Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dwelling in Disciplinary Possibility: The Poetics of Composition and Writing Program Administration

Andrea Scott, Assistant Professor of Academic Writing
Pitzer College
Claremont, California

I teach writing, but I don't write. My article published in the last issue of CEA Forum opens with a version of this statement. It was a running joke circulated among colleagues in a writing program where I taught for several years. Of course, it wasn't true. We all had writing projects in progress, but there were stretches of time when, given curricular requirements, most of our intellectual energy was dedicated to responding to student writing. If you measured by output, you'd find we were wildly prolific during those weeks. Each academic year every full-time faculty member composed on average five-hundred double-spaced pages of comments on student drafts and revisions—a sum worthy of a scholarly monograph. Yet, as I explore in my piece, the reasons for delayed disciplinary writing in such contexts can be quite complex.

In reading scholarship on how students acquire academic literacy, I can't help but see connections between our students’ development as scholarly writers and my own trajectory as a scholar-teacher-administrator joining fields new to me at the time: writing studies and writing program administration. I came to rhetoric and composition by way of literary studies in graduate school, changing paths as I read my way deeper into the field. And when I found myself in my first role as a writing program administrator a few years later, I began to register personally what I had long known intellectually from research: that writing program administration (WPA) is rewarding but also difficult because it requires us to be generalists in our expertise. To deliver sound arguments to stakeholders and to cultivate and sustain effective teaching practices in our programs, which become the basis of our research, we need to be familiar with a wide range of scholarly conversations in writing studies and dedicate time and resources to collaborations that appropriate that research to local contexts.

I'd like to focus on this angle here, because it's something that keeps coming up in conversations with colleagues who find themselves in similar hybrid roles that makes them seem, as Nancy Sommers puts it, "'neither fish nor fowl,' neither fully faculty, neither fully administrative" (508)—whether they are positioned in writing programs, community engagement centers, or dual institutional homes. I imagine a growing number of CEA Forum readers are negotiating complex disciplinary identities under the increasingly expansive umbrella of English studiesa phenomenon that can spark unproductive controversy this article aims to help redress.  

Defining Disciplinarity
I'll start with a given: being a WPA is thrilling because the work is collaborative and diverse and the results of one's efforts are tangibly visible. As Doug Hesse puts it, "[n]o other administrative position so commingles agency with disciplinary knowledge" (503). A well-designed program or center can make you feel part of a community deeply grounded in your discipline. The challenge lies in making this intellectual work visible to others.

Possessing a wide-ranging research agenda puts junior faculty in a precarious position because the tenure and promotion process is often still conservative in design. In the academy authority is defined by narrow but deep bases of expertise rendered visible through focused research agendas.
If a multidisciplinary identity remains central to how many of us define our work, how do we communicate this identity to multiple constituents?  

As a junior faculty member in her first year directing a Writing Center at a small liberal arts college as a solo WPA, this issue is on my mind. In my previous position, I served as an associate director of a multidisciplinary writing program, taking the lead on first-year writing and faculty development. When I survey my research agenda over the past year, it reflects these wide-ranging experiences, from collaborations between writing center tutors and first-year writing instructors to the international turn in writing studies scholarship, from the design of writing-centered courses in cultural studies to questions of socialization in the field.

As a result, my reading lists traverse multiple fields and subfields, where I am perpetually writing my way into a public assertion of expertise in the multiple and shifting institutional and intellectual contexts in which my work is situated. I am continuously in the process of deepening my expertise in the evolving dimensions of my position, which in turn provides an avenue for participating in disciplinary conversations about the nature of this work. The condition of always being a relatively new arrival directed by local institutional exigencies and opportunities has led me to cultivate a germane positionality that feels very familiar.

And here's where I think my original base of scholarly expertise comes in handy for the particular lens it offers for thinking about the epistemic possibilities in such curious positioning.

The Poetics of Composition 
A comparatist by training, I earned by Ph.D. studying the relationship between lyric poetry and social institutions in the early Cold War. Poets have long since articulated a complex relationship to traditional forms of disciplinary authority. As a genre, poetry tends to resist the boundedness of discourse; it’s a form of composition disquietedly at home with not knowing, embracing uncertainty and unsettledness as epistemological practices. Poets are less interested in constructing persuasive arguments than they are in generating propositional forms of thinking. Poetry particularizes experience, insisting on language’s potential to localize and thus trouble knowledge.

James Longenbach sums up this skeptical quality in The Resistance to Poetry, claiming that the lyric is the “language of self-questioning—metaphors that turn against themselves, syntax that moves one way because it threatens to move another, voices that speak because they are shattered" (xi). In other words, poetry partakes in the introspective game of its own negation. Lyric poetry is rigorously self-reflective. Where other genres of discourse produce declarative knowledge, poetry foregrounds the ambivalence inherent in ambitious assertion—the tension between reason and unreason, semiotics and sound, piousness and blasphemy, alienation and encounter. Poetry stages this drama and feels “true” precisely because it marks the difficulty of locating clear centers of conviction.

