what to do when a professional organization tries to embrace you

Yesterday, at least in my disciplinary corner of the online world, there was a fair amount of discussion about the Chronicle of Higher Education report of the Modern Language Association’s upcoming officer elections, which will ultimately result in someone from the field of rhetoric becoming MLA president. I was interviewed and briefly quoted for the article, so I thought I’d be a little more expansive here.

In the most cynical-pragmatic terms, one imagines that MLA can see that rhetoric faculty are underrepresented among its members, so they are an obvious potential market. One can hardly blame an organization for trying to grow its membership, so what does it have to do to appeal to those potential consumers?  In more generous terms, MLA might view itself as having some professional-ethical obligation to better represent all of the faculty it lays claim to when it asserts itself as representing “English.” It specifically names “writing studies” in its mission, though not rhetoric or composition. Of course it is always a happy coincidence when the pragmatic and the ethical are in harmony.

Here are the main problems I think MLA faces. First is its own track record. It’s been around for over 130 years. As far as I can tell it’s marginalized rhetoric for that entire period. Even in the recent history of my 20 years as a rhetorician, there’s been very little to indicate that rhetoric belongs in the MLA. Many in rhet/comp also have strongly held positions regarding adjunctification and are unhappy with MLA’s engagement on that issue. These are some serious issues, but maybe ones that could be resolved with a decade of good will.  MLA just has to hope that there are enough rhetoricians out there like the ones standing for office who are willing to work toward that end. I think in particular those who believe MLA might still play an important role in addressing adjuncts will be interested in working with them.

But those issues are minor compared to the second set of problems, which are not directly MLA’s fault but have to do with the relations between literary studies and rhetoric/writing studies/composition. Here’s the easiest way to understand this. As was reported in the CHE article, there were some 300 rhet/comp jobs in the MLA job list. Rhet/comp and technical writing jobs routinely make up ~40% of the jobs in English. We also know that virtually every English department relies upon teaching first-year composition for its economic survival. Those courses fund the TAs in literary studies graduate programs and make up the bulk of what English departments do on campus. So we know there are a lot of faculty in English departments with rhetoric specializations and that writing instruction forms the foundation of most of these departments. So now go and look at the undergraduate majors of these departments. Perhaps you will find a writing major of some kind or maybe a concentration in writing as an option for students. Undoubtedly there are a growing number of these, but I want you to ignore those for a moment. Look at departments that don’t have those things. Look at the “English BA” itself. Do you see any required courses in writing/rhetoric?

Yesterday I was writing in passing about an article bemoaning the disappearance of the Shakespeare requirement in English majors. Rest assured however, if you peruse some English majors you’ll find plenty of literary requirements–in different historical periods in British and American, in different ethnic literatures, and so on. I doubt you’ll find many such majors with a single required course in rhetoric. What that should tell you quite plainly is that the literary studies faculty, who, by majority rule, design these curricula, do not believe that some exposure to rhetoric is an important part of getting a disciplinary education in “English.” Sure, we can have some cordoned off area where students can study rhetoric and writing, and we might even allow writing electives as part of the English major, but we’re not going to make rhetoric/writing integral to English. The most amusing part of that, of course, is that while English majors minimize rhetoric from one side of their mouth on the other side of their mouth they are claiming to their students that they help them become “good writers.”

As I said, there’s not much or probably anything MLA can do about that situation, but what it means is that literary scholars, as a group, do not view rhetoric/writing studies/composition as an integral part of English. So why would rhetoricians want to be part of an organization that has devoted itself to literary studies for over a century? Maybe it would be in MLA’s interest to try to shift the view of its literary studies members on this matter. There was a long period of time, particularly in the early days of my career, when it seemed that people in my field were demanding some respect from their literary colleagues. There was a time when there were a lot of hard feelings, departments splitting apart and so on. Maybe that’s still the case in some places. Today though I think we’re in a very different situation. I’m not sure that an alliance with literary studies is in the best long term interest of rhetoric.

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