Ten Years Later: Let's Re-Evaluate

In my online travels yesterday, I happened upon a series of position papers from a 1995 issue of JAC titled The Things That Go Without Saying in Composition Studies: A Colloquy. Robert L. Connors collects a series of (some likely caricatured) premises that the group could agree upon in the morning:

1.Our most central task as literacy educators is understanding and acting on issues of the cultural and ideological contexts of writing.
2. The “process” (expressivist/cognitivist) paradigm of teaching and research is naive and outmoded, and we have to move beyond it.
3. Individualism and concepts of personal agency are delusions, and we must avoid being trapped by them as we consider issues of literacy education.
4. All meaning is constructed socially, and our choice as educators involved working to further that construction with or striving to further that construction against the grain of the larger culture’s ideologies.
5. The goals of literacy pedagogies should thus be to assist adaptation to existing academic realities through teaching conventions or to work for social change through analyses of economic and cultural forces.
6. For either of these purposes, the personal essay is a questionable form and is proof of the low status of composition.
7. Being middle class is a somewhat ignoble status and an unsophisticated goal to wish for our students.
8. Most composition teaching is naive if not destructive.

But on the other hand, in the afternoon:

1.Our most central task as literacy educators is teaching students to write more effectively for themselves and for their other classes.
2. Students are genuine individuals who have real needs, desires, and agency. So are we.
3.The process paradigm of teaching is a kind of default setting for us, what we all naturally assume and use, the methodological sine qua non underlying all other pedagogies we try out.
4. Meaning inheres in feelings and emotions, which may be constructed socially but which are felt, acted on, and written about individually.
5.The personal essay is a central genre from which many others can grow.
6.Being middle class is a reasonable thing to want or to propose for our students, and most of us are and always will be inescapably middle class.
7.Most composition teaching does help students, if the teacher truly cares about helping students.

So, everyone, I'd love to hear your thoughts: Ten years later, how has the field of composition changed? Has it changed at all? Are these still the issues? What are the questions? What are the terms of the debate? What are the stakes? What about technology? I can't help but notice it's not addressed in these premises.

Comments

Thanks for digging this out, Clancy. I found myself grumbling as I read the morning statements, and then felt a lot better with the afternoon claims. These are the kinds of things Bob Connors did so well. We really miss his presence in the profession.

By 1995, word processing and computer labs had become common, but email and the net/web were still not widely used by academics. I keep reminding myself of the kind of anti-email diatribes some of my colleagues in our department would write about that time, because none of them would be without it now. It's good to remind ourselves that a whole lot of change has occurred in the past 20 years in the teaching of composition.

No problem, John. I found the article while looking for information about the Maxine Hairston/Jim Berlin debate. In the composition theory course I took during my master's program, we didn't cover this debate specifically, though we did read some Berlin. I've been thinking about it more lately, though, wishing I knew more about it, so I tried to find a summary of the controversy online. Yeah, I know I should just read the articles, and I will soon, but I don't have them in front of me just now.

Maybe it's because I sympathize with the underdog, but from what I understand, folks really ganged up on Hairston and kind of ostracized her, and I can't help but wonder: Were people being fair to her? Were they making straw men of her claims? My advisor at Tennessee was a student of Hairston's, and he's one of the editors of Against the Grain: A Volume in Honor of Maxine Hairston, which I've checked out from interlibrary loan. It seems that she was made out by some to be like David Horowitz (as in, an archconservative out to quash feminist, Marxist, queer, etc. pedagogies). Certainly not by everyone, though -- I remember Mike's saying on his blog once that the crux of the debate was that Hairston was implying (or arguing outright?) that the classroom ought to be ideology-free (as opposed to orthodoxy-free) and that Berlin was saying the classroom is always already imbued with various ideologies.

Are either of those representations what Hairston was really saying? I wonder if she was perhaps just saying teachers should be more even-handed when it comes to presenting the issues. I can't imagine that she would have, for example, when faced with a student paper filled with racist assumptions, just pointed out grammar mistakes. I think she'd have challenged those in her comments, just the same as if, say, she read a student paper expressing radical feminist views à la SCUM manifesto.

And wasn't part of Hairston's argument the claim that students might just parrot the instructor's views to get a good grade? I have to agree with her on that one. I know I did it all the time when I was in high school and while an undergraduate student.

