2019 CCCC Presentation

A little more than two years ago, when I was first interviewed for the position of Chair of Writing Studies at Montclair State University, the first question I was asked was “why do you want to be our founding chair?”

 

Desire is a funny thing. I always wanted to be in a freestanding department, where I imagined not being held subservient to literature, screen studies, creative writing, linguistics, and so on, where I imagined not having to be in the same room every department meeting with people who did not see composition, rhetoric or technical writing as real disciplines, where I imagined not having to continually fight the battle within my department for new hires. And in a really particular way I wanted to work with the faculty and administrators who were interviewing me.

 

But perhaps most importantly I wanted to lead a department using a consensus model. Oklahoma State had in place a Head system, where the Department Head is contractually defined as administration rather than faculty, and being the associate Head of that department, it was clear that OSU’s structure did not encourage a consensus model of leadership, even though I had seen some examples of consensus leadership while there. But for me, even down to the metaphor, being a chair (instead of a Head) meant that I would be sitting at a table with my colleagues.

 

But I had concerns about making the move to a free standing writing program. As outlined by Justin Everett and Christina Hanganu-Bresch, writing studies programs continue to wrestle with whether they should market themselves within the rhetorical tradition of the liberal arts or emphasize the more practical tradition of rhetoric, and even in my first interviews with Montclair State it seemed that tension was a source of dissonance for the department.

 

At the time, though, my concerns about moving were less theoretical and more practical. The English department at Oklahoma State could often be a contentious place, but it was a large department that was not used to being pushed around by upper administration. That is to say that as a comp/rhet person, I discovered that if I could get something through my department it would pass through the Dean and Provost with very little pushback. As my rhet/comp colleagues at Oklahoma State would likely tell you, though, there were many rhet/comp initiatives that did not make it past the departmental stage.

 

Montclair at that time had 4 TT faculty, 23 Full Time Instructional Specialists, an established minor, and only the promise of a major. I was concerned that it  would be in a position to be pushed around in ways that a larger program could not. But going to Montclair’s campus and getting to know both the tenure stream and instructional specialist faculty made it clear to me that I wanted to play a part in this new department’s self-definition. And perhaps more important than the way that the department would define itself theoretically was the clear fact that this department wanted to define itself as a model of collaboration.

 

One of the first big tests of this model would come in establishing the way that we would frame the makeup of our department in our bylaws. How would faculty be named, who would have the power to vote? It was clear that our department wanted to include all full time faculty, but what about the power of adjuncts? There is a story in that, but I’m not really going to focus on it except to say that we succeeded to come to an agreement that gave full time Instructional Specialist faculty the power to vote in our department and perhaps subversively the power to be called “faculty” in our bylaws. We also, and to some degree more controversially, gave adjunct faculty the power to vote at our department meetings, and put into place a structure that would inform adjunct faculty when there would be issues that would most directly affect them.

 

What I want to focus on in this presentation, though, is the various ways that a consensus model of leadership has proven to be at direct odds with the kind of leadership that drives the university.  As a way of merging the practical concerns with some of the theoretical ones, I will focus on the story of getting our major passed because it brings together issues related to leadership, the role of Writing Studies as a discipline, with the function of rhetoric as a practical discipline.

 

***

 

Toward the end of my first semester of being department chair, I was given the news that the President of the University had read our Program Announcement Proposal for our major and was going to block its moving forward. That semester the department had already pushed the major through the college and university curriculum committees, and I had incorrectly assumed that the Board of Trustees meeting was only going to be a formality.

 

The President’s concerns, as delivered to me by the Provost, were that there were too many remnants of our connection with the English department in our current course offerings and that there were not enough efforts in our new major for us to collaborate with other colleges. Although I did not agree at all that any of our courses sounded like they should be in an English department, it seemed wise (or strategic) to take the opportunity to revise some course titles and descriptions, and even take the opportunity to create some new courses.  In the big picture, this part of the process was relatively painless.

 

What was more disconcerting was the imperative to collaborate with other colleges and schools across the campus. The provost told me that they had just spent 5 million dollars on new equipment in the school of communication and that we needed to collaborate with them. I explained that our courses in technologies of writing, digital and technical writing did not require 5 million dollar equipment to teach and that we had quite a few departments that we were already forging meaningful collaborations with, but it turned out that this particular collaboration was a deal breaker.

