Category Archives: McBeth list

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Histories and futures of Basic Writing: Response to George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010)

George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010) presents a series of topic-focused historical narratives of the field of Basic Writing (BW). Each chapter–regardless of its focus on BW research, pedagogy, or institutional politics–begins its inquiry with the pivotal work of Mina Shaughnessy and the emergence of BW as a discourse in the era of CUNY Open Admissions and tracks through to the present day of the book’s publication. Through these narratives, we see how debates about assessment, pedagogy, administration, and educational politics have shaped the work BW scholars do. And by presenting not one unilateral history, but multiple interlocking histories, BW emerges not as a singular entity, but as a multiply articulated response to local and national institutional forces–with discourses and a contexts in constant productive (or disruptive) friction.

Because this book draws most of its evidence from BW scholarship as it is archived in journals, conference talks, and prominent books in the field, it’s able to offer a dynamic overview of the shifting discourses of basic writing scholarship. In the long view of each focused, topical chapter, we re-examine the bibliography of BW to see how ideas and ideologies shift as the field slowly swaps one set of questions for another. So, in the chapter “Research,” for instance, we see how the field’s initial questions about error–how to classify it when we see it in finished texts–led folks like Emig, Perl, and Flower to investigate error within the process of text production, allowing them to develop methods for applying close scrutiny to the behaviors of basic writers themselves, rather than their products. Once the field recognized the complexity of writing from a cognitive standpoint, research turned to exploring the equally complex social and cultural factors that affect students as they write. At each turn, we reject some of the questions asked by previous researchers and develop others into new paradigms for understanding the work of BW. And by tracking through these progressions with a range of different foci, I get some view of the conflicting, nebulous discourses that have evolved as BW scholars respond to the local and national politics of remedial writing programs.

I was hoping to learn more in this book about the administration of BW programs and the institutional life of BW–a more on-the-ground understanding of what BW has been since the days of Open Admissions. In some respects, I got this history most concretely in the book’s extensive discussions of assessment schemas and the implementation and revision of writing tests. In these instances, I see scholars like Edward White presenting models of thoughtful assessment to counter standardized writing tests, and all these contrasted to less regimented models like guided self-placement. Likewise, Otte and Mlynarczyk chronicle the shift in assessment processes from the college level to the high school level, as high schools begin implementing exit examinations that apply the “standards” filter one step down the ladder. These shifts in approaches to testing and placement correlate to changes in practical, on-the-ground administration of BW programs; though, since the focus of this book is bibliographic, I don’t get an in depth investigation of the practicalities of these institutional structures. That is to say, I think, that this book is not pitched as a WPA’s how-to guide; nor does it claim to be. Getting bogged down in the details of specific BW program administration would fight the narrative cohesion achieved throughout this book, no doubt. Though I think that’s one thing I wanted from it.

Predictably enough, I found myself most drawn to the sections of these narratives that discussed cognitive approaches to basic writing, especially the work on writing/thinking processes emerging in the late 1970s through the 1980s. In my list with Jason on cognitive impairments and education, I will be diving more in depth on nearly all of the authors cited in these accounts, especially Rose, Flower and Hayes. Since I took a course on comp/rhet pedagogies with Sondra Perl, I’ve been aware of this legacy, and for my work in my comprehensive exams, I explored many of the earlier cognitivists researchers and theorists like Janet Emig and Perl herself. I really should go back to read these works again.

Indeed, the biggest revelation for me in reading Basic Writing was encountering just how much of the scholarship discussed that I had encountered before without ever having thought of myself as a BW scholar. I don’t know whether it’s because I have been trained as a compositionist within the CUNY system where the legacy of BW is still alive and kicking, but I realized continually as I read this book that what what I had assumed was simply mainstream comp/rhet theory and practice had actually emerged specific to questions of BW. In Sondra’s Exploring Pedagogies class, I learned about cognitive process models, of course, but also about ethnographic research on k-12 literacy education, service learning pedagogy, and identity-based literacy pedagogy (Alexander on sexuality)–all important trends drawn out in Otte and Mlynarczk’s narratives. Mark McBeth’s course on Writing Program Administration introduced me to Shaughnessy’s and Bartholomae’s and even Mark’s own administrative practices, each rooted (as Basic Writing explained) in different answers to the implied questions of what basic writing is and who basic writers are. So, I was surprised that while I never thought of myself as knowledgable about BW scholarship–because it’d never been packaged to me as such–I found much of the scholarship described in this book to be comfortingly familiar. I don’t know whether my experience is consistent with compositionists trained outside the “hothouse” of CUNY that plays such a prominent role in Otte and Mlynarczyk’s accounts, but for me, the history of BW and the histories I’ve learned about comp/rhet in general showed enormous overlaps.

My final comment on this book relates to my interests in disability, which is notably absent from the discussion Otte and Mlynarczyk present. Particularly, I think about the late 80s and early 1990s as important moment of institutional shift in the administration of BW instruction, where remedial programs were being ousted from the four-year-college level, and progressively shifted farther away from their initial position as access points to higher education degrees–both by moving remediation one step away into the community colleges, and by establishing earlier gatekeeping structures in high school exit exams. I think also about how this is the same period that the ADA and disability activism were making inroads into institutions of higher education and creating new forms of access for previously excluded populations who, in some respects, share the vulnerabilities of BWers, and likely share many of the same stories. I hope that as I do more research about the institutional history of disability access in public higher education I will be able to write my own history to go alongside the ones in Basic Writing. And in this, Otte and Mlynarczyk’s models are supremely instructive while also leaving me an opening to explore in my own scholarship.
Otte, George and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk. Basic Writing. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2010. Print.