I’d like to suggest the value in seeing connections between our status as multidisciplinary scholar-practitioners and the dispositions inhabited by poets—even if we often teach and inhabit genres that may appear to be at odds with the lyric’s exigency. If this sounds like a stretch, let me be more explicit. To create knowledge is to practice productive forms of not-knowing from within what is known. The utopian aim of poetry is to transcend this state of paralysis with propositions that are as self-reflective about their partiality as their possibility. Poets can teach us about the value of remaining unsettled in our disciplinary understandings—so that we might paradoxically ask and see more. To those of us whose research, teaching, and leadership roles are multiple, poetry models dispositional thinking that views such slippages as generative.

Of course, poetry might invite us to recognize the impossibility of constructing coherent narratives of professional identities, but disciplinary departments (and other authority-granting institutions) may think otherwise. But here's where the lyric’s disposition comes in handy, too. It gives us agency to claim expertise in hybrid local spaces, insisting on the value of the contingent to accessing more global frameworks of understanding.

If Emily Dickinson chose to separate poetry from prose in her pronouncement “I dwell in Possibility—/ A fairer House than Prose—” (657: 327), perhaps our diverse positions within institutions allow us to hold both commitments in uneasy tension. In my research, teaching, and program leadership, I strive to cultivate in myself and others habits of mind promoting what Elizabeth Wardle calls "problem-exploring" (as opposed to "answer-getting") dispositions. Only from this place of possibility can we create homes for arguments that hit us—and others—where we live.

Works Cited
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1961. Print.

Hesse, Doug. College Composition and Communication 54.3 (2005): 501-7. Print.

Longenbach, James.  The Resistance to Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Print.

Sommers, Nancy. "The Case for Research: One Writing Program Administrator's Story" College Composition and Communication 54.3 (2005): 507-14. Print.

Wardle, Elizabeth. "Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning: Considering 'Problem-Exploring' and 'Answer-Getting' Dispositions in Individuals and Fields." Composition Forum 26 (2012). Web.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Fear and Loathing in the Blogosphere

Dr. Danny Anderson, Assistant Professor of English
Emmanuel College
Franklin Springs, Georgia

When Dr. McDaniel (is it alright to call him Jamie in a blog post?) asked me to be a guest blogger for The CEA Forum Annex, he left the subject matter open. He did, however, suggest I might reflect on the relationship between blogging and my professional life. He couldn’t have known it then, but as it turns out I am currently wringing my metaphorical hands over this subject, so I am glad to accommodate.

The Haunting Question
What would possess an otherwise functional human being to voluntarily add semi-regular blogging to his official duties as a freshly-minted assistant professor of English?

My adventures in blogging began on a whim at the end of my first semester in my new job. My institution does not operate within the “publish or perish” model, so most of the professional pressure I’ve experienced revolves around my teaching. I’m grateful for this aspect of my work, but I must also admit that it makes me a little uneasy as well.

I’m hoping that the audience for this blog will understand what I’m about to say more than my family and non-academic friends, because it probably doesn’t make much sense outside of graduate school.

After years of mostly-disciplined devotion to my research, I found myself with a Ph.D. and a job that I truly enjoy and feel was meant for me on a metaphysical scale. It is utterly clear that my institution and I are a hand-and-glove fit. Finding myself through my work has been an unforgettable and exhilarating experience, yet the cozy comfort I feel somehow makes me nervous as well. The nagging fear I live with in my accomplishment is that without having something that I must grasp at, I risk intellectual sedimentation. Without having to go through the torture of publishing academic research that contributes to something, I run the risk of becoming sure of myself. And if I learned anything in the course of writing my dissertation, it is that what I do not know constitutes an infinity all its own. This is both maddening and thrilling, and it is what education is all about.

Teaching and Learning
I’m maniacally dedicated to my students’ intellectual growth and so teaching is a passion for me. Helping students discover and grow excites my intellect and moves my emotions. I am a little embarrassed to say that when I teach my students the great Bernard Malamud short story “A Summer’s Reading,” I often find myself fighting back tears. I know that story well, and I love making it resonate with students during their first experience with it.

At the same time however, I also realize that my role as teacher is far more than simple content delivery. Whatever teaching is, it is certainly not the act of passing on a finite body of knowledge that I have fully mastered and accounted for in my brain. On the contrary, education is, for me, the institutionalization of chaos, and I am its agent in the classroom. I make it a civic duty to make my students a little uncomfortable. Within respectful limits, I have to make students understand that their knowledge and experience is microscopic. Then I must find a way to fill them with the desire to expand on their youthful state. This is a process of unsettling that which has settled, and beginning a dialectical process of questions leading to answers that raise more questions. In education, causing trouble is a virtue.

