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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Figure of Writing and the Future of English Studies

Posted by Marc Bousquet on 07/01/09 at 09:29 AM

cross-posted from howtheuniversityworks.com

A short piece forthcoming in the tenth anniversary issue of Pedagogy (Duke UP).

For me the most compelling question in English studies today is the tension between the figure of reading and the figure of writing, especially as it plays out in what David Downing calls managed disciplinarity, the disciplinary division of labor between writing and literature. 

Nearly everyone thinking about this question acknowledges that it’s a distinction serving to justify the division of resources and rewards—time, salary, prestige, power—rather than a coherent intellectual division.  This wasn’t always the case, but it was for much of the twentieth century.  So long as the literature curriculum remained central to sustaining nationalist and imperial projects, faculty working under the sign of “literature” were steadily more likely to be associated with research-intensive, or at least tenurable, appointments; to control institutional resources; shape the disciplinary agenda of the field; receive funding and media recognition, etc. 

As James Berlin, Robert Connors, Sharon Crowley, Bruce McComiskey, Stephen North and many others have observed: the emergence of “literature” as a synecdoche for the many concerns of English sometimes came at a heavy price for faculty whose research or teaching encompassed such concerns as rhetoric, composition, philology, english education, creative writing, even critical theory and cultural studies.  Many faculty with these concerns simply abandoned English departments, joining schools of education or departments of linguistics, communications, or philosophy; others seceded en masse, forming departments, programs or even new disciplines of their own.  Where faculty with these concerns remained under the administration of English, many were relegated to teaching-intensive, generally nontenurable appointments.

By the late twentieth century, however, a “long-term decline in the cultural capital of literature” was spectacularly in evidence, as part of a larger decline in the role of the humanities in reproducing the professonal-managerial class for whom, as John Guillory bluntly observes, “technical and professional knowledge have replaced the literary curriculum.”(139)

At its most basic, this shift means that members of the educated classes are today far less likely to hail each other at cocktail parties, tennis matches and job interviews by using such forms of call and response as dropping a book title—say, Moby-Dick—in order to elicit such appropriate responses as “Ah, Melville,” “Call me Ishmael,” or “Oh, I never finished that!”

Today the circuit of recognition—sign, countersign; challenge, password—is completed for the majority of professionals and managers just as efficiently by class-specific tastes in music, television, film, or the massive discourse of management theory (“’Management by objectives’? Ah, Drucker.”) One could easily argue that increasingly the management curriculum is “the” undergraduate curriculum, except for the vocational and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforces, while the liberal arts generally have been redefined as, effectively, extracurricular. (Or at best peripherally preprofessional for such fields such as communications, law, and teaching.)

Even from the bleak perspective of the arts and humanities as a whole, the outlook for literary study per se is especially grim.  Along with half a dozen other figures in English studies, I’ve previously written about broad changes in the academic workforce, especially the shifting of employment away from tenured faculty to a contingent workforce.

As of Fall 2007, contingent faculty outnumber the tenure stream by at least 3 to 1, roughly the inverse of the proportions forty years earlier. Across the profession, this trend line will drive the percentage of tenure-stream faculty into single digits within twenty years.  It is hard to imagine that the trend line for English could be worse--but it is-- and the outlook for literature is worse yet. A 2008 MLA analysis of federal IPEDS data (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) shows that between 1993 and 2004, the hiring of nontenurable faculty continued to dramatically outpace tenure-track hiring in the profession as a whole. 

However, in terms of absolute numbers most disciplines actually gained a modest number of tenure-track lines, or at least held steady. Political science gained 2.5 percent new lines; philosophy and religion packed on 43 percent.  English, however, lost over 3,000 tenure-track lines, an average annual loss of 300 positions.  This amounted to slightly more than one in every 10 tenurable positions in English — literally a decimation. If that trend proves to have continued — and all indications are that it has — by early 2010 English will have shed another 1,500 lines.

