Douglas Hesse

Mountains, classrooms, and concert halls

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Fifty Years After Dartmouth

Squire Memo after Dartmouth croppedAugust 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the “Anglo-American Seminar on the Teaching of English,” a landmark juncture for how English teachers in America and Great Britain viewed their subject, responsibilities, and classrooms. Participating in the month-long seminar were 21 British teachers, 24 Americans, and a Canadian, with a generous handful of consultants attending part-time.

Two official books about the conference, appearing in 1967, and shorthand synopses ever since have characterized the meeting as a clash of cultures. In this formulation, the Americans were methodical, preoccupied with structured curricula, and focused on the subject matter. The British, on the other hand, were spontaneous, concerned with language in practice, and focused on student personal growth. To the British, the Americans seemed stodgy and authoritarian. To the Americans, the British seemed muddling and slack. Or so the characterization goes. It’s fair to say that participants from both countries marked respective avant-gardes, so their rank-and-file representativeness is a question. It’s also fair to say that contrasts make better drama, as in the ill-fated 2016 block-chipper Batman v. Superman. Nonetheless, the issues that framed the meeting were generative then and remain so today. More on that later.

The meeting was held at Dartmouth College, a circumstance that led to its usual shorthand reference as the Dartmouth Conference. James Squire, then Executive Secretary of the National Council of Teachers of English, wrote a grant proposal to the Carnegie Corporation, which funded the event. Partners in the collaboration were MLA and NATE (the National Association of Teachers of English, the British counterpart of NCTE), and the representatives from each group (overwhelmingly male, not surprisingly) are a sort of who’s who of the era: Wayne Booth, James Britton, James Moffett, Albert Kitzhaber, John Dixon, and so on.

Of course, the seminar organizers perceived early on that this largely professorial entourage had scant input from classroom teachers. I was happy to come across a letter in the NCTE archives from Squire to Dorothy Saunders, an elementary teacher in Bethesda, Maryland, inviting her to serve as a consultant to talk about her students’ writings, offering “air jet travel expenses” and a $200 honorarium.

A few things stand out as I glanced back to the archives and to the official books, Herbert J. Muller’s The Uses of English (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967) and John Dixon’s Growth in English (NATE, 1967). For example, Squire’s funding proposal uses a rationale that will sound familiar in our present-day STEM-centric circumstances. Needed changes in theory and practice for English teaching, he wrote, “are not less in volume and importance than those which have been taking place in science and mathematics.”

The relationship between “the creative” and “the practical” also remains familiar, at a current moment that weighs education primarily for its economic and vocational benefits. British teachers were found then to put considerably more stock in creativity as foundational to “developing the child’s capacity to explore and express his inner world” (Muller 116). Americans were skeptical. In his book A Long Way Together: A Personal View of NCTE’s First Sixty-Seven Years, J.N. Hook describes how “British children wrote more, and they wrote more freely,” while “American children almost certainly wrote less than they needed to, and their teachers were beset by a compulsion to correct not only every jot but also every tittle” (221).

I’m fairly confident that teachers on both sides of the ocean have long modulated this polarity. We know, for example, that people learn to write by actually writing, not by being told rules and strategies, just as people learn to play piano by actually playing piano, not by hearing lectures on finger placements. We know that effective writers have learned, through long practice over time, to adapt their writing to meet readers’ expectations in specific situations and their associated genres; no writer is wholly “free” from history and expectations. But we also know that all writers, especially young ones, need engaging and authentic tasks to foster the long hours of practice needed to develop their skill and craft. The best encapsulation of what we need to do to develop student writing is the NCTE statement on Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing 

Fifty years after Dartmouth, English teaching in America still tries to find the right line between spinach approaches (“teach what can be practically tested, to demonstrate that you have achieved skills”) and ice cream approaches (“create opportunities for exploration and engagement”). Clearly, there needs to be a mix. Even more fundamental is the very purpose of the English curriculum at all. The most vocal and powerful pundits and policymakers tend to prize reading and writing almost entirely as pathways to employment, with a dab of cultural heritage, through literature, on the side.

I surely don’t discount economic advancement as a vital consequence of literacy. English teachers K-16 need to have that aspect centrally in mind. But job skills can’t be our only focus. In framing the “Anglo-American Seminar,” James Squire underscored the significance of speaking, reading, and writing for “the development as a whole human being of every young person who will be tomorrow’s adult. Will [he or she] have judgment; will [his or her] thinking in words have depth; will words serve [him or her] or will [he or she] be inarticulate in daily life—in [his or her] thought, feeling, and decisions?”

