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Scott, Tony. “Unseeing” political economies in composition. CCC, Sept. 2016. Posted 10/27/2016.

Scott, Tony. “Subverting Crisis in the Political Economy of Composition.” College Composition and Communication 68.1 (2016): 10-37. Print.

In a special issue of College Composition and Communication on the impact of economics on writing education, Tony Scott examines the impact on composition studies of a disconnect between scholarship and practice. Scott argues that this disconnect has its roots in the prevalence in the current culture of “neoliberalism,” a mindset in which economic forces promote a permanent climate of fear and crisis. This climate relies on fear to facilitate the privatization of areas of daily life that were once part of the social and political domain.

To understand how norms of fear and crisis influence writing education, Scott recommends the use of “political economics study” (12). This methodology “examine[s] dynamic relationships between political processes, institutions, work, affordances, and everyday assumptions, relations, and behaviors” (12). It seeks to understand “how particulars relate to whole ecologies” (12).

As an illustration of how political economics influences relations between the particular and the whole, Scott adopts the metaphor of “unseeing” from China Mieville’s novel The City and the City, which depicts two populations living in immediate proximity to each other without “seeing” each other and recognizing the differences that define them (11). In Scott’s view, scholarship in composition “unsee[s]” the material conditions on which it depends and with which it co-exists (29).

Scott cites sociologist William Davies, for whom neoliberalism functions through “the pursuit of disenchantment of politics by economics” (15; emphasis original). This disenchantment takes the form of “direct, government-facilitated, private sector intervention into public services and social domains” (13). In such an economic environment, “market logics” and the view that markets can recognize and facilitate the most effective measures in all areas of daily life become the norm (14). Scott cites composition scholarship dating back to arguments by John Trimbur in 1991 that writing education risks succumbing to privatization because of factors like its reliance on powerless contingent labor and the size of the market it offers to for-profit enterprise (14).

According to Scott, neoliberalism promotes crisis in order to suggest that only the technocratic expertise of market experts and economists can re-establish stability. He contrasts the “classically modern model” of economic cycles, in which periods of stability rotate with downturns that will be corrected through innovation and critique (27), with neoliberalism’s need for a “perpetual” sense of “competitive uncertainty” in which “precarity” imposed by the elimination of various social support systems guarantees that individuals will see themselves as isolated, beset, and in need of a competitive edge, especially in monetary terms (28).

In this view, the resulting constant call for austerity attenuates social structures while empowering technocrats who argue that market forces are best positioned to control crises (28). An overall effect, Scott contends, is that neoliberal solutions to crisis supersede “more fundamental critique and change” that might challenge “status quo free market capitalism” (28).

Scott contends that composition studies has accepted the pervasiveness of crisis, citing its prominence in recent conference agendas, for example, the theme of “Risk and Reward” at the 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication. Scott argues, however, that such agendas provide “no explicit identification of what people fear or why” (20; emphasis original). Crisis begins to look like “its own exigency” (20).

Through an examination of arguments by scholars like Bruce Horner and Elizabeth Wardle, Scott locates the power of this mindset in debates about the role and value of disciplinarity. In his 1991 discussion, Trimbur worried that professionalization and academic status would lead compositionists to become “deeply implicated in the reward system, division of labor, and meritocratic order that have privatized literacy” (qtd. in Scott 13). Scott sees Trimbur’s concern borne out in the ongoing “exchange value” of publication and research (19). In Scott’s view, this meritocratic impulse has increasingly led to the isolation and disempowerment of scholars and experts in writing education, whose authority, Scott maintains, threatens the incursion of private forces into public domains (21). Although graduate students continue to receive the “official” curriculum that promotes ideas, theory, and theory-driven research, this work constructs scholars as “self-entrepreneurs” (18) at the same time that, in Horner’s words, they are

increasingly losing control over the means to the production of knowledge—now accomplished in ‘partnership’ with business and industry—and its circulation, in publications and in teaching” (qtd. in Scott 21).

Scott argues that graduate students simultaneously receive an “‘unofficial’ education” as they experience teaching as TAs and contingent faculty (18-19). The importance of this distinction, for Scott, is that the scholarship that provides exchange value in composition does not “see” the material landscape in which teaching actually occurs. This dissociation leaves the everyday practice of teaching open to the introduction of more and more commercial influence as technocratic ways of providing and measuring learning, for example through competency-based assessment, steadily remove teachers from the learning equation (17).

Scott’s premise is that scholarly conversations about the direction of composition often do not recognize how the material circumstances in which the scholarly ideas must be enacted are not configured to accommodate those ideas. For example, while characterizing Byron Hawk’s proposal that composition studies should “recover vitalism” in order to create “new ways of seeing invention and pedagogy,” Scott expresses concern that Hawk’s “study makes almost no mention of composition’s institutional contexts or terms of labor” (23).

Similarly, he sees in Sidney I. Dobrin’s proposal that writing studies divest itself of responsibility for pedagogy a path toward irrelevance. Scott contends that composition’s connection to pedagogy provides the support apparatus for research like Dobrin’s, which, without grounding in a realistic view of political economy, would appeal only to “a small, cloistered realm of rhetorical scholars” (24). Scott cites Wardle to point out that composition further endangers its authority through the use of non-credentialed teachers like graduate students, suggesting to policy makers that expertise is not needed to teach writing (21, 22).

