(post-) post-process composition

Elizabeth Wardle and I have been having a pleasant exchange on one of my earlier posts, and we hit upon a discussion of post-process composition. I don’t know if there are any real histories of post-process. There’s Richard Fulkerson’s Composition Studies article, which indicates the term was first coined in 1994 by John Trimbur and Anthony Pare. However, I would think that you could go back earlier, even to the late 80s, and see the post-process movement there. In fact, you could even say something like Ira Shor’s Critical Thinking in Everyday Life was post-process in some respect, and that was 1980.

As it happens, Shor’s book was one of the first, if not the first, book I read in comp theory when I entered grad school in 1992.

I think there are many varieties of post-process composition. It’s a kind of an attempt to capture the various ways that rhet/comp scholars have moved beyond, built upon, and/or rejected the dominant writing process school of thought. In general though, and from my perspective, post-process is a recognition of the social and cultural dimensions of writing. On the one hand, it’s Berlin’s social-epistemic rhetoric, which is strongly Marxist from my view. On the other hand, it represents the impact of Foucault and cultural studies on our understanding of the role of ideology/power in discourse and representation. That’s not to say there was no recognition of social/political issues in rhet/comp before then. Obviously that isn’t true. However, I think it’s equally obvious that postmodern theory and cultural studies offered radically different and powerful ways to examine these questions, with the result being that some rhet/comp folks shifted their thinking about writing and teaching to such an extent that they no longer could think of themselves as holding the process positions they once held. They were post-process.

In my PhD program (U-Albany) in the mid-nineties, post-process was certainly the dominant composition approach, especially among the graduate students. There was a strong Marxist contingent across the doctoral program and a strong emphasis on "theory" as well. By 1996, when I started writing my dissertation, post-process seemed such the normal way of looking at things, that my diss could probably be best described as post-post-process composition theory: a critique of the pedagogic strategies that had evolved in post-process and their explicit liberatory objectivies, which I found "problematic" (the grad student’s favorite word). Reading Victor Vitanza and Greg Ulmer got me started down that path.

I then went to Georgia Tech where the FYC program doubled as intro to cultural studies and students read Marx, Raymond Williams, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc. No one ever talked about process that I can recall. Of course, we still had students write drafts, do workshops, get feedback, and revise. But that wasn’t a theory to us anymore than filling a beaker with chemicals and holding it over a Bunsen burner is a theory to a chemistry student. That said, we could (and some did) critique the process as an ideological mechanism for interpolating subjects into particular postiions–as "student writers" for example.

What changed for me was the real emergence of the web in the late nineties and my introduction to the field of new media studies that accompanied it. Working in hypertext and web design led me slowly to realize that writing wasn’t what I had assumed it to be. New media studies helped me to think about the technological-material dimensions of writing. So for the past five or so years, I’ve been thinking about writing as a material-technological process, which includes thinking about thought as material and technological.

Here is where I get to plug my book, The Two Virtuals, which will be out this summer from Parlor Press. My book really explores this idea by looking at two conceptions of the virtual. On the one hand there’s the technological virtual–the way emerging technologies create new kinds of mediated-informational spaces and networks to which we link in a kind of distributed cognition. On the other hand, there’s a philosophical virtual, which is an alternate theory of materiality, alternate to the dominant philosophy which hinges on a conception of essence (e.g. there’s some essential characteristic of a tree that makes it not a bush). Virtual philosophy offers a different explanation for how materiality unfolds and diferentiates into the world we experience. As such, it is really a theory of compositional processes. That is, it is literally a theory of how the material world is composed, a theory that includes the composition of thought and the composition of writing.

The philosophical virtual envelops the technological virtual, so they are not in opposition or dialectic to one another. However, the philosophical virtual offers a useful context for understanding the role emerging technologies play in networks of distributed cognition and composition.

So I suppose I am post-process in the sense that I continue to teach writing by asking students to study writing, both the object and the practice, and try to figure out what it is and how it works and how they do it and so on. Some folks may even insist that that’s the process approach. That’s fine with me. Obviously the difference is that I’m thinking about writing in a way that’s really not even in a category of composition theory as far as I know. And I don’t mean that as a boast, nor do I mean to suggest I’m the only one out here thinking in these (or related) terms–b/c there are too many people to list here, but some of them are on that blogroll.