As I view our current social and political scene, surely we need “thinking in words” with depth and judgment. We need articulate ideas, not slogans or factless bravado. We need words—understanding as well as expression—a whole lot more than we need bullets or bombs or trucks down a tourist-filled boardwalk.

Two other thoughts, looking back on Dartmouth.

In his concluding chapter, John Dixon notes that “modern industrial society has recently moved strongly to a discussion culture,” one that emphasizes “public exchange of ideas rather than private writing and reading” (111). Dixon contemplates a multimodal world in which print literacy is but one mode of many, going on to forecast that “by the 1980s two-way television and telephone references libraries. . . may well be widespread” (112). If he’d only known.  One of the earliest tasks of the Dartmouth participants was answering the disarmingly simple question, “What is English?” by which they realized the territory was considerably more expansive and complex than grammar rules and a certain literary canon. It was a body of knowledge, yes, but also a set of experiences with and dispositions toward language, in all its multiple forms. We’re still pursuing that question, quite rightly.

Last, a more personal note. In one of my first graduate courses at Iowa, back in 1978-79, we read James Britton’s The Development of Writing Abilities, 11-18, a study of British school children. I remember grasping his idea that language was a tool for thinking, not just a vehicle for conveying thought. Children—all of us—use language for making sense of things, for interpreting the world and putting it together. Schools needed to make a place for that kind of engagement. The idea underpins the whole notion of writing to learn and the writing across the curriculum movement. Britton’s idea struck like lightening, one of those few times that I can distinctly perceive a fundamental shift in my understanding.

A year or so later, Britton came to Iowa City, as part of the National Endowment for the Humanities Iowa Institute on writing led by Jix Lloyd-Jones, Carl Klaus, and many others. I was star struck. Here was one of the Dartmouth Conference Brits embodied in the heartland, in fact drinking beer with American colleagues and lowly grad students in George’s on Market Street. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, here it is fifty years after The Anglo-American seminar, a fine moment for NCTE as a leader along with its sister organizations, and here I am, its unlikely president.

Squire d 2




squire to saunders 1



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Summer Reading

Hey You ReadThe end of July is fast approaching, which means a dwindling window for Summer Reading. Summer reading is a phenomenon marked by suggestions for generally lighter, easier fare, books suitable for hot vacation months, when brains deserve breaks from more sturdy menus. If winter reading is a stout or porter, summer reading is a pilsner.

An article by Craig Ferhman in the Boston Globe (August 12, 2012) traces this tradition back to the 19th century, when “effortless” novels began appearing on the summer lists that publishers and newspapers running, sort of as a public service. Fehrman quotes an 1872 Chicago Tribune characterization that “The best summer book was one ‘the idler can take with him into solitude, and read with delightful pauses, when with indolent finger upon the page, his eye wanders up some green vista, or catches some view of the distant sea, and his ear is soothed with the distant murmur of the winds and waves.’”

The apotheosis of such lists are things like Real Simple’s  promising “beach reads,” which includes, to my surprise that venerable 1960’s The Valley of the Dolls. Most every newspaper from The New York Times to the LA Times publishes recommendations each June. Variants on mere lists include “What I’m Reading” stories, in which people of various stripes recount what’s currently on their night stands or in their backpacks. There’s a kind of one-upmanship quality to these compilations, which are often heroic in their scope and challenge. See this New Yorker story for an example of the genre.

Of course, “summer reading” means something else to legions of American students.  I’ll set aside the many library reading programs, where kids check off titles for pizza or prizes.  For many students, summer reading  means assigned reading: a book or two that students are “responsible for” by September. Denver East High School publishes a pdf of books required for individual classes, with the somber advice, “The books need to be completed by the first day of school, August 2016.” It provides a 7-bullet answer to “Why Summer Reading?” (including “provides academic focus for the 1st day of school” and “helps shrink the achievement gap.”)  English I students, for example, are to complete Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, while Creative Writing II students face Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.

For other students, summer reading lists are suggestions accompanied by some Benjamin Franklin-grade injunction for self-improvement. Overland High School, in Aurora, Colorado, heads its list with a multi-colored, in-your-face all-caps warning, “Hey, You!” which I’ve pictured above. Colleges often participate in “one book” projects, while some, like Berkeley, put out an annual “nonrequired summer reading list” for incoming students.  Berkeley’s 20 titles range from The Little Prince to The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  Occasionally, school summer reading becomes controversial; in a recent blog post, Millie Davis describes how the National Council of Teachers of English Intellectual Freedom Center receives requests for help with book challenges (i.e. censorship cases), including one where librarians in one school district were accused of promoting pornography through their summer list.