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An unasked question for Cathy Davidson: response to Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It (2011)

I had the opportunity to spend the day with Cathy Davidson yesterday. She was visiting the Graduate Center for a series of job-talk events–a catered lunch with program grad students, a seminar with grads and profs, and a lecture, all exploring how higher education is poised to respond to shifting paradigms in digital education and Internet-based industry. I didn’t get to talk with her as much as I would have liked, and by the end of the day, when she was finally free enough to approach alone, I chickened out. She had already endured eight straight hours of conversation and debate, including some rather adversarial questions in the final lecture, and it didn’t seem like the best time to engage her with my rather specialized interests in her work. We’ll have other occasions to talk. And, besides, who needs to talk IRL anymore? If you’re reading, Cathy, it was a pleasure to meet you.

I wrote about The Future of Thinking, Davidson’s 2009 (mass-)co-authored monograph in my last post. There I found compelling institutional theory and a model for peer-to-peer academic work that surprised and inspired me. Now You See It (2011), Davidson’s newest book, addresses a more popular audience, bringing brain science and case studies from 21st century schools and workplaces together to dispel our contemporary fixation on the “attention crisis” caused by the proliferation of digital technology, especially as that crisis relates to today’s young people. Davidson narrates the history of American educational institutions and workplaces and their connections to mass-production models of industry, productivity, and uniformity. She argues that the newest revolution in mass communication–the Internet and the World Wide Web–have initiated a paradigm shift in the way we work and learn in the 21st century. Education, she claims, has been among the slowest sectors to embrace these possibilities, largely due to misconceptions about attention, productivity, and work life that we have inherited from older generations.

To aim her message at a popular audience, Davidson employs easy-to-follow narratives throughout Now You See It, leaving behind the carefully wrought academic language of Future of Thinking. Davidson’s choice of audience address has clearly contributed to the book’s massive popularity and appeal, but for me as a scholar, it initially turned me off to the book. While I found her case studies from classrooms and work places compelling and illustrative, they tended to leave me without many scholarly leads to follow.

However, I don’t want to make it sound like the narrative work Davidson does in this book is simplistic. In fact, I feel I’ve learned much from examining the ways she incorporates individual historical narratives (for instance, the history of IQ or standardized testing, or the history of the 20th century corporate-style workplace) within a broader narrative structure of the book itself, a cradle to grave examination of life in the Internet age.

She begins with infancy, when we learn to pay attention to our world by internalizing the values and habits of our home and our parent’s culture. She then examines the neural capacities that allow us humans teach and learn as they grow and go through schooling. She then takes us through both the public school and the university system, at each step confronting how contemporary educational systems respond to or ignore current understandings of how we learn. Because most education is justified as preparation for life in the work world, she takes us to 21st century work places and the new industries fostered by information technology. In the end, she speaks directly to an audience who sees itself as too old to learn the new technology, celebrating the impressive and sustained capacity for learning and growth possessed by even the most skeptical, behind-the-times, technophobes.

Throughout all stages of life, Davidson’s investigates what literacy and learning really mean in the 21st century. In particular, she explores the question of what role attention and attention-blindness play in our current work and school lives. She draws upon recent brain research about how we actually pay attention in order to dispel the common complaint that kids today don’t know how to pay attention like they used to. She turns this argument on it’s head, claiming that it is the popular press and tech-skeptics who distract themselves with hand wringing about multitasking, video games; because they fixate on what’s wrong with kids today, they themselves do not pay attention to the positives that come from embracing our universal capacities to pay attention in different, ever-changing ways. Rather than trying to force people to pay attention in old-fashioned ways better suited for the industrial age, Davidson believes we should be learning from what kids find important enough to pay attention to and teaching them to cultivate their own attentional and discernment abilities. Rather than pushing all students to pay attention in the same ways (the ways that are supposed to lead to good standardized test scores, usually), we should teach students to “collaborate by difference,” working together to fill in for one another’s attentional gaps. Davidson believes collaboration, flexibility, and creativity are the literacy skills necessary for survival in the Internet age. And our institutions should reflect this shift by becoming less hierarchical, less silo’d, and more conducive to the kind of peer-to-peer, self-directed knowledge making now possible through the Internet.

I found my own attention drawn to the way Davidson discusses learning disabilities throughout her book, including ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, her own dyslexia. Her general stance toward labels like LD, dyslexic or Autistic shows a careful skepticism, especially about what we as a culture believe these labels mean in our current moment. She walks a tense line between acknowledging differences in people who have “different brains” and also denying that there’s really such a thing as learning disabilities in any fixed definition. It’s a tension I myself feel when talking about learning disabilities as a progressive educator who at the same time wants to advocate a positive identity for LD people, while also changing education to remove impediments that make LD diagnosable in the first place. I see this tension throughout Davidson’s work.

On the one hand, because she has read a great deal of neuroscience work on these “disabilities,” she is willing to describe developmental conditions using some medicalized explanations. For instance, when narrating the way a typical baby’s brain develops more streamlined neural pathways as he learns, Davidson writes, “If his [the hypothetical Baby Andy’s] development unfolds as it should, he will lose 40 percent of his extra neurons before he grows up. If he does not, he will not be able to function independently in society and will be considered mentally handicapped or disabled.” (44 – 45) To me, this passage exemplifies the tension of talking about cognitive disabilities in a progressive educational context. On the one hand, Davidson is talking about a biological reality–something that is happening or not in an individual’s brain. On the other hand, she is talking about this person’s ability to “function independently in society,” which Davidson’s work acknowledges is no stable capacity–it is indeed a rapidly changing capacity as technology, industry, and social structure change over time. By setting the labels of “mentally handicapped or disabled” within their historical and cultural context, Davidson acknowledges that these labels are not natural or automatic or even value neutral–they are labels that name someone as a poor fit for our current social and economic systems.