I guess I’ll end with a quote that’s stuck with me a long time. In Fragments of Rationality, Faigley writes "many of the fault lines in composition studies are disagreements over the subjectivities that teachers of writing want students to occupy" (17). I have found that to be the case. I think it’s a post-process type observation to note that composition is about the interpolation of students as certain kinds of subjects (as education itself generally is–from a cultural studies perspective). Even post-process comp, with its emphasis on liberation, desires students to occupy positions of critical literacy. Since I read that, more than a dozen years ago, I’ve been wondering if teaching writing can be something other than that.

9 thoughts on “(post-) post-process composition

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  1. Wow, thanks. Though this is a lot to mull over. So would you say that perhaps “post-process” is an umbrella term for all the work and thinking that has gone on after the social turn? But that perhaps not all those classified under the umbrella term of post process would be in agreement with one another? It sounds like this umbrella term could describe pretty much every researcher and theorist from the 90s on, who might likely all agree on certain basic tenets like, say, “the social and cultural dimensions of writing” but not much beyond that. I mean, one could certainly agree that writing is socially constructed but not necessarily pursue a cultural studies approach to the teaching of writing, correct?
    So help me out a little more (if you aren’t already sorry to have engaged me on this): does post-process necessarily entail cultural studies or an emphasis on liberatory pedagogy, as you suggest in your final sentence? If we are talking about post-process as recognition of the social and cultural dimensions of writing, then activity theorists, genre theorists, etc would be post process, and so would I. But if one must adopt a cultural studies approach in the writing classroom or a Freirian liberatory pedagogy in the classroom, then genre theorists and activity theorists are not (necessarily) post-process, and neither am I.
    So, is this a big umbrella term that indicates a shift in how we understand the social dimensions of language and composition? If so, perhaps it is not a term to describe any one person, not to be thrown out as a label, but rather a term to describe something more like a paradigm shift? Like, “In a post-process era, X is a given.” Not, “You are such a radical post-process theorist!”
    I may not be making sense, but I’ll keep sorting through. Thanks for your thoughtful dialogue.


  2. I like the trajectory you have both given this conversation–essentially pointing out the difficulty catergorizing something with a negative or cancelling definition. To say that something is post anything is really not to say what it is. Very slippery coming from a field so concerned with language and communication.
    You could shine some light on it by comparing it to a term like post-modern, suggesting that the sense of what is modern is clear enough that the cancelling definition works. With process, is it the case that that sense is just not as concrete? It would have to be, because, as Alex points out, nobody has abandoned a process approach to writing, so “process” can just be think, draft, revise, etc.
    Where you are going with the paradigm shift makes sense, except there is no concrete paradigm that is marked by the post definition. I like it, though, because it fells like the right way to think of the term. Maybe it is just more of a chronological marker indicating the passing of a time of general agreement.


  3. Elizabeth, I would agree with what you say here at the end– that post-process is more of a paradigm shift than a label for a particular set of methods or theories.
    In my experience, the cultural studies/liberatory variety of post-process is the most common. It’s what most people mean, I think, when the say “post-process.” It’s what Fulkerson seems to focus on. In your article, it is the “anti-foundational” claims you make about there not being a basic, transferable writing process that can be translated from FYC into other disciplinary writing contexts, that gets people talking post process. That turn in your article does resonate with a Foucauldian, post-structural approach to writing.
    However, I agree that not all post-process fits this term. For example, I would not think of Joseph Petraglia as a cultural studies type at all. But he is associated with post-process.
    I hadn’t thought of this before, but maybe post-process is a turn toward reseach or an intensification of research. PhD programs specifically in rhet/comp began to crop up in the 80s, so it makes sense, I would think, that that the discipline would start to shift as you reach a critical mass of faculty who came out of such programs.
    That said, I don’t everyone in the 90s is post-process. I think it reflects a certain, critical perspective about process that might result in people going in any number of directions. However, at the same time, it might be possible to move in those directions without responding that way to process.


