You never know, at the start of the semester, when the pivotal moments of a class are going to take place. You design a syllabus, choose readings, and hope for the best. But in every course I teach there always seem to be moments that resonate for most of the people involved and keep coming back into the conversations in one form or another. I can’t plan for or predict what they’re going to be, because these moments have to emerge out of the distinctive interests and personalities of all the people in the course. Sometimes these moments aren’t even the things I find most interesting, but you have to recognize and ride the waves of the class.
This fall, in my Composing Identities graduate seminar, one of the moments that has had that kind of pivotal effect in the course was the week when we talked about agency in terms of material conditions – but specifically it was the readings and discussion about location and mobility. We read work by a number of people – Kate Pahl, Eli Goldblatt, Robert Brooke, Cathy Burnett – who are exploring the importance of space and location in regard to how literacy practices develop and are perceived. While all the discussions of materiality (and the tension with immateriality) in terms of literacy practices were useful, the questions about location and mobility sent a charge through the course and keep coming up as we read other texts. How does location, and the perception of who you are in a location, shape a sense of identity? How does location the literacy practices you can engage and, just as important, shape the way you feel you can engage in those practices? How does mobility – both on the scale of moving to a new location or on the scale of moving around your community, shape literacy and identity in ways in which we’ve not explored sufficiently? How are stories shaped by place, and then how do those stories shape our sense of identity and writing? How do issues of transnationalism reshape these conversations and concerns? And how does the virtual mobility afforded by digital media add a new layer to these questions?
Clearly we’re still just exploring here. but the discussions have pushed me farther into this area of thinking about literacy and agency and I’m all the more excited to get further into it. I was interested before, but grateful for the unexpected pivot.
With another Watson conference come and gone I’m appreciating the opportunity to reflect on the good conversations I had with friends and colleagues. There were, of course, many different ways people responded to the theme of the conference – “Economies of Writing” – but I have to say that I found myself particularly drawn to the material critiques of writing in the university. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily work of teaching, administration, working on individual projects, and put aside the darker implications of the evolution of the university into an increasingly outsourced, privatized, corporate entity built on the backs of contingent labor. If that last sentence sounds familiar it’s because so many have said things like that before me. In fact, we here it so often that we stop hearing it, shrug, and slog on. It seems so relentless and inevitable, that our efforts against it feel like trying to turn back the tides.
What I liked about the conversations at the conference, at least many of them that I was involved in, was the consistent move toward thinking about action. There were critiques, sure, but people seemed less content to end at critique – and expect a pithy book or article to change the world – and instead kept trying to imagine practical, direct ways to challenge the dominant culture of efficiency and profit, to imagine ways that would make the classroom, the program, the university a tangibly different place. Tony Scott’s presentation on rethinking writing program assessment to include issues of labor or Asao Inoue’s exploration into who if “failing” composition courses and what that means, or Wendy Olson’s work on translingual students in two-year college programs all make direct connections to material conditions, and then pushed the audience to think about what this meant for practical, daily life in the university – for faculty and students. (While not as elegantly theorized as these, I was happy that my small bit on Blackboard, economies of scale, and the imposition of such systems in top-down, rigid manner also ended with the same kind of practical moves.) None of these or other of the excellent presentations will change the university in an instant. But I’m grateful to the conference for reminding us of the importance of paying attention to material conditions, and to do so in a way that avoid easy slogans and easy demonizing of others. And, I appreciate being reminded that, in terms of change, pushing the rock a bit every day, building on powerful critique, has the potential to create practical change. I can almost feel optimistic.