Friday, May 19, 2017

Part III: A Review of Kathleen Blake Yancey's A Rhetoric of Reflection

Part III: Implicit Implications for Assessment

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. (2016). A Rhetoric of Reflection. Logan: Utah State UP.

By Julie Cook, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Note: This is the third installment of a three-part review (see Part 1: A Comprehensive Review; Part 2: Explicit Implications for Assessment)

To conclude my review of A Rhetoric of Reflection (ROR), this last installment focuses on chapters that, while important to the work of assessment, were less explicit in their approach. The question underscoring the chapters reviewed here, however, is an important one that directly informs the work of assessment: Do we know what we value?

In Chapter 6, Bruce Horner complicates Freire’s (1970) “banking” approach to writing agency and demonstrates with great complexity that action-reflection (choice-driven) is limited not only in scope but also in reach if “norms” for writing are unacknowledged as having differences according to choice. Situating English as a lingua franca with a concentration on translation, iteration, and reiteration, Horner distinguishes all language practices as always containing differences and situates choice as an always existing rhetorical activity. His depiction of choice for what is commonly seen as normal practice is equally applicable to the process and work of assessment.

Acknowledging the tensions that exist between the process of reflective learning and the product of an ePortfolio, Christina Russell McDonald (Chapter XX) relates Virginia Military Institute’s implementation of a process-centered, social reflective pedagogy. McDonald’s chapter will be of interest to those who value social reflection and will resonate with those who are interested in knowing “why the educational, theoretical, and pedagogical underpinnings of ePortfolios” often lack “transparency, especially to the primary audiences for which they [are] intended” (p. 203).

Naomi Silver also considers the affordances of digital spaces in Chapter 9. Of interest for classroom pedagogy, Silver’s work introduces digital genres (revision histories, screencasts, blogs) that promote scaffolding and reinforce reflection as a dialogic process. Similar to Taczak and Roberson (Chapter 3), recursive reflection is the curriculum; however, Silver promotes the “seamless integration,” of reflection through genres that do not explicitly call for one to reflect (i.e. blog posts), thus preventing “reflection burnout” (pp. 173-174). While I found Silver’s chapter to be worth consideration for classroom practice, it is worth noting that the students discussed in her work are enrolled in the course as part of a writing minor and that there will likely be motivational differences for this student demographic and that of first-year writing students taking a required course to meet general educational requirements. In contrast, Kara Taczak and Liane Robertson (Chapter 3) present an interlocking pedagogy that promotes transfer through recursive reflection, where reflection is situated as the framework for transfer. Unlike Silver (Chapter 9), Taczak and Robertson’s model stresses the need for explicitness in reflection as the curriculum for transfer.

In Chapter 2, Anne Beaufort speaks to issues of agreement within writing studies. In common Beaufort fashion, she provides a relatable application of her work on transfer and its integration into the classroom context, making the chapter a rich resource for experienced and novice teachers. Beaufort also relates the importance of remembering our history as a field in developing an understanding of what we know about reflection, learning, and transfer—it is a history informed, revised, and repurposed by several disciplines. While it is important to continue viewing the study of reflection as an interdisciplinary activity, it is also necessary for writing studies to develop a shared understanding of what core concepts are important for the work of reflection and transfer.

That shared understanding may come from inter-disciplinary conversations, like the ones Pamela Flash discusses in Chapter 11. As part of a writing-enrichment program, Flash asked multiple disciplines to articulate what it is that those in the community believe to be “good” writing. The dialogue and meetings that followed this question created a “productively disruptive” discussion fostered by a social and recursive reflection—“generating, implementing, and assessing multiple iterations of comprehensive documents”—used as a tool to “divert resistance” and move toward an understanding of tacit, paradigmatic assumptions (Brookfield, 1995, as cited in Flash, p. 247, p. 232). Hers is a fascinating—and relevant—study of institutional activity systems, drawing heavily upon activity theory. Those interested in WAC and LAC will find Flash’s work to be informative, and it is likely her work will be of most benefit to departments and programs involved in local assessments, as they ask, “What do we value? Why do we value it? How do we relate that knowledge? How do we observe its use? How do we assess it?” It is for this reason that I can think of no better work to end this review on. While there are chapters in ROR that are more consequential to practice, to reflective studies, and to assessment, Flash’s work, though largely implicit, holds each answerable to the other in a pragmatic manner. 


Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Part II: A Review of Kathleen Blake Yancey's A Rhetoric of Reflection

Explicit Implications for Assessment 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. (2016). A Rhetoric of Reflection. Logan: Utah State UP. 

By Julie Cook, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Note: This is the second installment of a three-part review (see Part 1: A Comprehensive Review; Part 3: Implicit Implications for Assessment

A Rhetoric of Reflection (ROR) has much to contribute to the discussion of writing assessment. While the authors’ approaches are diverse, two questions remain primary through their work with reflection: 1) Do we assess what we think we are assessing? and 2) Do we value what we say we value? 

Like others in ROR (Beaufort, Sommers, Robertson & Taczak), Michael Neal (Chapter 4) builds from his previous work on reflection and assessment with the reflective cover letter. Neal notes an interesting phenomenon resulting from the large-scale adoption of portfolio reflective letters in educational contexts: “the relationship between reflection and assessment […] became so closely related they were often used interchangeably and thus are difficult to distinguish” (p. 69). Here, Neal critiques Edward M. White’s (2005) Phase 2 model for portfolio assessment: Assessing reflection alone is only assessing the argument and not the evidence for the argument. As a faculty member who has often been in the thick of programmatic assessment, and who has felt pressures alongside colleagues tasked with evaluating a large number of end-of-semester portfolios, I found Neal’s issues with the Phase 2 model relatable and relevant as they echoed concerns often voiced and felt by faculty. Those of us who are conflicted when assessing portfolios because either the reflection appears disingenuous or disconnected from other portfolio materials will appreciate Neal’s chapter. 

In Chapter 13, Jeff Sommers addresses The Writer’s Memo, which he first presented in 1984. For Sommers, evaluations of student work in The Writer’s Memo raise questions for motivation and reflective experiences. The Writer’s Memo is a space to describe and analyze, but in Sommers’ evaluation the genre does not support a metacognitive articulation of learning. By adding an end-of-semester reflection, Sommers’ response integrates an end-of-semester reflection for methodological reflection to account for the limits of a Writer’s Memo; like Neal (ROR), Sommers’ work brings attention to the implications of genre selection for reflective practice. 

Doug Hesse’s work in Chapter 14 complicates the dynamics of a familiar genre. Using reflection as the frame for deconstructing essays in creative nonfiction, Hesse makes an interesting case for the reflective activity inherent in the genre. As Hesse notes, “the line between reflection and interpretation is dusty” (p. 292). For Sommers (Chapter 13) the Writer’s Memo invites description and analysis—interpretation. For Hesse, “Essays give the act of interpretation explicit attention through reflection” (p. 291). In a time where the art of a well-crafted essay has often lost its luster for students who only hear the words “five-paragraph” with the mention of the word “essay,” and where critical reading and critical reflection are not just buzzwords or good practice but also prudent for civic engagement, I thoroughly enjoyed this chapter. 

Kevin Roozen (Chapter XX) takes up Odell, Goswami and Herrington’s (1983) focus on methodology as a vehicle for making implicit assumptions explicit. Using reflective interviews to develop a methodology that fosters constructive reflection (Yancey, 1998), Roozen’s chapter resists simple constructions of a writer or researcher identity. Like Roozen and Sommers (Chapter 13), Elizabeth Clark (Chapter 8) adopts a reflective, integrative method and pedagogy for reflection. Of interest to WAC and LAC assessment, Clark builds from Carol Rodger’s (2002) dimensions of reflection to reinforce student-centered learning, space for ambiguity, and time for recursive reflection that supports LAC. 

