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Geiger II, T J. “Relational Labor” in Composition. CS, Sept. 2015. Posted 11/23/2015.

Geiger II, T J. “An Intimate Discipline? Writing Studies, Undergraduate Majors, and Relational Labor.” Composition Studies 43.2 (2015): 92-112. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.

T J Geiger II examines undergraduate writing majors as sites in which “relational labor” forms a large part of faculty activities and shapes student perceptions. He considers the possibility that, despite the tendency to view dedicated writing majors as a step toward disciplinary status, the centrality of relational labor to writing instruction may undercut this status. Further, he addresses the concern that support for writing majors may devalue writing instruction itself (94). He focuses on “what the field learns” about these concerns when it listens to students in these programs (98).

Through surveys and interviews with undergraduate majors in “independent writing programs” at a “Private Research University” and a private “Liberal Arts College” (98), Geiger establishes “relational labor” as work done between faculty and undergraduate writing majors in which the personal connections formed contribute to the students’ representations of their learning. The students discussed and quoted consider their relationships with faculty crucial to their “personal development” (“Mark,” qtd. in Geiger 99), which Geiger characterizes in this student’s case “as synonymous with writing development” (99; emphasis original). He argues that faculty attentiveness to the affective components of writing instruction provides students with a sense of a caring audience interested not just in conveying the technical aspects of writing but also in fostering the growth of “unique” individuals through social encounters (102):

Interactions with faculty, part of the context for writing, encourage not only writing majors’ literacy acquisition, but also a sense of themselves as individuals who matter, which in turn can fuel their capacity to take rhetorical action. (99)

Geiger develops this picture of faculty engaged in relational labor against a range of scholarship that has expressed concern about “the ideological complex that figures the composition teacher as a maid/mother disciplinarian,” a characterization he attributes to Susan Miller’s 1991 critique (106). Similarly, he addresses Kelly Ritter’s critique of a “gendered ideology of ‘help'” that Ritter sees as potentially “counterproductive to the discipline of composition studies as a whole” (qtd. in Geiger 106).

Geiger detects justification for these concerns in students’ use of terms like “lovely,” “nice,” and “help” in describing their interactions with faculty (106). His question is whether accepting the role of empathetic helper or the centrality to writing instruction of affective responsiveness necessarily restricts the field’s focus to the “teaching of writing” rather than “teaching about writing” (96; emphasis original).

These concerns accord with those expressed in a larger debate about whether the field should “distance” itself from the constraints that some see as imposed by first-year writing courses, concerns that Geiger notes are themselves broached in affective terms of escape and freedom, indicating that attention to “feeling” permeates all levels of the field (96).

Among the specific concerns that Geiger explores are the ways in which intensive interpersonal investment in students and their work can intersect with professional exigencies. He notes the Modern Language Association’s 2006 report, “Still Standing;: The Associate Professor Survey,” which finds that women in the field report marginally less time spent on research and marginally more on teaching than men; these small differences seem to add up over time to a slower path to promotion for female faculty (107-08). In addition, he addresses the possibility that students who cast faculty as empathetic helpers downplay their role as experts with valuable knowledge to convey (106).

In Geiger’s view, the disciplinary promise of a focus on “teaching about writing” need not be at odds with a pedagogy that values developmental relationships between faculty and students (109). He cites student responses that express appreciation not just for the personal interaction but also for the access to professional expertise provided by faculty during the interactions: He quotes “Jeremiah,” for whom “faculty in the writing program understand themselves as not just research producers, but also as people working with their students” (qtd. in Geiger 102). Indeed, Geiger claims, “students recognize the need for informed care” (108; emphasis original). Such an understanding on the part of students, Geiger argues, demonstrates that investment in a writing major need not crowd out pedagogical value (102), while, conversely, focus on the teaching of writing through an ideology of “care” need not interfere with more intensive study of writing as disciplinary content (107).

Students interviewed do recognize the professional burdens with which faculty must contend and value the personal investment some faculty are still able to make in students’ individual projects and growth (104); Geiger advocates for ongoing consideration of how this ubiquitous and clearly valued kind of labor “is distributed within a program and a writing major” (108).

In addition, Geiger argues that developing as writers through close working relationships with faculty instills in students an understanding of writing as a rhetorical process:

situated, not context-free; social, not solely personal; collaborative, not entirely individual; and (though less often) explicitly politically implicated, not neutral. (108)

Building on the collection by Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty, Geiger urges composition professionals to attend not just to “what we are becoming” (108; emphasis original) but also to “who . . . writing majors (i.e., students) are becoming” (109; emphasis original). Attention to the students’ own perceptions, he contends, provides informative indications of these attainments (109).


