Talking with Dr. Cynthia Haynes
With her 13 years of service as Director of Clemson’s first-year Composition program, Dr. Haynes has had monumental impact upon the entire university and its students. Last year, Dr. Susanna Ashton nominated her for The Thomas Green Clemson Award, an award that recognizes a faculty or staff member for exemplary contributions to the university.
Susanna Ashton, the Chair of English at Clemson, notes that when Dr. Haynes won the Thomas Green Clemson Award that recognizes faculty or staff member for exemplary contributions to the university, it was in part because of Dr. Haynes’ “particular and often unheralded
success in making a difference in the lives and careers of virtually every single undergraduate at our university,” with her leadership of the first-year Composition program.
I had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Haynes and learning more about her experience as the Composition director.
You are stepping down as the director of the Composition program. What was it like to manage the program?
It’s been 13 years since I arrived in 2006, and it’s been wonderful. I did this before I came here, so this is really my 25th year as a Writing Program Administrator. I did a similar job at University of Texas at Dallas where I came from. It’s very rewarding because I get to work with a lot of teachers through training them to teach first-year Composition—both graduate students and lecturers. The position involves training, supervising, troubleshooting, and mentoring.
I also set the curriculum. I determine the goals and objectives. We have a common syllabus, and the faculty use the same textbook. The syllabus leaves room for the teachers to have some creative freedom, and it gives them flexibility to teach in their own style.
This year, I did something different, even though it’s my last year here. We have three main assignments in English 1030. They first do a visual rhetoric analysis, and then a research argument paper, and then they do a multimodal group project. This year the topic of the multimodal group project is Clemson’s history, which is a very challenging subject around here.
Dr. Rhondda Thomas made some resources available to us about the historical markers and her research on how Clemson was built using former enslaved peoples. This project introduces them to questions about race and opens up conversations. Students start thinking about this topic as a freshman so that over their four years here this isn’t a foreign subject to them. They learn about what it’s like for minorities on campus. It’s not just about the history of Clemson; it’s also about the contemporary climate of that history and how it’s manifested on campus. This project will continue next year, and I’m hopeful that that’s going to make a difference.
What exactly is the Composition program?
It’s one course; but it used to be two courses. Many years ago we had two required courses: expository writing and argumentative writing. The university decided to collapse those into one course and focus on argumentative writing only, English 1030. This course focuses on rhetorical theory, persuasion, and audience analysis.
Making an argument is not a negative thing; you state a claim, support it with research, back it up with evidence, and cite sources on your argument. We brought in the multimodal aspect because you also read and compose in audio and visual media. Arguments are made in advertising and editorial cartoons, even art contains an argument. What is the artist or cartoonist or advertiser trying to persuade us to think, or believe, or do? To take action about something, to change our mind, or to convince us to buy a product? That’s what our goal is, and that’s really related to critical thinking.
We hear about political rhetoric being empty language, lies or deceptive speech, and it’s not that at all. In this program, rhetoric is about mediating conflict in this century—that’s the biggest goal in learning to compose arguments and mediate opposing positions. The task is to learn how language works persuasively, and then use those skills to help mediate conflict and bring sides together. This is what we’re trying to teach students through the mechanics of good writing: spelling and grammar and citing sources with formatting. We also teach the bigger picture of the content: how to conceive and take their audience into account, appeal to the audiences, and how to build their own credibility as a writer—that’s the ethos, the author’s credibility. What gives them the expertise if they haven’t backed up what they’re saying through research or sources? If they want to write a paper on a very controversial subject like gun control or abortion—those are often very polarized issues—and so a rhetorical way of writing tries to offer alternative options. It will look at both sides of a case, so that’s where mediation comes in: using rhetoric as a mediating force.
Why do you think composition is so important?
I think composition is thinking. Writing is thinking. So, thinking is important, and you think through writing. Think about it.
In my view, and this is not from me, it comes from E.M. Forster: I never know what I think until I see what I have written. You come to know what you’re thinking about through writing. Often times you get an assignment, and you don’t know what to write about, but you start and along the way, you realize, ‘Oh, this is what I think!’ Or maybe some reading on the subject sends you down this other little bunny path. It’s in the process of writing that you come to know what you think, and so, to me there is no difference between thinking and writing. Teaching composition is all about teaching thinking. It’s not just a matter of correct grammar. This course is not about correct grammar. It’s part of it, but it’s not the main thing.
You have been extremely successful as the director of the program. What type of legacy do you want to leave?
I want to be thought of in terms of teaching these teachers how to teach humanely, and I mean to consider their students with humanity and compassion. So when I’m training them, we talk about grading, but there’s no one right way to grade, so I teach them how to judge with compassion. Judging writing is about judging people, because writing is about who you are. If you’ve ever turned in a paper and been so nervous—I have, and my palms sweat, my stomach gets butterflies. It’s like handing over a piece of yourself, and then you can’t wait to find out what your teacher thinks about it. It keeps you up at night. I don’t ever take it lightly, and I teach my teachers not to take it lightly.
When you assign a piece of writing, you’re asking students to think and give you a piece of their writing. When you judge and evaluate it, you need to not just do it based on some arbitrary grammar rules or take off for every comma splice, you have to be gentle and ethical with how you evaluate their thinking and who they are.
Students come to college to be stretched. Teachers can help do that in a variety of ways, so while I don’t teach in the first-year composition classrooms, I’m in all of those classrooms in a sense. I’m providing the goals, the syllabus, the outcomes. I’m providing the training for the teachers, and then the teachers need to do what I helped them to learn. I’ve trained hundreds of teachers who’ve taught thousands of students. I’ve taught them what the most important things are in teaching, and that’s humanity and compassion and helping them become better people themselves.
What is your favorite part of the program?
The first day of class. It’s always exciting, because I get to see new teachers who are scared and nervous and new students who are coming here for the first time and are scared and nervous. No matter how many times I tell the teachers, “Your students are more nervous than you are,” it’s not until I see them after they’ve done their first class, and then they come and tell me how wonderful it is.
I’m saying, “I told you it would be!” They get so excited about their students, and they realize they do know what they’re doing. That’s excitement: the first day of class. It’s the best part for me, especially getting to see how the teachers and the students get to experience their first week of class. I’ll never lose that. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and every first day of the semester, it’s exciting. That excitement never goes away. I’ll miss that.
Written By: Madison Rysdon