Free to Teach What I Want

In December 2016, Wisconsin State Assemblyman David Murphy lodged a public complaint about the University of Wisconsin’s decision to allow a course entitled “Problem with Whiteness.”  According to the Washington Post, the goals of the course are to “understand how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced in order to help dismantle white supremacy” and to explore “how race is experienced by white people.” Murphy claims teaching a class at the state’s flagship public university is a waste of taxpayer’s money. Moreover, he called to withhold funding if the class goes through.

In January, Steve Nass criticized UW Madison for a program in which young men voluntarily gather and discuss masculinity. Nass claims that the course categorizes masculinity as another “societal ill.”

Is white masculinity under attack? Or, should classes interrogate social, cultural, or political hegemony?

To answer these questions, we have to understand the role of the university. In many ways, our conception of the university as a bastion of liberal ideals and counterculture is a mostly modern conception. The civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1950-70s were supported by young college students who organized on campuses across the country.

Wisconsin Student Association, United Front, and Madison Area Peace Action Council sponsor indoor anti-war rally at Camp Randall (1971)

However, in the Middle Ages, universities educated the men who ran state and religious bureaucracies. Before the university, education occurred in the home or monasteries. But, less than a century after its founding in 1088, the University of Bologna petitioned  Barbarossa for secular powers; the Authentica habita or Privilegium scholasticum gave scholars the right to travel and learn civil law. Universities were not for the most wealthy  of society, but for second sons and the growing middle class.

The Renaissance and the rise of humanist education saw more students attending universities to help build the solidifying nation states. In England, Henry VIII asked professors from all over Europe to rule on his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. In a way, university professors shaped the civic and political history of England and the world.

Universities are not above or outside of politics or corporate interests. They shape and are shaped by politics in that they produce the very people who work and develop policy. Many would argue this is exactly why the university is the ideal place to undermine hegemonic discourses. When we prepare the next generation of law-makers, C-level executives, and teachers, they should be aware of how language and culture shape our ideas of right/wrong, good/bad, smart/dumb.

By interrogating masculinities and whiteness, we can understand the ways that laws, corporate policies, and medicine perpetuate systems that exclude Others. Is it radical to think that a future Senator should be aware of his own privilege when making laws for women or children?







Ain’t No Grammar Judge

Almost every time I tell a stranger that I’m an English professor they get this look… A look I am fairly certain that preachers also get when they share their occupation. People feel judged about the way they communicate, and the English teacher epitomizes this experience.

However, I would argue that most people I know who study language are some of the least

From Hyperbole and a Half

judgmental. Wait, wait, hear me out!

First, people who study language, especially those who study rhetoric, understand that context and audience matter. So, when I’m talking to someone at a party with a beer in my hand, I am not judging your grammar. When a friend texts me, “When U get here?” I don’t judge their grammar. However, when a student submits a formal research essay – grammar matters. In that context, I’m not just a person out in the world.  When I receive an essay, I am teacher whose job is to help students become effective communicators.

Or, prepare them to combat all of the real grammar nazis out there. When I finally left the UP for college, I encountered people who felt the need to correct my grammar. My reading ability outpaced my speaking ability, and I often got things wrong. I felt a deep shame – for my grammar, for my accent, and for the importance we put on speaking well in public.

Like a priest or a minister, I sin too. I am not above making a mistake. So, the next time someone corrects your grammar just paraphrase the Good Book – “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”

The Value of Internships

The professional communications major at my university requires that every senior complete a capstone internship in which the gain experience in the kinds of jobs they may find after graduation. I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of an internship – both as a commodity, as a cost-savings for companies, and as a cost for our students.  What’s more, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we are preparing students to become cogs in the corporate machine.corpmachine

Maybe I’m overstating that? I don’t know. Here are somethings to think about.

1. Students pay for the privilege of doing free labor. The student is paying tuition to to work for a company. The majority of our students’ internships are unpaid. So, when they take them as course credit, they pay an exceptional amount of money to complete free labor.  Some interns have gone so far as to compare their internships to slave labor. Moreover, the students have to pay for their own transportation to and from the internship and in some cases travel to different areas of the city for the organization.  In effect, the students pay for experience.

2. Companies use students for unsavory work. While we do our best to make sure that the students are gaining relevant experience, sometimes they do little more than data entry and phone calls. The organizations use them as cheap labor for the work their employees don’t want to complete. And they get away with it because they can. In many cases, the experience these students acquire is more cultural and than practical, which undermines a lot of the purpose of the internship. Or, at the very least, it begins to prepare them for the levels of exploitation they my encounter in the “real world.”

3. Students aren’t really employees, so they aren’t always protected. In a few cases, my students have recounted experiences of feeling used or having conflicts with other interns. In one case, one of the other interns was overtly racist toward my student. My student noted that she wanted a good reference from this internship and was worried about rocking the boat. She also worries about the employer just asking her to leave.  What could she do?

4. Students aren’t commodities, but this system treats them as such. Universities trade student labor for prestige. Many career services departments love to tout the companies in which the place students – the higher on the Fortune list the better. Students become profit centers for both universities and the companies they intern for.

Are there ways in which even unpaid internships could be done more ethically?

1. Don’t make students pay for them. We could encourage students to still do the internships, but find ways to compensate the faculty/staff who oversee them without making them register for a course.