The decimation-or-more of the field hardly begins to tell the story of the losses to literary study in particular, however, since there’s been notable growth in tenure-track hiring in some of the subordinated fields, especially rhetoric and composition.  (Though as I’ve observed before, to less than universal acclaim in the rhet-comp discourse, much of this growth has to do with the need for low-level administration of a vast army of the nontenurable: while only a minority of the research produced by rhet-comp specialists is about program administration, I’ve argued that the lower-managerial subjectivity shapes the discourse of the field.)

In addition to the continuing trend of rhet-comp specialists doing more and more administration—in institution-spanning positions across the curriculum, in digital media labs, writing programs, writing majors and minors, and offering new graduate degrees--there is quite substantial new tenure-track hiring in all writing-related fields--creative, technical, and professional writing, including scriptwriting, creative nonfiction, and composing for digital media. Some of the most interesting new hiring addresses the growing support for civic engagement in pedagogy by fostering socially engaged writing and rhetoric.

In the limited space of this forum, I’d like to zero in on the question begged by that last observation: with all of these new justifications for hiring, why isn’t the story of English more optimistic? From a macro perspective, or an outsider’s standpoint, what’s the fuss? So literature is less interesting, but old standbys like rhetoric and writing have unprecedented traction along fascinating new paths of inquiry and practice, and many research scholars under the sign of “literature” have rapidly and willingly shifted their research objects to nonliterary texts (often in close relationship with cultural studies, women’s studies, and ethnic studies). 

Reasonable observers from other disciplines or professions can fairly shrug and ask, what’s the big deal? With stunning new justifications for its activities that far outnumber the reasons to shrink, English should be experiencing a renaissance (at least relative to other disciplines), not a collapse.

There’s no single answer to this question.  A big part of the problem is structural, as I’ve suggested, so that new hiring in all fields is overwhelmingly nontenurable.  But English has experienced this structural change with particular ferocity in connection with a crisis of dominance internal to the discipline—a crisis of dominance that’s at least twofold. 

From the declining node of dominance we see an anxious response by the research faculty still operating under the sign of “literature,” to whom a recent disturbing MLA report speaks.  Under the sign of literary studies, this faculty still maintains administrative control over most departments and the more prominent disciplinary channels: the result, in many departments, has been a growing flight to the reactionary postures exemplified by the MLA/Teagle report—a willingness to trade almost anything (tenure, wages, courseload, especially when they are someone else’s) in defense of a vision of English studies that peaked in the 1960s. 

At the the same time, the rising rhet-comp mainstream has invested heavily in what Richard Miller memorably dubs “the arts of complicity,” or the world view of education administration.  Rhet-comp’s “complicity” is in accepting a majority nontenurable workforce in exchange for gains that have steadily built a new discipline within English studies.  Some of these gains have been impressive—new programs, degrees, and departments, and it is increasingly clear that rhet-comp has opened productive, often healthy relationships with communities, disciplines, and institutions over the past four decades.

On the other hand, a less palatable element of rhet-comp’s bargain with power, including some of its most dramatic institutional successes, is that it is granting doctorates structurally similar in some ways to doctorates in education, producing a tenured class of lower administration—as well a graduate faculty producing both the PhD-holding supervisory class and at least some of the subdoctorally-degreed teachers. (Though many of the latter are trained in literary studies and creative writing; rhet-comp supervisors commonly function to provide on-the-job training to persons with literature degrees who have been trained to have contempt for rhetoric and composition). 

As I’ve previously written, from the point of view of large trends in higher education employment, rhet-comp’s successes are too often and too complacently the avant-garde of the administrative imaginary, with as little tenure for non-administrators as possible: at its worst, it resembles the worst form of K-12 teaching, in which a stratum of administrator-researchers sets the curriculum and mission for a subordinated teaching force.

To outsiders, it’s generally obvious that English departments have much to gain by investing heavily in the figure of writing.  The near-universal digitization of professional, academic, commercial, personal and creative writing represents a world-historical shift in textuality, communications and creativity.  Over the past two decades, tens of millions of us have been engaged in the massive shared project of composing for hypermedia, the collective bringing into existence of a massively multi-authorial electronically-mediated textual object—the not-quite worldwide artifact known as “the web” or “the Internet.”