I feel a great deal of consternation about her use of the phrase “If his development unfolds as it should.” Having read other examples from the book, I know that she praises the broad and diverse capacities of people our medical discourse labels as disabled, as evidenced by her extended examination of industries where neurotypical (NT) people are disadvantaged compared to their autistic coworkers, such as IT program quality control (see ch 7 “The Changing Worker”). However, this phrase signals to me a value-laden assumption that–all things considered–it would be better if people like Baby Andy developed along the normal path, the way they should. It would be nice if there were fewer cognitively disabled people in the world. I want to push back against that should, to say that it leads us toward seeing intellectual capacity as the most important factor and away from seeing the value in intellectually disabled people. I don’t want to push very hard, though, as I think that should speaks against the injustice of innaccess, rather than the tragedy of disability.

In almost every other case where Davidson discusses disability, she does so within a larger social and cultural context, rather than focusing on the shoulds or should nots of individual development. For instance, rather than speculating about biological causes of recent rise in autism, she carefully observes “it seems that more people who are born now will eventually be diagnosed with autism than a decade ago” (215). Similarly, when talking about her own dyslexia, she claims “I wasn’t always dyslexic. I am old enough that ‘learning disabilities’ didn’t exist as a category when I was a kid” (8). In each of these cases, Davidson foregrounds the historical contingency of our terms for discussing these seemingly stable, unchangeable brain conditions (dyslexic, autistic).

In so doing, she is able to focus not on what makes dyslexics or autistic people biologically different, but instead on how education practices workplace cultures perpetuate systems that exclude certain people and not others (10). Labels like autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities arise, Davidson claims, because doctors are asked to provide reasons and treatments for people who don’t fit into rigidly narrow education systems. As she puts it when discussing the rise of standardized learning and IQ assessment, “the more standardized our assessment, the more kids fail. Their failure is then diagnosed as a learning disability or disorder” (79). If schools employed broader approaches to education that respected (instead of seeking to correct) the differences between individual capacities, these labels of disorder and syndrome would no longer be necessary.

I will conclude this discussion with one final passage, where Davidson lays out her social perspective on disability most broadly. Here, she is discussing the fact that in our current age of constantly shifting literacy requirements–where this year’s newest technological innovation leaves us unable to do work with new software or hardware we need to carry out our lives–learning disability is in fact the norm, not the exception. She writes,

The issue isn’t whether you have learning disabilities because, in a larger sense, everyone does. No one does everything perfectly all the time. Given the inherent lack, it’s just not interesting or useful to label some disabilities and not others. Far better to diagnose what the issues are and then find the right tools, methods, and partners to compensate for those so that you are able to contribute in the unique ways you can. (140)

Here Davidson takes the social model of disability to its logical conclusion: disability is not about individual impairment, it’s about inability to function within the existing social structure, and in that regard the label could apply to anyone irrespective of actual “brain difference,” whatever that would mean. Even if you might be temporarily learning-abled now, a simple change in the technology could render your literacy abilities out of date, creating in you a deficiency that did not previously exist.

This leaves me with the question I never got around to asking Cathy Davidson when I saw her yesterday, a question I hope to discuss with her more in person, as it’s not quite answered for me in her work. How can we rationalize and resolve the tension between biological essentialism, educational progressivism, and positive disability identity politics when we talk about learning disabilities and education? From a biological essentialist view, Davidson and I are “different brained, ” as she describes in her recent blog post “How it Feels to be Learning Disabled.” From a progressive educational viewpoint, however, we are simply the most disadvantaged in an disadvantaging education system whose priorities fixate on a fictional “normal brain” that no human being actually has. To reform that system is to deny the relevance of our “brain difference,” that is, to render us as a population indistinguishable from everyone else. And yet, these two views do not preclude a third, a paradoxical middle ground in which Davidson (and I) can cheer for positive identity politics in which we can say it’s great to be dyslexic or autistic, and we can use these terms for community building and to fight a culture of stigma. I want to know what place positive identity building as “differently brained” plays in Davidson’s politics of disabilities and learning. Maybe I’ll get up the gumption to ask her about it next time I see her.

Notes: https://docs.google.com/document/d/121f0oy5xPDldQyCCu4y0Liu5BPmTAgONiC2X3dSf4ak/edit?usp=sharing

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Institutions for a Less Disabling Future: Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

In their pioneering work The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg argue that institutions of higher education sit at a tipping point brought about by the advent of web 2.0 technology.

Davidson and Goldberg explore implications for higher education of the new possibilities afforded by a range of social media and digital communication technologies, claiming, essentially, that universities must actively pursue the possibilities of digital connective technology and the values of “participatory learning,” even as it means confronting difficult challenges of integrating new styles of institution with old ones. Thanks to sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter (just to name a few immediately recognizable examples), we are now producing knowledge through perviously impossible processes of peer-to-peer, global collaboration, a knowledge-making environment that requires new definitions of literacy and learning.

Traditional institutions of higher education have been reluctant to embrace many innovations, however, often for deep seated structural reasons. For instance it is now possible to use virtual reality environments like Second Life to create large-scale collaborative learning institutions that could cross geographical and institutional borders. To allow for comparison of these seemingly incompatible conceptions of “learning institution” they posit a new model that applied to both material and virtual learning institutions: as mobilizing networks, systems sustain themselves over time and distribute resources to their participants based on agreed procedural practices.

Speaking about the range of institutional structures we employ to administer education to learners, Davidson and Goldberg argue that we must seek ways to make the flow of access to information, resources, and collaborative support more fluid and universally open. They ask,

If, at present, too many learning institutions post obstacles to the free flow of thinking, to collaborative knowledge formation, and to interactive learning almost as formidable as obstacles imposed by corporations and by governments, then how do we create free-flowing institutions? (15)

One answer the authors offer emerges as they examine the academic social networking community, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). As a test case, HASTAC offers unique possibilities for the future of learning institutions, but it also evidences the real difficulties involved in building and sustaining new mobilizing networks that would bring virtual and brick-and-mortar institutions together in the producing learning institutions fit for the digital age.

