Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Some Questions Concerning Composition: Reflections emerging from PostComposition

“1102: Rhetoric and Academic Research”– what does this second designation mean? The Academic Research is relegated to the second semester, usually, to the “final research paper” – what if we foregrounded research? What if we foregrounded research particularly in light of Sid Dobrin’s question of whether old rhetorical models can still serve writing studies? What if we teach our students navigation, circulation, distribution – what if we stopped thinking in terms of the “content” or what we are “writing about” but rather think about the general situation of Writing and how we can facilitate our students’ navigation of these complex, ecological systems? What if we work from out to in? What if instead of teaching close reading of texts and how to properly cite them, we teach them how to enter (and eventually saturate (Dobrin’s term)) the ecological network (that, lets be honest, they are already in)? Would this help ‘us’ to produce “intellectual” rather than purely academic work (see Dobrin's distinction)? More importantly, would this allow our students to produce "intellectual" rather than “academic work,” which are mere exercises in the ultimately useless academic genre of the first year composition “research paper?” – an act of imitation and approximation rather than invention? What if, as Dobrin implies, we stop thinking about what we want our students to be as subjects and  allow them to producers in the space and place of intellectual work? Is this too much to ask? Is this too much for our students to handle—to do serious intellectual work in their own right, even if they have no intention to become “academics”? We’re not talking about journal articles, we’re talking about invention in the middle voice. 


  1. Some interesting questions, and the issue, or rather question I have (and you similar post), is would students take that initiative to produce intellectual work. I'm unsure whether students even know what that means (or even if I know what that means!), particularly since many of the students come from and through the Florida education system (and the national system) that teaches boilerplates (5 paragraph essays, choosing or working with banal topics) for passing standarized tests. Of course, I sound like I'm perpetuating the traditional teacher-student dynamic (something I would imagine Freire would highlight), as well as a condescending prick: teacher has the knowledge, knows what's best, and is expected to provide certain knowledges.

    Perhaps I ought to give FYW students more credit, as Gramsci points out “all men are intellectuals . . . but all men do not have the function of intellectuals in society” (121), and our goal as teachers should be to provide that space for students enter and occupy. Possibly this space, once transformed into place, is where intellectual capacity is realized (am I still expecting students to follow what I consider intellectual?). But what happens to assessment? How do we assess students work (of course, this leads to issues of purposes of grading and what grading even means)? While I do believe the academic essay is a trivial genre in many ways for students (yes, 90-95% of them won’t become academics in their life), I also contend that some of the skills they do learn (yes, I still think in many ways we do have to have a skills-based agenda) will enable them to navigate other courses. First-year writing courses cannot (and won’t ever, as Dobrin also highlights) determine how certain skills (proper citing, skilled paraphrasing, and integration and connection of other’s research to their own) would be used in other fields. For students who are majoring in, let’s say, Applied Physiology and Kinesiology, identifying credible sources, understanding arguments, citing and paraphrasing, and synthesizing ideas (and most importantly writing clear, concise, cohesive and coherent sentences!) will be needed beyond the FYW course (probably not so much after college, but in college, in other courses). And that’s a larger part of the issue: FYW courses, programs, and English departments are constituted by both other fields AND larger institutional structures (and don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying “fuck it, we are powerless.” I just think there are some definite limitations to feasible approaches and outcomes).

    What I’m interested in, and slightly confused on, is what Dobrin means by an emphasis on navigation, circulation and distribution, or rather how these ideas fit within the classroom. Like Sanchez’ article, I don’t expect Dobrin to offer an example, but I’m curious, as you are as well, how fruitful these approaches to writing and texts would be in FYW. Would students write/produce and then work with circulating and distributing their production in various networks (and getting back to assessment, would we then consider how “effective” their writing circulated? Are we grading on how many “hits,” for lack of better term now, their writing gets? For example, would Jake’s blog get a higher grade than Phil’s blog because of XXX more views)? What would an assignment prompt look like? In other words, would students choose a topic, write on the topic, and then track how that writing is received, conceptualized, (re)distributed?

    Gramsci, Antonio. The Modern Prince & other writings. Trans. Louis Marks. New York: International Publishers, 2000.

  2. Phil,

    Its late and I got to work early, but I wanted to clarify a couple things. First, Sid is explicitly talking about "Composition Studies" --that is, he is arguing that "Composition studies" in its RESEARCH capacity should not only focus on the "teaching of writing." Thus, AS TEACHERS, we still have the responsibility to think about how we are teaching, how we are grading, how we are writing, but Sid is arguing that "Composition studies" or, as he wants it, "Writing Studies" should be a "legitimate" "field"/Space/Place for a particular kind of research and theory. The question is not: do we have to think about how "we" (as TEACHERS, but not as COMPOSITIONISTS) are teaching, but rather should our research be relegated to improving our function as a service field. Our RESEARCH, Sid is arguing, should be able to be about Writing in its most general sense -- inscription, mark, trace, as well as its circulation and distribution.