Forty years ago, I was home from college after my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, and I read hugely. I’d go to work with Dad at 6:00 am, heaving garbage into the back of the trash truck he owned with Fred Behr. Most days, we’d finish the route by 2:00 or so. Until supper time, I’d read in the living room, the only one with a window air conditioner or, maybe on the porch. A couple days a week I’d go the DeWitt Public Library. After supper, I’d play tennis at the high school courts, sometimes with my girlfriend, Dianne, sometimes with Paul Carlson or Dave Farus. Regularly, we’d go after dark over to Becky and Sara Ash’s house, where there’d be two tables of bridge until 11:00 or so. Repeat the next day.

I remember that summer of reading because it followed my first year as an English major. I realized there was no chance of reading everything in classes. So I’d better step up my game. I read Jane Austen, who I liked a lot. I read Robert Penn Warren, John Dos Passos, and Dickens. I remembered three books in particular, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, E.F. Shumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance, which troubled me. (I read it again a couple years later and experienced the same effect.) At the library, I read magazines, most notably as much of The New Yorker as I could, especially the long nonfiction pieces, which really confused me. In particular I remember reading these long essays by Saul Bellow about traveling to Israel. I’d encountered Bellow in two classes at Iowa: Herzog in Carl Klaus’s writing class focusing on style, and Henderson the Rain King in an American lit class, so I figured I should pay attention to him. The pieces perplexed me, as I remember, a mixture of memoir and journalism and some political commentary. They didn’t fit any genre that I knew, and it was sort of exciting to see pieces that were breaking all the rules in my limited understanding.

I remember enjoying all this reading, though I suspect my odd assortment didn’t quite fit the beach reading bill. It was a lot of serious stuff, even the Dickens. I was an earnest kid who knew time was short and the world was wide.

Now, forty years later, time is even shorter, the world even wider, and I’ve resigned myself that hundreds and thousands of important books will go unread. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’ve given up or sold out, but this summer I’ve finished reading Walter Moseley’s smart detective series, both the Easy Rawlins novels set in Los Angeles and the Leonid McGill novels set in New York. I’m reading an OK murder mystery, Los Alamos, by a writer new to me, Joseph Kanon, and I’ve got the latest Stephen King book queued up on my Kindle.

Maybe next year I’ll get to the most recent work by Slavoj Zizek. Or maybe next. Or the one after. After all, summer waves are gently lulling, even here at the foot of the Rockies, miles from any lakes or oceans.Hey You Read


This Time, Orlando

chair - 1After 26 school kids and teachers were slaughtered in Sandy Hook, we collectively shrugged at even minimal measures to reduce gun violence. (For the record: I grew up in a hunting culture, and while I no longer hunt, I understand and respect owning shotguns and rifles.  My Uncle Harold was a national champion trapshooter, and I understand the culture of target shooting and even the joy for many of shooting for pleasure.)

So when a hateful man with an AR15 decides to kill 49 people in an Orlando club, people singled out because they’re gay and/or latin@ and/or there, I sadly can’t muster nearly as much political outrage as I once could.

Grief and despair, though: that I have plenty.

It is not only the dead, slaughtered because a deranged man is offended or inspired by Holy Delusions, because he manages to channel the  hatred so virulent in the larger culture.  It is not only the dozens wounded, their physical and emotional lives shattered.  It is not only the “uninjured” people of Pulse, shot psychologically through by horrors that would be terrible on a battlefield, but are unspeakable on a dance floor, during a date, on a night with friends.  It is also the hundreds and thousands affected directly and indirectly: partners, family, friends; co-workers, teachers, classmates; softball teams, choruses, neighbors.  The Orlando LGBTQ community was immediately and directly devastated and, most surely, so too LGBTQ communities everywhere.  But these communities enmesh with every other community, everywhere.

I’m a member of multiple communities, and one in particular is in my mind tonight.

Every person killed, every person injured in Pulse was some teacher’s student at some time, probably in the past, though some still in the present before Sunday.  So many shot were young.  Every teacher carries memories of his or her students, and beyond those memories, we bear ineluctable traces.  To learn that one of our students has been killed in a car wreck or felled by cancer hurts.  To learn that he or she was senselessly shot: that’s a cruel order beyond.

Don’t get me wrong. A teacher’s loss pales in relation to those of families or lovers or friends.  And our collective social loss (of what, innocence? Please) is also more profound; the boundaries of inhumanity have been pushed back just a little further.  Consolation that we live in a reasonable world is just that much harder to summon.  And so when I grieve and despair about those destroyed and damaged by a  madman in Orlando, I think of all those diminished, near and distant, thinking most of those dear ones closest.