I believe Davidson and Goldberg’s notion of institutions as “mobilizing networks” has a number of compelling implications for disability scholars. Here I’m focusing particularly on the fifth chapter, “Institutions as Mobilizing Networks: (Or, ‘I Hate the Institution–But I love what it Did for Me’)”

It is in discussion what institutions are and how they work that the authors most specifically name disability as a relevant topic in the discussion of learning in the digital age (though race, class, and gender are mentioned quite frequently). On the one hand, the author’s initial framing of the “traditional institution” directly evokes the kind of brick-and-mortar institutions developed to house and “care for” the disabled, such as mental institutions and prisons (125). This is the model of an institution as building, as in a charity foundation or public service. Because they find this model of institution recalcitrant to digital innovation and the possibilities of participatory learning, they try to establish a definition that would support the development of new institutional arrangements demanded by the emerging field of digital learning.

By redefining institutions as “mobilizing networks,” the authors claim mobility as a dynamic capacity for change, open collaborative involvement, access to resources–a quality not evenly distributed across contemporary learning institutions. As the authors themselves put it, “institutions in and of themselves, are not intrinsically good or bad. Their utility is a function of what they enable or disable and make possible or restrict” (129).

As Davidson and Goldberg highlight the way institutions either provide access or obstacles to users, I can’t help thinking about the work of composition scholar Jay Dolmage, who has offered similar–though less digitally focused–definitions of institutions that exclude. In his essay “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door,” Dolmage also draws connections between traditional institutions of higher education and public institutions for the disabled (in Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook 2008). Dolmage observes that colleges and universities, because their institutional function involves subjecting students to challenges and judging their capacities as students, often justify practices that put high demands on students’ physical, mental, and social abilities. Dolmage employs an architectural metaphor of “steep steps” to explain this mentality–college is supposed to be a hard slog, and those who can’t make it don’t deserve to make it to the top.

Dolmage claims that before the rise of disability activism and the ADA requirements that disabled people have equal or comparable access to public institutions of higher learning, universities were designed only to serve the needs of able-bodied students and staff, and many of the “steep steps” that were justified by administrators and teachers actually disproportionally disadvantaged disabled people. Like Davidson and Goldberg, he advocates universities pursue new practices for designing and administering institutions of higher learning, ones that would remove discriminatory barriers to entrance and access by creating more adaptable, responsive, and participatory institutions.

While Dolmage is less focused on the role digital technology can play in fostering access, and Davidson and Goldberg focus less on the plight of disabled students as a particular vulnerable population, these authors clearly come together in the ways they picture the disabling effects of traditional, hierarchical, institutions of higher learning; they also share a goal of creating new institutions that would allow for improved access and inclusion for a diverse range of learners.

A second point of interest for me in their discussion of institutions as mobilizing networks is the way Davidson and Goldberg discuss the roles of specialized institutional sites within larger traditional learning institutions–sites like libraries, DH labs, and specialized institutes that serve to promote new digital methods within the larger, more conservative university system. They refer to these as “supporting sites of mobilization.”

They argue that Institutional sites like libraries, Digital Humanities labs, and digital literacy institutes function “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy” for the university, providing access to and training in new technologies for scholarship and pedagogy while at the same time sharing information and facilitating collaboration with communities outside the institution’s physical walls. Institutional spaces like these, the author argue, serve as hubs of mobilizing energy for the university.

A quick example I’ll likely explore in a later post: I work as a communication fellow at The Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College. The institute provides training for faculty and students in a range of new media practices including course blogging, digital composing, digital assessment. It also provides an institutional link between the university and the corporate world through the annual symposium that brings faculty across a range of disciplines together with business professionals to forge important connections that support the interests of both Baruch and the industries the college’s students wish to enter. The institute also supports open practices in the products it develops, including the blogs@baruch platform and VOCAT, an open source application for giving instructor feedback on video projects. They draw resources from open participants and mobilize their resources throughout the broader global community.

My question: I wonder whether there’s a way to conceive of disability services offices as supporting sites of mobilization.

They certainly can be “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy”: throughout my education, I have used these sites to access all kinds of assistive technologies: computer programs designed specifically to help students with learning disabilities (literacy support programs like Kurzweil 3000); books on tape (sometimes in conjunction with national foundations for the Blind and Dyslexic); and many technologies I’ve used somewhat off label for dyslexics, like speech-to-text composing software (Dragon Dictation). These resources tend to be prohibitively expensive for students, and mostly unknown to faculty and staff (outside of libraries). They mobilize digital literacy resources. I’ll address the problems with this idea in a moment.

DSOs might serve important mobilizing function within institutions of higher education in other ways, too. Clearly, in their charge to remove environmental and curricular impediments for students with disabilities, they foster mobility at colleges in literal ways: more people are able to move around campuses, access buildings, access course materials, and (ideally) access college degrees.

I wonder, though, about the important differences between DSOs and other digital literacy and access sponsors like libraries and DH institutes. Within DSOs, resources are distributed through a hierarchical process of administrative bureaucracy. Because their work with students raises all sorts of legal concerns about confidentiality and anti-discrimination legislation, DSOs must be exceptionally controlled in the way they facilitate mobilization of information, resources, and access. Some of their resources are open access (say, information about disability aimed at educating the local community, which is often hosted on DSO websites): these are for everyone, inside or outside of the university, and they often draw reference to disability culture and activism outside academic walls.

However, the majority of the resources available at DSOs are administered through confidential channels and provided only to a select few who have documented diagnoses of disabilities. Access to resources is almost invariably a top-down affair, where the administration sets the plan for accommodation according to legal prescription, and the faculty and student must both comply. DSOs don’t seem in a position to facilitate the kind of peer-to-peer collaborative learning networks Davidson and Goldberg advocate.

