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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Comp Work

Posted by Mark Bauerlein on 03/26/06 at 06:13 AM

Here are some papers that were delivered at the annual CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication). With so many college students graduating without the ability to compose a coherent paragraph, one might assume the focus of the convention would fall upon writing skills and rhetorical structures. But for a fair portion of the entries, we get something else.

One paper is entitled “‘Register Your Penis’: Using Critical Discourse Analysis to Uncover Gender Conflict,” and the description runs, “As part of a larger thesis, this paper focuses on the “Penis Registry,” an activity introduced by CSU, Chico’s Women’s Center in support of Take Back the Night (TBTN), a nationwide university event . . .”

Here’s another one, showing us that there is no topic to which the race isue may not be applied: “Race, Rhetoric and the Digital Divide: From Digital Writing to Blogging.” And this: “Classroom and Race Issues for Building Community,” and this: “alternative Rhetorics: Postcolonial, Race, Womanist.”

And what would a general humanities conference be without something on the Middle East, as in: “Rhetoric and the Question of Palestine,” with a description containing the requisite sneer quotes--"The continuing saga of violence and bitterness known as the ‘Israel-Palestine conflict’ is less a matter of contested land than it is a matter of contested reality, framed in rhetorics that lead to radically different moral conclusions.”

And, to display hipness, we need some pop culture stuff, if only to show our appreciation of its subversive potential. Here is “Disturbing the Peace: Hip Hop as Theory, Politics, and Pedagogy,” and also “Rhetorics of Reception: Three Cases from Popular Culture” (two of them being the films Barbershop and Million Dollar Baby).

And, finally, for the political slant, there is a panel on “Towards A Progressive Politic in High School English Classrooms in Chicago.” Can one imagine a session at CCCC that begins “Towards a Conservative Politic”?

These are cherry-picked titles, of course, but they aren’t out of the mainstream of comp studies today. All the participants should hope for is that nobody with any decision-making power gets wind of them. They might find their funding streams drying up.


Comments

You are the journalist who, devoid of other inspiration, every December ritually writes up an article deriding MLA paper titles… and I claim my five pounds.

By Jon on 03/26/06 at 08:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But, Mark, aren’t you someone with decision-making power?  If you want your audience to rise up and call for cuts in humanities funding, I suspect you need better arguments.

Anyway, those aren’t sneer quotes, they’re ordinary quotation marks to separate mention from use.  They may not be required in that context, but that’s what they are.

By on 03/26/06 at 10:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And a good paper title would be...?

“Rhetoric and Boringosity: Or, What’s the fun in thinking?”

By on 03/26/06 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To those in comp. who feel a need to react to Mark, let us understand where he is coming from. Literature and literay criticism are the areas in English Studies where “funding streams [are] drying up.” His is a defensive reaction against the growing challenge to the relevance of literary studies.  Let us feel badly for him and others like him. And let us hope that he starts to advocate against the unethical actions of lit. ph.d. programs, actions that lead to the saturation of the market and the crushed hopes of those students who believe if they just work hard enough, a job will be out there for them.

By on 03/26/06 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the post---I too saw some of those sessions in the program, but was unable to attend them. Can you post your session notes?

cbd.

By Bradley Dilger on 03/26/06 at 01:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was pleased to attend and deliver a paper at the conference Mark degrades here from the titles, a practice that, as several people have pointed out, is not terribly helpful. Perhaps this post would have worked better at PhiBetaCons, I think, where the audience is more accustomed to generalizations that appeal to their invincible prejudices (the Sokal hoax posts were outstanding in that regard, I thought).

About the conservative politic, however, I have been perusing a volume called Market Matters, which seems to apply libertarianist insights to pedagogical matters.

If there are college graduates who can’t write a coherent paragraph, the blame, Mark, should be laid on the scantron-infused commerce departments, not on writing instruction.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/26/06 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, the fact that there were more rhet/comp jobs advertised this past year than there were jobs in all the literature fields put together might be taken as a “growing challenge to the relevance of literary studies.” But the institutional pressures responsible there are better thought of as part of an overall trend towards the vocationalization of higher education, which might cause you to mitigate the triumphalist rhetoric a bit, which is in any case misplaced and based on a false opposition.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/26/06 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"With so many college students graduating without the ability to compose a coherent paragraph...”

What are these students learning in high school before they get to college? You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

“These are cherry-picked titles, of course, but they aren’t out of the mainstream of comp studies today.”

Why is the actual proof for what “the mainstream” is up to always somewhere else in conservative attacks upon higher education? It’s intellectually lazy to point to a few provocative titles (titles?) of presentations or panels and then, with some rhetorical eye-rolling, count on your audience to fill in the gaps.

To put it another way, let’s imagine a progressive critic arguing for the intellectual bankruptcy of the right side of the political spectrum by citing a handful of recent high profile news stores: e.g. Ben Domenech, George Deutsch, and Jeff Gannon. Would conservatives find this a particularly persuasive approach? Would anyone?

This entry reflects poorly on The Valve and upon Professor Bauerlein.

By George Williams on 03/26/06 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Clancy pointed me to a review of the aforementioned volume by Clay Spinuzzi, if anyone’s interested.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/26/06 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan,

In the spirit of Mark’s post, I’d like to correct something that I found via the link to your website in the post about your 4Cs presentation. You wrote, “Clancy and I’s panel was well attended, and we were fortunate to have interesting discussions afterwards.”

Your grammar is incorrect; it should be written as follows: “Clancy’s and my panel was well attended....”

Just doing my job to help out the lit. folk.

By on 03/26/06 at 05:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I appreciate the points that have already been brought to surface, and John’s offering of why Mark Bauerlein rhetorically frames the conference proceedings the way he does.

The opening paragraph of Bauerlin’s post holds three problematic assumptions and a logical fallacy. But because I don’t trust logic alone to give full and rich communication, I’ll include an alternative cherry-picked list of panel titles from the conference program:

“College Ready: A 12th Grade Course to Prepare Students for Reading and Writing Rhetorically in College” (morning workshop 9)

“How to Succeed in Literacy: Conventions and Contexts” (A.11)

“Using Genre to Help Students Envision Themselves as Writers” (C.06)

“Disciplinary Writing and Cross-Talk: Assessing Writing in a Technical University” (D.23)

“Teaching Rhetorics of the Public Sphere: Focus on Propaganda” (full day workshop 6)

And not to be overlooked, Deborah Tannen’s fascinating address on “Arguing in Private and Public” in which she discussed “why she believes agonistic arguments have a corrosive effect on us all while they degrade public discourse and fail to increase knowledge and understanding” (program, p. 113).

By on 03/26/06 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Mark,

A question for you:

Very few of my students have the ability to develop a coherent literary analysis of the novel we read last week. In fact, I notice that lots of English majors have this problem. Of course, I’m just a simple composition scholar, but can you tell me who can I talk to about this problem? You seem to be a BMOP (Big Man on Pedagogy), so I thought maybe can you recommend someone in the MLA who can address this crisis.

