Review of the 2017 CCCC Chair’s Address by Linda Adler-Kassner
Reviewed by: Christopher Dean, The University of California, Santa Barbara (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Speaker: Linda Adler-Kassner, The University of California, Santa Barbara, “Because Writing is Never Just Writing: CCCC Chair’s Address”
It might be more reasonable to say that what follows isn’t so much a review of what Dr. Linda Adler-Kassner said her Chair’s Address at the 2017 CCCC meeting, but rather an amplification of some of the themes of the talk. Also, it was an attempt by me to get one of the foremost genre theorists of our field to think about the singular genre that she had to work in: the CCCC Chair’s address.
As to the speech itself, there are a few things that it might make sense to review before you look at the interview that I conducted with Dr. Adler-Kassner.
First of all, as someone who occasionally teaches multimodal writing, I was stunned by how beautiful and focused the slides were, which was in keeping with the tight focus of the talk: How to respond to the Educational Intelligence Complex (EIC) and the problems and challenges it presents to the field of composition. Second, you need to know that the Educational Intelligence Complex, Dr. Adler-Kassner said, is “like its namesake, the Military Industrial Complex, ... a collection of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), granting agencies, businesses, consulting firms, policy institutes, actions, and actors. The story it tells is called The Problem With American Education and How to Fix It. Elements of the story include what education is and isn’t, what learning should and shouldn’t be, and why.” This group involves everyone from the promulgators of Common Core Standards to the Gates Foundation, and it’s fair to say that their notions of writing and learning are not terribly complex or nuanced, and that these simplistic notions of learning are problematic to everyone involved in the teaching of writing. Finally, it makes sense to know that Dr. Adler-Kassner didn’t simply critique the EIC, she laid out ways to oppose it and even co-opted some of the “data-based” arguments that it uses; also, this being Dr. Adler-Kassner, she began and ended her talk with a hopeful, affirmative notion of writing and the field’s role in nurturing sophisticated, powerful, and meaningful writing from our students. The talk is, of course, absolutely worth your time, and the text can be found at http://adlerkassner.net/CCCCChair/because-writing-is-never-just-writing-cccc-chairs-address/; the video of the whole talk, replete with brilliant slides designed by Dr. Madeleine Sorapure, can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wldVKmibvnM&feature=youtu.be.
Below, as a written interview and an MP3, is an interview I conducted with Dr. Adler-Kassner about the experience of writing and presenting her CCCC Chair’s Address, her thoughts about the conventions associated with the genre, and, quite frankly, anything she wanted to say about her compelling speech. What I hope you get from this is an inside view of how an important scholar in our field works through writing, how one handles the nearly impossible rhetorical task of presenting to our diverse field, how vital it is that we respond and challenge the EIC, and how damn hard it is to write a document like the CCCC Chair’s Address.
Also, my interview reminded me that it is not just a CCCC Chair’s Address that is hard to write, but writing itself is generally very hard to do. It’s bracing to be reminded that writing is hard, and that we need to be reminded, as teachers of writing, that writing is difficult for our students and for us as well. However, if we’re lucky and work hard, we can come to a place, as Adler-Kassner did, where we look back on our work and say, “This was hard, but I'm really glad that I did it.”
(What follows is not a literal translation of the interview with Dr. Linda Adler-Kassner. Some of the language has been changed for the sake of clarity. Also, I reworked some of my overly long questions so that the focus could be clearly on Dr. Adler-Kassner’s ideas—where the focus belongs.)
Christopher Dean: So, Linda, what I hope we can talk about is to get you to reflect on, as someone who has done a lot with genre studies, this very particular, very interesting, dare I say bizarre, genre of the 4Cs address.
Linda Adler-Kassner: I would agree with that assessment. It is like nothing I have ever written before.
Dean: (Laughter) That's saying a lot!
Adler-Kassner: Except for one other plenary talk.
Dean: So, before we get into the genre-based questions, when did you start writing this talk?
Adler-Kassner: As soon as 4Cs 2016 ended, I started. I gave myself about a quarter, ten weeks, and then, as soon as summer 2016 hit, I started to think about what it was that I might want to say at 4Cs 2017. So I had a kind of schedule in my mind for constructing this talk. As you know, Chris, I'm a person who operates well with a schedule and structure, and I don't miss deadlines. So I spent the summer of 2016 reading like crazy about things that I had been thinking about, and that was a lot of things. Then fall 2016, when I knew that I was going to be in a job that I had not planned on being in, as interim Dean of Undergraduate Education at UCSB, my goal was to get a really, really, really awful draft of something on paper. And then over the break, between fall quarter and winter quarter, I wanted to take my awful, awful draft and turn it into something that was palatable—at least not embarrassingly dumb. Then I scheduled a time with the writing program to do a draft presentation, which was in late January. So I knew by then if I didn't want to completely embarrass myself I had to have something that was at least reasonable. I did that presentation and got great feedback, and then I spent the next month revising like crazy again. So, in all of that I wrote probably about 100 drafts of that talk, and I also knew after I did the presentation for the writing program I knew that I needed to work on the slides with Madeleine Sorapure, the director of the UCSB Writing Program. And to work on those slides, I had to have a pretty good idea of the arc of the talk, the words of the talk, and all of that.