But among those hurt, in some middle-distant range, are teachers who spent weeks and months and years, nurturing that little boy, that young woman, that transgendered kid who always sat over there, in the third row next to  Emma, caring teachers who helped those student craft futures, those futures now hatefully slain.


Appreciating English Teachers

teachers - 1Teacher appreciation week 2016 conjures many strong English teachers that have made a terrific difference in lives of people close to me. I think foremost to my own children’s teachers, in high school and earlier.  Susie Thetard, Diane Walker, Claire Lamonica, Bob Neuleib, and Kathy Clesson, each at various times NCTE members, taught my three kids extraordinarily well, in both the practical and the creative arts of language.  They inspired writing as well as reading, speech and theatre as well as classroom English.  Like so many good teachers I know, they’ve followed with keen interest what my kids have been up to well after graduation.  Normal, Illinois, did well.
       I think, too, on my own English teachers, now decades ago.  Mr. Leahy in 7th grade, in a small town Iowa junior high, had us do a radio play.  I performed as a ghost.  Mrs. Smith, in high school, was the first person to comment generously on my creative writing.  Whether she saw quality in the prose or poetry or whether she simply sensed a boy who liked words, she helped me publish in the local paper.  Two years ago I had a chance to meet my eighth grade teacher once again, Mrs. Scherer, now in her 80s, and she congratulated me on being elected president of NCTE.  That’s a humbling thing.
       So many of my college professors were active in NCTE, and they introduced me to the professional world of teaching, a world in which smart people knew things about what worked and why—and also knew what we didn’t know.  I got the important sense early on that if you were going to be an English teacher, you needed to be in concert and community with other English teachers.  Carl Klaus, Louise B. Kelly, and Jix Lloyd-Jones (a past NCTE president) were all foundational.
       I know I’m looking back, but partly that’s to remind all of us about the long sweep forward of good teachers, whose efforts ripple gently into the future, now and then washing up on a late shore of realization and appreciation.  When I talk with NCTE members today, whether they’re teaching in a university or in a grade school, I’m struck by the new constraints they face.  Folks who haven’t been in a classroom since they were themselves students certainly aren’t shy about the “common sense” wisdom they have regarding literacy and assessment.  I so appreciate those teachers—and they are legion—who put up with everything from well-intentioned bad advice to outright ignorant criticism, finding ways to teach their students what their professional expertise compels them to do.  That might even include helping a nerdy sophomore boy write a short story when the conventional wisdom “knows” that doing so is a waste of time.

A Sonnet for Seniors Singing

four flowers - 1April is poetry month.  I thought of this poem I wrote years ago, for Andrew’s last high school chorus concert.  (The school colors were green and yellow).





A Sonnet for Seniors Singing

for the U-High class of 2002


In green and yellow music time you hear—

if you’re a parent—childhood float away

with every lyric note. Its echoes lift

a wish for more: more madrigals, more jazz,

more Bach, more Billy Joel, more freshman year

when they began, and you were younger, too.

Composers know their songs belong to time,

and so do singers, fathers’ fondest scores.


One person cannot make a chord. One chord

will make an empty song. One song is not

a concert or a life, which needs the whole

of harmony: a choir. So, seniors, sing

the past into the now, all notes, all times,

all time to come, all hope, all dreams, all love.


–Doug Hesse

Response to a HS Senior

College WritingYesterday, I received the following email from a local high school student.  I’m pretty sure my reply  was less helpful than she might have wanted, but the questions didn’t lend themselves to the more direct answers I’m guessing that she and her teacher had wished for.  I hope she writes back.

From: <Student>
Date: Monday, April 18, 2016 at 7:15 PM
To: Doug Hesse <>
Cc: <student’s teacher>
Subject: Writing Advice for Incoming Freshman 

Dear Professor Hesse,

Hello. I am currently a Senior attending Denver Area School and have been accepted to the University of Denver. My Senior Literature teacher Mrs. X Y  has assigned my class the task of writing the perfect essay. The assignment requires me to ask a professor or administrator at the University of Denver for advice on how to craft an essay at the collegiate level.

My questions are as follows:

1. What are some of the mistakes that are common among incoming freshman in their writing? What is missing from their essays or what should be cut out?

2. I have heard my peers talk about their writing style and how difficult it is to improve upon. Do you consider writing “style” important to the students development of their writing?

3. What written sources would you recommend an incoming freshman read to improve their writing?

Thank you so much for your time, I look forward to hearing from you to prepare myself for my college career.

Thank You,


From: Doug Hesse <>
Date: Monday, April 18, 2016 at 8:14 PM
To: <student>
Cc: <student’s teacher>


Dear Student,

I’m glad to hear you’ll be joining us at the University of Denver!

