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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: A Riff on a Theme: Our Keynote and its Overtones in E 6, D 36, I 2
Reviewed by: Matt Smith, msmith@sf.edu
Posted on: April 8, 2004

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     In his instructions to CCCC reviewers for Across the Disciplines, Will Hochman offered the possibility that we “…offer some impressions that creatively extend conference ideas in interesting and sometimes unusual ways.  Almost anything is doable as long as you are true to ideas and feelings from the conference.”  While my comments may not be unusual, I would like to extend Kathleen Yancey’s opening remarks from “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” as the central thematic note that I heard in almost all of the sessions and workshops I took part in at the 2004 College Conference on Composition and Communication.  
     Yancey’s remarks concerning the parallel state between the reading public in 2004 to a similar moment of change in the early Nineteenth Century rang true for me.  Like her, I see palpable flux in what counts for literacy swirling around me.  Similar to the historical period Yancey invokes, I hear and see powerful eruptions of different literacy movements in my composition courses all the time.  From visual rhetoric, to gaming, to blogging, to IMing, what counts as a “composition” and what counts as being literate in terms of those compositions has certainly changed from my experience as student in a first-year college writing course in the late 1980’s to the first time I taught first-year composition in the early 1990’s to the present moment.  This theme of change in our courses and profession ran through almost every session I attended.
    For example, in session E-6 “Toward a Defensible Articulation of English Studies,”  Lori Ostergaard, Jim Nugent, and Mike Martin eloquently and passionately spoke about the benefits and pitfalls of English Studies PhD programs.  Many departments that have been historically known as English Department are morphing into a variety of entities with English Studies as one option.  Specifically, Ostergaard and Martin discussed the amazing personal and professional potential that such programs held, but also some of the pragmatic shortcomings that such programs might hold.  In terms of pre-professional training, Ostergaard remarked on an incidental, but telling, omission in her program’s course work of reading a department budget.  Ostergaard’s comments should not be seen as an attack on her particular institution or program, but rather an insightful remark on the state of positions in our discipline and the training in our profession.  How many of us have ever been trained in interpreting or creating a department or program budget?  These budgets often have profound impacts on our ability to do our jobs, create new initiatives, and begin new teaching or scholarly projects.  We often call for a more politicized or public role for “college writing,” but we are often untrained in the material ways in which to create that role---either in our academic communities or civic communities.  
    Martin’s experience as a job candidate from an English Studies program expressed another facet of our changing profession.  When searching for a job, because of his earned Ph.D. in English studies, he didn’t fit neatly into any categories that we readily see in job advertisements.  Rather, departments struggled to fit him into categories that coincided with department lines, Human Resource categorizations, or, quite simply, the convenient and expedient job description on file.  However, as many of you have experienced, we wear many hats at our institutions.  Rarely do we “merely” work within the narrow field that our dissertation, or even of our specific area of study, prepared us for in graduate school.  For instance, at my small, four-year liberal arts school with a four-four teaching load, every full-time faculty member teaches at least two composition courses a semester plus a wide-variety of literature and humanities offerings.  Our Department Head even teaches a Dance course through our Physical Education Department (as an overload, of course).   Nugent, Ostergaard, and Martin’s panel provides a glimpse into one overtone on the “new” key of composition.
    Another note, sometimes ominous, sometimes hopeful, running through several of the panels and workshop that I attended was assessment in its many forms.  In fact, I would argue that both internal and external forms of assessment will play a large role in our articulation of what our field does and how local, state, and national politicians and the general public perceive what “composition” may entail.  As you know, many institutions on the K-12 level are feeling intense pressures from state politicians to demonstrate writing competency.  But, those pressures are beginning to exert force upon post-secondary education as well.  We are all aware of the College Board-sponsored National Commission on Writing’s report; problematic as it might be, the report does describe many of the same concerns that we share across institutions and states.  The fact that both the SAT and ACT will soon include writing components can not be lost on our profession.  These fairly recent developments illustrate that the exchange about what we do can not be limited to only an internal conversation.  External forces play a large role in determining what notes might make up composition in a new key.
    Two panels that stand out in their discussion of the implications of the increasing public pressure towards assessment were D-36 “Writing Standards: Are They for Everyone?” and I-02 “High-Stake Writing Assessment in Secondary Schools: Implications for Secondary Schools.”  D-36 acted as a microcosm for the discussion of questions such as, how do we assess individual student texts, writing programs, and writing competencies across a state system.  Dennis Baron, Nancy Shapiro, Bob Broad, and Greg Colomb all had divergent views about how these activities do and should take place.  However, throughout their discussion and lively interaction among the panelists and with the audience, the over-riding theme that played out was that writing professionals should be responsible for any assessment process that takes place at any level.  If writing is used for assessment of students or programs, each panelist advocated that the profession has an ethical obligation to shape those assessments, ideally created through a variety of dialogues, and not leave these assessments to state or national entities or privately run companies.
    While Baron, Shapiro, Broad, and Colomb debated how writing assessment might take place at a variety of levels, John Dunn Jr., Peggy O’Neil, Sandra Murphy, and Brian Huot discussed the effects that high-stakes testing is having on writing instruction at the secondary level in Kentucky, Georgia, and California.  Their research findings were both fascinating and disturbing.  O’Neil, Murphy, and Huot examined the role that state tests played in shaping language arts curriculum at the secondary level.  Each of the three states performs a different kind of writing assessment---portfolio based, timed writing, and multiple choice editing---with varying stakes for the students, teachers, schools, and school districts.  Not surprisingly, their research showed that the type of test employed by a state influenced what and how teachers taught in the classroom.  Also, the test’s importance in terms of allowing students to graduate, earning merit raises or securing job security for teachers, impacting funding for individual schools and/or school districts greatly influenced the teachers’ attitude towards the worth of the test.  The greater the stakes and the more “stick” associated with the test usually correlated with a poor perception of the test’s worth by individual teachers.  While this information should not shock any of us, O’Neil, Murphy, and Huot’s research can act as a powerful testimony to both the positive and negative effects of increased high-stakes writing assessment.  Certainly the ability to articulate the effects of these tests, which are increasingly a favorite rallying cry for various political figures, becomes one of the more public notes of composition in a new key.
        Yancey’s question to examine “what do (and what will) we mean by composing” played in the background in all parts of the conference that I attended.  In ten or twenty years, it will be interesting to refer back to this Conference on College Composition and Communication in terms of examining moments in our discipline (whatever that may be at this or that moment) that signaled a profound change.  I speculate that future scholars may recognize Yancey’s opening presentation as the public signaling of a new understanding of what composing might mean for our students, our scholarship, and our profession.
                          



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