oh, bother

A random assortments of thoughts.

Please welcome Clay (back) to the blogroll.  The new blog, Borrego, can be reached via the link in this post or the link in the blogroll column.

I never read the Winnie the Pooh books by Milne, but I had some Pooh videos (of the various Disney cartoons) when I was younger.  At times, I think that of all literary characters, Pooh is the one I most resemble:



The comparison is not flattering.

I was completing an online poll today, and I was asked whether I thought Obama’s inaugural address had too much rhetoric and too few specifics.  As John sings in “A Day in the Life,” “I just had to laugh.”  A dream project of mine would be to start a blog called “Mere Rhetoric” devoted to finding and cataloging the anti-rhetoric trope that continues to plague modern news reporting.  Thanks a lot, Ramus.

So a person I know does not want to be my friend anymore.  I hope it is temporary(despite the finality of her announcement) but I am terrified that it is not.

Here is what I have been billing as my (latest) “Way Too Early and Incredibly Vague Diss Idea:”

As you’ve noticed, one thing that I’ve been interested in in several ways is the
politics of composition, not just how comp does politics but how it works in
relationship to broader political phenomena and especially its relationship to
critical theory.  My diss idea begins in the sixties, since I think it is important to
emphasize that composition (in its modern form) has its roots, in essence, as a
political discipline in that a lot of the early expressivist folks of the sixties
(Macrorie, early Elbow, early Coles) saw comp pedagogy as a way to engage the
rhetorics of the student rights movements of the era.  Of course, the student
rights movement(s) are caught up in the larger concerns of the era, such as the
civil rights movement, women’s lib, and the antiwar movement.  My M.A. work
has already tried to sow this field a little by asking some questions about how
the field understood protest as a rhetorical form (to be fair, they didn’t) and how
they ignored other forms of rhetorical action at the time (the bed-ins).  As a starting point, we can look to
Joseph Harris (1997) who has written about some of this.

In the 70s and 80s, the field seem more concerned with professionalizing
itself and so we saw the emergence and widespread adoption of process
pedagogy.  At the same time, basic writing and the CCCC Statement on Students
Rights’ to their Own Language emerge in the early and mid-70s, and though
each development is political in its own way they are so in ways that don’t have
as obvious a connection to larger political trends as did expressivist pedagogy
in the decade before.  Faigley (1992) and Tobin (2005?) have written about
process and its relationship to the claims for comp’s disciplinarity in this period.

Into the 80s and 90s (the period here that I need to do more research on) comp
finds theory and sides are taken in the era’s culture wars.  I won’t say more here
because I need to read more, but the point I’m interested in investigating is the
culture wars and how the 80s and 90s emergence of neoliberalism was felt in the
university in general and comp in particular.

So, looking back over these three periods (60s, 70s/80s, 80s/90s), to the
extent that comp has taken up the politics of the larger culture/society, it has
done so largely in terms of politics relevant to the modernist democratic nation-
state: who has the right to speak, who has power, how can power be
redistributed in more democratic ways through discursive intervention.  What
comp hasn’t really accounted for then is how to react to changes in power in the
post-nation-state  global economy, or, we might say, under Empire.  (This is
especially true in terms of, say critical pedagogy, but this isn’t really my focus.)

So, a lot of this is background and now we come to the really comp part of my
idea.  To the extent that comp’s politics have traditionally been tied to political
forms native to the nation-state, so too have its ideas of political efficacy and
pedagogy.  What comp needs then is a new sense of political form , both in
terms of what is taught (does an essay make sense under Empire?  I don’t
know, but that’s kind of the point at this phase) and in how it is taught.

I realize this is a mad jumble at present, so here is a somewhat more
schematic breakdown of these things might get broken down by chapters:

1) 60s comp: emergence of rhetcomp as (in part) a political intervention into
the students’ rights movement

2) 70s/80s: professionalization of the field and (to some extent) a
depoliticization of its mission in the rise of Reagan republicanism and a focus
on standards and “back to basics” teaching (see Faigley on this, and I think
Crowley has addressed it as well).