In Chapter 5, Cathy Leaker and Heather Ostman revisit their previous findings on the portfolio-based “rhetorical-reflective transfer” model for Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) (2010). Differently than Roozen (Chapter XX), Leaker and Ostman suggest assimilation is of value in academic contexts concerning the rhetoric of reflection. In Chapter 7, Asao B. Inoue and Tyler Richmond also address epistemic tensions in their preliminary study of four female Hmong students who struggle to negotiate both individual and communal identities within and beyond the classroom as observed through the students’ reflective letters. Inoue and Richmond propose this observation could affirm reflection, and what is valued in the assessment of reflections, as a racialized discourse—one that privileges “whiteness” and interpellates the Other. Though the study and sample was too small to be conclusive, Inoue and Richmond’s work and insights align with current observations in the field, giving much to consider especially for local assessment. Both chapters, I would argue, challenge current understandings of what is of value—and at stake—in the assessment of reflection. 


Odell, L., Goswami, D., Herrington, A. (1983). “The-Discourse-Based Interview: A Procedure for Exploring the Tacit Knowledge of Writers in Nonacademic Settings.” In Research on Writing: Principles and Methods, ed. Peter Mosenthal, Lynne Tamor, and Sean Walmsley, 221-36. New York: Longman. 

Sommers, J. (1984). “Listening to Our Students: The Student-Teacher Memo.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 11(1): 29-34. 

White, E. M. (2005). “The Scoring of Writing Portfolios: Phase 2.” College Composition and Communication, 56(4): 581-600. 

Yancey, K. B. (Eds.) (1998). Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan: Utah State UP.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Review of Kathleen Blake Yancey's A Rhetoric of Reflection

Part I: A Comprehensive Review

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. (2016). A Rhetoric of Reflection. Logan: Utah State UP.

By Julie Cook, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Note: This is the first installment of a three-part review (see Part 2: Explicit Implications for Assessment; Part 3: Implicit Implications for Assessment)

A Rhetoric of Reflection (ROR) is an important, critical, and timely text that offers much to consider for those interested in the assessment of writing, critical thinking, Learning Across the Curriculum (LAC), Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), and Teaching for Transfer (TFT). As important as what might be assessed is where one might find the text applicable for assessment considerations: in classrooms, programs, departments, and institutions, at both local and national levels.

Edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, the collection of 17 essays offers a multi-faceted approach to reflection that “fosters an explicitness about learning and supports all of us in articulating and claiming what we know [emphasis added]” (Yancey, p. 11). As an “epistemological practice” and subject of study, reflection, as Yancey observes, “is considerably more complex than the literature has suggested” (p. 303). For the purposes of my reviews (see post 2 and post 3), I will largely focus on what ROR offers to understand the concept of reflection, its applications for writing studies, and implications for writing assessment. The text has much to offer across disciplines, as reflection is increasingly becoming integral for many fields of study and, likewise, as our current understanding of reflection is informed by interdisciplinary approaches to its study. However, ROR is also not “an introduction to” reflection. Those new to reflection, writing studies, the classroom, or assessment will likely benefit most from Yancey’s introduction, Anne Beaufort’s contribution in Chapter 2, and the authors’ dialogic reference lists.

Readers will find the current scholarship on reflection does not provide neat answers. While this collection in no way shies away from ambiguity or conflict, and more precisely positions its work as a sophisticated model of meaning-making through problem-posing, perhaps the most significant contribution comes through in its main area of agreement across texts. As Yancey articulates, this collection demonstrates that reflection is rhetorical: It is a product and a process where “a primary function … is to make a kind [emphasis added] of meaning” (p. 18).

Fittingly, Yancey authors the final chapter of ROR but in no way provides closure. Rather, she identifies “a way forward” by coalescing even the disjointed parts of ROR to suggest areas we still need to know more about (p. 318). She thus leaves readers with a series of critical questions to consider, noting “we don’t have all the answers” (p. 320). Understanding reflection as an epistemological practice and subject of study, Yancey’s closing questions are necessary and act as a preamble to inquiries likely to follow the scholarship of ROR. Although the title of Yancey’s closing chapter is “Defining Reflection: The Rhetorical Nature and Qualities of Reflection,” reflection, in its current state, is defined though its characteristics; it is describable but not definable. As a subject of study, this collection demonstrates that while there are recognizable qualities within its process and practice, there are also “competing values in reflection (Yancey, p. 319). In turn, the second and third installments of my review address how contributors’ work speaks to and revises each other.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Part II: A Review of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology)

Fink, B., & Brown, R. (2016). The problem with education technology (Hint: It’s not the technology). Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

By Justin Vaught, University of Alabama

Note: This is part two of a two-part review.

