The Futures of College Writing: Part I

22 August 2017 Written by   Doug Hesse
Left to right: Eileen Schell, Doug Hesse, John Duffy, and Linda Adler-Kassner. Left to right: Eileen Schell, Doug Hesse, John Duffy, and Linda Adler-Kassner.

On June 15, 2017, the University of Denver writing program hosted a symposium immodestly dedicated to “The Futures of College Writing.” The invited speakers were Linda Adler-Kassner (UC-Santa Barbara), John Duffy (Notre Dame), and Eileen Schell (Syracuse), who conversed for two hours on a summer afternoon before an audience of forty-five faculty and invited guests rom Fort Collins to Pueblo.

“College Writing” is a vast terrain, of course. It potentially encompasses all writing that happens anywhere in college, from required courses (mainly first-year composition) that have long lent composition studies its status in higher ed (for better or worse), to the programmatic structures that have emerged to sustain those requirements, to emerging majors and minors, to the large profession or discipline. At the symposium we ended up focusing on courses and programs, with a considerable nod to contexts. To stir up a discussion of “the future” may imply a threat or crisis, but in more than one version of our history, composition and “college writing” have been in crisis for 150 years, since the uproar at Harvard and Yale over student writing abilities. The history of CCCC since 1950—as seen in early minutes from convention workshops—is strewn with calls to abolish or reform or reinstate first year composition. The now-venerable WAC/WID movement has been touted as a complement to or replacement for required courses. Material support, especially in terms of faculty status, labor conditions, and salaries, has been consistently deplored in our journals and conventions.

If there’s no unprecedented crisis demanding that we question our future, three current situations make college writing interesting. First is the accumulation over the past few decades of goals for required courses. For composition curricula, Steve North’s house of lore now features a huge menu of frameworks and pedagogies, many of them nutritious and theoretically defensible, but well beyond any single school’s appetite. Efforts like the WPA Outcomes Statement or the more recent Teaching for Transfer movement promise coherence, but what we know about writing’s complexity strains even those efforts, particularly when it comes to defining one or two required courses.

Second, we’re glimpsing tensions between rhetoric and composition’s scholarly and pedagogical imperatives. The maturity of composition studies, now yielding such important contributions as Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What We Know, increasingly constructs composition studies as more a field of knowledge than a field of practice. Conventionally we resolve the binary with, “It’s both! We care that basic research informs pedagogy, and vice versa.” Although composition studies does this better than almost any other discipline, we shouldn’t elide the fact that as our discipline ever more defines itself as the study of writing in all its manifestations, the “college writing” course(s) becomes but one site of attention—and often not the most interesting one.

Third, the climate for higher education is changing. Our version of global warming includes a popular philosophical shift from education as a public good meriting public support to education as a private good warranting consumer scrutiny. That shift shapes assessment and accountability measures that, in turn, influence curricula. Facing reduced budgets, a smaller pool of “traditional” students, and strong vocational imperatives, the long-dreamt return to a tenure-track professoriate is improbable. Emerging are models for a new-professoriate, such those explained by The Delphi Project, in such publications as The Professoriate Reconsidered. As many college writing programs replace part-time adjunct lines with full-time lecturer or Teaching Professor lines (such as at The University of Denver), the identity of being a teacher of college writing changes.

Against this preposterously complicated backdrop, we convened this brief symposium. As the panel’s moderator, I’d asked each speaker to generate perhaps three questions we all might find worth discussing. I also asked each to prepare about ten minutes of opening remarks.

Linda Adler-Kassner’s questions focused on the difficulty of representing to various publics that learning to write occurs in complex, specific intersections of time, location, and embodiment. That understanding is hard to convey when assessment and policy about education are so thoroughly driven by datafication and analysis of quantified data. 1. What, then do we do in classrooms and writing programs to make the futures that we want for college writing? 2. How do we describe, concisely and in ways accessible to a variety of publics, what college writing is and does? 3. How do we collaborate with those who bring a quantified/datafied view of learning to create writing and learning opportunities? Or should we even try?