On the other hand, if this problem is an extension of poor composition instruction, then please just disregard this question. I was sort of assuming that literary scholars are responsible for pedagogical instruction, but I could be wrong.

Thank you for your help,
Jenny Edbauer

By jhe on 03/26/06 at 06:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t understand what the objections are to these titles. 
The title “The Valve” makes me think of automobile engines.  I didn’t have the foggiest notion that you were talking about titles of speeches aimed at professionals in the field of rhetoric/composition when I read this. 
It is obvious that you intend a metaphoric reading of the words “The Valve,” but I don’t understand what you mean. 
Perhaps had you attended the sessions, aimed at people in the profession, the purpose and title would have been clearer to you.

By on 03/26/06 at 06:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry I don’t have time to comment here, but I need to get back to the galley with the other composition slaves and row, row, row.

By senioritis on 03/26/06 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, a great many bloggers attended this conference. Over the past week or so, I began tagging blog entries by people who were attending CCCC-2006.

One gets a very different impression of the conference by reading the reports of people who actually attended the conference rather than reading drive-by snark by someone who did not.

By George Williams on 03/26/06 at 08:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nearly all of these responses miss the basic point of my post, which was a categorical one--that composition studies have been excessively politicized and racialized. The titles are taken at face value, the tendentiousness of the papers clear from the topics and descriptions. And if they were presented to decisionmakers outside comp studies, they would prove an embarrassment, just as the Sokal Hoax, the Bad Writing Award, and the like were embarrassing episodes in which not a single non-humanist or public intellectual(so far as I know) was willing to stand up for the professors.

But to address Jenny’s point--I have no doubt that your students can’t put together a coherent interpretation of the novel they read. We’ve done such a poor job of training young people to appreciate the value of literature that most of them see no point, and nothing at stake, in their engagement with it.

By on 03/26/06 at 09:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And, to display hipness, we need some pop culture stuff, if only to show our appreciation of its subversive potential. Here is “Disturbing the Peace: Hip Hop as Theory, Politics, and Pedagogy,” and also “Rhetorics of Reception: Three Cases from Popular Culture” (two of them being the films Barbershop and Million Dollar Baby).

Isn’t it possible that those of us who study pop culture do so for reasons other than to “display hipness?” If writing or argument is linked to rehtoric, what better way to think about how argument works than to look at some of the most persuasive texts currently available?

And, I’d like to know, based solely on the title, why the second paper will necessarily read Million Dollar Baby as “subversive.”

By Chuck Tryon on 03/26/06 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I felt compelled to delete the first effort at poignant pedantry, as not to spoil the effect.

Mark, an appeal to an administrative bandwagon is pretty feeble evidence here.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/26/06 at 10:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s another one, showing us that there is no topic to which the race isue may not be applied: “Race, Rhetoric and the Digital Divide: From Digital Writing to Blogging.”

Is this meant to imply that the “race issue” has been resolved?  I’m not attending C’s this year, but this paper seems to be addressing an important issue.  There are legitimate concerns about a digital divide along racial lines, and that divide could have significant consequences in terms of job opportunities.

By Chuck Tryon on 03/26/06 at 10:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark, um, I think we did get the point of your post.

Now you’ve tried again, a question: just how “politicized and racialized” should Composition studies be?

Meanwhile, I agree with George Williams.

By Jon on 03/26/06 at 10:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark Bauerlein: “Nearly all of these responses miss the basic point of my post, which was a categorical one--that composition studies have been excessively politicized and racialized.”

This charge is especially unfortunate in the context of recent political events.  I quote from your article Securing Academic Freedom on Campus on David Horowitz’ FrontPage magazine:

“Defenders of current practices will shout about censorship and zealotry even though our proposals merely ask that conservative opinion be granted a modest place in the curriculum and in student life.”

What these proposals—by which you presumably mean Horowitz’ “Academic Bill of Rights”—involve is political control over hiring and tenure decisions.  There could hardly be a more severe case of excessive politicization of your academic field.  Despite the rhetoric of equality in the proposal, the reality is that you are inviting political oversight over a process that currently is up to your academic peers.

In this context, the attack on a conference by selective quotation of titles can only be seen as propagandistic in nature.  I’m disappointed.  This is the first instance that I can remember of a Valve article going beyond standard academic argument (i.e. Theory vs anti-Theory) and into the wasteland of support of purely political conservatism.

By on 03/26/06 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Mark:

In comp. studies, we teach students how to argue ethically and effectively. You’ve done neither here. You build a lousy ethos.

It’s easy to build straw person arguments and to engage in hasty generalizations, but damned hard to argue well. It involves irksome toil. Besides, it’s not nearly as sexy and provacative, eh?

By on 03/26/06 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow; I guess I did misread Bauerlein’s post.  I took it to be a parody of John Bruce.

By on 03/26/06 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Nearly all of these responses miss the basic point of my post, which was a categorical one--that composition studies have been excessively politicized and racialized.”

Thanks for paying attention the last thirty years."Have been?” Nice lack of insight.

The real issue here is how folks like you know very little of the subject you speak of, yet feel compelled to tell us rhet/comp folks what we’re doing wrong.

Might I suggest to you - since you are a “literary” person - that you READ before you speak?

Try to be a bit informed next time.

By jeff on 03/27/06 at 08:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One takes from Bauerlein’s response to Edbauer that he belongs to the “Ah, wonderful!” school of literary criticism.

By on 03/27/06 at 08:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark:

In the context of a claim to be trying to uphold standards of rigor and fairness, this kind of posting is especially objectionable. KC Johnson does the same thing from time to time. Not only could one cherrypick a very different set of titles from any given conference program of this kind, as demonstrated above, I think any kind of rigorous commitment to critique obligates one to at least go and listen to a few of the panels and presentations that are deemed objectionable from their titles. That’s the essence of professional responsibility and practice in this context. It doesn’t matter if one is certain in advance of what will be said: there is a necessary obligation to be certain, a courtesy that is owed to other scholars and intellectuals, a need to respond to texts in their detail, not just skimming off titles derisively.

By Timothy Burke on 03/27/06 at 11:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How disappointing and rather silly . . . an ostensibly “troubling” list of titles that represent the political nature of instruction provided by scholars trained in Rhetoric and Composition. I mean, of course. Language (rhetoric) is political; language (rhetoric, *including* grammar) is political, language (rhetoric) is politics, and this is not new or radical or even surprising. What is even less horrifying and crisis-inducing is that good rhetorical preparation teaches that titles want to provoke us; they desire our scorn, derision, love, . . . our affective response that might indicate curiosity, outrage, love . . . So, well, then, it just seems sort of odd to point out a list of titles as “evidence” of illegitimate or wrong-minded practice among a group of rhetoric scholars who have simply performed well. And--a bit of anecdotal evidence, here--I happily report that my funding streams are overflowing; I had overspent my travel allowance well before the 2005 MLA, but because my Dean and my Chair believe in the value of my work (and my MLA, CCCC’s and RSA panels on “Genres of Coalition/Resistance,” “The New McCarthyism” and “Progressive Resistance”, respectively), they decided to triple my travel allowance for this academic year.

