Archive | October, 2013

On Reading “What We Know About ELA Teachers”

Scherff, Lisa, and Debbie L. Hahs-Vaughn. “What We Know about English Language Arts Teachers: An Analysis of the 1999-2000 SASS and 2000-2001 TFS Databases.” English Education 40.3 (2008): 174-199. Print.

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) School and Staffing Survey (SASS) and the subsequent Teacher Follow-Up Survey (TFS), the authors seek out what causes nearly 50% of beginning and novice teachers to leave the profession by the end of their fifth year (175). The discussion that follows traces potential causes and draws a few potential conclusions. The data are old because more recent results had not been released as of the publication of this article.

  1. Novice teachers rarely encounter conditions for which they’ve been adequately prepared. Specifically, novice teachers will generally be given heavy teaching loads with difficult populations. Instead of following best practice recommendations of easing novice teachers into more challenging assignments, most schools assign those challenges to first year teachers as a right of passage. If schools will not provide support as needed for novice teachers, then teacher educators need to educate their students about “real” conditions on the ground in most schools.
  2. Teacher educators need to ask schools and teachers what they need in terms of professional development for novice and experienced teachers, and they need to develop programs that will meet those needs. This may take the form of traditional degree-earning programs, but may just as likely take the form of noncredit or non-degree seeking professional development opportunities. But these need to be planned around the teachers’ needs, not around the teacher education institution’s strengths or existing programs of study.
  3. Men and teachers of color are needed. The majority of teachers are Caucasian, which does not reflect the diversity of the student bodies served in most districts.
  4. Additional support may be required for all teachers, and especially for novice teachers, at schools where over 20% of students qualify for free or reduces lunches. The socioeconomic background of the students in the school affects teacher retention; this needs to be addressed explicitly.

This all rang true for me. I had an ugly first year, and I struggled with minimal support from my “mentor” (who appeared to define mentoring as sharing outdated transparencies from her 20+ years of teaching). I learned more about teaching from my girlfriend (who became my wife) and the large number of young teachers in my cohort than from administration or mentoring. And I was totally and entirely unprepared to teach any kind of composition or writing – the best professional development I received was an optional workshop offered by the school division on teaching writing to 9Y (below average ninth grade) students. And it was so completely basic and foreign to me that I laughed aloud at its simplicity – until I realized this target made up 4 of my six classes in my first year. I floundered. I recovered with help and support from fellow colleagues, and by getting involved in school activities and events, but it was a considerable struggle that had me in tears many times my first year, convinced I had chosen poorly.

I ultimately left the profession not because I was particularly unhappy, but because I wanted more in-depth study of literature for myself. And I had funds set aside to help (or completely) pay for my graduate studies, so it seemed like a good idea. And then, upon completing my graduate students, I got a job in gifted secondary education administration as director of a summer residential governor’s school program. So my tenure in secondary ELA teaching was statistically correct – I left after my fourth year.

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user David Muir]

The Discipline is Dead. Long Live the Discipline

English studies no longer exists. That’s the conclusion I’ve drawn after half a semester of PhD coursework. Too bad I’m getting a PhD in English.

An English department may exist as a political or organizational unit on some campuses, but it’s unclear to me that, at the graduate or higher level, there needs to be an English discipline. We discussed during last night’s class that cultural studies may be able to subsume what was once “English studies,” but the concept of an English studies program that focuses on literary analysis and criticism is dead.

We have need for rhetoric and composition studies to address undergraduate-level argumentation and academic discourse. We have need for cultural studies to push against hegemony and privileged positions, and to address and critique cultural artifacts and material production. We have need for English education, especially at the secondary and post-secondary level, to be sure high school and college graduates are taught to write from qualified instructors.

But beyond that – do we need critical theory as a separate discipline? Does literary criticism have any real place in the undergraduate or graduate classroom? I really don’t know anymore, and that’s a sad admission for me. I mourn the passing of English studies, but perhaps its death frees me to find a real focus for my studies.

This Is the Discipline?

I find myself in this situation pretty often: with about 15 minutes left in my day, however that gets defined (often “the time I go to bed” or “the time I go home from work or teaching”), I sit down to draft a post. At the end of a typical weekday, I spend about an hour and a half working on classwork or preparing for the class I’m teaching. As a result, my posts generally reflect what I’ve been working on that day, either in my reading or my research. Today is no exception, as I was typing up my reading notes for an assigned essay.

What’s missing, of course, is the daily, methodical writing I’m pretty sure I need to be doing as I continue my program of study. I’d like to think that will come naturally, although I am quite sure I’ll need to build in such time if I hope to expand my writing on a daily or weekly basis.

So here are the three bits of information from my reading notes I’d like to share. The source is  Richard C. Taylor’s essay, “Literature and Literary Criticism.”

“Learning how to decipher various cultural codes is surely an interdisciplinary enterprise. Perhaps the role of literary study is to read writers reading different worlds” (219).

