03. Visualizing the Role of Small, Stubborn Facts

Changing Stories of Writers and Writing

Higher education is saturated with multiple, competing stories about student writers and writing. In her 2017 Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC) Chair’s Address, Linda Adler-Kassner highlights the my-students-can’t-write story, which pervades college campuses:

This lament … works from the premise that writing is “just writing.” It’s a thing that writers bang out. It is constituted of words that are clear, that mean the same thing to everyone, that are easily accessible and only need to be plugged into forms (p. 317).

This story of student writers and writing shapes the discussions that members of writing programs have with interested campus stakeholders. Our attempts to tell new stories about writers and writing (Adler-Kassner, 2008) must counter such pernicious and widespread myths.

But countering such myths is an uphill battle. These stories are everywhere: in conversations with family and friends, during small talk in public places, on television, and in online comments. Complicating this issue further is how our counter-stories are told. “Students can’t write” has the virtue of simplicity: it renders one-dimensional the complex work that students are doing to learn to write in the academy, and in that rendering makes the complexity seemingly easier to grasp. The difficult work that these students undertake to perform not writing but literate action (Bazerman, 2013)—that is, the multidimensional human activity that orchestrates relations, texts, objects, people, conversations, language, and cognitive functions—is lost in this reduction. It is in this loss that the narrative takes hold. Our counter-stories, which embrace this complexity, then begin at two disadvantages: they lack the persuasive appeal of simplicity, and they lack the ingrained quality of contemporary students-can’t-write stories. As Larry Cuban (1972) reminds us, “Images, once fixed, seldom shatter” (p. 4).

Despite such challenges, WPAs are well-positioned to begin countering these stories. WPAs frequently have the tools at their disposal to see student writing at varying levels of scale. When I first arrived at the University of Maine (UMaine) in an administrative capacity, for instance, I had access to the daily writing of the students in my English 101 class as well as the semester-by-semester results of UMaine’s portfolio assessment stretching back nearly a decade. I could talk, at length, about student writing for one student, one class, one semester, or across multiple years. This variety of scale offers me many ways of discussing student progress in writing

Though I had never specifically imagined at what point I would be able to mobilize this data toward changing stories, I find myself surprised that now, in my fourth year at UMaine and second year as Director of College Composition, I see such little progress in those changing narratives. In this chapter, I offer an analysis of my moves to write new stories of student writers and writing at UMaine, and articulate some of the challenges that I faced in doing so. Through the language of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), I trace the emergence of a particular visual—one that calls attention to the development of small, stubborn facts—and observe how it works its way into assemblages of work in our College Composition program. From there, I articulate the value of such visuals for changing stories of writing, the time it might take for such changes to occur, and some points for thinking through decisions about visuals and their use in WPA work to counter problematic narratives about student writers and writing.

Splicing, Symmetry, and Sediment: Actor-Network Theory in Three Moves

Actor-Network Theory, as articulated by Latour (2005), though having some of its roots in Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (1979), has only begun to deeply impact the field of writing studies since about the turn of the 21st century. Work by Paul Prior, Kevin Roozen, Clay Spinuzzi, and others has, in the intervening years, highlighted the power of ANT in understanding writing in all of its complexity. I draw primarily on the language of Spinuzzi (2008) and Prior (2008) to articulate a sense of how ANT can be mobilized toward understanding the work of the visual I examine in this chapter.

Actor-Network Theory’s basic assumption is that the social world is flat—that is, made up of associations of objects, each with its own agency. The “social,” for Latour, is like ether—a nonexistent substance used to explain how a heterogeneous collection of things might be assembled into a network in a given state of affairs. This flattening of the social leads to ANT’s first analytic move—what Spinuzzi (2008) terms the splice, which “involves understanding [networks] as becoming interconnected in ways that are not necessarily organic, self-contained, or unified” (p. 81). Latour provides an example of this in We Have Never Been Modern, by highlighting the complicated network that makes up a single article in a newspaper focused on global warming:

The same article mixes together chemical reactions and political reactions. A single thread links the most esoteric sciences and the most sordid politics, the most distant sky and some factory in the Lyon suburbs, dangers on a global scale and impending local elections or the next board meeting. The horizons, the stakes, the time frames, the actors—none of these is commensurable, yet there they are, caught up in the same story (p. 1).

