Assemblage Theory Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

building the future of composition

Every 3-5 years, I would think, one needs to sit down with one's program, undergraduate major, graduate curriculum, etc. and ask "What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Is what we are doing (still) achieving what we set out to do?" These aren't easy questions to ask or answer. They often lead to acrimony, and they can be laden with all kinds of disputes–personal, local, disciplinary, institutional, etc.

Still, there's no getting around the task. We are, I would imagine, at least 20-30 years past the time when one could imagine it was self-evident (within the discipline) how a composition program or English BA or graduate program would operate. That said, this does not mean that one is "free" to do whatever one pleases as a program or as an individual within a program. And here I want to turn specifically to the question of first-year composition.

There is no simple answer to questions like "What is FYC?" or "What is the best way to teach FYC?" And yet, I would think that 99.9%+ of the possible answers in the English language are obviously wrong. FYC is not pizza delivery or changing the oil in your car. The best way to teach FYC is not by making your bed or walking your dog. So while we can have disputes about the answers to these questions, there must be something we agree upon that allows us to discount almost every possible answer. I would suggest that that "something" is actually a fairly complex assemblage of objects, and furthermore that that "something" is undergoing some interesting mutations and deterritorializations in its exposure to several trends: digital media, globalization, shifting student demographics, the diminishing role of the humanities in higher education, etc.

But I'll set aside those questions for now.

When one asks what FYC is or how it should be taught, the question is partly one of institutional history but it is also one of disciplinary history. One cannot ignore the WPA outcomes or NCTE best practices or the inertia of canonical rhet/comp or the FYC textbook industry. As individual programs or faculty we do not get to choose the fact that these objects contribute to the definition of composition. In addition, we do not get to select our students or our institution. The discipline of FYC, the student body, the material-bureaucratic shape of our institution: these provide the context for our program and teaching. Without them, there probably would be no need to have an FYC program or teach composition. 

So if we are smart (which, or course, "we" are), when we ask questions of our program, we take into account those things that we cannot change (at least not in the short term). As such, we might ask, "Given our sense of the discipline of FYC, our students, and our institution, what should we do?" This doesn't mean that we always have to agree with mainstream disciplinary versions of FYC or any other aspect of our context. It simply means that we have to respond to those things. We cannot act as if those things do not exist.

I've been thinking about those things as I've been revisiting Ulmer's Heuretics for my grad course. He writes (in the early 90s mind you):

There has never been a technology capable of fully supporting and augmenting intuition in the way that print supports analysis–until now. The multichanneled interactivity of hypermedia provides for the first time a machine who operations match the variable sensorial encoding that is the basis for intuition, a technology in which cross-modality may be simulated and manipulated for the writing of an insight, including the interaction of verbal and non-verbal materials and the guidance of analysis by intuition, which constitute creative or inventive thinking (140-1).

And then a few paragraphs later: "The challenge of chorography is: to remake the sense of judgment itself."

Just to touch upon that briefer quote first… all of the questions I pose above are obviously ones of judgment. The intuition of which Ulmer writes is implicitly intertwined with judgment on the level of geschlecht. Inasmuch as print both supports and interrogates analysis, making analysis visible and accessible in a way not available before writing, digital media offers us this ability to write judgment, as Ulmer says elsewhere, to investigate and support the processes of intuition in a way unavailable to us before.

This is clearly at stake in questioning the future of composition. Our beliefs about what composition should be, our judgments about "good writing," and our practices as writers are all largely intuitive, despite the existence of a large body of disciplinary analysis and research into such topics. The digital requires us to remake these judgments, and not simply by adding "digital" assignments to our syllabi. On the flip side, as I've just pointed out, one does not simply walk away from the assemblages that comprise the contexts of our teaching: the discipline, our institutions, and our students do not change overnight (though our students seem to be changing much faster than the other two). Instead, through Ulmer we might look upon the digital as an assemblage that has the potential to expose and interrogate our judgments and perhaps push us beyond the limitations to which we continually find ourselves returning.

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