When Composition and Literature Meet

March 15, 2019:

This is the brief talk I gave as part of a panel welcoming students accepted or wait-listed to The Graduate Center at CUNY.  Here I describe a class I’m teaching now, focused on the “academic novel” and that genre’s relationship to pedagogy, critical university studies, and, relevant to the audience of this crowd, making meaningful, transformative relationships at the university.


Because soon you’ll all soon sign up for classes, and because attending and teaching class is something we all have in common, I thought I’d tackle our topic by describing a course I’m teaching right now at the GC.

The class is called When Composition and Literature Meet: Critical Pedagogy and the Campus Novel.  First, let’s get something out of the way: “When Composition and Literature Meet” is a terrible title. But I chose it because, perhaps like you, I feel a special urgency about the fate of the university and its role in making meaningful, maybe healing, alliances.

“Meeting” implies something of a happenstance relationship and that certainly describes the tie that binds my two fields, composition and literary studies. You might say the two have met up for a series of bad dates in the hallways of English departments for over a century. Fraught with power plays and disappointment, literature and rhetoric keep connected because every so often we sense that maybe, this time, we’ll get it right. In the late 19C for example, before there was such a thing called “literary studies,” the upstart field of “English literature” deferred to departments of Rhetoric. But then criticism took off, close reading became cool, and composition was contained by the newly hip mansplainers of meaning. Critical theory’s rise and the canon’s fall offered conditions for common ground and the two kept talking through the end of the 20 C. But relations remained strained.

You’d think that today’s attacks on the humanities might move these fields from polite conversation to collective action. But unity proves elusive.

So my class is an experiment in trying to make composition and literature meet up without the hang-ups of this disciplinary history. The conceit of the course was that they meet up in the space of a particular genre: the campus novel. But week three of the term and already the books called my bluff.  The campus novel, like the campus itself, proves a poor host for renewing or creating authentic relationships. Romance, friendship, and camaraderie yield perpetual pain and paralysis for characters in Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down and John William’s Stoner and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty while isolation, competition and a war between creativity and conformity dominate plot points.

Still, we are loving these novels: we love wrestling free what’s good about the bad teaching moments depicted in them, love designing proposals for how we might do things differently from the conflicted characters of the classroom.  It’s an existential exercise, a meditation on the present, for us.  For we are only at the beginning of forming (or in my case, reforming) ourselves as scholars, students, and teachers and yet we show up, week after week, after a long day of teaching and otherwise working, to do this work of reconnecting broken characters and campuses.

So Composition and Literature are not meeting up. But we are. And that may be the best next thing.






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Private Pain, Public Humanities: Critical University Studies and Composition

This is the talk I gave at the Critical University Studies Friday Forum at The Graduate Center , CUNY on Friday October 20th.

I’ll open my talk with something participatory. If that’s upsetting to you (as it would be to me) I promise it will be over in 3 minutes. Going around are index cards where I’ll ask you to respond to a prompt I use to open every class I teach at Lehman.

Very briefly, describe the most recent thing you read or wrote—this could be the text you are sending right now, the Facebook post you are reading now, it doesn’t matter. What did that writing or that reading DO for you? Now please take one more minute to share this with someone sitting next to you.

Many of you do a version of this kind of active learning technique because you’re innovative teachers. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the pedagogies created out of the New York City Writing Project or Writing Across the Curriculum programs or critical teaching or digital humanities/digital rhetoric initiatives. I have learned almost everything about teaching from these interventions into university learning.

But let me start with full disclosure: the reason I do this sort of participatory, “flipped classroom” thing has embarrassingly little to do with a good pedagogy.

I do it to alleviate pain. I mean the radically, critically important moment of pain that comes from teaching—from that encounter with others. It’s the daily (or Tues, Thur, Fri for me) nervousness and energy that happen in the moments right before I step into the classroom, those moments of truth when I think “well, can I do it…again? Can I face them—will they face me?”

I’ve been having these moments of truth, these moments of pain and connection for nearly 20 years. If you’re just starting out as a teacher or about to become one, let me assure you:  it never gets easier.