    Furthermore, one of my favorite quotations from the text concerns the importance of recognizing that applying a kind of "liberatory" or "emancipatory" agenda for our students negelects to recognize that our students are, in some senses, some of the most elite people in the world. Thus, we need to be able to think OUTSIDE the classroom, as more people than college students write and THOSE are the people, in some senses, that might benefit from research into Writing as a phenomenon in its own right.

    So, to pay attention to circulation IS in some way to say that we need to think about how Writing is distributed. We have the potential to let our students actually distribute their writing and make an impact outside of our evaluation of it in terms of the typical classroom --

    THUS -- we must recognize the "new" "rhetorical" techniques.

    Since we both love examples, let me give you one. If you pay attention to how blogs are found online, many are found through image searches. Observe my most recent post-- it is a picture from David Lynch's Eraserhead but has a watermark from IGN. The reason I used the image was because it came up relatively early on my Google Image search for "David Lynch film" (since I referenced our conversation about David LYnch).

    Now, why the fuck would I want to put that image up even though the post is not about David Lynch or IGN? Because!!!! It becomes a "rhetorical" technique (a circulatory technique) because if I look at the "stats" portion of my blog, I find that many people visit a particular post BECAUSE they searched for the image/found the image and it landed them ON MY BLOG. Thus, it is a strategic move on my part to get more people to read.

    In a way, media technologies such as blogs allow our students to realize that their writing does not necessarily have to end in the classroom or in evaluation -- rather, writing that they do -- images that they manipulate -- videos that they make (see YouTube) can actually be found (even if they aren't "read" by most people in their entirety) through attention to circulation. As a lit major, no one but my prof read my essay on Trilmachio's Dinner scene in Petronius' Satyricon -- it functioned merely as an exercise, an imitation, an attempt --a trial -- and "essay" (to try) rather than something that has the POTENTIAL to circulate and function BEYOND the classroom and beyond the audience of one's immediate peers and teachers.

  3. Hopefully all this is making sense to you. I expect Laurie will say a similar thing as she is also very interested in circulation and distribution. In this age, we should be teaching not only how to write in particular genres, but how to mark our work in a way that it gets read and that goes beyond the University. As Compositionists, we have the responsibility to move beyond thinking about teaching individuals -- we must think about teaching individuals how to navigate this age of hypercirculation. The sad truth is that no matter how well written something may be -- if it never goes beyond the classroom, if we don't use certain "rhetorical/circulatory" techniques, then it remains an exercise. The fact is that via facebook, twitter, blogs, myspace, AIM, Skype, etc. -- our students know that their WRITTEN (as opposed to just spoken) words can affect people that they aren't in immediate contact with -- so why write a research paper on an issue that millions of other people have written on?

    Again, this is why I love Greg's work-- it takes the "personal" into account, but without relegating it to such cliche and boring forms as the "personal essay" -- rather, the 'personal' --one's life --becomes a means for connection, conduction, and ultimately, invention.

  4. Hey Jake,

    Yes, it all makes sense. I understand that Sid is particularly interested in how compositionists theorize and research (I mentioned in my blog post that both he and Raul seem to be creating a foundation in developing a methodology for the field), and not in how teachers teach writing. I’m with you on thinking about writing that students do outside the classroom and beyond. And I’m with you in teaching students how to “navigate this age of hypercirculation.”

    But I’m glad you mentioned that quote where Sid says something like “our students are the elite,” in other words, privileged, because it does function in how students think about their own writing and goals and how their writing is actually valued (yes, I’m going to evaluate and determine if their writing is “good”). True indeed: most of our students are white, middle to upper class students (part of the reason too why I think they feel entitled), yet most cannot write clearly. They cannot express ideas concisely (hell, I often barely can!). As I said before, compositionists and composition studies is embedded, to use Sid’s claim, in a complex system that will work against the field if we neglect academic writing (I think, but maybe I’m not thinking radically enough). In many ways, we as teachers ought to have a balance between two types of writing (and I know these aren’t binaries and that these categories overlap in many ways) academic writing (genres, research for papers, navigation) and intellectual writing (circulation, distribution). Is this even feasible in a FYW course? Again, I know Sid is calling for us to move beyond the FYW, but the institutional issues he hopes to address are slightly beyond my control at this point (although we do have a kind of tenure as graduate students, which means I should be moving to the edge of chaos and jumping in my 1102). Don’t get me wrong. I find his argument fascinating and have really enjoyed his writing and ideas. But I think he really is directing attention to bureaucratic positions, something I’m unsure as to how I personally would approach (just because I don’t know or feel comfortable about my place in the UWP and larger institution, hence maybe I need to work with navigating the institution’s space more). Yet, what does influence and motivate me to do something about the bureaucracy is the existence of both 1101 and 1102 courses. Would it be better to combine the two or eradicate the 1101 and develop another 100 level course that focuses on the type of writing that moves beyond the classroom, a course that works specifically with circulation and distribution of writing? I think that would be more useful than two semesters of traditional writing courses.

    One thing I do really like in considering writing and circulation is civic engagement/activism. In other words, how is writing activism? This is another idea I had on my list of thesis ideas, so it would be interesting to explore further some of Sid’s points. Plus, I’ve got an indep. study with Laurie and, as you noted, she’ll be great to work with this idea of writing as activism and how it circulates and gets distributed.