Truly perfect essays are perhaps a lot like unicorns: wonderful to imagine but absent in reality.  I’ve published about 70 articles and book chapters and have co-authored four books, but I’ve yet to write a perfect essay.  I’ve written some pretty good ones.

One thing that consistently improves a lot of first year writing is more complex thinking and not being satisfied with a first draft version that happens to satisfy formal requirements.  People write in college in order to create knowledge.  They analyze, synthesize, critique, and apply.  That’s hard work, and the chances of getting it right in a single sitting or single draft are pretty rare.  Writers need to consider what their readers already know and believe and be able to adapt to those readers.  College professors like to see students take risks and then put in the time and effort to craft those risks into a smart shape.

Style is crucial because it conveys the writer’s ethos, his or her projected sense of self.  A style that’s both clear and engaging makes readers appreciate its author and go along with the writing.  Style is just as easy and just as hard to develop as the skill to shoot a three pointer consistently in heavy traffic or to play the Bach cello sonatas.  It takes tons of systematic practice, informed by reading.

I could glibly say that, as far as reading, incoming first year students should read one of my textbooks, Creating Nonfiction, The Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers, and so on.  However, there’s no magic single text.  Instead, read a plenitude of stuff. Read the New York Times a couple times a week, at least, especially the editorials and the op eds, but every section.  Read issues of The Atlantic, Harpers, or The New Yorker every month.  Always be reading a novel, and always be reading a nonfiction book.  I’m reading a novel by Neal Stephenson right now and a memoir by writer who spent many summers working as a fire lookout in a New Mexico national forest. Reading widely gives you a fund of knowledge to draw upon, for analogies and allusions as well as simply for content.  It also builds a repertory of sentence rhythms and patterns, a sense of writerly voice.  My first year honors students are reading Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden right now.  If you’re looking for something to read, I recommend that.

Good luck to you!

Douglas Hesse
President, NCTE
Professor and Executive Director of Writing
University of Denver
2150 E. Evans Ave.  |  Denver, CO 80211  |  303.871.3447

The Death of Mailer in the Life of NCTE

Clinton and 2012 Students

2012 student winners, plus another guy.

Alec Baldwin checked how to pronounce my name. Keith Richards sat beside Bill Clinton. It was the top floor ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York, and I was introducing winners of the NCTE/Norman Mailer National Writing Awards. Along with their prizes, three students received $5000, and a South Carolina English teacher and NCTE member Kay McSpadden got a check and a plaque from Garrison Keillor who, from the podium, took particular delight that this wife of a Presbyterian minister had titled her winning story “Why Women Moan in Bed.”

I recount that evening, October 4, 2012, because NCTE is currently inviting submissions for the 2016 NCTE/Mailer Awards, in the categories of creative nonfiction and poetry. Complete information is available at It costs nothing to submit, but the deadline is May 2. NCTE members do initial rounds of reading up to a group of finalists, and panels of well-known writers select the winners.

Now, you may be curious, at least, about these particular awards—perhaps even skeptical. After all, Norman Mailer was a particular, sometimes polarizing figure in American letters. Further, contests themselves can be problematic, sometimes conflicting with learning. My friend and current Mailer awards chair Bonnie Sunstein, (from the University of Iowa and from whom I swiped this blog title), and I reviewed the history, the complications, and the values of these awards in a session at the NCTE Convention in 2015.

The history, in a nutshell, was that after Mailer died in 2008, Larry Schiller (author, director, photographer, Emmy winner, and co-author/friend of Mailer) contacted Kent Williamson about sponsoring student writing contests in his honor. In addition to generous funding, Schiller could bring high-level contact to the arts and entertainment world. Indeed, the people involved over the years, beyond those  mentioned, have included Toni Morrison (who was once an NCTE member, she told me), Dick Cavett, Maya Angelou, Salman Rushdie, John Waters, Ken Burns, Oliver Stone, Joyce Carol Oates, Muhammad Ali, and countless others.   The New York Times regularly runs a story on the awards.  Kent and the Executive Committee asked me to work with Schiller, and the awards were timed in conjunction with the first National Day on Writing.

I suggested that the awards should be in creative nonfiction, among whose genres Mailer had certainly worked successful. There were plenty of fiction and poetry contests, but we needed to encourage students—and their teachers—to write memoir, personal essay, literacy journalism, and so on. Schiller agreed. The result has been a trove of student work stunning in both content and form, giving voice to the lives of high school and college writers. Consider, for example, the title of this piece, by a high school student:

“Things about My Parents I Forgot to Tell the Woman Who is Deciding Custody of My Brother, Sister, and Me”

Or these opening lines from another one:

‘Yes, my father left my family over an online game called Second Life.
No, I’m not kidding.
I wish I were.”