3) 80s/90s/00s: theory, culture wars, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism,
decline of the nation-state.  What is comp to do now?

4) What are the rhetorical forms appropriate for the nation-state?  For Empire?
How has comp historically and in contemporary ways understood the
relationship of rhetorical form to political struggle?

5) What are the pedagogical forms appropriate for the nation-state and for
Empire?  How has comp seen pedagogy as a political tool and has it changed
that conception as the form and structure of power has changed?  (A loaded
question – – I imply it has not adequately done so.)

There are caveats aplenty in there, but this rough sketch has found some love from a couple of faculty members who would be likely to be on my committee.

I have been reading Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It has something in common with comp scholars of 68/69/70 like Deemer and Lutz who wanted to (re)make the scene of teaching/learning as something capable of being other job training or rote memorization.  I image it has some overlap with critical pedagogical tactics, but it does so with less emphasis on promoting a specific politics (that is, it is less about being anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist, than it is about reforming teaching–but in ways that sound familiar from the little critical pedagogy I’ve read).  Their key intervention is to read the classroom space as McLuhan might, as a medium, and to argue for a new idea about how teaching and learning should be conducted.  Good stuff, and I am looking forward to reading their later book, The Soft Revolution, as well.  What I find promising about that book (from what I’ve skimmed fo far) is that it puts much of the responsibility for educational reform on the students themselves.  In that sense, it is very 60s/early-70s, but it does so in a way that is not about coming to “critical consciousness” (or not just about it) but actually doing things about educational injustices and whatnot.

Pooh Bear.  Really?


wac wtf

As some of you know, I’ve been working with my dept’s D of C to develop what could be the template syllabus for 3010, our Intermediate Comp course (and the terminal course in the university’s required gen ed writing curriculum).  Dr. B— (I feel like I’m in a Stendahl novel) is interested in seeing the 3010 course become a Writing Across the Curriculum/Disciplines course, in lieu (at least for now) of an interdepartmental WAC program.

Knowing this, and lacking any hardcore ideas of my own for my first time teaching 3010, I volunteered to draft a possible template syllabus for use in my own sections and, later, for other 3010 instructors in my dept.  Dr. B— is a believer in standardization and regularization of the composition curriculum, and although I am not entirely convinced by the arguments in favor of standardization, Dr. B— presents her case in ways that at least make institutional sense (if not always, to my interests, theoretical sense).  Note though that I do not intend these comments as critique of Dr. B— so much as an acknowledgement that, given my own theoretical and pedagogical interests (not that the two are isolated from one another), I do perhaps seem an unlikely volunteer for the project I have taken on.

So why did I do it?  First, as noted above, it gave me a hook for the 3010 syllabus for this semester when I didn’t have any other ideas of my own.  That was the most attractive reason for volunteering.  Second, bald careerism.  If my syllabus is, in fact, approved as the (basis for) the 3010 model syllabus, well, there’s a line about “Curriculum Design” on the CV right there.  Moreover, it gives me a chance to work with my D of C, who is a respected scholar in her own right (obviously) in hopes of garnering a letter of recommendation some day.  And, not the least of these reasons, I like working with Dr. B— and have already learned a great deal from her, both about the management of a Comp program and about designing courses and curricula to meet deptmental, collegiate, and institutional demands.  I am not ignorant that I may at some point be applying for D of C/WPA jobs and I hope to use the time spent working on the Eng 3010 syllabus with Dr. B— as something of an unofficial apprenticeship so that I have at least some passing knowledge of the demands of such a post.

Now, really all of this to get to the point that I wanted to write about.  Namely, the syllabus.  Syllabi are always works in progress, I’ve learned, but I think this one needs some work.  I do like that the projects are arranged in a way that, to my eyes at least, establishes some kind of narrative through line across the semester.  That’s solid.  But I don’t like that the syllabus is, frankly, boring.  I have no one to blame but myself.  But I don’t know yet how to make the WAC syllabus “sexy,” as J— P—- might say.  One thing I think is at fault is that other than the course being WAC, I don’t have a hook to it beyond that, so everything is pitched at a very general level–which makes it difficult sometimes to connect to the material, both for myself and for my students.  On a related note, I’m not sure yet I’ve really found a way to enact Emig’s “writing to learn” experience for my students–and given that the assumption underlying much WAC scholarship and pedagogy is that writing is an epistemic, learning experience, I think I need to make some changes either to my teaching of the course or to the course design itself.

