Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Standardization, Democratization, and Writing Programs

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Standardization, Democratization, and Writing Programs

Article excerpt

This symposium enacts a debate over a high-stakes question for writing studies: How does standardization within and across writing programs enable or constrain our democratic aspirations? In particular, we think through a set of provocative arguments advanced by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein over the past ten years, approximately since Graff's tenure as president of the Modern Language Association (2008). In brief, these arguments-which build on Graff's earlier work in Professing Literature and Clueless in Academe and culminate in Graff and Birkenstein's essay, "A Progressive Case for Educational Standardization"-might be summarized as follows:

Higher education as it is currently constituted-that is, as a series of disconnected courses, each with its own expectations that often conflict-is profoundly undemocratic, ill serving many students but especially those not already familiar with the rules ofthe academic game. If we want to democratize higher education, we must identify what we want students to learn, make it transparent to them, and hold ourselves responsible for making sure they learn it. This will require us to overcome our classroom isolationism and our allergies to standardization and outcomes assessment. Instead of defensively dismissing all forms of standardization, though some do indeed undermine learning, we must embrace legitimate standardization. Specifically, since persuasive argument and critical thinking are the sine qua non of academic literacy, the key moves associated with these concepts should be standardized: identified, publicized, taught, and assessed in, at the very least, a critical mass of courses. Only this kind of transparency and consistency will provide all students the kind of academic socialization that our most privileged students take for granted. (See Graff, "Assessment," "Undemocratic"; Graff and Birkenstein, "Progressive").

Mounting such a defense of standardization, particularly in the field of writing studies, is no easy task. Many in the field associate standardization with the high-stakes standardized testing and packaged curricula favored by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which have left behind precisely those students they were intended to help. All too often, under these programs, disadvantaged students have seen their schools transformed into glorified (or not so glorified) test-prep factories that actually subvert democratic education, while their more privileged counterparts enjoy all manner of enrichment programs, assured of high standardized test scores almost irrespective of what they do in school. Opponents of standardization also contend that postsecondary institutions are too diverse to measure with a single yardstick. Further, for some compositionists, the idea of a generic "academic discourse" that students could learn in first-year composition and then apply in all their courses across the disciplines is a fiction in the first place. From this perspective, writing, like teaching, is an irreducibly complex, situated activity to which standardization is anathema.

On the other hand, many in the field see the value of identifying and articulating the skills, capacities, and dispositions that cut across various writing contexts and hope for a broader consensus about what we want our students to learn. Recent efforts such as the "WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Writing," the CWPA/NCTE/NWP "Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing," the Visibility Project (which has secured "emerging field" status for rhetoric and composition/writing studies and instructional programs codes from the National Research Council; see Phelps and Ackerman), and "threshold concepts" (see Adler-Kassner and Wardle) all attempt to stabilize and publicize the field's theory and practice. These efforts are in part a response to external forces that include stubborn, regressive public conceptions of what writing is and how it should be taught and a failure to acknowledge writing studies as a legitimate scholarly field. …

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