Or this incredible opening by a third:

“My hometown is made of break walls surrounding a harbor where young children jump off and a man who once gave me an eagle feather got drunk and floated out on a mattress to the middle of the harbor at three in the morning and was torn through with the hull of a speed boat driven by a man who’s daughter was my best friend and the owner of the bar. They had chatted that night, the killed man and the killer, and the killer told the killed man to leave his bar because he was closing down for the night and the killed man had had too much Jack Daniels to stay. That boat came up in between that man’s legs and all he left was that wife, those kids, and that eagle feather.” –Kiley Harrison

Or this first sentence from the 2010 college winner:

One day in Saigon in 1987—nine years after he had failed his escape attempt by boat, was captured, was imprisoned, ran away, was beaten unconscious and recaptured, was imprisoned, dug hundreds of thousands of spoons of dirt, ran away, was recaptured, was imprisoned, chained, and hung upside down in a cell every night, escaped with the help of a Communist friend, had arrest warrants posted on him, five years after he had settled in Dalat in his mother’s house, waited day by day for the police to come get him, met my mother, married her, and had two children—my father was hiding out and talking with his uncle, who translated American papers and documents for clients, and his uncle told him about a certain document he had translated recently, and this document explained that veterans of the Army of the Republic of Viet-Nam (ARVN) were welcome to petition for their and their family’s emigration to the United States of America. –Minh Phuong Nguyen “Suffering Self: Khồ Mình, Mình Khồ”

You can read great writing from winners on the NCTE website, including Kay McSpadden’s story that so intrigued Keillor.  Just as importantly, you can encourage students to tell their own stories, explore their own lives, make a space for writing beyond reports, analyses, and arguments.

First Mailer Story

NCTE Council Chronicle story of the first Mailer awards Nov. 2009.



Problem-Driven Writing?

Berkeley First Slide

On March 11, I spoke at a symposium on “Undergraduate Education in the Public University,” at Berkeley. The symposium mainly featured high-level level university administrators and policy leaders, people like University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. I was the only speaker talking about a specific subject area. (The other two professors  discussed higher education policy.) My talk, “Scaling Writing in Large Public Universities,” was filmed, and Berkeley plans to release a video of it. Whether I have the courage to watch myself, given my known speaking tics, is another matter entirely. But I’ll post any link that materializes.

For a few paragraphs here, I want to think about a remark that Schlissel made during his keynote. He characterized the 20th Century model of the university as one driven by disciplines, and he characterized the 21st Century model as one driven by problems. My takeaway was that, in terms of undergraduate education, a university driven by disciplines takes its primary orientation as systematically (or, often in the case of fields like English, unsystematically) inculcating students in the particular body of knowledge and ways of thinking as defined by one or more majors. The impetus is covering the major field, which is ultimately a conservative one. That is, conserving the discipline—its content and practices—is the paramount goal, even if a given discipline has a forward-looking element of making new knowledge.

A problem-driven university takes its primary orientation as addressing current issues and problems, whether practical or philosophical. The goal is to move toward resolution or solution, using whatever available bodies of knowledge and practices might be applied. Certain large problems—poverty, racism, gender inequality—are intractable, of course, so my sense of “moving toward” is important. The key thing is that studying texts, ideas, and techniques is ultimately grounded in how the knowledge gained from them might be used.

I think this orientation has important implications for the still fairly nascent field of Writing Studies in the American university. I’ve been a little wary of the rush to disciplinarity in composition studies, especially when some would configure writing departments that seem centered on conserving the field. Schlissel’s observations resonate with my sense that the timing is all wrong: claiming disciplinarity/departmentality in 2016 doesn’t get you what it did in 1986. (I’ve got an article under review somewhere on this topic.)

Putting my musings aside (and putting aside the obvious value of disinterested learning: learning uncoupled from a current issue or problem), I wonder how writing looks in a problem-driven university.

One form could be the themed writing courses that are currently again in ascendancy. Whether writing courses should have a theme has long been controversial. A traditional concern is that themed courses become less about developing student writing abilities than about understanding the course topic; it’s a concern similar to one leveled at literature-based writing courses, where one fear has long been that professors more interested in Emily Dickinson than Aristotle, let alone the writing education of Jennifer Student, would go all in with Dickinson, teaching little writing.