A single article brings together many different traditions, histories, objects, and interactions—that is, splices them into a rhizomatic assemblage in which the elements “interact and change each other” (Spinuzzi, 2008, p. 84). The first move of seeing the social world as flat, then, is to examine social circumstances as spliced together.

But splicing alone does not provide an explanatory mechanism for how a given assemblage works. For that, we turn to the concept of symmetry, a corollary of splicing. If we imagine social situations to be an assemblage of objects spliced together, then we have to assume that (1) these objects got here from somewhere else and (2) these objects have some sort of impact on the situation. Symmetry operationalizes these assumptions by envisioning humans and nonhumans to be active agents, or capable of shaping the situation at hand. For ANT, nonhuman objects are more than affordances: they are the means through which definition happens in the production of a situation. My present work to construct this chapter, for instance, brings together multiple objects. The laptop I type on, the bottle of soda to my left, and the cell phone to my right arrived here from different places, and shape the ebb and flow of the production of text. The laptop, and the open Word document on it, shapes the use (and therefore definition) of the cell phone at the moment (playing the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night) and defines the role of the soda bottle (as a pick-me-up and not a meal, nor a tool to drum along with Ringo). These objects gain identity through the ways in which they assemble together. Of course, this example is a passing one, and we can unpack the interactional work accomplished not just among these objects, but among a constellation of other co-present actants (Latour, 2005). The cell phone and its attached headphones, for example, discourage drop-in visits from colleagues, allowing the situation to continue to develop.

This example highlights the fragility of assemblages: the intersections of multiple objects to make social order can always be disrupted, changed, and even completely demolished. Assemblages, even those that seem enduring, such as buildings (Boyle, 2015), need to be practiced, brought together, and maintained, and are always and forever reversible. My assemblage of objects constructing this text can change in subtle ways (I could begin listening to Springsteen) or more drastically (I could end the writing session). Just as symmetry provides language for discussing how spliced networks of actants work together, sedimenting helps us talk about how these networks work together over time. As Spinuzzi (2008) reminds us, “the longer the network becomes, the stronger it becomes” (p. 35, emphasis in original). Networks can be made more durable, recruit more allies, make more interconnections among nodes in the network and, by extension, become more sedimented over time. This sedimentation does not preclude the opportunity for configurations of actants to be reversed (Spinuzzi, 2008), but rather provides a mechanism for articulating the potentialities of such reversals.

These three concepts—splices, symmetry, and sedimentation—are only part of an interesting and useful terminology in Actor-Network Theory, but serve as a productive set of concepts through which my work to change stories about writers and writing can be understood. Prior (2008) notes Latour’s preference for using sites of disruption as productive starting points for understanding the assemblage of actors, and, in my analysis below, I treat my visual as a disruption in the ongoing, rhizomatic assemblage of college composition.

Origins of a Disruption: Stubborn Facts and an Initial Splice

I arrived at UMaine in the Fall of 2015, after finishing my doctoral work at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My advisor at UCSB, Charles Bazerman, emphasized—from the first course I took with him to my dissertation defense—what he called in one of my first meetings with him “a love of really cool facts.” The focus on finding “cool facts” that let me “start seeing the picture…much clearer” stuck with me. I found particularly interesting Bazerman’s assertion that if “you get a good fact, it can solve lots of problems.” Subsequently, I went looking for good facts: the conditions that facilitated the take-up of feedback by students; the impacts of assessment on writing instruction; and the ways in which teachers and students in a classroom decided what did and did not count as writing. I pursued these topics with the aim of uncovering some good facts.

As my interests grew throughout graduate school, and I became interested in WPA work, the focus on finding a good fact remained, but transformed in response to the perceived needs of WPA work. The characteristic of the “facts” I was looking for shifted from good to stubborn. I came to see facts as confronted with contrary ideas, beliefs, theories—and stories. The facts I needed had to be stubborn in the face of these, putting students-can’t-write narratives in the position of having to take these facts into account. I also began thinking about facts as small, as simple, straightforward explanations that recouped some of the persuasive power of problematic stories about student writers and writing. Knowing the conditions that facilitate the take-up of feedback by students, for example, could help me develop more effective feedback, which could improve student writing development and, by doing so, short-circuit arguments about how students do not respond to feedback.

