Thursday, May 25, 2006

James Carey

My colleague Christine Tracy just e-mailed to say that James Carey has died. Very sad... Carey was a *terrific* writer and thinker, and one of the first 'academic' sources that I found meaningful and cool when I went back to grad school. My first quarter (Fall 1989) I took the mandatory "Theories of Mass Communication" class with Ted Glasser (a tremendous teacher, btw). Carey's Communication and Culture was one of the books required for the class. I remember going to Ted at one point early in the quarter with a classmate, complaining that the book was "hard and super academic" (or something like that); Ted said that he was surprised because he thought it was super accessible. A good example of discourse in action, because now I agree with Ted. But I digress.

When I was in grad school, Carey was known as an "American cultural studies" guy. His work brought together ideas from pragmatism, European cultural studies, phenomenology... lots of places. His were some of the first theories that made 'sense' to me - his analysis of communication as a ritual (versus a 'transmission') model, for instance, still circulates through my own thinking about literacy and ed. His work helped me understand that communication went WAY beyond "media" to that Wittgenstein-ian notion of constructing reality through language (and communication)... and did so in terms that were accessible (as Ted Glasser promised!) and super intriguing. I still have C and C on a readily-accessible bookshelf...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Cold Fire and other inspirational texts

I've just finished a book called Cold Fire, about the work of Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizer Ernesto Cortes and the IAF philosophy. Very, very interesting. The IAF's primary role is to teach people to organize/be organizers... they've been incredibly effective. They work primarily through churches and church-affiliated organizations. It's helpful for me to think about the link that the author, Mary Beth Rogers, sees (and Cortes articulates) between faith - in this case, Catholic/Christian faith - and the work that these organizations do.

Equally interesting - maybe even more - are the ideas about building structure and motivating people here. I don't want to mis-summarize them because I'm still thinking about them - and they're pretty complicated (in a straightforward way). But several things seem relevant:
*this model is a lot about conversation - talking to people, learning about their interests, working from those. This echoes Alinsky's principle of appealing to peoples' self-interest, of course (because Alinsky was the founder of the IAF, so this extends out from his ideas...)
*this model is also about teaching/education. We can do teaching and education - that *is* what we do. Here, the organizations that Cortes and others work with are educating about some pretty basic, humanitarian needs -- like clean water, drainage, and the like. What we're advocating for is not nearly as important at a survival level... it's not AIDS research, as we always say around the writing program. (Or, as Ed Katz said in a presentation on Gen Ed at EMU, "It's just college.") Not to say it's not important, but...

More, too ... but I need to ponder some more. I also need to ponder the connections between this book and Politics the Wellstone Way, which I also read last week and found quite useful. There are some *very* useful tools in that book that I think are SO important - like a chart for articulating 'your message,' 'what your opponents are saying about you,' 'what you are saying about your opponents' ... all of this makes me wonder what "our message" is. I have to remember that I'm working at the local level, though - certainly, on our campuses we have a message. Grassroots. Grassroots. That's what we know best, those local contexts - and that's where we can be most effective. I am interested in learning more about what NCTE is doing, too, of course - and I can do that, as well. But my focus is local. Mantra: local local local.

Speaking of NCTE, a little kvell here: Nora was one of 200 national winners of the NCTE Promising Young Writers Awards. Pretty cool! And the week before, she and her partner James were state champs in one of their Science Olympiad events (Food Science). What a smartie!

Monday, May 08, 2006

New ACT Report - "Ready to Succeed"

New in today's Inside Higher Ed - a story on a new ACT report, Ready to Succeed. The refrain here will sound familiar. The definitions of "readiness" for college composition here are entirely linked to mechanics, syntax, and organization (and maybe they would say, "But the content comes in the separate "reading" outcomes, but I think that's just wrong). And here's the "research" that supports their assertions:

Our research has documented levels of proficiency on the EXPLORE®, PLAN®, and ACT
score scales that are associated with success in college—defined as a 50/50 chance of earning a course grade of B or better or a 75 percent chance of earning a C
or better—in typical entry-level college courses.

It probably comes as no surprise that EXPLORE and PLAN are ACT products - and so is the ACT, of course. What other industry supports its products with research based on those products? What STUNS me is that few outside of academe seem to point out the circular logic here.