But it does get more interesting. And more important. That is, if we believe, as I do, that “the great mistake” of our time is the privatization of higher learning. The “great mistake” is Chris Newfield’s phrase from his recent book The Great Mistake. Here he argues that the nation gave up its most essential resource—mass intelligence for a mass democracy—when it gave up on public higher education. He wants a return to investment in public higher education, with monies and with commitment. Here is one of his most eloquent and expansive definitions of the “great mistake” and his hope for public higher education to reclaim its place in the nation’s democratic ideals:

 We face many policy obstacles, but I found in my travels around the country that we face more fundamentally a loss of confidence and vision. I became most concerned about privatization as an ethos. To bend the term somewhat, I have been concerned about the weakened character of the collective practice of higher education that separates us emotionally and psychologically from the public vision of full participation in higher learning across all economic and racial groups.

Newfield’s book is forward looking. But the ideas buttressing it are as old as the humanities and certainly as old as the general education revolution of mid-twentieth century. He argues that “creativity” fueled the federal government’s financial commitment to mass higher education in the post World War II period and quotes from the famous 1945 Harvard report on general education, General Education in a Free Society, which ignited curricular reform across the country. The report saw universities as the beacon of democracy, in that they

reflect two characteristic facets of democracy: the one, its creativity, sprung from the self-trust of its members; the other, its exposure to discord and even to fundamental divergence of standards precisely because of this creativity, the source of its strength (my emphasis).

Creativity, discord, collectivity, and self-trust: these old, abstract humanistic values translated into real reform in the last century and can again. Indeed the general education curricular overhaul that Newfield celebrates served our department, English, quite well—increasing funding for scholarship in literary studies and encouraging unprecedented growth in research and majors.  It’s good to be reminded of this national interest in the humanities, in public higher education, and in English departments.

But today I want to remind us of another legacy of the mid-twentieth century general education curricular overhaul. The humanities’ boom was, often, composition’s bust. I don’t mean writing courses were cut. In fact, first year composition courses exploded in this period and required “basic writing” became nearly universal at the undergraduate level. I mean composition was cut off from this national vision of creativity—marginalized as preparatory courses for the real content that happens in theory or critique—anywhere but here. Literary studies and reading became synonymous with these “public good” values—creativity, collectivity, self-trust. And “basic” writing became the preparation for those values.

That too was a great mistake.

But we don’t have to repeat it. If Critical University Studies is going to embark on a new vision for higher education, if it’s going to be critical but also creative about public higher education, we at CUNY and, in particular, we writing scholars and teachers, might ask how our students could be part of the content of the new creative nation.

Which gets me back to the index cards that began this talk. I asked you to record semi-private moments of pain or uncertainty or simple acknowledgment of this moment, of our encounter. In my classes, these presentist, self-exposing moments happen every week, all semester until we’ve collected hundreds of them. For the final project students read through these cards, choose at least two from each student in the class, and then create a digital map, superimposing their reflections onto the official representations of the course—my syllabus, excerpts from the reading, passages from their writing.

This is just one step moving us from private pain to public good. I’m sure we can think of many others.

Thank you.


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Am I Good at Critical University Studies?

Is activist scholarship like all scholarship: meant to be judged?

I’m wondering because, thanks to my CUNY colleagues, more than ever I feel connected to the activist field of Critical University Studies. Critical University Studies aims to intervene in higher education and to critique neoliberal policies that hurt public colleges and universities.

Critical University Studies is activist. But it’s also becoming an academic subject, with scholars publishing and presenting their takes in traditional scholarly venues like conferences, books, journals.

Is this good for the Critical University Studies? For universities?

On Friday October 20, I presented at a “Critical University Studies’ roundtable with colleagues from The Graduate Center. I’ve written about Critical University Studies before. But this panel offered my colleagues and I the opportunity to unpack the idea and activity of critical university studies from our particular scholarly perspectives and our positions at CUNY.

Co-presenters Siraj Ahmed, Steve Brier, Kandice Chuh, Feisal Mohamed and moderator Eric Lott offered unique insights into Critical University Studies. I have amazing colleagues. They got me thinking about the globalization of universities, about the meaning of critique, about the history of CUNY.

But they also got me thinking about my own take on this field and my own performance on the panel. Did my paper work? Was it any good? Was it critical enough?

Well, it was a little short (I love short and sweet, but, alas, too short and sweet goes sour). It could have used more examples  (I have them, but they are boring). The activity I did needed contextualization (writing activities take time and dead time during talks is awkward). Etc, etc.

What was supposed to be a collaborative, critical, activist panel–and mostly was–morphed into a private evaluation.

