writing in the post-disciplines

Or, the disorientation of rhetoric toward English Studies…

In her 2014 PMLA article “Composition, English, and the University,” Jean Ferguson Carr makes a strong argument for the value of rhetoric and composition for literary studies in building the future of English Studies. She pays particular attention to composition’s interests in “reading and revising student writing,” “public writing,” “making or doing,” and using “literacy as a frame.” As I discussed in a recent post, there’s a long history of making these arguments for the value of composition in English, an argument whose proponents one assumes would welcome MLA’s recent gestures toward inclusiveness. Of course the necessity of these arguments, including Carr’s, stems from the fact that mostly the answer to the question “what is the value of composition to English?” has been answered as “nothing” or “not much,” at least beyond the pragmatic value of providing TAships for literary studies Phd students.

I’m more interested in the opposite question though, “what’s the use of literary studies to rhetoric/composition?” It’s not a question Carr really concerns herself with, mentioning only in passing that “a more intentional and articulated relationship between composition and English is still mutually beneficial,” though she doesn’t offer much evidence for this. Presumably she (rightly) identifies her audience as literary scholars for whom this question would likely never arise. However, I think the answer might be similar: nothing, or not much, at least beyond the pragmatic value that the institutional security of an established English department might provide. And with that security wavering, well…

What does this have to do with “writing in the post-disciplines” (whatever that is)? As it turns out, a fair bit. With a little bit of historical fudging that I’ll call fair play in the broad brushstrokes of a blog post, we can see that

  1. We start off with a belletristic, humanistic, essay-writing, product-oriented and literary-focused form of writing instruction.
  2. Then we move to process-oriented, less literary but still humanistic and essayistic composition studies.
  3. Over time, writing instruction becomes more varied both within rhet/comp (e.g. technical-professional writing) and beyond in the growing popularity of WAC and WID programs.

So where are we now? Few would contend with the general principles that 1) writing is a useful tool for learning in many contexts and 2) it is a good idea for as many disciplines as possible to be involved in teaching students in their fields/professions how to write and communicate. That is, we still hold to the principles of WAC and WID. However, the longstanding view that faculty in English Studies are not well-equipped to teach students in other fields (especially STEM) how to communicate has always been founded on a particular expectation of what English faculty are like. What happens if/when that changes?

For example, let’s say I have a cadres of college sophomores who want to major in chemistry, and we want to develop their communication skills in connection with chemistry as a field and with professions they might enter. And let’s say that I give you a blank slate to create a graduate program for the faculty who will take on that job. Would you want them to get chemistry degrees and then provide a little extra professional development? Or would you imagine some kind of science studies/science rhetoric-communication curriculum? I’m thinking the latter makes more sense, not as a replacement for faculty to teach writing in their curriculum but as a way of delivering courses where instruction in writing/communication is the primary focus.

Let me take this a little further afield. Of course we know that only a fraction of undergrads go on to get graduate degrees and even fewer end up really communicating as experts in any discipline. Mostly they go on to careers in corporations or small businesses or with the government.  This is more true in the humanities or social sciences, but even in the sciences, students find themselves in careers where communication is more business than scientific. There are many inter-disciplinary niches, and when it comes down to it, the argument that there are no “general writing skills”  which casts doubt on composition classes can cast doubt on the utility of writing in the disciplines.

Are there general chemistry writing skills? No, of course not.  Maybe one could argue for some common genres among chemistry professors, but chemistry itself is far more varied. So instead (and I think this is the direction WID and “writing studies” approaches go) one might imagine a rhetoric/communication curriculum that 1) teaches students an introduction to rhetorical principles, 2) puts those principles to work in the study of genres at work broadly in their fields/professions, 3) pays attention throughout a disciplinary curriculum to communication practices, and 4) offers a proliferating range of possibilities for writing and communication.

Writing in the post-disciplines moves beyond the historical either/or presumption that writing instruction is either general/introductory, or writing is discipline-specific and tied to the content expertise of faculty. Instead it suggests writing as a vast field of inquiry tied to an expansive set of academic methods that can be given many names and descriptions: empirical, social scientific, data-driven, rhetorical, humanistic, philosophical, theoretical, digital, historical, pedagogical, cultural, etc. Such investigations are post-disciplinary in themselves, though this does not mean that they cannot be coordinated or organized within an institution.

Of course there is writing in the disciplines. There’s writing in most places one finds humans. But writing is always necessarily post-disciplinary as it operates to facilitate relations among disciplines and across varied institutions. Most subjects we study in the university are slippery in this way. Whether it is biology or society or art, our objects always act and connect in ways the push beyond our disciplinary paradigms. Writing is no different in this regard.

So, to bring this full circle, why fall prey to the gravity well of literary studies when there is a vast universe of writing to investigate?document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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