By bonnie kyburz on 03/27/06 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think there’s merit to Prof. Bauerlein’s post if it’s framed differently (though he probably wouldn’t endorse my reading, for reasons that will become obvious).  I want to pursue the idea of intellectual projects that might be vulnerable to cuts in funding. 

In a 1976 Harper’s article called “The Higher Illiteracy,” Gene Lyons castigated English professors for indulging themselves in their specialties—writing the 500th book about William Faulkner or Richard Wright, producing an all-new footnoted edition of some third-rate Smollett novel.  Meanwhile, Johnny the undergrad can’t read or write a coherent essay.

Now, it seems that, 30 years later, Bauerlein is taking much the same slant on Comp theorists.  Let’s leave aside Bauerlein’s claim of their being “over-politicized” (I’m confused by this, like the other commenters in this thread).  Could we say, though, that Bauerlein is right to observe that comp is being over-theorized?  Although Tarez Graban points us to apparently quite conventional and “functional” papers, it’s also apparent that there are a lot of heavily theoretical papers being given at the CCCC.  (I’m using “theoretical” with a small “t” here, to mean that one has to say something incredibly clever about Peter Elbow or essay organization that no one has ever said before in order to get tenure.)

Is Rhet/Comp, then, reproducing what Gene Lyons would call the self-indulgence of English departments?  Some might argue that the discipline is inherently more “grounded” than that of the woolly-headed lit-crit people.  I dunno.  I took a Rhet/Comp Theory course as a grad student, and I was often infuriated by the abstraction of the articles I read, and the way they would often directly contradict what I did in the classroom.  In fact, sometimes I got the feeling that one theorizes in Rhet/Comp precisely to avoid having to teach stuff to undergrads. 

OK, whatever, we all need to make ourselves happy in life.  Give the conference presentation, try to place the article in the journal.  More power to you, and I’ll be doing the same thing.  But if we’re going to make ominous comments about funding being turned off for irrelevant projects, we need to realize that from the point of view of Joe Administrator or Gene Lyons, we’re all equally guilty.  The basic structure of English and Rhet/Comp might be pretty much the same:  you have a class of highly specialized theorists who jet around from conference to conference, and grad students, adjuncts, etc., who actually do the hard job of teaching 19-year-olds how to write an intro paragraph.  If you’re a grad student, you want to join the specialist/theorist group.  If you’re lucky enough to be in this group, you hope those with the power over funding aren’t paying close attention…!

By on 03/27/06 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jon’s question--"just how ‘politicized and racialized’ should Composition studies be?"--brings up another one:  What should composition studies be?

Should we be spending all of our time researching the best ways to write coherent paragraphs?  If that’s your view of what we do, Mark, it’s no wonder you seem to have so little respect for us.  You must see us as getting doctorates for studying material that every scholar in every discipline should know.

Or is it okay if we expand our understanding of “College Composition and Communication” beyond that?  And if so, what’s wrong with studying composition as it relates to race and politics?  There’s certainly nothing new about this connection; in fact, composition scholars have been studying racial and political writing for as long as the discipline has existed.

Composition scholars do study writing skills, rhetorical structures, paragraphs, essays, errors, and all the other things you’d see in an English 101 textbook.  But just literature scholars like to go beyond the Norton anthologies, composition scholars like to broaden their horizons (and their students’ horizons), too.  I see nothing wrong with doing so.  Do you?

By on 03/27/06 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To comment on the least important discussion going on in this forum, I’d like to note that when John wrote:

You wrote, “Clancy and I’s panel was well attended, and we were fortunate to have interesting discussions afterwards.”

Your grammar is incorrect; it should be written as follows: “Clancy’s and my panel was well attended....”

He was mistaken. Because panel is singular and shared by both Clancy and Goodwin, it should read, “Clancy and my panel...”, unless I am mistaken and they didn’t share the panel.

If Mary and I share a car, it’s “Mary and my car.” If we don’t share a car, it’s “Mary’s and my cars.”

By Michael Faris on 03/27/06 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amidst all the petulant fits and starts, there are some substantive questions that I’ll try to address.

One, is it fair to cite titles and descriptions without going into the papers themselves? 

Not entirely, but two things. My point wasn’t to address the intellectual quality of the papers themselves, but the topics they cover. The descriptions indicate where the focus lies and reveal the intent of the author quite clearly. They display a categorical choice on their part about the subject of their work, a choice that I regard as a mistake, and one that has brought no small measure of embarrassment to the humanities over the years.

This leads to the other thing. We have seen many people make sport of conference paper titles, and academics have shot back accusing them of anti-intellectualism and hack journalism. The academics might also have acknowledged that titles and stated commitments do have consequences. And while they might consider the titles listed here as entirely legitimate, outsiders regard them as biased, silly, or downright bizarre. It is easy to get lost in the discourse of a profession, but it is also worthwhile thinking about how it sounds to non-professionals. A provocative title might win plaudits from the club, but quite the opposite from others.

Another serious question: To what extent should racial and political themes and motives enter into composition studies? Only so far that they remain subordinate to the central goals of the discipline. I have seen too many cases of the themes overriding the composition instruction.  Racial identity is not a major composition issue. Furthermore, to speak responsibly about racial identity and race relations requires a lot more inquiry into the history, econoomics, demographics, and psychology of race relations than may be found in the doctoral curriculum in composition. The same may be said for examining popular culture (which another commentator raised).

There is another consideration here, as well, again coming from the outside. As I’ve said before, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the university among employers, politicians, foundations, and elsewhere. One of the biggest complaints falls on the poor writing skills of recent graduates. Two years ago, I found myself at lunch sitting next to Lee Hamilton, ex-Congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 commission. When he found out I was a some time English professor, he launched into a speech that began, “Why aren’t you teaching those young people how to write?” You can find other sources in reports on corporations and manufacturers saying the same thing.

Now, when these people see what some of the comp people are focusing on, they begin to put the blame on the instructors. Unfair, yes, but the research focus of many of them encourages the habit.

Finally, one commentator refers to the Academic Bill of Rights as a political strategy to control personnel. The text of the ABOR argues no such thing, and if it were used by some unscrupulous parties to make political judgments, I’d be the first one to denounce it. The problem is that certain fields, by defining themselves in political terms, make every one of their own personnel decisions already a political decision.

Let’s remember that academic freedom is not designed primarily to protect professors or to protect the university. It is aimed for the “common good,” as the 1940 AAUP statement says. That is why we need to bring more of the public concerns into our work, and stop being so insulated from outside voices.

By on 03/27/06 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sweet fancy Moses, Mark. You’re like a walking retro-party: Teach the value of literature, and all will be well. Good writing means good comma placement. Lordy.

Can you point me to some evidence that actually supports any of your claims here? Do you have some kind of proof that “training young people to appreciate the value of literature” actually makes them more engaged, more complex thinkers, or better writers? I’d love to see some citations, if you wouldn’t mind. I’d also like to see some of your research findings or scholarship explaining why good writing is equivalent to good grammar. Could you point me to a few articles?