In her remarks, Linda parsed the symposium title with evocative effect as, “The Futures of College, [pause] Writing.” In doing so, she reminded us that whatever might happen to college writing courses and programs will happen in the vaster context of what is happening to all higher education. Particularly worth attending is the significant rise of data analytics, the use of various quantified measures (dependent, of course, on things deemed quantifiable) subjected to statistical analyses to determine everything from the quality of curricula to the quality of learning. Many measures are anathema to the complexities of writing and learning as we’ve construed them for decades. We recognize writing and learning-to-write as embodied, occurring at intersections of times, locations, identities, and so on. But in the current social and political climate, which wants to cast education as an individual private investment and good, the “objectivity” and “rigor” associated with big data analytics create a potent terministic screen. All of this has fueled the for-profit “educational industrial complex” of consultants, content providers, and testing—which constitute a self-extending circularity. Those of us in college writing need to understand how data analytics work, and know how to play the game if we’re going to affect its rules. Or we should advocate different games.

John Duffy framed his questions in a cultural environment in which social institutions long seen as mainstays of objective information—science, the judiciary, the media, and the university—are widely regarded with skepticism, if not hostility. Adhering to fact-based argument is dismissed as elitism. 1. How do we teach writing in an age of post-truth? 2. How do writing teachers navigate politically polarized classrooms, and what place do we afford such intellectual virtues as open-mindedness, courage, and humility? 3. When values such as the commitment to reasoned, fact-based arguments and tolerance of diverse views are challenged, what is the role, if any, of the writing and rhetoric teacher? Do we have obligations, as educators, beyond our classrooms?”

In his remarks, John noted that he has a difficult time thinking about the “futures” of college writing when the “present” is so grim, especially in the context of our toxic public discourses—political, certainly, but also cultural, religious, and others. We’re told that we’re in an age of “post-truth,” which is but a metonym of a larger toxic rhetoric fueled by intense polarization, manifesting in the erosion of basic civility. While there’s never been a golden age of American political rhetoric, things are worse now, largely due to the way digital technologies incessantly circulate and magnify difference in the service of garnering attention and rallying bases. College writing classes can serve as an important counterweight to these trends. Regardless of the approach we take to teaching writing, we are fundamentally teaching principles of ethical rhetoric, manifested in the insistence on truthfulness, evidence, intellectual open-mindedness, and other such qualities. Adhering to such principles is a foundationally necessary compact between writers and readers. Writing professors have to get beyond critique (we’re really good at pointing out problems), to teaching how to construct positive and desirable alternatives.

Eileen Schell’s questions explored the wider conditions in which writing gets taught, conditions that we often overlook or take for granted. 1. How is the future of college writing connected to the social, economic, and political life of the communities in which our programs and courses reside?  How does place matter, both physical and digital, and how should we think about writing across lifespans?  2. As writing classrooms are increasingly diversified demographically and linguistically, how do we capitalize on linguistic and other diversities? 3. Who will teach writing in the future, and what do they/we need to know to be effective teachers? What about the large adjunct and contingent labor force, about moving writing outside traditional classrooms, about outsourced teaching and assessment? What are implications for graduate programs in rhetoric and composition?

Eileen framed her remarks around three “L’s” important to the futures of writing—language, location, and labor. In terms of language, even as higher education has recognized various kinds of diversity as vital, we in composition haven’t grappled nearly enough with the fact of tremendous linguistic diversity in our students and in the wider society. By 2025, about one in four college students will be multilingual, and those backgrounds and abilities factor not only in linguistic features but also in rhetorical assumptions. We haven’t given nearly enough thought to what “writing” will look like—or need to look like—in that setting. The second L is location. Colleges and universities are situated within local communities—within towns, cities, and states. While it’s clearly less complicated to imagine ourselves as entities unto ourselves and our disciplines, it behooves us to think about the potential and responsibilities for writing beyond campus gates. In particular, we ought to think about the verticality of writing, of writing as a lifelong activity, with opportunities and needs long beyond first year courses, long beyond college. The third L is labor. Who teaches writing and under what circumstances (most notoriously those of adjunct employment) has long been a problem of both learning conditions and equity/ethics.

Come back next week for further thoughts on the futures of writing studies in Part II of this post.


Doug Hesse is founding executive director of writing and professor of English at the University of Denver. Currently he serves as past president of the National Council of Teachers of English; he’s been chair of CCCC and president of WPA. Hesse is author of over 65 essays and co-author of four books, including Creating Nonfiction, with Becky Bradway, and the Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers. He has presented over 130 readings and talks, more than 35 of them as keynote speaker. His scholarly interests are creative nonfiction, writing pedagogy, the organization of writing programs, and national literacy efforts.

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