Office Hours–Using Artifacts to Assess Professionalism

professionalismUsing Artifacts to Assess Professionalism
by Galen Leonhardy, Black Hawk College

The concept of academic professionalism in local contexts remains common in my writing. The basic question I ask is, what is professionalism in English education? Answering that question results in a kind of journalistic ethnography allowing me to look at micro-contexts and assess them in relation to scholarly work focused on macro considerations. Lately, I’ve become interested in the use of artifacts in my assessment, not just student writing or types of desks, but, more importantly, the daily writing of my own academic workplace. The following memo (below) is such an artifact, one important to me currently because the error patterns and content indicate autocratic leadership and a dysfunctional academic work and learning environment.

It’s not just the basic error patterns that allow me make such a claim.  Let me define error broadly as unintended deviations from standard expectations associated with conventions for mechanics, grammar, and usage in formal or prestige-dialect writing.  Error in daily academic writing such as e-mail correspondence is commonplace.  My own writing has plenty of errors, which is why I extend such heartfelt gratitude to the editors, their keen-eyed assistants, and the many friends and mentors who proofread my work prior to publication. These people represent my writing network, and they collaborate with me. I do the same for them and others.  As a composition theorist, I tell students that these collaborative networks facilitate my growth as a writer.  So I don’t notice errors for the sake of noticing a kind of violation of some sort; rather, I, like most composition theorists, analyze error as patterns in writing that exist for specific reasons.  In terms of analyzing the memo below as an artifact, what’s interesting to me is that the error patterns exist in a memo sent to dual credit (high school) teachers and part-time instructors, as well as full-time faculty members: this artifact, then, is more a legal document than a brief announcement, more a professional-level dictate than an informal note, so the content, including the error patterns, represents a set of established ideological perspectives, a status quo.

As part of that status quo, the presence of errors in the document evidences the lack of a healthy, vibrant writing network within which collaboration would be nurtured in order to facilitate the systematic and relatively rapid production professional-level documents.  Why wouldn’t the writing program administrator have facilitated a collaborative writing process in which errors such as those present in this artifact would be noticed? Answering that question points to an obvious fact: for whatever reason, the administrator who sent the memo does not seem to perceive the need for collaboration in writing. That is, not only do the errors tell us that the writing program administrator does not recognize common orthographic and punctuation errors, but the errors in the memo also indicate that the person in charge of the writing program does not value a collaborative writing process that would allow for continued growth as a writer. Consequently, the error patterns are valuable to me in that they are an obvious warning of what might well be a dysfunctional academic ecology, a work environment in which not valuing collaboration allows for a dross of error patterns and signals a general disregard for basic composition theory. Certainly, if the academic status quo in this workplace allowed for a healthy, collaborative ecology, the kind of place where collegiality is valued, the frequency of errors would have been much reduced.

The memo indicates other issues as well. For example, the content evidences a perception of testing that privileges top-down relationships between students and teachers as well as between teachers and the writing program administrator, who in this context is referred to as The Exit Examination Coordinator (my emphasis). Exit examinations are a type of barrier examination. Within this high-stakes testing practice, we see the coordinator enforcing the isolation of paragraph writing as the means to determining if basic writing students are ready for a college-level writing class. As such, this written artifact, with its error patterns, its happenstance reliance on Bain-like, post-Civil War era prescriptive ideals of paragraph writing, and its enforcement of a high-stakes testing practice, evidences a range of autocratic perceptions, and the really interesting part is that those perceptions are contradictory to basic composition and assessment theory. It is in the very existence of those contradictions that the artifact shows us the prevailing authoritarian assumptions and their influence in a particular teaching/learning context; specifically, academic isolation, exclusionary practices, narrow mindedness, and a sort of literate anti-intellectualism are being used to enforce what might well be described as a kind of myth-based academic domination theology (see Sharon Crowley’s Toward a Civil Discourse 151), in which the Kingdom of God appears to have been replaced by something more beneficial to those in charge, say quality writing skills.

What I’m offering in this brief essay is a kind of quick method of professionalism assessment.  Let’s say you teach paragraph writing in your classes: do you know the basic history associated with paragraph theory?  Let’s say you are a writing program coordinator: do you know enough about assessment theory and writing program management to be familiar with the work of Ed White, Richard Haswell, and William Condon or to know the differences between high-stakes testing and formative assessment? Let’s say you are helping students learn about writing: do you know why Mina Shaughnessy’s work is important to the teaching of writing? Do you understand the idea of writing as a process and the necessity of collaboration within that process? My invitation here is to ask you, Dear Reader, to take a little time to assess your own ideas of professionalism and your own writing program by contemplating what artifacts in your own context, artifacts such the memo below, might reveal. Perhaps the writing produced in your own academic context evidences a devaluing of process-oriented composition theory and, thereby, provides evidence of dysfunctional, as opposed to healthy, workplace and learning conditions. Of course, you might have something you and your colleagues might consider healthy and vibrant.  Or maybe you think you don’t need to worry about theory because your focus is on teaching?


TO: English Faculty
FROM: The Exit Examination Coordinator
RE: Fall Testing Dates for 076, 091
DATE: December 08, 2015

The Exit Paragraph Schedule for Spring 2015 is as follows:

Mon, Tues. Mar. 28, 29 – Topics Distributed to Students

Wed, Thurs. Mar. 30, 31 – Exits Written in Class

Mon, Tues. Apr. 04, 05 – Exits Scored

Wed, Thurs. Apr. 06, 07 – Results Distributed to Students

-Distribute Retake/Makeup topic

Fri. Apr. 08 – List of Students Doing Retakes/Make-Ups

Wed, Thurs. Apr. 13, 14 – Student Retake/Make-Up Paragraphs in the ILC

**Students need a picture ID for Retake/Make-ups**

Mon. Apr. 18 – Retakes/Make-Ups Scored

Tues, Wed. Apr. 19, 20 – Retake/Make-Up Results in Class

Mon. Apr. 25 – Appeals Due by 4:00p in ASC 4th floor

Tues. Apr. 26 – Appeals scored.

Please stress the fact that students need to be in class to take the exit on the original date. If they miss the original date, their one and only chance to write the Exit will be during a Retake Session. Students must take the exit exam at least once before they can appeal.

The Appeals dates are firm, so if you have students who fail the first essay, have them get their appeal together in case they fail the second. Appeals will be collected on Monday. Please submit the Appeals when they are due.

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