I want to close this post by speculating on a model from within the disabled community of mobilizing networks that may provide useful models for innovating the work of DSOs. Here I’m wandering into unclear terrain, where I will need to argue that one important function of these sites of mobilization Davidson and Goldberg describe to push cultural change and community building across social barriers of race, class, nation, and disability. I think here of the way she describes how community organizations like Sustainable South Bronx use participatory learning practices to promote social change and bring together a community.

I think also of the important role that online communities have played in bringing disabled people into active, collaborative community building. I can imagine particularly salient examples from the autistic or Asperger’s communities–the kinds of online sites of emerging “disability culture” Joseph Straus describes in his essay “Autism as Culture” (in Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed).  What productive analogies can be drawn between institutions of participatory learning in higher education contexts and these peer-to-peer digital networks that foster community building and group identity formation? How could similar peer-to-peer disability networking be productive in universities to sponsor new more empowering understandings of disabled identity? What part might DSOs play in facilitating this development?

I will take these questions with me as I continue my research. My next stop is Davidson’s Now You See It, which more directly addresses disability issues. Perhaps I will be able to think through these questions more there. Mark also suggested I track down any blog posts or articles she’s done on disability topics–which I’ll aim to do before she arrives for her job visit to CUNY this Friday. I look forward to talking with her in person about these and other ideas I have emerging for my experiences with her work.

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Reflections and Plans: 3 week check-in

 

I’ve been working on my lists for three weeks now, and I thought it felt about time for a checkin and self evaluation. I’ve written seven reading response posts and tried a few different formats, with differing results. I have also dealt with a range of text styles which have challenged me, including multimodal webtexts, philosophical lectures, and an enormously wide-ranging subject reader. There have also been new developments, like getting my proposal accepted for CCCC, which are making me think about where my next moves will be on my lists after I get done with my current pile.

In this post, I want to evaluate my progress so far and lay out my strategy for the next month or so of work. I mean this to be helpful to my advisors–Mark McBeth, Joe Straus, and Jason Tougaw–as a way to get a sense of what I’m working on and what I’m thinking without our having to find time to meet too frequently. I know how time is for all of us.

First I reflect on the texts I’ve read and the challenges I ran into (probably most relevant to Joe). Then I talk about my ideas for my essay project on LD identity and dyslexia memoirs, which is relevant to my next reading steps for Joe and Jason’s lists. Finally, I talk about my disability service provider research project that just got picked up for CCCC, and how I can use Mark’s list to get me there. I welcome feedback of any kind, on any part, from any audience.

1) Reflections:

I have been relatively happy with my pace. Since starting my reading/writing schedule three weeks ago, I have gotten through one book (Austin’s How to Do Things With Words), nine new chapters of the Disability Studies Reader, and an eight-author webtext that was about equivalent to an entire journal article worth of articles, Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces. I also wrote a new draft of my complete orals lists, including a draft of the list rationale statement that must accompany the lists when I submit them to the department. You can see the lists, which are broken down into sub-topics, here.

All this, and I lost an entire week, nearly, conferencing with my students for their start-of-term writing consultation. (40ish in a week–draining but effective). Now that that’s over, I should be able to concentrate more on my reading.

I faced a few research challenges in this first push. First, I had to figure out how to reflect on something so large and abstract as Austin’s speech act theory in a single post. I ended up providing my own practical testing ground by imagining the pedagogical applications of Austin’s theories about performatives. This helped me extract what I really needed from Austin, I think.

My next problem was one of medium, figuring out how to consume, interpret, and reflect on a multi-part webtext about “access studies,” an emerging discourse in composition disability studies that employs some language and concerns from outside wheelhouse. While I’m interested in technology and access, it’s really not my primary interest in thinking about disability issues in higher education. So discussions about screen reader technology or image captioning were informative, but not alluring.  It is, however, an important strand of the new composition/disability discourse I’m exploring on Jason’s list. In the end, I did a scattershot approach here, summarizing all the pieces of the webtext rather than synthesizing them together. I led a talk on this webtext for our GC Comp Rhet area group meeting shortly after writing my post. I think I was able to do some of that synthesis there.

Finally I had my first anthology battle. I’d read about half of the Disability Studies Reader (4th edition) for Joe’s class last Spring, but I knew there were quite a few articles in it I wanted to get to. Many introduce key disability studies terms of discourses that I simply don’t know much about. And while they’re not central to my dissertation project, I would like to be able to teach disability studies classes someday, and this will require me to be somewhat conversant in issues like prenatal testing or the history of the ADA. So, I wanted to use the text to give me a general overview in the field before I dive in to specific discourses. However, I also didn’t want to get bogged down in the scope of the reader, which at over 500 pages could easily keep me still for the whole month if I let it. In the end I decided to try these things: (1) skip chapters that are by authors whose books I’m reading later (i.e. Davis’s chapters which are also in his books, Siebers’s, Garland-Thomson, McRuer); (2) write mostly about the ones with relevance to my dissertation work, but take good notes on all of them; (3) leave some to come back to later if I have time. I have three more chapters to go, and I’m looking forward to digging in to a single author for a while.

2) New (revised) DS seminar paper idea

I feel like the project I’ve been working on for my incomplete Disability Studies seminar paper has finally died for good. I went through many, many drafts of that thing and still couldn’t find my way to an argument. I feel I had so many disparite topics I wanted to weave together, I couldn’t actually find something definite to say. I think it’s time for me to set that project down and consider other options. Looking backward worn’t help me move forward on these lists.

One option I’m pursuing is using this blog to generate an essay, rather than planning the argument in advance based on texts I’ve already read. By directing my reading choices based on the themes and ideas that emerge from one text to another, I can gather multiple responses on a general topic, perhaps allowing an argument to emerge and develop over a number of posts. This will help me take some of the pressure off of needing to have every move of my essays planned from the get go. Also, because I’m following leads as I go, the writing will likely have an exploratory quality and energy to it I often lost when fiddling with the old drafts.

