Necessary but not sufficient conditions

A Writing Program Administrators listserv thread that I jumped into yesterday–it’s been on/off-again over several weeks–connects the current situation at Purdue University to our field’s problems advocating for the value of what we know and do, and our decisions at the disciplinary level to abandon (in some people’s eyes) our primary mission of serving the needs of our universities and students’ future employers (a slightly euphemistic way of saying, “teaching them to find information and evaluate sources, put that information into coherent/legible paragraphs, and proofread them”).

This morning, a post from a listserv regular (somebody whose work and persona I respect a lot) reminds those of us headed to the CCCC Convention in a couple of weeks that the theme of the conference, Taking Action, is answering to our membership-wide sense that we all need to learn more and be more habituated to tactics and strategies that advance the work of our profession on behalf of students, instructors, our institutions, and so on. This year’s conference chair, Linda Adler-Kassner, has integrated workshops, means of network-building, and other forms of advocacy/organizing/training into the conference in a way I can’t overstate my gratitude for.

However (c’mon, you had to know it was coming), as I look at the Taking Action Workshops, calls to hashtag Twitter posts regarding issues that emerge during the conference, sessions earmarked for on-the-ground advocacy work, and so on, I keep feeling a slippage in what’s otherwise exactly the kind of conference I want every annual meeting to be.

I’m trying not to wander too far into Malcolm Gladwell territory. I think Gladwell wrongly criticizes the bursts of connectedness that emerge and disappear quickly in social media as lightweight and empty. Likewise, I think he romanticizes a particular era/moment of activism as the only right way to do it. But he raises a problem that’s similar to my concerns with the Take Action trope generally. Citing sociologist Doug McAdam, Gladwell calls attention to “weak ties” among activists; in social-media-land, people don’t know each other personally, have little care for each other as anything other than avatars and numbers on their friends/followers lists, etc. So even when people agree about issues and momentarily coalesce around them, the likelihood is low that those coalitions will last long enough to see through meaningful changes.

In the context of our conference and its aftermath, I’d translate that problem this way. Members of the field understand there are serious issues we need to address much more substantively than we are currently, regarding the importance of our work and the people who do it. And we most certainly need the training and the space to organize/network that CCCC 2016 is offering (I want to reiterate how happy I am that Linda A-K and the Cs leadership are orchestrating these for us).

In between caring a lot and knowing the mechanics of organizing, however, there’s a hole into which the best intentions and most skillful organizing efforts often fall. It’s not exactly the “weak tie” that McAdam articulates, but it’s related. Courtesy of our friends at South Park, it’s kind of like this:

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 11.17.30 AM

We care a lot. We know other people who care a lot. We know how to formulate action plans and write press releases. What’s missing, our Phase 2, is the willingness (?), ability (?), resolve (?) to express to each other our collective commitment to being ethical and proactive. We nitpick at ideas. We talk ourselves out of taking obvious stances. We argue relentlessly about individual words in 1000-word statements. We refuse to commit to principles because we can’t already know what will have happened when we try to enact them.

Or to put this in the kind of Freirean lexicon I prefer–we don’t seem to trust ourselves or each other enough, and I very much hope that one of the main outcomes from CCCC 2016 is a clearer sense of how to build and sustain that trust.

9 Responses to Necessary but not sufficient conditions

  1. lisamdetora says:

    I also agree with you…. what puzzles me is the almost vitriolic response sometimes within the humanities to the idea that professors can identify what kind of critical reasoning skills we impart, why they are valuable, how critical reasoning and critical reading contribute to better work in all fields, etc.

    • sethkahn says:

      I won’t try to identify the source of that vitriol, but one of its enablers is that we don’t have the internal trust among ourselves to believe very convincingly in any of the responses to the charge that what we do isn’t very important. We’d have a lot easier time responding convincingly if, for example, we were all committed to making sure that the people who teach writing are supported professionally. Y’know?

      • lisamdetora says:

        Agreed… I also get the idea that people feel their academic freedom is somehow violated if they are asked to translate what they do for others.

      • sethkahn says:

        Hmm. I don’t often hear it put that way, but you’re right–I think–that’s in the subtext of a lot of the resistance.

      • lisamdetora says:

        So maybe a nice infographic outlining why it’s good to be able to translate why what you do is valuable…. maybe there’s a paper in it? (Maybe I’ll get to work on that)

  2. The word that comes to mind is internecine. However, I think some of that comes from the nature of the sort of work we do, which involves so much careful analytical thinking, so much purposeful acknowledgement of complexity. (This is a conversation you and I have had more than once, I realize.) But I’m beginning to think that I need some sort of starting point, some place to dive in and begin working. And I think that the focus you and others have argued for–ensuring that all writing faculty are respected and their contributions acknowledged and fairly compensated–is that place. Certainly our department has worked hard to do this, and our current FYC director has fought for funding to provide compensation in order to include our part-time instructors in training and assessment sessions. My more recent efforts have focused on giving students a real place at the curricular development and design table. Perhaps our next step (and I’m the incoming FYC director, BTW) is to create a process that will ensure students and part-time faculty are provided that real place, side by side.

    Meanwhile, I’m terrified of the complexities in doing all this, and when compromises are expedient and when they’ll turn around and bite us/me in the ass.

    • sethkahn says:

      “Internecine” is one version of it. Feels maybe a little dramatic for what I’m after, but it’s certainly true sometimes. And yes, it’s no surprise that people whose whole professional lives are about nuance and complexity have a hard time knowing when we’ve been nuanced and complexificating (another new word!) enough. What you’re doing sounds like a logical place to be–you’re making good faith efforts to do right by people you work with. And because you’re you, you’ll hear them if/when they tell you those efforts aren’t accomplishing what y’all want them to. Can’t ask for more than that.

  3. Linda Adler-Kassner says:

    Seth, I appreciate a) the shout out (and the caution); b) the graphic; and c) the issue you’ve raised about what comes between caring a lot and knowing the mechanics (which the South Park folks have captured so well… as always!).

    I hope that some of the other pieces of Cs ’16 that I haven’t promoted as much (like the questions that I’ll introduce in the opening session/that are included in the app/about which we’ll gather info, I hope, during the conv…) help to surface the collective values and principles that we share (I hope) and that these contribute to the trust factor you mention, and the in-between stages. But of course, a three-day conference is fundamentally only that – hopefully another step, but certainly not the last on the long journey.

    • sethkahn says:

      Absolutely, Linda–3 days isn’t very long. And I should also say that my point in this post isn’t to try to call out active mistrust or anything like that either. I really mean that word in a deeply Freirean kind of way–a sense of mutual commitment that takes work to build and maintain, alongside all the tactical savvy in the world.

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