2. Partner with non-profits and organizations that align with your values. Students can gain a lot of the same experience while also doing good works. Internship programs that focus on helping people rather than profits can be a easy way to make the work of students more meaningful. The work they do for non-profits is volunteering rather than working for free.  This difference is critical.

3. Find on-campus opportunities. I didn’t own a car in college. Requiring an off-campus internship would have been a serious hardship for me. There are ways students can learn and practice their professional skills on campus.  makeitrain1

4. Pay interns – even if it’s only minimum wage. If corporate internships are required, interns should get paid. We need to teach the people who most need internships (women and people of color who don’t have familial connections) that their labor is worth something.

Ultimately, how we conduct internships may need to change. We have to recognize that not all students can afford to spend 100 hours a semester working for nothing.

Supporting Faculty Writing

We tend to think of writing as a solitary activity.  We have this vision of the angsty poet, the shy novelist, or the anarchist academic sitting alone in a tiny dormered apartment or alone in the English country side struggling through their latest opus – utterly alone.  We prof_walter_stibbs_younghave this silly notion that writing happens in a vacuum.

Every good writer I know uses workshops, asks for feedback, forwards drafts to peers, or at the very least talks through ideas with colleagues. While the first step of writing might happen alone, a lot of good writing happens in community. Creative writing courses are almost exclusively set up at workshops where students share writing and provide regular feedback to their peers.

Any graduate student who had good friends and a good director can tell you how awesome it was to write with support. And yet, once we finish our dissertations and get that job (we hope), we’re often left utterly alone.  The network of friends are gone.  The mentor has moved on to other needy graduate students. For young faculty, asking their new peers for help is akin to admitting they don’t have the chops for this job. Ironically, it’s at these early stages that we expect faculty to produce the most writing – we rip away the supports and ask people to stand alone.

Note, that I’m not addressing all of the added stresses  – increased teaching load, family obligations, making new friends, committee work, and mentoring students.Not to mention a perceived need to make an impact in a new place. The Professor Is In suggests being selfish!

So, what are we to do?  I’m going to start a faculty writing group like those found at Macalester College or the Duke University Faculty Writing Group. Study after study has shown that faculty writing groups work. They help faculty protect their time for writing, especially women. They develop a sense of scholarly community, which filters down to students. They increase publication rates. In other words, the recreate that community writers need to succeed.

Reflections on Computers and Writing 2015

I just spent four days in Menomonie, WI at the 2015 Computers & Writing Conference. As I do with every academic conference, I dread going but I always have a better time than I expect. In fact, I think the longer I’m in this discipline, the better they get. Now, I have friends who go, acquaintances who I’ve met over beers, and scholars who have work that I admire. I still find it surreal to sit across from someone who I cited in my dissertation or someone who has essays and books that I share with my students.

I walked away energized to revise an article with my co-author, ready to revise an article of my own for a new venue, and tons of ideas for my classroom. I think I will start using Twitter and create hash tags for my classes. I think I want to find more ways for my students to compose in different arenas. Moreover, I talked about my new online courses and got amazing feedback on how to make that work better. It was invigorating and informative … it’s why I go to conferences.

At the same time, I found myself looking for more. Sometimes, things seemed cool for Fonzthe sake of being cool. Other times, the focus on making/coding rather than analyzing or teaching alienated me. Or, when analysis occurred, it seemed largely divorced from the kind of work I do. Except for Danielle Nicole DeVoss’s panel on the canon, I had a hard time connecting to the material.

So, where do I belong? The collaborative nature of C&W appeals to me, but I’m not sure it’s my home. The more I teach, the more I realize my interests are on how classrooms work and how we run writing programs … I think I’m becoming a WPA.

At the same time, I want to learn more about the avant-garde ways we can teach writing. I want to be the kind of administrator who supports faculty when they use Twitter in class or have their students make things. Maybe these are my people?

Public/Private Blog

Today’s Atlantic ran a story about University of Marquette professor John McAdams pubprivwho being stripped of tenure because of a story he posted on his blog. While I am unwilling to weigh in on the validity of this decision or the opinions expressed, I think the medium and genre that sparked this debate has ramifications for digital rhetoric.

If we trace the story back to its beginning, we find an ideological conflict between a graduate instructor and an undergraduate student. The student recorded this after class conversation on his phone without the graduate student’s permission. Does the instructor have some expectation of privacy? Would she have spoken differently if she knew about the recording? Does that matter?

I am struck by the power of a tiny portable device; one cell phone can start a controversy that ends with a faculty member losing his job.

But more than that, I am struck by the role of technology and its mediation of public and private spaces. The cell phone, a technology often used for very personal/private conversations, records a public conversation. And, as we discussed in class, the blog is a perfect example of personal made public. Personal opinions and experiences may suddenly gain a very public readership. Examining the subtitle of McAdams’s blog points to this conundrum:

“This site has no official connection with Marquette University. Indeed, when University officials find out about it, they will doubtless want it shut down.”

He carefully notes that the blog is an independent entity. However, he also notes “when” officials discover it, they will be unhappy. By using “when” instead of “if,” McAdams implies that his blog is provocative and will draw ire. Tragically, his subtitle also suggests that the worst punishment may be shutting the blog down. In fact, he could lose his job and his livelihood.

The networked nature of blogging demonstrate that these spheres do not have rigid boundaries. McAdams’s publicized opinions have dire consequences for his private life.