Saturday, April 25, 2009

Just a Little Experiment... which I mean this post, its connection to my contribution to the Tactical Teaching roundtable here at Reworking the University, and my Intro to Grad Studies in English course, which I'm introducing to the conference participants this afternoon. Let's see how using this post in place of a handout or powerpoint presentation to report on the context, purposes, design, teaching, and results of my particular approach to tactical teaching works out....

One way I hope it works out is that the faculty and students hearing and/or reading this consider why and how they would approach relating the history and politics of their fields, disciplines, profession, and institution in all the intellectual, activist, and other work they do, on campus and off. I'm talking about relating as comparative/interdisciplinary/theoretical work in their own research, as expressive/narrative/creative work in their own writing, and as curricular/design/pedagogical work in their own teaching, mentoring, and service, but most of all as an effort to recognize the differences between these domains and discourses and yet still make connections across them, for themselves and for others. So just as I hope my students will continue the work of my courses (not just complete the work in them), so, too, am I hoping that my readers and listeners will want to work through the issues I'm raising, work up their own approach to teaching the university, and see how it works out.

One thing listening to yesterday's panels, roundtables, and workshops brought home to me is how important--and difficult--it is to situate ourselves and our work in ways that effectively link the individual, local, regional, national, and planetary. What follows is one attempt to combine self-reflexivity and contextualization, to connect theories and strategies to tactics, and to contribute to the ongoing conversation about teaching--and reworking--the university.


So what do you need to know to make sense of my 1.5-credit, half-semester, required master's-level seminar?

First, you need to know a little bit about SUNY Fredonia, a public regional university within the 64-campus State University of New York. We're located right off the New York State Thruway, southwest of Toronto, Buffalo, and Rochester, and northeast of Pittsburgh, Erie, and Cleveland. So if you're thinking rural rust belt, you're not too far off. Over 40% of our 5100 undergraduates and 350 graduate students come from Chautauqua and Erie counties and roughly 75% come from the small towns, suburbs, and cities of western NY. For all too many of them, the Fredonia campus is the most diverse place they've ever been.

OK, so what about our English department? We're a pretty large department for a school of our size, with 25 tenure-stream faculty and more than 300 majors in English and English Adolescence Education and concentrators in English from the College of Education's Childhood and Early Childhood Education majors. Many of them have switched over to us from other departments and programs, often because they like the way we teach our courses they have taken for general education credit. Because we cap our class sizes at 30 when we're teaching three courses in a semester and 25 when we're teaching four, we're able to be fairly flexible in the classroom, with our readings and assignments, and in our office and on-line interactions with our students. With the core of our undergraduate major a set of introductory-level genre-based world literature courses, we don't subscribe to the coverage model. But because we've been able to do a lot of hiring in the last decade or so, particularly in American literature, creative writing, and English education, students have access to a wide range of courses, approaches, traditions, texts, and media each semester.

I should say that our undergraduate students do. Budget cuts and hiring freezes in the 1980s pared down what had been by all accounts a thriving a vibrant graduate program in English. When I first arrived at Fredonia in the fall of 1998, our graduate enrollments were increasing, partially in response to a proposal, eventually shot down, that the state requirement that all English teachers in NY must qualify for professional certification within three years of gaining provisional certification rather than five. But even when enrollments dipped a little this decade, we still struggled to offer enough stand-alone graduate seminars. Now that they're increasing again, this problem is even more urgent, particularly when New York State's fiscal crisis management means we can't hire our way out of it. Although this year we're seeing more off-campus applicants than usual, for many of our best undergraduates, staying at Fredonia for two more years is an attractive option. My colleagues and I have been brainstorming for the last decade how to impress upon them the difference between undergraduate and graduate study, while trying to impress upon ourselves and each other what it means to teach graduate seminars in a program where the master's is the terminal degree, where our teaching load is much heavier than that of our graduate professors, and where our students have a wide range of educational foundations, learning expectations, and career aspirations.


ENGL 500, Introduction to Graduate Studies in English, is one attempt to address these challenges. For faculty who might teach it at the same time as they teach another 1.5-credit course (such as its undergraduate equivalent or the graduate capstone), it provides a way to manage their teaching load in additional to its pedagogical purposes. For graduate students, it provides a common initiation into Fredonia's graduate program in English, whether they are going for professional certification, planning to apply to Ph.D. programs, or figuring out their next step. To mash up the catalog copy, course description, and goals:

Introduction to research methods, strategies, and faculty expectations for reading and writing as a graduate student in literary studies. The course will also explore critical and pedagogical approaches, as well as historical and current trends in literary studies and related disciplines.

This required 1.5-credit seminar aims to help graduate students achieve a deeper and broader perspective on the English department at SUNY Fredonia through consideration and contextualization of department goals and practices in curricular, professional, and institutional frames.

ENGL 500 is designed to prepare students for their future endeavors as English graduate students and new professionals in the field. Students will develop an understanding of the history, purposes, and domains of the discipline of English studies and of the current goals, requirements, structure, components, and content of the English major at SUNY Fredonia.