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Preston, Jacqueline. Composition as “Assemblage.” CCC, Sep. 2015. Posted 11/03/2015.

Preston, Jacqueline. “Project(ing) Literacy: Writing to Assemble in a Postcomposition FYW Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 67.1 (2015): 35-63. Print.

Jacqueline Preston advocates for a project-based model for composition, particularly in basic-writing classes. Such a model, she argues, benefits students in several important ways. It refuses the longstanding deficit approach that, according to Victor Villanueva, defines students who fall into the basic-writing population in terms of “illness” (qtd. in Preston 35); it allows students to draw on their histories, interests, and multiple “acquired literacies” (42) to produce writing that is rich in “complexity,” “relevancy,” and “contingency” (39); and it encourages students to view writing as an “assemblage” of many overlapping components, including personal histories; cultural, social, and political interactions; prior reading and writing; and many kinds of “rhetorical negotiation” (54).

Preston contends that composition still embraces a deficit model that sees its purpose as preparing underprepared students for future academic work. Such an approach, working with a narrow understanding of literacy, focuses on writing as a “technology of representation” (Raúl Sánchez, qtd. in Preston 38, 61n7), devoted to proficient communication that primarily serves as a “conduit” for information (43). This view requires that students’ lived literacies be dismissed as deficiencies and that composition itself be limited to fulfilling a service role within the limits of the university (36, 38).

In contrast, Preston presents a view of writing aligned with postcompositionist approaches that advocate seeing writing more expansively as the actual moment of “culture making itself” (40). She urges composition studies to embrace Kenneth Burke’s concept of “dialectical space” as the realm of the “both/and” in which “merger and division” bring together disparate assemblages to transform them into something transcendent.

Seeing writing through this lens, she argues, allows an awareness of writing as a process of “becoming,” a concept from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in which each act of assembly transforms previous knowledge and creates new realities (39-40). Drawing on Sidney Dobrin’s book Postcomposition, she argues that the view of composition engendered by the project model she describes enables engaging “the possibles” that “emerge on the edge of chaos” but that “strive toward becoming actuals” if embraced in a dialectical spirit (Dobrin, qtd. in Preston 54).

Preston presents the project-based model, which she traces to John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick, as a pedagogical method that can introduce students to this view of literacy. Her article is based on a twelve-month grounded-theory study examining the experiences of ten students and seven faculty (37, 61n11). In Preston’s program, basic writing is the purview of eight tenured and tenure-line faculty in “an independent basic writing unit” in which “constructivist approaches” have long been in place (41). Preston presents examples of student work in the course, focusing especially on a particular student who had entered college uncertain of his readiness but who successfully developed a fundraising and social-media plan to encourage the installation of bike racks in the city.

Her account of this student’s work contrasts his experience with the expectations he would have been asked to meet in a traditional argument curriculum (50-51). She recounts that his original proposal to “do a presentation to the Downtown Alliance . . . as a citizen” (student, qtd. in Preston 40) evolved as he learned more about previous work done on his idea and drew on his prior involvement in the bicycling community, including expertise and literacies he had developed through that background. In a more traditional approach, she argues, he would have gathered evidence and counterarguments but would never have had

a chance to come face-to-face with the inherent complexities of his writing project and to see “good writing” as a multifarious and contingent response to constantly shifting rhetorical, social, and political realities. (51)

Adoption of a project-based model, Preston writes, raises questions about the nature of “good writing” and “effective pedagogy.” The model, she states, does not completely dismiss the conventions and genre requirements common to more traditional curricula. As students compose many different kinds of texts, from a “well-researched proposal to a sponsor” to emails, interview questions, brochures, and video presentations, they not only incorporate conventions but, because of their investment in their projects, become “eager to know more about the conventions of particular genres and how best to use outside resources to appeal to specific audiences” (52). The model stresses the degree to which all writing is a situated assemblage of many different contingent components always open to revision rather than a representation of a stable truth (51).

Effective pedagogy, in this model, becomes pedagogy that resists practices that limit access; builds on and furthers students’ histories, literacies, goals, and interests; provides students with a richer sense of the possibilities writing offers; and “produc[es} writing that has consequence” (53). Important, in Preston’s view, is the model’s capacity for allowing students to “transfer from” their own experiences the material to support critical inquiry rather than insisting that the sole purpose of first-year writing is to enable students defined as underprepared to “transfer to,” that is, to tailor their work to narrow views of literacy as circumscribed by traditional notions of proficient college work (62n12; emphasis original).


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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).