Leaving aside the narrower, readerly questions of what to do with changing and disappearing digital texts (how and whether they should they be read, valued, interpreted, archived, canonized, attributed, and monetized) English has a profound and inevitable investment in the process of their composition: countless acts of assemblage, interpretation, expression, analysis, debate, and persuasion.

As a broad spectrum of observers from outside of English agree, hypermedia composition represents a powerful intersection of research, teaching, and service: not only is the accelerating evolution of hypertextuality a gripping research object in its own right, it represents absolutely fascinating possibilities for the mediation of other research, and the relationship between archival texts, critical texts, and the discourse of learners, appreciators, imitators, and appropriators of those texts.  There are enormous hopes for the democratization of cultural production—this is my special hope and interest—the re-democratization of producing culture, not just consuming it. 

There’s also much to say about how those enormous hopes are exaggerated or, where viable, being rapidly foreclosed by law, convention, the increasingly naked class struggle from above.  If there is only one thing to be said regarding the expensive and complex literacies represented by hypermedia composition: democratization is too often taken for granted, as if everyone’s kids and everyone’s grandparents are doing it, when that’s not at all true.  It seems to me that faculty in English have not just an opportunity, but an obligation to be in the front lines of arguing for public support of this literacy so that it becomes in actuality a democratic literacy.

Despite this efflorescence of extracurricular composition—writing, writing, everywhere!--disciplinary trajectories in English have reduced the figure of writing to the figure of student writing, or first-year composition. This is unfortunate, though not because student writing is uninteresting. To the contrary, student writing has become more interesting than ever: the soaring quantity and diversity of contemporary writing by students and the institutional and social possibilities for that writing more closely than ever resembles the ever-less-obviously “literary” research objects of research scholars in English studies (those who have taken the cultural turn at least: in my own department, some of the most interesting work is being done on economic writers; Pacific revolutionary discourse; nineteenth-century elocution and reform; contemporary management theory; self-help, leadership, and spirituality; eighteenth-century sermons and other religious speech, and headmistress memoir—and evidently headmistresses with the souls of accountants, not poets).

To anyone outside of English, it would seem abundantly reasonable to say that all of these interesting researchers are interested in writers and writing, rather than litterateurs and literature. 

Only the disciplinary division of labor makes sense of shoehorning these research agendas into work done by “literature faculty” with “literature doctorates.” Indeed, these are interests also being worked on by faculty in the other fields of English, including, especially, rhetoric and composition, where research into student writing is just one of many possible paths of inquiry. What this work by our “lit faculty” and persons with “lit PhDs” underscores is the false but useful-to-power distinction of “literature” versus “writing” where faculty under both signs do work steadily more inflected by cultural studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies and critical pedagogy, with a shared interest in questions of theory, interdisciplinarity, civic engagement, democracy, education, and literacy.

Embracing the figure of writing could represent a tremendous opportunity for expansion of mission, disciplinary healing, and employment justice in English.  This would mean actively working to heal and transcend how the figure currently functions in the disciplinary division of labor and rewards--a task of considerable magnitude, but with comparably significant rewards, including pragmatic considerations for departments on the ground in day-to-day university politics.

My own view is that as an intellectual matter we have already long settled the major questions: we’ve historicized the emergence of literary and cultural value and the emergence of specific forms enjoying the designation “literature” and understand the contingency of those forms and related practices such as literary criticism. (Much of this work was accomplished in the late 1980s and early 1990s by faculty working in critical pedagogy and cultural studies; some were based in literature, like Pat Brantlinger, and others in composition, like James Berlin, who in 1996 considered that “research projects in literary studies attempted by those presently working in a rhetorically constructed English studies” showed “striking parallels” to the work at Birmingham, even where there had been “little or no communication between the two groups”{180}). 