Dean: When you started to actually draft—the many, many drafts—how did you go about figuring out what is and isn't acceptable to talk about in this sort of address? There are certain things that get to be said and other things that don't, so how did you approach that?
Adler-Kassner: The first thing that I thought about was all the things that I wanted to say, and there were many things that I wanted to say. It's an interesting thing. I simultaneously thought about all the things I wanted to say and how terrifying it was to be doing this. Because all I could think about was every other 4Cs chair's address I had heard and how good they were, and I have heard 20, probably almost 30 addresses. What was I doing standing up there in the same place that all those other people had stood? It was simultaneously a combination of daunting fear and feeling that there are so many things I wanted to share. I am a person who writes many drafts and throws out many drafts, obviously. I write hundreds of thousands of words, and I write really fast and really badly and revise, revise, revise. So, I started thinking about all the things I wanted to say and started banging them out. Then I probably had 20 versions of the start to that talk. As I went through them, I sent it to two people, who said, "This is not so great." They were nicer about it than that, though. And then I revised, revised, revised much more and sent it to another person who said, "I hate this beginning, you must get rid of it immediately." So I kind of went like that. I started to think about what it would sound like as a talk, not as a 4Cs talk, but as a talk about mid-January. There's a certain point at which, in my 73 stages of the writing process, I just jettisoned the "what am I doing giving this," and I just realized I have to give this talk. I stopped thinking about it as a 4Cs talk and started thinking about it as a talk. Then I really started paying attention to the patterns of the words and alternating the length of sentences and the ways in which I would come back to the theme over and over again. It was around February when I could start messing with that because the content was finally reasonable.
Dean: Looking back at it now, what are some of the salient conventions for a 4Cs Chair’s Address? Things you have to do, things you're obliged to do, whether you even want to or not?
Adler-Kassner: I will tell you in reviewing all the previous 4Cs Chairs' addresses, one of the frequent conventions of the 4Cs Chair's address is that people talk about the odd conventions of the 4Cs Chair's Address. There are many, many mentions of "I went back and I reviewed all the talks, and it's very daunting to be up here." I decided not to do any of those things—partly because I was packing so much into that talk that I didn't have time. Partly because I wanted people to focus on the thing that I wanted to say, because I felt like that was a message that might be useful to folks right now in this particular historical moment. And I felt more pressure about this particular historical moment by the time I got to that point than I did about conforming to the conventions of a 4Cs Chair's Talk. So I didn't talk much about what previous chairs had said except to mention Joyce's Address because I think, even when she was giving that talk, I thought, "I'm going to be giving the flip side of this talk next year." We're in such an odd moment right now, and I felt compelled to say something about the ways in which writing is implicated in both the horrifying moment we're in and what we can do in that horrifying moment, and that took a lot of time. So I just couldn't get the other stuff in there, although I am very much standing on the shoulders of giants.
Dean: One of the interesting conventions of the 4Cs Chair’s Address is that you have to address the field as a whole. There is a "we" there. Now, either in retrospect or as you were doing it, who is/was the "we" that you had/have in mind?
Adler-Kassner: I guess that I hadn't thought about that as a convention because that is something that I knew I wanted to do from the beginning, and I have been doing research and thinking about that sort of thing for eons. I thought about it as everybody in that room: graduate students, writing consultants, people who run writing centers, people who teach first year composition, contingent faculty, adjunct faculty, tenure line faculty, people who say, "We're not a discipline." I thought about all those people, and I thought, we've got to come together in some way around some kind of consensus if we're going to make any difference right now. Because there are too many forces pushing against what we do, and if we don't come together and find a way to contribute to that discussion, then we're going to be in some pretty big trouble. Some of the people in that room had been doing this much longer than I have, and some people were there for the first time. I had to ask myself, how do you make a thing that's accessible to all those people that identifies the salient points—some salient points—and the reason that this was an important thing to think about? That's what I was trying to do.
Dean: Another interesting convention is that you have to make a call on the field in some way, and so as embarrassing as this may be, I'm going to read a little bit of your talk back to you.
Adler-Kassner: That is embarrassing.
