Last week Bob Yagelski came to Cortland to speak at a conference. Bob was an assistant professor in the English department at SUNY-Albany when I was in the PhD program there. Now he’s an associate professor over in Education. We had a few laughs about the craziness of the English department back in the nineties. It was one of those places where the conflicts between literarture and writing was really fierce. Now I’m in a department that is not nearly as fierce, but there is virtually no chance that literature and writing will ever collaborate on anything here.
So in any case I was bemused to see the issue arise on the WPA list. The deep history of these conflicts was quickly recounted though I think we are in a different world now. There was a time when rhet/comp folks desired recognition for literary studies. Maybe in some places that struggle still goes on with rhet/comp faculty trying to convince their lit studies colleagues that they have something to offer to an English major. As director of a professional writing major, my question goes in the other direction: what, if anything, is the value of literary studies for us? I can certainly imagine a role for a certain kind of intellectual approach to literature as a part of professional writing, but…
Anyway, for me it comes down to this. Our disciplinary identities are locked into specializations. For my lit colleagues, especially the more traditional ones, this means attachment to periods and/or authors. However, the fundamental argument for an undergraduate English degree can’t be that students learn literary history, or at least that’s only a small part of it. The main thrust and appeal has always been that English majors learn to write and communicate. But now we have professors who specialize in writing, who break writing into further specializations: technical writing, new media writing, professional writing, creative writing, journalism, etc. Suddenly the literature professor is no more qualified to teach writing than s/he is to teach literature outside of hir speciality, and the student in a traditional lit studies English program is not taught to write any more than s/he is taught history or philosophy, which is to say that s/he gets some but hardly gets a disciplinary education in such matters.
Clearly lit faculty can never accept this designation. They can never recognize writing as a specialization within their discipline.
On the other hand, writing faculty must insist on writing as a specialization. Otherwise they have no disciplinary authority at all. As writing faculty, we view writing instruction in a literature course the same as we might view it in economics or biology or sport management–as writing across the curriculum. And of course we support WAC and think it’s great that everyone uses writing as a mode of teaching and learning.
But if you actually want your students to learn how to write well then you need to send them to writing specialists.
Anyway the beat goes on…