not your dissertation advisor's turf war

Marc Bousquet has a piece in the Chronicle that is trending academically-speaking on “The Moral Panic in Literary Studies.” It would be easy to read this piece as a rehearsal of what has now become a familiar song, at least in English, about disciplinary turf wars among literary studies, rhetoric, and the other fields within such departments (but especially the first two). It would appear much of the comment stream gravitates toward those commonplaces. But this isn’t the 1980s or 1990s.

Bousquet’s argument begins with the declining numbers problem: fewer tenure line positions, a paucity of hires for new phds, and fewer undergraduates in classes. He then suggests that the one place in English that bucks the trend is digital composition. As he writes, “Scholars of composition and rhetoric generally teach graduate and upper-division courses packed with students who are passionate about the digital publication and media composition now inevitable in every walk of academic, professional, creative, and community-engaged communication.” He mentions doctoral programs, such as that at Clemson, with its 100% placement rate, that focus on such matters but do so in an interdisciplinary way.

I think to some degree what Bousquet says is accurate. Once upon a time, before I became buried in administrivia, I used to teach such courses, and they were popular. But is is also difficult to deliver that curriculum. To gain more than a passing familiarity with digital composing requires more than one course. There needs to be something a vertical curriculum. And that really means having more than one faculty member doing the work. Logistically, you need to offer three sections of your introductory course in order to end up with enough students to run the most advanced course that sits at the end of the sequence. If you had three or four faculty who were relatively free of administrative burdens so that you could offer 10-12 courses per year (at a typical 2-2 research load), then you probably could have a go at a legitimate professional-technical-digital rhetoric/composing curriculum at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Bousquet describes the resistance he has encountered at Emory toward the idea of such hires. There aren’t other rhetoricians at Emory to resist the notion, but my sense is that the resistance to the digital is not a literary studies-only phenomenon. I think there is wider acceptance in rhetoric and composition, because computers and writing has been going on as a field of study since the 80s, but I think there are a good number of traditional rhetoricians and some compositionists who see digital composing as secondary (or tertiary) to a field that is focused on writing (i.e. print culture) or cultural studies. Like the literary studies faculty Bousquet describes, they too might look askance at technical and professional communication. In my own experience, I am as likely to find kindred spirits in media study or art or across the digital humanities as I am among faculty in rhetoric and composition.

So this is not the same old turf war. I’d like to think that it isn’t a turf war at all. That it is about trying to grow the pie rather than redistribute the crumbs on the plate. However it is a shifting in the identity of English departments. A few decades back, in a different millennium, literary study needed little defense: one studied literature because literature was valued across the culture. Today English departments need to explain why their majors are worthwhile. Often, the first thing they say is that English majors learn to write well. And today, the notion of what writing is has shifted toward the digital, so you would think that this would be a natural shift. But English has never really been about teaching writing; it’s been about teaching literature with improvement in writing being a claimed side effect.

What would be the role of literary study and literary history in a department where the focus had shifted, as Bousquet suggests, toward production and composition? For me the answer is relatively straightforward and comes from my experience working with students who were professional writing majors. Students are interested in such curricula because they want an education that has a career path. However, in my experience, these students are also interested in creative writing, in experimenting with digital media, and with understanding the role that writing and composing play in our culture. And part of that is literary study.

2 thoughts on “not your dissertation advisor's turf war

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  1. “A few decades back, in a different millennium, literary study needed little defense: one studied literature because literature was valued across the culture. Today English departments need to explain why their majors are worthwhile. ” That’s exactly the issue as I see it, and quite frankly, this has been a bigger problem for our colleagues coming out of a “literary tradition” rather than for folks coming out of a more “comp/rhet tradition,” to the extent that we have a “tradition.” It seems to me that everyone in the field has at least some understanding of “institutional assessment” and many of us (not me!) specialize in issues of assessment. Who teaches that in lit PhD programs?

    But beyond that, comp/rhet has always had to justify itself over and over and over again, in small and in large ways. In contrast, presenting the question to folks in literature– “why is studying literature worthwhile?”– is both new and baffling and they still don’t quite know how to answer it.


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