I recently wrote a class brief on the role of technology in the composition classroom. One of the interesting ideas in that article was that we teachers read our students as texts in the same way we read literature or other written work as texts. We see them in a cultural context, and we predict their actions and attitudes based on our own prior experience. I think this same concept informs Taylor’s conclusion—literary study is about writers in context writing in context. Our role as readers and critics is to examine, deconstruct, reconstruct, and comment upon the writer in his or her context and the writing in its context. And we apply to the writer in context and the writing in context most of the same critical approaches and theories; we read the author as text, the text as text, and perhaps even the reader as text.

“A discipline in conflict is, in many respects, more interesting than one that is static and unified” (220).

This IS an incredibly interesting and exciting time to study English as a discipline (or supradiscipline, as I’ve seen it termed). The field of study is wide open. From critical theory to creative writing, multiculturalism to area studies, digital media studies to sociolinguistics, I feel empowered to choose from a plethora of vibrant, if sometimes contentious, disciplines in the field.

“If students in all the various areas can listen and argue productively from the beginning, to forge theoretical and practical connections, then the fields of English studies can prosper under one roof” (220).

That is one big “if.” But I think these three selected encompass an important concept about the discipline—it’s in conflict, that makes it interesting, and we need to read ourselves and our discipline as texts, allowing ourselves to remain slightly ambiguous and ill-defined. We expect that of our texts; we should expect it of ourselves.

Work Cited

Taylor, Richard C. “Literature and Literary Criticism.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComiskey. Urbana, Ill: NCTE, 2006. Print. 199-222.

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Expert Infantry]

A Crisis – One of Many?

During last Monday’s class, I shared that I felt I was in crisis. This is something I’ve felt since a particular professor spoke to the class. I don’t think the professor engendered the crisis, but the presentation’s unwillingness to leave the realm of theory—and my difficulty following what the professor had to say—resulted in a rising concern about my place in this field. Where is the field of my undergraduate days? And maybe more importantly, where is the field I fell in love with during those high school lunchtime sessions, studying Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” still among my favorite all-time poets and poems), Keats (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”) and Shelley (“Ozymandias”) in preparation for taking the AP English examination?

I think it’s been replaced, at least in part, by a field that embraces the rhetoric of quilts and video games, that can’t quite decide whether creative writing is really a scholarly pursuit, and that considers itself to be in the midst of an existential crisis.

“Replaced,” of course, is hardly the right word. It’s evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective in the current debates) into the disjointed field of study found (or, increasingly, no longer found) on local college campuses.

I shared the following in a Facebook post to members of my class and PhD cohort this week in response to a series of questions about English as a discipline, and higher education as a “going concern,” shared by another member of the cohort.

I’m beginning to think I may not be the only one overwhelmed right now. S-E-R-I-O-U-S-L-Y overwhelmed. Not by work, although there’s plenty of it. But by a sense of loss. Something happened to English on the way to my Ph.D., and I think I missed it or skipped it or found other things to consume me. But returning to the discipline is painful right now. I’m at a loss for words to explain it, but I will admit to viewing this particular post thread through that lens of loss. I need you all to keep me strong and focused because my discipline is lost and needs to be found.

In a later post, I expanded on this topic:

We are the troublemaking collectiv[ity], and we define the terms. But everything – EVERYTHING – exists in its context. As we earn our degrees and move into whatever jobs are available to PhDs in English studies, we get to spread our troublemaking gospel. We have to work within the contexts we’re given, but I don’t think any context is insurmountable. We will be agents of change, but our agency may be more becoming than being. We’ll push the revolution in little ways and in big ways within our contexts, but we will make trouble and things will change.

Here’s my prediction, informed as much by working in higher education support and instruction for 15 years as by my study of English. It’s surely worth the ink I’ve used.

Change is our constant, both in higher education and English studies. Whatever exists now – and I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what exists now, only that it’s not what it once was and it’s not what I thought it was – won’t exist in ten years. We’ll still have departments, I imagine, and we’ll still teach students, and I’m guessing we’ll still write things – but I think we’ll be conducting scholarship and reporting on it in different formats. We’ll be teaching students in different ways. We’ll teach, learn from, and write different texts. And I’m guessing we’ll apply theory at the same time we’re teaching scholarly creation (which might be on paper) and conducting discourse analyses of multimodal texts. We’ll have to be versed in some of everything. We’ll try or prefer to specialize, but our field will resemble some broad-based humanities effort more than it will resemble the English department of my undergraduate days. We’ll be expected to apply whatever specialty we’ve carved out to all English sub-disciplines.

When I shared my sense of crisis with the professor, I received what I should have predicted I would receive – exactly the same response I would have shared with me if I were the professor responding to a crisis: “That’s good. You’re supposed to be in crisis.” The professor continued that crisis is a part of this class – it’s intended to force new doctoral students to rethink everything about the discipline and about their decision to enter the discipline. It’s Rusty Wilson tearing down those theatre students in order to build them back up. It’s pedagogically designed to generate crisis.

And I found it strangely comforting.

And I get to tell my own students who are experiencing their own research crises exactly the same thing tonight.

I wonder if they’ll be comforted, too.

(Update: They did not appear to be.)

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Cory Doctorow.]