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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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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).