By jenny on 03/27/06 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Professor Bauerlein, your original post is far more “petulant” than the subsequent comments.

As for your “serious question”: show your research. Have you any familiarity whatsoever with the discourse in rhetoric and composition on race? You advocate speaking “responsibly about racial identity and race relations” in rhetoric and composition—but you demonstrate zero evidence that you have any familiarity whatsoever with the scholarship in rhetoric and composition on that topic.

One might suppose that you’re familiar with standards of evidence in academic discourse. Your assertions concerning what is and is not “a major composition issue” entirely fail to meet those standards.

By Mike on 03/27/06 at 05:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark:

You aren’t considering the fullest range of explanations or ways of understanding for even the narrow phenomenon you are interested in criticizing.

For example, any textual critic, even the most traditional, knows that conventions for titles, packages, the back cover on a book copy, table of contents, and so on, are a form whose connection to the contents of a text may at times in various genres and forms of publication be strikingly weak or arbitrary. Or that title-making may be governed by extremely strong conventions that convey little of an individual author’s intent. In the case of academic papers, for example, certainly the form of Funny or Cryptic Words: Solid Description of Content is a really established convention. In some fields, provocation in title, or declarations of affiliation with particular theorists or positions, may be so autonomic that they aren’t considered statements of authorial intent.

What is the purpose of a conference paper title, after all? In part it is to signal some distinction between papers, to hope to be selected out of the mass of submissions. It’s a good bet that ‘Register Your Penis’ is going to be noticed before “Teaching First-Year Students Effective Use of Argument in Short Analytic Essays”. It’s not just that the first title is more noticeable. It’s that to know whether the second paper is worth including in the conference program, you’d almost certainly have to see more than the title and the abstract. Someone could give a very sophisticated, useful presentation on that subject--or, with the same title, they could give a presentation on composition that would have sounded dusty and stodgy in 1950, let alone now. A conference committee may feel they know more of what they’re likely to get with “Register Your Penis”, though the irony is that as such titles become conventional and ordinary, you actually *don’t* know what you’re getting.

In this context, you should consider something that you’ve actually written about in other contexts, namely, the pressure for “originality” in academic work. If the job of composition is to get back to the “real work” of teaching people how to write, what are you going to do in terms of making allowances for people in that field to be relieved of the burden for constant novelty in the way they speak about their professional labors? What if composition is seen as just “doing” pedagogy and other fields are still granted the right (or put under the obligation) to be original or innovative in their scholarship? I think it’s fair to guess that in such a circumstance, the fields that are given “basic” pedagogical responsibilites while others are seen as the domain of innovation are going to be seen as second-order or inferior.

Which in a way explains modes of self-presentation (including the titling of conference papers) across the humanities. The argument that this is “politicization” strikes me as a far too specific response to this phenomenon--it assumes an instrumental intent, it reads specific buzzwords and arguments as having a programmatic content, rather than just seeing them as more or less forms of professionalized presentation. In the case of disciplines like composition, this is especially important, because this is about getting out from under the assumption by rival or cognate disciplinary practices that comp does the scut work of cleaning the barnacles off the grand ship of literary analysis--it’s about laying claim to posssibilities for innovation, originality and creativity in one’s own practice.

The answer to that is not going to be, “Just title your paper, ‘Helping College Students to Write” or ‘Techniques That Work in Analytic Writing’”. It’s going to have be both more modest and more sweeping. More modest in that I think you’ve got to be more understanding, nuanced and attentive to the real drivers underneath the process than just yelling “Politicization” and more sweeping in that you have to question the value placed on superficial indicies of “originality” across the entirety of the humanities, not just picking off a single area of activity at a time.

By Timothy Burke on 03/27/06 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark,
You write,
“to speak responsibly about racial identity and race relations requires a lot more inquiry into the history, econoomics, demographics, and psychology of race relations than may be found in the doctoral curriculum in composition.”

I disagree with this point (because it shows a lack of knowledge of the curriculum in graduate programs, many of which offer extensive work in such issues), but what I actually want to suggest is that something similar might be said about pundits who seek to tell composition scholars what they should be doing and what they are doing wrong. That is, to tell composition scholars what the “real” issues are, a person should have some knowledge of the history, economics and demographics of writing instruction in America.

For example, you go on to write,
“One of the biggest complaints falls on the poor writing skills of recent graduates. Two years ago, I found myself at lunch sitting next to Lee Hamilton, ex-Congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 commission. When he found out I was a some time English professor, he launched into a speech that began, ‘Why aren’t you teaching those young people how to write?’”

Of course, one need not find oneself having lunch with a co-chair of the 9/11 commission to hear this complaint. It’s a commonplace that has been with us at least since the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, a group of Massachusetts businessmen were so certain that Harvard was not doing an adequate job of teaching young people to write, they launched a series of inquiries into the teaching of first-year composition at Harvard in the 1890s.

In other words, historically, the complaints that students can’t write have always been with us, even at the very moments when institutions are doing more than ever to get students writing. It might be more productive to ask why these complaints keep coming up: what do they say about the people making them?

By Donna on 03/27/06 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael, Clancy was mortified when she noted that I had made that terrible error, I should say, though I’m curious about the descriptivist heritage of this construction, which still sounds unnatural to me.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/27/06 at 06:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can sympathise with you on some points Mark. I to have an allergic reaction to over politicised work even though I don’t agree with your politics. But if you want to critique you shouldn’t just skim over it in a way that will only make people angry. Engage in a sustained critique, provide statistics, do something that isn’t this. The difference is like the one between right wing anti theory rants and the essays in TE. Hearing titles made fun of is funny at first, but not after the 704th time.

Political blogs often aren’t much fun and I wouldn’t want to see The Valve turned into one.

By on 03/27/06 at 07:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark:  I am actually relatively sympathetic to your basic complaint (overpoliticization), but you should seriously consider what Donna has to say. You seem very concerned about what “others” think. Exactly why is it so “worthwhile thinking about how [scholarly discourse] sounds to non-professionals”? Non-professionals have considered literary scholars to be lost in the clouds way before English became a politicized discipline. New Critics sound just as abstruse to such people as Lacanians and deconstructionists. Why should anyone care what Lee Hamilton thinks about English professors?

By Dan Green on 03/27/06 at 08:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s a Language Log post on the issue, mentioning how the AP [sic]’d Bush for the very same:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/2006_01.html

I agree with Steve Harlow, linked to above, that all of the possible constructions in this case are flawed.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/27/06 at 09:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Timothy’s diagnosis 100%. The novelty demand and the productivity demand are disastrous for humanistic study, and they force young people into being trained seals doing ever more elaborate tricks.

Daniel poses a serious question about why we should care so much about what the outside thinks. This is a question that changes with time. Sometimes, I think, the academy needs to turn in more upon itself and recast its protocols, for example, when we see too much commercial or political pressure being applied to the curriculum.  Other times, the academy needs to open up to the wider world, for example, when academic practices get so parochial they lose any outside audience at all. I think we have slid into the latter condition in the humanities, and more engagement with public issues and perspectives would be a healthy thing.

