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Doug Downs-Kathy Fitch

Sue McLeod and Tim Fountaine re Elizabeth Wardle | ContentofComposition.HomePage | John Walter-Doug Downs

From: Doug Downs

I agree . . . that the “center” of a field is always contested, and that most fields now have at least a contingent of scholars who even argue against the notion of “center” at all. This is healthy, though it’s also healthy that in most disciplines the argument against any center at all doesn’t work. (“We must not center” is an act of centering and thus lose/lose: still centered, but unable/willing to admit it.)

And then, there will be debates about *what to say* about the center of the field once it is asserted or conceded. I always like Astronomy as an example: 101 *has* to cover cosmology (the history/origins of the universe), clearly — but what estimate to put in the “age of the universe” slot? (Currently, I recall hearing, 12–15 billion years old, but that number has moved around quite a bit in the last decade, both higher and lower.) What to put in the textbook? Who gets listened to? How is the “consensus” of the field established?

Where Elizabeth and I and others are frustrated is when the field doesn’t want to have the arguments to begin with. We see an *excessive* degree of deference to the local, the fragmented, the refusal to cooperate or be imposed upon. What’s frustrating is the lack of agreement to *try* to agree, based mostly on theoretical and political concerns within the field rather than on reference to pragmatic and political concerns regarding how fields work in the university and how the university articulates with/in its publics.

The general drift of the field (though I would argue this is changing because a lot of very significant people now in the field are more pragmatic) in the recent past has been to wish away or refuse to acknowledge the dynamics of the universe it lives it. What needs to happen *is* the debate (happening on this list, hooray!!) about what categories would get coverage in an “Intro to Writing Studies” class, and what consensus the field could achieve regarding what is said in those categories.

It’s easy enough, in the class, to distinguish between consensus and contested and to cover both; but trying to find the consensus in our field, at present, produces a short list. As in any other field, some combination of the most persuasive and the most powerful and the most convinced will succeed, and it will get it neither all right nor all wrong, and it will need constant revision to prevent it from reifying into dogma. But at least we would have an account of ourselves that presently seems mostly lacking.

From: Kathy Fitch

«[Doug Downs says:] As in any other field, some combination of the most persuasive and the most powerful and the most convinced will succeed, and it will get it neither all right nor all wrong, and it will need constant revision to prevent it from reifying into dogma.»

Ah, and here is a very key thing. For me, at least, the kind of depiction of Composition Studies that invokes any version of “battered woman syndrome” can’t—and even, I would argue, shouldn’t (maybe even mustn’t)--be the one to succeed. I do think this is a fairly common vision, though not always stated so explicitly, and one that does more to erode cohesion than to promote it.

Earlier, I asked which portion of “what we know about how texts get that way” is really important for beginning writing students to take on. Which portion of it best serves the goals of the course?

The WPA Outcomes Statement does a very fine job, it seems to me, of giving us a view of course goals upon which most folks can actually agree. I’d combine that with something like Lindemann’s “what do we need to know about . . .” approach, and ask, “What portion of what we know about how texts get that way will most benefit students as they strive to develop rhetorical knowledge; to read, think, and write critically; to develop an awareness of process, as well as to develop successful processing strategies, etc.” And, of course, I’d include some version of the tech plank. (I’m not battered, you know, but when my partners in comp can’t embrace that, at least in some general “I do” fashion that acknowledges the key role tech plays in writing, I do wonder about the future of our stormy relationship.) It seems to me that we *do* have a fairly strong foundation to build on here, else the WPA Outcomes could not be. (I know I’m putting lots of pressure on the outcomes, but I love them for both representing and, often, *establishing* a shared vision.)

Where we find ourselves most in a thicket is over the *how’s* of it. I get all scratched up making my way—or trying to, at least—through that thicket all the time, but I’d not ever want to confuse the how’s with the what’s. We don’t lack cohesion *everywhere,* and where we do, that’s possibly, as others have noted, not such a horrible thing.

I remember when tracking approaches to FYC were fairly common, so that students might take, say the lit track, or the film track, or the “regular” track. I think it’s perfectly possible that some film track or lit track FYC courses did a better job of leading students toward the desired outcomes than some “regular” (probably, at that time, modes and grammar) courses did. Just so, I worry a bit about deeming “the content of comp is comp” a kind of pedagogical saviour, making those courses automatically better than, say, their thematic approach peers. I don’t think it will or can be so.

Here, for some reason, I’m thinking of a grad school colleague whose FYC students always got heavy doses of _Beowulf_, which was his particular area of expertise. He was teaching what he loved, and some students no doubt thrived in his courses (some subset always does, no matter what we do, which is probably important to remember), but it definitely wasn’t FYC by my definition. It seems to me that there’s a certain danger in “Beowulfing” comp studies, too. I can envision, for instance, grad TI’s/TA’s having a very hard time making the things they are just beginning, themselves, to learn, the “content” of the course. The whole thing could grow entirely too theoretical in a great big hurry.

Conversely, beginning teachers might have a very tough time with the “what do we need to know” or “what portion of” question. What should what they are just beginning to explore, themselves, in grad school, look like in FYC? (And for experienced teachers, very advanced in comp studies, the challenge remains: what does or should the “beginner’s” version look like?) Well.

So I guess what I’m saying is that if comp or comp studies is to become the content of FYC, then we’ve got quite a tall order before us: defining, in some detail, exactly what that content looks like in its FYC incarnation, which will and should presumably look a whole lot different than, say, the content of a grad TI teaching prep course.

We need a pedagogy to go with this vision of content—one that will narrow, define, and illuminate it specifically for the FYC audience, and one that is not only convinced, but convincing. I’d vote, I expect, for leaving out things like “War on Terror Rhetoric” as a topic, but then I’m difficult.

Sue McLeod and Tim Fountaine re Elizabeth Wardle | ContentofComposition.HomePage | John Walter-Doug Downs

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