Revolution Lullabye

January 3, 2013

Reid and Estrem with Belcheir, The Effects of Writing Pedagogy Education on Graduate Teaching Assistants’ Approaches to Teaching Composition

Reid, E. Shelley and Heidi Estrem, with Marcia Belcheir. “The Effects of Writing Pedagogy Education on Graduate Teaching Assistants’ Approaches to Teaching Composition.” WPA 36.1 (Fall/Winter 2012): 30-73.

Reid and Estrem, through a two-site, multi-year study of graduate teaching assistants’ training as writing teachers, argue both that 1. TA training programs should focus on modeling to new teachers how to apply composition theories to their prior experiences as writers and students through consistent reflective practice and 2. that writing pedagogy education should extend in a formal way beyond a teaching assistant’s first year or semester.

Reid and Estrem’s study – conducted at both Boise State University and George Mason University – consisted of both a survey containing Likert scale, demographic, and short-answer questions (N=88) and semi-structured interviews (N=44) with both first-year and “experienced” teaching assistants. The goal of the research was to determine what teaching assistants valued or prioritized in their teaching of writing, what they were concerned about, and what they felt confident about as teachers of writing (syllabus design, student feedback, etc.) The survey questions and interviews did not try to elict direct responses to the formal graduate writing pedagogy education the teaching assistants participated in. Rather, the questions and the interviews tried to whether or not the principles taught in the graduate teaching seminars and workshops had “taken root” naturally in how the teaching assistants think about and approach teaching (38).

Reid and Estrem had four hypotheses: “H1: Formal pedagogy education positively impacts TA’s confidence, skills, and problem-solving repetoire; H2: TAs productively integrate formal pedagogy education into their daily thinking about and practice of teaching; H3: The effects described in H1 and H2 vary significantly across sites in relation to local conditions and practices; H4: The effects described in H1 and H2 differ across yearly stages, and are more prevalent and stable for second- and third-year TAs than they are for first-year TAs.”

The findings surprised the researchers. First, the researchers found that TAs were more likely to draw on their own personal experience as writers and students or the experiences of peers in order to build their confidence and increase their teaching and problem-solving skills than turning to the specific theories or practices covered in the writing pedagogy courses at their institutions.  Second, the surveys and the interviews showed very uneven integration of composition principles and theories in how TAs think about and talk about their teaching experiences (for example, TAs frame problems more frequently as “student-centered” than “pedagogy-centered” (48)).  Third, there was very little statistical significance in the responses between the two sites and between first-year and experienced TAs in their second or third years, showing that local conditions didn’t have a drastic effect on how TAs approached the teaching of writing and that experienced TAs weren’t more confident about teaching than first-year TAs.

Notable Notes

GSU and BSU have very different TA training programs – one is a two-week seminar in the summer, a one-semester teaching practicum, and a 1/2 teaching load in the first year; the other is a two-semester teaching practicum and a writing center appointment in the first year.  However, there wasn’t sizable statistical difference among the two groups. (51)

Survey questions and statistical results published in the appendix.

“interteaching mode” – a theory borrowed by Malderez/Bodoczky that new teachers aquire a pedagogy over time, in the same way second-language learners aquire a language (called “interlanguage” theories)  (34)

K-12 teacher education analysis (37)

Robert Parker – the progression of making theory practical – of using it to solve problems (55).

One of the problems – institutional pressure to certify TAs quickly, after weeks or a semester or a year, without time for TAs to truly develop into writing educators (57).

Quotable Quotes

“Data suggest that our TAs were influenced more strongly by prior personal experiences and beliefs and their experiences in the classroom than by their formal pedagogy education” (34).

“Our data do suggest that the very specific information we bring to TAs still occupies a limited and sometimes peripheral position in their daily thoughts and practices regarding teaching writing” (49).

“Our new teachers see writing education often, even predominantly, through the lens of student management rather than composition pedagogy; they continue to explicitly value their own lived experience more strongly than the knowledge or skills we focus on with them; and they infrequently use language or mention concepts that we can identify as coming from our programs. In other words, the data we didn’t find thus suggest the need for a more complex understanding of causation and learning regarding writing pedagogy education” (54-55).

“However, the ‘resistance’ we see in our data may be more inertial than consciously directed: we may simply be seeing TAs rank the least familiar and most abstract factors lowest among things they can rely on in helping them feel and act like confident teachers” (55).

“We cannot endow our TAs with new theory by giving them a pedagogy class; they must appraise and integrate new knowledge themselves” (55). Development takes time.

Call for extended TA education: “Continued access to guided educational moments might provide the interruption, the call to reflection and ongoing metacognition that have been found to enable transfer” (59).  Parallels to WAC and spiral writing curricula.

“Given data that reveal so few differences between first-year and beyond-first-year TAs, a program of regular, formal, directed pedagogy must continue beyond the first year if we hope to have any substantial, lasting effect on how TAs teach and think about teaching writing” (61).   Sporadic professional development opportunities are not enough.