I’m not resolved yet about how to manage the pedagogy side of the question.  In terms of course design, the idea I’m toying with right now is to center the course somewhat around the twin poles of ethics and epistemology.  Here, the course would be rechristened, from “Research and Writing Across the Disciplines” to (tentatively) “Knowledge Work: Research, Writing, and Responsibility Across the Disciplines.”  The focus would be twofold.  First, research and writing aren’t just things people “do” in the university; rather, they work to create knowledge about the world and about the way(s) we inhabit it.  Second, this knowledge work is done in communities of practice (a phrase I’m lifting from Dourish’s book Where the Action Is rather than use “discourse communities”) and, as in any community, inhabiting these c’s o p mean likewise agreeing (tacitly often) to embrace expectations of what counts as personal, communal, and institutional ethical guidelines.  What unites these two threads (epistemic and ethcal) are the processes of research and writing: How do we ethically create knowledge?  How do we create knowledge aout ethics?  What obligations do our communities of practice assume we share to other scholars in our field?  To different levels of community–departmental, institutional, local, national, global?  What role(s) do research and writing play in creating, managing, and changing those obligations?

Obviously, this is a very ambitious program.  I am aware of that.  What is frustrating me now, though, is that I don’t have the resources to carry it off at present and I’m not sure where to turn.  Of course, there is no single WAC textbook that works the way I want it to (and, yes, I know I should make the text work for me and not the other way round).  I could try to pull together a coursepack-type set of readings, but I don’t have reliable access to a scanner to create *.pdfs and the WSU libraries, under the recent scare of copyright cases like that at Georgia State have been laying down the law and being very careful to abide by the demands and wishes of copyright holders (I am led to believe this was not always the case, or at least that copyright holders used to be more forgiving).

All this as a prelude to my closing request.  Anyone know of either some crackerjack readings that might fit this little scheme of mine or of a really great WAC text that could be made to serve these ends?

i am a racist technocrat

This week’s post from Pruchnic’s seminar, in response to Adam Banks, Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground.

I Am a Racist Technocrat


Will the Real Slim Shady Please Sit Down?

I am not the person to respond to this book because I have little investment in identity politics—and what investment I do have makes me seem like a reactionary, anti-diversity rube who thinks that certain folk are gettin’ uppity when they start talkin’ ‘bout how they ain’t got access. And really, that’s not me. My qualms about identity politics stem from the fact that I want to argue for the constructedness of whiteness as unmarked but the rules of the game are against me. Yes, I understand that categories like African American, woman, subaltern, homosexual are constructed as Other from the perspective of an assumed heteronormative, unmarked white rational masculine subject position. But my interest is not in defending the HUWRMSP as somehow “victimized” by the discourses of legitimation for other subject positions so much as is it rests in arguing that we should recognize the constructedness of all subject positions—but the last time I suggested such a thing in a seminar I was roundly derided.

I start with this preface only because I’m thinking through some issues in relation to Banks’s work that are inevitably shaded by my antipathy toward identity politics. I want to emphasize my interest in the constructedness of all subject positions because I am troubled by Banks’s use of what might be read as an essentialized Black subjectivity in his chapter on the website BlackPlanet and African American discourse tropes. Banks argues in favor of Smitherman’s earlier claim that Black English is intimately tied to a unique “Black” experience; Banks, via Smitherman, maintains that “Black English, as expressed through its oral traditions, represents distinctively African American worldviews” (70). As Banks would have it, the Black worldview, expressed in both oral and literate Black English, can be understood as a scene of resistance and political liberation struggle:

The continued focus of many on the oral in Black English, then, is not a resignation that written English is somehow the exclusive domain of Whites . . . but a matter of remaining true to the roots of the language, no matter what forms it might take now. Maintaining that focus is also an act of self-determination, of resistance, of keeping oppositional identities and worldviews alive, refusing to allow melting pot ideologies to continue to demand that Black people assimilate to the White notions of language and identity as the cost for access to economic goods or a public voice in American society. (70)

