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Daniel, James Rushing. Student Debt and Composition Classes. CCC, Dec. 2018. Posted 01/30/2019.

Daniel, James Rushing. “‘A Debt Is Just the Perversion of a Promise’: Composition and the Student Loan.” College Composition and Communication 70.2 (2018): 195-221. Print.

James Rushing Daniel addresses “debt” as a pervasive force in current culture and in the lives of students in writing classes. He argues that a course based in the study of debt’s history and effects is a useful and pedagogically appropriate composition option.

Daniel presents statistics illustrating the increasing financial pressure associated with a college education, in particular the influence of the student-loan industry. For example, in the early 1990s, 51% of students graduated with debt averaging $10,200, while in 2012, 71% owed loans averaging $29,400. Time to repayment has risen from 10 years to 19.7 years (196).

In Daniel’s view, this phenomenon is part of a larger component of the neoliberal “fast capitalist economy” discussed by Tony Scott in Dangerous Writing: Understanding the Political Economy of Composition (199). Daniel writes that debt, in such theories, is “an ideological apparatus with significant bearing on the agency of subjects in contemporary global society” (197). As such, it drives choices of educational environment and direction, career, and life events such as marriage or home-owning (197, 215). Debt also carries moral weight that further reduces citizens’ abilities to resist the pressures of neoliberal culture (201). Moreover, it forces students to view education “increasingly . . . through an economic framework” (198). Daniel sees debt as a ubiquitous and pervasive element students will face in college and beyond.

To Daniel, composition scholars and the academy in general have failed to properly attend to debt as a component of students’ lives (215). He cites robust efforts to retain students that ignore these students’ financial burdens and thus actually exacerbate the conditions that drive many students to leave college without completing their degrees (201). While, for Daniel, scholars like Marc Bousquet, Chase Bollig, and Pegeen Reichert Powell address debt as a factor in the political economy of writing classrooms, with some exceptions such theorists tend to “gloss its enduring effects while overstating composition’s capacity to prepare students to navigate it” (201). He quotes Bollig, for example, as arguing that a critically active writing class can help students “resist and thrive” in the face of capitalist exigencies (qtd. in Daniel 201).

The author cites scholars from varied fields, such as anthropology, sociology, and philosophy as well as literary studies to enlarge his discussion of debt. Among insights gleaned from those fields is a critique of “debt’s most disempowering aspect,” which is “its narrative of impermanence” (204). Accepting that most people will be “in debt forever,” in this reading, means disabling the illusion that any debt is a “temporary financial transaction” on the path toward an affluent, entrepreneurial future, replacing it with a more accurate awareness of the function of debt in fast capitalism (205).

Daniel asks compositionists to recognize how writing programs are “necessarily entwined with the problem of student debt” and to consider the costs that students ultimately pay to join a college writing class (202). He presents his own intervention, a course designed to introduce students to the ways debt functions in neoliberal society. He contends that this course stops short of promising to free students from debt’s powerful influence. Rather, he hopes that by bringing the issue of debt to the foreground, the course can provide students with a deeper awareness that may lead to more informed choices and one day inspire them to “strive for financial justice in public contexts” in whatever ways they feel are open to them (203).

Suggesting the first-year students will need more scaffolding than students taking the course in later semesters (206), Daniel responds to several potential critiques of his course plan. To the concern that the topic may be too narrow, Daniel responds that because of its influence in all aspects of current life, the topic of debt speaks to the field’s goal of making coursework meaningful to all students (207). While Daniel notes that some students may find the topic irrelevant if they haven’t borrowed to attend college, or if they have already made debt commitments they can’t change, he points out that many may need to borrow later and will benefit from the broader awareness that can inform future decisions (207-08). Some students, he argues, may be reluctant to share personal information, but this resistance can be addressed with work on personal writing as part of a composition curriculum (207).

He responds as well to concerns that a focus on a single topic may not teach the more general competences that have been defined as the field’s obligation to students (213). Drawing on the scholarship of Patricia Bizzell and others, Daniel argues that “taking up social issues and viewing them rhetorically” aligns with compositionists’ goal of creating writers who are critically aware of the power of writing as social action and able to engage in public discourse effectively (213-14).

The course Daniel introduces begins with an introduction to basic economic concepts, then moves to personal writing that encourages students to situate themselves in the matrix of capitalist economics by sharing their experiences of the financial system (208-10). A third unit may involve rhetorical analysis of financial documents and advertisements so that students can assess how debt is presented as impermanent and empowering when it may be a more complex factor in students’ lives (211-12). As a final focus, the course examines possible ways of negotiating or resisting common narratives about and normalized interactions with debt to present “models and opportunities for activism that could be emulated if students so desired” (213). He provides readings, assignments, and examples of student work.

In Daniel’s view, it may not be possible for students to “resist” and “thrive” simultaneously (214). He reiterates that writing professionals should temper their expectations that critical awareness can free students from capitalist exigencies. He encourages the “short term” goal of “present[ing] students with more agentive modes of thinking and acting in the context of neoliberalism while being clear that there are no panacea” (214). To this end, he urges writing studies to respond to his claim that the field “has largely failed to acknowledge debt’s vast material and ideological function” (215).

In particular, he notes, future research should address how debt as a necessary adjunct to education affects how students understand and value the writing they find themselves viewing “through a financial lens” (216). By correcting its neglect, he claims, the field can address the degree to which debt as a permanent reality in capitalist culture has endangered “the fundamental connection between education and democracy” (215).


