academia: July 2008 Archives


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What, content?!

Yes, it's true. For a variety of reasons, my blog has been deep in summer slumber. But chatting with Derek about Karen Kopelson's recent piece in CCC, and the carnival thereupon, has functioned as the sharp stick, at least for the moment. Whether I'll ramp up the sleeping bear fully before the school year is still an open question.

I have a number of approaches to take to Kopelson's article, including a host of methodological concerns that seem to be the first line of inquiry I take with most of my academic reading nowadays. But I'm going to set them mostly aside for the time being; like Clancy, I'm happy to see the question of pedagogical imperative raised in explicit ways. Also, when Clancy writes, "It's not that I don't enjoy teaching or don't think it's important, but I came to the field another way," there's a healthy portion of that statement that applies to me as well. Where I differ, I suppose, is in that the teaching that I do that I find most fulfilling occurs in other places than the first-year composition classroom, and that's perhaps why I resent the "imperative" as much as I do at times. I think (and have said on occasion) that there are considerable problems in our field when it comes to graduate education. I think that, as students, instructors, colleagues, and professionals, we have allowed graduate instruction to remain mired in a model of education that plods happily along as though process never happened in our discipline. So, if you ask me, I'm still waiting for some of this so-called pedagogical imperative to take hold.

Now, that being said, I would raise one methodological complaint. And I raise it fully aware that it would be problematic in the context of Kopelson's article. There is indeed some value to knowing the extent to which lore about the dread "pedagogy chapter" circulates among graduate students and faculty. Potentially more valuable, it seems to me, and eminently possible, would be to match up these accounts against the dissertations actually generated both by the students of a given program, and those directed by the faculty who responded. Because honestly, the test of this imperative is less a matter of whether it circulates informally (because of course it does) and more a matter of whether or not it plays out across the dissertations in the field. Okay, that's all I'll say about method for the moment.

The other issue I want to raise, though, returns to the question of graduate education and the mentorship involved in any pedagogical interaction between writer and reader/director. One of the things that I learned early on, when I was muddling through my early years as an FYC instructor, was that "suggestions" coming from the instructor were very rarely interpreted as such. I learned instead to try and offer multiple choices in my feedback. Even now, I'm only sometimes better at it than others. But I like to think that it also helped me grow as a writer, someone able to take suggestions as such, think them through, and act on them as I see fit. What I'm getting at here, unfortunately, is that I think many of us forget this lesson when we enter the dissertation process. (And this is only one of the many things we forget, I'm afraid.) So it's not surprising to me that faculty might see the "pedagogical imperative" as more heuristic while their students perceive it as gospel. I've seen this pattern play out in all sorts of venues, with all sorts of students, in any number of contexts.

And this is not a matter of blaming the students, either. In many important ways, the dissertation should be about the coming-to-colleaguehood of graduate students, and to be sure, there are some faculty better at it than others. But it's a question with two answers--there are some faculty who will always make you feel like their student, and there are some students who will always treat you as faculty, even after a body's received the doctorate. Ideally, though, the dissertation is that final step into the profession as colleague instead of student, and the burden of that step is borne by everyone involved in the process. Or should be. From the students' perspective, this means an unfamiliar transition, one where they must learn to listen to faculty as colleagues rather than faculty. From the faculty perspective, we must be more cognizant of the fact that this is a transition, a process, and one where we must share some responsibility for it.

Personally, I try not to ask the "but what does this have to do with" question, because I recognize it ultimately for what it is, a dodge. It's a means of transitioning a conversation to pedagogy, when it would simply be more honest to announce "New topic! Tell me about your teaching!" I first got the question at my first CCCC in Cincy in 91, hated it then, and hate it still. It's one of those horoscopic questions for which everyone must have an answer, for which no one has a truly interesting answer, and about which most people don't honestly have much interest. It requires both a reduction of our work and a simplification of the classroom in order to answer, and the answer presumes a correspondence that doesn't really obtain for most people. It's lazy.

But I'm drifting far afield. That it exists as a pressure for our students I don't dispute. That it is asked far too often in interviews I don't question. That we will ever fully exorcize this ghost--we who are far too fond of speaking of "the discipline" as though it were real--I do doubt. But there are questions that we could be asking and answering that might render it a little less haunting:

-What percentage of dissertations in our field take the (FYC) classroom as the primary site of research? Has that percentage changed substantially in the past 5, 10, 15 years?
-Of those that do not, how many contain the obligatory pedagesture? Has that number changed?
-Is this pattern observable in other ways? For example, have topics shifted in particular journals?

And so on. It's not a critique of Kopelson to say that these questions might provocatively build upon her work here, because I appreciate the framing of these issues that she provides. Perhaps I am projecting, but some of the exhaustion I sense in her conclusion, exhaustion over the self-referentiality of our scholarship, comes from the fact that we do an awful lot of framing of our selves, to the occasional exclusion of actual research. This is a topic I'm worrying over in a current project, one close to my own heart as well. If the end result of this article (and even this discussion) is that someone takes up these questions, then I'll be grateful.

I'll probably need to return to some of these questions--my sense of textual pacing is a little rusty--but for the moment, color me finished.



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from July 2008.

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