Dialogue: Barclay and Bettina, Part Two

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Today’s guest blogger is Bettina Caluori. Bettina  is Professor of English at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For the past four years she has served as the coordinator for English Composition I (ENG101). Before that she chaired a college-wide committee on assessment for several years. In addition to writing courses she teaches American literature and women’s literature.Barclay: I really enjoyed the opening of our conversation.  It’s had me thinking about “balance” ever since: theory and praxis, consistency and individuality… good things to think about.Anyway, I would love to hear more about the writing program at Mercer.  What sort of pedagogies do you use in your writing program and why?Bettina: Our assumption is that students must read and write with more purpose than merely mastering the information in texts. As a result we approach critical thinking about college-level texts and the writing process (drafting, revision) as inextricably linked endeavors. Toward that end, students must encounter conceptually challenging selections that require them to comprehend and analyze authors’ arguments, and the writing process should help them refine their understanding and synthesize a critical response. The department values students’ independent thinking about the specific facets of authors’ thoughts and therefore requires supporting evidence that quotes and discusses key ideas. Given this emphasis, we do not assign essay topics in the rhetorical modes. We also discourage the five-paragraph essay which usually supplies more of an organizational pattern than an impetus for writers to link, build and develop ideas. We prioritize formative feedback through class activities and comments on papers that will help students develop and support their reasoned arguments.  Feedback on grammar and mechanics remains important, but it should by no means overshadow the intellectual objectives of our writing courses. Barclay: That sounds almost exactly like the goals of the writing program here at Florida Atlantic University.  I love the connections we can make across different kinds of institutions.  So often I feel like Rhet/Comp somehow shouldn’t exist as a field because our answers to common questions are so determined by local context.  It’s reassuring to me then to hear about our commonalities.So how do you enact that philosophy in the classroom?Bettina: Typically we use group work to focus students on the texts and create structure for their active engagement with them. If students are going to need to quote and respond to significant claims in an essay it makes sense that class activities should shift the responsibility to identify important claims to students. Many professors have students exchange drafts and give peer feedback. Some give sample student essays and ask students to grade them using the departmental rubric. I think we all struggle to help students synthesize texts in their essays. As I answer this question, I think an inventory of approaches in this particular area would be helpful. Barclay: For us both!  It’s always a challenge to capture and retain lore and yet if we don’t find ways to do so then each new crop of teachers has to reinvent the wheel.Shifting gears a little, as someone in writing program administration what are the unique challenges of creating, promoting, guiding, generating programmatic change? How do you make it happen? What resistance is there?Bettina: There are many challenges! In my mind they all center on time constraints and communication issues. For example, if I circulate a rubric that emphasizes the importance of quoting and tries to describe levels of success using textual evidence, I might believe I have just communicated with everyone about course outcomes. But I have learned that rubrics don’t always communicate directly and smoothly. Like everything else, they are interpreted in terms of people’s past practice and assumptions. Quoting to add color to an essay and quoting in order to analyze concepts are two different things and only the professor who emphasizes the latter promotes the kind of textual evidence we want to prioritize.  The rubric is a start at communication. What counts as critical thinking? This is another area where a phrase means different things to people and it takes some time and effort to build a common set of assumptions.  So the requirements of effective communication about complex subjects point to the second daunting challenge, which is finding the time and means for effective conversation.  Not surprisingly this is hardest to do with our part-time faculty who work at multiple campuses and are not compensated to contribute to departmental initiatives. The full-time faculty have the time and responsibility to set curricular directions and we can reach agreement, although we also make everything happen only gradually. It took a long time to write department rubrics and it takes time to get back to refining and updating them. Barclay: I know what you mean by gradual change.  I like to say that writing programs have the turning radius of a cruise ship.  We also face problems of getting our teachers to engage in and commit to change.  We mostly have Graduate Teaching Assistants but like your adjuncts they aren’t compensated.  So how do you deal with these communication issues?Bettina: We look for ways to communicate better with adjunct faculty when everyone has full schedules to manage. For me, it is discouraging to arrange meetings for adjunct faculty and have low turnout, and no doubt adjunct faculty are frustrated when the meetings that I can manage in my schedule don’t work with theirs. Now we have an online orientation to teaching ENG101, a website for sharing course materials, but none of this is as good as being able to talk over lunch about our courses. We are having a departmental retreat at the end of this semester and inviting adjunct faculty, and we will be glad to have anyone who is able to attend, but of course it won’t be possible for everyone. Our department envisions a great deal of change at our retreats because this is when, before or after a semester, we set aside six hours for discussion and planning. Barclay: For us, it’s fall orientation.  Everyone is together in one place at one time so we try to make things happen then.  And what about resistance to change? Given the large GTA population I tend to have an easier time with change.  What’s it like working with a largely contingent labor pool?Bettina: There is always some resistance to change because almost by definition it puts new priorities and risks in place. As ENG101 coordinator, I meet new adjunct faculty at the moment when they may be experiencing how our writing program differs from other places. Sometimes there is resistance, or perhaps skepticism, about our emphasis on critical thinking or our use of textbooks that some consider too challenging for our students. While most people have responded positively, there has been some resistance to our new practice of giving peer feedback to faculty on their paper comments and grading. As I see it, the way forward comes back to communication. How can we improve our communication about how to introduce challenging texts? How can we help people understand the rationale for peer feedback (supporting more effective revision in our students’ essays)? Sometimes it feels like a strange Catch-22. For example, if I could devise the ideal communicative setting in which all full-time and part-time ENG101 faculty could reach a detailed, shared consensus on paper comments, we might not need the peer-feedback system we have because its form originates in a need to communicate in a context with impediments. If we proceed without complete consensus with faculty peer feedback because of these impediments, there is resistance to this way of communicating.  One thing is certain, and that is that my colleagues will press for improvements, so we will see where we will go because we can always try adjustments. Barclay: Yes.  That’s just another way of saying that when it comes to writing programs change is one of the few constants we can rely on.  LOL!  Thanks for joining me Bettina and good luck as you continue to develop your program!
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About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.