Dwelling in Uncertainty: Getting to Know Dr. Megan Eatman, Director of First-Year Composition
Dr. Megan Eatman goes by a lot of titles: Mother of a 7-month-old daughter, author of a recently-finished book about the rhetorics of violence in the United States, and as of August 2019, the new Director of Clemson’s First-Year Composition program.
After 13 years in her role as director of the program, Dr. Cynthia Haynes stepped down in Spring 2019. She will now serve as the director of the Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design Ph.D. program. Dr. Haynes leaves behind her legacy of instilling humanity, compassion, and ethics in the classroom. Dr. Eatman plans to continue the success of the program through an emphasis on inquiry and a critical understanding of rhetoric.
I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Eatman a few questions about the role of composition director, her goals for the program and the philosophy behind her teaching methods.
What is the first-year composition program, and what does the director do?
The Director of First-Year Composition administers the English Department’s first-year composition program, which is actually just one class: ENGL 1030. While the program is just one class, it makes up a significant proportion of the English Department’s course offerings. For example, this fall, we have 75 sections of 1030. As director, I’m responsible for a variety of large and small tasks. Large tasks include making decisions about the ENGL 1030 curriculum, conducting program assessment, developing resources for instructors, working with the other department administrators to finalize upcoming course schedules, and participating in the hiring process for lecturers who will teach 1030. I’m also responsible for training graduate students to teach 1030 (in ENGL 8850 and an August orientation) and supporting the new graduate instructors in their first semester teaching through the Composition Practicum course (ENGL 8860). Supporting instructors, new and experienced, is my favorite part of the job. I love hearing about what instructors are doing and trying to solve problems when they crop up. I’m also very grateful to have a RCID Ph.D. student, Victoria Houser, serving as Assistant Director of First-Year Composition. She helps out with most of these tasks and provides a lot of support to the 1030 instructors.
What do you hope first-year students learn/get out of the program?
Ideally, students will leave 1030 understanding how to negotiate the various rhetorical situations in which they communicate. Since 1030 students come from a variety of backgrounds and have different professional goals, how they apply what they learn in 1030 may differ. But the course’s emphasis on research, identifying audience and genre expectations and constructing persuasive arguments in text and other media is designed to be broadly relevant. I also hope that students leave 1030 better able to engage critically with the rhetoric around them.
What makes Clemson’s first-year composition program unique?
The Clemson History Project is definitely part of what makes ENGL 1030 unique. Many first-year composition courses have something to unite them; for example, a book that all the students read that introduces a controversy for them to discuss. The Clemson History Project connects the 1030 sections to each other, to the space that we’re all occupying and to issues that matter on many college campuses. Asking students to engage with Clemson’s history usually means asking them to address structural and interpersonal violence and the traces that that violence leaves on the present in a very immediate way. In that way, I think, the Clemson History Project is particularly unusual (and important!). Students aren’t reading about an abstract controversy that may feel distant, but about how displacement, enslavement and carceral violence produced Clemson.
How does your personal research relate to this theme?
My research primarily focuses on public rhetorics around the body. I recently finished a book about rhetorics of violence in the United States, which focuses on the relationship between practices of organized public violence (like lynching and state-run execution) and their surrounding rhetoric. I’ve also worked on manifestations of the body in visual and digital media and law. In writing this book, I got more interested in how bodily experience is translated into medical and legal rhetorics, so I am exploring those ideas more in my current research.
What methods do you use to merge theory and practice in the classroom?
I tell students in my Composition Theory class (the class MA students have to take to prepare to teach 1030) that we’re going to focus on the values implicit in pedagogical theory and how they can translate them to their day-to-day teaching practices. As part of that practice, I also try to be very transparent about my own pedagogical commitments and how they appear in the course design. For example, all my classes are designed to encourage students to dwell in uncertainty, so assignments, especially early in the semester, often emphasize inquiry and gathering information rather than thesis-driven argument. I’d like for our work in class to make confusing things clearer and straightforward things more confusing (It’s usually more fun than it sounds).
How can the university do more to promote strong writing skills?
Being new to the role, I’m still familiarizing myself with various departments’ writing requirements and how they align with our course offerings. I think requiring courses like Technical Writing or Business Writing is a great start, but I have some more suggestions: (1) Making additional resources and training available for professors in other disciplines who want to devote class time to improving their students’ writing. (2) Pay lecturers more — not just the lecturers that teach 1030. Appropriate compensation can help us retain faculty members and communicates that the university values their work.
If you want to learn more about the first-year composition program, contact Dr. Eatman at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to learn a little more about Dr. Eatman herself, try listening to her favorite podcast: Can I Pet Your Dog?
Written by: Kylie Miller