Linda Adler-Kassner’s The Activist WPA (pdf on myclasses)
Deep reader(s): Lauren + Kasey
DUE: Final project proposal due in class

Treats: Lindsey

Very excited to hear your thoughts on this one! +++ Can’t wait to see what topics and writing program issues you plan to explore.


dr. c



  1. Reading over Linda Adler-Kassner’s The WPA Activist: Changing Stories about Writing and Writers, I was particularly struck by her discussion of the restrictions placed upon the public English-educators in the face of circulation narratives on what an English (or writing) class should do. She cites Bess Altweger as claiming that, due to No Child Left Behind penalty systems, “teachers are ‘trained’ to follow the scripts and directions in the teachers manuals [of commercial reading programs] as if they are unskilled workers. States are refused federal dollars when they stray from official prescribed components of reading instruction and assessment, and they must resort to hiring federally ‘approved’ consultants [who often work for, or conduct research by, the companies producing the programs] to right their paths” (qtd. in Alder-Kassner 19). I believe this assertion particularly resonated with me as it finally gave words to a discomfort I felt with Standards systems throughout my undergraduate education in English for secondary education. I always recall feeling slightly off-put that each lesson had to explicitly relate to a rigid system of “Standards.” What if there was a valuable learning moment that had arisen that simply didn’t fall cleanly into any of the Standards categories? It seems quite accurate that, as Altweger claims, such Standards approach educators as though they had not already been trained to be and are no longer interested in developing as educators. I find hope, however, in Alder-Kassner’s ideas of “activist intellectualism,” where the educator fosters a dialectical learning environment whereby “individuals and groups bring their own cultures and experiences to the development of methods for developing critical intelligence; the cultures, experiences, and values reflected in these methods is then also analyzed and critiqued so that it is as representative of those cultures and experiences (and not just of the individuals who have contributed to them) as possible” (83). This experience and situation-based method, echoing ideas in our later reading of Paul Lynch’s After Pedagogy (can things that have yet to come echo?) reasserts the power that the educator has in brining “teachable moments” to various learning environments to and through the very process of teaching itself. However, I am left wondering:

    How can educators enact such fluid and dialectic teaching processes in the face of rigid Standard structures and (often corporately produced) classroom objectives? Should educators merely attempt to do so within these limits? Or can they themselves engage in one of Rickert’s Acts by rejecting to work within these confines all together?

    I wonder whether anyone else has experience with such intensely situated and dialectically reflective teaching methods (responding to and with a particular group of students as certain teachable interests or ideas arise)? If so, I’d love to hear more on such (as an isolated case study of course—not as a method recipe swap (‘cause each classroom is different, right?)).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Josh,
      Your post echoes the same emotions I felt while reading Adler-Kassner’s The WPA Activist. I relate to much of the frustrations you felt in undergrad, as we shared the same major and courses. Like you, many of the uncomfortable experiences I had with common core, and state based standards flooded my mind while I read about Adler-Kassner’s discussion about structures that restrict what a writing instructor can, or should do in their class. In student teaching, when “standards” ruled our lesson plans, our mentor’s evaluation of us, and our overall “effectiveness” as an instructor, I was always left to wonder whether these “standards” were actually meant to strengthen the students literacy in writing, or whether they were a test imposed on the instructors (the teachers–us). We could state the standard being met in our lesson plan and post it on the board to remind our students each day, but what happens when we replace that “standard” after a week’s time and replace it with a new one that must be met? Like you, I examined how limiting this was. Ironically, at the same time we were taught to teach towards the diversity of our students and to make lessons that attract the attention of different learners. Yet we are supposed to reach different learners through a standardized set of guidelines. This always seemed contradictory to me. If we are meant to appeal to differences, but we have to do so through one large set of standards, who are we setting up for success, if anyone? The Teachers? No. The Students? Certainly not. I thought of this issue again when Adler-Kassner discusses assessment and its validity in the composition field. In much the same way, tests are another standard imposed on students. They are also unreliable to the point that students learn differently, relay knowledge differently and think in different ways.

