Situating Who Where?

In the last 24 hours, I have been struggling to reconcile what I had imagined “Situating ourselves in English departments” to be about and how the readings approached that question.  I do not mean to critique the syllabus in any way.  Rather, what I want to draw attention to as I begin to respond to the readings is that the conversation is not about situating oneself as a scholar, as I had imagined; it is about situating composition, in its various meanings addressed in the readings, within the field of English studies.  Thinking then about the “ourselves,” there is an implicit melding of we grad students/future academics and composition itself.

Taking that as a starting point, the readings, instead of frustrating to my self-important scholar of queer resistance and mass communication, can become instructive, or at least can reaffirm the sites of intervention in what can be a highly regulatory discipline.  (I use “regulatory” here in a Butler-esque way, as part of a vocabulary that identifies police functions and regulatory regimes.)  As I had been subjected to the entirety of Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature, Sharon Crowley’s article filled me with a building dread that with each page I would find only more history of ivy-laden institutions to which I have never been welcomed and have always seemed foreign to both my experience of tertiary education and all my imaginings of it.  Yet, what Crowley offers to us inchoate academics is the necessary identification of the origins of composition as both a money-making scheme which removes agency (as ownership of language) from its participants and produces “docile subjects.”  As Sedgwick wrote of paranoid criticism’s machinations, so composition operated: each set a thief to catch a thief.

We would do well moving forward to carry this reminder of composition’s origins with us—as we would the reminder of genealogy of certain words or institutions, e.g. the electoral college.  And yet, where are we in this? Crowley situates composition in an historical way, while Ferguson-Carr reminds us that currently, composition “underwrites” much of the other research and coursework in English departments, and thus many do and should invest more in the pedagogy of writing.  Placing Hesse proved more troublesome. I am particularly interested to hear Nick’s opinions about the article, given his response paper is about the potentials of a more cooperative relationship between creative writing and composition, and might leave most of the response to Hesse for his comment.  Yet, I would simply like to say, I struggled to empathize with the opinions of someone advocating anything Burkean.  (For those who may not know, Edmund Burke, the only Burke I know, was a highly conservative Enlightenment “philosopher”—read: orator—who supported primogeniture and monarchism in the face of the French Revolution).  Indeed, Hesse seems to demand more openness of composition and then acknowledges that he would find a teacher who only approached rhetoric through a multimedia project “derelict.”

I think my trouble with Hesse points to a larger issue I had and that may have caused the struggle I mentioned in the opening to this post.  Reading these articles, I kept asking myself, “Whose departments are they talking about?”  These certainly don’t look at all like QC (in my brief experience) nor do they look at all like how I imagined (teaching) composition.  It has seemed in our class discussions that we mostly try to remain aware, even vigilant, of composition’s potential to function as part of a regulatory regime with its own singular logic of argument and limited formalism.  And, I believe each of us is keenly aware of composition as a likely part of our careers for some time given the academic job market.  So who are these scholars talking to?

To close with a perhaps necessary anecdote…  In my fourth year of undergraduate study, I was involved with a first-year student.  (There were gap years involved and I was young for my grade, ok?) I often edited the first-year composition essays, and I remember remarking that I wanted to teach composition one day.  I had, after four years, two semesters of which had been writing intensive (something like 6-8 pages per week and 150-200 total in a semester), I had finally understood how things come together in an essay that does not function that geometrical proof.  And I wanted to share that.  I had hated first-year composition and never did my pre-drafting assignments.  (That’s not how I write!)  But I have since reveled in writing the essay because I unlocked its magic.  I try to take that sense into teaching 110 – the sense of being a guide to students, hopefully leading them to that pot at the end of the rainbow, even if the path goes around weird ways where maybe you can’t even see the rainbow anymore.  And it seems that this is, to some extent, the attitude I’ve heard in our classroom.  But it’s not the attitude to which these articles seem to be responding.

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6 Responses to Situating Who Where?

