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Fall 2016 Syllabi: The Politics and Practices of a Usable Education

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This semester, my institutional and national contexts collided in such a way that I am finally able to teach the kind of meta-cognitive writing courses that I used to dream about years ago.  I’m currently being encouraged, by my department chair, and other colleagues to feature the idea of “career readiness” into the classroom.  Spelman received a large Career Pathways Initiative planning grant from UNCF and the committee has expressed interest in how writing courses and programs might enable them to meet their objectives.  I’m not excited to join this conversation because I think “readiness,” as it is popularly conceived by administrators and policymakers, is a good idea.  However, this national conversation about “readiness” definitely is the kind of rhetorical context that makes it easy to discuss institutional system failure on numerous levels, as well as promote teaching ideas and practices that invite students to join a critical conversation about the education they are paying for, and what they think education is and ought to do.  The data being generated at this very moment deeply challenges the nature and purpose of a Liberal Arts.  In what ways does the focus on ‘readiness’ compromise its claims to providing a well-rounded, interdisciplinary curriculum?  Do we need to go ahead and create another “type” of college altogether?  It seems that we could draw on similar debates taking place hundreds of years ago such as that dialogue between the fictional Socrates and Protagoras:  How do you teach a skill, exactly?  What is the art of sophistry?  What goods can it make?

I have been operating as a “consultant” to the committee, vigorously branding Writing as a multipurpose learning space that presents rare opportunities to actually think carefully about the ethical implications involving what one is doing when one tries to do.  Where, I asked, are students learning a language to articulate the meaning of skills, expertise, preparation, development, profession, work, job, career, occupation, and other terms that are used to convince people to believe that you are “realistic, practical, and serious?”  It seems that college and career readiness is a fundamentally anti-learning rhetorical appeal that offers closed system bureaucracies with one more shot of surviving just a little while longer.  As it moves into the strategic planning documents of higher education administrations, it reinforces that the scam will only work if the institutions appear to be restructuring in ways that satisfy its consumers.  What may work is hardly of concern.  “Readiness,” without any articulation beyond its assumed value or reference to methods by which skills acquisition occurs, is a scam.  When people talk about college and career readiness, they mean the attainment of jobs and “professional development.”  That concept does not integrate civic life into its discourse nor any philosophical or artistic exploration.  It even regularly excludes entrepreneurship from its pedagogy even though it claims to value leadership and innovation (e.g. Readiness is usually about helping students “get a job” not “own a business”).

This employment/employer-centric discourse undermines its own psychological effect on young, cash-strapped students hungry for stability and social approval from families and “official” organizations.  The paradoxical pressure to specialize at a liberal arts college is rarely, if ever, addressed.  In my work context, students are especially vulnerable to bad advice because they are black, female, and extremely anxious about failure.  To be sure, any college student is in college because they have attained some measure of success and worries about making it, but black college students must be better than the best to effectively be “ready” to compete and work in an economy that underserves them.  How should such a student be taught?  Meetings ignored this question, minimilizing that concern almost as much as the problem of how much money and effort should go into training faculty.  Career Pathways would involve instruction, of course, but who is creating the curriculum?  Who is doing the teaching?  How will those teaching be taught?

Similar to First-Year Composition’s concern over transfer, Career Pathways initiatives’ persuasiveness suffers from the same issue:  how will they measure themselves as a major factor that increased student “readiness,” when we all know that job recruitment and hiring anywhere is almost always affected by who you do and don’t know, as well as the prestige of the institution–the latter of which is what they are selling.  To invest in “readiness” is a terrible bet if we don’t assume that the entire infrastructure would need to accommodate retraining and refocusing campus activity towards the acquisition of “external partners” willing to train students and give them opportunities because the college cannot or will not do so.  Ever the middleman, “the college” serves as a liaison and feduciary to those who are seeking “something more.”  I happen to believe that writing instruction is one way to encourage the making of connections and discovery of purpose.  Although some would argue that our courses too often serve other internal and external organizations at the expense of us not branding and marketing our own disciplinary value, such claims seek to hide inside the assumed value of our field.  People think writing is important because “good communication and writing skills” is something *all employers want.*  And instead of making a public statement about the difficult work that goes into failing to accomplish this task, we complain about how often we are complained to for the nation’s awful state of linguistic affairs.  We grit our teeth and grumble about our lack of value, but we can get back to work because we know our survival in colleges and universities rests upon the pathetic racial motivation to make literacy great again.