Dean: Yeah, but it shouldn't be. It's a good point you're making. I'm going to read this and ask you to just talk about this and expand a bit. "Again: I’ve focused on big-picture EIC issues and stories here, but this work can be located anywhere. This is something that all of us can do. And this is another important takeaway: No matter what our position in the field, when we make alliances through our disciplinary identity to advocate, we can make a difference." And then you moved onto the closing because you have 40 minutes. So, now with a little bit more time, what do you imagine would be some of things that people could do from people who are just entering the field, contingent faculty, on up to folks running writing programs, folks who are running NCTE?
Adler-Kassner: Yeah. It depends on where we are what we can do. For instance, even if we see ourselves as a person who just teaches a writing class, when you engage students in thinking about what writing looks like, why it looks like it does, what the consequences are of looking like those things are, that's the beginning of making a difference and helping people think about writing as more than just writing. And beginning to think about writing as more than just writing is starting to think about writing and all the powerful things it can do, and the ways in which we can use writing to make a difference. So, helping students see themselves as agents is something that we can do no matter where we are and who we are, but we have to construct a curriculum that can help that happen. So that's something. And if we work with another person in the office next door to do that, then we're making a connection with that person, and then they can work with the other two people down the hall over there, or we can connect with people online. In writing programs, we can think about the decisions and messages that we send about writing and writers through our programs and their construction, and so on and so on. And so another thing that I didn't talk about in that talk, because there wasn't time, is identifying issues that are workable for us to address. Sure, I want everyone to think differently about writing and writers. I want them to think about writers as people who are powerful and have agency and can make a difference. I want people to recognize that language practices are diverse, important, and empowering, and that there's not one set of language or writing practices that are better than another, but I can't do that for everybody all over. So I have to choose the place where I can do that work. When we start thinking about our classrooms as a place of action, or our programs, or our institutions, then we can make a difference.
Dean: So, if it's at the classroom level, what would that look like?
Adler-Kassner: It would look like a curriculum that would really engage students in studying writing carefully, kind of like what we do in Writing 2.1 It looks like a curriculum that engages students in writing and its power, its ability to do things in places. Not a specific thing in a specific place, but a thing that does things for people, with consequences. I think that once people start thinking about writing that way that it's quite transformative because they start to think about writing as something that is very powerful. Again, something that isn't just writing, isn't just a five paragraph essay or argument.
Dean: In terms of addressing the EIC, what is realistically achievable for a classroom teacher and students? And what should they be doing? Is it sort of like Indivisible actions, where there's a tremendous amount of pressure put on politicians around an issue? What do you see as something that people in the trenches of the field might do?
Adler-Kassner: Again, I think it's about helping students recognize the power that writing has, and helping them develop the ability to talk about the power that writing has. The pressure from the Educational Intelligence Complex is to reduce writing to the most boxable, containable, identifiable set of strategies, actions, and measurable impulses as possible. When we start to recognize that writing is something more than something that exists as, you know, cubes of food that can be put down people's throats, or as something that people can use to make a difference, then we start enabling that change to occur. And when we create activities for students where they can use that power and start speaking back to power, that also makes a difference. But it's also a matter of helping people articulate what they're doing. So, one of the reasons that the Educational Intelligence Complex's message is so powerful is because it's so containable and so easily describable. You know, if you say, "Student writers are terrible," that is easy to say. But we have to help people develop the ability to say what things are, not what they aren’t', what we want, not what we don't want. And when we help students to say whatever it is that they want to say about writing, which is hopefully not that student writers are terrible, then that can make a difference. And I think it is like Indivisible. It's small actions that add up to things. That's why when faculty members or instructors start working with other instructors, who start working with other instructors in a program and in an institution, we create allies and connections—obviously the more allies we have the more of a difference we can make. Because one person can only do a small amount, but people linked together can make bigger differences.
Dean: Is there anything else you want to say, either about the genre of the talk or anything else we covered?
Adler-Kassner: I will say as a genre, it is like nothing I have ever done. I have given a few other plenary talks, but this one was a bigger plenary talk. It was interesting, and it was a very, very good experience to write something that was so hard and scary. Because it helps me remember that anytime I write anything, there are times when it's hard and scary, but this was harder and scarier because it was bigger. And it helps me remember, always, how hard writing is. Now, I do like writing, and I know that particularly agonizing part of the process, that involves both the excitement of discovery and the terror that I might be saying something that is absolutely inane, has a kind of weird feeling of schadenfreude, sort of me observing myself. But it's hard and unpleasant. This was hard, but I'm really glad that I did it. Ultimately, I'm okay with what I did (laughter), and I am pleased that it is done.
Adler-Kassner, Linda. (2017). Because writing is never just writing: CCCC chair’s address (Blog post). The Chair Year. Retrieved May 28, 2017, from http://adlerkassner.net/CCCCChair/because-writing-is-never-just-writing-cccc-chairs-address/
Adler-Kassner, Linda. (2017, April 3). 2017 CCCC Chair’s Address (Video file). YouTube. Retrieved May 28, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wldVKmibvnM&feature=youtu.be