By way of summary: WPA stands for Writing Program Administrator, and in the first post, Works Progress Administration. In WPA, Rice describes how he links these meanings using Greg Ulmer's idea of "puncept" to question composition studies "dependence on "order" as a governing principle of methodology and pedagogy." In WPA II, he elaborates, in response to the comments others made on the WPA post.
In WPA II, he writes:
I'm reading Nancy Sommers' article in the latest CCC, "The Novice as Expert," and here we find a nice example of the WPA instituting order. Like Andrea Lunsford's St. Martin's Handbook, Sommers justifies her work and research as WPA at Harvard with student comments collected in an evaluation process. All of the comments are supportive and enthusiastic.I don't have the Sommers' essay at hand, but I am familiar with Andrea Lunsford's St. Martin's Handbook. I currently work for Bedford/St. Martin's, the company which publishes the book, and I worked on The St. Martin's Handbook even before coming to work full-time for Bedford/St. Martin's.
No where does Andrea Lunsford justify the research that went into the St. Martin's Handbook "with student comments collected in an evaluation process." Lunsford and Bob Connors, when they began their work for the St. Martin's Handbook, did research on the frequency of formal error in student writing, drawing a large and extensive national sample of 30,000 student essays. (That research was published in their Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research essay). In subsequent editions of the book, they returned to those essays and asked different questions. They also surveyed instructors and students prior to the 4th edition, asking about how the Internet, computers, and other digital technologies were shaping how students write. That was a national survey of 2,500 students and 53 teachers. The current (5th) edition of the book was informed, in part, by Lunsford's interviews with first year student writers at Stanford University, where Lunsford teaches.
But those were formal research interviews, not course evaluations.
That said, it seems to me that there are two key issues raised by Rice.
- What is the role of order and why does a Writing Program Adminstrator seek it?
- Can applied 'puncepting' (if that's the way to phrase it) be a form of invention?
The usefulness of these kinds of writings, I believe, is the exploration of digital invention (not codification of..) whose focus does not mirror the ways invention is typically taught in a composition textbook or classroom. (WPA)Or to put it even more explicitely, in a comment on this post, Rice writes:
"Where do you find the common expressions valuing order in writing programs?"
Textbooks, textbooks, textbooks. (WPA, see comments)
I think this is a fair conclusion. Textbooks do provide some order and structure to a composition course, and when adopted program wide with a common syllabus, to a program. But what I've learned from working at a textbook publisher for the past four plus years is that order found in textbooks emerges from the field, from what and where people are teaching and from how instructors see the role and purpose of the writing they teach.
And I think this is the heart of Rice's critique: the role is traditional, or what Rice, in his examination of Sommers' essay, calls cliche'. First year college writing programs and courses and curriculum are gateway --not gatekeeping-- entities. Yes, if students don't do well in a FYC, that might contribute to them quitting college, or in some cases, if they don't repeat the course to reach a certain grade, being forced to leave college. But the fact is, most WPA's and most writing instructors see themselves as there to help students succeed in college. And yes, that success often means, supporting either the given order and idealized form of order as enlightened participation in civil discourse.
This emphasis is expressed in many forms -- course descriptions premised on "college writing," or assignments that emphasize "research skills," "critical thinking," "analyses," and "academic conventions." The arugment is that through these skills, students will learn to question authority, to critique order, to seek alternatives, to invent new ideas and persuade others of their values in a civil and orderly way. Textbooks are in fact part of this system, and do express the values and views of a discipline.
Textbooks come from ideas about teaching, and those come from one of two places generally: An instructor who has a teaching idea that he or she thinks would work in a book, an idea, usually that other books do not address at all nor in quite the right way. This idea is presented to a publisher for consideration. The other way a book gets done is when an editor hears an idea or approach or issue arise in the field that they think a textbok could help address.
And editors are avid followers, indeed members of, the field they edit and develop books in: they read journals; attend sessions at conferences; talk to professors about teaching and other professional issues when they travel to campus; participate in discipline email lists and blogs; and when they can, talk to students. So when an editor has an idea, they'll sometimes get in touch with those instructors and scholars whose work they've come to know and they'll invite them to work on a book of some kind.
I wouldn't be surprised if someday an editor doesn't ask Rice about using puncepts in a writing book, or else seeing that idea picked up and put into a first year composition textbook. It's a good idea; it would be fun to do and fun to teach.
Which brings me back to puncepts and order. If puncepts are an example of a good way to create new topoitic paths of invention, and if those paths somehow disrupt the current order, that's only going to be temporary. Once an idea begins to circulate, whether through a textbook, or lore, or professional workshops, blogs, conferences, email lists, or other means, it becomes absorbed, and goes from revolutionary to merely evolutionary before settling down into routine. In other words, it becomes codified.
What gets lost in the transition from new to codified is the excitement of something being risky, rare, and well, a bit disorderly because it's an experiment. What is also often lost are the intellectual excitements that made an idea new. We see it in terms that were once liberating to the field, and needed to used with some explanation of what they meant, like "writing process," and that are now taken for granted and attached to the original insights and research that lead to the term by a kind of collective shorthand. Jenny Edbauer, I think, is getting at this process of loss, as order inevitably finds a way to codify (and commodify) what was once unodered. Her post to WPA-L on rhetorical analysis essays turning up in paper mills is a good example.
What's useful too, in this context, are two things. Ideas like those Rice pursues which attempt to bring something new to the mix, in this case, puncept as a way of invention, and work like Edbauer's, where if I'm reading right, she's trying to, in her dissertation, make the familiar, rhetorical analysis, strange again by rediscovering and recalling forth the circumstances that made the approach exciting and unpaper millable. In her case the move to do this is to bring back the complexity at the root of such assignments and to remind instructors that the complexity is required. These teaching things --by which I mean not just rhetorical analysis assignments or a given invention strategy-- to work well, can't be rote or routine. They need to be invented anew each time.
The question I always wonder about is can you make and sustain huge changes, upset a given order, in an institutional context without going about it very deliberatively and patiently and politically astutely. In other words, in an orderly fashion. When departments undergo radical revisions in direction without building consensus and support, they're often disbanded, abandoned, or the WPA is replaced and reputiated. Those failures are often about a failed revolutionary approach, a failed cult of personality at the top (Not always of course; we've seen great programs gutted for no logical reason, which leads to the cause in the final clause.) , or the perception from higher powers that be than the WPA that what the program is doing isn't worth pursuing. And what happens when programs implode, or get taken over? What happens to those people, those faculty and students? Where do they go and what do they become?
So I don't see how a WPA can proceed without some order. Or how a textbook can be orderless, even if it were purely hypertextual in every sense of that word. But it should be possible to create a model where there was room for recreation and reinvention.
I doubt, though, that within an institution as conservative in purpose and goals as a college, you're going to have any truely revolutionarily unordered approaches. Even a Montesorri college, where there such a thing, would not be unordered. If only because there's a theory to give it shape and order.