The last two paragraphs are my own; they signal a desire to embed a survey of methods, approaches, and trends in reading, writing, research, and teaching in the discipline within curricular, professional, and institutional frames. Last semester, I conceived of ENGL 500 as the graduate equivalent of my fall 2005 English Composition course, Writing Matters, where I offered my new undergraduate students opportunities to explore connections between the stakes, purposes, and ideals of higher education, critical and civic literacies, and global challenges of the 21st century--and, in so doing, to question who they were, why they were here, and what they might learn and do. I wanted my new graduate students to have similar opportunities to make sense of this transition in their lives, its identificatory and interpellative structures and situations, and to continue developing a sense of agency and project.


Given the contraints of 8 weekly 150-minute meetings, limited further by my decision to set aside the opening class meeting for a simulation and the final class meeting for student presentations, as well as to build in a library session in the middle, I actually had a little less than 6 full sessions to move us from a consideration of the Fredonia English department's goals and mission in the context of disciplinary histories and debates to a broader examination of how our approaches and practices are informed by and take various positions on the history of debates over curricula in the humanities, the profession of English, and the politics of academic institutions.

In the former 3 sessions, my plan was for students to use Donald Keesey's Contexts for Criticism and M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Harpham's Glossary of Literary Terms to map different approaches to reading and to use the course ANGEL space to compare their critical travel narratives as a prelude to the session on "reading"; to share samples of their undergraduate writing and, in light of Joseph Gibaldi's MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers and our own locally-produced (mostly by English grad students) writing guide, Beyond Normal: How to Make Your Writing Devilishly Good, as well as a class visit from the professor who was the driving force behind the latter and some youtube clips on new media, to explore their own expectations for writing as a graduate student; and to research how our departmental goals and mission compared to those of other master's programs and report their findings on the course ANGEL space in annotated bibliographies as a prelude to discussing with two professors from the department who have ties to Women's Studies and American Studies how they might consider connecting their reading of literature and theory with their own emerging research interests and focuses.

In the latter 3 sessions, I eased up on the multitasking and ramped up the reading load, as we moved in successive weeks from W.B. Carnochan's The Battleground of the Curriculum to excerpts from Gauri Viswanathan's Masks of Conquest, Michael Berube's The Employment of English, and Amitava Kumar's Passport Photos to most of Marc Bousquet's How the University Works. The three assignments that were due after we completed these discussions--an essay focusing on one idea from the readings or campus events they were most interested in incorporating into their critical or pedagogical practice, a presentation relating the literary work they had chosen to read for the first time that semester to selected issues from the course and in their professional development, and a reflection on their learning in the course--were meant to supplement and build upon our in-class and on-line discussions of these works.


Because we were trying to do so many different things in such a short time, I strove to create as relaxed and informal a classroom atmosphere as I could, get the students talking to each other as much as possible, and shift pedagogical gears often enough to keep everyone interested. A couple of examples will have to suffice.

Our opening class meeting culminated in a simulation: as I had a roughly equal number of students taking graduate courses for professional certification as not, I was able to separate them into two groups. Each group would act as a department task force charged with proposing revisions to the requirements for the M.A. or M.S. in Ed. to the Curriculum Committee (me). This role-playing exercise allowed the students to examine their graduate program's structure, identify their expectations, hopes, and anxieties, and imagine ways of doing things differently. It allowed me to share some of the rationales for and histories of the existing structures, answer students' questions, and ask them in turn to consider resource and other implications of their ideas for change. The simulation allowed us to consider relations between individual and institution, structure and agency, constraint and change, project and persuasion; it got the students thinking like professors and taking responsibility for their education. It wasn't only an ice-breaking activity (although it was that, too)--it set the stage and the tone for the rest of the course.

Things didn't always go as planned, of course. But sometimes they went better. Having worked with Bousquet on Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor for a long time, I knew he'd be interested in talking with my students about his new book, so we set up a skype conference call the day we'd be discussing it. It just so happened that was the same day that one of the largest student protests in Fredonia history took place; a conservative Christian activist came to campus uninvited and proceeded to preach against various aspects of student life he imagined taking place, with a particular emphasis on framing homosexuality as a sin. By the time my class had begun in the late afternoon, what had started as a very small group of students listening to and attempting to engage the speaker in dialogue had grown into a much larger crowd, consisting of hundreds if not a thousand or more students and faculty who had improvised a counter-protest or just come to hang out and enjoy the unseasonably good weather. About 2/3 of my class made a case for observing and reporting on the event (and two even posted a brief report here), while the rest of us brainstormed questions for Bousquet. We had to push back our conversation with him, but were still able to ask a good number of our questions:

