My apologies to Charles for not responding sooner to his comment. It’s just be crazy ’round here. Anyway, in reference to my previous post on Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein… yes it is certainly a simplification. It’s a couple hundred words on what is arguably the fundamental philosophical question: "why is there something rather than nothing?" That is, for me, the fundamental question of composition, writ large. And in that context, formalism is inadequate. Again, it’s good for abstracting qualities of events, but not good at telling you how to compose future events.
Take the example Charles gives: F=ma. Of course the application of this formula in real world events is always an approximation. However, it’s "good enough" to convince you to look both ways before crossing a street lest you become part of an unfortunate demonstration of physics. However, if you want to compose force, what does it tell you? It tells you that you need mass and acceleration. Mass is maybe easy enough: you pick up a rock. But how are you going to accelerate that rock? Well… you’re gonna apply force to it, and thus the cycle begins. Force is composed of force; it’s turtles all the way down.
Like F=ma, a formula for rhetorical analysis might be good for reading texts, just as formalism proved quite useful to literary criticism (though I would point to Fredric Jameson’s explanation of the breakdown of intrinsic and extrinsic critical methods in Postmodernism). However, just as an understanding and "following" of new critical formulas leads to writing crappy poems, following rhetorical formulas generally has equally poor results.
I’m not sure why anyone even needs to make this argument. All you have to do is read the thousands of mediocre, formulaic, FYC essays that kill trees every semester and have for decades. So I suppose we can say that the results are poor b/c the students don’t write well or the instructors don’t teach well or the particular formulas at work are poorly constructed. However I do not believe that the "secret" to better composition pedagogy is building a better essay-constructing mousetrap.
On the other hand, there’s the pragmatics of the situation. If you want to teach someone to assemble the food on the McDonald’s menu, you don’t need to teach them how to become a chef who can compose interesting meals. You just teach them the faculty formula for slapping together a Big Mac or whatever. Maybe, pragmatically, that’s what FYC is about, teaching students to compose rhetorical Big Macs. Yes they taste like crap, but they all taste like exactly the same crap. Uniform crap.
In sustaining the division between form and content, between writing and knowledge/thought, the fact that the form/writing is crap doesn’t matter as long as it is uniform. Then as professor of whatever discipline I can judge the content. Oh I’ll complain about the writing, but that’s about it.
Also, pragmatically, 90%+ of our students will never be good writers no matter what. Because in order for them to become good writers, they’d have to write on a regular basis, and they just aren’t going to do that. So trying to teach the average college student to be a good writer is like trying to teach her to be a marathon runner or painter or a guitarist. It ain’t gonna happen.
So if FYC is about teaching people who will never have an interest in writing how to slap together some uniform crap so that other professors will have an easier time grading them, then I suppose that it is an anti-intellectual practice to be carried out as cheaply as possible.
I suppose in some circles this might be called "empowerment" b/c it will help you get through your other classes and get that degree. Fine. That’s still not a reason not to do it on the cheap b/c certainly little expertise is required to carry out this formalist approach. That’s why formalism became so popular with literary criticism: cheap, portable, easily-reproducible. If you want 100+ sections of FYC to produce predictable results, formalism is likely a way to go. With luck, every burger will taste the same.
It’s on these grounds that I would be an abolitionist. Because, unlike with my digestive system, I would prefer the unpredictable crap to the predictable crap in FYC. I don’t think FYC should be a cybernetic system designed to produce predictable products (either in terms of students or texts).
To me, FYC isn’t about trying to take unpredictable, mediocre writers and make the predictably mediocre and pretending that’s "better." It’s about giving students an opportunity to choose to be writers in the first place, to become people who write. I’m sure at a different institution with a different population, I would say something different. But that’s how I see students here. Maybe most of them won’t choose to be writers and will never be good writers. They’ll also not choose to be artists or mathematicians or scientists or dancers, etc. Here most of them will choose to be teachers… teachers who don’t write… teachers who will teach your kids formalist approaches to writing, especially if that’s what we teach them.