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Composition Forum 30, Fall 2014

Review of Pegeen Reichert Powell’s Retention and Resistance: Writing Instruction and Students Who Leave

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Seth Kahn

Reichert Powell, Pegeen. Retention and Resistance: Writing Instruction and Students Who Leave. Logan: Utah State UP, 2013. 144 pp.

A couple of days before I submitted this review, an article called Digital Feedback appeared in Inside Higher Ed. The piece describes a for-profit retention service company called Starfish that outsources colleges’ retention-oriented student services, promising to maximize effectiveness and reduce stress on college staff. Author Paul Fain opens the piece as follows:

Many lower-income students wrestle with doubts about belonging in college—particularly first-generation college students. Yet while experts say doling out positive reinforcement could improve graduation rates, systematic methods of giving students a pat on the back remain rare.

Even before I’d read Pegeen Reichert Powell’s Retention and Resistance, this paragraph would have alarmed me by emphasizing “graduation rates” and equating “positive reinforcement” with “a pat on the back.”

I’m always skeptical of discussions about retention, but that skepticism has long been unfocused. Reichert Powell’s book changed that. Her central questions in the book are strong challenges to the conventional wisdom: what if college faculty, administration, policy-makers are wrong to devote so much attention to retaining students? What if retention, as the current God-term of higher education, deflects us from other questions and initiatives that are better for students and institutions? If we understand retention more richly than the current discourse provides, what can writing instructors do to serve all students better? As a starting point, she offers two framing assertions: (1) no matter how well we understand students’ reasons for leaving college, some of them are simply beyond our control; and (2) in our rush to retain students despite our inability to do so, we ignore their actual needs.

Retention and Resistance describes what Reichert Powell—as a critical discourse analyst—calls the “discourse of retention,” the system of terms, tropes, ambiguities, and contexts in which higher education is currently immersed. In her Introduction, she contends that it’s important for faculty in Writing Studies to understand this discourse for two related sets of reasons:

Throughout the book, I explore the discourse of retention and present a twofold argument. On one hand, I argue that faculty must be mindful as this discourse circulates in our institutions. We must be attentive to the material and conceptual implications of this discourse as it affects our curricula and job descriptions and also as it circumscribes our understanding of “the student” and the purpose of higher education. On the other hand, however, I argue that the discourse of retention holds heuristic value for everyone in higher education: when students drop out, we confront our own limits as educators. (5-6)

In short, the discourse of retention has very powerful material implications for our students and jobs; at the same time, it should prompt questions about what we should be doing in courses and programs.

One of the book’s great strengths is its presentation and analysis of the extant research on retention, which Reichert Powell maps in Chapter 1 and develops/elaborates/contests throughout. In a short monograph, the treatment can’t be exhaustive, but two points become very clear through her analysis. First, almost all retention research emerges from the work of one scholar, Vincent Tinto, and thus propagates the same bad assumptions as Tinto’s work; she elaborates on these problems in Chapter 3, which deals with the trope of failure. Briefly, Tinto assigns all the responsibility for adapting/changing to students rather than institutions, thereby identifying students as failures if they choose to leave—or are forced out. Second, no matter how well the data show why students don’t succeed (read: stay in college and keep paying tuition) or suggest ways to help students persist, the research cannot accurately account for the complexities of students’ lives; neither can it offer ways to address problems that aren’t within our purview (such as family problems). Taken together, a lot of retention research is fundamentally flawed, and even the good research reveals problems we can’t fix.

After establishing the history and the limitations/problems of retention research, the focus shifts from “research on retention” to the “discourse of retention,” which Reichert Powell approaches from two directions: careful readings of institutional/scholarly texts and interviews with students in her institution. She wisely chooses not to present the students as cases or representatives of specific populations or types of students (although she does occasionally suggest that the students are typical in way or another); instead, she argues, the uniqueness of the students is precisely what demonstrates that the discourse of retention doesn’t account for the very people it purports to.

Chapter Two, The Seduction and Betrayal of the Discourse of Retention, presents a critical discourse analysis of two institutional documents, both self-study reports produced for accredition. The key finding is that from 1999 to 2009 (when the two reports were issued), the college’s way of talking about retention shifted dramatically. The 1999 self-study referred to outside scholarship and took time to define the term retention (and allied terms persistence and attrition) and to specify that the goal of retaining students was to make sure they graduate; in 2009 the term appeared only occasionally and without elaboration or contextualization. It’s become a commonplace, or perhaps more pointedly an empty signifier, the meaning and significance of which are so obvious that anybody who contests them is marginalized just for asking (Reichert Powell doesn’t put it so stridently—that’s my version of her argument).