  4. Ok, well at least I feel more comfortable now in my discomfort. And I understand better why I am uncomfortable when people accuse me of being post-process. I don’t mind being something, but people are accusing Doug and I of being post-process and they seem to have a sort of clear idea of what they mean by it which they won’t share with the rest of us and won’t back up textually. Now, however, Alex has both provided textual support for the claim (which he kindly does *not* do as an accusation)and he has helped me see where we might be on the spectrum of those thinking in a post process age. And what I have come to believe is that it would be far more meaningful for people to classify us (and others) in a more specific way–as genre theorists, as activity theorists, even as Joseph Petraglia groupies. 🙂 But just saying we are “post process” could mean things that we do espouse as well as things that we definitely do *not* espouse.
    Doug and I have been talking and we are wondering if perhaps part of the problem is that there isn’t a good term yet for what we are championing. We do have students read about process research, and we also have them read research (and a tiny bit of theory) that is post process as defined by our discussion here. But we do that to get the students thinking about what the research and concepts mean to them and for their lives–“What is being said here? What is left out? Does this ring true to you in your own experience?” and so on. The methods by which we have them think and write about these process and post process pieces of research vary; I’ll even say that sometimes I use expressivist methods to get the students really thinking and freely writing. But I do that *in service* of a pedagogy *about* writing. Since my methods as well as the reading and discussion material for the class owe a debt to process research, it feels weird and wrong to call the approach “post-process.” I haven’t left process behind, but I do have students read beyond it and I don’t have them engage in expressivist or traditional process activities for traditional reasons.


  5. I agree with the general sentiment here that post-process as a kind of negative identity (we aren’t process) only gets you so far. So my more affirming (what I do rather than what I don’t do) goes like this.
    In We have never been modern, Latour discusses three cultural segments that have been conceptually separated in the modern world: nature, politics, and discourse. In a way these reflect the common disciplinary division of science, social science, and arts/humanities. And I’ve also been thinking about the relation to the divisions Deleuze and Guattari discuss in What is philosophy? in terms of science, philosophy, and art.
    But anyway, back to Latour and the writing process.
    Rhetoric and composition predictably lies in the discourse segment. We focus on language, rhetoric, semiotics, and so on. Our typical approaches to the writing process emerge from that segment. Once upon a time, we briefly had a natural-scientific approach with cognitive theory. Post-process, in these terms, might be understood as a turn toward a social scientific/political analysis of writing practice.
    Latour, of course, is interested in the hybridized/networked connections across these segments. I come to Latour through D&G, but this resonates with what I’m trying to do.
    That is, any given writing situation–this one for instance–has discursive/rhetorical, cultural/political/social, technological, and embodied/cognitive/scientific/natural dimensions. (You could keep going with this list of adj.; I’m not trying to be exclusive.) No study of a writing event could be totalizing in its apprehension of what goes on, but it might capture any number of these dimensions.
    The pragmatic question for the writer (which I think is a different question than the one that most interests researchers) is what knowledge of writing will propel my writing? So perhaps the writer studies writing for different reasons than the researcher. Maybe not.


  6. Oh, dear. I think I’ve been accused of beinhg accusatory! But, in fact, the discussion surrounding the article and the article itself both fascinate me, which is the highest and most genuine compliment I know how to offer. And, in any case, I never think of the review proces as at all consisting of any activity that might be considered accusatory. I can appreciate the sensitivities authors bring to the table (oh, boy, can I ever!), but wouldn’t want the pressure of that to lead toward silence. The thoughtful reviewer must have a bravery all her own, and a willingness to poke experimentally around in the ideas she’s exploring. It’s not a process that’s really any easier to subject to public scrutiny than a finished work ever is. Meanwhile, I was sorry to see the promising D&G discussion that this exploration was leading toward on WPA-L disrupted by an update to the listserv software.
    (I do think it would be fun and enlightening to discover how it is that the one D&G chapter RhetComp has so fully embraced ended up being the one. And, I’d like to see some really good examinations of how it is used. I have a few favorites, such as the following one, but I’m curious to see others: http://tinyurl.com/2r939k)
    “Post” movements always do drag the ideas they wish to move beyond around with them by the hyphen, which historically and conceptually connects them to their pasts as surely as any less apparently flimsy chain would. Process understandings are so fully integrated into the practice of teaching writing, now, that their traces appear in every classroom, no matter its nominal theoretical leanings.
    What I hadn’t really crystallized until considering the comments above is that post-process understandings are so similarly pervasive that they can be invoked without conscious intention to do just that. (Fulkerson certainly does a good job of demonstrating how this happens, too, with “process” in otherwise “post-process” pieces.)
    The social turn and the integration of technology may, as Alex suggests, be so much a part of our being as writers and teachers, now, that the hint of post-process is inevitably there in our approaches and understandings. It’s certainly very interesting to consider that post-process can be invoked without a person deliberatively doing so. In the context of this piece, which foregrounds training in theory, that’s especially interesting.
    There’s so much, isn’t there? Which portion of all of that would count as sufficient training in theory? Could be that it really all does come down to the reading list in some sense, though I think that oversimplifies the question a bit.