Still, at least some affinities with theme-based writing in the problem-driven university are clear. A challenge would be insuring that there’s a problem component to the theme: an actual open issue needing engaging through writing. Among other things, this might entail readings being left open. Who knows what a writer might need to access in pursuit of a problem? Too, genres may need to be left open, too. Perhaps I’m putting too much emphasis on “authentic” problems, ones still open. Perhaps it’s enough to have “casebook rhetoric” kinds of issues: a theme, some questions, a rhetorical exigency, even if they’re no longer quite live. Thirty years ago I taught from Behrens and Rosen’s Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, which gathered handfuls of articles on various topics and took students through a variety of writing tasks.

Somehow, though, such an approach seems more in the spirit of “the problem-driven course” than the “problem driven university.” Until we find some radically different way of organizing learning—a way that gets around credit by specialized courses delivered by a disciplinary faculty—perhaps what we can best imagine is problem-driven courses, a shift in both curriculum and pedagogy.

Still, writing courses will face a particular challenge. People expect such courses to develop particular transferrable writing skills and strategies. Even if we know that universal and general writing techniques operate at such a high level of abstraction as to be doomed to fail expectations (for example, “write to your audience,” or “discern and follow target genre conventions” or “writing is revision”), we nonetheless feel some responsibility to teach strategies and techniques. We feel the need to teach a vocabulary and set of analytic lenses about writing, practiced through well-designed tasks with feedback. The problem of problem-driving writing is the problem of writing itself. In a certain respect, writing courses as traditionally practiced are like studio art courses or music composition, where the “problem” is how to create a well-made artifact, with some faith and hope that this experience carries forward to future experiences.

Of course, there’s an entirely different way into this: writing as an aspect of problem confrontations rather than as a class per se. This is the venerable terrain of writing across the curriculum, for which we have plenty of theory and practice. The question is whether those of us in writing studies are willing to abandon writing courses on their current large scale (just keeping a few elective ones) to go all-in with writing as an aspect of any learning, problem-driven enterprise in the university. In order for us to be comfortable doing so, I think we’d need to feel that we’d be equal partners in the enterprise. We’d need to feel that other faculty members and institutional structures were configured and committed to problem-driven learning and we weren’t just the handmaidens and stable boys ancillary to Disciplines Triumphant. I suspect we worry about unilaterally disarming ourselves as a discipline precisely at the moment we’re on the verge of recognition as one.

Advocacy Day: Another Third of a Busy NCTE Week

Platform Writing - 1

Members of the NCTE Policy and Advocacy Committee meet for platform briefings in the Longworth House Office Building, in late January 2016. (My photo)

Thursday, February 25, is NCTE’s Advocacy Day. The Executive Committee and other volunteers gather in Washington, DC, to meet members of Congress and Department of Education officials.  We provide information about NCTE’s education policy platform and request specific actions.

Of course, the idea of a single “advocacy day” is a little foolish. The legislative calendar is long and fluid. And imagining the federal government as the only or even most important site of legislative action affecting education is foolish, too, especially these days.

As you know, in November Congress replaced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as “No Child Left Behind” with the new “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which President Obama signed into law. One of the effects of the new law was to curtail national programs for evaluating schools through processes and testing programs that many educators found extremely problematic. But the new law did not as much end assessments as shift responsibilities and procedures for them onto the states, along with many other requirements and concomitant resources.  States gained flexibility.

Now, this is a good thing for states (and their students, families, and teachers) who devise appropriate assessments for literacy learning, who allocate school support funds in equitable ways, who support professional development that is expert teacher-led, and so on. But in other states, where political rather than professional guidelines determine how education dollars are spent, the results could well be no better than No Child Left Behind. In fact, they could be worse. I’m reminded, after all, that NCLB had bi-partisan support, with none other than Ted Kennedy as one of its senate sponsors. Many civil rights groups supported NCLB—and continued to support it all along—because they feared that, absent federal controls and oversight, education would continue to be inequitable in many states and locales.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act, therefore, has resulted in a more complex advocacy environment for education. Rather than mostly a single point of contact, the Federal Government and its funds, there are now fifty points of contact, each state determining within guidelines how to spend allocations to develop processes they’ve been given latitude to develop. Of course, in all sorts of important ways, states and districts have always been the most important site of educational policy, curricula, and professional support. ESSA only amplifies this.

And, of course, any legislation requires rules and regulations for its implementation. Even a fairly detailed law can’t specify everything. Various legislators and bureaucrats are continuing to write those regs (I’ve learned to speak Washingtonian, see?). Part of the goal of NCTE’s Advocacy Day is to influence that process. So, given what’s at stake, I’m not much feeling foolish at all.

Convention Planning: A Third of a Busy NCTE Week

Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 26 (1)This is one of the more exciting weeks each year in life of NCTE.  In the space of four energetic days in Washington, DC, three things happen:  Advocacy Day, an Executive Committee meeting, and Annual Convention Planning. Last year we were greeted by a snowstorm that shut the federal government; I’ll be happy not to have that drama this time around. I’ll tell you about each of these activities, starting in this post with the convention planning process.

