I am on my way back from the 2016 Writing Program Administrators Conference in Raleigh. This may have been for reasons about which I will write later my last WPA conference, after having attended them religiously for twenty-six years, a time to see friends I have known for these two + decades and meet new people coming into the field.
As always at conferences, my thought processes kick into high gear (or I think they do), a consequence of presentations and sideways conversations. Back at my home institution, thinking is more of a solitary occupation–the conversations being largely virtual: my engagements with books, articles, and listservs.
Engaging in real time conversations with people who are similarly invested in teaching writing–well, it will be hard to let go. It was a lovely conference. I am very glad I went. My thanks to Jessie for organizing it–and of course to Susan for her dynamic leadership, frameworking who we are and what we do.And I very much appreciated the WPA article award. It came at just the right time. Kairos.
I want to focus in this post on a singular issue that my mind has been circling around throughout the conference. I write endlessly about institutional complicity in promoting inequality–a structural function that seems obvious to me. Asao in his keynote address focused on whiteness and language. Both of us have argued perhaps incessantly how language through assessment practices promotes inequality, privileging as normal discourse the language habits of the already privileged. I don’t know how someone couldn’t get this. I like to imagine how assessment would re-function if we privileged working-class White and working-class African/American language as the normal discourses. Students who would write “He doesn’t know how to write” instead of “He don’t know how to write” should be sentenced to remedial instruction. It’s not as if one locution carries more meaning than the other–that is, other than signifying the social class to which the speaker belongs.
The use of language as a controlling structure is an old story, beginning far before Students’ Rights to Their Own Language. Like Whiteness, this privileging function seems invisible. Rarely do we hear in writing assessment discussions reflections on how through our practices we are reproducing social injustice through the languages and genres we privilege. But when you write it, materialize it in words, this oppressive use of language habits seems obvious. Think about which language was privileged in post-1066 in England. Think about how in our field for questionable reasons, we privilege argument as a more sophisticated genre than autobiography. What?
Many of us at this conference have pushed this language and genre privileging thought further–asking ourselves what other practices in our field we follow that are invisibly reproducing social injustice. When you start thinking this way, little gremlins pop up all over the place. I have to put a plug in for Chuck Bazerman’s book, A Theory of Literate Action. Ok–he over nominalizes (Williams), but he wonderfully frames how we unthinkingly do what we imagine as conscious action.
One has only to start with grading student writing, intersecting with whose language framed as the normal discourse drives the grading; teachers maintaining structures of control to keep students under their thumbs; teachers dominating classroom conversations; autocratically constructing the curriculum or implementing WPA constructed curriculum; mainlining genres that keep the power structure intact; reinforcing the hierarchical social class structure through the department and ranking of teachers from full professors down to the part-time teachers. It doesn’t take too much “critical thinking” to take the bandage off, to see the wound that resists healing, perhaps because it hasn’t had air.
As usual, I can see I’m heading for an overly-long post. Let me focus on one takeaway.
Here’s what surprised me at the conference. I was at several sessions in which I heard presenters talking about assessment as a collaboration among students and teachers to improve the courses in which they were all learning. The important shift (note: I resisted calling it a turn) lies in the object of assessment: it is not the students; it is the course. The new indirect assessment is in fact assessment of student writing–we should move beyond evaluating our course by ranking student texts or portfolios in fake writing situations in which they are writing for grades–are we kidding? The direct assessment is directly assessing the course–not the students’ responses to fake writing situations.
I will be writing more about this, but I wanted to get down my pleasure at hearing how several of us seem to be moving in this direction of authentic assessment. There are two key concepts in this move. First, our primary stakeholders in this version of a direct assessment are the people most directly involved: the students and teachers. We should be wary of taking our eye off the ball, of thinking more about how outside stakeholders–chairs, deans, provosts, and politicians–evaluate our evaluations. That’s a good way to strike out. The primary stakeholders are the people in the classroom.
Second: we need to stop being so damn defensive, feeling as if we have to prove to outside stakeholders the “value-added” of our teaching. We need to believe in our own professionalism, resist the de-professionalizing agendas behind which administrators rise, politicians gain votes, and assessment industries make money.
This post is too long, but let me add a final thought. I’ll try shorthand thinking. Consider this: we de-professionalize ourselves when we allow our teaching to be compromised by conspiring in projects that allow part-time labor. Anyone who has halfway thought about this realizes that we do this so that the ever-increasing pool of administrators can make money and create the need for more administrators. We have been complicit for interesting reasons in the coterminous growth of part-time teachers and administration, aligned with the decrease in TT and full-time positions.