Conference on College Composition and Communication 2005, San Francisco

Conference on College Composition and Communication 2005, San Francisco (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Due to a labor dispute at the San Francisco Hilton, the Conference on College Composition and Communication was moved just a few weeks ago. The Moscone Convention Center made their space available at the last minute, after the organizers determined that a significant number of CCCC attendees would feel uncomfortable crossing picket lines.


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The Conference Without Walls

pic041.jpgThe weight and substance that the CCCC organizers ascribed to those picket lines is neatly mirrored by the flimsiness of the barriers set up within our part of the sprawling Moscone Center. Many of the smaller sessions are held in a single huge space, with areas marked off by banners on poles – mere formalities that signify walls, like the ethnic zones set up to reduce tribal tensions in a refugee camp, or the blue laser beams that illuminated the space once occupied by the Twin Towers. Many of our sessions have no walls and no ceilings.

What a perfect metaphor for what we would like education to be – diaphanous, permeable markers that permit access without excluding it. The purple-and-white curtains facilitate collateral discourse, as curious faces peep through gaps to find out what is going on that’s so funny or so musical or so applause-worthy in the next room?

Very nice in theory, but sadly the convention center is a huge subterranean echo chamber.

Convention officials have tried to remain cheerful about the circumstances. Perhaps other parts of the center are better, but noise from neighboring sessions, from the tables set up for casual conversations, from the vendor booths, and from dozens of people yammering into their cell phones all merges into a uniform dull roar – like the “boum” of E.M. Forster’s Marabar Caves – that makes the presenters hardly audible.

Testing and Shaming

During the opening session, Randy Bomer, president of the National Council of Teachers of English, drew applause when he made a passing reference to what he called “the president’s Testing and Shaming Law.”

Encouraged by the reaction, Bomer continued: “I don’t know if you’ve seen an eight-year-old lately, but they’re very small.”

Bomer said that he reads “progressive political blogs” and that he assumes many in the audience do too. In his opinion, progressive bloggers are “in the dark” about the value of educational testing. He characterized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as “designed precisely in order to leave children behind.” Adding an essay to “the big test” (the SAT) may lead to more formulaic writing, as teachers teach to the test, giving students less time to write the essays on which they will be evaluated. He presented standardized testing as a barrier in the educational pathways of students.

I really wonder how different the Bush administration’s sense of the role of writing instruction is from the sense held by many academics in any field other than composition. Many universities assign freshman comp courses to part-timers and graduate students, which has the effect, even within English departments, of marginalizing those who specialize in composition.

Receiving the 2005 CCCC Exemplar Award, Erika Lindeman, author of Rhetoric for Writing Teachers (what she humorously described as “a significant piece of plagiarism – now in its fourth edition,”) credits the success of her book to her observation of writing teachers – most of them graduate students. She made it a point to greet newcomers, and described the 4Cs as a welcoming environment.

Something in her tone made me think she was comparing the 4Cs to some other large annual professional conference – though she did not name names (*makes fake cough that sounds like “MLA”*).

The Classroom Without Walls

When I was in elementary school during the 70s, for part of each week I spent time in “The Learning Center,” a huge room dotted with activity stations where, I presume, we were supposed to work at our own pace on activities that interested us. I remember liking my visits to the learning center, because they didn’t feel like work. The noise and activity which has signified freedom and flexibility – and, of course, we weren’t tested on what we learned. The only station I remember was a plastic box that held tabbed, color-coded cards with stories on one side and questions on the other. The first stories were easy, but they got progressively more complex. After a while, the activity surrounding me became a liability – I found it hard to concentrate on the work. Something drove me to finish all the cards in the box, but when I did, and looked around for the next activity, I didn’t know what to do. There was no final exam. I think a teacher probably pointed me at a shelf of books.

My own experience in a test-free, unstructured environment was not particularly negative, though I’m not sure what I got out of it. Something in that stack of colored cards motivated me to want to finish, just as I wanted to solve Rubik’s Cube, and just as some of my students blog like crazy because they get excited when their entries attract comments. But other students wandered around aimlessly, trying to look busy.

In his chair’s speech, Douglas Dean Hesse spoke of the danger of extremist points of views. While Hesse expressed concern that this new focus on writing productivity emphasize correction and production, rather than critical thinking skills, he also noted that the 4Cs and the NCTE may feel like they missed an opportunity to shape a national debate on writing, when the press picked up on the National Commission on Writing’s report, rather than any NCTE document. Acknowledging the worry within composition circles that a national standards test may lead teachers to emphasize grammatical correctness rather than the quality of the thinking process, Hesse noted that NCTE members who criticize any particular testing scheme seem to appear oddly opposed to writing.

Hesse referred to called for compositionists to “ungate our separate intellectual estates,” and attribute good motives to those who differ from us. After his talk, I asked him to explain what he meant by that phrase. “If you’re a social constructivist,” he said, “God forbid that you’d consult with… anything that looks like its belletristic or artful.” As an example of an attitude he wanted to move beyond, he referred to the argument that “we really need to be writing for politic
al action,” and the feeling that any attempt to do otherwise “rather more a wholly romantic thing” unworthy of our attention.

Hesse did not himself use the echo chamber metaphor that I’ve applied to this blog entry, and I’ll stop short of taking that metaphor the whole distance and applying it to the balkanized landscape that Hess invited attendees to survey.

I’ll also stop short of defending any externally-applied form of standardized testing, but I will say that Bomer’s comments sounded a bit smug to me, and Hesse’s made much more sense. I teach composition at Seton Hill, but I also teach journalism – a public mode of writing that brings with it obligations of fairness, objectivity, accuracy and accountability. Real people’s lives can be hurt by a journalist’s mistake, which is of course why a newspaper needs editors and copyeditors and an ombudsman and a corrections page.

My function as a journalism instructor makes me a little more accepting of the concept of externally-verifiable standards in writing (if only because my students won’t get jobs if they can’t hack the rather strict writing requirements), and far less comfortable with a philosophy that advocates teaching writing as political activism.

At any rate, Hesse suggested that we would do well to impute positive motives to all sides of the writing debate – something that Bomer wasn’t so interested in doing when he invoked the image of the federal government as a bully for daring to test an eight-year-old.