Another day at CCCC 2009: thoughts on academic bullshit, part I (it never ends)

Another cheap play for attention in a blog title? Maybe, but this was the subject of the first panel I attended on Friday, "Empty Rhetoric and Academic Bullshit: Strategies for Composition's Self-representation in National Arenas," featuring Mike Edwards, Mark Bauerlein, Margaret Price, and Lauren Rosenberg. You have to appreciate Bauerlein's willingness to come to a conference where he may not be warmly received. (I've discussed some of Bauerlein's arguments here in the past.) However, the panel was less contentious than one might have expected (or perhaps hoped).

Here's the crux of it, and I think something everyone can agree upon. We need to be rhetorical as we strive to reach our intellectual, scholarly, pedagogical, ethical, political goals. This is a pragmatic piece of advice that applies to mostly everyone, including rhet/comp scholars. This means being strategic in our discourse with some audiences and thinking about how we might communicate with non-experts: other academics, politicians, grantors, the general public, etc. At the same time, if there's one thing CCCC demonstrates, it's that there are a lot of us doing may different things. There needs to be a space for such concerns, but it need not occupy the entirety of what we do. And I don't believe anyone would suggest that.

That said, rhet/comp does get addressed the BS question in a particular way, even from within the field, in the continual expecation that research must make the "pedagogic turn." This even came up in the Q&A. Obviously I don't think this is necessary, and in some ways it can't be given the diversity of specialization in our field. If I were to write a text that offered pedagogic insight into the uses of technology in a composition classroom that could be read and employed by the general fyc-teaching population, I could not simultaneously advance knowledge in my field. That is, what I would tell to the typical fyc instructor are foundational things that specialists already know. This is very clearly in evidence when you attend CCCC panels on computers and writing.

Interestingly though, the BS question can cut in many different ways.
This was evident in the three other sessions I attended. The next was
on writing digital dissertations with Chris Ritter, James Haendiges,
and Mike Garcia, all of whom have had some experience with trying to do
this. My take away from this panel was that the primary rewards they
saw for going digital were personal. They enjoyed the creative
challenges of digital composition and viewed the digital medium as
intellectually appropriate if not necessary for their work. On the
other hand, the risks were professional: legal/copyright obstacles,
institutional constraints, and potential job market pressures. Where

does the BS lie here? A traditionalist might say a digital diss is BS
in thinking that it somehow eschews the intellectual demands of a more
conventional text. A techno-progressive might see BS on the other side.

I can appreciate these guys for taking on the challenges of writing a
digital diss. On the other hand, I have some concerns. Really they are
just questions for discussion. Clearly we don't have, in rhet/comp, a clear sense of digital scholarship. Is it fair or appropriate to ask graduate students to try to develop this genre for us in their dissertations? What kind of expertise should diss cmte members have to be qualified to evaluate a digital diss? In other words, who is reading through the grad student's xhtml code or whatever? Who is evaluating video production values? Who can speak to design or usability? If a student is going to do a digital dissertation, should his/her qualifying exams include some evaluation of technological production/design knowledge? Then there are questions about the job market. Even assuming that these students will be specialists looking for production-oriented new media, digital humanties, and/or computers and writing jobs, a search committee is going to want to know that an applicant will be able to produce the kind of scholarship needed to get tenure at their institution. Chances are that that will mean print scholarship. Sure, one can fight that battle too as an asst prof, just as one fought the battle to produce the digital diss. But the question is whether or not one will even get the chance to fight that battle or if one won't get the job or the campus visit in the first place.

Those are tough questions. And I don't want to dissuade people from doing work in digital media. I should hope that's fairly clear on this blog! But if we are going to encourage or allow students to do these kinds of dissertations, we need to address these concerns… And not just as rhet/comp probably but as English Studies, since hiring/tenure decisions won't take place solely within our field.