Monday, June 06, 2005

Why I'm ok with English depts.

It could just be because I've always, always been in English departments, through my many years in graduate school and through my three (count 'em, three) tenure-track jobs. And it could be that I'm amused by my multiple graduate degrees, all from English departments (one in creative writing, one in lit, one in rhet/comp--all I'm missing is linguistics!).

But certainly it's in large part because so much of my own work has been heavily, heavily influenced by what some still call "literary theory" and indeed by teachers and experiences during my years as a grad student in literature. Re-reading C. Wolfe's chapter on Michaels and Rorty in Critical Environments, I'm reminded how important (even while frustrating) Cary's seminar was to my intellectual formation, how much of what I read during that class (obstensibly on Ezra Pound, really much more on materialist theory) informed and made possible my dissertation at another university and in a very different program. I never took a single class in lit while working on my PhD at UWM, but my prior work in a lit program nonetheless was indispensable in making me the particular kind of scholar in rhet/comp that I've become.

This reflection comes in late response to the thread last week on a professional listserv about the relationship between lit and comp. A former colleague, in particular, argued that there is no necessary relationship between the two and that, in fact, pursuing the relationship could be damaging to the field. That argument comes out of a particular institutional situation that I won't go into here, and I also didn't feel inclined to write a response to the listserv. Why? Because it's such a simultaneously banal and complex issue. Banal in its regulation of the field's attention (as Jenny suggests about banality in general). Complex in that some writing programs have had good reasons for separating themselves from English departments, and are thriving. But separation is more of a fitting response to local contingencies than a call to revolution, as Maxine Hairston once tried to make it. Yes, it's irritating when colleagues don't necessarily understand what you do or make assumptions about what you do, but who in their professional life (or just life in general) is immune from misunderstandings and false assumptions?

I value the humanistic vector that has contributed to making composition studies possible and worry that a wholesale desire to "break our bonds" from lit would become a way to more fully articulate ourselves with the managerial. Which isn't at all to say that's what's happened in any free-standing writing program. And which isn't at all to say that I ncessarily foresee this happening. Rather, it's to say that I value the strategies for thinking that I glean from literary studies (and philosophy and elsewhere) and am rather bored with the tired arguments about the evil empire of literary scholars.

But just because I'm bored doesn't mean I'm not, also, interested. Interested in its persistence and what that tells us about our disciplinary habitus, our dominant disciplinary affect.


jeff said...

Excellent. I agree with you all the way. I fail to understand the composition argument that it's best to not pay attention to other areas of study within English.
And I know where your second tt job was...where was the first?

Donna said...

My first job was at Butler U in Indianapolis, but I was there for just a year.