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Settling into a Professional Identity
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My oldest daughter graduated from college in May; she will begin an M.A. program at a public Midwestern university in the fall. She will fund her graduate studies by teaching in the university’s first-year composition program. I watch her and wonder if this teaching will be a means to an end, or if she will settle into this role, integrating composition pedagogy into the professional identity she is constructing for herself.
I certainly didn’t see composition instruction as central to my career when I came to graduate school at the University of South Carolina in 1989; I had settled on theoretical linguistics as a career path. At least some teaching would be required, however, since appointment as a TA provided a much needed tuition waiver and stipend. Given that I chose a focus on second language acquisition, my first assignment was a sheltered ESL section—or “B section”—of the first-year composition sequence. I pushed myself into a basement classroom one hot August morning, and faced students whose names I could not pronounce, some of whom were older than I was, and who trusted, implicitly, that I could teach them.
After a few weeks, I settled into this classroom role comfortably enough, managing the requisite balance between my own coursework and the demands of lesson preparation and grading. I saw the balance, unfortunately, as management of disconnected and disparate identities, with my coursework fully privileged over the work of the classroom.
Two semesters later, Professors Nancy Thompson and Rhonda Grego invited me to join them and three other graduate students for a directed reading and research group investigating pedagogy through action research. I accepted. I had taken “Teaching College Composition” the previous year, but the focus there had been on practical classroom organization and management strategies—surviving, in effect, the first year of teaching. As a theoretical inquiry, I did not know that “writing studies” existed.
The research group unsettled me and my sense of a disciplinary identity; I was troubled by concepts and theoretical frameworks that were completely new to me. Members of the research group adopted Elbow and Belanoff’s text, A Community of Writers, for our students, and we tackled a number of additional readings for ourselves, including Peter Reason’s Human Inquiry in Action, Marie Wilson Nelson’s At the Point of Need, along with articles from Mike Rose, Peter Elbow, Michael Polanyi, Janet Emig, Ann Berthoff, Mina Shaughnessy, and many others. Contrasted to theoretical work in second language acquisition, lexical semantics, and syntax, this was, for me, a foreign language. Each reading and group session raised more questions, and suddenly, my sense of identity didn’t seem settled any longer.
Christie Toth has coined the term “transdisciplinary cosmopolitanism”—a convergence of multiple areas of expertise and professional interests—to describe the particular identities of community college English instructors. Participation in the research group invited me to settle in a new “academic home,” and although I could not have foreseen this outcome at the time, it prepared me for my role as community college instructor.
I recently found my journal from that practicum, buried in a filing cabinet. I see in it now the first inklings that composition pedagogy, applied linguistics, and theory could connect and enrich each other, that pedagogical research could be theory-driven and just as intellectually rewarding as traditional linguistic inquiry. My research project, in fact, examined the relationship between reading and writing, using two case studies: a basic writer and an ESL writer.
I think, at times, we assume community college instructors—especially those who have been through standard doctoral training—have had bad luck; they’ve “settled for” a community college teaching position because, for whatever reason, a university post hasn’t opened for them. They do the drudge-work of teaching composition; they are disengaged from more lofty academic inquiry.
I disagree. I did not settle “for” this identity; I settled “into” it. “Into” implies both a bounded space and a movement; the space may be bounded, but it is not static. I’m not “stuck” teaching basic, ESL, or first-year writing at a community college; I am doing intellectual work—work that I love—in my own “laboratory.” I attend conferences and read journals in composition studies, developmental education, reading, TESOL, and linguistics.
At the moment, I am also doing background research on threshold concepts in information literacy for our college’s next QEP; this new work is a privilege, not a burden, because it challenges and expands what I do in the classroom. I teach writing at a community college; I practice “transdisciplinary cosmopolitanism.” I wouldn’t settle for less.
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