But that’s all about method, what about topic? I think the best thing I wrote for Joe’s class was my essay about LD identity and Tobin Sieber’s notion of disability as masquerade. I was able to take his model for disability performance and use it to establish an argument for learning disability as performance, and literacy as the controlling ideological force governing the performance. I also got to draw examples from my own experience, Mooney and Schultz’s dyslexia memoirs, and some pop culture representations of dyslexia I’m interested in, especially The Cosby Show. You can see the original essay here: Learning Disability as Masquerade

I think it would make sense for me to direct my immediate reading efforts on my disability studies list toward the goal of fleshing out and developing this paper. My next stop will be, I think, Siebers’ Disability Theory, which should give me a more contextualized version of the theory I was responding to in that draft. That will be my only theoretical apparatus for this project (I hope!), and the rest of my efforts will be spent on drawing examples from a small archive of the LD texts with which to test the fit of Seiber’s theories for LD. In addition to the memoirs and the Cosby episodes about Theo’s dyslexia, I’ve also discovered a fabulous after-school special about dyslexia starring Jaquin and River Phoenix called Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984), which will match with the other texts very well I think. I will also, as before, draw from my own anecdotal experience to fill in whatever research gaps remain between me and a finished seminar paper. Once I get through these initial texts, I can ask Joe where else I could look on my lists to develop my thinking on the topic, and use his suggestions to guide my next steps in the reading and writing process. And so, in little steps forward, I might actually write a seminar paper.

3) Disability research in CUNY for CCCC talk

The second hopeful development is that I got a proposal accepted at this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in Indianapolis. I missed the message for several days as it sat in my spam box, and I’d assumed I hadn’t gotten in. I was bummed: I had proposed to discuss the initial results from a series of interviews with disability service providers around CUNY and a preliminary analysis of CUNY institutional documents about disability, including DSO websites and public resources. Getting in was to be my motivation to actually conduct those interviews and start my analysis in a timely fashion, forcing me to have something to show by March. I used the CWPA talk in July for the same purpose, as a motivation to revise the research project I began in Mark’s class and sketch out the scope of the next step in my research.

Well, since I have gotten in after all, it looks like the research plan’s back on. I’d love to start by trying to get a meeting with Chris Rosa, the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at CUNY central. I met him when I was putting on the English program graduate conference two years ago with Emily Stanback and Marrisa Brostoff. (Check out the conference website here.) Dr. Rosa has been a driving force in disability policy and discourse within CUNY since he himself graduated from the GC–not to mention his influence and contributions as executive officer of the Society of Disability Studies.

He would be in a unique position to help me access whatever documents or data or stories exist that would help me construct an institutional history of disability in CUNY. He would also be in a position to help me understand the logistic and legal terrain I’m getting into by asking questions about disability services at CUNY. Perhaps he could point me toward particular people at campuses who would have further leads, or be good interview subjects. This assumes, of course, he’s not too busy to see me and actually sees merit in my research. I’ll do as much research on these questions as I can alone first, of course.

I’m essentially planning to steer my reading work for Mark and Jason over the next one or two month push toward supporting these two projects. I’ve already talked through my plan for linking Joe’s list to the dyslexia masquerade essay. Jason’s list contains a number of the foundational dyslexia and LD works I’ll need to be able to draw upon to write that piece as well, and these should give me some ways to crack open that list on academic disability in a real way. I can do Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled, which gives an excellent overview of the various strands of LD scholarship (including neuroscience, literacy studies, and composition discourses around the topic); my work will be responding to Dunn’s pretty directly, I think, and my lists draw heavily from her own bibliography (with my spin, of course). She will remind me of the lay of the land and help me plan my next moves. Those next moves might take me to the LD memoirs, but I’m not committed to that yet. I may also want to spend some time with the early cognitive comp folks (Rose, Flower, Elbow).

For the moment, I’m working to finish up Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (2010), the second monograph I’m tacking on Mark’s list. I bumped it to the top of the pile because Dr. Davidson is coming to the GC in two weeks to give a job talk, and I’ll get the chance to meet her. Obviously, I’m eager to get a good understanding of her work before she gets here. I should be done with Future of Thinking by Monday so I can go on to Now You See It, which I understand more directly addresses issues of ADHD and new literacy.

Once I get through Davidson’s work, I want to direct my reading on Mark’s list toward supporting my CCCC research project. Since my main concern in this draft of the project will be sketching out an institutional history of disability administration at CUNY, I will want to get some models for other institutional histories. I’ll look at George Otte and Rebecca Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010) as well as some texts I poached from Mark’s archive class about basic writing and Open Admissions history. If I can narrow down any texts that will model interview-based research methods, that would be nice too. Suggestions are very welcome. Perhaps the texts on institutional criticism methods will be a nice place to go next.

To anyone who made it this far: thanks for reading. I welcome your feedback or encouragement either in comments or in an email to me at a.j.lucchesi@gmail.com

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I say, therefore I do: J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words

While I took great pleasure in reading Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, I am daunted by the task of summarizing and reflecting on it. Here I’ll try talking about what seems to me most important from Austin’s observations and what applications do I see for these theories for my work in composition.

I was initially drawn in by Austin’s distinction between the constative and performative uses of language. By offering a wealth of everyday examples (such as “I do” when said in a marriage ceremony or “I bet” when playing a card game) he convinced me quite quickly that there are many ways that we use words to do things. By examining how performative uses of language either fail or succeed to have their customary effect, Austin further distinguishes the ways performatives function within social and cultural contexts.

Neither of these points were revelations for me: Language is clearly an important tool we use to do things, like conduct business or set cultural laws. However, I found his taxonomy of infelicities–ways speech-acts can go wrong and fail in their effect–compelling, especially as he takes a joking tone when producing examples, occasionally absurd. I often felt dragged through his later taxonomizing, when he tries to evaluate grammatical heuristics for distinguishing performatives. The humor helps.