Much more slowly, but inevitably, we are moving toward pragmatic disciplinary and curricular accommodations of that decades-old recognition, so that eventually someone currently designated a literature scholar might feel comfortable saying, “I study writers and writing, some of which has enjoyed the designation ‘literature’ at one point or another, and much of which did not. Everybody in my department, whether they are on research-intensive or teaching-intensive appointment, is interested in writers and writing.” My sense is that we will get to that place eventually, and that getting there sooner and willingly would represent a happier, healthier, and more productive journey for us all. 

Secession, Fusion and Compromise

There is a substantial tradition of thinking about this problem from below—especially from the most subordinated position, of writing. Most of the more prescient and convincing accounts come from scholars attempting to re-imagine English studies from the disciplinary location of rhetoric and composition. 

The most circulated analysis in this vein is Stephen North’s account of a mid-nineties reform of the doctoral program at SUNY Albany, which presents a taxonomy of prescriptions for disciplinary change (principally by way of reorganizing graduate study) going back to a 1984 summit meeting at Wayzata, Minnesota. 

As the accounts by North and others have it, discussants representing the major disciplinary associations in English studies made three sorts of proposal for the future: secession, in which disaffected faculty would establish programs and departments of their own (or else join established departments and programs that would treat them better); compromise, in which the discipline and individual departments would seek a unifying term for tactical and pragmatic purposes (“rhetoric” was especially favored in the eighties); and fusion, in which departments and possibly the profession would go beyond a merely rhetorical unification and transform themselves “into a single new entity, one quite distinct from any of the original components” (73).  The result of the “fusion” effort at Albany was the department’s much-reported PhD Program in “Writing, Teaching and Criticism.”

One of the more useful subsequent commentaries on North is Bruce McComiskey’s immensely approachable introductory essay to English Studies: An Introduction to the Disciplines. McComiskey updates North by discussing additional fields and adding a fourth possible prescription, integration, by which he means a strategy of acknowledging that the various fields have increasingly developed different methods and interests—different disciplinary or proto-disciplinary discourses, hence the plural disciplines----but nonetheless may have a mutual interest in the health of an umbrella field, ie, “reimagining English studies as a coherent community of disciplines”(41). 

Rather than fusion, McComiskey proposes something more like a federation, in which the different fields recognize methodological and intellectual autonomy but in a relationship of rough equality--which might mean, he points out, rearticulating the relationship between the disciplines in the many departments where literary studies holds most of the power.

What’s most attractive about McComiskey’s proposal is the unifying rubric he offers: “the goal of this integrated English studies should be the analysis, critique and production of discourse in social context”(43). 

What’s missing from McComiskey’s account, on the other hand, is the critical analysis of disciplinarity itself offered by David Downing, by Stephen North, by James Berlin, and many others, including myself, especially with attention to labor practice.

I personally prefer to read both McComiskey and North’s taxonomy not as prescriptions for the future, but as reasonably good descriptions of four different tactics that have been utilized by many departments over the past three decades, often in very different flavors and combinations, sometimes as the result of reflection and planning, sometimes organically, frequently in a series of ad hoc decisions arising out of externally -framed opportunities, strictures and imperatives. 

McComiskey’s federated model of English studies, for instance, turns out to be a decent description of where North’s SUNY Albany PhD ended up. The fusion represented by North and Knoblauch’s doctoral program in “Writing, Teaching and Criticism” lasted over a decade, but in recent years gave way to a more conventional “PhD in English” with four tracks or concentrations, roughly: literature, theory, writing, and cultural studies.  Some of the fusion language of the 1992 effort survives in the program and university documents. 

Discipline-wide, however, probably the most important form of “fusion” has taken place in the research and teaching of individual faculty, where cultural studies, theory, women’s studies, and ethnic studies easily pass across the border that “writing” and “literature” have fortified against each other.

These four tactics have been used in different mixes at institutions of all types, not merely at doctoral institutions.  Among the most common iterations of McComiskey’s federation or integration strategy, for instance, is the rapid proliferation of writing tracks, minors, and concentrations at undergraduate institutions, even undergraduate-only liberal arts colleges. 