The process of building the annual convention has three review levels built into it, the most important of which happens before the face-to-face convention planning meeting.

Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 16

Level One

Let’s imagine that by the January 2016 deadline, you submitted a proposal for “The Apostrophe: Legend, Lore, and Legacy,” and you’ve indicated the main interest audience as Secondary. Your proposal will have been sent, electronically, to two readers in a group of reviewers designated by the Secondary Section Steering Committee or its Chair. (If you had indicated the audience as elementary, middle, college, general, research, or English educators, your proposal would be read by folks from a pool of reviewers designated by each of those groups.)

Your proposal gets rated on four criteria and receives an overall rating from each reviewer. Reviewers also write brief comments. Let’s imagine that your proposal on “The Apostrophe” receives an overall rating of 3 from each online reviewer, for a total rating of 6. All of the ratings and comments for your proposal are gathered and made available to (in your case) a Secondary Section team of two people who are meeting in Washington, DC, along with other review teams.

Prior to that meeting, the convention Program Chair (this year, that’s Susan Houser), has worked with NCTE staff to analyze the proposals and determine how many program slots are available and how they will be allocated. Let’s imagine there are 500 session slots available at the convention. (The number of slots is determined by the number of meeting rooms in the convention center/hotel times the number of session times.) Let’s imagine that there are 2000 total proposals. Historically, NCTE has allocated the number of sessions proportionally to the number of submissions in each are. (There’s one other consideration, but let’s keep things simple.)  An illustration makes it clear.

Suppose those 2000 proposals break down this way:
Elementary Section: 400 (20%)
Middle Section: 400 (20%)
Secondary Section: 600 (30%)
College Section: 100 (5%)
General: 300 (15%)
Research: 100 (5%)
English Education: 100 (5%)

Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 4 (1)Level Two

So, your proposal on “The Apostrophe” is in a pool from which roughly 30% of the convention slots are allocated. 30% of 500 slots is 150. The Secondary reviewers in Washington, then, are trying to determine whether your proposal should earn one of those 150 spaces on the program. Generally, everything with a total rating of 8 is accepted. Generally, so is everything with a rating of 7. But, generally, everything with a total rating of 2, 3, or 4 is not. That leaves a number of proposals with ratings of 5, 6, or sometimes 7 left. There’s not room for all. The review team, then, has to exercise some judgment. They skim the remaining proposals to double-check the online ratings. They look at the comments. They look at the topics and judge which of them might contribute most to the overall program. They combine significant individual presentations into panels with similar individual presentations. In short, they use their very best judgment to decide which are the best 150 proposals from their group.

Level Three

Remember how above I mentioned there is one other consideration? Well, here’s that layer. Many years ago, NCTE determined it was vital to ensure convention space for matters of central importance to our members and mission. As a result, for example, we allocate a certain number of sessions for the Rainbow Strand (issues and strategies related to teaching and affirming culturally and linguistically diverse students), or for Whole Language, for the LBGT Strand, and so on.

When people write convention proposals, they’re invited to identify their proposals as meeting one of these designated foci or interests. A large number of proposals so designated are accepted, of course, through the Level Two process I described above. But space is limited. The Strand Review process provides another route.

Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 15Let’s imagine that you checked “Whole Language” for your proposal on “The Apostrophe” because you were emphasizing ways of teaching this kind of punctuation that fit the principles of whole language instruction. (Humor me!)  Let’s imagine, further, that the Secondary group determined that your proposal wasn’t one of the 150 it could accept. But there’s also a Whole Language review team, which convenes along with other review groups. They look at all of the Whole Language-designated proposals  and choose those that best meet the spirit of the strand. They, like the other Strand groups, have an allotment of program slots they can fill (let’s imagine 10 of them) above and beyond the ones apportioned previously.  Of course, your “Apostrophe” proposal may well have been accepted by the Secondary group.  Congratulations!  If the Whole Language reviewers agree that it meets their criteria, it will show up in the program with the strand designation, and they’ll be able to use their program slots for something else.

The Upshot

Picture, then, a basement hotel conference room in Washington, DC, this Saturday and Sunday, filled with teams of elected and appointed member volunteers, each pondering sets of proposals—more quality proposals than they can possibly accept. That’s the difficult reality everyone faces. It’s a room filled with conversation, animated by the common desire to put together the very best program, one that represents the multiple interests and Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 13needs of NCTE members.

Look elsewhere for my posting I’ll talk about Advocacy Day.


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