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.