Monday, July 04, 2005

Can't stop the carnival

I was thinking the carnival was winding down and wondered if I even wanted to write one last post, then I found several new conversations going on.

I agree with Collin's analysis of the "content envy" question, even as I commented, in response to Jenny's question over at his place, that I do think critical/cultural studies approaches put more emphasis on what might be called "other content" rather than on writing itself. And I don't even really mean in the classroom: rather, I mean in what gets talked about in scholarly circles. Or it might be said that CCS approaches put more emphasis on methods or approaches to teaching than on writing. So that I'm pulling the analysis in a slightly different direction from Collin: I agree, with Collin, that the turn to cultural studies might be said to be a symptom of a crisis of (ir)relevance in the humanities more generally. So the turn away from writing qua writing that I'm getting at isn't a problem of CCS approaches only: rather, I think it's symptomatic of the field of rhet/comp.

You knew it would get to this, didn't you? I think it's a problem of focusing, in our scholarship, on classroom management rather than of focusing on what it is we're teaching. Mind you, I'm not against pedagogical questions. I find them very useful. But why not spend some time thinking about writing? Some do. Genre theory sort of does. (Though the emphasis there tends to be on what is and on professionally-sanctioned genres--still, knowledge about writing that can be quite helpful, as Collin has written as he's been teaching a class on genre theory.)

But the voice that I really have in my head is Sirc's:

we--bad enough--don't really know what teaching is, but also--far worse, fatal, in fact--we haven't really evolved an idea of writing that fully reflects the splendor of the medium. (Composition as a Happening 9)

And even Massumi's:

But perhaps in order to write experimentally, you have to be willing to 'affirm' even your own stupidity. Embracing one's own stupidity is not the prevailing academic posture (at least not in the way I mean it here). (Parables 18)

See, I don't even know how I got from the beginning to the end of this blog post. And, I'll say it again: that's what I like about blogging. I think blogging gives me, at least, permission to embrace my own stupidity. It feels very different from the sometimes all-too-fitted jacket of academic writing. And if I like the way it feels, imagine how good it might feel to first-year students.

(And then the voice of propriety whispers: But what about what all those professors in the other disciplines? What are they going to say? What about the public? The legislators? You *know* a dean has already complained about that first-year composition class blogging last semester. . .)


Derek said...

I've been reading Sirc's book lately, and I think it offers a few smart answers to questions about the orthodoxy of materials in writing instruction and the curatorial spirit of so much of what passes for the welcome the academy (thinking Bartholomae's pitch). With (newer) technologies of writing, we continuously bear out the (un)orthodoxy of materials. I've heard folks say that one problem with technologies is that they're dispersing writing expertise into the is-this-writing? domain of images, audio, and back-end programming. This fanning out of what counts causes disciplinary anxiety, maybe, unreasonable dispersions of expertise under the rubric of writing studies.

But it also goes to the suggestion Fulkerson makes about the persistence of process as a feature of writing instruction. Sirc, in the chapter on Jackson Pollock, develops the position that we've really not made much headway toward understanding variety in process. And I'd add to this that the commonplace patterns in FY comp reinforce this point. In fact, one of the qualities of weblogs that we considered in depth last semester was their turn away from event-modeled flurries of writing activity toward more plodding, distributed patterns of writing activity. A measured-ness, in the sense of rhythm. For students preferring the binge of event-modeled writing, blogging might not work as well. But is it fair to say that it more closely corresponds to the sort of writing habit we believe works? I was thinking from your entry here that, just possibly, blogging disturbs--among other things--the processual orthodoxy of composition (material orthodoxy, too, potentially). This is just a bit different than the question Jeff was raising recently about why we have students write so many essays in sixteen weeks, but it's getting at a similar issue.

chris said...

I haven’t read Geoffry Sirc. He’s been out of his Amazon box and on my shelf for over a year now. I’m negotiating to have it on one of my two lists, so I’ll be reading him soon. In the mean time, that disclaimer being stated, I have to ask: What does Sirc mean when he says “we don’t really know what teaching is”? Furthermore, reading a statement like “we haven’t really evolved an idea of writing that fully reflects the splendor of the medium” is, I think, cause for panic.