Yet how can I maintain this circus of pedagogical anarchy without also stirring trouble in my own mind and unsettling my own intellect? How can I ethically justify asking my students to stretch in ways that I myself do not? And what limits might ultimately be placed on the effectiveness of my teaching if I stop pushing myself to experience the world in new ways?

Blogging as Intellectual Defense
These questions led me to start my own little blog, The Arnoldian Project. The name of course draws on (and perhaps makes a fetish of) the critical philosophy of the poet, Matthew Arnold. The Victorian Arnold’s quaint liberal humanism is, I know, terribly out of fashion, and his insistence upon political and cultural detachment is even offensive to many scholars, who see the work of the humanities as vital to our democracy. His ideals were controversial in his own day and downright comical in ours. My invocation of Arnold’s name and cultural values is not meant to pick a professional fight over such issues. Though I try to occupy the ethical space of the speaker in “Dover Beach,” I don’t wish to point an accusing finger at any ignorant armies clashing by night.

Instead, I find the Great Humanist’s obstinate refusal to settle into clear, definable, and sure positions to be an attractive defense against my own intellectual temptations. Blogging for me is both an opportunity and an obligation. It is an opportunity to experience the cultural world around me in new and exciting ways, and it is an obligation in that the maintenance of The Arnoldian Project requires me to engage with the world outside myself even if I don’t really feel like it all the time. In short, my blogging experience has been the proverbial blessing and curse.

But let me focus mostly on the blessings.

I am a humanities professor who teaches at a religious institution. I understand that for many people this is an irreconcilable coupling, but for me it is an exciting dialectic. (Perhaps I am too much under the sway of Arnold here—after all he saw religion as a kind of metaphor for his precious “Culture”). So my self-imposed cultural engagement often finds its subject matter in the intersection between faith and humanism. So far I haven’t gotten myself in trouble with my superiors, but I have, through the process of writing, stumbled upon connections that both illuminate current research projects and inform my classroom pedagogy. In other words, writing works for me just like I tell my students it should work for them—it is a generative process that is, in Wayne Booth’s words, “thinking in print.”

Likewise, I am primarily a teacher, yet still invested in research and my own process of learning. To reconcile this potential dichotomy, my blogging efforts frequently reflect on teaching experiments I conduct upon my students. In writing about these teaching experiences publicly, I challenge myself to honestly reflect on their effectiveness (for example, how well am I really incorporating Twitter into class discussions?). Furthermore, when I explore my teaching practice in the informal, public forum of the blog, I am essentially engaging with questions of the value and function of a liberal arts education, a major concern of my “professional” research.

In short, my blog has been for me a space in which I can, in ways both professionally safe and dangerous, engage in my own great, unsettling dialectic. Teaching, research, literature, and religion all circumnavigate a matrix of troubling questions that lead me to uneasy answers that push me to answer still more questions. My blog is my friend because it is my foe.

As with every post I’ve ever written, I don’t really know what to do with what I’ve uncovered. I will continue my blog (with a little more frequency now that the semester is over), but not without some reservations. The instantaneousness of the medium is both nice and naughty. I appreciate being able to publish an account of an unexpected discovery in class the very day it happens. Yet I also am suspicious of the absence of gatekeepers. Peer review exists in professional writing for very good reasons and the blog’s ability to circumvent it is, in many ways, troubling. Partially because of this, I do choose to simultaneously maintain a more traditional “professional” research agenda. I enjoy the company of other scholars and want to both contribute to, and grow from, their scholarship.

In the end, maybe this dual professional identity will come to constitute the great dialectic by which my career will ultimately be judged. The Christian Humanist Blogger Teacher Student as Outsider/Insider.

After all, I always say that even though I may strive to be Lionel Trilling, I’m only ever Groucho Marx.

And I’m very comfortable with this dilemma.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Welcome to The CEA Forum Annex!

The idea for The CEA Forum Annex came about from discussions during the Presidential Forum at the 2012 College English Association Conference in Richmond, Virginia.  I had the pleasure of appearing on the Forum alongside Jeri Kraver, the editor of The CEA Critic.  Many members of the audience voiced interest in the creation of an online venue to discuss articles appearing in The CEA Forum, to read about important issues in higher education, and to connect with other members of the CEA.  The CEA Forum Annex will provide that venue by
  • publishing a monthly guest blog entry that discusses current issues in higher education and the teaching of English,
  • offering an interactive online forum to facilitate conversation about articles in The CEA Forum and topics in higher education and the teaching of English, and
  • allowing CEA members to make connections with other members who share their interests.
In May, look for the new issue of The CEA Forum as well as our first guest blog post from Dr. Danny Anderson, Assistant Professor of English at Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, GA.  Danny blogs at The Arnoldian Project.

If you have questions, suggestions for The CEA Forum or The CEA Forum Annex, or want to serve as a guest blogger, contact me at  I am always looking for new and creative ideas!

Dr. Jamie L. McDaniel
Editor, The CEA Forum
Assistant Professor of English
Director, Technical / Professional Writing
Pittsburg State University
Pittsburg, KS