Austin finds no clear way to distinguish performative utterances from mere statements of fact.  Through his investigation, he establishes to three key senses in which to say something is to do something. In one sense, to say something is to perform a locutionary act–that is, to make noises (he’s not interested in gestural languages) that correspond to an accepted vocabulary and grammar. In another sense, to say something is sometimes also to perform an illocutionary act–that is, it’s a performative in the initial sense, like “I apologize” or “I object!”. Sometimes the sentences we make invoke a particular ritual force that performs a further action. Austin provides six major types of illocutionary acts, including utterances that pass judgment (“I judge you to be guilty of murder”) that commit oneself to further action (“I promise to bake you a cake”) or that enact a social  interaction (“I apologize for . . . ” or “I thank you for . . .”). Finally, he explains that sometimes when we say something we’re performing a perlocutionary act–that is, we affect an audience, often through complex, indirect means. The model here goes, “By saying X, I Y’d” as in “By saying ‘you’re so confrontational,’ I offended her.” Unlike the illocutionary act, which has its effects because it adheres to pre-determined (if sometimes hidden) social rules, in this case, my speech act is doing something out in the world that’s internal to my audience. I haven’t invoked a social ritual, but I have done something. To offend someone with my words is not to use any particular grammatical or syntactical structure, but it is one thing I can do when I perform an utterance. (Put I perform so much more than utterances!)

While I may not retain the particulars of Austin’s distinctions between, say, the types of infelicities to which performatives are vulnerable or the destinctions between the of illocutionary acts one might do (not so solid even for Austin), I am facinated his illusidation of the illocutionary and perlocutionary forces of speach-acts. I found myself reflecting on how this distinction applies to the kind of rhetoric I teach in my freshman composition course. It seems like an exceptionaly elastic way of considering how utterances function (whether in an argument or a story or a memo) : that is, without discussing rhetoric explicitly, Austin’s theory explains how rhetoric is possible.

I want to consider the pedagogical implications of each of these performative forces of utterances.

1. Locutionary– to teach students to be aware of the locutionary powers of their utterances is to focus on elements of grammar, mechanics, and vocabulary usage. We do this work frequently, and current-traditional pedagogies do this work above all others. Imperative here is training students to understand how to forge utterances that adhere to and exploit the capacities of (usually) standard academic English for making meaning. Prime concerns, then: spelling or capitalizing words conventionally (typographical version of Austin’s phonic act): or we might teach students how to choose the correct words and using them according to their proper meanings  for instance, the difference between affect and effect, and how to deploy them (Austin’s phantic act); we might also teach students about subject/verb agreement or about constructing sentences logically to make clear meaning (Austin’s rhetic act). Teaching students to level of sentence construction and correctness is to sensitize students to the locutionary forces of their speech-acts.

You’ll note that I’m trying to adapt Austin’s distinctions to suit the context of the writing classroom, where most utterances are written in prose For instance, I am rendering Austin’s phonetic act as equivalent to typographical distinctions like capitalization and unconventional spelling, which may have no phonetic effect at all, but seem roughly equivalent. I may be working in rough analogy here and thus overgeneralize. But for my purposes, I couldn’t help trying to extrapolate into what I know, which is writing instruction. At the end of this post, I’ll go further, and consider how these categories might work for other sorts of communicative acts we study and make in the classroom, including visual and digital performances. That will be pure speculation.

2. Illocutionary–what would it mean to teach students about the illocutionary force of language? This amounts, I think, to social constructivist pedagogy–showing students how to perform important rhetorical moves that make up our academic genres and teaching them how to avoid the particular infelicities to which those moves are vulnerable. The work I do with my students on discourse communities often wanders close to this model of literacy acquisition. Of the six styles of illocutionary act, some seem more applicable to thinking about teaching than others.

We often ask students to evaluate or assess another author’s point of view, essentially asking them to perform a verdictive. Verdictives pass a judgement. While other illocutionary acts might commit the speaker to some future action (“I swear to X”) or express the establishment of a social interaction (“I denounce you!”), verdictives speak from a position of authority and define something based on reason or evidence. Austin’s examples are an umpire calling “out” or a judge declaring that an accused person actually is guilty based on the evidence. Verdictives must come from those with clout and must corrispond to the accepted rules of evidence in order to work. Our job as instructors is to help students avoid the pitfalls of issuing verdictives, namely that the student doesn’t hasn’t established the authority to issue her assessment, that she’s basing her verdict on unacceptable reasoning or evidence, or that the assessment is vague. When we ask students to evaluate, estimate, assess, diagnose, describe, analyse, characterize (157) our role is often to help them see how their utterances may be sound or unsound, authoritative or amateurish.

The other most obvious category of illocutionary acts that correspond with what I teach fall into Austin’s category of expositives. An utterance is expositive when it involves “the expounding of views, the conducting of arguments, and the clarifying of usages and of references” (161) Here we see verbs like argue, describe, accept, agree with, begin by, conclude by, analyze, distinguish, illustrate, explain, etc. When I teach students to use these verbs consciously in their writing, I often think of it as teaching them to employ a distinctive argumentative voice, finding ways to make explicit the thinking process they intend their essay to perform with the reader. These kinds of performance are also subject to infelicities that we try to help our students avoid. So, when a student sets out to describe something and actually ends up summarizing instead, or when they set out to argue and do not actually present an argument. Or when they set out to disagree with an author’s perspective but don’t in fact offer a disagreement or merely deny or refute or reject the author’s position.

Since illocutionary forces rely on accepted convention, I think of approaches like Graff and Berkenstein’s They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Arguments method as essentially illocutionary pedagogy. Using templates, TS/IS shows students how to make the conventional moves that make up an argument in certain academic contexts. Within a social constructivists pedagogy, much of what it means to help students learn to write boils down to helping students understand the that rules govern a particular scholarly or professional discourse. Students learn how to employ conventional forms, how to perform “the moves that matter” without infelicities.