  1. Kristi says:

    Hey Sarah,

    I’m really glad you raised the point. These articles work to situate composition in the rich (and sometimes interesting) history of its function in the American university. However, I struggled with these articles in a similar way that you have; while the history can’t be ignored, it can’t be considered accurate for the current state of the departments. Rhetoric began in Harvard, crafted for the education of the rich, English-speaking, white male. Now, it must be more inclusive; it must be able to reach people’s of all classes, nationalities, races, and genders. That being said, I do appreciate Jean Ferguson Carr and Douglass Hesse’s attempts at grappling with what composition in a contemporary classroom looks like, and I think part of the reason it’s hard to fully recognize their versions of the English classroom because it’s evolving at a rapidly changing rate. I think Hesse’s ability to acknowledge that composition is no longer just about writing a 10 page academic essay (like it seemed to be years ago), but also writing arguments and ideas into a variety of genres. This seems to echo QC’s goals for composition, as well as some of what we have discussed in class.

    I guess, going from here, I want to question where are we situated within the “current” classroom? What does it look like? What is our role in it? And, more importantly, what are students getting from it?

  2. Nick Earhart says:

    As per Sarah’s comment, I was surprised at how directly the readings spoke to the focus of my response paper. Briefly, I’m considering whether creative writing and composition might offer different, but complementary, insights into our students’ aptitudes, interests, and areas of academic need. I think the idea of “inventing the university” is a useful catchall, but I wonder whether it obscures our role in the process—that is, inventing an accurate perception of the people we’re charged to instruct. Writing classes, as Carr points out, seem a point of exchange between academics and what she somewhat amusingly describes as the “ambient situation” of students lives. There’s a lot of potential here, I think, in terms of refining pedagogy, as this dynamic interaction complicates the expectations of scholarly “discipline.” Obviously, if we afford students a degree of agency in the classroom, we’re more likely to understand where they’re coming from.

    In this light, Carr and Hesse point to an irony in writing instruction—what was once a means for departments to assert their power has become both a vantage point for considering the fluidity of academic discourse and among the more vital venues for navigating that innocuous enough but deceptively oppressive assumption: what we think students should know. There’s plenty to talk about regarding creative writing and composition, the differences in the fields, and the degrees to which they extend from the conditions Hesse describes, but perhaps that’s best saved for class. I’m also interested in discussing practical approaches to what I suppose you could call pedagogical listening. It’s tough to genuinely listen to students and also tell them what they need to know—perhaps we can address this issue in light of Carr’s ideas about the relevancy of writing studies.

  3. Giselle Shohet says:

    In response to Sarah and Nick, in terms of situating ourselves in English departments, I see that being a faculty member of a high school English department boxes me into a common core curriculum (at least pre-Trump) but, at the same time, I do not have to define myself as having any area of specialty. In other words, I have the luxury of being both a composition and a creative writing teacher. True, due to high stakes testing, the focus must be on writing essays. Still, there is more wiggle room for other types of writing. Realistically, this freedom exists because high school teachers have many more teaching days and teaching/homework hours. Specifically, in New York, we are mandated to a minimum of 180 days per year, with English class scheduled daily. The coursework can be enriched with creative writing as a homework assignment, if it is not desirable to have it be the focus of the lesson. A poem, dialogue, narrative, etc. can be assigned in the style of the literature that we read in class. If a student, in some way, can replicate a writers strength, he/she has an understanding of the primary work from the inside out. All of us are restricted in terms of our curriculums, but maybe we can all add a bit of spice, and an authentic understanding of audience and voice (among other things) that creative writing can bring to our classrooms.

    Hesse says, “Content with growing on its own terms, creative writing in all but rare cases performs no service role. . . ” (32). Since students are interested in this writing endeavor, it obviously fulfills some deep human need of artistic and intellectual expression. As far as I’m concerned, that is enough of a reason to include it as part of our identity as instructors. Furthermore, Hesse states that creative writing: “aspires to no ‘across the curriculum’ infiltration of chemistry or sociology, and worries little about assessment” (32). Currently, I’m taking a poetry workshop and have covered both subjects in my writings. I researched toxic chemicals, and the role of women in both foreign and domestic cultures. Those topics are part of my writing portfolio for the class. In terms of assessment, we all know good composition and creative writing when we see it . In addition, there are concrete rubrics to grade this work. Overall, it is my position that it behooves all of us to find “The Place of Composition Writing in Composition Studies”.