The 2100 students of Allegheny College (Meadville, Pa), for instance, can choose from four separate writing tracks in the English major--technical and professional, journalism, creative—even a new environmental writing track. 

Similarly, though by way of a secession from English of a stand-alone writing program, any of the 18,000 students at the University of California Santa Barbara can elect a minor in professional writing offering distinct tracks in multimedia, editing, and business communication. Brown’s undergraduate English department has a concentration and honors program in nonfiction writing. 

There are literally hundreds of such “integrations,” some of them involving elements of secession—many of the growing number of stand-alone writing programs remain functionally integrated with English departments on multiple levels, from joint appointments and initiatives, to administering teaching fellowships for English graduate study.

There is just as much diversity in the forms of secession.  Some of the secessions are of the deplorable sort that feature a wholly untenurable labor force, as at Duke, Princeton, and Stanford, though these too can be integrated with English departments at a variety of levels—eg, Stanford, where the English department hosts the tenure of the “stand-alone” program’s administrator (but no one else with a research profile in rhet-comp). In stark contrast, the secession of the Syracuse writing program led to department status, a substantially tenured faculty, an exceptionally well-conceived writing major and minor, and a respected doctorate.

It’s not at all clear that the English department at Syracuse has done well from this secession. While the department features a string of notable scholars in literature and cultural studies, it has just over a dozen doctoral candidates and somewhat fewer students in its master’s program; the departmental self description is an object lesson in how difficult it is to describe English without the frame of writing, and gives the sense of manning the barricades “We are a dedicated group of faculty and students who represent the complex discipline that “English” has become in the contemporary university and in today’s society.”

By contrast, the new Writing major is framed in terms I’d call confident and clear:

The Writing and Rhetoric Major focuses on different genres and practices of writing as enacted in specific historical and cultural contexts. Students write in a wide range of genres: advanced argument, research writing, digital writing, civic writing, professional writing, technical writing, creative nonfiction, and the public essay. In the process of exploring and practicing these genres, students study and analyze the interaction of diverse rhetorical traditions and writing technologies and assess how these factors shape the nature, scope, and impact of writing in a variety of contexts. The major also asks students to examine writing and rhetoric as embedded in culture, and looks at writing identities, their emergences in cultures and subgroups, and the relations among writing, rhetoric, identity, literacy, and power.  Graduates of the Writing and Rhetoric Major will be well equipped for public and private sector careers that require knowledge of advanced communication strategies and writing skills. The major is open to any SU student, and may be especially useful to students pursuing careers in teaching, the law, business, public advocacy, and editing and publishing.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Writing Program is “better” than the English department, and I think it could be easily argued that they’d be stronger as a unit—if they could ever “re-integrate” as McComiskey proposes.  On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that the achievements of the Syracuse writing program would have been utterly impossible in a literature-dominated department.

Other secessions offer mixed narratives—Derek Owens’ Writing Institute at St. John’s began with a wholly nontenurable (but full-time and unionized) faculty, but within three years had succeeded in a mass conversion of all of the appointments to tenure-track assistant professorships—this in 2009, a year when nearly every institution of higher education was cancelling tenure-track hires. 

Secessions at some institutions produce marriages of convenience, as at the Michigan State’s 2003 shotgun merger, the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures, offering one BA in American Studies and another conceptually unrelated BA in Professional Writing, as well as all “Tier 1” writing courses--while the English department holds onto English Education, most American literature faculty, including specialists in Chicana/Chicano culture, and creative writing, as well as the graduate programs (though sending many of them to WRAC to fund their studies). 

Other English departments have seen multiple spin-offs, as at MIT, where linguistics long ago formed a happier partnership with philosophy; drama bunks down with music; and digital media have three homes (Henry Jenkins’ department of comparative media studies, the program in Science, Technology and Society, and the graduate studio program in Media Arts and Sciences).