You will note that I’ve slid from talking about performances at the level of individual sentences or utterances to talking about them on a much larger scale–perhaps at the level of a paragraph or an entire essay. I’m uncomfortable with this elision, but I won’t go into it much here beyond giving a few quick examples of why I’ve done this. If students are going to use words to report the speech of someone else, for instance, academic conventions usually demand a more complicated ritual than can be performed in a single sentence. Strictly speaking, our students perform the act of quoting when they say, “I quote Austin, ‘these are all distinct from the producing of effects which is characeristic of the perlocutionary act’.” However, by itself, we as teachers would say that in order for the student to quote effectively (for it to be carried off “well”), he needs to perform other related utterances, like introducing and contextualizing the quotation to be presented, employing proper punctuation, analyzing or explaining the quotation’s relevance, altering the quotation with brackets to fit his own syntax, and so on. The act of performing a quotation in writing seems to be spread out over a great many individual sentences, as does the act of arguing or summarizing or describing. I wonder if in this sense a paragraph or an essay performs.

3. Perlocutionary–The truth is that I understand the perlocutionary much less well than I want to. Since it’s not the target Austin’s primarily aiming at, he doesn’t spend as much time elucidating it. An example:

In saying “I like other boys” I frightened my babysitter.

My language definitely did something: but what it did and why is a very difficult thing to figure out, and conceivably completely idiosynchratic to the babysitter. The exact same speech act could carry differing perlocutionary forces with different audiences (maybe the babysitter could have been delighted by the comment). If I understand the distinction he’s drawing, it seems like thinking about perlocustionary forces must lead down exceptionally complex theoretical terrain deeply wrapped up in the mess of affective experience, psychology, brain science. A connection to follow onward in the lists.

It seems a metaphor like “audience” is the pedagogical corrispondant to Austin’s perlocusionary performative. We train our students to anticipate the expectations of their readers, how their readers will likely react to what they’ve written. I often work with a model of peer review that focuses exclusively on familiarizing students with their audience and their audience’s responses to their work. My approaches largely derive from my experience with Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwart’s workshop model from Writing True, as well as my other research into cognitive comp folks like Peter Elbow. (He’s up soon on the list!). Most of the work in peer review is focused on the listeners explaining to the author exactly what their experience of the text was, exactly what it communicated and how. The idea is to help students make connections between their linguistic choices on the page and the effect it produced in an attentive audience. Over time, students use one another’s capacities to be listeners to hone their skills at effectively communicating ideas or feelings using their writing.

Well, not just their writing, of course. Or not in the traditional sense. In making these extrapolations, I’ve had to expand Austin’s scope pretty wide, and probably I’ve done a rough job of it. So, when I think of the possibilities if we include other sorts of textual performance in the mix, I feel certain I’ll stretch too far. However:

I don’t know a terribly large amount about visual rhetoric. I consider myself to be a visual thinker, and I’m certainly a voracious consumer of visual media, but I couldn’t tell you very much about what scholars have said about visual rhetoric. Dominique Zino has given me some idea, though, that it’s about analyzing and deploying non-verbal rhetorics, as visual artists or advertisers might do when composing an image for an audience. So, a Kara Walker image uses scale and size and medium and subject to communicate its message, to perform its desired effect. Since Walker’s an artist, it’s not trying to communicate facts, but a particular affective response–shame, intrigue, disgust, some admixture? Within the context of visual rhetoric, the communication relies almost wholely on that aspect of the perlocutionary performative that Austin attaches to non-verbal cues like gesture or expression. We teach students to read the visual cues in advertisements because we recognize the value of visual critical discernment in our present visual moment. Also, with the capacity for multimodal digital composing, students are able to experiment with performing utterances in formerly impossible of means. A cool example of something a student could conceivably make: http://pitchfork.com/features/cover-story/reader/janelle-monae/ (You know, but not so glossy and perfect and if I knew how to teach someone to make something like this.) I wonder: What would it mean to think of providing a hyperlink in a sentence as a quality of utterance? Another thread to track further, probably into the multimodal composing books on Mark’s list.

Other upcoming connections will probably come from the queer theorists and disability theorists on Mark’s and Joe’s lists. McRuer, Davis, Sedgwick, Halberstam (right?).

My next big reading, though, is Elbow’s Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. It’s one of my texts with Jason looking at process-era interests in cognition and the mind-brain. That strand will take me forward into contemporary cognitive composition work, and maybe link me there to multimodality. We’ll see what shakes loose as I read and write here.

My secondary reading at the moment is Lennard Davis’s Disability Studies Reader (4th edition). I’ve picked out all the chapters I think will be worth reading for my interests, which is still, like, 25 chapters. Thankfully, this includes many I read for Joe’s Disability Studies class last term, so I should be done within the weekend. I’m not yet sure how I can productively blog about that one. Obviously, brevity isn’t one of my strengths, and I really don’t think I need to summarize many of the ones that are quite distant from my dissertation work. For instance, I’m very glad I’m reading Ruth Hubbard’s historical essay on early 20th century hereditary science (read: eugenics). If I teach a DS course soon, I’ll likely assign it. But I doubt it will come up in my publishing life unless my scholarly interests take a severe turn in the coming years.

I guess I’ll use that, then. Out of the DS Reader, which articles will I want to write about going forward?

Finally, a rogue sentence I like but didn’t find a home for:

The total speech act, which exists within concurrent socio-cultural matrices: language (phonetic, phantic, rhetorical structures), custom (conventions of performatives, such as the rules of in/felicity for a given utterance), and affect (how an audience receives an utterance, makes meaning of it, and has a reaction).

Something a bit less . . . lyrical next time, I think.

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