Recently, I provided a summary of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology). Here, I move from that general review into a critique of Fink and Brown’s assertions. Specifically, I examine weaknesses in their generalizations about the educational workforce and their focus on expedient solutions; however, I also recognize the potential they’ve created for further advancement of the topic.

In my earlier post, I mentioned Fink and Brown’s central claim: that prioritization of labor-saving devices in education results in institutional propagation of socioeconomic disparity. The first half of this argument is logical: If mastery of durable dispositions is linked to student-instructor interaction and teacher labor, then those who have the means to afford more individualized education will continue to be privileged by mechanized assessment. By increasing the chances of obtaining further education and attractive employment, such imbalanced academic achievement heightens the odds that those students will repeat the cycle and provide their own children with similar educational advantages. However, the authors’ decision to levy significant guilt for this cycle upon teachers (themselves included) is expedient and simplistic. Their claim that “Education in the United States is not social, human, or empowering, and we can’t blame that on the machine […] We made it what it is” (pp. 28-29) ignores the financial, geographic, familial, and market factors which force educators to acquiesce to the implementation of sub-standard pedagogy.

The negative features of our educational system extend far beyond the situations of individual teachers. Many of the educators Fink and Brown cast as responsible for large-scale reform are likely more concerned with finding, and retaining, jobs. Their tacit consent to the application of inadequate praxis is not born of blindness or ineptitude, but of necessity: Societal and political trends toward slashed budgets and devaluation of education have left them with no other option. Fink and Brown insist upon speaking for these teachers, admitting that “we have continued to […] teach in thoroughly mechanizable ways – without recognizing what we were doing” and “we’ve already made education robotic” (p. 27). Assigning a single voice to “we” teachers ignores this group’s unique backgrounds and innovative pedagogies (both of which hold real potential for combating mechanization). Granted, a short book such as this requires some simplification, but in generalizing teachers as a scapegoat for such a complex issue, Fink and Brown do more harm than good.

As the authors work toward proposing a solution, The Problem with Education Technology addresses a common villain in the composition classroom: the perfunctory paper (pp. 23-26). Fink and Brown contend that papers are ineffective at teaching skills such as argumentation, use of evidence, and rhetorically effective writing (p. 26). Instead, like standardized examinations, these assignments emphasize only the basic dispositions mentioned above, further mechanizing the writing process. This transition is meant to reinforce Fink and Brown’s accusation that teachers are at fault for this progression in assessment, not technology. Specifically, the authors claim companies such as ETS, Pearson, and Vantage did not create the academic battlefield we now face; they just capitalized on an extant situation for which educators are responsible (pp. 26-27). Here, Fink and Brown have the opportunity to parse the differences between liability for current issues and responsibility for their gradual repair, but instead they conflate the two while brushing aside educational realities which force teachers to consent to destructive practices. For example, the authors choose not to explore concepts like negative washback, a phenomenon in which teachers modify curricula to align with and address testing requirements. Such a discussion would likely reveal that these teachers, rather than dictate destructive assessment practices, instead respond to them as best they can. By glossing over such nuanced situations, the authors create a simplistic paradigm that allows them to mop up constrictive, biased policies with a generic call to action.

