composition's big gamble

As you may know, rhet/comp's big conference is in Vegas this year. Generally speaking, the conference theme is tied to the location in some way. (Last year's St. Louis conference had "gateways" as a theme.) This year's theme is "the public work of composition" and gestures half-heartedly to the Hoover Dam. Of course it begs the question, why not a theme about risk-taking or gambling? Too obvious? Or just too tawdry. On the WPA-list there has been some recent complaining about holding the conference in Vegas, which in and of itself is not unusual since complaining about the conference site is an annual practice. However these complaints are of a slightly different tenor as they have a moral tone. Whether it's the gambling, the smoke-filled rooms, or the whole tourist-trappiness of it, the complaints focus on a sadness to the whole enterprise. I've never been to Vegas, so I don't have an opinion. I also have no interest in going there, for the conference or any other reason. 

However, Vegas (and my colleague's complaints) are only an occassion for writing this post. What really struck me is how very similar Vegas and composition might be. This might seem a counter-intuitive claim in the way that composition instruction is associated either with grammarian schoolmarms or earnest untenured radicals. The transformation to gambler might seem as unlikely as that of the librarian turned pole dancer in an 80s hair band music video. But really a certain desparation might be shared between the gambler and the composition instructor. There are many other similarities:

  • both are really phenomena of post-War America
  • both operate on the backs of a large, exploited labor force
  • both attract employees who have dreams of something greater
  • both serve similar types of customers/students: those who play the system; cheaters; those who sit and pull mechanically at the arm and hope it will payoff.
  • both places inspire a willful amnesia. 

Most importantly though, both Vegas and composition are profit centers for large corporations. And from that view, the way online gambling has transformed that industry offers some shady insight into the future of online composition. I don't want to push the metaphor too far, but I don't think I need to in order to see composition as being cheap, tawdry, and sad in the way the Vegas can be, but also glitzy, high-tech, and performative. Vegas and composition classrooms: two great middle-American sites of naked rhetoricity in an agora of the surface fueled by the magic of appearance. Neither the grammarian nor the untenured radical wishes to see composition this way. No one who has made a career of rhetoric and composition would, including me. And yet I think we need to recognize that rhetoric plays this role. Rhetoric is a gamble; it is often a calculated risk, a matter of style and bluffing. Like gambling, rhetoric might offer a lens into the circulation of signs, psychology, and social behaviors.

But the real gamble for composition ultimately comes in shifting from a horizontal mass curriculum to a more vertical and varied one. The mass curriculum reflects that legacy industrial notion of mass production and a homogenized, monocultural literacy of an era long gone (if it ever existed). It also supports the paradigms and interests of a similarly industrialized university system; writing as a homogeneous, unspecialized activity that requires little qualification to teach, unlike virtually every other course on the campus. It can be taught cheaply with adjunct labor; it can fuel graduate programs with TAships. I understand why many constituents at the university would have an interest in preserving composition, but I do not understand why those in rhetoric would share that interest. Perhaps it is the fantasy that rhetoric might (and should) become some master university discourse that is necessary for righting all our social wrongs. This is the lottery ticket the untenured radical buys every semester (and I say untenured because so few tenured faculty ever teach FYC). Perhaps it is the opposite belief, the grammarians' belief, that writing really is low stakes. Or perhaps it is a continuing fear that universites will never allow writing to be anything else, a fear born of decades in the basement. However, these days it is the entire humanities that is in the basement. The finishing school of cultural appreciation that drove the humanities in the last century is no longer of interest. Instead, what is of interest are the so-called "soft skills" that rhetoric develops: creativity, collaboration, and of course communication. It is the facility with digital media, which rhetoric has more broadly embraced than any other humanistic discipline. And finally it is an ability to write in a diverse, global workplace and culture, which rhetoricians have studied for decades. 

Of course such matters cannot be covered in a single, homogenous course. I am not suggesting that universities should abandon their expectation that students develop as communicators; nor am I suggesting that rhetoricians shouldn't lead universities in meeting that expectation. I am only suggesting that we replace the mechanism that we use to try to get there. That's hardly a new suggestion. However, it strikes me, as so many of my colleagues head off to Vegas, that a greater gamble is required here. If, as it appears, higher education is in a state of transistion, if the humanities are under fire, then now is the time for us to insist, organizationally, that composition as a mass educational tool is not viable, that it needs to be replaced by a different model of instruction. One that is perhaps not so susceptible to the mass delivery of online courses. One that does not fall prey so easily to exploitative labor practices.

As I have often said on this blog, my decision, now nearly 20 years go, to specialize in what we now call digital rhetoric was a gamble. It was a bet, at the dawn of the WWW, that digital technology would be a transformational force, perhaps the most significant one of my generation. Now that seems like a no brainer, but not everyone made that bet then. Not everyone in the humanities sees that today. But really, is it even still a gamble today to wager that higher education will be transformed, both in form and content, by digital media networks? Or that future academics will not only require the proficiency to work in such contexts but the expertise to lead in shaping such transformations? This is where composition's gamble must go, toward a diversified and vertical curriculum that looks toward the digital and global future. And Vegas, well as the cliché goes, no one needs to speak of what happens there.

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