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Elizabeth Wardle and Kathy Fitch Continued

Elizabeth Wardle and Kathy Fitch | ContentofComposition.HomePage | Dennis Ciesielski re Elizabeth Wardle

From: Elizabeth Ann Wardle

Kathy, I basically consider that anything we (rhet/comp scholars) write/think about is open for investigation in my composition class. So that includes rhetoric, literacy, technologies of literacy, writing and reading processes, and so on. I say no to anything that is only about education generally and ask the students to focus more on writing and reading education, if that is their interest. I really have no trouble determining limits; the only limits are what we as rhet/comp scholars are limited by.

So there is generally “a theme,” which is writing, reading, literacy, discourse (whatever you call it) but that “theme” encompasses a lot of things—but all things that scholars in our field explore. Oprah’s influence on literacy has been explored in College English (among other journals), the rhetoric of war has long been explored by rhetoricians. If we can explore it, my students can explore it.

It’s interesting that you ask this question, though, Kathy. [now I am starting a rant and it is not directed at you, Kathy] I think it is indicative of the fact that we have trouble defining ourselves as a field. What do we do? What don’t we do? Do biologists or historians ask what their students can and can’t study in their classes? Maybe so, but probably not in intro classes. I think we are having (or continuing to have) a serious identity crisis (and Fulkerson was great on this in the recent CCC article).

Are we or are we not a discipline? If we are, can we all agree on what we do or should do—or what we shouldn’t do? On what methods we should all be familiar with? I think, and this is the primary claim of an article Doug and I are working on, that as FYC goes, so goes the disciplinarity of Writing Studies. Until we can all agree on what a writing class is, what a writing class teaches, and what a writing teacher is, we are going to continue to have deep problems establishing ourselves as a discipline. We are splintered before we were ever really unified.

I realize there are post-disciplinary fans out there who will applaud this. My response to that is to suggest that we stop confusing the ideas in our heads with the reality in which we live. Fight disciplinarity and you’ll fight yourself out of existence—or at least out of any powerful existence. To quote from our draft (I hope this is ok, Doug): “Disciplinarity is the means for pursuing and disseminating ‘problem-portable knowledge’ (Abbott 219)—in this case, about writing. Disciplines organize departments and departments organize majors. Majors are ‘the most consequential single disciplinary structure—in terms of extent and impact’ (209). Majors are the source of funding and faculty positions…If we want to remain on the academic scene and possess any power to act out of our research, we must be recognized as a discipline. Refusing a disciplinary center is not an option in today’s results-oriented education system.” (Downs & Wardle, “Problems of Disciplinary Identity”)

At least, it’s not an option if we want to make change in the world, acting out of what we know from our *very good research.* Yet that is what we seem to be doing—refusing a center, remaining unable to see ourselves as a unified group with a core focus and shared methods. Power is not bad, though I hear some compositionists talk like it is. When we have power, we can make positive change in the world related to writing. Yet instead of seeking this disciplinary power, we continue to allow ourselves to be defined by others. We seem to be like the battered woman who has been told who she is for so long that she can’t see herself as anything else.

We have lots of research that tells us quite clearly that our systems of writing instruction should be very different and that what we have to share is, in fact, a body of knowledge worth sharing. Yet we continue to allow others to own our writing classrooms and make them into whatever the hot topic or trend suggests. I could really get going on that, but it’s late and I’d probably be sorry tomorrow—and y’all are probably not still reading this long rant, anyway.

To sum up, I’m delighted that CCCC is pursuing this question. But I am discouraged that we are still unable to see ourselves as a discipline with a shared body of knowledge which students can benefit from studying. Note in Sue McLeod’s list of writing majors nationwide—how many of those have an “Intro to Writing Studies” class as a beginning requirement? The last time I looked, the answer was NONE. Why not? Is there any other major where that could happen? If we seriously think we have no shared body of knowledge worth introducing students to, we don’t deserve a major or freestanding departments or the status of discipline. The good news is, we *do* have a shared body of knowledge worth introducing students to. The bad news is, we aren’t introducing them to it and we question compositionists who try to introduce them to it.

From: Kathy Fitch

«[Elizabeth Wardle says:] If we can explore it, my students can explore it.»

And I’m not ranting back, but . . . It does seem to me that a great deal of “our” (I don’t think there is a very cohesive definition of what counts as “us” or “ours,” but I’m only deeply troubled by that, selfishly, when something that seems patently obvious to me—such as the need to write and to think about writing in the digital realms where most of it is actually taking place right now—strikes other segments of “us” as being “not quite composition”) exploration of English strays far beyond the boundaries you seem to be striving (passionately, which is cool) to define.

It wouldn’t be hard to go back through _College English_ or _CCC_ and find *many* articles (the ones on student resistance, which seemed to me, at the time when their popularity peaked, to go on *eternally*, spring to mind) that seem to be far more psychologically or sociologically than rhetorically or compositionally (!) flavored. If we take journal topics as a guide, I’m not sure much gets left out at all. Cultural Studies is in, for instance, and politically charged pedagogies of every stripe, and gender studies for sure, and all kinds of takes on the purpose of composition—such as that it should involve a reshaping or re-education of the student’s emotional self, or that it should zero in on logic. Things like the Elbow/Bartholmae debate seem the most thrilling to me (yup, I’m a geek), and the most at the heart of composition studies largely because debate seems to be the very essence of the thing.

Anyway, history teachers do argue about what all 101 should involve, and how so. The history prof I knew best was also under the amazing impression that Comp is not only well defined but entirely *too* influential in the institution. Might seem odd when we’re (which, there, I’m using to mean the whole bunch that identify themselves as comp teachers, in all their wildly dissimilar glory) in the midst of a perpetual identity crisis, but it’s worth remembering that many profs in other fields actually find the central (or at least *foundational*) place of composition pretty darned annoying.

Elizabeth Wardle and Kathy Fitch | ContentofComposition.HomePage | Dennis Ciesielski re Elizabeth Wardle

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