This development of an interest in small, stubborn facts was crucial as I was spliced into the network of College Composition at UMaine in 2015. I was hired as an “Associate Director of College Composition,” a new position designed to transform into the Director of College Composition after two years. Part of my work was to conduct an informal institutional ethnography, learning the ways in which people went about their work in the writing program. One of my most frequent observations was the ways in which records were transformed into data and given influential form through the interconnections of the program, the department, and the college. Portfolio assessment results were collected semester after semester, teaching load hours were audited, etc.

Bringing my lens of small, stubborn facts to bear on these insights, I came to see this work as developing facts with which other interested stakeholders must contend. For instance, when someone on campus complained about the composition program being too demanding on students, or not demanding enough (or, somehow, both), I could produce the portfolio results from the past decade to rebut their claims—laying the groundwork to put forward my own story, which was that our students were actually pretty capable writers, and that our program was helping them transition to the demands of academic writing. Generating small, stubborn facts from the work of our program, in other words, can help us to disrupt “students-can’t-write” narratives, to challenge common understandings of what student writers are and can do, and to enable communication with others about what students accomplish both in our program and in the university at large.

To be sure, my initial framing of this work as fact-building was lost on most of the program—I often joke that people only stopped by my office during that first year to ask if I knew where other people were (I usually did not). But over time, as I stepped into the role of teaching the TA practicum and participating in mentoring work, the opportunities for the network to reconfigure around and with small, stubborn facts began to emerge. In Spring 2017, I made my first direct reference to it when addressing the entire College Composition teaching corps at a portfolio review. My notes on that address review the power of a small, stubborn fact, and emphasize that we are in the portfolio review to establish new small, stubborn facts that can help us write new stories about our students and the writing that they do: submission rates, passing rates, inter-rater agreement, and so on. In this address, small, stubborn facts became an actant in the production of portfolio review.

Not that such language was easily taken up by others at the review. The initial splicing of small, stubborn facts into the heterogeneous, rhizomatic assemblage of the College Composition program, on the surface, changed little. The object of small, stubborn facts was slotted into a space—the introduction to portfolio review—that had been sedimented, in previous iterations, with references to a broader mission within the university and the field of writing studies. Small, stubborn facts were translated, as an object in that network, into something that was simultaneously an uncommon (in the program) emphasis and, at the same time, nothing new.

Symmetry at Work: The Circulation of an Image

Two months after the underwhelming public introduction of small, stubborn facts, I stepped into the role of Director of College Composition. My first year in the Director position brought little emphasis to small, stubborn facts, aside from my occasional references at College Composition meetings and in my teaching practicum. At the start of the 2018–2019 academic year—and the August College Composition staff meeting—I found myself returning to the language of small, stubborn facts to frame both the work we had done in the past year and the work we were intending to do in the coming year. In the staff meeting, I projected the image below (Figure 1) to capture the role that I imagined small, stubborn facts as playing in our program. Figure 1 is what Haswell (2012) would refer to as a datum for this analysis: it is a once-occurring historical event that I (the researcher) cannot change without losing my phenomenon of interest by doing so.

Figure 1.  The Role of Small, Stubborn Facts. An equilateral triangle contains the text, “Small, Stubborn Facts.” Each side of the triangle is accompanied by a set of four bi-directional arrows, half pointing toward the center of the triangle and half pointing away from it. The sets of arrows are labeled with “sustainability,” “transparency,” and “swagger.”

Figure 1. The Role of Small, Stubborn Facts.

Figure 1 shows small, stubborn facts at the center of a triangle, influencing and being influenced by transparency, sustainability, and swagger. I designed this as a triangle not because I only had three topics to focus on, but rather to underscore the multidirectional paths that I wanted the program to develop in. I used the two-way arrows to suggest the tightly interwoven relationship between small, stubborn facts and the three focal points of the coming year. The image, I hoped, would suggest to our teachers that our program was going to develop in multiple ways that they could participate in, instead of a movement in a single direction that they would have to catch up with.

