Meet the Rhetoric & Writing Studies faculty: Dr. Tom McNamara

Dr. Tom McNamara, Rhetoric & Writing Studies

~ By Jefferson Beavers, communications specialist, Department of English

The Fresno State faculty who are teaching in the Rhetoric & Writing Studies program in the Department of English are working to change the conversation about writing on campus, in the community, and beyond. This fall, we will introduce you to these professors and tell you about the ways in which their research, teaching, and service to both the university and to the discipline intersect.

In our fourth installment, meet Dr. Tom McNamara, an assistant professor of English who came to Fresno State in 2016. He coordinates the university’s Writing Across the Curriculum program.

Question: What is your area of focus within Rhetoric & Writing Studies, and how does that inform your teaching of writing?

Answer: I came to Rhetoric & Writing Studies by way of the “basic” or “remedial” writing classroom. I was teaching at DePaul University before beginning my Ph.D., where my students were primarily from Chicago’s African American and immigrant communities. These students had been “tracked” into remedial writing courses that focused on rudimentary genre knowledge or writing conventions. I quickly realized that such classrooms failed to tap into my students’ potential and interests, and that realization led me to Rhetoric & Writing Studies research.

I began reading scholarship that outlined how writing classrooms have historically cast multilingual writers and students of color as institutional outsiders through remedial pedagogies that underestimate their academic and literate abilities. Ultimately, this research drew a parallel between common writing pedagogies and other barriers that have historically prevented students of color from attending colleges and universities.

These early experiences led me to develop a research agenda at the intersections of composition studies and critical race theory. I found myself exploring similar questions when I began my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois Center for Writing Studies. At the time, the number of domestic students of color on the campus had fallen below Civil Rights-era benchmarks, a trend sadly common on many four-year campuses. Meanwhile, the university was aggressively recruiting international students—who pay full-price tuition—in the guise of “diversity.” Where only 63 Chinese undergraduates attended the university in 2005, that number had risen to 3,289 in 2016. These demographic realities led my current writing projects, which explore Chinese undergraduates’ experiences in first-year writing classrooms.

Through qualitative research, I found that these students felt very much like “cash cows” for the university in a moment of institutional fiscal uncertainty—and that the writing classroom often reinforced their sense that they were not full members of the university community. More importantly, I look to these students’ experiences for what they can tell us about how to advocate for students of color on campuses seemingly immune to Civil Rights-inflected calls for access and inclusion.

At Fresno State, I’ve continued to be drawn to research that explores how writing classrooms unwittingly reinforce racial exclusion. I am currently in the early stages of a project that studies composition theories and pedagogies that grapple with race. In particular, I’ve been considering how the stories we tell about classroom inclusion and rhetorical agency leave writing instructors ill-equipped to confront the forms of racism and nativism we’re currently seeing on college campuses. 

More than any other aspects of my teaching, these interests have most informed the types of writing I assign: Whether I’m teaching first-year writing or English education courses, I design assignments that encourage students to bring their communities and cultures into the classroom. Most often, I do this by helping students develop small, qualitative projects that allow them to interview people from our local communities or reflect on their own experiences. My hope is that this kind of research allows students to see how their cultural and community resources allow them to speak back to the university—and introduce often-absent perspectives into scholarly conversations.

Perhaps most importantly, I have turned to these kinds of assignments as a direct response to the remedial curricula I was so dissatisfied with in my early days of teaching—curricula that led me to Rhetoric and Writing Studies!

Q: How does your research and work as a teacher/scholar engage the campus, community, and the discipline as a whole, on the conversation about how and why we write?

A: As the campus Writing Across the Curriculum coordinator, I’ve been tasked with bringing my field’s knowledge about writing instruction to the wider campus community. Last year, Dr. Magda Gilewicz and I developed a workshop series on research-based pedagogical practices for writing in the disciplines. We were invited by the Center for Faculty Excellence to create a professional development certificate for faculty in the 2017-18 academic year, and I also helped to organize a Faculty Learning Community about race, linguistic diversity, and writing instruction.

My hope is that efforts like these change the campus conversation about our student writers: The more faculty are exposed to effective writing pedagogy, and the more they integrate such pedagogy into their classrooms, the more likely they are to see themselves as responsible for our students’ writing development. On many campuses, faculty bemoan their students’ writing skills, but we too often fail to take the time to teach students the writing conventions of our disciplines, which are quite different from what students are taught in their first-year writing courses. Through WAC, I hope faculty see themselves as disciplinary mentors to novices in their fields.

My most rewarding work as WAC coordinator has been that which engages students directly: Last spring, I piloted our first-annual Undergraduate Writing Conference with the help of faculty across campus. This fall, Dr. Reva Sias and I planned a National Day on Writing Open House, which featured a keynote from Fresno State graduate Dr. Nicole Gonzales Howell. Dr. Sias was even able to have the City of Fresno honor the National Day on Writing with a proclamation! Events like these, I hope, help our students to see themselves as writers and as valid participants of the university community.

Q: How do you involve or impact students, both graduate and undergraduate, in your research work and projects?

A: The qualitative research I encourage in my classes has allowed me in multiple courses to invite students to contribute to the same scholarly conversations my own work engages. For example, I recently piloted a topics coursesoon to be offered as ENGL 132Swith a service-learning component. This course was designed for English Education majors and focuses on writing pedagogy, language instruction, and community literacies.

My students have partnered with organizations like the Fresno County Library Literacy Services, Reading and Beyond, and The kNOw Youth Media. The projects they have developed around their service learning has allowed them to identify, as emergent experts in their field, how Central Valley schools and community organizations can better tap into students’ languages and cultures as resources for learning. I’ve been heartened by my students’ work, and I’m excited to see them take all they’ve learned to their future teaching careers!

Q: What are your other research interests?

A: My interests in writing pedagogy, literacy studies, higher education studies, and race and globalization are transparent in my current writing projects. Not reflected there, though, is my abiding interest in writing center studies.

Before I ever stepped foot in a classroom, I was a writing tutor: I tutored as an undergraduate at Loras College and as an MA student at Loyola University Chicago, and I worked in writing center administration at DePaul University. Most of the WAC work I did at the University of Illinois was part of my work in the writing center there. Down the line, I plan to return to a research project I began during my Ph.D. program about the place of ethnographic methods in writing center research, since the field has in recent years preferred methodologies that I worry overlook the local contexts of tutoring.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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