CultureCat

I'm somewhat familiar with the debate as well, though I haven't exactly done heavy research into it. What I can say is that, given the very serious conservatism so omnipresent in the US these days, it would be safer for departments to downplay politics and especially radical politics. The sort of right-wing nutjob criticism of English departments is that we're left wing liberals who force students to swing to our way of thinking--or ELSE. I was looking at the topics here at USF that all students are supposed to address--political rhetoric, ethical perspectives, etc. Underneath these topics is the assumption that "good political rhetoric" is liberal, and good "ethical perspectives" are feminist, gay tolerant (if not celebratory), anti-racist, and environmentalist. Since I am all of these things, I certainly don't feel alienated or ostracized. However, I can well imagine myself back in 95 entering a writing program as a freshman and being forced to deal with all of these "liberal" issues. My gut reflex would probably be to denounce the whole enterprise as some rather serious indoctrination by the liberal left. Just seeing a phrase like "feminist constructions of knowledge" would have made me cringe. Considering that as I moved through a college education, I swung 180 degrees from right-wing conservatism to left-wing liberalism, yes, I can say that I was "reprogrammed" by my higher education. Of course, I don't consider this a bad thing and am, in fact, really happy that I was able to make that switch. However, like it or not, I was forced to change my politics if I really wanted to succeed.

The example of the racist paper is a classic one. I don't generally allow my students that much leeway anyway, but occasionally I get the paper that directly conflicts with my ethical standards so much I must take action. I often get papers from male students that are thoroughly sexist. Generally, I hand these papers back (without grading them) and tell them that I would like to read a paper on another topic; that while some audiences may enjoy such themes, most academics would reject it flatly. I tell them that my role isn't just to teach writing, but also to teach some basic "survival skills" in the university, and papers like that could endanger the student's future in the academy. I think that's about as fair as I can be without being "ideological."

Clancy, you can find Hairson's position in the May 1992 CCC essay "Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing," which is reproduced both in Villanueva's Cross-Talk and in Tate et al's Sourcebook -- both excellent resources and well worth owning for any compositionist, I think. (For a self-directed comp theory seminar, one could do a lot worse than simply reading the Villanueva from cover to cover.) The essay is well worth a read, as is Berlin's 1988 "Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class." Yeah, you're right, part of her position is that students might simply parrot the instructor's ideological position -- but she really does argue against bringing politics into the classroom. (There's an interesting back-story to the blow-up, involving Hairston's professional and institutional history, but I don't know it well enough to tell it, so maybe somebody else can help out in that regard.) A big part of her worry is that students will be powerless to resist being dominated by the instructor's ideology, and in service of her argument, she makes some massive slams against Berlin, as well as side-swiping John Trimbur, Leser Faigley, Richard Ohmann, and Linda Brodkey by name. But yeah, she just doesn't want ideology in the classroom: "Those who want to bring their ideology into the classroom argue that since any classroom is necessarily political, the teacher might as well make it openly political and ideological. Her or she should be direct and honest about his or her political beliefs; then the students will know where they stand and everyone can talk freely. Is any experienced teacher really so naive as to believe that? Such claims are no more than self-serving rationalizations that allow a professor total freedom to indulge personal prejudices and avoid any responsibility to be fair."

So no, I don't think she's a David Horowitz, but if you look at the article, she really does take on folks on the left pretty fiercely. I think part of it is that she's coming out of what everybody calls the "theory wars" of the eighties, and she makes some pretty facile, sweeping dismissals of deconstruction and poststructuralism.

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Mike
http://www.vitia.org/

Matt, re the racist/sexist paper: are you familiar with Richard Miller's 1994 CE essay "Fault Lines in the Contact Zone", where he discusses another (gay) instructor's dilemma in how to deal with a student's personal essay that unapologetically deals with a gay-bashing incident? Miller offers some really striking insights about dealing with politically volatile rhetoric in the classroom -- worth checking out, partly because it sets up a situation where I think simply handing the paper back to the student might be highly problematic. But yeah, like you, I certainly moved to the left in the process of my education.
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Mike
http://www.vitia.org/

Like you, John, I'm definitely an afternoon person vis-á-vis Connors' claims. And as far as the absence of tech in those claims goes, Clancy, we might do well to remember that in 1995, Netscape was at version 1.0, amazon.com was a brand-new company, Microsoft had just licensed Mosaic from Spyglass, and one of the most compelling discussions of writing technologies was around Carolyn Dowling's statement on "Word Processing and the Ongoing Difficulty of Writing." (Said facts being things that I know are familiar to all of us around here, but sometimes, I don't know, it's like Google feels somehow beyond history or something.)
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Mike
http://www.vitia.org/

Thanks for the head's up about the artilce, Mike. I'll check it out!

Matt

Yeah, the WWW was a fledgling entity back then for sure, but I'm talking more about just the influence of computer technology on writing, like word processing. Cynthia Selfe's been publishing on composition and technology since 1983, as have others, so I guess I was under the impression that C&W wasn't that far out on the bleeding edge in 1995.

Getting back to Connors' lists, though, I'm still interested in talking about how things might have changed. If we were to make a list of tentative premises of our field now, would they differ from Connors'? Would there be a statement about collaboration? About the influence of technology? In Connors' lists, the term "literacy" seems to be already-constituted and taken for granted. Now people are talking about post-literacy. What do you all have to say to these questions?

