Higher Education

English Studies blah blah blah

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…


4 replies on “English Studies blah blah blah”

Doesn’t this just reverse the previous hierarchy, though? As you suggest, in the bad old days, the thinking was that any old Ph.D. lit person could teach writing, but only lit people could teach literature. You’re saying this in reverse: the real experts are writing and WAC people, and they and only they can teach writing, whereas any old Ph.D. can teach literature.
To maintain this hierarchy does a disservice to both. Can’t disciplinary boundaries be equal? Viewing literature as simply another discipline like biology or whatever in a WAC program doesn’t do it justice, just as viewing writing as just another piece in the literature pie doesn’t do it justice, either.


I agree it’s an untenable situation, but I’m not sure what you are suggesting. What would make a literary studies phd better qualified to teach writing than a history or philosophy or communications phd? It certainly wouldn’t be b/c they’ve taken courses in the teaching of writing or conducted research in this area (i.e., the things that would normally define expertise in any academic discipline.)
If a lit professor is qualified to teach Shakespeare but not Chaucer, then why would they be qualified to teach Shakespeare and writing?
Now the point is that the Shakespeare prof can teach Chaucer (or Keats or Pound even!) in the context of a general education intro to lit course or perhaps even in a lit survey course of some kind.
Similarly, a lit professor might teach an introductory writing course (e.g. FYC) or might employ writing in a lit study course (in much the same way as writing might be taught in any WAC course).
By the same token I might teach literary texts (in fact I teach a contemporary poetics course in our professional writing major that our English majors cannot take as part of their degree). I might teach philosophy (we commonly teach Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Marx and others). We discuss history (we have a course on the history of writing technologies). But those courses aren’t “literature” courses or “philosophy” courses or “history” courses. For students who major in those courses the knowledge we offer is not viewed a disciplinary.
I just want to hold writing to the same standard. Other professors can certainly discuss writing, but they can’t offer you a disciplinary understanding of writing anymore than you can get a disciplinary understanding of literary studies or philosophy or history from majoring in professional writing.
But actually I’ll take it farther. I’ve had quite a few graduate courses in literature and the philosophy/theory I teach. Have these professors had any education in the teaching of writing? Maybe one course, but probably none. I’m not claiming I’m qualified to offer a disciplinary education in those fields, but those professors are certainly not qualified to offer a disciplinary education in writing.
Of course maybe students don’t need a disciplinary education in writing. You can only major in one (or two) things after all. Maybe they don’t need a minor in professional writing either. Maybe the writing education they are receiving is working out great, and students generally graduate as proficient writers.
And maybe pigs fly.
So this is what I tell students. If they want to be good writers they should at least minor in professional writing. Then every semester they should take one course with us where they will work on their writing with someone who is an expert in the teaching of writing. And when they graduate they may not be the best writer or poised to become the next great novelist but they’ll be a stronger writer than the average graduate in their major (i.e., the person with whom they’ll be directly competing in the job market).
Again, I strongly encourage lit professors to teach literature and to use writing in their classes and even to teach FYC if they really want to (though god help the student who ends up with the prof who resents getting “stuck” teaching FYC).
But you wouldn’t ask your plumber to rewrite your house, so why would you go to anyone but an expert to teach you how to write?


I guess I have a hard time with the arrogance of both positions (“only *my* discipline knows how to do x”). I also think the stereotype of the lit professor who has had no training in teaching writing is more an artifact of 1985 than of today, but that’s an impression for which I have no statistics.
The real key may be that those with professional credentials in teaching writing will be the best at teaching students to write for the professions and for WAC, just as creative writing professionals will be best at teaching that type of writing.


Hmmm… OK. Is it arrogant if a biologist says that only biologists can teach biology? Or if a sociologist says only sociologists can teach sociology? I wish it were true that lit faculty had more training in rhet/comp. If it is, that’s great. When I was in grad school in the 90s, if you were a TA teaching comp, you’d be required to take a practicum. Otherwise there was no requirement, and that was in a program (UAlbany) that really wanted to integrated lit studies, theory, and writing (a project that crashed and burned in the most fiery way possible, btw).
Anyway, when you look at an English department, the majority of faculty were probably out of grad school by the mid-80s. And again if they are in lit. they haven’t been spending their time keeping up with scholarship in rhet/comp.
For good or bad, the entire university functions on this model of specialization. I don’t know if that’s arrogant. It would be arrogant to imagine that you could teach courses in a discipline without dedication.
However, I agree that any English professor who has taken a couple rhet/comp courses in graduate school, is really interested in teaching composition, and is willing to dedicate some time to continuing professional development and keeping current with rhet/comp scholarship would be quite qualified to teach FYC.
Let me know if you meet anyone like that.


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