September 7, 2012

Heard, Cultivating Sensibility in Writing Program Administration

Heard, Matthew. “Cultivating Sensibility in Writing Program Administration. WPA 35.2 (Spring 2012): 38-54.

Heard argues for WPAs to adopt a theoretical posture and ethos of sensibility, which he defines as a constant, embodied attuneness and attention to the constraints that shape the decisions they make and the subsequent consequences of their decisions. Heard maintains that if WPAs cultivate sensibility, it can help them understand the ways writing shapes their local decisions and practices. In addition, Heard contends that writing program administrators take a theoretical lead in the field, helping composition studies as a whole develop a writing sensibility.

Heard draws his argument about writing as “a living habit of being” from philosopher Carlo Sini (The Ethics of Writing.) Heard believes that writing helps us be more human, and this larger consequence of writing – as part of a thoughtful, deep life – needs to be incorporated into our pedagogy and scholarship. Writing helps us, he argues, be attune to the values and practices that we take on and their effects in our lives.

Notable Notes

writing instruction isn’t just about learning how to communicate to others

administrative advantage of this approach- be in the moment, attentive to the local

cultivate sensibility through recognition and naming, self-advocacy, public intervention

argues for changing TA training to reflect ethos of writing, attentiveness, local constraints

Quotable Quotes

“As ethos, writing becomes a force of being that not only shapes our communicative abilities, but also more profoundly impacts the way we see the world, interrelate with others, and find personal and social meaning.” (41)

Sensibility can “position WPAs to attune more consciously to the ways that our material, political, and other constraints affect the ways that the ethos of writing is put into practice through us and around us” (43)

“Instructors and students need to be able to see their study of writing as part of something bigger – part of how they learn to live and not simply how they learn to communicate more effectively” (50).

September 4, 2012

Penrose, Professional Identity in a Contingent-Labor Profession

Penrose, Ann M. “Professional Identity in a Contingent-Labor Profession: Expertise, Autonomy, Community in Composition Teaching.” WPA 35.2 (Spring 2012): 108-126.

Penrose analyzes the factors that constitute professional identity – dynamic expertise, autonomy and authority, and participation in a professional community – and argues that this definition of a professional could be a new way WPAs can articulate the goals they have for their non-tenure-track instructors and for improving their instructors’ material working conditions.

Penrose argues that the fractured nature of the field and the work of composition instructors – that the field, though broadly coherent, can look very different through the vantage points of sub-specialties, individual research agendas, and composition curricula and programs – leads to non-tenure-track composition instructors feeling like they don’t belong in the professional composition community.  Penrose calls on WPAs to make concerted, continual efforts to cultivate a professional composition community for their non-tenure-track instructors and graduate TAs, calling the instructors’ attention to the ways they are building their multifaceted professional identites, shared language, and common values.

Penrose argues that having a vision of what a professional composition instructor is will help in WPAs arguments for offering professional development and improving instructors’ working conditions.

Notable Notes

looks at research in what makes a professional and a professional community in history, sociology, higher education

even composition programs all founded on the WPA outcomes can look widely different

professional development can seem coercive – as a way to regulate, to supervise – not as a continued process of shared learning. They can be disruptive to autonomy and authority. (116)

studies show that high levels of professional identity among K-12 teachers lead to greater student learning (110).

trend from the autonomous professional (shut my classroom door) to the collaborative professional from the 1980s and beyond (111)

current pressures in politics to deprofessionalize education, to turn it away from an authoritative community that regulates itself, has the danger of making teaching an amateur enterprise, where teachers implement and reproduce but do not create or add to the knowledge base of the community (111)

definition of profession (112): specialized expert with dynamic knowledge base, has rights and privileges, and member of a social community with shared languages, values

Quotable Quotes

“The concept of professional identity is particularly intriguing in our field, where staffing practices intersect with disciplinary indeterminacy to create a teaching community comprising professionals with widely varying preparation, knowledge, philosophical commitments, and disciplinary allegiances.” (109)

“The diversity of perspectives that we value in theory and entertain in our disciplinary scholarship becomes complicated in the applied contexts of FYC programs, where contingent faculty are often hired to further others’ agendas rather than their own.” (109-110).

“Professional identities are not simply a matter of assigned status or recognition but self-images that influence behavior – determining, for example, where we seek our professional knowledge and to whom we consider ourselves accountable” (112)

“True professionals do not simply possess a body of knowledge but engage in continuing professional development and actively contribute to the community’s knowledge base” (113).

“Professions are dynamic social groups. Being a professional is not a matter of being free from community decisions but being part of them; not just of acquiring the profession’s knowledge but of contributing to it; not of working in isolation but of engaging with colleagues. Clearly we are aiming not for one of these identities – expert, autonomous agent, community member – but for all of them” (120).

“Understanding professionalism as collaborative provides useful perspective on the question of expertise, for it shifts attention from knowledge as static to knowledge as responsive and evolving” (120).

“Composition experts are identified not by the possession of a finite body of knowledge but by a rhetorical understanding that motivates them to assess, apply, and adapt their knowledge and develop new expertise as needed to meet teaching challenges in varied contexts” (121).

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