The regularity with which these reports appear is depressing. Clearly, we need to ratchet up some studies of our own -- with better methodology and smarter analysis and discussion. This is basically a marketing tool for the K-12 curriculum that ACT is marketing... but why don't audiences recognize that? (Rhetorical question there... I know a lot of the reasons, but I find them depressing, too.)

I posted a response (which I was going to paste in here, but I copied something else and nuked the response from the copy memory, and I can't "back" to it in my browser anymore). Talking points in the response: college compositionists have higher standards than those outlined in the ACT report because ours include *content* (also put in the URL for the WPA Outcomes Statement), and the circular logic piece. Check for that on the IHE web site...

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The College Board and others - the HUGE challenges ahead

A story in today's Inside Higher Ed reports that SAT scores are down - "there was a four-to-five point decline, on average, comparing scores this year to last, excluding the new writing test," according to the IHE story. The College Board is insisting that the tests are valid; some of the college and univ. officials quoted in the story are distressed because they're placing students in "support" programs based on their scores and finding that they 'don't need to be there.'

Perhaps, if we're lucky, this will be one more strike against the College Board - fingers are crossed on that one. Meanwhile, the fingers of the College Board are *everywhere*. Sure, they have the SAT. They also have COMPASS (or ACCUPLACER - I can't remember which one), an odious and irresponsible test used for placement at the college level (the writing version is heavy on the grammar). My institution doesn't use it (over my laid out and screaming body, in fact), but a fair number of community colleges do. They're also marketing curriculum at the K-12 level, as is ACT. And of course, the College Board is also behind The National Commission on Writing, whose reports have been criticizing the writing abilities of nearly everyone - students, workers, government workers -- and, coming soon, writing in universities (see earlier post on the NASULGC survey). The National Writing Project has representation on the National Commission on Writing, thankfully, so there's at least the potential for some sanity there. Nevertheless, I see it as another effort by the CB to in part generate the kind of 'news' that justifies their work through/with their testing, curriculum, and marketing efforts.

All of this makes me think even more about my recent involvement with a group here in Michigan that was charged with re-writing the secondary (7-12) content standards for English Language Arts in Michigan. This group was incredibly ably chaired by my colleague Rebecca Sipe, who did an unbelievable job navigating us through some very tumultuous waters. The state of Michigan has signed on with The American Diploma Project, a project of the right-wing educational foundation Their goal is to standarize curriculum and grade-level testing across schools and, eventually, across states. Our Michigan committee, a terrifically smart group of people from whom I learned an enormous amount, worked to balance the draconian Achieve/ADP standards with what we knew to be best practices for teachers and students. We rejected the fundamental premises of the ADP standards - the assumptions about what reading and writing were in those standards simply did (/does) not reflect the actual experience of any teachers that any of us had encountered, nor our own experience as teachers.

Through the ADP process, the standards are 'reviewed' by university-level "experts" and business leaders (because that's what we're about in education, right? Getting people ready for business? We are in the ADP vision...) in separate sessions. The university feedback session (of which I was also a part) was enlightening, to say the least. There were a group of very angry people in that room - not angry about the content standards, which we all agreed were pretty good, but angry about the ADP standards to which the MI standards were supposed to be tied. They also rejected the ways that reading and writing were cast there. It was an interesting moment... one person, a lit professor (from I'm not sure where), said of the ADP standards something like, "I'm a pretty conservative guy, but these standards make me look like Michael Foucault." We also were supposed to 'match' the MI standards with ACT standards, since Michigan is moving toward using the ACT as a state assessment (rather than our current tests, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP) - and, at least for writing/English language arts, those are even more draconian.

Anyway - thanks to the hard work of the authoring group and Becky Sipe's extremely able leadership, Michigan's current content standards are pretty okay, I think. But apparently when they were rolled out to teachers and administrators last week, the state Board of Ed chair was also talking about developing the grade-level tests that would go with them. Not sure how that will work... and not sure what's ahead for all of this. It also will start affecting us at the college level sooner or later.

The problem: the ways that these stories, discussions, etc. frame "writing" and "reading" runs counter to everything that we know about writing and reading and the ways people learn them. Of course, that's the topic of the OMB, and I won't go into that here. Still, some things to think about as I move through life...