Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Pushing the boundaries

Today, I participated in an accreditation meeting at my local university. The English department has been working towards starting a PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, an area of study I pursued as a masters candidate in the mid-1990s. This new program has been in the works for years; I first heard about it when I attended the Northern Virginia Writing Project's Summer Institute in 2010. Since then, the proposal has developed and gone through a variety of approvals. If all goes well and the accreditation team gives the final thumbs up, the program will kick off this fall. The idea of a PhD program that focuses on this area excites me.

When I went to the University of Wyoming in 1995, I wanted to study composition and rhetoric. The Wyoming department was small, but there was a newly-minted PhD there who I liked and Comp/Rhet was an approved concentration area. Plus, they offered me the chance to teach for the very first time through a teaching assistantship. I had the vague idea I wanted to teach, so I pushed my own boundaries, moved from Chicago to Laramie, and gave it a shot. It didn't really bother me being the only person in my cohort not in the literature concentration. Little did I know, I'd also soon be creating my own program.

The semester after I arrived, the only rhet/comp professor announced she would leave after my first year. I had completed only a single course--the same teaching pedagogy course all my peers completed. She arranged to supervise an independent study for my second course. As the department's linguistics professor had taken a two-year leave of absence to serve as a visiting professor abroad and to pursue her research, my third would be an ESOL course taught by the department chair, who would also become my thesis committee supervisor. My research methods would be a qualitative studies course taught by the Education department. I was probably the strangest English graduate student Wyoming had seen in a very long time.

Don't get me wrong, though; it was a fantastic experience. I'm forever grateful to Janet Constantinides for helping me create a qualitative study of composition classes. Having the department chair as my committee chair allowed me to study two composition classes taught by the same instructor, something that probably required a little massaging of the teaching schedule. I didn't break any ground in educational research, but I learned what to do and not to do.

Also, I don't blame the professor for leaving. Laramie was a culture shock for her and she can't have had it easy being a pioneer comp/rhet professor (I believe she was the first full-time hire) in a department full of literature scholars. Since her research interests centered on studying the effects of technology on composition and rhetoric, Wyoming wasn't a good professional fit for her as a long-term placement. She has since become a researcher in human design engineering. Occasionally  I Google her and I'm pleased to see she's still on the cutting edge of the field.

Still, I'm not really a comp/rhet specialist, as I thought I would be. The self-directed nature of my studies has some significant holes. That was made abundantly clear to me as I sat in a brief meeting with other prospective PhD candidates, most of whom are recent graduates and/or adjuncts teaching at the university, with two well-respected comp/rhet professors, neither of whom I'd ever heard of or read her work. As I listened to one candidate and one professor/accreditation team member talking about the importance of multilingual composition studies and another pair talk about the value of linguistics combined with composition studies, I really had little idea what they were talking about. At that point, I knew I'd been out of academia a long time indeed, and I had not any real clue about the breadth of my field. Certainly, re-engaging in serious academic study would be a stretch for me, as it was when I started my masters program about 18 years ago.

And, I'm at a point in my life where taking three years off to work for a $12,000 stipend as I pursue full time studies would not be easy. In fact, it would require more sacrifice from my spouse than I'm willing to ask. There are some boundaries I will not push.

The next two months could rearrange my life in some significant ways.


  1. This sounds like an exciting opportunity should you decide to take it. Often times doors open for a reason.

    1. Thanks, fireflytrails. I suspect the part time option will work for me. As much as I would enjoy the immersion of full time study, I don't think I could ask that in good conscience.