      I liked the question Josh posed regarding whether it is possible to enact a fluid teaching process in the face of limiting “standardizations.” I too wonder the same thing. In addition, however, I also wonder if these limitations don’t have to be as limiting as they appear on the onset. If we learn to work with the imposing materials and structures that we have (much like we did when we created our Shipka masterpieces), can we create interpretive lessons that reflect these guiding standards, but also represent a unique and thoughtful lesson, engaging to our students, and understanding of the fluidity that may ensue? I am curious whether this is possible.


  2. I found an interesting thread in Addler-Kassner’s book right from the preface; a point she makes, or at least appears to make, about collaborative learning and its potential for good and bad. She describes the potential for good quite explicitly, in her sincere acknowledgements section – stating outright that she seeks to go beyond the token acknowledgments of most books, because her collaborators’ contributions were so important to the finished product. “Our breath is our own,” she writes, but when we develop our practice in concert with others, “that practice changes in ways we don’t always anticipate.” Addler-Kassner is emphasizing the importance of outside contributions to her own ideas to make a point about the Writing Program Issues she is discussing; the issues themselves are relevant to all members of the field, and thus the solutions should be a collaborative effort on the part of many contributors, not a sudden solution delivered by one individual. And while the potential for bad in collaborative learning is comparatively understated, it is certainly present; Addler-Kassner describes at length the common, usually uninformed perspectives of writing in modern society, namely that writing skills are worsening or must begin to recover from a period of decline. This story that the uninitiated tell each other will only become more prevalent if allowed to do so, even touching professionals in the field, and Addler-Kassner seeks to oppose this widespread mindset with a directly opposing theory: that “everyone can write.” This theory is crafted and informed by her many contributors, emblematic of collaborative learning, and a suitable counter to the arguably false, yet growing mindset that we have too many “bad” writers these days, and must re-learn how to teach them to be “better” writers; without understanding exactly what good writing is, and how people can be taught to do it.

    As far as this relates to Writing Program Issues, I believe Addler-Kassner is making a very broad, conceptual point about defining those issues. Many erroneously believe that writing skills are on the decline, and action must be taken to reverse it – usually by reverting to previous education methods – which undermines the inherent writing skill of students and teaching methods that hone it. This belief (this “story”), more widespread than ever, skews public and professional view of what problems actually exist with writing ability and the writing programs that improve it. The problem, in fact, is not that modern students have forgotten, or never known how to write, but that educational standards have risen faster than our ability to teach writing; a very different problem than our supposed abandonment of effective methods resulting in a sudden decline of writing ability. Overall, Addler-Kassner seeks first to clarify the actual problem before attempting to resolve it, simultaneously making a point about collaborative learning; about what we know, or think we know, and how to use that knowledge to devise the right solution – to the actual problem.

    How can we organize our own discourse, and our image in the public eye, to advocate substantiated theories and prevent the uninitiated from running away with the wrong ideas??

    How can outside, uninformed perspectives limit our application of current knowledge and theories? In the context of writing programs, how can WPA act on their acquired knowledge in a constrictive modern classroom?


  3. Writing Programs: The Hidden Business of Political Decisions

    At first, it may seem like I am not discussing writing in this post, but eventually (I hope) it will all connect just as Adler-Kassner connects each developing thought in The Activist. I just cannot get over (and move on with my evening) without mentioning the predicament noted in the opening block quote of chapter 4. In this quote, Justine expresses her struggles to hire a qualified individual to teach the FYC course. Mentioning the more qualified individual turned down the job due to pay, Justine was reluctant to hire the less-qualified educator. But here is my question: Why can’t Justine (who I hope is qualified a FYC as a WPA) teach the vacant course? I understand that she may already have a full slate of classes. But if not, why not teach the course that is so often discussed and debated?

    I don’t know. The politics of such a situation just elicit such impatience within my last-semester-of-grad-school self. Really, what it all comes down to is money. The dean, unwilling to pay someone more and make them a full-time professor, is willing to hire a less-qualified instructor. All to save money. Yet, tuition continues to increase. And while writing programs, instructors, and students push for a more progressive educational approach, the acts of monetary injustice and questionable business politics by the very institution’s upper echelon have continued to hamper such hopes of societal and academic advancement.

