Thursday Cont: Doug Hesse's Talk
Doug Hesse gave the chair's keynote address this year at the 4C's. He was preceded by Erika Lindemann, who received a well-deserved Exemplar Award for all her contributions to the CCCC organization of the 32 years she's been attending the Convention and contributing to the field. I've never met Dr. Lindemann, but I've found her contributions invaluable, beginning with my introduction to her work in graduate school.
Doug began acapella, opening with some lines from a spiritual, which opening framed his discussion. Doug sang also at his talk's midpoint and to compose a closing thought. He opened with an apocalyptic image sung rather mournfully -- waking to see stars falling the sky -- and closed with what he termed a "remediation" of that song -- waking to see the sun rising in the morning.
In between, he talked about the ownership of writing. I didn't take notes, but here're the thoughts I took away and what I remember:
Part of the talk was on the politics of writing, who "owns" the issue of writing, with a nod that recognizes that in larger national discussions, composition scholars and teachers are often excluded. Doug talked about recent reports from comissions on writing and asked, even if we suspend any doubts and cynicism about motives and assume the best of intentions, are they asking the right questions.
Ownership also included a discussion of machine scoring of writing. For this, Doug drew on discussions that had occured on the WPA-L discussion list, placing ideas which had emerged there into the context of the larger issue his talk raised.
For example, Doug shared with the C's audience the results of a game he first reported to WPA-L on, where he pasted an essay on "aphasia" created with the essay generator into Knowledge Assessment Technologies Intelligent Essay Assessor. The results were hilarious, but sobering too, considering that this kind of grading technology is being sold not only for placement purposes, but also increasingly to be used in courses as a way to supplement teacher feedback. (More on this issue in a later post on a session about machine scoring.)
Doug tied the connection of machine scorable writing technologies back to the larger issue of "who owns writing," showing the connection between the way the machine scores writing and the narrow, arhetorical nature of writing as described and called for in commission reports and as judged on the new SAT's writing exam.
The connection back to the audience of writing professionals was one that stressed the need --the obvious need-- for writing scholars and instructors to become better advocates for the kinds of understandings we bring about writing and the importance of writing as cultural, rhetorical, political and civic virtue.
It was a call not to be pessimistic or cynical, but to be wary, yet optomistic, engaged, and proactive. Or put another way, to own writing, we need to assert our claims to it.