CultureCat

(Posted in slightly different form here.)

Some of Connors's premises are clearly intended to function in pairs. My "central task" as a literacy educator? I don't think it's "understanding and acting on issues of the cultural and ideological contexts of writing," but I don't think one can teach "students to write more effectively" without doing so. And I do believe that "teaching students to write more effectively" is my central task as a composition teacher, although I would assert that I'm not merely helping students to do so "for themselves and for their other classes," but for the benefit of their peers, as well, and for the benefit of society at large, and for the prospect of making the future a better place than the present. I'm a little uncomfortable with the "more effectively," though, because I want immediately to ask, "more effectively than what? And what does being 'effective' mean?" So I guess, in that way, I'm asking what it means to teach writing well -- and I'm afraid that's not a definitional task that I'm quite up to right now.

I definitely don't believe the process paradigm to be outmoded, but nor do I believe that it should be a naturalized assumption: the insights offered by Janet Emig in 1971 and by Donald Murray in 1972 were genuinely revolutionary, and we shouldn't forget that. Helping students to understand that writing involves a series of decisions, a series of overlapping and sometimes recursive stages may seem self-evident, but it wasn't always so. I also don't agree with the way Connors equates the process paradigm to so-called expressivist or cognitivist models. Sure, there are portions of Donald Murray's work that sound very much like everyone-find-your-own-personal-truth expressivism. So, too, there are moments in Janet Emig's work that really line up with some of the work done by Linda Flower and cognitive psychologist John Hayes, but it's important to keep in mind that the Psych 101 course John Hayes teaches at Carnegie Mellon is (was?) called "Cognitive Processes: Theory and Practice," and the focus on discrete and isolable processes in Hayes's work is in many ways similar to the ways we as writing teachers label things like "freewriting" and "pre-writing" and "drafting" and "copyediting" -- but that doesn't make people who teach the writing process cognitivists. Anyway: those are minor quibbles. I do firmly believe in the process paradigm and its value.

I found the contrasting proposals Connors offers about the uses of individualism a little difficult to sort out. They strike me as being, in part, responses to the "conversation" about individual agency and institutional forces that David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow were having at about the same time. I certainly don't believe individualism and personal agency to be "delusions," but I do believe that meaning is constructed socially, even as I agree that it's "felt, acted on, and written about individually." Does that mean I disagree that we should "assist adaptation to existing academic realities through teaching conventions or to work for social change through analyses of economic and cultural forces"? Hm. That's hard to say. Those are two different proposals, and two distinct threads of composition pedagogy, but they're not necessarily mutually exclusive. To risk a couple of crude oversimplifications, "Teaching conventions" is, in some ways, what's today getting called "genre theory," while those "analyses of economic and cultural forces" are the methods of today's weird blurring of cultural studies pedagogies and Freirean critical pedagogies.

I mean, the argument's been made that you can't not teach conventions, since that would be a disservice to your students. But the argument's also been made that many conventions are the instruments of hegemony, and so we need to unmask and critique them via the aforementioned analyses. So, yeah, as Connors implies, in any given pedagogical situation, those are both going to be options available to you. But constructing them as the only options strikes me as a crudely reductive binary.

My 2¢.
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Mike
http://www.vitia.org/

I'm trying to figure out how to say this without sounding like I'm taking a snarky or disrespectful tone, because I really don't mean it that way, but every time I look at that "afternoon" list, an image of any teacher* in any little red schoolhouse on the frontier comes to mind. Is there anything on the afternoon list that that teacher couldn't have told us? I guess that's Connors' point, to reorient us toward common sense and practice, but I do end up questioning the contribution of the theory just a little. It makes me think about the trajectory of composition theory. For a long time, it has been about basically identifying and sorting out approaches to meaning-making, definitions of what "good writing" is, and what the consequences of texts are. It's great to do those things and examine those assumptions, but what has it gotten us? What new insights have come out of this theorizing that the teacher from the little red schoolhouse couldn't have provided?

Right now, I think one new insight, as Mike pointed out, is the understanding of genres as, to use Berkenkotter & Huckin's phrase, the ways knowledge [and instruments of hegemony] is packaged. Maybe also theories of collaborative authorship and uses of new media, especially video documentaries. [Edited to add visual rhetoric to the list, but I realize it's implied.]

I'm thinking of a good article about Meridel Le Sueur I read a while back too.

CultureCat

Mike and Matt,

Just a short gloss on Richard Miller's essay: the incident he describes occurred in the classroom of my Foothill College colleague, Scott Langford. Scott initially posed the ethical issues he faced at an MLA panel (which I heard) and subsequently wrote about the incident, which Richard nicely contextualizes. For me, the key was Scott's decision to use the moment for teaching, not for disciplining.