Some thoughts on the first month of the proposed standard syllabus, primarily as a way to avoid writing about Kenneth Burke’s Permanence & Change.
The first month has gone well, overall. This weekend saw me grading the first round of assignments, and I think they came out right where I would like to see them: very few As, several Bs, several Cs, a handful of Ds, and a very small number returned without grades on the stipulation of revisions. It’s a little odd, teaching to an assignment that I didn’t write myself; I think (having done it this way now) I sort of prefer having a bit more say in the matter (which is not to say that I can’t tweak the assignment in future sections if I choose). One other thing I’ve learned from this is what points I need to stress more in future for students to understand the assignment, so I’ve learned something from it as well. Grading remains stressful, rewarding, daunting, and fraught with personal and ideological anxieties. Committed, as I am in theory and in theory to non-thesis driven compositions, I often find myself advising via comments: “You need to have a more assertive thesis here” or “Your essay needs a thesis that addresses both x and y” or some variation thereof. It’s sort of disorienting: while I don’t feel as though I have to justify my decision to experiment with argumentative rhetorics to those scholars whom I think of as being mentors in the field, there’s a twinge of guilt whenever I write that word thesis. I understand (at least in part) the theory behind non-thesis driven pedagogies, and it was the excitement and challenge of those models (here a problematic word) that drew me into rhetcomp.
As a brief sidebar before returning to the main thread. Rice has counseled that one problem with thesis driven comp strategies is that it is the pedagogy of the assembly line, of Fordist economies (and, we might add, ecologies and epistemologies. Hey, there’s a book title for you: Economies, Ecologies, and Epistemologies: Toward a Pedagogy of Post-Fordist Affect). But as I reflected on grading earlier today, one thing I thought about was the role of evaluation in comp pedagogy. Plainly, (at Wayne at least) there’s no way to get around the final course grades and some measure of evaluative practice. Within one’s own syllabi, one could experiment with a workshop approach where assignments aren’t graded, as such, but refined and honed through writing, revision, research, rewriting, more revisions, etc.–that is, to make classroom practice a closer analogue to what “real writers” do. (And there’s another thing to interrogate, the pretense of the student writer–real writer binary.) I briefly had an idyllic vision earlier today where we couldn’t give grades but would offer commentary on students’ technique and progress. (Oh, brave folly!) I think it might be worth asking about evaluation esp. in light of Rice’s suggestion. Berlin (I think–can’t find my notes) posits that much of the university institution is set up to produce an ongoing stream of middle management candidates to regulate capital in Fordist economies. (Or something–that’s an admittedly reductive gloss.) And evaluation, I think, plays a significant role in that–one that maybe gets overlooked in both theory and praxis (I’m thinking of our recent orientation workshop that featured a presentation on “How to Grade” but not on “Why to Grade”). If middle management (and the economies/ecologies/epistemologies it is synechdochic of) is about regulation and control (reading Foucault lately) then evaluation is a very potent ideological tool: I approve of your work–you get to progress! Your work does not meet standards–you do not progress! (And there’s where the critique of standards as being a relic of the industrial age begins, perhaps.) It would be easy to lump in an advocacy of a non-evaluative pedagogy with an expressivist theory of writing, but I think that’s a too-simple dismissal. What I’m trying to ask here (not very eloquently, true) is why we bother issuing grades–or, at the very least, why we issue grades the way we do, with little heed paid, it seems, to our theories of epistemology and writing (if that is not, in some post-Derridean metafashion, a redundant phrase). Can we conceive a comp pedagogy with no grades attached? There will always be institutional demands, yes–so how could a non-evaluative pedagogy work within the university?
I imagine a course that asks students to write from the start of the semester, and the instructor providing comments and questions on the student’s work–just as we do now. But rather than then moving toward revision as the next step in refining a product (more industrial thought) and on to the next, disconnected assignment (as many pedagogies do–my own at present too) the next assignment would be the student’s responses to the instructor’s comments, so that the writing becomes process, not simply production. And so on throughout the semester, with no thought paid to thesis or modes or stases, just a continual exchange of questions and responses (not answers–I don’t want to think of this as being the closed circuit of question-and-answer formulae).
In short, we might say, a pedagogy of blogs.
And I think I have another damn idea for the diss: Becoming Process: Toward a Non-Evaluative Composition Pedagogy.
The students seem to be enjoying the readings, though is quite a bit of reading (I don’t mind confessing to being a little overwhelmed at points myself). I’m also quite pleased with how well they’ve done using the wiki for weekly writing responses and for doing peer review and submitting assignments electronically. There’s a lesson in this: in the past, I’ve only done the wiki later in the semester (for the discourse assignments) but introducing the wiki early and having them use it throughout the semester seems to make acclimating to the wiki easier for them. Good to know.
To the extent that I like the thesis/argument setup of this syllabus, this one seems pretty solid in that once could still use it at the very least for a series of interesting readings, swapping out the ones linked here already with readings of one’s own choosing. I can console myself to in that the final assignment is a non-thesis driven–but rather inquiry/research driven–online project. I’d like to maybe tinker with this model a bit so that the various stases addressed through the semester become more integral to the final project–to show that they can and most often do overlap, coincide, and coexist.
This has been a much longer post than planned. Stupid sidebar.