This goes to the post that says, basically, “But people have always complained about poor writing skills” (and calls me a “pundit"). One hears this objection made against the conservative inclination toward narratives of decline, sometimes with justice. In this case, though, it doesn’t hold up to historical trends. First of all, the business community will say that writing and reading skills have slipped in recent years.  Their own surveys show increasing dissatisfaction, not consistent dissatisfaction.  You may find this in reports by the College Board and by the National Association of Manufacturers. Second, we see the related skill of reading actually dropping among 17-year-olds in the last thirty years, and reading time has deteriorated as well, this despite the fact that education levels, prosperity, and access have all increased mightily for young adults.

This leads to the other comments that (quite reasonably) ask for some data, and the ones that regard my comment on “appreciation” as a quaint throwback. In fact, appreciation is one of the key variables in the trends in reading scores among young adults. Take a look at the Dept of Ed report entitled NAEP Trends 2004. The study tracks changes in various subjects for the last 30 or so years, and in areas of reading it found significant gains among 9-year-olds, mixed results among 13-year-olds, and a slight downward turn for 17-year-olds (despite the billions that have poured into reading programs). If you look at two sections deep in the report, one on trends in homework reading and one on trends in “reading for fun,” you’ll find a closer correlation of the latter with reading comprehension scores than you’ll find of the former. In other words, the voluntary reading young people do, the reading they appreciate for its own sake, corresponds more with their tested outcomes than does in-class work.

The same correlations may be found in remediation. Another Dept of Ed study found that in 2000 a full 28 percent of entering freshmen needed remedial work, much of it in reading/writing. Other estimates, from the American Diploma Project, look at more than just the freshman year and raise the number up to more than 50 percent. On track with those numbers are voluntary reading rates as calculated by the American Freshman Project, housed at UCLA, which polls around 300,000 entering students each Fall. Over the course of the mid-90s, the numbers of entering freshmen who NEVER or HARDLY EVER read for pleasure jumped from about 19 percent to 24 percent.  These are just correlations, to be sure, but they are strong, and they cry out for further study.

So, let’s take seriously appreciation and enjoyment and leisure reading. Middle and high schools are getting the message and adding a free reading hour to their day, and they’re getting good results. The importance of pleasure in reading was brought home to me back in graduate school by Richard Lanham, who trained all of us to treat stylistics as an adventure, and to pass the adventurousness on to students.

By on 03/27/06 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Other times, the academy needs to open up to the wider world, for example, when academic practices get so parochial they lose any outside audience at all. I think we have slid into the latter condition in the humanities, and more engagement with public issues and perspectives would be a healthy thing.

So why the heck did you object to CCCC sessions which did just that, connecting rhetorical issues in the wild to those we teach and discuss in classes?

The statistics you present don’t alarm me at all. Given that we’re admitting more folks to college than ever before, I’m not upset that some aren’t ready---in fact, I’m encouraged that MORE aren’t. I’m sure the College Board has plenty of doom and gloom statistics to present; all the better to sell their standardized tests.

By Bradley Dilger on 03/28/06 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark--

Ok, so you cited some research on reading and reading"appreciation" (whatever that means), but you still haven’t responded to Jenny’s actual question:  Can you produce any research that shows a direct correlation between reading “appreciation and enjoyment” and writing ability?  And if you know of such research (which I doubt you do), please send along a comprehensive reading list for us poor writing teachers so we can finally teach Johnny to write.

By Scot on 03/28/06 at 12:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The first comment here suggests that bringing social and political themes into academic fields is, in fact, a way to engage public concerns. The problem is that humanities profs have brought racial, sexual, etc. themes into their work in such a mannered, tendentious, and/or theoretical way often enough that they have only brought more public disaffection upon their fields. By public engagement, I meant that academics need to be more aware of the exigencies of life and work outside the academy, and to see how their fields might address them.

That the numbers I cited don’t “alarm” the commentator is hard to figure. How about this number, from the Chronicle: “More than 40 percent of students arrive on college campuses needing remedial work.” Check with the administrators and see how much money such remediation is costing them. Check with governors and see how much of a drain poor reading and writing skills are costing the state bureaucracy.

The other post dismisses “appreciation.” The connection is this: appreciation is one of the attitudes students bring to their reading, and the higher the appreciation, the higher their leisure reading time. And the higher their leisure reading time, the higher their reading scores. This is what the NAEP data pointed out. As for the correlations between reading skills and writing skills, that should be one of the first data points in any composition theory.

Finally, to come back to the public engagement question. The academics here seem to doubt the public’s dissatisfaction with the university. Here is a story in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer that might change their minds:

http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/living/education/14201002.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp.

Note the sentence on “a new and unmistakably skeptical view of the ivory tower has emerged.”

By on 03/28/06 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To learn to write well you also have to have read quite a bit.  Without enough input of good written prose you’ll have a much harder time producing it.  That would be the argument (and this is not to defend Mark’s original post, just the link between reading and writing.) Is there research showing that good musicians listen to music quite a bit?  Or would this just be something seen as too obvious to even demonstrate empirically?

Reading only what’s required for class, with no additional “pleasure” reading, will not supply the critical mass of good prose needed for someone to be a good writer.  You need to read about 100 times that much, and the better, more literary, you material, is, the more it empowers you to be agood writer.  That’s my hypothesis, unsupported by any research.  On the other hand, before “composition” existed, people still learned to write well, mostly by imitating other writers.  My empirical evidence for this might be English literature itself.

I’m not saying this is a sufficient condition, only a necessary one.  Not even necessary:  maybe you could teach someone to write who hadn’t done much reading, but it would be far more laborious. 

I find in teaching Spanish composition that poverty of input is a big problem.  I can’t make them read enough so that they have a sense of what Spanish prose is supposed to sound like.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 03/28/06 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, the complaint that relevance in composition or any other humanities discipline is pursued in a manner which is “mannered, tendentious and/or theoretical” is precisely the kind of claim that I think has to deal with the substantive content of a given academic presentation, not with something as superficial as titles.

Take “Race, Rhetoric and the Digital Divide”. If you wanted to start up a betting pool about the likely posture or stance of the author towards the topic, I grant you that the odds are favorable that it will be “mannered, tendentious or theoretical”, but there is no certainty of that. That title could be on top of any number of papers that would be relevant, public-minded, and wholly legitimate even within a relatively narrow and functional conception of what composition studies ought to be like.

Think of all the conversations that could be convened under that topic that just about anybody sensible could agree are important: do people from different racial backgrounds write or argue differently? Do they write or argue differently in online discourse, or does online discourse elide the influence of identity? How does writing instruction affect either offline or online forms of written expression in the context of racial identities? If it can and does affect written expression in this context, should it affect it? E.g., from what perspective is it important or legitimate to standardize written expression?