 

Seeing us primarily as a service department, the upper administration was, it appeared, more than happy letting us be a department that provided first year writing and a minor, they were more than happy to let the major proposal die in a file somewhere, so I set out on the long, rather tedious process of scheduling meetings with the Dean and faculty of people from the school of communication, a group that had no organic interest in working with us, and who–understandably, I’d say–resisted the imperative from above to quote unquote “collaborate.” And, truthfully, there is not a lot of story to tell. I waited outside of offices for scheduled meetings where no one came. I met with people, but when it comes down to it I never got anyone to agree to anything, but I did explain the situation to people when I met with them. Understandably, both the Dean and the faculty I met with explained that they did not want to move forward without further faculty input from various departments within the School.

 

One day, though, I received an email that our revised major would be approved at an upcoming board of Trustees Meeting. And so our revised major was born, a year later than we had expected, and as far as I am able to tell, without additional signatures from anyone.

 

***

 

This non-story would be perfect for Latourian analysis, but I only want to focus in this moment on the ways that the practical imperatives–rewrite, collaborate–refocused the curriculum and the department itself. With the required revisions, our core courses in our major became 30 credits plus 12 from another school, creating a major that becomes interdependent on more marketable colleges (business and communication, primarily).   

 

In short, the university pushed us in the direction of practicality with the cognate areas designation. But at least from my perspective rhetoric as a subject matter is flexible enough to remain connected to its humanistic mission as long as the teachers of the courses remain attuned to its flexibility. What is troubling is the way that this particular anecdote illustrates how writing studies as a discipline continues to be marginalized, but now from a more distributed place. On balance, though, I’d say this particular brand of marginalization is preferable because we are now in a position to move forward and to grow, if not towards independence then toward a model of interdependence that will work its way toward, I hope, a basis in mutual trust and sincere need.

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Problem Solving Emails

It always amazes me how much class discussion can be generated with a simple activity, especially when the activity is grounded in the experience of students. Take this one, from Graves and Graves’ A Strategic Guide to Technical Communication: 

In-Class Exercise 7.3

You have to miss class to attend the funeral of an extended family member, but you have an assignment due at the beginning of that class. Write an email message to your instructor using the information in the previous section and the organization pattern outlined in Figure 7.3 to help you develop and structure your communication. Remember, you need to both identify and solve the problem that your upcoming absence will create.

The organizational pattern for problem solving emails that Graves and Graves provides is as follows:

Figure 7.3

1) Identify and describe the problem.

2) Give whatever background is necessary.

3) Describe options for solving the problem.

4) Recommend a solution and offer assistance to solve the problem.

I believe the reason that this assignment generates so much discussion in the classroom is that it is a very real and relatable situation, but I also think it presents an important intellectual challenge for students because it asks them to think, in a very concrete way, from the reader’s perspective. Students have to think of the problem from the instructor’s perspective. The student has to miss class and will not be able to turn in an assignment and will also miss the work done in the class that day. The necessary background is not about the student’s life, it’s about the work missed, how it is articulated on the syllabus. It also give the students the ability, in presenting solutions to the problem, a chance to articulate their understanding of the values of the course.

 

Cover Letters

I’m on a really large search committee with professors from both the Arts and the Sciences, and I’ve been surprised by the number of people in the Sciences who do not read cover letters, who only look at the CV portion of job application packets.

My students in technical writing mentioned that some firms hiring interns explicitly ask students not to include cover letters with their resumes.

I argued in class that even if an employer does not want a cover letter, writing one is a good idea because doing so will help you develop stories and examples that you could use in an interview session, but now I’m really curious what this potential trend means.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Technical Writing By The Book

I am teaching technical writing “by the book” for the first time in many years. That is to say I’ve taught technical writing a few times in the last few year, but this is the first time in a while that I’ve used a book. This semester, I’m using Heather Graves and Roger Graves’s Strategic Guide to Technical Communication (2nd Edition). 

I have to admit that I’m departing from my usual textbook-less approach because I am finding the business of being a departmental chair more time consuming than I’d like, and I’m hoping that the textbook provides structures that I’m currently not able to provide.  I want to write about some of the experiments I’ve tried in technical writing, but I thought I’d do so through the lens of comparison with this semester.