  4. Sophie says:

    As per usual, I struggle to create new posts, so this is meant to be its own independent post, even though it’s being put up as a comment to Sarah (apologies for the confusion, and for my technological incapacities!)

    Purpose vs. Methods of College Composition
    “Their reluctance to perform this task may explain why composition teachers have for many years stoutly maintained that they evaluate students’ papers on the basis of their mechanical correctness or formal fluency, rather than on the quality or merit of their arguments” (Crowley, 58)
    I struggled with the basic premise of Crowley’s argument. She posits that the American incarnation of composition has shifted from one geared towards teaching religion and morals to allowing students to research their own interests and opinions. She argues that the change in the methodology behind teaching composition evidences this shift: that early composition relied on rote copying and memorizing of other texts, because colleges were trying to indoctrinate students with pre-established ethics, whereas the more creative bent of the modern research university, in which students are responsible for designing and exploring their own arguments, aligns with the new goal of research.
    I would argue, though, that the purpose of composition has been the same throughout history, and that it is only the methodology that has shifted. After all, Crowley herself describes how “old-school” composition students would copy out single sentences and study them at length, in order to know how to better imitate such style and eloquence in their own writing. The purpose of composition has always been to teach students how to express their thoughts; it’s just that before the Civil War, it was thought that the best way to go about doing this was to model good writing, whereas now we prefer a more “trial and error” method, in which students test out writing and argumentation styles with varying degrees of success.
    Going off of some of Sarah’s comments, it is true that composition at Queens looks absolutely nothing like the ivy-clad institutions Crowley (and the other authors) describe. I think Queens conceives of itself as thoroughly within the “modern,” “trial and error” composition methodology: we encourage students to try on different writing styles over the course of the semester by means of different paper goals/prompts. But, having myself sprung from the more classical institution, I am not averse to its merits. The French school system is all about copying and memorizing (dictées and poetry recitations were a large part of my elementary education), but I now have methodologies that are so engrained that I fall back on them without thinking about it, that are just at my disposal whenever I approach a blank piece of paper.
    Instead of conceiving of these two methodologies as being opposite, an old and a new, a better and a worse, why not combine them? After all, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the goal of composition has remained constant throughout the history of the American college: to teach students to articulate their thoughts. I wonder if it would not be best practice to bring some of the “old school” writing into our classrooms on occasion. Perhaps there are some students who (like me) would benefit from learning to write by practicing established and successful forms, just as there are some students who learn best by trying on their own ideas and adjusting them as necessary. I don’t know what the “old school” methods would look like in the modern college classroom; having students memorize and copy out sentences is certainly pointless. But I don’t want to entirely dismiss the idea of learning from others, from older texts. I think re-integrating these older methods into the classroom may well be a form of universal design, and of teaching in modalities that appeal to all students. If the difference between old and new college composition is one of method, not purpose, it seems pointless to discard an entire method.

  5. Hi Sarah – this week’s readings got me thinking, again, about the difference between writing/composition here and in Europe.

    A couple of weeks ago you mentioned that “the essay, from a young age is taught as thesis-antithesis-synthesis”, making it a discursive rather than persuasive format. Instead of focusing on the dialectics/the structure of this model of argumentation itself, I’d like to put emphasis on the fact that learning how to write takes place in high school, rather than in college.

    As part of my communication minor I had to attend a “writing lab”, which was mandatory for those of us who had not attended a classical lyceum (the only secondary education track that allowed a student access to any kind of Italian university until the 1970s). That class was mostly focused on style/grammar, rather than rhetoric. Widely speaking, writing classes are not mandatory for most major/minor tracks, both because professors rarely rely on writing assignments for evaluations, and because it is taken for granted that students enter college with an adequate preparation – although the kind of writing practiced in high school does not cover the formalities of academic writing – and, as I said before, the academic writing classes I took during my time as a graduate student did help me improve my general writing skills.

    While being aware of the history of the field is stimulating and can help us contextualize what it is that we are doing – I wonder if, as Kristi wrote, that can be “considered accurate for the current state of the departments” and personally does not address my biggest concern about teaching a composition class: the feeling that we are trying and pack in a semester a learning process that should gradually take place over a number of years.

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