This problematic strategy is what enables such a small book to endeavor to solve such broad and seemingly-permanent problems. Having accused teachers of creating and perpetuating these issues, Fink and Brown next attack from two fronts. First, they insist the move toward standardization can be disrupted by teachers willing to divert extra effort and time toward crafting intricate assignments with unique rhetorical challenges (p. 31). They offer multiple alternatives to the stereotypical “write a paper” prompt, including asking students to compose and send emails to friends and family, and challenging students to edit Wikipedia in a manner that avoids removal by the website’s editing Bots (pp. 29-32). However, such solutions are like a Band-Aid for a broken bone: They don’t address the larger issue of institutional reliance on assessment systems, which, whether technologically enabled or still reliant on human labor, are mechanized beyond the point of detriment to students. Confronted by the need for systemic change, Fink and Brown introduce their second call to action. They propose that teachers, parents, and students must organize, not in an alignment against all educational technology, nor in panels and presentations at academic events, nor in ephemeral statements and signatures, but in “hordes” and “networks” bursting with people aligned by a common agenda (pp. 35-37). The authors close by noting the majority of educators support their cause, an encouraging sentiment; however, their claim that “the problem is ours to solve” is both daunting and, as I have already noted, unnecessarily troubling for teachers with more immediate personal concerns.

Fink and Brown’s presentation is engaging, but also riddled with complications. The Problem with Educational Technology provides introductory material necessary for readers seeking to engage in scholarly conversation about mechanized assessment, and its minimal length and informality allow for rapid consumption with high retention. However, its final call to action is concerning, as it strays perilously close to claiming that the end justifies the means: “We may not like [our allies…] but we’ll work together anyway” (p. 37). This book is useful in generating awareness about a major educational issue and in its efforts to simplify and contextualize complex arguments within writing assessment for the uninitiated reader, but those same simplifications weaken its overall effects. Despite its shortcomings, The Problem with Education Technology proves itself worthwhile by informing readers about an imminent threat to both teacher and student well-being and by helping ignite critical conversations about the role of united advocacy in finding an effective solution.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Review of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology)

Fink, B., & Brown, R. (2016). The problem with education technology (Hint: It’s not the technology). Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

By Justin Vaught, University of Alabama

Note: This is part one of a two-part review.

For the first time in ninety years, students across the country face a fundamentally redesigned SAT. Among changes meant to address the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and “provide a more accurate measure of a student’s college and career readiness” is the replacement of the required essay with an optional, longer prompt focused on textual analysis (Domonske, 2016). The adaptations this infamous exam has made to CCSS requirements bring to light many current conflicts in assessment practice, several of which are addressed by Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology) (2016). The latest installment in Utah State University Press’ Current Arguments in Composition series, this short publication discusses and critiques the mechanical nature of modern education. Fink and Brown explore the computerized scoring systems that have been created to evaluate student writing, and inform readers about some of the most controversial contemporary debates in writing assessment, including the mechanization of human graders, the socioeconomic implications of standardized testing, and the reprehensible conditions with which elementary and contingent faculty must cope. This first post offers an overview of the book; the second will offer my critique.

Fink and Brown ease into these contentious issues by first reviewing two prevailing narratives surrounding technology in the classroom: the “teachers versus technology” binary (p. 4) and its counterpart, the “teachers get offered a break” trope (p. 13). These narratives frame the book’s focus on Automated Essay Scoring (AES) systems, which are described as having the potential to eliminate the modern writing teacher and as labor-saving devices. However, Fink and Brown are not primarily concerned with the merits of these assessment systems. Instead, they use AES as an example of current educational attitudes and practices in their critique.

Noting that in education, “labor saving devices haven’t worked, don’t work, can’t work,” the authors discuss the immense labor investment required of teachers to produce what Bordieu (1990) called “durable dispositions”: enduring and effective ways of observing and engaging with the world (pp. 16-17). Such dispositions help students determine effective, appropriate ways of evaluating and responding to novel, challenging situations. Typically second-nature and often intangible, these dispositions rely more on tacit understanding than stated rules and standards. Modern educators may recognize these “habits of mind” as enumerated in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, which features concepts such as “persistence”, “responsibility”, and “metacognition”. These “ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical” are gleaned through observation and emulation, and they are difficult to directly examine; however, students with greater command of such dispositions are more able to apply these abilities when confronted with scholastic assessments.