The third chapter, called The Possibilities of Failure, addresses the legacy of Vincent Tinto's retention research. As noted earlier, that legacy blames students' failure to persist and graduate on the students' inability to adapt to academic culture, and only secondarily on the institutions' ability to help them. And, none of that research predicated on students-as-failures acknowledges external conditions that colleges simply can't address or challenges the institutional logic of “keeping butts in seats.” What's actually best for students, which may be to leave, is subordinate to the financial and public relations needs of the schools. Reichert Powell’s interviews with one student, Nathan, make a powerful case that leaving school isn’t always failure and that sometimes students can find meaning and security despite not finishing.

By the end of Chapter 3, we know the following: retention research has some serious flaws and limits, responding to political and economic exigencies that often override students’ circumstances and needs; the discourse of retention serves to make the term uncontestable, but does so by making it about institutional initiative instead of students’ needs; and that Tinto, the godfather of retention research, has embedded the notion of individual failure into the discourse such that when institutions can’t retain students, it’s still the students’ fault. (We know lots more too, but I have to leave some suspense!)

Throughout the text, Reichert Powell suggests that despite the problematic nature of retention research and discourse, understanding the issue is important not only because compositionists are often held responsible for program and policy implementation, but also because the problem of students’ leaving college should have implications for how we value our work. In Chapter 4, she turns directly to this question: how do we rethink composition courses knowing that many of our students won’t continue in college? She contends that burgeoning research on transfer faces a problem similar to retention research: it assumes that students should and will stay in school, so it emphasizes how their knowledge from composition transfers into other academic settings or to professions they’ll enter after college—which is fine as long as they stay in and complete college. To ignore those who don’t persist (and once again I’ll say this a little more stridently than Reichert Powell does) is to compound the disservices we’ve done them by focusing on retention strategies that don’t respond to their actual needs.

If we aren't pitching our courses towards advanced academic or post-college workplace writing, then what is composition's purpose, its telos? Reichert Powell argues for what she calls kairotic pedagogy, emerging from theoretical work by John Smith and Carolyn Miller, indicating,

A course that aims to give [students] skills or disciplinary content they are supposed to build on in later semesters will be less valuable to them if they leave than a course that involves them in meaningful intellectual tasks, immerses them in written texts and face-to-face conversations, and provides them the opportunity to participate in ongoing significant issues. Even, and especially, a basic-writing course, populated by students most at risk for leaving, should teach students how to approach the intellectual tasks of reading, writing, and talking about complicated problems in the very same moment they are engaging in these tasks. (122-23)

Invoking Tom Fox, she stresses that writing courses should be about “participation, not preparation” (118), which echoes my own thinking (writing courses are places to practice—as in engage the practices of—democracy, not to “practice” democracy in the sense of rehearsing it).

It took me some time to understand how her proposals differ from much of what critical pedagogy and its successors have proposed before. Although she never addresses the question directly, the answer is in the notion of kairos itself. Courses aimed towards predetermined outcomes, even if they’re outcomes a specific instructor is politically aligned with, ignore the specific here-and-now, no matter how much the instructors purport to (even successfully) start where the students are, respect differences, give students input into the course, and so on. Commitment to kairotic pedagogy goes beyond all that. She connects her argument to work on Universal Design principles (à la Jay Dolmage):

When Dolmage insists that “disability is something that is always a part of our worldview” (Dolmage 2009, 135), it is not to suggest that everyone is disabled…. Rather, universality in this case means that “one of the central tenets of UD is that it helps all students regardless of disability” (135). This concept supports the core argument of my book: to turn the discourse of retention into a call to educate all the students in front of us rather than simply trying to get them to stay. (127-28)

Courses aren't defined by what happens after them but by what happens during them; assignments don’t just include student input but emerge directly from real situations in which students find themselves. And courses don’t serve a gate-keeping function but instead provide what Reichert Powell calls throughout the book “radical inclusivity.” Her examples of kairotic pedagogy run up against the same barrier almost all such efforts do; the context-specificity that makes them work also makes it nearly impossible to offer them as models. I appreciate her effort, but if you’re looking for concrete advice on how to do what she’s calling for, there’s really only this: make your courses as useful as you can based on your students’ lives right now.

The big question/s the book leaves me with follow directly from that point. First, Reichert Powell is aware that the discourse of retention is bad for faculty, especially contingent faculty; it’s equally clear that most contingent faculty would put themselves at risk answering her call for kairotic pedagogy. If the discourse of retention justifies their exploitation, are they risking their jobs by contesting it? Or a more positive version of the question: how can contingent faculty, who teach most of the students at the center of this project, answer the call without endangering themselves? Second, I can only imagine how difficult it would be for WPAs to support the approach without sounding like they’re declaring anarchy in their programs; is it possible even to imagine kairotic pedagogy in programmatic terms? Those are hard questions, but much better ones than “How do we keep students’ butts in seats?” And for that, we have Pegeen Reichert Powell to thank.

Works Cited

Fain, Paul. Digital Feedback. Inside Higher Ed. 27 June 2014. Web. 11 July 2014. <>.

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