting form of electronic communication was the telephone.

’Twas ever thus, in other words. But demolishing the belief that basic writing instruction at the college level reflects some recent dysfunction in secondary education (especially public schools) is a fairly minor element in Strickland’s argument.

The author, an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri at Columbia, reconfigures the history of composition studies, rejecting the commonplace view that the field took shape on the margins of another discipline -- a humble (but all too necessary) pedagogical supplement to literary studies. The Managerial Unconscious is remarkably compact book, its points made with much concentration. Reading it more than once seems like a good idea. Here is a brief survey, offered with with all due trepidation by someone who has been through it just once.

The title might be a good way in. It alludes to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981), which offered “always historicize” as a slogan for cultural analysis.

Strickland follows this injunction by stressing an important thing about the emergence of university-level composition courses in the U.S. at the close of the 19th century: it coincided with a rapidly growing market for white-collar labor. As companies expanded, their internal structures became more complex. Mechanization and the division of labor in manufacture increased productivity, but coordinating manufacture and distribution required new layers of managerial staff, able to turn out reports, memos, press releases, and the like.

When bearded men at university were unable to write coherently, that, rather than how prepared they were to compose a theme on Keats, was the real issue. To occupy a slot in the corporate chain of command, they had to be able to put a pen intelligibly to paper. One member of the Harvard committee that scrutinized undergraduate writing in the 1890s was the chairman of the Massachusetts Railroad Commission -- an early expert on what would soon be called systematic or scientific approaches to management. The committee’s stress on the drudgery involved in handling thousands of student compositions per semester echoes the managerial theme that work can and should be organized for greater efficiency.

“Whether the ideas of systematic management were employed consciously or unconsciously,” writes Strickland, “articulating the correct divisions of labor in the teaching of English was clearly the burden of the committee’s report.” To produce enough skilled labor to manage American business, the university itself needed to retool.

So by Strickland’s account, English professors did not shove composition out of literary studies like an unwelcome stepchild. Another dynamic was at work. Writing instruction became a discipline in Foucault’s sense – a way of inculcating both skills and the capacity to perform in a corporate workplace. Can the student rework a paper to the prof’s satisfaction, as a mid-management person might be called upon to revise a handbook? “Writing programs,” says Strickland, “… were made possible not by the devaluing of student writing in the university but by its central function in an institution that depended on writing as a tool for surveillance and assessment.”

The quest for managerial efficiency just happened to reinforce other power relationships: “The teaching of required writing [became], in the process of being divided from the English department in the name of efficiency, sometimes an entry-level position, more frequently in recent decades a position completely outside the tenure track. Because more stable, better paying faculty positions tended to be awarded to men, women often had little choice but to take on low-paying instructorships in composition.”

And by the later third of the 20th century, the consolidation of composition studies as a distinct field (with its own journals, graduate programs, academic organizations, and book series) had an odd effect. In keeping with Strickland’s title, the specialty behaves like one of Freud’s patients -- running away from “the managerial unconscious,” only to find it returning, just ahead. Comp studies established itself as an intellectual discipline. But one career track in it leads to supervising the labor of adjuncts and graduate students, preparing a syllabus that others will follow, and trying to keep the writing center’s costs down and statistics up. Still, thinking of the field as having a managerial component meets resistance, given the “negative connotations for traditional humanist intellectuals,” Strickand writes, “who have tended over the decades to distrust management as, at best, nonintellectual and, at worst, soul-murdering.” Management is where you land after doing a really good job at Pizza Hut for a couple of years.

But if the shoe fits.... "Once organizations of any kind are organized hierarchically," writes Strickland, "with a class of experts structuring and overseeing the work of a group of nonexperts, management happens. Professionalism calls for control and systematization of knowledge, and management is the group of people who reinforce that." Much of the book is devoted to how the evasion of its managerial function has played itself out over the years, even after the Council of Writing Program Administrators was established in the late 1970s. Strickland’s tone is never harsh. But when she writes that “almost from the beginning of the organization, the WPA discourse showed an aversion toward so-called managerial tasks,” somebody’s ox is being gored.

Strickland's argument implies consequences – but only implies them. Greater lucidity about how the managerial legacy of composition studies is the prerequisite for creating better working conditions; she also suggests that it will help make writing instruction a way to develop students' critical intelligence. But just how any of that will happen is left unaddressed. The Managerial Unconscious feels like the first volume of something, rather than the last word. If its implications are hard to read, that is because they remain to be drafted.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Beyond the Three Percent

In 2007, before releasing its first title, Open Letter Books, a literary press based at the University of Rochester, began running a blog called Three Percent. The title comes from an estimate of how large a share of the annual U.S. book output consists of translations. If anything, that figure may have been a little high even at the time. Given the continuing surge in the number of new titles published each year (up 14 percent between 2009 and 2010, thanks in part to print-on-demand), the portion of books in translation is almost certainly shrinking. Whether or not globalization is an irresistible force, provincialism is an immovable object. But Open Letter, for its part, is dedicated to doing what it can. The press brings 10 foreign-language books into English each year (most of them novels) and Three Percent tracks what is happening in the world of literary translation. The blog also sponsors the annual Best Translated Book Award, now in its fifth year.

As it turns out, the latest work from Open Letter was originally written in English. The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading is an e-book consisting of material that Chad W. Post, who is OL's publisher, has culled from his blogging over the past four years. (“Some were speeches that I had to give and wrote them first for Three Percent,” Post said by e-mail. “Two birds and all that.”) It can be downloaded from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $2.99 -- with all of the profit going to pay translators. You could read all this material for free online, of course, but that would be miserly.

