I.18: Partnering with the Status Quo: Theories, Histories, and Cases of Problematic Partnerships for Action-Oriented Practitioners
Reviewed by Madeleine Sorapure, University of California, Santa Barbara (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, National Writing Project
Speakers: Tyler Branson, University of California, Santa Barbara, “Situating Problematic Partnerships in the Field of Composition”
Todd DeStigter, University of Illinois at Chicago, “Unsettling Arguments: Preparing Writing Teachers in the Age of School Reform”
Jeff Grabill, Michigan State University, “From the Lab to the World: The Problematic Partnerships of Engagement”
Sarah R. Robbins, Texas Christian University, “Composing Collaborations: Setting Problematic Partnerships in Historical Context”
Session I.18 provided a particularly rich and useful response to Joyce Locke Carter’s opening session exhortation that we go forth and disruptively innovate. Carter enjoined us to direct our attention beyond the academy, to adopt an entrepreneurial rhetoric, to advocate and innovate, and to make a difference in addressing crucial problems in our field.
In Session I.18, we see the challenges but also—quite hopefully—the opportunities that come with problematic partnerships that we might engage in looking outward as public intellectuals. Complementing Carter’s emphasis on making and innovation, this session suggested several ways in which we can productively and ethically engage with partners outside the academy whose interests do not wholly coincide with our own.
The session was organized by Tyler Branson, whose dissertation focused on problematic partnerships. Branson’s opening presentation clearly laid out the scholarship on partnerships and collaborations. This theoretical framework was taken up in a nice range of ways by the three subsequent presenters, who provided detailed and engaging narrative examples of specific problematic partnerships.
Branson began by defining problematic partnerships as “collaborations between academics and powerful groups, individuals, or companies that may have interests related to, but not necessarily in step with, academics’ own disciplinary agendas.” The core problem with these relationships is the unequal power dynamic that puts academics at a distinct disadvantage. We often have to work with partners, for instance, in the publishing industry, in foundations that give research grants, and in governmental agencies that regulate K16 education. They have the authority to make decisions that profoundly impact our professional and pedagogical lives but don’t necessarily share our values, goals, or vision.
Branson proposed that we ask three questions when we find ourselves in these kinds of problematic partnerships:
- What’s the shared problem?
- What are the power dynamics?
- Where’s the wiggle-room?
These questions can lead to a more knowledgeable and strategic stance from which to negotiate with problematic partners. Branson also described four predominant strategies that academics employ as they work in problematic partnerships: gaming the system, finding a place where you can exert power, leveraging your own resources, and seeing the partnership itself as a site of research. This last strategy—researching the partnership itself—was evident in the work of the three other presenters on the panel.
Sarah Robbins described two historical cases in which women used writing to negotiate problematic partnerships with unequal distributions of power. Robbins’s first example focused on how the founders of Spelman College used the school’s in-house publication, the Spelman Messenger, in rhetorically savvy ways in order to cultivate donors to their fledgling college for Black women in late-19th century Atlanta. In Robbins’s second example, she read the archives of curricular documents and other documents from Jane Addams’s Hull-House Settlement in Chicago as demonstrating how the women leaders of this organization valued the cross-cultural voices of their immigrant students. In both cases, Robbins showed how analyzing the strategies historically undertaken by academic women in problematic partnerships has helped her as she takes on specific challenges as an administrator and educator in the present.
Todd DeStigter offered a compelling look at the creative deviance of two Advanced Placement (AP) composition teachers at an underfunded and struggling Chicago public high school. Working with a mandate that all seniors take a full year of AP composition with a curriculum centered on argumentation, these teachers were nevertheless able to create meaningful assignments and activities that valued students’ voices, experience, and interests. The first step was to abandon the official AP curricular materials and broaden the concept of academic argumentation so as to include and encourage the “antagonistic activism” that students encountered in their communities. DeStigter, whose English education students do pre-service work in this high school, made the very important point that institutions are not monolithic or static. Indeed, returning to Branson’s list of strategic approaches to problematic partnerships, we might add the strategy of looking within the partnering organization for allies or individual partners who share your values and can help you move forward.
In the last presentation, Jeff Grabill described the process of making an innovative pedagogical tool and the problematic partnerships involved along the way. After developing Eli, a software program that facilitates feedback and revision, Grabill and his collaborators decided that to be sustainable as a learning technology, Eli needed to be sold, not given away or made open source. Although it seems counterintuitive that starting a business is the best way to share a pedagogical innovation, Grabill argued that it was necessary in order to fund an infrastructure that supported users, provided training, and made the product viable. This presentation offered a valuable example of the “maker” culture that Joyce Carter called for, as compositionists themselves developed a software program that enacted and supported their pedagogical goals.
The session ended with very helpful connections made by the session chair, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, who pointed out that academia itself is often a problematic partner, particularly when it is positioned (or positions itself) as privileged, authoritative, and disconnected from the real world. I suppose one could see it as fortunate that the field of composition has relatively little experience with this position of privilege. Indeed, as Eidman-Aadahl noted, our field has a tradition of partnering across disciplines, in K12 outreach, and in community service pedagogy. With Carter’s opening address and the overall theme of the 2016 Conference on College Composition and Communication encouraging compositionists to take action and to engage with a range of individuals and groups outside of the university, this panel on problematic partnerships provided substantive examples and useful strategies for doing so.