Gah. I’m taking a break from putting the (semi) final touches on my contribution to the updated edition of A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. My chapter is about “New Media Pedagogy,” and it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve had to write in recent memory. I’m really hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be one of the worst things I’ve had to write in recent memory. So, fingers crossed.
One of the things that they don’t tell you as a graduate student is that there’s a special genre of writing that you get to do later on where failure is all but guaranteed. You get a little taste of it during the job search, I think, but because you’re competing against other candidates who are all faced with the same impossible task, there’s something mildly comforting about that. The best example of this is probably the teaching philosophy statement (the acronym for which should sound familiar). That statement needs to be general enough to fit into a couple of pages, and yet, the values/perspectives that operate at that level of generality are largely shared in a given community. If you asked most people in a given discipline to list 5 terms/phrases characteristic of their approach to teaching, my guess is that the overlap would run in the neighborhood of about 95%, and much of the underlap would have to do with only a few factors (early v late tech adoption, e.g.). There are strategies that we can use (examples, stories, assignments) to make ourselves somewhat distinctive, but honestly, even those are pretty generic. We are forced in the context of the old TPS Report to try and locate some middle ground between the universal, disciplinary values and the particularities of our classrooms (which often depend on factors beyond our control anyway: location, student population, time of day, curricular guidelines).
I can think of no better analogy for this sort of writing than the horoscope, and I think sometimes about what it would mean to have to actually write them for a living. You’re not allowed to be stupidly obvious (“You will wake up today.”), nor meaningfully specific (“That cutie on the elevator today will make eye contact and smile at you!”), so instead you’re stuck with this awkward language that implies specificity (“Today is an opportune time for changes and new things as long as you choose things that continue to pique your long-term interests.”) while still being vague enough to apply to roughly 1/12 of the population. So the horoscope has to try and capture both the macroscope (you’re a Pisces!) and the microscope (you’re a snowflake!), and ends up doing neither particularly well (“You might look around your house and think of some new and exciting ways to spruce it up a little, Gemini,” unless you don’t live in a house, work more than one job, need to spend that money on food and shelter, and/or are turned off by anyone using the word “spruce” as a verb.).
Back to my problem. One of the things that’s really valuable about books like GCP is its ability to distill a lot of expertise and sourcework into a small space. This is incredibly useful for folks who are new to the field. And yet, the process by which that work is published and made available is the same process that results in our specialist work. And so yes, it’s inevitable that this chapter I’m writing will be read alongside much better, more focused scholarship, and it will look like a poorly dressed bumpkin next to that work. I’m in the position of having to cover a lot of ground in a distressingly small space–pan out too wide and I’m obvious, zoom in too close and I’m pointless. If I try to be timeless, I can only speak in the broadest and most meaningless generalities; if I go timely, then I’m guaranteeing myself a six month shelf life. I remember sitting around as a graduate student, ripping apart others’ horoscope essays, taking them to task for all of the weaknesses that are built into the genre itself, not realizing until years later that maybe they weren’t such dullards after all. It’s not easy to write looking forward to that kind of reception.
It is both the best and the worst thing that horoscope essays are often read by more people than the combined scholarly audience for everything else an author has written. And yet, it’s also an honor to be asked to write them, despite the frustrating built-in failures of the genre. Gah.
For what it’s worth, I have to admit that I momentarily flirted with the idea of writing: “Today is an opportune time for changes and new media as long as you choose assignments that support your long-term pedagogical philosophy. You might look online and think of some new and exciting ways to spruce it up a little. Now, here’s a 25-page bibliography to get you started.”
(ps. If ever there were a genre that would lend itself to crowdsourcing and curation, it is this one. Don’t think for a minute that I didn’t think about that as well.)