I think that a lack of education in ethics, philosophy, and literature makes a person dangerous.  I also think that disinterest in technical and scientific inquiry makes a person dangerous.  The lack of interest in acquiring the habits of thought inherent in experimental, experiential knowledge acquired through the conscious design of one’s education is the consequence of someone believing that credentials are tantamount to skill.  I come to the writing classroom with these beliefs and I share them with my students because I think teaching without mentoring and advising will not transfer.  However, learning how to mentor and advise cannot happen in a week-long TA training, or even a year long curriculum seminar.  These arts, similar to the arts of writing and rhetoric, are acquired through a broad philosophical interest in opportunity and the materialization of value.  Such arts demand exploration, imagination, and visualization of that which does not exist, but comes to manifest through its articulation.  In other words, as an advisor to students, I cannot tell them what is, but I can express my attitude towards expertise through my disclosure of how I know something works and whether I know enough to determine functions, limitations, and possibilities.

Since these are my deep interests, I enter the college space as a lifelong student and employee.  I have drawn on its rich resources to acquire an extensive background with career development, mentoring, debate, teaching with technology, and writing consulting that greatly contributes to my tendency to blend technical writing and argumentation, as well as creative writing and professionalism. I have worked across disciplines and programs, which keeps me interested in the potential of collaboration and open-access in higher education.  Since I have had to endlessly justify its reality as a workplace and inextricable part of the economy, I like to use the “readiness” conversation to discuss its contribution to our cash flows.  Money talk like that makes so many people uncomfortable, but we know that many higher education institutions will not able to keep defending their value if people start questioning the transfer of skills.  This issue ought to be part of a human project that no one gets to own, and colleges and universities ought to provide a lively cultural, intellectual, and entrepreneurial space to tinker with all sorts of problem-solving–for real.  I, like many others, want public colleges to be free and for grad students and their faculty to be unionized so that we can direct our efforts towards building an infrastructure that rewards linguistic play, rhetorical experimentation, creative risk-taking, and philosophical exploration inside and outside of the institutional space.

Back in the early 2000s, during Bush’s presidency, my colleagues were hung up on enabling students to think more critically about “colorblind” and “post-racial discourses.” I saw all sorts of awful, but well-meaning, pedagogy emerge from ‘good teachers,’ who wanted to resist the fascist, anti-terrorism climate that silenced dissent.  That pedagogy was not going to work for me.  I could not relate to their professional training sites because I was not their audience.  My teaching experience was informed by the kind of communication that produces memorable conflict.  My embodiment in the classroom as a plus-sized black female teacher raised identity issues in all kinds of ways.  Whether racial equality was championed in papers, or students embarrassingly, but honestly, raised questions about their fears of interracial contact, I have never had any problems encouraging my students to discuss and write about sociopolitical problems.  At Spelman, the issue is even more interesting.  Students are hyper-aware of social and political problems, but they aren’t always sure how to move beyond simply identifying their existence and consequences as “matters of fact” to create nuanced arguments about how the politics of information and media directly affect the ways in which humans direct their energies towards technological production, management, and distribution.

