Star Wars, empires, WPAs, and postcomposition

I’m working on the fourth chapter of my monograph, where the focus will be more on pedagogy, and I’ve been reading Sid Dobrin’s Postcomposition, which is a great book in my view. Basically I agree with Dobrin. Our discipline has defined itself, and the study of writing, in terms of subjectivity, and more specifically in terms of teaching subjects (i.e. students) to write. In doing so, it has developed a resistance to “theory,” that is, a resistance to postmodern theory. Dobrin doesn’t pull many punches in this regard, especially when it comes to his discussion of the WPA organization or wpas (i.e. people serving roles like mine). In some respects, his argument reminds me of Sirc’s in Composition as a Happening where we point to the formation of the discipline some 30-40 years ago and wonder if we might not have gone in a different direction.

Here’s the line from Dobrin that inspires the title of this post:

Empires often form in part by using a rhetoric of safety, espousing protection of individual difference under imperial rule. Unification and standardization are imperial tools for consolidating rule. Disparate locals fighting individual institutional battles are willing to offer votes of confidence to a ruling system if that system stands as an ally (underhanded though it was, this was specifically how Palpatine was able to gain control over the Senate and achieve a vote of nonconfidence int he Republic, leading eventually to the formation of the Empire). Hence, the immediate benefit of empire is the manner in which the homogenizing force is able to counter previous oppressions of individual entities. In this sense standardization and homogenization become better systems than those previously in place. The history of composition studies’ oppression is countered in the building of Empire. (107)

FYC is created based on a perception of student need/deficiency. From the start, it’s about the students. Dobrin’s point is that composition builds its disciplinary empire (such as it is) on meeting this student need and then later on the administration of the vast programs of TAs and adjuncts deployed. In this chapter, picks out Richard Miller’s 1999 PLMA article “‘Let’s Do the Numbers’: Comp Droids and the Prophets of Doom,” which makes the argument that rhet/comp doctoral programs should focus on WPA administration, since that’s where the jobs are.  By chance, another Star Wars reference? Though here Miller is referring to a Cary Nelson article in which Nelson refers to the attitude of faculty at elite institutions who view teaching writing in terms of

Rhet/Comp Droid assembly lines. These dedicated “droids,” so many literature faculty imagine, will fix comma splices, not spaceship wiring. But why give Rhet/Comp Droids extra leisure time? What are they going to do with time off? They beep and whir and grade, that’s all. They’re not training for research.

Better a droid than a stormtrooper I suppose. We seem to be mixing analogies here. Nevertheless there seem to be several inter-related elements here:

  • the discover of a widespread and significant student need for writing instruction
  • the invention of a course (FYC) and the invention of a class of instructors to teach the course (TAs/Adjuncts)
  • the invention of a discipline that manages these and validates them through research

Dobrin suggests shifting research away from student-subjects and pedagogy and toward the study of writing itself as an ecological process (a la Guattari): an ecocomposition. That points at both the first and third bullets. Change the conversation. He also argues for a the elimination of our reliance on contingent labor to deliver FYC. He doesn’t really call it an abolitionist argument, but abolishing the FYC curriculum is one way to achieve that goal. Though what happens to composition studies if there is no FYC?

So I’m coming at this from a similar angle as my book basically comes from the position of suggesting that our discipline (and higher education in general) struggles to address digital literacy because of its commitments to view symbolic behavior as an exceptional characteristic of human-ness. In other words, when we say “writing” we struggle not to see human writers. If, on the other hand, rhetoric viewed itself as studying the nonhuman activities/objects we call writing (broadly conceived), including the relation of humans with writing then it would come at these issues differently. Maybe that sounds like a Jedi mind trick. I don’t know. I think it means something like this. Academic-disciplinary writing networks/activity systems/assemblages involve humans. They have various mechanisms for establishing this involvement. As rhetoricians we might study these mechanisms (among many other things). And we might teach people about these mechanisms. But we don’t necessarily need to be the mechanism and we don’t need to be the managers of the mechanism either.

I am maybe a little more sympathetic to the wpa than Dobrin. I agree that the wpa is not a position from which to launch revolutions. That said, at UB the Senate just approved a revision to our general education curriculum. If it is implemented as proposed, we will be replacing our part-time adjuncts with full-time NTT positions teaching writing in the disciplines across the campus. Fear not, there will still be an army of TAs for a wpa to oversee in the FYC program. Not revolution but decent reform, if seen through to the end. Any venture of this size is going to need administration. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in that. As I see it, the problem FYC has often faced (depending on the campus) is that the instructors are part-time (even the TAs) and not integrated into a discipline. A smaller number of full-time disciplinary instructors could offer a very different curriculum and culture, one that would very much change the role of the wpa. However it wouldn’t be easy because we don’t really know what we would put in place of FYC. Even the “writing studies” approach, which purports to introduce students to discipline, is still a discipline defined by the study of FYC.

What would a disciplinary replacement for FYC look like if it wasn’t an introduction to composition studies but an introduction to writing studies otherwise shaped? How would it define itself in relation to the broader goals of general education (assuming it would still be a required general education course)? Who would teach it and by what method? Would we still need small classes? What would we do with the TAs that we displaced? How would we meet their needs?

I imagine I’ll touch on some of those questions in my book, though not really the last ones as those are questions that necessarily have local answers.


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