  • Did you ever expect that your book would be taught in an introduction to graduate studies seminar for master’s students?
  • How much do you agree with in Cary Nelson’s foreword?
  • In light of what you document, why would anyone want to be a grad student in English?
  • What’s so bad about the prevalence of nontenurable teachers in American universities today? Doesn’t their presence keep costs down and save money for parents, students, and taxpayers? Why should parents be worried about having their son or daughter taught by a nontenurable faculty member? Should they get a tuition discount when that happens?
  • What’s your central diagnosis of the problems facing American higher education as an institution?
  • On page 28 you suggest that Marxist analysis offers the best way of understanding and organizing against contingency in academia. How would you respond now to the tough questions you ask yourself right on that page, particularly “In the big picture of global exploitation, just how important are the problems of underemployed holders of doctoral degrees anyway?”
  • Is tenure part of the problem or part of the solution? How has your own tenure affected your role in the academic labor movement? What would it take for tenured faculty to stop being complicit with the trend toward expansion of nontenurable teachers in the professoriate?
  • Are unions part of the problem or part of the solution? Look at the U.S. auto industry--and the ways existing faculty unions haven’t slowed the turn toward nontenurable teachers much, if at all....
  • Do you think the disconnect between most faculty’s politics (generally liberal) and most Americans’ politics (generally conservative) is a problem for American higher ed? When Ward Churchill and Bill Ayers are the poster children of academia to a good portion of the American public, is it any surprise budgets are bad and getting worse?
  • What’s your position on the “market regulation” solution you offer on pages 208-209 today in light of the current financial/credit crisis? How do you set it up? Where does the funding come from? How do you enforce it?
  • How about pg. 47’s converting nontenurable piecework to tenure-track jobs idea? Do you anticipate any problems with implementing it?
  • Do you have any advice for SUNY, where its budget and tuition levels have always been a political football between the legislature and governor? Gov. Patterson just announced he wants to cut $2B more from the NYS budget—and we’ve already taken a 14% cut ($4.2M)....

Things didn't always work out so serendipitously, of course. Due to heavy demand for sessions with reference librarians, I had to push our library visit back to the week we were supposed to discuss Carnochan's history of curricular debates in the humanities. Students struggled to keep up with the readings, connect them with the assignments, and use both as tools for self-reflection. But overall the course went much better than expected and I'm excited to get a chance to revise and teach it this coming fall.


Students had a hard time categorizing and comparing the goals, missions, and requirements of the master's programs that they researched with the ones in their program at Fredonia, mostly because few departments were as explicit about them as we are on our web site and few students were ready to unpack what was left implicit on their web sites. By and large, they didn't do a very good job of using our readings and discussions on ways of reading to analyze the underlying logic of other programs' structures.

Students wrote critical essays on Marian Wright Edelman's Convocation lecture and the vocation of a teacher; on the Eliot-McCosh debates and their undergraduate institution's balance of electives and requirements; on the exploitation of student labor and the value of literacy and literature; on the rationale for studying criticism; on Judy Shepherd's lecture at Fredonia, The Laramie Project, and queer young adult literature; on how our assigned readings framed debates over the definition of literary studies. Two practicing teachers decided to do structured field experiences, where they planned, taught, and reflected upon units informed by the course. One had her students form teams and produce their own versions of Beyond Normal, with its mix of archival history and writing guide aimed specifically at Fredonia students; the other had his students explore pastoralism and ecocriticism and produce a multimedia response to works by Thoreau, Frost, and Oliver. Some were solid, some were very good, most were in between, but all at least understood the basics of the assignment and wrote capably. Still, I was left wondering how I could better prepare them to "reflect upon and figure out how to apply a key concept, method, or strategy that you have encountered in or out of the course this semester that matters to you and makes a difference to your future plans as a scholar/critic or teacher"--particularly, to focus their reflections and specify their applications.

Students' presentations could be divided into two groups: those who were at Fredonia to earn professional certification tended to focus on works they had heard about and were considering whether and how to teach, from Lowry's The Giver to Anderson's Speak to Runyon's Burn Journals to Hartinger's The Geography Club to Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to Stoker's Dracula (to help contextualize his students' interest in the Twilight series) to Orwell's 1984 (to address issues of censorship, propaganda, and surveillance); those who were not tended to focus on a canonical writer they had missed or avoided in the past, such as Shakespeare (The Tempest) and Swift (Gulliver's Travels), or were into, such as Leopold (A Sand County Almanac). I was impressed by the students' creativity and effort, but struck again by the gap between my expectations and hopes and what most of them produced. Once again I'll have to better explicate the key elements of the assignment:

After choosing, reading, and researching the reception history of a work of your own choice that you haven't yet read, you will prepare and deliver a 10-minute presentation on it that connects some of the key ways it has been interpreted and valued with the issues we've engaged in the course that have mattered most to you and have best helped you clarify what you intend to do while a graduate student and after.

What I was hoping for was that students would focus on issues of disciplinarity, curriculum, profession, and/or institution, using their analysis of the work they had chosen and its reception history to speak to their current identity and future plans. Understandably but regrettably, most focused on teaching or research and not on the larger frames the course was designed to disclose.

Fortunately, students' final reflections showed that whatever their struggles on individual assignments, they really had gotten a lot out of the mini-seminar. They tracked their intellectual journeys in the course and pulled together the different readings and assignments with great thoughtfulness, creativity, passion, and specificity. At times, they were brutally honest about the parts of the course that didn't work for them, giving me some excellent ideas for revision. But most of all, they confirmed for me that the general direction, approach, and structure of the course was workable, needing refinement rather than a complete rethinking.

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