Critical University Studies as Critique Upon the Self.

How did that happen?

Because we are trained as scholars and students to measure our success not in connection with others but in opposition to other ideas, positions, people.  And this constant assessment diverts us from the shared goals of Critical University Studies.

Critique is a good reminder of these goals; writing,teaching, activism are good enactments of them.



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Tomorrow We Revise: November 2016

Dear Readers,

Tomorrow my writing class meets. I can’t wait. I teach literature too and love wrestling with how reading works in our world.

But it’s a week into worry for what might happen to this country and to my college and university, an intellectual home for so many students who are new to this nation. And I realize I want to do more than read, more, even than mobilize. I want to workshop: to remake the present state of things. I want to be in a writing class.

Writing is not like literature or Political Science or Economics. You can’t cover it in one semester or century, can’t survey a period, movement or ideology of composition. Writing classes serve no master.

Which isn’t to say that they are free of constraint. Writing courses are always conforming to or resisting mandated standards that seek to measure, contain, and control language.   Literacy is never neutral.

We should research the relationship between access to writing classes and access to power as many of my colleagues have done. And we must read what could be in store for public higher education in the coming years and for immigrants, women, students of color, multilingual students, queer and questioning students, working students—my students–in the next presidential administration.

But let’s not stop there. Let’s get to class and see how these same students can compose this country anew, stitch it up and together.

Writing classes can do this work because they are workshops in revision, in re-seeing our place in the world and reaching out to find others.  They are places to connect.

We connect with readers we know, readers we seek, and, sometimes, readers we misunderstand.  In a writing class, misunderstanding means beginning again, finding new ways to reach back and out to each other.

Writing class meets again tomorrow. It can’t come soon enough. I will see my readers again. And they will see me.

And if we don’t connect tomorrow, we’ll try next week. And the week after and the one after that. Tomorrow we revise.

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Congratulations Award Winners: Now Here’s Your Writing Assignment

On November 10, 2015, I was the guest speaker for the Induction Ceremony of the Golden Key Honors Society at Lehman College, CUNY.  Here’s what I said:

Congratulations! Thank you so much or having me here and for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of my esteemed honorees.

I could go on forever about what a momentous occasion this is (some of my students are here and they’re like, “yeah that’s true, she can talk”). But we’re short on time so let’s begin with a brief writing assignment. Please take out a pen and paper or a laptop. If you’re without these things, it’s okay. In a minute I’ll pass out a blue book so you can answer questions about the meaning of today’s ceremony.

Just kidding. I really don’t have a writing assignment for you. But I bet if I did have a writing assignment, you could do it.

No, I know you could do it. Because you’ve already done this. Countless times in your college careers you’ve marked occasions by writing them into existence. When you wrote that History paper, or the lab report, or the short story, or the political argument you probably did not call these tasks “momentous occasions.” But that’s what they were: the occasion of deciding that you cared enough about your thinking to put yourself and your mind out there.

Of course we care in all kinds of ways.

But for the next three minutes I want to argue that one of the most profound ways to care about anything is to find a way to write about it using language—the common fabric of our humanity.

Now you might think that the only reason I’m celebrating writing is because I’m an English Professor. And because I’m an English professor I just love writing. I mean, what could be more pleasurable than spending Sunday nights alone at my desk, staring at a blank screen, waiting for sentences to come for an essay due weeks ago, while the rest of New York City settles in for a good, long evening of Netflix binge-watching? And what could be more gratifying than finally finding those sentences at 2am, then waking up at 6am to realize that these are, by far, the very worst sentences I’ve ever written and therefore I need to: make coffee, clean my closets, bicker with my children, and, finally, start the whole thing over again.

No. I don’t love writing. Like everyone else, I kind of hate it. And I hate it because it’s so hard. It’s mentally and physically exhausting and takes up too much time. And yet I continue to write. I always will. And I think you will do. All of us in higher education write. We need to write. Because putting observations and ideas and issues and problems and positions into words are ways to counter both epistemological and existential loneliness. We compose to recognize ourselves so that we can reach out to others.