Literature at MIT stands alone, but the “program in writing and humanistic studies” administers no less than three majors (science writing, creative writing, digital media), as well as three minors in the same fields, a concentration in writing that can be adapted to any field of study, the entire first-year writing program, and a graduate program in science writing.

I’ve said the least about North’s “compromise” option, which is a bit of a misnomer. As a prescription, it sounds the least appetizing, because it involves one field taking managerial responsibility for the others, but at least—when framed as a deliberate choice—it sounds like a negotiation of complex circumstances between stakeholders.

On the other hand, considered as a description, it’s probably the most accurate account of what’s taken place over the long term: after literary criticism’s ascent, as McComiskey and many others observe, it remained perpetually in control through most of the last century in most departments, with “the ‘other’ disciplines as trailers” (42). 

There have been prospective discussions about choosing another unifying term—rhetoric, cultural studies, literacy, textual studies, etc—and numerous deployments of these alternatives, especially in connection with acts of secession. However, these are the exceptions, and emergence of literature into its present position as the governing term didn’t occur as an act of deliberation or negotiation.

Similarly, if some other governing term replaces literature, it will likely occur without the consent of literature faculty.  Such a replacement is far from certain, of course. Literature, literary study, and the practice of criticism aren’t disappearing. In any reasonable estimation, literature will retain substantial cultural capital with large groups of disproportionately wealthy and influential people for centuries to come.  For the foreseeable future, it will continue to do enormous diversity work and revisionist cultural history, and remain a centerpiece of great works, core and juvenile curricula. 

It’s hard to imagine that the large and evidently growing number of students who enjoy writing won’t continue to read widely in the sort of imaginative works presently acknowledged as literary. And, already—in innumerable acts of fusion by individual faculty--what counts as literary is being changed under our feet. 

There’s no reason not to expect hundreds more thoughtful, deliberate acts of integration by departments and colleges. Some of these integrations will be motivated by the achievements of secession.  Other integrations will be motivated by fear of community-college style consolidation into generalist “humanities” or “liberal studies” departments.

But if literature’s continued survival is not in question, the terms under which it survives certainly are. It may well be the case, for instance, that literature survives under the sign of “teaching,” and writing becomes the figure under which research-intensive appointments are distributed.

Whether voluntary, forced, or negotiated, most of those changes will be to a balance of disciplinary power over which literature’s grip is slipping—and most will involve the figure of writing.

Works Cited

Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. Parlor Press, 2003 (repr of 1996 NCTE edition with response essays).

Bousquet, Marc. How The University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. NYU Press, 2008.

Connors, Robert. Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.

Downing, David. “Beyond Disciplinary English: Integrating Reading and Writing By Reforming Academic Labor.” Pp 23-38 in David B. Downing, Claude Mark Hurlbert, and Paula Mathieu, eds. Beyond English Inc.: Curricular Reform in a Global Economy. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2002.

----.  The Knowledge Contract: Politics and Paradigms in the Academic Workplace. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Guillory, John.  Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

McComiskey, Bruce, ed. English Studies: An Introduction to the Disciplines. Urbana, NCTE, 2006.

Miller, Richard. “The Arts of Complicity: Pragmatism and the Culture of Schooling.” College English 61.1(September 1998): 10-28. 

Modern Language Association.  Education in the Balance: A report on the Academic Workforce in English. Web publication, 10 December 2008. Available at: http://www.mla.org/pdf/workforce_rpt02.pdf Accessed June 1, 2009.

----. Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature. Web publication, February 2009. Available at: http://www.mla.org/pdf/2008_mla_whitepaper.pdf Accessed June 1, 2009.

North, Stephen. Refiguring the PhD in English Studies: Writing, Doctoral Education and the Fusion-Based Curriculum.  Urbana: NCTE, 2000.

Syracuse University English Department. “Home Page.” Available at: http://english.syr.edu/ Accessed June 1, 2009.

Syracuse University Writing Program. “Description of the Writing Major.” Available at: http://wrt.syr.edu/major/ Accessed June 1, 2009.


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