Trimbur's Carnival

I swear it’s not often that I wake up with ELP in my head, but this morning it’s welcome back my friends to the show the never ends. Several have already taken up the call to Trimbur (Donna, Derek, Collin, Jeff W, Jeff R, Jenny, Bill).

Here’s my short review.

  1. I agree with Jeff Rice’s response to the specter of critical theory, for much of the same reasons (e.g. Latour). I would not seek to "legitimize" rhetoric by creating a cultural studies of writing major. I’ve already been down this road. At Georgia Tech, we taught (and I believe they still teach) FYC essentially as an "intro to cultural studies" course. It was institutionalized that way, and they hire ADB’s and post-docs who can deliver it.
  2. I also agree with Derek’s assessment that there is no reason for Trimbur’s questions to be exclusive when they can be additive: "Can writing be taught?" "How can writing be learned?" "Should writing be studied? Furthermore, these questions can be proliferative, mutating one another (though honestly none interests me too much).
  3. Though, as director of a professional writing major, I’m clearly supportive of the writing studies major as a general idea, I’m not attracted to the trope of the "seminar." To me, it is even more retrograde than the appeal to critical theory. I understand it’s cache institutionally in saying "we’re serious intellectuals b/c we teach seminars," but I believe we don’t need to go backwards like that.

Reform in the teaching of writing is a difficult circular task. A couple graduate programs can decide they are going to reform their curriculum, but they still need to prepare students in a way that will make them employable by more conservative colleges and universities. At Penn State Capital College and SUNY-Cortland, the two places I’ve been an assistant prof, the FYC programs were easily 20 years behind current scholarship. The vast majority of sections are taught by adjuncts or instructors who may have little or no background in rhet/comp theory (even though they have MAs, MFAs, and sometimes PhDs in English). In neither case was there any continuing education or professional development, largely b/c it was felt that we couldn’t ask these underpaid individuals to do one extra thing. Even in the case of tenure-track English faculty teaching FYC, the lit professors don’t really have the training, and they aren’t keeping up with rhet/comp scholarship obviously.

I realize research institutions have grad students teaching FYC, but in the larger picture this is just a one part of who teachs this course nationally. And in the case of grad students, in many instances those TAs are seeking lit PhD’s and likely haven’t had more than one course of rhet/comp theory either.

If one was going to reform FYC, one would have to alter this system, at least locally. At Cortland, where FYC is not only a college service course but meets system-wide general education requirements, you could potentially face massive bureaucratic hurdles to any substantive change. On any campus, you’d have to win over colleagues across the campus who think we teach FYC for them and that they know what we need to do. Even more difficult, you’d have to win over traditional lit folk in your department, who also think they know how to teach writing.

It’s a morass, so I can appreciate the argument that says we should turn our backs on FYC. I’m not here to save anyone. I’m not here to save students who can’t write. I’m not here to save composition from capitalism’s satanic influence. My interest in FYC is purely mercenary. It’s two more courses where professional writing faculty can interact with their majors. We can use FYC for creating attractive first-year learning communities and for recruiting students as majors and minors.

That’s all it really means to me. I don’t hold much hope for FYC. I fear it has too much inertia to change with the times and eventually it will become so atavistic that we’ll just cut it out.

In my experience, a professional writing program offers a significant means to explore writing.  We study writing (both verb and noun) as Trimbur suggests. We practice writing. We study by practicing and practice by studying. We have courses like "Rhetoric" and "Contemporary Poetics" and "Evolution of Writing" where we read about writing and write and talk about writing. They are seminars I suppose. I suppose you could say we offer our students a cultural studies perspective, if the alternatives are a process orientation or a functional-transactional orientation.

However, I see it differently. In curriculum design we’ve long imagined courses as building upon one another, as connecting to one another. Now that network is technologically possible.  Students can build and access information across courses and semesters. In terms of networking, it’s nothing special. In terms of curriculum I think it points the way out of the seminar. Furthermore, it makes it easier to trace linkages rather than leap (as Latour says) from the local interaction to the specter of ideology.

It’s not technology to the rescue. It’s recognizing that the conditions of writing shift and we must shift with them. One thing we don’t want to inherit from our disciplinary cousins is the belief that we get to determine what it is that we study. We don’t get to say "what writing is," let alone "what good writing is" (for chrissakes!).

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