Just for a second, let’s think about the steps you’d have to take if I actually did give out these blue books, and if you actually did have to do an on-the-spot essay.  The first thing you’d do is get pretty pissed off. Fair enough. But then you’d do something amazing: you would attempt to read my mind by getting out of yours. That is, you’d try and figure out what on earth I wanted from you. Then you’d start writing with that perspective in mind. Soon, you’d find yourself getting a little bit into this assignment. And once you did, you’d forget all about my question and my needs, and you’d start writing for someone or something else. And just like that, in under a minute, you’d be time traveling and shape shifting. This is writing: a superhuman, supernatural activity.

Because we live in an age of instant communication, we may forget just what a miracle the technology of writing is. But it is a miracle: of persistence and perseverance and caring and connecting.

When I teach writing, whether freshman composition or advanced literature courses, I always begin class with the essay “The Death of the Author” by the French philosopher Roland Barthes. Barthes argues that when we read we shouldn’t worry about an author’s intended meaning. Instead, we should connect to great works by writing back to them: by participating in the life of that work. In Barthes’s words, a text’s purpose “lies not in its origin but in its destination.”

He means that writing not only says, it does something.

But literary theorists and English professors aren’t the ones claiming that writing prepares us for surprising paths.  Just a few months ago, the President of the United States said much the same thing. Perhaps you’ve read the conversation between President Obama and the Pulitzer Prize novelist Marilynne Robinson published in The New York Review of Books. In this discussion, President Obama reflects that reading and writing were his greatest teachers. They teach us to “be comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found…that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you. “

It is gratifying to know that all of us here, and those who will be here next year and the years after, are different but connected, alone in our thoughts but together in thinking, and that our divergent destinations have found productive, caring ground at college, in this room, on this momentous occasion which will no doubt take you very far. Congratulations.

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Teaching is Embarrassing: Manifesto on Higher Education for the Start of 2015

On September 16, for Convocation at Lehman College, I was honored to be awarded Teacher of the Year.  I gave a one minute acceptance speech.  I hope this serves as a welcome back to the blog and to the new year.  Thanks for reading, and a special shout-out to my Lehman, Graduate Center, and CUNY-wide colleagues, friends, and students for mentorship and support.

Teacher of the Year Acceptance Speech, Sept 16, 2015

Thank you so much. I’m truly honored by this award and grateful for the opportunity to share with you—very briefly—my personal philosophy about the meaning of teaching.

Here it is.

Teaching is incredibly … embarrassing. 

It’s embarrassing. I don’t mean the kind of day-to-day humiliations that could come with professor-student interactions (though there are plenty of those).

No.  I mean teaching is embarrassing in the existential sense, in the sense of having to confront who we are and everything we hold sacred.

I study great books and basic writing skills. At least that’s what I believe about five minutes before walking into my classroom.  But once I’m in the classroom, what’s great about my literature or essential about standards comes into contact with you: suspicious, brave, and brilliant Lehman students.  And then nothing about their beauty and truth seems so obvious anymore.

That’s when the work begins.  We read, write, and reflect together—sometimes clumsily, always rigorously—until this subject matter is embarrassed into a different existence, one that is more inclusive, real, and more beautiful and true than what came before.

Thanks to the digital revolution, we are all existentialists now: questioning who we are and what we have and will hold sacred in the near future.

As the academy confronts the radical shifts that the digital age brings, and accommodates and recreates accordingly, I hope to also question innovation that claims it’s possible to teach and learn at a distance—without the confusing, time consuming, and, well, embarrassing connections of classroom life. Because these connections make our disciplines—make us—human.

Thank you again.

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September: Already Gone, Always to Return

Welcome (back?) after a long hiatus. My first post for the 2014 academic year was published on another site–the AEPL blog: The Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning–thanks for the opportunity.

Perpetual September: On Being a Beginner in an Age of Complexity

September is the most muddled of months: a mix of summer and fall, of shorter days and longer commitments, of anticipation laced with last year’s losses.

And then school starts.

The rituals of a new term—the schedules and expectations and first impressions—should by now be old hat.  Over a decade of teaching and writing and almost the same for parenting means that I can update syllabi, reuse supplies, even trust that I’ll finish that essay’s last draft.  Still, every start of the year reminds me of the persistent challenge and delayed rewards of starting over.

Beginnings are always hard.  But in the last few years it seems like Septembers are getting more challenging. The digital revolution asks anew how we are to survive and thrive in a society becoming more competitive and complex by the moment. And education seems to be a focal point for our anxiety. We’re a “race to the top nation”; everyone can and should be ahead of their time.