This passage is worth citing at length because we here see what I am suggesting is problematic. Yes, Banks does write of Black identities, but not in the sense of a variegated multiplicity of Black subjectivities; rather, the “Black Experience,” it would seem here, is yoked to “authentically” Black literate and oral practices as the site of resistance to (monolithic) White notions of discourse and the subject. Later in the chapter, Banks gives in a little bit, admitting that “the names [of BlackPlanet members] reveal complexity and diversity in notions of exactly what constitutes a Black idenity”; Banks, though, still insists that there is such a thing as a discretely identifiable Black subject, for “all of the users [of BlackPlanet] . . . participate in and claim a Black identity for themselves” (75). I’m left wondering which argument Banks wants us to believe: that the Black subject is a space of contested, negotiated meaning, or that there is something we can call “Black identity” in a non-problematic, non-essentialized way?

And now, a left turn. I know I’m kind off the technology trope here, but really the technological argument Banks is making seems fairly innocent. We need to redefine the Digital Divide; see “access” as a rhetorical problem that can be understood across multiple levels; and read the Civil Rights struggle as a technological, rather than a “merely” legal one? Okay. I’m on board. Back to my left turn.

What makes Banks’s claims about Black English and Black identity so challenging is that it seems to tie racial identity to discursive production, in either the oral or literate genres. It is not difficult to consider two test cases (incongruous though they may be) for the claims Banks is making here. The first is the 313’s own Marshall “Eminem/Slim Shady” Mathers. In his track “The Way I Am,” Em taunts his white critics who accuse him of appropriating a traditionally Black art form: “And I just do not got the patience / to deal with these cocky Caucasians who think / I’m some wigger who just tries to be black cause I talk with an accent . . . .”. Here, Em makes, in a roundabout way, an argument similar to the Banks/Smitherman postulate: what his critics deride is a (perceived) wish to be Black, to be other, but Em refutes that haterade because, he argues, he naturally talks with an “accent”—which here, we might conjecture, means that Em—child of South Warren, friend and student of the Black population across the 8 Mile border—is a native user of Black discursive traditions and therefore, is not a “white nigger” but has some claim to Black experience by virtue of his participation in Black discourse genres. And while I am not Black, I can imagine taking some umbrage at such an argument (even while being dazzled by Em’s flow and mastery of the rap genre); that is, does participation in, and mastery of, the discursive production equate to Black identity?

Alternatively, Barack Obama offers the other test case. While such questions have since grown silent (or at least much quieter), Obama’s candidacy was plagued in its early days by the question of whether he was “Black enough.” Take, for example, the opening to a story from Time magazine from 1 February 2007:

But this is a double-edged sword. As much as his biracial identity has helped Obama build a sizable following in middle America, it’s also opened a gap for others to question his authenticity as a black man. In calling Obama the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” the implication was that the black people who are regularly seen by whites — or at least those who aspire to the highest office in the land — are none of these things.

The “not Black enough” trope takes two forms: first, the argument that Obama isn’t “Black enough” is due to his immigrant heritage: not the child of slaves, but the child of an immigrant student and a white (native) mother. He is African comma American, but not African hyphen American. The other version of the trope, expressed here in its most odious form by conservative hack pundit Warner Todd Huston, is that what makes Obama insufficiently Black is his relationship to “the low trending culture developed by the native born:”

Obama isn’t “black enough” not because he might have an immigrant background but because he is educated, eloquent, smooth, and associates with whites. He eschews the thug, rapper lifestyle, the discounting of education and the general downgrading of achievement that is currently accepted by popular black culture in America today.

So, Blacks do not distrust Obama because he is an immigrant and therefore not “black enough”. They distrust him because he is able and successful, smart and educated so that is what makes him not “black enough”.

