4C’s and the rhet/comp slasher

This is not the working title for my academic murder mystery, so feel free to take it if you like.

No. It’s about a growing conversation over the role of rhetoric in composition studies, and the emergence–at least as perceived by some–of 4Cs as a composition studies conference and not (or at least less so) a rhetoric conference. In phrasing it that way, I hope that I am emphasizing that the trends at the conference are an effect of a larger disciplinary (or is it now inter-disciplinary?) evolution.

Undoubtedly it’s been a long time coming. Some might say that it is a division that has been baked into composition from its formation more than a century ago. Or, we might look at the 1980s when the solidification of rhet/comp in the form of phd programs brought with it debates over the historiography of the field and the “cultural turn.” [I’d also point to the arrival of PCs, the internet, and what Manovich terms the softwarization of culture, but that’s a subject for a different day.] And since then we’ve had a proliferation of specializations, which I think you could find in the language of job ads, the networks of journal article citations, the birth of journals, book series, and conferences, and so on. My department’s new certificate in Professional Writing and Digital Communication is one small example of that. It’s certain not composition studies or pedagogy. It’s not rhetoric. It’s not cultural studies. It’s not even technical communication exactly.  Sure, it touches all those things–all these fields abut one another to some degree–but it’s something else.

The current conversation, as I’ve encountered it, is that rhetoric (e.g., history of rhetorical, rhetorical theory, etc.) has slowly disappeared from CCCC. Meanwhile RSA membership has expanded. I’m not sure if the conference is growing but I do think there’s a sense that some scholars who might have viewed CCCC as their home conference and organization a couple decades ago, now look at RSA instead. RSA now has about the same number of panels as Cs.

I honestly don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. You might compare this with MLA. The MLA conference is clearly interdisciplinary. It doesn’t include much rhetoric but it does include language departments along with English literary studies. These days the conference is about half the size it was when I was first going on the market. I think that may be because there are fewer jobs and fewer institutions interviewing at MLA rather than there being fewer panels. But with attendance in the 5-6K range, it’s about 50% larger than 4Cs, which I think is in the 3-4K range. MLA is one day longer. It has over 800 sessions. 4Cs this year is over 500, so again MLA is roughly 50% larger. I guess if you tack on ATTW, which always runs the day before 4Cs then you get closer in size. I suppose my point is that, hypothetically, the conference could grow to MLA size and perhaps address this trend if it wanted. That’s hypothetical though. I’m sure there would be many logistical challenges to doing so.

More important though is the question of whether or not we need to be all in the same space.

Just thinking about this from my own scholarly perspective (and figuring many have analogous situations), there’s one part of my work that is really outside of rhet/comp or even English studies that draws on media study, digital humanities, new materialist philosophy, and tangentially a bunch of other stuff like cognitive science, engineering, etc. And then inside of rhet/comp there are dozens of people whose work is very close to mine and hundreds more that are nearby or coming into digital rhetoric as graduate students. It’s probably impractical to keep close track of all the scholarship that self-identifies as either “digital rhetoric” or “computers and writing.” It certainly is for me when I’m also following these other extra-disciplinary conversations. So really in doing my scholarly work, my focus necessarily has to start here.

If one thinks of the primary purpose of a conference is to learn about what other people who are doing scholarship like yours are up to and then do some networking with them, then, at least for me, 4Cs is pretty inefficient. There may be nearly 4K attendees at Cs but if there are ~100 people I’d want to catch up with–people whose research impacts mine directly–then less than 20 were at the conference. If you think about a conference like Cs as a place to get some slice of the broader picture of composition studies, then maybe it works well for that. IDK. I mean, do people do that? I know many people say they always try to go to at least one panel that’s sort of random. I do that too, including this year. And that’s fine, but really only as a supplement to that primary task of connecting to people who aren’t random.

Again I want to reiterate that this isn’t a criticism of Cs. I certainly don’t want the job of organizing that beast. I have zero interest in making an argument along the lines of there should be more people like me at Cs! I think that’s an unworkable argument at scale for everyone who identifies as rhet/comp.

I actually think these trends point to a more interesting problem. I think we may be in a paradigmatic crisis of sorts in the sense that I don’t know what we share as scholars–methods, objects of study, foundational assumptions, research questions? And we don’t need to share those things, but if we don’t then in what sense are we connected? By a shared history, I guess, but I don’t know if that’s enough, especially as those shared moments are receding from living memory.


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