To pick up on Donna’s sub-theme of stupidity (my own; we all know the genius of the woman who hosts this site), when talking to one of my best friends who entered med school (four years ago) at the same time I entered grad school it is quite frustrating to hear him tell me about (for the past year) how his surgery went this morning. He’s arrived at the point where he’s got his fingers wrapped around people’s livers and kidneys or whatever else in the same amount of time it’s taken me to figure out that “we don’t really know what teaching is.” Given this late-breaking news I would say that it’s a good thing I enjoy research more than I do teaching (only by a hair, though); but, maybe that’s only because I don’t fully understand what teaching is. I thought I did. I mean, when I’m working as an assistant basketball coach during the season and at summer camps I know what teaching is. I know what it means to teach a kid about passing lanes, form shooting, or defensive principles, for example. I know all the drills to go through (shell), the terminology (don’t help up hill), how to motivate (rewards are reaped in playing time), etc., etc.

I know I’m walkin into the Parlor a lil late, but...uh, what does Sirc mean? Has my hubris blinded me to the facts as stated by Sirc and echoed here in the blogosphere?? Pardon my stupidity, but this is a question that, for me, needs some direct attention.

Donna said...

I love this, Derek:
"just possibly, blogging disturbs--among other things--the processual orthodoxy of composition (material orthodoxy, too, potentially)." Yeah, I think so. At least I think that's one reason I like it so much. I talked last semester with students in my intro to teaching comp class about blogging offering a "constant state of invention" or something like that. It was one of those moments of blog-xuberance that I'm given to. At least one student was bothered by this idea of a constant state of invention--I think her objection was that everyone has other things to think about besides the papers for English class.

Well, yeah, they do. And I don't want to get too exuberant here or to ignore the very real material conditions that can impinge on students or anyone existing in a constant state of invention. But to connect up with your comment, Chris: isn't that the only way writing can become like basketball? I mean, isn't the only reason a coach can re-teach the basics successfully is because s/he has a group of people who are highly motivated to be there learning those basics? People who show up wherever basketball is happening to throw the ball around, try out some moves? Don't we need a "culture" in which writing is at least somewhat as attractive as basketball before we can think about re-playing those "basics" successfully? I mean, imagine a group of people who really aren't interested in sports being taught the basics of basketball. You think it's going to stick? Seems like someone tried to teach me some basketball back in junior high. I didn't care about basketball. I don't remember much. *Now* I like basketball and wish I could remember more. But I could have been taught the basics year and year and until I cared, until I got *emotionally* caught up in basketball, it just wasn't going to do me any good. (There's also a basic participant/spectator divide here, but let's ignore that for now.)

Derek said...

Just to add to what Donna says about emotional spark, combined with what Sirc says about teaching combined with basketball, I'd probably start with the precept that we're teaching--in basketball and writing--toward a skillful performance, usually. I'm blending terms now, but Sirc would probably say, in response to the coaching model, that we should make room for intensities (you love to defend? okay!) and without harboring contempt for forbidden materials (i.e., can't hoop wearing long pants). For coaching, this means that it's possible to learn to play--to develop into a player who can perform skillfully--without ever having a coach teach elbows-in-knees-bent. Of course, the game is teachable, but it's teachable so variously, and these variations often exceed the domain of the formal training session, practice with a coach present, etc. The game, in other words, makes itself available to those who may never enjoy (or suffer through, in some cases) formal coaching, available to those whose shoes might not be "basketball" shoes, whose rotation might not be neatly aligned, whose court might be the living room with a wad of socks and a laundry basket. And so Sirc's getting at the problem of the tightly constraining notion of writing that persists in the discipline. Sirc's "can't teach" argument, as I read it, presumes an approach to writing that is (often and only) narrowly imagined. And from there he goes on to critique the limitations of such approaches (with some impressive riffs on Bartholomae and Perl, approbation for Macrorie and William Coles).

Donna said...

I really like the idea of "skillful performance," where "skillful," of course, means something more than basic skills. Something more like "beneficial," "intentional" or "purposeful." (I'm drawing here on Buddhist discourse, which uses "skillful" a lot to get away from morally-loaded language--it isn't about whether a practice is good or bad, it's about what it does, what it makes possible.) And I like the idea of performance, too, but again not in the way traditional way of thinking about academic performance but as an act that makes possible: that is made and makes possible ways of being and becoming in the world.