Over the last half-decade countless colleges and universities are revisiting their general education curricula, updating them to meet perceived needs of a culture that needs results, not rookies.  A host of recently passed federally mandated and state standards at the K-12 and college level confirm this view by defining the purpose of courses by their measurable endgames—by how they prepare students for a certain and useful future. The result has been mass cutting of introductory courses: of time spent adjusting to the beginning. “Come the Revolution” writes New York Times opinion writer Thomas Friedman ushering in a debate about a new kind of education for a generation of “mastery.”  Knowledge needs to be tailored, networked, global, and, above all else, determined by its outcomes.


 yood1  source


“Make your point first, write your introduction last” I instruct my first-year composition students, trying to rescue them from the snare of endless first sentences and the pitfalls of missed deadlines.  I say this year after year. Yet the truth is that introductions rarely just find themselves fully formed at the end of the page, ripe for mere cutting and pasting.  Like everything about the writing process, they happen painstakingly and haphazardly.  By my fifth draft I can’t say what paragraph came first or last. I only know (and barely) when I have to let that piece go because another one awaits.

Beginning permeates everything, especially in education. Each new semester and class and every first paragraph feels like learning again how to breathe. The process is natural and excruciating all at once.

But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Last September, as my institution inaugurated its updated curriculum for this complex age, I decided to do some research on the role of starting out in a culture of finishers. And it turns out that beginners—deep, critical, curious, fearless and fearful minds embarking on the unknown—are critical to a transforming world.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”  The opening line to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki suggests that seeking complexity by cultivating mastery clutters clarity and truth.




This book’s rigorous instructions on meditating insist that advanced understanding requires concentrated work at recognizing what’s really in front of us, not just what lies ahead. Being a beginner in the Zen tradition is not a disease to be inoculated from with specialized study.  Rather it’s the endpoint of accessing wisdom, and complexity.

Through his research on cell reproduction, the American Biologist Stuart Kauffman comes to a remarkably similar conclusion. “Something has obviously happened in the past 4.8 billion years,” he writes in his book Investigations.  “The biosphere has expanded, indeed, more or less persistently exploded into the ever-expanding adjacent possible.”  His observations of living and social systems reveal a universe that is evolving differently than before: towards more complexity. But in order to sustain this move towards more complexity we need a constant supply of new beginnings, what Kauffman defines as not-fully evolved life-forms of the “adjacent possible.”

The “adjacent possible” represents those structures in the universe that are at the start of their development. They have not yet combined with other structures, what Kauffman calls the “actuals” of the universe.  But they are moving towards evolution. He calls these structures “almost actuals.” Without them, complexity stagnates.


source yood3

 Blame it on science. Or meditation. Or middle age almost upon me. Whatever the reason, I’m starting to appreciate that moving on—to the next page, the new class, October—can’t happen without this perpetual starting over. In a culture that functions as if it’s always the blooming season of spring, I’ll stick with September.

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from On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

“Mom? Mom–you’re breaking up, I can’t hear you. It’s like a tornado out here. I’ll call you back when I’m out of the city,” said Jerome, which was childish, but for the moment he and his siblings formed an inviolable gang of three, and he would not be the one to break the delicate bond into which a little coincidence had delivered them.  They sat on stools lined up against the windowpane….They caught up with each other’s news casually, leaving long, cosy gaps of silence in which to go to work on their muffins and coffees.  Jerome–after two months of having to be witty and brilliant in a strange town among strangers–appreciated the gift of it.  People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two lovers, but this too was great; sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating. Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel–before all of these things there had only been one person…and only one place: a tent in the living room made of bed-sheets.  After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he has always been. Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues….He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.

for David, and nbmjy

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Inventing Critical University Studies

Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion–invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English. The student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.

The well-known rhetoric and composition scholar David Bartholomae wrote these words  over two decades ago. (It was 1986 to be exact: the year I started high school and the song “That’s What Friends Are For” was number 1 on the charts–more on the symbolic import of all that another time.)

The phrase “inventing the university,” also the title of the article, became a mantra for the “social turn” in English departments and writing programs in the 1980s and 1990s.  Writing is social, context-specific, and situational. Students (and all writers) should not seek to compose or create something new. Our job is to creatively adopt and adapt discourse to suit the situation we are writing into. We don’t discover language, it discovers us.