In Figure 1, small, stubborn facts is surrounded by transparency, sustainability, and swagger. I saw these as necessary areas to develop in the coming year—as well as areas we had been working on in the previous year. One year before creating this image, I saw a need for our program to change some of its practices: its process for hiring adjuncts, for instance, or how the roles and responsibilities of specific positions were articulated to various stakeholders. I also saw a need to develop a more sustainable program: one that could weather changes in personnel over time, and operate on equitable compensation for work done rather than the unpaid labor of specific, dedicated individuals

Finally, I saw a need for swagger—confidence in the work that one is capable of, and a resulting willingness to discuss that work. “Swagger” is a deliberately strong word here, pulled out of my experiences in athletics to emphasize the need for members of our program to share the good work they were doing. During my freshman year of college, our coach noted that our team did not have enough of, in his words, “a swagger in your step.” The language seemed to match what I saw in my informal ethnography when I first arrived at UMaine: highly talented instructors, well-versed in pedagogy and assessment, who were often quiet about the work they did so well. Small, stubborn facts need to not just be discovered but also persuasively shared if stories of writers and writing are to change, and so I set about using “swagger” to encourage others to share the good work they were doing, the cool facts they were discovering. Given the significant reticence among the teaching corps, I saw the risks of behavior that the term might encourage (braggadocio, arrogance, etc.) as minimal. I did not anticipate that a dislike of the term might lead to an increase in reticence—something that did not happen, but that I should nonetheless have thought about when making the image.

Small, stubborn facts is at the core of the image, shaping and being shaped by transparency, sustainability, and swagger. Data about teaching loads, compensation rates, and assessment results, for instance, help us think about what we need to ensure that our program has long-term viability. A careful review of who performs what tasks in the program from semester to semester allows for an articulation of responsibilities to enable the continued, smooth operation of the program. Finally, identifying the strengths of our program allows us to know what information and accomplishments should be shared at conferences, in publications, and in informal meetings.

But just as small, stubborn facts can inform these three concepts, each concept can, in turn, help us realize what kinds of new facts we need to uncover. At the staff meeting, I proposed a year of collecting such facts to further develop our program as a transparent, sustainable organization with a bit of well-earned swagger. How might we make knowledge of what happens in our classrooms, in our assessments, in our responses to student writing, and discover facts that can help us tell new stories about our students and their writing? How might we use these facts to help us shape our program going forward?

That day, in front of the College Composition teaching corps, Figure 1 had an agency of its own: a way of translating the program’s recent achievements (national recognition, an increase in full-time faculty, the delineation of specific roles and responsibilities) into a guide for building accomplishments in the coming year. It was a physical manifestation of the objects we were going to look for (small, stubborn facts) and what those objects would do (further establish a confident, sustainable, transparent program). But the figure, on its own, does not quite do this. Its agency is only defined by its relations with other objects in the assemblage that was on display at the staff meeting: my review of what it means to find a small, stubborn fact and what those facts can do; the expectations of attendees who were in the program during my 2017 discussion of facts; the subsequent review of assessment data from the previous academic year; and so on.

Within this constellation of interacting objects, the figure emerges as a way to understand the role of small, stubborn fact in developing the program. It is a way to orient an individual task within the overall operation of the program toward a broader theme (i.e., discerning facts) and, in turn, orient that theme to more specific purposes that are material to the continued operation of the program (such as transparency). But asking a newly spliced object to take on so much work within an assemblage proved to be too much at once. As the semester wore on, the emphasis on stubborn facts proved to be, in ANT language, stubbornly reversible.

Slow to Sediment: Stubborn Facts as Stubbornly Reversible

Figure 1 was used during the August staff meeting, in the TA practicum on two occasions, and at the end-of-semester portfolio review during Fall 2018. The return of the graphic on these occasions, as of this writing, has sparked little sedimentation. GTAs and instructors do not, in the conversations I’ve heard, discuss finding or getting or uncovering any small, stubborn facts. Nor have instructors come to me with ideas for collecting new research based on small, stubborn facts. The treatment of certain things—such as portfolio review results—as facts has been a recurring phenomenon at UMaine since my initial hire, so that can hardly be considered a successful sedimenting of Figure 1. As things stand at the moment, the concept of small, stubborn facts—and Figure 1—remains stubbornly reversible. That is, the focus on facts works its way out of the rhizomatic assemblage of the program just as quickly as it is spliced in.

