The Material Conditions of Rhet-Comp


As a community college professor, with a PhD from Schilb’s institution, I have to say that I would skip reading CE’s recondite, patiently spun articles on Lincoln’s, or Obama’s, or Bush’s rhetoric. I’m much more keenly interested however in how best to teach FYC, especially in an era when the AAUP is on the ropes, when we as a discipline have lost our voice and authority with the public, when corporatization of the academy is everywhere on the march, when degrees in academic management are advertised on this very page of Inside Higher Ed, and when for-profit “universities” are crawling everywhere out of the web. These things just might affect the quality and direction of what gets taught in Rhet-Comp. The following question then seems small and insignificant until it is linked to a threatened academic freedom, to what will get taught to our nation’s freshman writers, a concern, let me add then, of importance even to the future of the state: What approach should one use in Rhet-Comp? (The title of the article seemed–seemed–so spot-on.)

There are many approaches to choose from. Scholars like Richard Fulkerson have made a mini-field simply out of taxonomizing the different approaches to Rhet-Comp, which seems to lurch from staid textbook encrusted writing-in-the-modes inertia to ethnographic approaches, critical pedagogies, visual literacies, and, now, digital humanities, etc. (The whole “digital convergence” will have humanities disciplines competing for relevance even while it creates, usually snake-oil, opportunities for for-profit and online education.)

Currently the field is atwitter about genre writing, especially teaching discipline specific genres. For some, “academic writing” is considered an empty term, an Erehwonian “mutt genre.” People like Anne Beaufort worry that we don’t teach engineers enough about how to write like engineers. People like David Smit contemplate the elimination of English comp altogether to be replaced by dual-specialists who can teach writing and something else. Stanley Fish wants us to just teach linguistics and grammar and plenty of blinkered, well-meaning traditionalists in his NYT blog comments threads as well as, frankly, reactionaries seem to want us just to teach sentence diagramming. And when will students actually write and what will they write about? Content rears its ugly head yet again, meaning that college professors and English departments–if they have the freedom–have to decide what content to teach in FYC. While actual intellectual and scholarly content from the rich tradition of humanistic writing is there waiting to be read and written about, plenty of people both inside and outside the discipline don’t think our students can handle classic Western Civ texts, let alone textbooks like Jacobi’s World of Ideas or Ways of Reading by Bartholomae and Petrosky.

The MLA left Rhet-Comp years ago in the hands of organizations like NCTE, CEA, CCC, and TYCA. As fine a thing as it is, there are bigger, more urgent fish to fry at this–sorry to urge something so overwrought and formulaic–crisis moment, than Lincoln’s beautiful rhetoric.

Posted at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/12/30/comp

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