I taught this way for twenty years.  Discourse first, rhetoric always, purpose and position paramount. Invent the university: yes. Also: invent literary theory or cultural criticism and, when I was coordinating our Writing Across the Curriculum Program, I’d add that students should also invent the laboratory report, the business memo, the case-report. Invention is knowledge and power.

That was two years ago.

As recent readers know, I spent 2012-13, my sabbatical year, as a student of freshman composition. I am in the middle of putting together my data and reflecting on that experience for a book entitled From Culture to Complexity: Writing, Teaching and Higher Education, 1992-2012. Bartholomae’s canonical essay helps me realize that most of my findings come down to this:  You can’t invent the university. Maybe you could in 1986. Maybe I did in 1991, when I turned 18 and took my first year college writing seminar.

But I can’t in 2014. Or at least my classmates and I couldn’t.

We certainly put in the college try.  In assignment after assignment there was an attempt to find the discourse of the “occasion”: the genre, topic, audience, university expectation. But every piece of writing we did (I’ve collected hundreds) came up short.  The good, the bad, the unfinished–almost all of our assignments fail to fit into any idea of the university.

That’s because when Bartholomae argued that students need to invent the university he believed that a university did indeed exist.  I don’t think that’s the case now.  You can’t try on the discourses of the university if you don’t know what the university is: what it does, who it’s for, where it’s going.

Perhaps it’s time to realize that the emperor has no clothes.

And so the next phase of this blog and book is to move from describing freshman composition in our new culture wars era to describing composition in our post-universal idea-of-the-university moment.

We can’t invent the university. But we may be able to write what Jeffrey Williams and others call “critical university studies.”


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Can Outcomes Matter in Humanities Courses? Two Drafts of a Paper

Assignment: Compose an analytical essay about your experiences in this first semester of college.  What might these courses help you do in your future?

Draft One-Nov 8, 2013

I am not taking any class this semester other than this English 111.  But I am teaching three, and learning something different from each one and, about the experience of teaching three classes and taking one.  The first thing I am learning is that there is never a day, when I am taking or teaching a class, that I don’t want the day to be over before it starts.

That is because teaching, for me, is about performing some kind of enthusiasm for a subject. And I am increasingly suspicious of my subject.  I constantly ask myself, as a scholar and reader, the question that propels this writing assignment: “What will this subject yield in the future?”I confess that I don’t know what students will do with “The Novel” or “Basic Writing” or “Cultural Studies” in the future, because the future feels foreign to me, in the way that it didn’t when I was a student.  It feels at once so new—robots, globalization, cyber-reality—and so sure of itself—we will know everything soon.  Insisting to students that they are learning something from the word of the mind, from literature and intellectual discourse is, well, challenging.  Insisting that they, or I, connect to (or confine to) a version of “success” is also problematic.  

 Perhaps that is what propelled me into this profession to begin with; I thought of knowledge, literature, and culture as ambiguous, what we used to call in the 1990s, a “construct” created by some hegemonic discursive power (I think that’s a direct crib from Foucault).  My “profession”—my subject—is, largely, the “professoriate”—academia, and more specifically, the study and teaching of language, literature, and rhetoric.  That definition, is itself emblematic of the way my subject matter resists the definitive.  Question: “What have you learned from taking this course in writing, in the novel, in literary theory?”  Answer: that we need to continuously re-evaluate what we are learning based on what we read, who we encounter, what history does to selves and societies.

 But ours is the age of the definitive.  The “Common Core” and CUNY’s “Pathways” and the “Race to the Top” culture demands defined success.  And I think it is more than my own mid-life crisis (did I mention I am taking a freshman composition course?) that makes me question what the study of literature and writing will mean as data and determined rubrics for skills take over the economy and education.

 And so, back to the beginning: I am enrolled in first-year composition because I am looking forward to figuring out what to do in this age of transition. And writing seems one way to find out.

Draft Two

Can the Future be an Outcome?

