Accidents of History

If anything, I think it is reasonable to say that it has been precisely the historical and theoretical construction of the first-year course, with all of its debates about literacy, rhetoric, culture, and technology, that has laid the groundwork for a curriculum devoted to the study of writing. The achievements of the first-year course have made an advanced writing curriculum thinkable precisely to the extent that our knowledges of writing are too much for a single course to contain. Quantity turns into quality, and in many respects the work of theorizing and enacting the study of writing is to make transparent and teachable the social relations and bodies of knowledge that now silently underwrite the first-year course-to organize the study of writing as an intellectual resource for undergraduates.

tink . . . the pin drops.

Trimbur’s claim that “the work of theorizing and enacting the study of writing” is to render the social network/epistemology of writing studies “transparent and teachable” has stuck in my throat like a chicken bone. I cleared my throat once to no avail, and convulsively I feel like trying again. Quantity does not necessarily turn into quality. Sometimes it just translates into more quantity.

Sometimes I really feel that “writing studies” should just get over itself as an eternally fascinating site of inquiry. As a mode of inquiry, an unfolding and enfolding set of practices (the participial form, compared to the noun form as per Trimbur) it is of great disciplinary interest. I spent a good deal of last time in a seminar with Geof Sirc looking into that aspect last semester. Geof’s mission, or at least my take on it based in direct conversation as well as reading his book English Composition as a Happening, is that part of what makes it [the history of composition] fascinating is its utter ignorance and lack of concern with composing practices outside the closed box of the university. With that in mind, how dare anyone claim such a self-important mission for “writing studies.” It seems to me that this is what “writing studies” has ultimately done, at least since the seventies—declare its global mission to eradicate the lack of respect for writing as a serious area of inquiry. Yawn. Failure to endlessly repeat and perpetuate this self-interest within the relatively scarce rank of “compositionists” enfolding into the ranks of other people who study writing would neither harm nor significantly impact the larger agenda of simply studying writing, at least in my opinion.

Sirc’s book is an attempt to refocus composition by going outside the discipline to look at composing practices in a wider context. To recalibrate the discipline by looking at the larger “compositional economy.” I am very much in favor of that. The history of writing studies is enlightening in that it shows just how little pedagogical practice has actually changed—although each succeeding generation damns its forbearers, they continue to perpetuate them. It represents a solid center for a dicipline, but it is not evocative of a radical, or even transformative, pedagogy. Why are compositionists scared to take on the world?

I also admire Charles Bazerman’s outlook on “writing studies”:

Of all disciplines, composition is best positioned to begin to put together the large, important, and multi-dimensional story of writing. We are the only profession that see writing as its center. The university, moreover,–as central to contemporary society’s knowledge, ambitions and professions; as the heir to many of the literate movements of history; and as an international meeting place of global projects–is as good a standpoint as any from which to view writing at this juncture in history. Yet we as a field must be willing to lift up our eyes to this larger charge. It is time for us to rise above the accidents of disciplinary history that have kept our truly significant subject only minimally visible and have blinded us to the enormity of the material we have taken to instruct our students in. It is time to recognize that writing provides some of the fundamental mechanisms that make our world work–and to assert that writing needs to be taken seriously along with the other major matters of inquiry supported by institutional structures.

More importantly, accepting that writing is not solely the domain of a single department, Bazerman pushes the study outside the walls of the university:

Since writing is developed and supported throughout the life-span in every new occasion of writing for every new purpose–as any writer, no matter how experienced, is constantly reminded–we need to go further in extending our full range of studies from the earliest years onward, in school and out, as part of the continuum of learning that for a transient period alights in the university, but then moves out into the workplace and agora, and continues into the retirement years of reflection and renewed social engagement.

Trimbur’s desire ”to make transparent and teachable the social relations and bodies of knowledge that now silently underwrite the first-year course-to organize the study of writing as an intellectual resource for undergraduates,” seems like a minor task compared to the real work that writing studies can do.

Trimbur never “flips the script” (as Geof Sirc would say) to suggest that perhaps the real questions are how/where/when/with who should writing be studied. The first question is, to me at least, a “non-question” (as Trimbur anticipates). I fail to see how simply rendering the concept of writing as a concept in flux makes the question that much more interesting. Everything is in flux—including universities. And ultimately we should study everything. I believe there is a quote somewhere about “the unexamined life.” The real question, as Bazerman alludes to later in the article cited above, is more like: who will pay for and support it?

The new Writing Studies Department at the University of Minnesota brings together people from Communication Studies, Scientific and Technical Communication, English Studies, Journalism and Mass Media, etc. The overlap in interests is huge; what we have going on here, it seems to me, has more to do with how do we fund writing studies? than “should we study writing?” All these people (and many more departments) will continue to study writing whether the organization collects them or not. What seems important, however, is that “the study of writing” is at the center rather than the margin. I would say that this is “revolutionary” or perhaps “evolutionary” except for the fact that writing has been at the center since the late nineteenth century, at least at the center of many turf-wars and pissing contests. Perhaps it’s time to move on.