Whether I’m at Spelman or Penn State, or the University of Oklahoma, students are more aware of audience than we think, even if they are incapable of connecting with multiple audiences on account of limited discourse knowledge or lack of experience with the values and beliefs of people outside of their local environments (e.g. hometowns, families, etc.).  A recent note by Trish Roberts-Miller about the ways in which First-Year Composition contributes to the dumbing down of students resonates with my experience, in which it was clear that the ends of critical thinking served to help students comply with, and even obscure, the legitimacy of paying for higher education in a rich technological context of information abundance.  Throughout her brief manifesto, she links the possibility of Trump to the kind of solipsism and sophistry that we are taught to permit in FYC.  She argues that:

And Trump’s arguments have those forms—he is sincere, he really believes what he’s saying (even if it contradicts what he said recently), he can give an example to support what he’s saying, he has all the best experts, he is saying things his audience wants to believe. Trump’s arguments are appallingly apt examples of bad faith argumentation. He is a casebook in demagoguery. There is no rhetoric worse than his. And common methods of teaching argument would give him an A. This is our child. We taught generations of students that having a few (more or less random) experts supporting us, starting with your thesis, giving some examples, and leading with main claims, all of that makes a good argument. We taught them that a person with literally no expertise in the subject can tell you whether you’ve made a good argument. Because that’s how we graded them [emphasis added].

While I disagree with the Robert-Miller’s focus on Trump as a consequence of poor rhetorical education, I appreciate her exploration of Trump to discover more about the implications of teaching argumentation without ethics, rhetoric without philosophy, and writing without artistry.  I would actually take her claims much further to state that nothing about the American social, political, or economic system is rational.  It runs on fraud and misinformation, as much as it derives its value from cultural production that is stolen from those who are passionate about clarity, honesty, and excellence.  Such persons create with little to no pay, and such persons maintain the irrational system by continuing to believe in their ability to be exceptional enough to obtain ‘beat the odds’ and live the ‘American dream.’   The fact that people bother competing in such a stratified fiction is irrational when they outnumber those who benefit from their efforts.  Someone or something can easily be scapegoated for their hardship other than the “facts” that contribute to their likely misfortune.

For hundreds of years, America’s mechanisms of wealth distribution have relied on the discursive relationship between violence, exploitation, and potential for change.  Our system’s media ecologies actively and efficiently promote capitalism + colorism + colonialism as patriotic duties, which in turn produces acts of language and communication that comply with the expectations and desires of the wealthy and influential.  When white supremacy appears to be losing its dominance through either decreased global visibility of “good white people” (whom are represented as inherently non-criminal), or through increased global visibility of “minority success,” a public figure like Trump easily rises to power.  Enough anti-intellectualism has pervaded the public discourse to reduce political communication to beneath sound bytes and dog whistle antics–flat out vitriol is what people live for now. I disagree with her Second Amendment policy positions is far too pomp for the reality-watching public and the media conglomeration’s attention economy.  People want clarity.  Let’s see what happens to her. Take their guns away, O.K. It’ll be very dangerous.  Shock gets views and views get likes and views are enough to make the media recirculate your message–however banal, incorrect, and suspect–and that is enough to convince people to pay attention even more, which will guarantee votes from somebody.

Media obsession with Trump, which includes Robert-Miller’s willingness to be generous enough to Trump to contribute to his affect on algorithmic function and my own engagement with her piece, legitimizes his rhetorical appeal not First-Year Composition courses.  We wish we had that kind of public power!  In sum, Trump’s rhetoric is only persuasive within the context of a fascist country–one in which people will argue that taking the knee to protest police brutality should get a person shot, hung, or beaten.  Trump’s fascism seems very sincere to the audiences he seeks to persuade, who are individuals that willingly embrace misinformation but know the truth of their culture.  It is a white supremacy that protects them from the same kind of police brutality that is experienced disproportionately by their sisters and brothers “of color.”  They don’t want to bury their wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, parents, or children for appearing threatening to authorities.  Since fascism runs on bigotry, fear, and psychopathy, Trump’s appeals to xenophobia and his bold incoherent ‘plain folks style’ attracts people who care nothing about facts.