None of these are necessarily tendentious or settled questions; all of them are open to empirical, moral and political argument. How do you know that the paper with that title didn’t explore these wholly legitimate issues in a wholly legitimate way? Don’t you owe the people giving such papers the professional courtesy of an open-mindedness about what they actually had to say?

I agree that the humanities have a structured tendency towards the kind of mannered, tendentious, we-all-know-the-right-stance mode of argument at the moment. I’d argue that perhaps they’ve always had that tendency, that this is a product of the institutional logic of postwar American academia (and possibly prewar academia, for that matter). But a professional answer to that tendency obligates every critic to read and respond to the substance of what a scholar says. Some people, when you read past the mannerly, fashionable posturing, are making an argument which actually contradicts the rhetorical framing. Some are making a substantive, meaningful argument which coincides with the rhetoric and deserves an answer that isn’t just snarking at the excesses of the rhetoric. And in some cases, perhaps many, the rhetorical framing is just a fancy suit of clothes for a naked Emperor, something that disguises the fact that nothing at all, politicized or otherwise, is actually being said. I don’t think you know this from titles, especially not titles as relatively ‘vanilla’ as “Race, Rhetoric and the Digital Divide”.

By Timothy Burke on 03/28/06 at 04:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m horrified by Tom Wright’s knowledge of grammar. Singular or plural has nothing to do with it. Both “Clancy’s” and “my” show possession. It’s Clancy’s panel too.

Maybe the lit. people are right, though I doubt their grammar is any better.

By on 03/28/06 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scot and Jenny,

Though I agree with the general tendency of your remarks, I would be interested in the research that shows a direct correlation between anything and writing ability, or even the research that established just what “writing ability” was.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/28/06 at 04:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Timothy would be correct, except for the fact that “my” necessitates the possessive of “Clancy” as “Clancy’s.” The possessive pronoun is an exception to the rule. John was right to call out Jonathan for that horrible use of “I’s.” Eeek!

By on 03/28/06 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As the Language Log post I pointed to earlier suggests, “Ann” (and there’s a good reason why you use the same IP address as “John,” above and “Bill,” over at my site, I’m sure), all of those alternatives sound ungrammatical. “Clancy and I’s” is awkward-sounding, and not the type of thing I’d usually type, but so is “Clancy’s and my” or “Clancy and my” or any of the other possible constructions, no matter what kind of prescriptivist dudgeon you want to work up.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/28/06 at 04:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark,
In certain ways, you do raise legitimate issues here. But, by and large, you demonstrate little knowledge of the field you criticize, and you ignore other issues that would challenge your position. And not just challenge: suggest a better, more productive stance towards the issues you raise. I’m curious as to why these don’t enter your discussion. I’m tempted to suspect the worst, which is an ideological bias for literature that likes to relegate composition to the dustbin. I’ve seen little to suggest otherwise in your writing.

A few issues that need addressing (with the proviso that this may not be the best forum for addressing them):
a) Composition cannot be solely reduced to teaching first year writing. It has ties to rhetoric, among other fields. Further, writing teachers have figured out that larger cultural issues do impact the teaching of writing. All this is of legitimate scholarly concern, regardless of your--or my--particular take on the issue.

b) A conference, like a field, is to have precisely the kind of debates about what counts as legitimate concern, what counts as good arguments in the field, etc. But such debates are typically handled within the scholarship, not toodled from afar. For every paper you single out, I imagine you can find some form of dissent, if you cared to look. Or if I cared. The point is, a field has its share of overproduction, and that’s natural…

c) Which leads me to this point: you castigate the overproduction of “new” scholarship in the humanities, which is an interesting argument. I happen to disagree with it, primarily because its ire is misplaced. That is, you don’t address the system of institional reward that has been set up that causes such production. If you want change, change the system of reward. Your arguments should address those who control such rewards, such as primary committees, tenure boards, regional committees, etc., and those in charge of drawing up standards for tenure, promotion, and raises, etc.

d) Your criticisms of the CCCCs seem to follow from a general disparagement of composition. You seem to think composition doesn’t do its job. Yet you stop short of addressing institutional issues, such as the facts that FYC is frequently taught by grad students, many of them uninspired; that this system has a history largely developed by the rise of literature as a field; the funnelling of writing instruction into two or one semester courses; and the declination of other disciplines to learn anything from composition about how to teach and foster good writing in the academy. Mainly, I suspect, because teaching writing is hard work, and such work interferes with the business of research that other fields, like literature, see as being more important.

e) Lastly, I should mention that the idea that the university should be beholden to political pressure is at the least controversial. Indeed, Kant’s *Conflict of the Faculties* suggested the university be protected from precisely those kinds of public and political pressures. We might well want to consider carefully what Kant saw to be at stake. This is entirely to the point of idiots like Horowitz, who are very dangerous (but not without a flipside: for ex., if we have to give equal time to political viewpoints in the classroom, such as conservative viewpoints, does this mean Business and Management professors have to start giving equal time to post-marxism and post-colonialism?) If you wanted to point out that the classroom shouldn’t be overtly politicized, I would agree. But that is not the same as eradicating political issues from study and debate.

By on 03/28/06 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, Jonathan, that’s kinda the point, no? But you generally see smarter ways of talking about writing among compositionists. (Unlike the gawking tourists like Mark here.)

By jenny on 03/28/06 at 09:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark,

Since I doubt you’ve read beyond the titles of “The Governance Divide,” which was the source of the 40% number from the Chronicle, or its source, “The Condition of Education,” from NCES, let me point out a few things for you. CHE misrepresents the 40% figure---"more than 40%” is only right for public two-year colleges. For all higher education, the correct figure is 28%.

But let’s cut it to the chase: composition in the university. In Fall 2000, at NCES-surveyed public four year universities, 6% of students enrolled in remedial reading courses, and 9% in remedial writing. See for yourself. Page 84: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2004/pdf/31_2004.pdf

I am *still* not alarmed.

I don’t doubt some public dissatisfaction with the University. But I do know that much of it is uninformed, just blowhards making sweeping generalizations about events in classrooms where they’ve never been, or at academic conferences they’ve never attended, or based on reports they’ve never read.

By Bradley Dilger on 03/28/06 at 09:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark cites a Philadelphia Inquirer story:

“‘The pressures for accountability are everywhere,’ Miller, a former Bush-appointed leader of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, said in a recent interview.”

Yes, the pressure from conservatives who want to further influence the university system is everywhere.  It’s not hard to make your prophecy come true if you predict that you’re going to be a bad actor—like predicting that muggings will become more common as you pull on your black mask and pick up your gun.  In this case, there is a Horowitzian Astroturf campaign in Pennsylvania, and this newspaper article is part of it.

By on 03/28/06 at 11:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The tone is getting personal--"gawking tourist.”

Let me say that the criticism was not directed at comp studies as a whole, but at the extension of comp studies by a portion of the theorists into racial, sexual, and mass culture areas, actions that in my opinion deplete the writing instruction and don’t address the actual needs of the students. In truth, I consider comp work the most important thing English/rhetoric instructors do. In fact, seven years ago I asked my department to excuse me from teaching graduate and senior seminar courses, in order that I might focus on freshman and sophomore writing and intro to lit instruction.

