Zombie Paradigms in the Classroom: Assuaging the Problems of Current-Traditionalism

The field of writing studies has been arguing for decades about disposing of current-traditionalism (CT). Scholars, professional groups, graduate students, and even deans now advocate for teaching written communication in other ways. These new paradigms, collectively known as post-process, have shown considerably better student outcomes and improved teaching experience. Yet, the fact remains that they are yet to be applied in the majority of the writing classrooms because of the material conditions of composition.

The overwhelming reliance on contingent faculty, most of whom are not trained in writing studies, I believe, mean CT approaches refuse to die; they are as dominant as ever and represent, metaphorically speaking, a zombie paradigm. Labor-based and portfolio-based assessment activities represent useful innovations to push against this zombie-paradigm. Though they are certainly not going to fix the root cause, adjunctification of the professoriate, which is an issue of political economy, I think they can improve the efficacy of instruction.

What is Current Traditionalism in Writing Studies?

Current-traditionalism, or current-traditional rhetoric, is sometimes referred to as the product approach because of its focus on instruction on the final text or essay the student will write. It often makes use of literary texts and and literary authors as models, where students look at such texts and write about such texts. It also has substantial (sometimes tacit) emphases placed on standerdized academic English (SWE), characterized by normative grammar and organization.

Students, in the CT approach, are asked to learn the discourse modes of narration, description, exposition, argumentation, and follow rhetorical forms such as the five-paragraph essay with an introduction, conclusion, and three body paragraphs. The sum of all these activities and frameworks is to communicate a sense that there is such a thing as academic discourse and students must perform those discourses on a dime if they are to function as members of the academy. CT represents writing falsely as a fixed thing, written word on the page, a reification of communication as an activity and phenomenon.

What is Post-Process in Writing Studies?

Writing studies currently sees itself as post-process, a paradigmatic state where CT approaches are widely considered illegitimate and various innovations in pedagogy draw from the insights of the process approach. Based on the cognitive studies of writing and communication in the 70s and 80s, the process approach is characterized as teaching writing with an emphasis of the writing process, cycles of planning, writing, and rewriting, as well as audience awareness, contextual understanding, and student-centered instruction.

Generally, the writing process is taught in the classroom as a series of steps from prewriting, drafting, revision, editing, and submission. Teachers also emphasize that these steps are not linear but recursive. For example, although prewriting is the first step, planning often takes places through the entire process as the writer discovers new ideas and different ways of approaching a task, and revision often takes place continuously as a writer drafts.

In the last two decades, the process approach paradigm has led to a flowering of various other generative pedagogical frameworks in writing studies. These include, but are not limited to, teaching for transfer, rhetorical genre studies, writing about writing, translingualism, socioepistemic rhetoric, critical pedagogy, etc. For the sake of convenience, the field generally fits all these different frameworks under the umbrella term, post-process. While certainly unfair and reductive, the categorization is useful for us to know where we are at now as a field.

There is little debate among scholars in the field that writing is best taught and approached using one of these post-process approaches. CT is discredited by everyone because of the way it emphasizes a false view of writing and communication to students, as well as how it actually makes them less open to learning overall. Conferences and publications and graduate programs all socialize new members to disregard CT approaches, activity work to undo it in the university writing programs, and finish the job that was started over fifty years ago.

What is Adjunctification (Contingent Faculty) and How Does it Lead to Current Traditionalism?

Despite all the scholarly monographs and posturing by the field, CT has not gone anywhere. It remains one of the most common frameworks of writing instruction in postsecondary contexts. Its ideology and epistemic viewpoints continue to influence how faculty rail against students’ illiteracies and universities’ FYC requirements. So this begs the question why it remains the case. How is it that we have not been able to bury this discredit teaching method? Why do students and faculty continue to espouse a way of thinking about written communication that is divorced from how it works in practice or does nothing to support learning? Why does the zombie continue to stalk the classroom?

The simple answer is often true. CTs exist because it is less labor intensive from the instructor’s point of view to assess. It exists because enables everything to be collapsed into a clear number for a given assignment, which administrators understand more easily than they can understand capacious arguments of tangential and contingent learning; students’ growth, everyone can agree in the CT framework, is simply a better grade in a class.

This easy path is inevitable given that most writing instructors in US universities are continent faculty, instructors who are hired on a per-course basis and with little or no guarantee of earned benefits such as health insurance. In the 1970s most faculty at universities were tenure-track employees (full-time and holding employment security) and now nearly 3-4th are continent. These faculty have to run from job to job, university to university, often having to teach over a hundred students just to make enough to survive. Sometimes called freeway faculty, these teachers have to look at hundreds of papers across multiple university contexts, and it is untenable for them to manage the contingent assessment post-process approaches require.

This great documentary, Con Job, by ccdigital press, lays out the problems adjuncts face and they many ways this issue has to be addressed to make for better writing instruction.

There are many great people trying to address this crisis in multiple fronts. They have made compelling cases for improving the teaching conditions of students because those are the learning conditions of the university. There were promising initiatives (too little, in my opinion) at reform in various large universities before the pandemic hit, most of which will be undone because of the huge losses universities are going to face in the next year.

Nonetheless, it is impossible for writing instruction to implement post-process approaches as long as the people teaching the writing classes have to work in their current conditions. Without changing employment conditions so that faculty can attend to a manageable number of students within a secure, long-term position, we can argue as a field as much as we want, it simply will not filter to the practices of the writing classroom.

Portoflios, Labor-Based Contracts and Other Solutions

There is, however, some good news. Several recent innovations in disciplinary practices have been proposed for writing classes in recent years. Two assessment activities that I think are particularly useful are portfolios and labor-based contracts. While I have not used the latter framework in any real way in my classes, people I respect advocate for it. I have used portfolios often in my writing classes, and I think they are really helpful in disabusing students away from a product based conceptualization of writing.

Portfolios, in my writing classrooms, focus on communicating how they are able to revise their writing, research on a topic, and respond to others. These help them to think of the tasks as all connected in terms of the activities they represent and the skills that are associated with writing. Portfolio assignments have been promoted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) as a high-impact practice (HIP). It gets them to think about what they are able to communicate as a real skill and something they are interested in rather than performing the written essay.

Labor-based contracts have also been en vogue in the field recently. Its advocates argue that it helps students avoid the anxieties of grades and thereby focus on learning. The stigma of poor performance particularly impact non-mainstream students and so using labor-based contracts has the added benefit of promoting equity in the classroom. Those who use it well, speak highly of it. They say it does away with a lot of the anxieties and follow-ups from students about grades, which frees up the space for learning.

The zombie paradigm of CT will continue as long as too many faculty are working too many jobs. The issue of writing instruction is not just theoretical but an issue of praxis. While we advocate for rethinking how we understand language, communication, writing, in the context of the digital, the global, and widespread social inequality, we also have address the working conditions of our teachers. Without doing so we will only go so far, yet things such as portfolios and labor-based contracts do make a difference in the individual classroom.

Additional References:

Dellinger, M. A., & Hart, D. A. (Eds.). (2020). Eportfolios@edu: What we know, what we don’t know, and everything in between. The WAC Clearinghouse; University Press of Colorado.

Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse.

New Faculty Majority (2020): http://www.newfacultymajority.info/

Tate, G., Rupiper, A., & Schick, K. (2001). A guide to composition pedagogies. Oxford University Press, USA.

One thought on “Zombie Paradigms in the Classroom: Assuaging the Problems of Current-Traditionalism

  1. I am not in your field but I find the concept of zombie pedagogy very relevant to what higher ed is today. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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