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Horner, Bruce. Rewriting Composition. CE, May 2015. Posted 05/28/15.

Horner, Bruce. “Rewriting Composition: Moving beyond a Discourse of Need.” College English 77.5 (2015): 450-79. Print.

Bruce Horner responds to recent calls for composition to shift its focus in ways that are presented as radical departures but that Horner believes ignore composition’s history, endorsing and perpetuating reductionist dominant views of the field. Among Horner’s principal concerns is that these calls remove composition from the “material social practice” in which it is embedded (457). These calls, in his view, constitute a “discourse of need,” depicting composition as deficient, thus requiring “abandonment or supplement” (451).

Horner critiques David Smit’s The End of Composition Studies and Sidney Dobrin’s Postcomposition. Horner presents Smit as arguing that the goal of composition courses—providing “general writing skills” that will allow students to succeed in varied contexts—is unachievable because people learn to write only in the specific environments with which they engage. As a result, Horner writes, Smit recommends that composition should relinquish its focus on general writing skills and replace that focus with a writing-in-the-disciplines approach that will result in “real writing” that will be judged successful or unsuccessful by publics, editors, and employers (455-56).

Horner objects to this call because it accepts an inadequate definition of “writing” that reduces the content of composition to “a single, codified and fixed set of skills and knowledge.” This definition accords with the definition promoted by the market place, to which, in Horner’s view, Smit yields the right to define writing and to which he assigns the right to determine what good writing is (454-55). For Horner, this view leads to what Anthony Giddens has called a “normative functionalist reading of institutions and social practices: things are as they are and operate as they do because that is what their appropriate function is” (455). In such an endorsement of what is, Horner contends, students are cast as making rational, unitary choices about what kinds of writing will best serve their goals “as (simply, only) future employees” (454-55, 457). In Smit, according to Horner, this ascendancy of the free market is contrasted with the failure of the academy as an institution assumed to exist primarily to meet the market’s needs (455)

Horner argues that Dobrin’s Postcomposition similarly accepts dominant definitions of the work of composition despite the book’s claims to promote a rethinking of the field (458-59). According to Horner, Dobrin’s “debased view of the work of composition” (459) echoes dominant reductionist definitions of what writing pedagogy and practice ought to be. Dobrin sees that work as constrained by issues of “training” and “management”; unlike Smit, he rejects a doubling down on more effective pedagogy, choosing instead to call for an escape from pedagogical concerns by reframing the field as “writing studies” (459). Horner expresses dismay that Dobriin does not examine myriad previous work on what “writing studies” might entail (459); he is particularly concerned with Dobrin’s reduction of “writing” to an “abstraction” that Horner contends he does not define or recognize in its material contexts (460). Thus, in Horner’s view, Dobrin accepts capitalism’s expectations for what writing pedagogy should be and replaces this inadequate and inaccurate definition with an “idealist” alternative that is not anchored in material practice (459). Horner writes that Dobrin particularly accedes to the dominant view by accepting the technological demands of “fast capitalist ideals” (461) as the preferred focus of writing studies; Dobrin argues that composition must follows this lead, subjecting its “outmoded” past to “creative destruction,” or be left behind (Dobrin, qtd. in Horner 462). In Horner’s view, composition is seen as lacking by these writers because they allow it to be defined through the consumerist lens of the dominant culture.

Horner acknowledges that composition faces challenges like those Smit and Dobrin outline, but contrasts their handling of these challenges with the approaches of an economist team, J. K. Gibson-Graham, and a sociolinguist, Theresa Lillis. He illustrates his view of how theory might function productively in composition by discussing how these theorists do not choose to overturn their fields’ missions but rather seek to understand what prevents these fields from achieving their desired ends. Gibson-Graham rewrite capitalism to deny it the kind of power dominant views assign it; Horner compares this “hegemonic” view of capitalism to the way reductive views of composition take on hegemonic force in critiques like Smit’s and Dobrin’s. Lillis addresses the way writing is positioned in sociolinguistics by tackling a longstanding binary between speech and writing posited by the field (462-64).

To his critique of Smit’s and Dobrin’s calls for “a prospective future beyond, or following the end of, composition” (469), Horner adds responses to three efforts to supplement composition with what are presented as new or extended content: the call to reframe it as rhetoric, to expand coursework to include “multimodal” approaches, and to rename the field “writing studies” (469). Horner is concerned that these proposed responses to composition’s apparent need ignore the history in which these approaches have long been integral to composition; moreover, in his view, these proposals do not challenge the reductive views of composition that portray it as lacking: for Horner, the field must continue the difficult

efforts to retrieve what the hegemonic denies and to learn to recognize, in forms and practices we are predisposed to understand in limited ways, the accomplishment of more and other than what is claimed. (469)

Horner’s conclusion calls for a recognition of the value of what is seen by the dominant as inconsequential or useless, for example to recognize the learning that occurs even in small student gains. He endorses David Bartholomae’s exhortation to “pay attention to common things” (qtd. in Horner 472). His project resists the tendency to designate academic settings as “something from which students (and others) need protection” (472); on the contrary, he argues, the composition classroom offers a unique space where teachers and students can experiment precisely by exploring what the dominant is likely to see as beneath its notice (472-73). Rather than search for the new and the other, he contends, the field will be well served by recognizing its difference from standard academic disciplines and by re-examining constituent terms like “writing, pedagogy, theory, rhetoric, modality, and composition itself” (473; emphasis original).