I have also spent a lot of my professional time on basic reading and writing pedagogy, for example, working with reform organizations such as American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence to draft benchmarks for English language arts in high school.

That said, on the political pressure issue, the goal is not to give equal time to all viewpoints, but only those that pass intellectual and scholarly tests. And the danger isn’t to be found in the classrooms or the conduct of individuals, but in the definitions and mission statements of disciplines and departments. If a school of education puts social justice at the center of its mission--treating it not just as a topic or policy to study but an agenda to be followed--then it has politicized the curriculum from the start.

Bradley rightly catches me in a statistical error in citing the Chronicle. But these are still serious figures, and more and higher numbers are found in recent cases.  In Colorado last year, only 34 percent of high school graduates were considered “college ready” (http://72.14.203.104/search?q=cache:-RzO9mKrgosJ:www.fund4colorado.org/pdf/StEdRpt.pdf_EX.Sum.Final.pdf+Colorado+high+school+college+readiness&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=7), and Colorado students score slightly higher than the national average.

It is a mistake to downplay these findings and to dismiss people taking action in response as “blowhards” and know-nothings. These are the people who brought us accountability, standards based curricula, standardized tests, charter schools, school choice, and No Child Left Behind. They sit in governor’s offices and run think tanks. They are now turning their attention to higher education, and we may see some sweeping proposals put forward that will have the force of Federal money behind them.

Finally, the questions that Timothy cites as legitimate ones to be posed by composition professors (such as “do people of different racial backgrounds write or argue differently?") lead me to the opposite conclusion that he draws. Such questions are extremely delicate, and solicit a high standard of knowledge and training. The proper handling of racial differences, including hypothesized differences in writing or arguing, takes years of study in history, sociology, demographics, and psychology. Even if you have some reliable results from cognitive psychology, the implications of them go a long way when they are taken out of the laboratory. I spent three years in archives documenting race relations from 100 years ago, when racial differences were an intense focus in public and private life, and I wouldn’t trust myself to manage that question in the classroom or at a conference.

By on 03/28/06 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why don’t similar standards of analytic modesty then apply to a question like, “What are we to make of the character of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play?” Doesn’t that engage problems of history, sociology, psychology, and meaning in ways that take years of study to process in a sophisticated manner? It’s a multifold problem: what did Shakespeare mean for audiences of his time to make of Hamlet (and does his intention matter?), how unusual is the character in comparable works of drama or fiction at that time or later times, how much is our received understanding of the character affected by successive traditions of interpretation and performance of the play, and so on.

Name me a problem in interpretation--or rhetoric--that couldn’t potentially be described as comparably complex in its character and implications, and potentially demanding a wide integration of predicate knowledge in order to be engaged successfully.

So I am really suspicious here that you are moving the bar very low in an arbitrary way in order to sustain a particular constraint on composition studies that you would not sustain in most other cases of rhetorical or literary interpretation. If it is illegitimate for a scholar studying composition and rhetoric to ask, “Do people of different racial backgrounds write or argue differently?” without a massive array of prior inquiry across a wide range of disciplines, it is illegitimate for a literary scholar to say, “How should we interpret ‘Paradise Lost’?” without similarly polymath inquiry.

I’m perfectly in agreement that you can ask that composition scholars show a certain humility and openness if they’re going to tackle a problem as complicated as the discursive character of racial identity, a respect for the provisional character of their arguments. But here I see you setting up a fencepost and saying that it’s almost definitionally illegitimate for a composition scholar to go into that question at all. This is an unfair restraint, made arbitrarily to enforce a particular vision of what composition scholarship should be. There is a “compositional” or discursive element of that complex question about race and communication which I think is perfectly accessible to scholars in that field and from whom I think we have every right to expect insight.

By Timothy Burke on 03/29/06 at 01:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Professor Bauerlein. Why should academics be insulated from the rest of the world? Is “Register Your Penis” not fair game? I am surprised by the controversy and nit picking. Is it such a leap in logic to claim that the decline in reading for pleasure may also be correlated to poor writing performance? 

Why is it that anyone who dares to question the status quo is swiftly placed into the category of a “blow hard” or “retro”? 

Bauerlein- “I spent three years in archives documenting race relations from 100 years ago, when racial differences were an intense focus in public and private life, and I wouldn’t trust myself to manage that question in the classroom or at a conference.”

I think this sort of cautious approach, respectful of the complexities of social sciences, is a worthy model for those who are given the responsibility of teaching a composition course to freshman students.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 03/29/06 at 01:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"They might find their funding streams drying up” is just not persuasive rhetoric:  it applies just as well to situations like this as to those in which there are legitimate criticisms of a discipline.

By on 03/29/06 at 01:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"it applies just as well to situations like this as to those in which there are legitimate criticisms of a discipline.”

Josh,

Close minded creationists who want to control curriculum should not be compared to someone who wants to tweak the methods used in composition courses. By that logic, funding should be blindly granted without regard to success of the program.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 03/29/06 at 05:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Christopher writes: Is it such a leap in logic to claim that the decline in reading for pleasure may also be correlated to poor writing performance?

Yes, it is. This is precisely where I agree with Mark: That said, on the political pressure issue, the goal is not to give equal time to all viewpoints, but only those that pass intellectual and scholarly tests.

Show me scholarship which correlates the decline in pleasure reading with lower writing skills, and we can talk. I’m not denying it may be true. But I shall not support agitation for broad changes based upon logical leaps and so-called common sense. The issue has nothing to do with the status quo (who said it did?) but with unsupported generalizations which, if anything, correlate with political affiliations, not peer-reviewed research. This is precisely my issue with those I characterized as “blowhards,” and I stand by that choice of words. Many, if not most, of the dire pronouncements about Johnny not being able to write fail to pass scholarly muster (let alone the problems of false assumptions and/or outright misrepresentations). This is why I think folks here were right to hold Mark’s feet to the fire after his original post: conference titles do not a discipline make. It’s worth noting how much he’s clarified (I would argue changed) his position since then, and I suspect had he opened with that argument, this thread would be much shorter.

Mark, I think the statistical error is not yours, but is in “The Governance Divide” and repeated in CHE. I have contacted the authors in an attempt to find out if they have different sources they’ve not cited which do have higher numbers. (I do reserve the right to tease you a little about not being a good academic and checking your sources’ sources.)

By Bradley Dilger on 03/29/06 at 09:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John wrote: 

I’m horrified by Tom Wright’s knowledge of grammar. Singular or plural has nothing to do with it. Both “Clancy’s” and “my” show possession. It’s Clancy’s panel too.

You’re welcome to express horror at my knowledge of grammar, but you might want to do so based on what I actually posted.  I think you intended to comment on what Michael Faris posted.

Without addressing the question of whether you are correct or Michael is, my own approach to the usage of “Clancy and I’s panel” would be to reword it to avoid the issue:  “The panel Clancy and I presented,” or something like that.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t been an issue for me, because Clancy and I have never been on a panel together.