    So, I go back to a question I had at the outset of the semester. What does it take to become a WPA? What are the qualifications? I mean, these individuals make essential decisions that impact an entire writing program – including those in a first year writing course. Are WPAs required to teach a FYC? Why not require WPAs to continue teaching at least one FYC as long as they hold the position? It is essential to remain in contact with the type of students you are making decisions about. Perhaps, instead of devoting so much attention on a progressive educational approach, the focus needs to be on the individual responsible for such decisions: the WPA.


  4. Most of us encountered those professors who can argue with passion about the topics they are teaching; they can talk about their areas of interest for hours with dreamy looks in their eyes. On the other extreme, there are those professors who teach with no affection to their topic. While they might perform the “formal instruction” that is asked from them, there is no spark in their eyes. In her book The Activist WPA, Linda Adler-Kassner touches on the relationship between personal (or emotional) and professional. When discussing teaching, she poses a question, “If it doesn’t really matter to us, why should we expect it to be important for others?” (29) The author illustrates how prominent theorists of the composition field, such as Parker Palmer, Paulo Fraire, bell hooks, and Mary Rose O’Reilley, describe two types of pedagogues: what Palmer names as “the divided” and “undivided” teacher. The divided teacher attempts to distance his or her own personal experiences from the professional life. Contrary to this type of instructors, the undivided teacher manages to create a connection between her or his emotions, feelings, experiences and classroom instruction; undivided teacher is “a person working from principle.” Similarly to the theorists’ arguments, Adler-Kassner remarks that emotion is central to “our identities as teachers, our work with students, and the very identities that we have constructed for ourselves as professionals” (24). Teachers’ identities are constructed on the foundation of their emotions and personal lived experiences. This foundation of emotions and experiences becomes the foundation of principle that guides teacher’s work. The author argues that we must understand our foundations in order to bring “undivided” attentions that are crucial for good teaching.

    While I do agree on the importance of connecting personal lived experiences and emotions to the classwork, this concept seems a little “abnormal” to me considering that most of my educational experiences had taken place in Russian educational system. Having a “divided” self, on the other hand, seems “normal” to me as someone who was born, raised, and educated in Russia.
    So my questions are: How does one begin to understand a “foundation of principle” that guides one’s teaching (27)? And how does this understanding might be utilized in teaching?


  5. At the start of the text, Alder-Hassner argues that many questions about composition center around assessment. These questions consist of who administers, writes, and creates curriculums for such courses. Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) also respond to assessment in similar ways due to how “these issues often emanate from different interpretations, different frames, than those circulating outside of the field” (18). Her discussion of student placement and “different stories” relates to Mike Rose, in “I Just Wanna Be Average” from his work Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared, who describes problems he faced with placement in grade school. While Rose’s experience does not focus on flaws in the assessment itself, the chapter does show the emphasis put on children to perform on assessments as indicators for their intelligence. His personal experience shows how perspective and different stories have consequences. Are assessments really the only way to understand a student’s performance? Could there be another approach such as a verbal component where a teacher could understand the student’s perspective? Some students are second language learners, or other difficulties with traditional standardized tests that limit an instructor’s understanding of their knowledge. Are standardized tests true indicators for intelligence? Many young children have trouble focusing on one thing let alone a test that can impact their future education for years to come.

    Schools implement placement assessments that do not always give true indicators for a student’s abilities. Assessments generally only test students in a very standard approach rather than truly understand a person’s “story.” In chapter 5 “Taking Action to Change Stories,” Alder-Hassner suggests ways of conducting knowledge assessments that “find out what we know about the issue already, and what we need to know” (132). Would the implementation of more knowledge assessments really gauge progress or help to further the field? The suggested steps in the chapter allude to a different view of assessment. Can these steps actually lead to positive changes? What would these changes look like in the classroom?


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