While I am not qualified to rule on Obama’s “Blackness quotient,” I can still say that I find both versions of the trope distressing from a critical point of view. Here, we have the corollary of the Banks argument; what makes Obama “not Black enough” is his background, and, in particular, his acceptance of “mainstream” or “standard” White discursive forms. While the Huston quote goes some distance to validate Banks’s argument that African Americans are often written off as being uneducable or irredeemably illiterate, Huston’s argument—distasteful as it may be—posits, like Banks, an essentialized Black identity.

The argument I am trying to make here—to the extent that I am making one and not just thinking through some issues—is that any essentialized Black identity becomes problematic. It is either a derogatory assessment of “us people,” or a blanket acceptance of “us folks.”


I am happy to have discovered an online version of Deemer’s ’67 essay “Composition as a Happening.”  Below, my favorite passage–one easy to dismiss for seeming frankly silly, but it’s advice that I think is, at heart, well-taken:

Universities, though they often continue the unfortunate process rather than try to correct it, are continually plagued by the fact that students have been compulsorily miseducated for years prior to their university enrollment. Against this great handicap the reconstruction of English Composition after the model of the happening has certain advantages. Shock and surprise are essential features of the happening, and they should also be frequent moods in the composition course. Clear writing and clear thought follow only after clear experiences, yet the inspiration of such experiences has been virtually neglected by educators. But clear experiences never come easy. For the student who, in the classroom, is not used to participating in any experience at all, the clarity of shock will be quite dramatic when a real experience is presented to him. Let the “teacher” shock the student. Let him speak, not from behind a podium, but from the rear of the room or through the side window. Let him discuss theology to Ray Charles records. As long as there is reverence for the student and the process of education, no shock is too great.

Of course, when you’re on the third floor of State Hall, speaking through the side window is kind of difficult.

I also learn, by surfing through the site that Deemer was a pioneer in hyperdrama and is still teaching (screenwriting, no less)  at Portland State.  From what I can tell here, most of his work has been in literary genres (in which I include screenplays) and reviews.  Curious, then, that his work in comp (just the one essay, as far as I can tell) has been a part of such interesting work–Sirc, certainly, but I think Crowley namechecks Deemer and his essay in Composition in the University as well.

If I hadn’t switched to rhetcomp, interestingly enough, I probably would have ended up studying hyperfiction and similar genres, so I might have found my way to Deemer anyway through an almost completely different path–a certain irony, that: my various paths to Deemer might be rendered as a hypertextual journey.

movin’ on up

Looks like I’ll be teaching 3010 in Fall 2008. I like teaching 1020, but I’m looking forward to moving up and diversifying my teaching portfolio.

These guys were happy with the news too:

tho’ this be madness

A long-promised response to Crowley’s The Methodical Memory, written in response to, if not necessarily tribute to, the occasion of her retirement.

At first, I admit, I was taken aback by this book.  Where was the Crowley who wrote the history of composition in the university with such wit and nerve?  Who was this Crowley, prattling on about the history of outlines, interminably, with no purpose in sight?  Why had this been recommended to me?

But then I tried thinking through these questions, or, more accurately, tried to think around them.  As I am coming to learn, (especially in response to Crowley) an argument need not be written at the superficial level of the text itself–it can reside too in the metadiscourse around the text, and I think that that is a valuable lesson for me: that frustration with what may appear at first to be a difficult, dull, or uninviting text may be the fault not of the author or the text but of my own reading.  Or, to sing the death of the author a little louder, the text is not exclusively what is written but what is read.

Read the rest of this entry »


From the Chronicle of Higher Ed, a blog post from Prof. Laurie Fendrich. Some choice bits, then comments.

Freshmen arrive on campus with their own taste in everything from music to clothes, food, and electronic equipment. Consciously or not, they also have developed certain tastes in art. Taste being what it is, and young people being what they are, freshmen usually arrive with either no taste or very bad taste — not just in art, but in everything — but in either case, they’re very comfortable with their tastes. They don’t expect or want to change them. The paradox is that it just so happens that their taste, which they consider to be something that’s very particular and individual, is, in most important respects, exactly the same as that of most other college freshmen.