(The last time I taught technical writing, for example, I centered my class on making robots, and there isn’t a textbook that let me do that, but I will have to tell you more about that later…)

 

Teaching Revision with Manuscripts

Deep Down in the Classroom

By Jennifer Daly

Synthesis of an Idea:

During this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities two-week seminar “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller” we would get together for discussion forums on everything from our own writing to pedagogical practices to activism inside and outside the classroom. One evening, a professor had mentioned the Digital Thoreau Project as a way to show the students the synthesis of Walden and to track the very deliberate changes Henry David Thoreau made in each of the manuscripts.  After much thinking, I had the thought that this could be done with almost any writer—as long as there was a manuscript. I decided that I would utilize manuscripts to open a conversation about process and revision with First Year Writing students this year and see if it was accessible to them.  There was a chance that they a) wouldn’t care, or…

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Assignment: Creating (and Coding) a Professional Website

(Note: If you have stumbled on this page by accident, this is an assignment I’ve given my English 5593 class. I’m posting it here because some colleagues are interested in seeing the assignment. –rb).

By April 14th, you will have created a professional website and an “off the grid” replication of that website, which will be built from the ground up and which will replicate as many of the features of your professional website as you are able to create.

The Professional Website:

Using WordPress, Weebly, or another free site, create a digital portfolio that allows future employers to find out who you are and what you do. At minimum, this site should have an “about me” page, a CV, and a description of working projects.

Here are a few examples of Professional Websites:

http://timorich.net/

http://ceball.com/

http://bonnielenorekyburz.com/

Process Material for the LRO:

  • include any challenges you encountered when creating your professional site, as well as a description of how you met those challenges
  • include a description of the ethos you are trying to project and how you believe this site projects that ethos
  • include a description from someone else of your site’s ethos. Is there a difference between your perception and the perception of the outside observer? What do you make of these differences?

The Replication

Create a multiple page “website” (turned in on a jumpdrive, a CD, or hung up on the web somewhere) which has working links (internal and external) and CSS applied.

Process Materials for the Replication:

  • keep a good record of roadblocks you experienced, how you got around them, and how you helped others
  • reflect on the process overall and what each (the WordPress and the ground up) taught you about online style, editing, and persuasion

 

Assumptions:

This assignment has been written to meet the experience level of the majority of the class, who has little to no experience coding. We are assuming, then, that many of us are going to fail to fully replicate our professional websites. Unlike most assignments, then, failure is part of the point. What has the attempt to replicate something already on the web taught you about coding? What has it taught you about writing for the web? By keeping an accurate record of our thoughts along the way, you will be given a clearer sense of when to allow digital platforms to do coding work for you, when you should do the work yourself, and when you can and should copy code (giving proper credit to the original coders, of course.)

If you are in the small minority of people in this class who has experience coding, remember that in order to have something meaningful to write about for your LRO, you will need to push the boundaries of your experiments. What things have you not tried in your coding experience yet? What happened when you tried to apply those experiments to the replicated professional page?

Exercises Related to Editing Project 1

  1. Using the basic terminology from Chapter 1 of Castro and Hyslop, see how many of the “Webpage Building Blocks” you can identify on the homepage of the professional website you created in WordPress, etc. To do so, you will need to look at the coding underneath your page by “viewing its source.” Annotate, in some way, the code of the site, labeling what makes up the “head” and “body” sections, what specifically is part of the “markup,” what specifically is a link to other content, and what specifically is textual content on the page. Don’t stress about getting this right (at this point, a great deal of this is going to look like goobledygook). The goal here is simply to see what you are able to identify and what you are not. Feel free to compare notes and ask others in the class.  (2/01/15)
  2. Use Chapters 2 & 3 of Castro to “reverse engineer” your WordPress site. Start with the simple text of your site, then see if you can add headings, links, headers, and footers. (2/10/15). The same rules about stress from above apply. Our goal is to engage the process and keep a log of what happens throughout.
  3. Use Chapter 4 of Castro to continue this process. Today, you might experiment with isolating a line of code from your WordPress site (or from somewhere else) and cutting and pasting it into your own site. What happened when you did that? What does the process teach you?  (2/12/15)
  4. Use Chapters 5 & 6 to continue this process. As some of the code becomes more complicated, you might utilize some of the ready made work at htmlcssvqs.com. (2/17/2015)
  5. Use the material about CSS to create a style sheet you apply to the HTML pages you have created. You might eventually experiment with CSS Zen Garden, in order to give your website different looks. (First mentioned 2/26/15)