Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Rethinking Regulation in the Age of the Literacy Machine

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Rethinking Regulation in the Age of the Literacy Machine

Article excerpt

Rhonda Grego and Nancy Thompson observe that "where the circumstances of teaching are poor," teachers sometimes grab onto "formulaic acts" to fulfill the obligations attached to composition (159). Grego and Thompson link formulaic acts-the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle regulation of students' literacy-to institutional status. Further, they suggest that these acts can engender strong feelings about writing in the students these institutions typically serve, as they did for Carson, an African American student who bought the "wrong" kind of notebook for his composition class and became "angry and frustrated" with his teacher as a result (104). Even if we believe that the "right" notebook constitutes a crucial tool for learning to write, Carson's experience raises troubling questions: What does this episode teach him about writing? How does it shape his sense of authorship?

We investigate these questions, drawing from a large qualitative study focused on students' experiences with, and perceptions of, writing in college. Among the insights we gleaned from this study, we focus here on a prominent theme: students' experiences with formulaic acts, the regulation of their literacy. Our definition of regulation comes from the students in our data who told us they felt regulated when confronted with assignments dominated by mandates and rules, lists of "do's and don'ts," required steps, and rubrics that "must be" followed in order to meet assessments, and who were, as a result, unable to see the rhetorical purposes the assignments set or the opportunities for authorship they provided. We situate these perceptions, and the assignments and practices that led to them, within what anthropologists call "audit culture"-accounting practices and their technologies, which have migrated across institutions, including higher education (Graeber). We suggest our field's institutional status and pedagogical complexities make us especially susceptible to audit culture, and we argue that students' experiences in our writing classrooms, where they face an ever-increasing bureaucratization of literacy in an age of "technical rationality" (Gallagher 46), are an urgent area of research. We thus examine how the regulation of literacy unfolds in a comprehensive state university, vulnerable, in the way institutions serving large populations of disenfranchised students are, to acts of regulation at all levels.

We are not the first to note the regulatory push and the liberatory pull that have structured our field's history and our students' experiences of writing. From the beginning, we have had bureaucratic ties with efficiency experts, mass testing, and management science (Strickland). Scholars have also long noted that we regulate students through formulaic acts. Geoffrey Sirc laments the regulation that lies at the heart of composition studies as teachers often "reduce the complexity of the scene of writing and its teaching" to a "scrupulously teachable method" (511). Janis Haswell, Richard Haswell, and Glenn Blalock argue, in their discussion of hospitality, that classrooms can devolve into an uninviting space of economic exchange, where grades are traded for compliance with bureaucratic rules and procedures. Sean Zwagerman notes that e-plagiarism catchers like Turnitin similarly regulate relationships between teachers and their students.

More recently, our field has wrestled with the task of making the opaque requirements of genres visible to students, leading, at our own institution, to teachers' increased reliance on templates and formulas. At the same time, from Peter Elbow to Ira Shor, our field has called for institutional spaces where students can exercise their own decision-making power. In sum, we have long debated the relationships between regulation and liberation, disciplinary constraint and individual choice, explicit teaching and implicit learning-dualities that we negotiate every day in our classes. Some degree of regulation, whether of disciplinary rule and method or institutional procedure, is always necessary. …

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