There used to be two versions of the college course syllabus.  There was the one the professor gave to the students and the one she kept in her head, or in her drawer, or in a file.  The students’ version, the “official” or public copy had all the usual information needed to navigate the class from week one to week fourteen: dates organized by weeks, readings due, assignments and their deadlines, and policies—the  “I won’t accept late papers” or “Midterm counts for 30% of the final grade” or “Office hours Tuesdays from 11:15-11:40”—type of policies.  I’ve received dozens of these syllabi over the course of four years in college and five as a graduate student; I’ve given out as many since becoming a professor of English in 2000.  The purpose for these documents was to map at the trajectory of the course; the purpose of the courses was presented as more of a promise: show up and fulfill the requirements of the syllabus and the meaning of the class for you, for your studies, indeed for your future would be revealed.[do1] 

But as the economic downturn, globalization, the ubiquity of digital media, the changing geopolitical power structures of nations becomes the norm, “the future” and what will count as meaningful and important for success in it, is increasingly unknown and complex.  At the height of uncertainty, scarcity of resources and technological and cultural complexity comes a new kind of syllabus: the outcomes statement syllabus[do2] .  This essay explores the relationship between the courses I teach—humanities seminars and beginning writing classes—and these new syllabi.  I find the relationship vexed and ambiguous[do3] .  Here I attempt to work through some of the thorny issues of that connection and to consider whether the new college syllabi—and, presumably, more outcomes-oriented college courses—can lead to a “successful future.”            

In the outcomes syllabus, a professor includes the learning goals for the course and how these goals will be measured, through assignments, feedback, and, ultimately, rubrics that offer a grade. The simplest and, to my mind most accurate, definition of “outcomes statements” comes from Christopher Gallagher, a professor of writing: “statements identifying what students will know or be able to do at the end of an activity, unit of instruction, course, or program of study” (44).[1]  Google “syllabus” in courses ranging from Physics to Philosophy and you’ll find these statements, especially from public colleges and universities, where they have been mandated with more oversight than the private, liberal arts institutions[2] [do4] Outcomes statements can be very rigorously specific or aspirational and vague vague, like my own.[3][do5] 

 In the early years of the 2000s, American colleges and universities began mandating these statements in college syllabi. A recent report[do6]  published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education offers a brief history of the studies leading to this decision.  The dominating question of [do7] In an age when what counts as knowledge is shifting and since 2008 especially, when job loss and global economic crises change the funding for and priority in educational investment, outcomes have become one answer to the question “What is College For?” and more specifically, “What Will College Do for Me in the Future?”

In their widely cited polemic Academically Adrift Richard Arum and Josiah Roska join the ever-increasing chorus of naysayers who believe that colleges should be held accountable to better, higher, more accurate standards. Since the publication of that book in 2011and in concert with an ever-growing concern about government “entitlement” spending, assessment in general and outcome statements in particular has become a kind of panacea for a new education crisis. The last few years (2010-2013) have been particularly active for the Obama administration, which aims to explicitly link federal funding to measurable results of college-wide and course specific outcomes statements, as this recent Inside Higher Ed article explains.[do8] 

Traditional humanities courses, where students learn “critical thinking” and practice reading and writing in ever-increasing complex ways offer a challenge to the outcomes culture.  These courses, which marry skills acquisition (writing effectively) with idea-generation (reading critically), have many outcomes but not as many ways to measure them.  It’s not that you can’t measure whether or not a student has read particular books or can write cogently about them. You can. Professors and high-stakes testing and essay exams do all the time, with varying degrees of uniformity.  The challenge the humanities bring to outcomes involves something else.  Having satisfied all the learning goals of a course on, say, “The Novel” or “English Composition” or “Literary and Cultural Studies in the 1990s” (three courses I am teaching this semester) professors and students will still not be sure [do9] if those skills or “habits of mind” as we in the humanities like to say, will be obviously connected to “the future.”  That is, if the future means what the Obama administration is calling the “new” jobs of the “twenty-first century.”

In my own scholarly field, Composition and Rhetoric, there is an entire new sub-discipline emerging called that studies what one important article calls “The Question of Transfer.”[do10]  Scholars in this area of writing and rhetoric seek to find the cognitive and rhetorical links, the proven reciprocity, between beginning writing courses and advanced “discipline-specific” courses that happen later in college.  Some important data about writing and “reflection” and reading and advanced critical thinking have been made. But these findings won’t get to the question that drives this essay—the relationship between outcomes and obtaining “future success.”

