academic tourism

Oh yes it is that time of year again. Jeff offers some apt thoughts on NOLA and Mark Bauerlein’s conservative baiting of rhet/comp. Here’s the thing about Bauerlein. He seems to object to rhet/comp’s cultural studies/liberatory bent toward gender, race, and class, issue of equity and so on. Instead he wishes the field would be more pragmatic, more responsive to the needs of the workplace to prepare students who can write well. He contends, perhaps accurately, that rhet/comp could gain more influence and support if it turned its focus in that direction.

It’s interesting that Bauerlein doesn’t level this criticism as his own field, literary studies. Lit studies is worthless, at least by the capitalist-marketplace standards he’s employing here. In fact, lit studies is deliberately and resolutely worthless in this regard. Increasingly so, even, as the discipline resists any effort to update its concepts of literacy to address the changing world. I don’t know why he doesn’t make that complaint. Typically, the argument would be that lit studies has an intrinsic value, that scholarship and teaching in the field are self-validating. That said, I’m sure conservatives in lit studies object to the lefty criticism there as much as in rhet/comp. However, perhaps implicit in this argument is the notion that rhet/comp is not scholarly-disciplinary but simply functional. The objection then is not really to the particular scholarship but to the fact that there is scholarship at all in a field where he imagines research is unnecessary. After all, in the end, lit studies really needs writing instruction to be a practice that requires no special disciplinary understanding, as in many ways it continues to survive on the weak notion that lit studies faculty are well-qualified to teach writing, even though they have little or no knowledge of the subject.

That said, in part one has to agree with Bauerlein. At any conference, in the journals of any discipline, you’ll find research that is weak, trendy, opportunist, and so on. CCCC certainly can’t escape from that criticism any more than MLA can. That said, I applaud risk-taking in research, even though sometimes it means falling on one’s face. What Bauerlein fails to see, and perhaps he is intentionally blind here, is the connection between his concerns and the research he criticizes. Perhaps he wants students to be good, literate corporate drones, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he doesn’t want that. Instead, I am going to imagine that what he wants are graduates who are literate, who can use writing/composition to achieve personal, professional, and social purposes. In order to provide this education, we need to pursue an understanding of writing/composition. This remains a primary impulse for rhet/comp scholarship, though clearly our research goals have moved beyond always having direct ties to pedagogy to the larger task of writing studies. Though I too can be skeptical of some of the more strident, political claims of work in English Studies (both lit and rhet/comp), one should be able to see that part of research into writing is understanding its cultural function.

Ultimately though, there is a grand intellectual error here. Like Jeff or I or most of us who went to CCCC’s experience New Orleans as a tourist, Bauerlein is also a tourist in rhet/comp. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live hir life in the tourist spaces of a city, and NOLA is particularly heavy on tourist spaces. I’ve really moved beyond the whole partying thing, and I’m not that into fried food no matter how well it might be prepared. Of course there’s more to NOLA than that. But two days in those spaces was more than enough for me.

Same thing for CCCC. These mega-conferences are academic tourism. You wouldn’t want to live in a space like that. A couple days is more than enough for most anyone. If anything, one could examine the forces that go into the formation of a conference, just as one might examine the forces the produce tourist spaces. And I’m not saying that wonderful things can’t happen inside those spaces. I’m thinking about the overall effect/gravitational force.

Only the smallest fraction of writing instructors end up at CCCC. Most instructors have little or no knowledge of contemporary research in the field. So there’s as significant a disconnect between the conference discourse and everyday instructors as there is between the tourist and everyday spaces of NOLA. I don’t imagine that the CCCC will have any more impact on my FYC-teaching colleagues at Cortland than it did on the employees of the Hilton, who will likely be able to tell you far more about this years C’s than any of my colleagues ever will.

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