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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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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).