This is not to say that I have given up on splicing small, stubborn facts into the program, however; rather, the current situation suggests that the network, as it stands, has too many mechanisms to betray them. The expectations of the introduction to the portfolio review, of a grand overview at the beginning-of-year meeting, all serve to translate small, stubborn facts into “nothing new” by the other network actants. The vehicle for such change (Figure 1), presented where and when it was—during a broader discussion of the program, the introduction to portfolio review, and the work of defining the empirical projects of GTAs for the coming semester—was caught up within the translations of other actants that read too much familiarity into the image to enable any significant transformation of the overall assemblage. The problem of making sure that the network recognizing small, stubborn facts “becomes” (in Spinuzzi’s words, 2008) long enough to be strengthened and sedimented with additional interactional ties is not insurmountable. In fact, the analysis—focusing in on Figure 1 through the lens of splicing, symmetry, and sediment—suggests ways in which future uses of the image might prevent further reversals.

Conclusion: Cultivating Slow Change

Through Figure 1, I made the concept of small, stubborn facts physically present in our program. Though fairly easily spliced in at particular junctures, other actants in the network comprising our program continue to thwart (or reverse) Figure 1, and render its presence in the program unsedimented. Rather than see this as a problem, however, I’ve come to appreciate the durability of the program, and the reasons behind such slow sedimentation. As I move forward with this work in my own program, I have identified several aspects of my work that may have proven a hindrance to integrating the image (and, by extension, the concept), or perhaps have led me to underestimate the challenges.

  • Designing the image too simplistically: My initial thought on the image was that its simplicity could give our teachers a sense of ongoing development, an understanding of a broader project that they could participate in, without having them feel like they were “along for the ride.” They could imagine themselves, because of its minimalist nature, as participating in program building in a variety of ways. However, the simplicity proved problematic: Rather than being able to see themselves everywhere in this image, teachers seemed unable to see themselves anywhere. They didn’t know how to locate themselves in the mission as conceptualized in this image, in other words. A “second generation” of this image might be more specific in helping teachers envision themselves as participating in the work of building small, stubborn facts.
  • Giving the image too much work to do: Although I came to understand Figure 1 as central to the work of the program, the work that I tasked it with quickly got out of hand. The image brought forward new language for the program, integrated that language with particular aspects of the program, and drew connections across seemingly disconnected aspects of the program. I treated these associations across actants as things that could simply pop into being all at once, instead of growing over time.
  • Providing too few connections to day-to-day program work: Figure 1 adequately captures the relationship between small, stubborn facts and more specific programmatic goals, but the connection between any single aspect of this image and the daily work of the program remains obscure. Such connecting work was left to instructors, which no doubt slowed the sedimentation of the image (and the concept).
  • Failing to sufficiently shake up the assemblage: While earlier attempts to splice in small, stubborn facts relied on the ongoing structure of the program and its many mechanisms, perhaps less sedimented forms of interaction in the department would more easily offer opportunities for lasting change. Brown bag lunches and other informal discussions may create the necessary changes to the network of the program so that the search for small, stubborn facts is prioritized, and the reversal of attention to facts is itself reversed.

As things stand at the moment in our program, the assemblage that blends small, stubborn facts into the program has been largely reversed. I continue to envision the role of small, stubborn facts as an organizing principle of the things we find out about students and their learning over time, and I continue to see Figure 1 (or some future version of it) as the vehicle for translating that principle into daily program practice. When we get new information about a particular aspect of the teaching of writing—responding to student writing, for instance, or assessment decisions—we can use the concept of small, stubborn facts as framed by Figure 1 to both understand the full nuance of what we are doing and serve as a translational vehicle for developing program-wide knowledge that resonates with and relates to one another. From here, we can begin to develop more robust stories of writers and writing that may, over time, become as persuasively straightforward as the “students-can’t-write” narrative.

Adler-Kassner’s (2017) CCCC address suggests that problematic stories about student writers and student writing is a pervasive problem, one that resonates strongly in the teaching and administrative experiences of instructors. Small, stubborn facts can be effective in challenging these stories, in supporting the development of our students, and in making persuasive cases to stakeholders about the work that our programs do. Although my own visual on such facts did not sediment into the daily work of our program in the way that I had hoped, the work highlighted the power and possibilities of visuals to make that happen, to make small, stubborn facts materially real and, by extension, part of the assemblage of ongoing work in a writing program.


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