What a fascinating context it is!  On one hand, the value of STEM and “College and Career Readiness” dominate public discourse about national Education policy.  On the other hand, the actual intellectual, cultural, and material value that is supposed to emerge from these imperatives is buried in paperwork, hidden in file cabinets, signified by letter grades, and embedded in even more complex application processes that students have to design, manage, and execute to get to the ‘next step.’  Within this bureaucratic nightmare are the night terrors experienced by every Native American, Latinx, and Black student who isn’t sure if his or her movement anywhere will result in their untimely demise.  The incessant worry over becoming a hashtag, or watching your loved one(s) slaughtered with the carelessness of tossing a piece of paper in the garbage looms large in the consciousness of our historically vandalized populations.  These students know that without a degree their unemployment and inability to survive this global economy will significantly decrease.  They also recognize that even with a degree their earnings will lag behind their white and Asian peers.  (Note:  Although I do consider Asian students to be part of the category of historically disadvantaged groups, they do tend to earn more median income than all other groups, even whites, when males have a college degree.  Asian women do earn less than Asian men.)

Meanwhile, higher education continues to assert its authority as a credentialing venue, whereas its potential as a civic domain and experimental space only occurs because injustice cannot be kept outside its corridors.  Student protests reverberate alongside weary bodies rattled into human formation throughout American cities also protesting for some sustainable peace.   And there is sickness and death all over the world.  Soul-crushing chaos caused by King Leopold’s ghost still haunting the Congo, his spectre also terrorizing Rwanda through the rape and torture of women and children.  This year, millions of Syrian children need aid, hundreds of Iraqi and Afghani children are dead this year, and Haiti will probably fail to see aid after yet another powerful hurricane.  I could go on and on, especially since more children in the U.S. can be added to our mass shooting casualty count.

In sum, global acts of terror are commonplace and I am expected to go to work and teach students to be “ready” for this world? Even in this context, imagination plays a role in a person developing a language and capacity for asserting Self in Society.  Thus, I have chosen to play with the idea of ‘readiness’ by probing its intention and exploring its unintended consequences.  I am exploiting its ambiguity and the lack of institutional infrastructure necessary to bring the idea of “careers” into contact with “problem-solving,” which needs to be integrated with one’s concept of value, which needs to be considered within a matrix of experience that teaches us about magnitudes of quality.  My job is not to assume that logic works as a rhetorical appeal to mass or niche audiences.  My job is to help students come to know excellence and decide if they want to choose to accept the risks of mediocrity or curiosity.  To be “woke,” or to know, right now as it always has been, is to be aware that one could be interpreted as dangerous.

The following syllabi are a carefully crafted pedagogical response to the issues discussed throughout this blog post. I have sought to both adhere to and subvert the objective of “college and career readiness” that is causing much anxiety among higher education professionals.

Here are the “specs.”


Honors First-Year Composition  (English 193, Enrollment:  15)
Course Type:  General Education Course
Syllabus

Art of Writing (English 300, Enrollment: 12)
Course Type: English Major and Writing Minor Elective
Syllabus

Business and Professional Writing (English 385, Enrollment: 11)
Course Type: Writing Minor Elective
Syllabus

Technologies Used for Course Management

Weekly Assignments and Class Notes are composed and managed through:

  • Google Drive
  • Google Calendar
  • PBWorks Wiki (English 193 and 300 only)

Students access their weekly course assignments and readings through:

  • Google Documents (Shared, updated Weekly)
  • Google Calendar (Shared, updated Weekly, provides students with three reminders before due dates)
  • Twitter
  • PBWorks Wiki (English 193 and 300 only)

Students submit their work to:

  • Google Drive
  • PBWorks Wiki (English 193 and 300 only)

Students may conference with me via:

  • Google Hangouts
  • Facetime
  • Uberconference

Students sign-up for conferences and complete surveys via:

  • Doodle Poll
  • Google Forms

Students research information via databases like:

  • Google.com
  • Scholar.google.com
  • News.google.com
  • Project Gutenberg
  • Open Library
  • Archives.gov
  • Google Arts and Culture
  • Voices of the Shuttle
  • Woodruff Library’s “Find Materials” Databases
  • Academic Search Complete
  • Science Direct
  • ProQuest Research Libraries
  • JSTOR
  • Black thought and Culture
  • Historical Black Newspapers
  • PsychInfo
  • PubMed
  • Project Muse

and so many more!

Students compose and deliver via:

  • Google Documents
  • Microsoft Word
  • Pages
  • DraftIn
  • Canva
  • Genuis.com
  • Wikipedia

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