Thus, Scott argues, composition scholars seem preoccupied with the crisis embodied by austerity and precarity but have not adequately come to grips with what is happening in classrooms as market forces take over teaching.

Composition does need disruptive new ideas, and those ideas can be fundamentally transforming when they engage composition work at the ground-level economies where it is actually being performed. (29)

Scott recommends more research on the effects of commercial software like plagiarism-detection programs and attention to the outsourcing attendant on increasing globalization, but he also advocates the development of pedagogies that unite teachers and scholars not only in promoting innovative ideas but also in implementing “the just, ethical work and learning environments that would need to be in place for them to be realized” (33).


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Trimbur, John. Translingualism and Close Reading. CE, Jan. 2016. Posted 01/30/2016.

Trimbur, John. “Translingualism and Close Reading.” College English 78.3 (2016): 219-27. Print.
The January 2016 issue of College English addresses the question of “translingualism,” a term that Min-Zhan Lu and Bruce Horner, in their Introduction to the issue, see as “one possible entry point” for overcoming the perception that there is only a single form of English that is universally standard and acceptable (207). They discuss at length the challenges of defining translingualism, presenting it in part as the recognition that difference in language use is not just a phenomenon of L2 learning but rather is a feature of “the normal transactions of daily communicative practice of ordinary people” (212).
In this issue, John Trimbur “traces a branch of translingualism to its source” (220). He focuses on texts by Mina Shaughnessy, David Bartholomae, Bruce Horner, and Min-Zhan Lu. He locates the origin of this translingual impulse in the evolution of open admissions at the City University of New York (CUNY) in the 1960s and 1970s, as writing teachers confronted evidence that the edifice of “monolingualism” in English was an ideology of exclusion rather than a fact.
Trimbur argues that, far from being an accurate description of United States English prior to the turmoil of the 1960s, “monolingualism is not a possible linguistic condition at all” (220). He contends that all speakers move among various dialects and registers; the heterogeneous voices that are now becoming more audible demonstrate the existence of “a plurilingual periphery within the Anglophone centers” such as London and New York (219; emphasis original).
Trimbur recounts the history of CUNY from its birth in 1847 as the Free Academy, documenting that despite initiatives such as Search for Excellence, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK), the system remained largely White (220). In the late 1960s, demands from groups like the Black and Puerto Rican Student Community (BPRSC), in concert with growing civil-rights activism, pressured CUNY administrators to establish a true open-admissions policy (221). This shift introduced writing teachers to student writing that many considered worthy only of “eradicat[ion]” (221). In this new environment, Trimbur writes, “literature MAs and PhDs,” among them Mina Shaughnessy, began to draw on their expertise in New Critical close reading “to find order . . . in the language differences of students formerly excluded by selective admissions” (221).
Trimbur contrasts Shaughnessy’s work to understand the logic behind apparently anomalous usage with the approach of Bartholomae, one of the scholars Trimbur designates as members of the “Pitt school” (222). These scholars, Trimbur writes, recognized that literary theorists routinely constructed meaning from arcane texts by literary authors such as Donald Barthelme or e. e. cummings; the Pitt school critics “placed an extraordinary pressure on themselves” to apply these same approaches to student writing in order to understand “evidence of intention” (222).
To clarify this contrast, Trimbur hypothesizes Bartholomae’s response to an example of student writing addressed by Shaughnessy in her 1977 Errors and Expectations: A Guide to the Teacher of Basic Writing. Whereas Shaughnessy argued for “a logic of nonstandard English” in the essay by noting its use of the conventions of an “evangelical sermon,” Trimbur posits that Bartholomae would see the student practicing rhetorical strategies that positioned him as an applicant to academic authority, such as “moves up and down the ladder of abstraction” from concepts to examples and a gesture toward academic citation (223). In Trimbur’s view, Bartholomae would interpret this student’s effort as a sign not of a writer unable to abandon his “home language” bur rather as a writer “activated by his intention to ‘invent the university'” (223).
Trimbur then compares Bartholomae’s contribution to the approaches of Horner and Lu. Though he contends that both Horner and Bartholomae viewed language difference as socially and historically constructed (220), he contends that Bartholomae maintained in some part a view of standard English as a destination toward which students evolved, somewhat as an L2 learner might move toward a “target language” (224). In Trimbur’s contrast, Horner develops a “dialectical and resolutely social sense of error” in which editing becomes a “negotiation in situations of unequal power and authority”; in this view, teachers might look at student writing “not just for its errors but for the possible rhetorical effects of its language differences” (224).
Trimbur argues that Min-Zhan Lu further complicates the idea of a monolingual center for English by challenging the integrity of standard usage itself. In Lu’s view, Trimbur states, supposedly standard language is inherently “unstable, fluctuating, and hybrid” (225). The resistance of monolingual ideologies to the unconventional and different is the product of a “struggle among conflicting discourses with unequal sociopolitical power” (224-25). In this view, linguistic hierarchies become “momentary hegemon[ies}” (225), within which close reading can locate the value of elided difference.
Trimbur sees an important benefit in such approaches to student writing in their power to bring basic and second-language writing in from “the margins,” where they have been “orbiting around the mainstream English at the center in first-year composition” (226). He calls on composition to cease seeing difference as a reason to isolate the unacceptable but rather to recognize the degree to which difference actually inhabits all language use, thus “dismant[ing] these divisions and the pernicious judgments about language differences and about the differences between people that they have rested on” (226).