I’ve been teaching and studying writing for over thirty years, first at the University of Pittsburgh (where I earned my PhD); next at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where I helped design a more integrated English studies undergraduate curriculum; then at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I directed its first-year composition program. I now teach at the University of Louisville, where I've held an appointment as Endowed Chair in Rhetoric and Composition until entering phased retirement in 2021.
I’ve devoted much of my teaching and scholarship to exploring the uses of the ordinary work that is accomplished, or can be, in first-year composition courses, particularly with so-called “basic writers,” students who tend to be dismissed as “not college material.” I’m convinced by my experience as a teacher that while many students (and many others) can and do benefit from sustained attention to their writing (and reading) practices, many of the difficulties students experience with college writing result from damaging myths that circulate widely in the culture about what writing involves, and from material (including institutional) constraints on students’ work, rather than from any inherent limitations in the students themselves. In Writing Conventions, the textbook Min-Zhan Lu and I co-wrote, we offer a way for teachers to engage students directly in sorting through their confusion about such matters as composing processes, error, audience, genres, purpose, vocabulary, and reading. And in workshops at colleges and universities, I have helped faculty across the disciplines better understand and work with their students on the challenges of writing.
In my writing, I explore the theoretical bases for these myths and alternatives to them. In Terms of Work for Composition, I examine the limited ways in which the work of composition is defined institutionally and discursively in academic and mass media discourse. Prompted by my experience and that of many others of the denigrating treatment of the work of composition and the teachers and students engaged in it, I look at the limiting ways academic discourse and institutions define six terms key to composition—work, students, politics, academic, tradition, and writing. I call for grounding academic treatments of composition work in the material realm, and for the growing labor movement in U.S. colleges and universities to follow social movement unionism by defining “labor” in more progressive ways. I’ve since developed particular lines of inquiry from this study in my work on writing program administration, social class in composition, and critical ethnography (see “Redefining Work and Value for Writing Program Administration,” JAC 27 ; “Class, Class Consciousness, and ‘Good Teaching Jobs,’” JAC 26 ; “Critical Ethnography, Ethics, and Work: Rearticulating Labor,” JAC 22 ).
My recent scholarship explores what the growth of world Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca means for the teaching of writing in the U.S. and around the world. I came to this concern through my work on immigrant rights and English-only legislation in Iowa. This has led me to argue against the English monolingualism dominating the teaching and study of writing in U.S. colleges and universities. In talks, workshops, and published writings, my colleague Min-Zhan Lu and I explore the forces sustaining such monolingualism and the challenges, and practical possibilities, of pursuing multilingual alternatives in our composition teaching and scholarship (see "Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach," co-authored with Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur, College English ; Resisting Monolingualism in 'English,'" Rethinking English in Schools ; “Cross-Language Relations in Composition,” College English July 2006; “English Only and U.S. College Composition,” co-authored with John Trimbur, College Composition and Communication 53 ; “‘Students’ Right,’ English Only, and Re-imagining the Politics of Language,” College English 63 ).
In Rewriting Composition: Terms of Exchange (Southern Illinois UP, 2016), I bring together my interest in issues of labor and language, arguing that tenets of monolingualism treating languages as discrete, stable, and internally uniform entities sustain the poor working conditions of composition by rendering invisible the concrete labor of writers, including student writers, in reproducing and revising language(s) through their writing practices. Alternatively, I argue for honoring the concrete labor composition students engage and focusing not on whether their writing differs from a chimerical language (or modal) norm but, instead, what difference to social relations it inevitably makes in what it sustains and revises.
In addition to my work on writing, I retain an interest in the cultural study of music (my B.A. was in music, and I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the “rhetorics of 17th-century English songs”). I’ve pursued this interest through teaching undergraduate courses on writing about music and in my scholarship, which includes Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, a collection of original essays by leading figures in the cultural study of popular music I co-edited with Thom Swiss (recently translated into Chinese), and articles and conference papers as well as workshops (see “On the Study of Music as Material Social Practice,” Journal of Musicology 16 ; “Writing Down the Songs: Teaching Conflicts in Music and English,” Writing on the Edge 6.2 [Spring 1995]; “Negotiating Traditions of English Song: Performance, Text, History,” Mosaic 27.3 ).
My high metabolism and daily walks help temper the effects of my passion for food (what some might call “gluttony”), to which I tend to give unbridled sway both in Louisville, known for its fine cuisine, and in the Pacific Northwest, where my wife and I like to spend time with our family hiking, crabbing, and feasting.