So cough up the three bucks, is what I’m trying to say. It goes for a good cause -- and besides, the book is a good deal, even apart from the low price. The pieces have been revised somewhat, and arranged by topic and theme, so that the whole thing now reads like a reasonably cohesive attempt to come to terms with the developments in book culture during the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. As John B. Thompson showed in his study Merchants of Culture (Polity, 2010), dealing with any particular change in publishing requires you to grapple with the whole system -- the vast apparatus of production and distribution that connects writer and public. Translation is one aspect of it, of course, but it links up in various ways with the rest of publishing. While Post was making his running assessment of the state of literary translation, he also had to think about the new ways we buy and consume texts. One of essays is called “Reading in the Age of Screens,” which indeed could be an alternative title for the whole book.

Notification that the book was available came to me last week via Facebook, which is amusing given Post's definite ambivalence about the "all digital, all the time" tendency of contemporary life. "In the digital world," he said in a note, "we tend to stick to what we already know we want, reinforcing certain patterns, and losing some of the serendipity that a lot of readers point to as a huge influence on their life." True, and yet I did buy the book and start reading it (on a screen) within a few minutes, and was able to ask the author questions later that afternoon. The lack of serendipity was not a big problem.

One of the things I wanted to ask Post about was the peculiar role of academe in regard to translation. University presses undoubtedly account for a larger share of each year’s crop of translations than trade publishers do. At the same time, the actual work of bridging language barriers has long been undervalued as a form of scholarship. An uninspired monograph generates more institutional credit than a much-needed translation. The Modern Language Association began taking steps in a more encouraging direction a couple of years ago, when Catherine Porter (a prolific translator of books from French) was its president. And this spring, MLA issued guidelines for evaluating translations as part of peer review. But without stronger institutional recognition of the value of translation, the American tendency toward literary isolationism will only get worse -- apart from the occasional surge of interest in, say, Swedish mystery fiction.

According to a database kept by Three Percent, academic presses bring out roughly 15 percent of the translated fiction and poetry appearing each year. “I suspect this figure would be much higher if we tracked nonfiction works as well,” Post told me. “As it stands, nonprofits, university presses, and independents account for 80-85 percent of the published translations.” He mentioned the presses of Columbia University, Texas Tech, and the University of Nebraska as examples of imprints bringing out excellent books in translation. But talking with literary translators working in academe means hearing “a bunch of terrifying stories about their translation work interfering with getting tenure, etc.”

Even so, there are young professors interested in the study of translation -- “and surprisingly,” Post said, “I know at least a few who are being urged (and evaluated) by their departments to continue translating." At the same time, the classroom is a front line in the effort to overcome resistance or indifference to the rest of the world’s literature. “It always shocks me at how few books from France, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, etc., that students read during their studies,” he says. “It's as if American and British authors exist in a bubble, or as if students are just supposed to find out about the rich history of world literature in their spare time.... I think it would be ideal if more international works were taught in classes, giving students a chance to explore the issues of translation and helping defuse the trepidation some readers have when approaching a translated book.”

Open Letter works with the program in literary translation studies at the University of Rochester. Students “take a theory class, produce a portfolio of their own translations, and intern with the press.” Post admits that the trends in the publishing world do not point to a future in which translation will be a booming field. Thanks to "depletion in the number of bookstores (especially independents), increased focus on the bottom line, [and] the immense increases in the number of published titles," the portion of translated books "will remain around 3 percent, or even decrease when you start counting self-published titles.” At the same time, a number of small presses with a commitment to publishing translations have emerged over the past decade or so, besides Open Letter. They include Archipelago Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, Europa Editions, Melville House, PEN World Voices, and Words Without Borders.

Calling it an issue “as fraught as it could be,” Post notes that Amazon is not only “funding a lot of organizations involved in translation, but they've started AmazonCross, a publishing enterprise focused exclusively on literature in translation.” In 2010, the online bookseller gave $25,000 to the University of Rochester so that the Best Translated Book Awards could begin offering a cash prize to the winning authors and translators.

Someone willing and able to spend the money “could make a huge difference in the landscape for international literature in a short period of time,” Post told me. “This doesn't have to be a corporation at all.… I think that over the next decade, as more small presses come into existence thanks to advances in technology, changes in distribution methods, and general dissatisfaction with a lot of the stuff coming out from corporate presses, the audience for international literature will continue to increase. There may not be that many more titles being published, but the publishers doing this work will get more and more savvy at getting their titles into the hands of interested readers, academics, reviewers, etc. -- people who aren't put off by the idea of reading a translation.”

That last part is, in the final analysis, the real crux of the matter. Even when books do get translated, they are sometimes promoted very poorly. In The Three Percent Problem, Post refers to one university press that seems committed to describing the foreign novels it publishes in terms that are strangely unappealing. Without naming the press I can confirm that the complaint is all too valid: the publisher's catalog always makes the books sound desiccated, lugubrious, and inaction-packed.

It's the kind of thing that reinforces what Post calls "the overriding prejudice" about books in translation: "that they won't sell, that only the most sadomasochistic of people will read them, that reviewers will view these books as being secondary to the original version, etc." The only cure is for enthusiastic readers to communicate among themselves, to strike a spark of interest.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

A Dissenter Is Fired

Smart Title: 

Tenure, teaching awards and help from AAUP don't save job of Erskine professor who offends religious traditionalists.

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