Open Source Composition

My department is mired in deliberations about how to replace two retiring literature faculty. With growing programs in professional writing and teacher education, the numbers indicate the need for faculty in these areas. However, there is concern from some about what this implies regarding the future of our department.

It’s a worthwhile concern, and anyone who has read this blog before knows I write about the future of English Studies all the time. Of course, since we need to get the job ads out immediately, it would have been a good conversation to have last semester or even a month ago.  But here we go.

Some of the issues we must face are specific to my department (though perhaps not uncommon) while others relate to broader changes in both discipline and culture.

Here’s the deal in my department. The professional writing faculty work very hard trying to build their new program. We take our students on retreats every semesters; we have a student group that produces literary magazines and holds readings; we do campus wide events (something we call Professional Writing Day); we get involved in innovative projects around campus we think might benefit our students; and we do a hell of a lot of recruitment/marketing work. There are three of us in PWR. The teacher education folks work just as hard, if not moreso. They have to deal with the state and accrediting agencies, work with the School of Education, administer all the student teaching and classroom hours students need. They also have the lion’s share of the majors (though they obviously take a good number of literature courses as well). There are TWO faculty in this area. Meanwhile, to put it bluntly, our literature faculty sit on their hands. Here’s what I see. They can’t be bothered to do assessment or think about how to attract more students or develop interesting curriculum or build community among their majors or do just about anything. I’ve been here 3 years, but it seems like for at least the last 10 years the literature faculty (there are 12 of them) have done everything they can to make their own lives easier. When new requirments come down the pipe they cordon them off in new courses rather than having to alter their own teaching (thus creating the need to hire new faculty outside of literature). They let their own student organization, the English club, die. They do no recruitment; they can’t even bother to show up for majors fairs. Recently they even became unwilling to direct their own conference. So I took up the job.

So here is my thing. And I make no bones about being partisan or argumentative. Why should I asked to be “even-minded” or “fair,” when no one else in the game has to play by those rules? Bottom line: literary studies is so 20th century. Give it up and go home. No one loves you anymore. Stop calling me.

You want to know what the future is? I’ll tell you. The future is “not you.” Hey! not so fast rhet/comp, the future isn’t “you” either.

I am here to tell you the future is open source composition.

What is that?

Gee, I’m glad you asked. I’m sure you know about “open source” software. I’ve written some about open source composition (e.g. a wiki), where the notion of authorship is undermined by collaborative effort, where knowledge is developed through a communal process. Well I want to incorporate that notion, but I want to move toward a different emphasis by focusing on open composition.

What this reflects is the concept in poetics of the “open field” (as in Olson and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry) as well as the Heideggerean concept of the open (cf. On the Way to Language).  I’m also asking “you” to think back to the 60s/70s: the experimentations between art, poetry, and technology before comptuers became household commodities. Obviouisly the computational power is exponentially higher now, but we have perhaps lost some of that experimental quality, or at least it has become drowned in all the commerce.

What then is the “future” of English Studies? De-emphasizing, though not erasing, aesthetic appreciation. Reintegrating poetics and rhetorics with cultural analysis. Recognizing textual production of all types as cutlural, and specifically technological, phenomenon.

Moving forward with a discipline built on an ontological philosophy of aesthetic experience, cultural studies (of technology), critical theory, rhetoric, and poetics.

6 replies on “Open Source Composition”

This a first year graduate student speaking so perhaps I’m slightly off-base here, but I’m also amused at the general lack of communication and interest in bonding with students at a more elementary level.
In the Teaching College Writing class I’m in, we were discussing the idea of teaching film to Composition classes (see Elizabeth Daley “Expanding Literacy”), and everyone else was so vehemently against the idea that I was shocked. The students kept saying that film isn’t their field, that they’re more interested in getting students to appreciate the universality of literature even they stated that film isn’t literature.
It was at that moment that I wondered why I’m here, but I truly believe that change is the hardest thing to inroduce to college faculties. Good luck on your front; I doubt mine will change much…
Paul Petrovic
Kent State University


I’m all for getting rid of the Tech Writing and Business Writing courses at Cortland, if that’s part of what you’re saying. I’d gladly take a Poetics part 2 or more New Media theory-based classes. A course on the future of narrative would be great. I think such courses would benefit students more than they think, but in the rush to finish college and find a career they miss that and demand something more “practical.” They don’t understand that what is practical now is meaningless in twenty years. Also, writing business proposals, progress reports, memos, etc, can be worked into another class if need be. Personally such tasks are easy enough, so easy in fact that a class composed of such tasks is little more than the merit badge of pragmatism.
As I’ve said before I think it would be great if someone interested in the New Media side of writing and the future of narrative could incorporate some classes from the COM and ATS departments and opt out of classes like tech writing and business writing, even the creative writing requirment if they so desire. It may draw students who want an interdisciplinary degree or an English degree with leanings toward science/technology to Cortland. Does such an undergraduate program exist in the SUNY system? it seems like many schools are slowly working toward that.


I am glad to have found some rather like-minded graduate students and faculty members. I’m a phd student who has all the same concerns that have been brought up in the last posts.
I would like to invite all of you to go to the website below as I am chairing a conference in February that will attempt to answer some of these questions and network with others. Submit an abstract if you are interested!!
Also a thank you to Alex for such a relevant and useful blogsite!


This is an interesting post. I agree with the critique, but the summation seems to obscure
the key ingredient of what works–work. You describe the strip mining of students for professorial ease as the main problem, and I agree. By foregrounding of anything but the commitment to students in their situatedness puts us right back at the beginning of what got your colleagues in trouble. Abstracting the network of teachers, students, activities, tools, and apparatus (among others) into “literature” or “composition” or “theory” misses the point of us constantly working together to align the network to help our students. The solution is to keep working. It almost doesn’t matter what we call it. Be aware of the things that benefit students, and keep adjusting the network to foreground those things. It will involve aesthetic, practical, rhetorical, cultural, and other alchemical elements.


So I was doing some updating of old posts (removing spam links) and somehow this post got recirculated and received new feedback (which is fine). It’s from 2004. 15+ years on though, I agree with Doc. I also think it says something that thematically the topic is still relevant in English Studies (although this precise situation is not currently happening in my department). We might think of the choices we make in terms of helping students, though I think that might just kick the can down the road. I.e., the claim to help students might be made in defense of building almost any kind of English department or perhaps even eliminating English departments (or academia for that matter). I don’t mean that the claim to help students is a cynical, post-hoc rationalization but that our notions of helping extend from existing disciplinary and other ideological commitments.

Basically 15 years on, I have no problem with other faculty with different disciplinary commitments–be they literary studies or history or chemistry or accounting–doing their thing. I may not share their disciplinary values. Hopefully we have some shared sense of purpose both as academics in general and as faculty on a specific campus. Beyond that we may view one another as collaborators or competitors.

As for this “open composition” thing, that idea has evolved for me. I continue to explore composing from an ontological angle: why is there something rather than nothing? Because something was composed. How? My interest in composing processes has always been tied to the process philosophies in which Deleuze participated, and now I think of those things in terms of new materialism and with a special research focus on the role of digital media.


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