If college students have any opinion about art, it’s usually that M.C. Escher and Salvador Dalí are two great artists. Those who have “advanced taste”—i.e., have taken AP art history—love Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Only the rare bird likes Cézanne or De Kooning.

But it’s not just college students who often have narrow or bad taste (these differ, I admit, but they frequently overlap). I’ve known many powerhouse intellectuals, academics, bankers, doctors, and lawyers whose taste was execrable, or just plain ordinary, or who were completely oblivious to taste. How can smart, successful people hang tired, perfunctorily chosen landscapes on their own living room walls, or permit porcelain ducks with little bonnets on their heads to waddle across their coffee tables? Are they lacking some aesthetic gene that we artists have? Or are they just too busy to notice how things look in their own homes?

There are many who would argue that because of the subjectivity of taste, it follows that no one, including a college teacher, has the right to challenge the taste of another person, including students.

But taking my cue from the wise David Hume (whom I’ll explore further in a future post), I see another side to taste. For all the impossibility of defining good taste, good taste tends to precipitate out over time and then solidify. “Say, that Manet painting sure is beautiful,” is almost as much a fact in its universal application as, “Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.” In fact, good taste easily ossifies, which explains Martha Stewart. The idea that taste is radically subjective is an utterly inadequate explanation of aesthetic matters.

Plainly, Prof. Fendrich has not read Crowley’s Composition in the University or Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality. Both texts take composition’s forebears to task for seeing their task as inculcating standards of appropriately middle-class, bourgeois aesthetics. For example, Faigley’s analysis of writing evaluation practices reveals an enduring interest in idealized student subjectivities by contrasting the results of the College Entrance Examination Board’s 1929 English exam with those of editors William Coles and James Vopat’s What Makes Writing Good, a 1985 collection of student writing. In the 1929 exam, Faigley finds that the evaluators privileged familiarity with canonical texts and penalized students for displaying interest in popular literature; moreover, the evaluators highly prized student work that reinforced assumptions that readers of popular texts were intellectually inferior (118-9). Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Faigley argues that this attitude perpetuates “an asymmetry of literary taste” (119) that works to safeguard elite socioeconomic status from those deemed unworthy.

Granted, Fendrich has some vested interest in question: the authorial blurb describes her “a painter who lives and works in New York, is a professor of fine arts and the director of the Comparative Arts and Culture Graduate Program at Hofstra University. Her writing has focused on the place of art and artists in society and the education of young artists, but she has also written essays questioning the viability of beauty in a post-Darwin era, the meaning of abstract painting, and the tyranny of outcomes assessment”. Perhaps she and I might find some common ground on that last point, but I think what she seems to be about to propose here (this post is the first in a planned series on the question of taste and its teachability) seems retrograde and counter-productive.

If, as a compositionist, I am pledged at least in spirit to students’ rights to their own language, why should students’ engagement with creative language use and other discourses be subject to similar institutional tampering? What remains most problematic for me, perhaps, is that the justification for her proposal doesn’t seem to be grounded in any sense of purpose other than the perpetuation of “taste” for its own merits: students need to learn about good taste because if they don’t won’t know what is tasteful. So? Who gives a rat doot?

I’m trying to think of the question rhetorically: what might be gained from an education in taste? As presented here, it’s a matter of being able to listen to the right music or decorate one’s home in tasteful (that is, bourgeois) style.

The comments that follow the original post break down along predictable lines. I tend to agree with the comments submitted by two posters, Marcus and Maria. Marcus writes: “I am just struck by the arrogance and elitism inherent in that notion that college students have ‘bad taste’ and it is our job as the enlightened caste to fix their silly, misguided notions of aesthetic merit”. And Maria: “If I am a professor of early American history (which I am) and I have a very sophisticated understanding of, say, colonial legal and diplomatic history . . . why should anyone give a damn if I decorate my house with porcelain ducks?” And an irresistible summary of Fendrich’s essay from “Shortfingered Vulgarian:” “Banal bourgeois-bashin’, kid-hatin’ Bloomsbury-lite with a click-trawling promise of more to come? Now THAT’S tasteless.”

Fendrich promises more. I’ll be eager to see where this goes.