What Are You Talking About?

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The Student’s Elements of Geology … With … illustrations. [1878]
Tony Scott and Lil Brannon have an article called “Democracy, Struggle, and the Praxis of Assessment” in the December CCC. I’ve read Scott before. We use part of his Dangerous Writing in our seminar for new instructors, and I appreciate his attention to the working lives of students and, increasingly, instructors. How can we discuss teaching without at least factoring in the competing and often quite divergent pressures that teachers and students feel beyond the readings, writings, and classroom negotiations of a particular course? In this piece, Scott and Brannon explore the impact of professional rank on the assessment of writing. What interests me here is their application of Bob Broad’s Dynamic Criteria Mapping, a kind of assessment tool for gathering ideas about what gets taught at an institution and why. For Broad, this is a question of asking teachers to describe “what we really value” (also the name of his book), but Brannon and Scott ask who this “we” really is (294). Even if a group of instructors can share terms and pedagogical priorities, who decides which become the terms of that program or department? When I came to UConn, for example, the term “inquiry” was presented as perhaps the most important value of the first-year writing courses. I hadn’t been using it, although I could see how it relates to the “links” and “connections” emphasized in my previous program. Now, I pass it on to teachers as a UConn tradition, and our conversations often begin with discussions over what inquiry looks like. Our assessments have for years glossed “inquiry” with the following text: “writing is used as a mode of discovery or exploration; paper exhibits intellectual work, not merely a report on knowledge.” This is useful, centering language, but it’s also, of course, constraining and defining. Can a teacher simply disregard the discussion that other teachers are having? Does a program’s orienting, staging terms for the teaching it provides require consensus, conformity, resignation?

What interests me most about the Scott and Brannon piece is the marked contrast they find between tenure-line and and non-tenure-line faculty in speaking about examples of student writing. Tenure-line faculty engaged with the exercise as chance to test their own theories of teaching and learning, drawn from their ongoing work in the field.

Throughout their conversation, these readers disagreed with each other. They also noticeably positioned their conversation outside of this program, making no reference to the classes, program goals, or typical assignments that characterize the institutional, programmatic context from which the students’ drafts originated. (281)

The non-tenure-line instructors, however, hewed more closely to the terms established by the program, seeking consensus. According to Scott and Brannon, these instructors “didn’t develop a metadiscursive conversation about writing; they relied on the institution for the framing of arguments for how they valued” (285). These teachers were more circumspect about the expectations built into the courses and tended to emphasize points of agreement.

Scott and Brannon want to make a point about the pressure within an administrative structure to establish consensus—even a shallow consensus—if just to demonstrate consistency and broad effectiveness for the purpose of program assessment. Like Jeanne Gunner, who in a recent JAC paints a terrifying portrait of “branded” writing programs, “purified” of disciplinary activity, Scott and Brannon’s work raises concerns with the hegemonic role of the writing program administrator (WPA). Does a writing program’s development and assertion of values and practices depend on a teaching staff that is not empowered to disagree? Surely a writing program pedagogy that becomes portable enough to be a brand runs the risk of being only a simulacrum of intellectual work, an exchangeable resource that proves its value by its indifference to who, exactly, is hired to teach it.

As a WPA, I read these articles with interest and some dread. And yet I don’t accept that writing programs must capitulate to a presentable if jerry-rigged consensus. (Neither do Scott and Brannon, who advocate for assessments that present “three-dimensional portraits” rather than quantitative accounts of program effectiveness.) I don’t even accept that writing programs should be defensive about having common terms and shaping vocabulary. This dialogue about what matters and what we call it is what teaching and learning is all about. And those parts of the academy that refrain from the sharing and negotiating over terms for teaching often err on the side of incoherence or obscurity.

But we need to hear from teachers about what they see and do, about what matters in their classes and how this relates to the more conspicuous terms circulating in other versions of the courses. And this has to happen in a space that allows for difference, disagreement, and dissensus.

Scott and Brannon turn to writers influenced by Foucault and Lyotard to theorize dissensus, but I prefer an iteration of dissensus that is memorably posed by Jacques Rancière in his “Ten Theses on Politics” as a contrast between the police and politics. The police, in this figuration, are those forces that seek to stop the discussion: “Move along! There’s nothing to see here!” (37).

Politics, by contrast, consists in transforming this space of “moving-along,” of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject: the people, the workers, the citizens. It consists in re-figuring space, that is what is to be done, to be seen, and to be named in it. (37)

If, as Rancière would have it, the “essence of politics is dissensus,” we can see our activity of talking about what we do and finding terms for what matters to us as our contribution to a more diverse picture of the work being done. Let’s say more about what we see and how we give it form not because we hope to reach some future state of complete consensus but because we understand composition as emerging from the always contested material conditions of our lives.

Works Cited

Gunner, Jeanne. “Disciplinary Purification: The Writing Program as Institutional Brand.” JAC 32.3-4 (2012): 615-643. Print.

Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Scott, Tony, and Lil Brannon. “Democracy, Struggle, and the Praxis of Assessment.” CCC 65:2 (December 2013): 273-298. Print.