  7. It’s a funny thing about reading lists, isn’t it? The pressure lists bear reveal much about our notions of literacy.
    I think the thing about the rhizome is this (and Latour says similar things, at times, about the term “network” in ANT, which was constructed pre-Internet)… I have to point to a Arthur Kroker interviewing Katherine Hayles where she says something like “postmodernism ended in April of 1995 when the first version of the Netscape browser was released.”
    Hypertext apprehended the concept of the rhizome, if not fully then at least it has had a strong gravitational pull on it. Sadly, in making the rhizome so easy to grasp (in a particular way), it also causes it to lose some of what D&G found there.
    Oddly, however, D&G’s use of the virtual remains elusive, perhaps b/c virtual reality doesn’t do much to help us grasp it–though these uses of the virtual play off one another in interesting ways.
    So I suppose I see it this way. Process strikes me as kind of modernist-structuralist approach to writing. Post-process is certainly a postmodern, post-structural approach. I think we have moved beyond both, which is not to say that we have abandoned either.
    Perhaps it does come back to the reading list. Given the fact that writing and media composition practices are developing rapidly all around us, it should come as no surprise that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in rhetoric and composition.
    Indeed, the fact that the discipline is shifting so little makes me wonder if it will survive long term.


  8. I never see lists as pressure filled except in the sense that they sometimes make me want to write very quickly, chasing ideas the way a kid tracks down lightening bugs in the yard at dusk. I like discussion, and I’m sometimes rough and tumble about it in my very eagerness to chase. I also love to watch the bats come out to scribble their jagged way across the sky, and I love the way the darkness is never really silent.
    I see the pull of that heavily embraced D&G chapter as being principally poetic–I’m fond of the one really charming article I point to above for the ways its author so openly delights in finding ways that the metaphor frees her (or is it him? I don’t actually recall!) to think of students and their writing in richer, less dismissive ways. Indeed, much of this level of theory comes to us by way of literature and film study, so I always like to point out the RhetComp isn’t really post-lit, either, try as it might. And we tend toward the prettier metaphors. Close examinations of the body’s orifices sewn shut don’t tend to lead to such happy places.
    But, it’s always what happens–find the easiest path in, and go with that. Lists and definitions of the main ideas in that relatively easy to bear chapter abound! In the context of Schizoanalytics on the whole, it’s much tougher to find the rhizome quite so charming and delightful a thing. There is some achy and angry tenderness there, but it’s tough stuff. And liberating. And unutterably dreary.
    I join you in wondering about the future of RhetComp. I don’t actually think that declaring writing unteachable–certainly in FYC form–would automatically be a bad idea, at all. Would take some gumption, for sure, and that’s always good to see in academia. On the other hand, it wouldn’t make for the most persuasive pairing with calls to value expertise.
    Well. I feel like the walking body (without, for gosh sakes, organs) of
    American Poetry:
    Whatever it is, it must have
    A stomach that can digest
    Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
    Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
    It must swim for miles through the desert
    Uttering cries that are almost human.
    Louis Simpson
    In or through me, from time to time, there’s a current traditionalist, a process-expressivist, a process-proceduralist, a big slice of several versions of post-process theorists, including Kent, and just a smidge of abolitionist, too. Plus, all the stuff lurking in the pockets of those, which could be good things (ooh, a saving stick of gum), interesting things (how’d that frog get in here), annoying things (I wonder what this note said prior to its trip through the washing machine and dryer), and scary things, too (whatever might *this* be?). Plus someone who grooves to the “Happening” notion. Also, a boot, but not a shoe. The trick may well be not to digest those things, and the BWO is certainly (and not at all, not even a little bit!) helpful on that score.
    But I am free of the pressure to find my place in the heirarchy of the academy, and because my chosen place in the academy was always the CC, I have pretty much always been free of it on the institutional plane.
    Ah, but I’m meandering.
    Here’s a real question:
    Why study composition?


  9. So–maybe the reading list (texts selected with beginning students in mind, but lists such as “goals” or “outcomes,” too) creates the yard. Too big or undefined a space is actually very confining, even paralyzing. It’s the theory trap–undo territories, undo hierarchies, lose your tree house. Theory doesn’t want a tree house, but theorists within academia do. Nice ones.


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