Tom

By Tom Wright on 03/29/06 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Writing,” whether it be alphabetic or imagistic or otherwise is a mode of signification that is never politically innocent, particularly when there are power differentials associated with language use in a given society. The transmission of Standard English is already a politicized act; the question is whether or not we acknowledge it. (We also ought to remember that the discourse surrounding literacy in the U.S. is one of perpetual crisis.) If the role of provocative conference presentations is to challenge old news and naturalized assumptions (as I hope to hell it is), then I am happy to register my penis, thank you very much.

Doesn’t it also seem ludicrous to be discussing grammar here? I mean Holy Joseph William’s Phenomenology of Error Batman. Conventional usage can be acquired from a handbook. I hope to be of far more value than that to my students. 

vk

By on 03/29/06 at 02:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Christopher Hellstrom asks: “Is it such a leap in logic to claim that the decline in reading for pleasure may also be correlated to poor writing performance?”

The answer, I think, is yes, it is a leap in logic. Back in August 2004, the NEA report “Reading at Risk” (a report, one should note, that Bauerlein was intimately involved with), got a lot of attention on composition studies discussion lists, in particular TechRhet. I found that report so interesting because shortly before discussion broke out on TechRhet, I’d come across a short article written by Walter J. Ong titled “The End of the Age of Literacy.”

Ong began that piece with the following: “One hears a great deal of protest today about the lack of interest in reading. Much of this protest is justified, but the implication which it often carries is not, for it often implies that matters used to be greatly different, that educators a hundred years ago or more did a better job of teaching both reading and writing. That they did is by no means certain. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence indicating quite the opposite. Bad as we are today, our predecessors were very likely even worse.” What’s worth noting here is that Ong wrote that in 1959.

The simple fact is, a fact we highly literate academics far too often forget, is that reading literature for pleasure is, and always has been, an activity enjoyed by a minority.

As has already been pointed out in this discussion, claims that American college students can’t write have been made for well over 100 years. It’s a variation on a theme (kids today are no good) that we can trace at least as far back in Western culture as Greek drama. It’s an ahistorical act of nostalgia to a past that never was.

By john walter on 03/29/06 at 04:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael Kirst, co-author of “The Governance Divide,” responded to my question, suggesting the ACT report Reading Between the Lines. He also pointed to case studies in his From High School to College (co-edited with Andrea Venezia; Jossey Bass, 2004). Kirst suggested the NCES data I found is out of date and based on self-reporting.

Perhaps I’ll take a gander at that stuff and write something about it on my weblog.

By Bradley Dilger on 03/29/06 at 06:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Further, writing teachers have figured out that larger cultural issues do impact the teaching of writing. All this is of legitimate scholarly concern, regardless of your--or my--particular take on the issue.

Interesting.  Larger cultural issues affect the teaching of biology and math and physics, no doubt.  Sadly, the biology and math and physics teachers haven’t figured that out and don’t make it part of their scholarly concerns.

Perhaps we should export the revolution.

By on 03/30/06 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, I think Professore Bauerlein is just concerned about the fee if he has to register his hefty valve. Not to worry, though, last I checked there still wasn’t a Mouth Registry in effect anywhere.

By lisa schamess on 03/30/06 at 04:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In (almost) all seriousness, however, let us not judge what may be a sober presentation from its whimsical or eye-catching title. These little poster sessions and papers are competing against one another, after all. I think the legitimacy of these presentations at a comp conference springs from the fact that composition cannot be divorced from content. Time and again I see that my students write beautifully once they care enough to revise and revise and revise again. To make them care, we must know them better. To know them better, we must know about their lives. This includes gender, race, politics, economics, the works.

Why don’t students write as well as we want them to? Many reasons. But chief among them is this preventable one: because they sail through our classes and we sail through their lives with a lot of material exchange and too little real connection.

By lisa schamess on 03/30/06 at 04:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, a great many bloggers attended this conference. Over the past week or so, I began tagging blog entries by people who were attending CCCC-2006. (GW way up there)

Speaking of titles, clearly a missed opportunity, the tag should be CCCC-MMVI. But then no one does Latin any more, especially maths ...

[bookkeeping: reposting without notify deticked]

By nnyhav on 03/30/06 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually attended the C’s conference, and to be honest, I found Prof. Bauerlein’s comments to be refreshing. I’m your typically exploited adjunct professor; I’ve taught composition for over a decade. I make less money per hour than your average Walmart employee, with about the same benefits. I attend such conferences for no other reason than to sharpen my skills as a teacher. I gave up caring about the career a long time ago.

At this year’s conference in Chicago, I searched in vain for one single useful session that would translate into teaching more effective writing techniques to my students. Such a session may have transpired, but in the four days I was there, I didn’t come upon it. It’s been like this for years. Politics dominates the field. The same “radical” theories with the same damn conclusions. Isn’t anybody out there getting bored with these tired old tunes? It’s not just the content that’s become tedious; it’s the profession itself. Perhaps it’s too obvious to point out, but these conferences are a line on the CV and not much more. They promote careerists who want nothing more than to scale the academic corporate ladder. How radical, indeed. The content that Prof. Bauerlein refers to is the kind of crap that sells. Those who do the selecting and the hiring are impressed by these kinds of presentations, and that is why people keep giving them. I, for one, am glad someone is finally pointing out what many of us have been saying behind the scenes for years. The entire culture needs to be changed. For my part, in the future I think I’ll do what most intellectually honest professors do - I mean those with tenure, of course - I’m going to avoid going to such conferences altogether. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a stack of papers to grade.

By on 03/31/06 at 03:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As the presenter of the paper on “Million Dollar Baby,” I can assure Mark Bauerlein that there wasn’t anything especially “political” or “subversive” about my talk.  Moreover, it was indeed concerned with the teaching of writing.  Basically, I showed how students might go beyond the formulaic “movie review” assignment to analyze patterns in the reception of a controversial film such as Eastwood’s.  Professor Bauerlein, however, evidently believes I failed to anticipate that titles “do have consequences.” He’s right: I didn’t suspect that a professor of English as learned as he (and an NEA official at that) would be so lazy and paranoid hat he would denounce my paper on the basis of its title alone.

By on 03/31/06 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the digital divide, the NYTimes has a story on the subject today:

Digital Divide Closing as Blacks Turn to Internet

By MICHEL MARRIOTT

Published: March 31, 2006

African-Americans are steadily gaining access to and ease with the Internet, signaling a remarkable closing of the “digital divide” that many experts had worried would be a crippling disadvantage in achieving success.

Civil rights leaders, educators and national policy makers warned for years that the Internet was bypassing blacks and some Hispanics as whites and Asian-Americans were rapidly increasing their use of it.

But the falling price of laptops, more computers in public schools and libraries and the newest generation of cellphones and hand-held devices that connect to the Internet have all contributed to closing the divide, Internet experts say.
. . . .

Though the NYTimes has a somewhat tarnished image, that they have a story on the subject, suggests that the topic is real.

By Bill Benzon on 03/31/06 at 05:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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