first-year composition's "doomed enterprise"

There has been some discussion by Michael Faris and Derek Mueller, as well as elsewhere on Twitter, regarding Geoff Sirc's book review essay (free PDF) in CCC. Part of the talk has been about Sirc taking a couple of these books to task. Having not read all those texts, there's not much point on my commenting on his evaluation of them. Is it out of bounds, in terms of propriety, to be that direct? I don't think so. I am more interested in Sirc's general position toward composition as a discipline. In that respect, his argument here reflects the position he took in his book, English Composition as a Happening, so I don't think we should be surprised by Sirc's view.

Sirc explains

What depresses me about composition (or comp studies or comp/rhet or writing studies or college composition or FYC or FYW—it has as many aliases as a career criminal) is how unflinchingly narrow it is, the timidity of its materiality. I once argued that our field was stuck in a Greenbergian modernist rut, but I’ve come to realize we haven’t even made it into modernity: we’ve never broken forms and questioned assumptions; we haven’t come any farther than antiquity in the sophistication of our mythologies, still guided by a notion of rhetoric as language and form for social action. Too many of us teach a textuality inflected more by adjudication than imagination.

He then ends by stating

In my darker moments, I’m ready to call FYW a doomed enterprise, one fated to generate a series of head-shaking counter-histories. Until other departments are willing to take ownership for teaching students to do the writing in their field (either in first-year seminars or writing-intensive [WI] courses), it seems composition programs will remain a compromised, scapegoated service unit, having to fulfill their required, impossible mission by addressing presumed goals of academic writing, having students perfect the re-representation of thinly voiced, unimaginative prose, written in response to middlebrow nonfiction essays, in courses inflected more by politics than poetics, ideology rather than desire. Unsurprisingly, we’re at yet another crossroads in the field, this one driven by vortices of both budget constraints and new media.

These are passages that deal less with the texts under review and more generally with Sirc's views, though they certainly help to explain where he is coming from in his reading of those books. I largely agree with Sirc. I don't think I share his particular enthusiasm for the literary, but I am not opposed to it. I agree that we might consider the timidity of our material, or I think, more precisely, the timidity of our approach to that material in terms of imagination and creativity: two terms that have certainly not fared well over the last few decades. I think I know what Sirc is talking about with middlebrow nonfiction: the kind of thing one often sees in readers. At the same time, Sirc's preference for punk or hip hop rather than Foucault (or the other curated works of Ways of Reading) suggests that this isn't an argument about "difficulty," at least not in the conventional sense. Instead, as the preference for poetics and desire indicates, this is a call for a more singular, inventive/inspired, response to texts. In other words, for me at least, this is less about texts than it is about methods. There are two mainstream composition pedagogies that come under critique here. The first is the avowedly political, James Berlin-inspired, cultural studies classroom, which is specifically critiqued by Bryon Hawk's book (one of those reviewed by Sirc). Sirc's target in his  own book is less Berlin than Bartholomae's Ways of Reading. The other is the even more conventional writing process pedagogy that is only modestly political in its claims for empowerment. What these pedagogies share is an abandonment of affect, imagination, voice, and experimentation for an emphasis on a more mechanistic, predictable, replicable writing practice. 

I think I've been up and down these issues before here and elsewhere, so I want to take up the one angle where Sirc provokes me the most, which is in his discussion of literature, which is also the place where he takes Thomas Miller most heavily to task. Regarding literature, Sirc argues that "Part of refiguring English studies means rethinking composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness; it means our subfield’s reimagining literature as a cultural value and practice, refiguring how it fits in a first-year course centered around writing." I don't think it is hard to see how this argument might connect with interests in poetics, desire, imagination, creativity, and so on. I share these interests, having worked for nearly a decade in a writing major that sought to combine "creative writing" with other kinds of professional writing and the study of rhetoric. I see these things as intersecting.

At the same time, we all understand the history here. This is not so much about literature as it is about literary studies. I keep coming back to how these things all went to hell in the same historical moment in the 70s, when the canon came apart, "theory" started taking over, composition became a discipline, students started disappearing, etc.. And I don't think any of those things are necessarily bad (well, maybe the last, at least from a departmental p.o.v.). But perhaps we can recognize that whatever English was, the thing we still pretend that it is on some level, the thing that was invented in the early 20th-century, started to come off the rails then. I don't think that we can put it back together again, and I don't think Sirc is suggesting that we can, even though his book does seek to recover what was lost at that time. 

The writing program that I direct came with a policy that heavily restricted instructors from teaching literature. They are permitted to use a couple poems, a short story or two, maybe a short novel, but there was/is a prohibition against turning composition into a literature course. The primary concern is that such courses would lack a focus on writing. A secondary concern is that graduate students would turn such courses into versions of their dissertation projects. I'm not sure how founded in reality those concerns are, but typically these kinds of policies emerge because at least one person crossed the line. At least in the case of the primary concern, I think this is a typical perception. And one of its interesting assumptions is that courses in literature don't pay (much) attention to writing. This may be true, especially in courses with 40 students. Along with literature there might also be a focus on specific, disciplinary methods of interpretation, which might seem like an unnecessary detour in a writing course.

However, there's another relevant issue here. I'm not a literary scholar. I was never trained in a particular literary period. My doctoral exams didn't include a literary period list. I don't particularly write about literature, and I certainly do not do so in a disciplinary way that engages in the specialized scholarly conversations that take place among literary scholars. By these terms, I am not qualified to teach a class on Modernism, for example, let alone Chaucer or Shakespeare. On the other hand, I am trained in a constellation of scholarly methods that could be brought to bear on literature. So there's a two-way street here where the re-introduction of literature in rhetoric/writing is also the reintroduction of rhetoric/writing in literature. 

Ultimately, what I see in Sirc is a deterritorializing of discipline in the face of a paralyzing hyper-specialization where we are not only unable to say much to one another across specializations, we are hardly able to say anything at all, period. This has clearly had a negative impact on our teaching. And while here it's all about composition, we could probably say similar things about the entirety of English studies pedagogy, assuming anyone ever bothered to talk about such things. It's fairly obvious that students aren't beating down the doors to get into our classes. We aren't inspiring them or capturing their imaginations. So that's why I don't think it is just about the material. It's about our approach to the material. 


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