Christopher Gallagher, the scholar whose definition I cited earlier, makes an important case for rethinking “outcomes.”  Outcomes can become useful, he argues, not as end-statements but if they focus more on the means of individual learning connected to larger programmatic goals.  Gallagher’s article “The Trouble with Outcomes: Pragmatic Inquiry and Educational Aims” uses philosophical Pragmatism as his way into this critique of outcomes statements. But his suggestion that we focus not on outcomes but on “articulation” between individual and larger goals, while enormously important, again doesn’t satisfy the quest for “future success.” That’s because (?) outcomes assume that a future filled with success is known, attainable, and desirable.  Now I don’t mean to suggest that humanities scholars are nihilists who seek [do11] apocalyptic tomorrows.  Rather I want to suggest that one of the most important purposes for college humanities courses is to question what I or you or “we” mean by “future.”

Some of us are having trouble (or, more accurately are troubled) by “outcomes statements” not because we don’t know what we are learning, or can’t measure it, or don’t believe in it.  It’s because we don’t know what the “future” should be, or mean, or do.  We never really have. Anyone who has ever tried to document reality in writing, or tried to come back to reality after being undone by fiction, or attempted to make connections between self and society, and between history and experience, and between the forces of political and social construction and the potential of collaboration and innovation understands that “future success” needs not only to be accessed but analyzed.  Courses in reading and writing question versions of, and syllabi for, success, future, past, and present. And that sounds pretty difficult to measure (accurately and in a way that is standardized across courses, not only at an institutional level, but at the level of American undergraduate education).

In the last year, recognition that the outcomes culture of my profession—the academy—and my chosen subject of study—the humanities—may be ad odds, or at least at a crossroads, propelled me back to the classroom.  Not to teach or to make statements or even to critique, but to experience.  That is, to experience what it’s like to encounter the requirements of a course in writing and reading while living in this age of outcomes.  And so I am in my second semester as a student of English 111, the first semester of freshman composition required at the college where I normally teach.  There is a syllabus for this course, with the mandated outcomes statements.  So far, just past the mid-point of the term, the professor and most of us students, are living up to those outcomes. And our collective ability to do so has quelled some of my anxiety.  But it has also introduced a different worry.  What happens when reading and writing can conform to a recognizable version of a future?  I suppose that is the subject for the next freshman composition assignment.

[2]Some scholars suggest that “hard to pin down” skills of a liberal arts education is exactly what is needed in our rapidly changing economy and knowledge culture but these schools have not been successful in revealing this link, as compared, say, with STEM disciplines, to the public.  See http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/22/president-obama-proposes-link-student-aid-new-ratings-colleges for a discussion of the dilemma of the liberal arts college.

[3]Here are the learning goals for my fall 2013 English 111 course:

a) assess where each student is and wants to be as writers and readers

b) allow each student to be comfortable with and proficient in writing in response to academic and journalistic texts

c) allow each student to be comfortable with and proficient in writing academic and short-form web-based essays that cite other texts

d) allow each student to be comfortable with and proficient in researching and responding to academic and popular webtexts

e) allow each student to be comfortable with and proficient in understanding the appropriate rhetorical mode, audience, and language choices for writing tasks

f) create a community of writers where each class member engages respectfully and critically with each other and with course material. 

These goals correspond to the following goals created by the English Department at Lehman College. Students at the end of a 100-level writing course should be able to: compose a well-constructed essay that develops a clearly defined claim of interpretation which is supported by close textual reading; employ effective rhetorical strategies in order to persuasively present ideas and perspectives; utilize terminology, critical methods, and various lenses of interpretation in her/his writing; apply the rules of English grammar; adhere to the formatting and documenting conventions of our discipline.

 [do1]I like the introduction.  The meaning of life will be revealed in your class…

 [do2]Cue the dirge

 [do3]This is, perhaps, the central problem (and why faculty resent this “new” syllabi)

 [do4]Thanks for the source.  Will read.

 [do5]I’m interested in your use of “allow”…  how do you (or can you) grade “allow”?

 [do6]Ok, you are killing me.  Is it OK to put hyperlinks in a Word document? 

 [do7]Missing something?

 [do8]Are you deliberately staying out of this by not commenting?  Adding your thoughts?

 [do9]And that is one of the main arguments that is cited against this standardization of outcomes and assessments.  See, for example, those ubiquitous AACU rubrics.


 [do10]interesting, having spoken with the Dean about “transfer”… Well, she does not buy it.  Nope.  Especially if we use stuff like literature to teach writing.  So.

 [do11]Maybe they just “see” them…


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