Less privileged students, in their attempts to replace these dispositions, often turn to alternative means to make up for their deficiency in labor investment. Among these means is the “fake industry” (p. 18), which purports to help students master strategic formulas that “ensure” success on standardized tests. Fink and Brown argue such formulas cannot replace durable dispositions, and instead claim the fake industry illuminates a fundamental flaw in mechanized assessment and other labor-saving educational strategies. Specifically, they demonstrate that in most cases this industry only further enables those who already possess the necessary cultural capital to succeed. Struggling students continue to flounder while those with better command of durable dispositions simply fold new formulas into their extant constructs; in other words, those “who could successfully fake it [are] the ones who [are] already pretty much able to do it for real” (p. 18). This means a focus on labor-saving education and assessment methods results in testing which measures whether students are “privileged enough: lucky enough to have had all the necessary labor invested in [them]” (p. 20, emphasis original). Students fortunate enough to enjoy a more specialized and individualized education are likely to excel in these standardized testing environments, making quantitative markers of success easier to attain while also increasing the availability of future academic opportunities, including collegiate placements and scholarships.

Meanwhile, students of lower socioeconomic status are restrained by these tests. Because of educational experiences that include a lower degree of teacher labor investment, these students have likely encountered fewer opportunities to develop durable dispositions. Systematic examinations implicitly emphasize many of these dispositions by prioritizing formulaic structure and content over unique or creative student responses, and thus exacerbate the labor-related shortcomings of these students. AES is particularly at fault here, as such systems are the worst offenders in this dangerous prioritization. The result is an automatic disadvantage in assessment amplified by mechanization: The more mechanical a system’s methodology, the more it hinders students who are unaware of, or unable to appeal to, systematic features. Although their abilities may extend elsewhere, less privileged students who lack consistently effective means of engagement with examinations are unfairly assessed.

This issue is complicated by the financial benefits of labor reduction: although labor-saving devices don’t work for teachers and students, Fink and Brown recognize that such devices are attractive to the legislators and administrators responsible for making budgetary decisions (p. 22). The authors problematize the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), another labor-saving alternative to the traditional classroom. MOOCs, though attractive for their affordability and accessibility, are academically unsatisfying as they lack both substantial content and constructive interaction between students and teachers, and feature low rates of student completion (pp. 20-21). They, like AES systems, are not an effective shortcut to labor reduction; however, in an observation reminiscent of Bousquet’s How the University Works (2008), Fink and Brown mention “the history of education policy […] is the history of cuts,” and so MOOCs continue to be emphasized in budgetary decisions (p. 22). It is in this discussion of MOOCs the authors reach their central argument: By prioritizing labor-saving devices as cost-reducing alternatives to institutional labor, educators “tacitly consent” to a construct which reinforces and solidifies socioeconomic disparity (p. 23).


Bordieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bousquet, M. (2008). How the University Works. New York: New York University Press.

Domonoske, C. (2016). Students Across U.S. Take New SAT A) Saturday B) Sunday C) None Of The Above. The Two Way: Breaking News from NPR. Retrieved from

Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (2011). CWPA, NCTE & NWP.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Journal of Writing Assessment Editorial Team will be at the 2017 Conference on College Composition and Communication this week.  We'd love to see you and talk with you about your ideas for publications with JWA!

On Wednesday, March 15 from 1:15-2:30 PM, Diane Kelly-Riley will be at the Research Network Forum's Editors Roundtable in the Oregon Convention Center, Portland Ballrooms 256, 257, and 258.

On Friday, March 17 from 12-1 PM, Carl Whithaus will be at the Independent Rhetoric and Composition Journals table in the Exhibit Hall in the Oregon Convention Center.  We'll be in Booth 303.

Our JWA Editorial Team will be at 4C17--keep an eye out for Diane Kelly-Riley, Ti Macklin, Jessica Nastal-Dema, and Carl Whithaus.

We'd love to meet with you to talk about your enthusiastic ideas for potential publications with the Journal of Writing Assessment or our the JWA Reading List.  Email us at to set up an appointment!