Saturday, January 13, 2007

Belatedly: Trimbur and "writing studies"

I don't know about you, but I can't keep up with all the journals I subscribe to. They arrive, I look at the tables of contents, I skim articles that appeal to my current interests/questions, and I read the occasional whole article, when it seems especially relevant or intriguing. And then it's off to some purgatory for them, because I have this idea that I shouldn't put new journals on my shelf (I'm trying to get over this habit), otherwise I'll forget about them. What happens instead is that I don't put them on a shelf, and subsequently not only forget about them but also more often than not lose track of them.

So I've been on a journal recovery mission over the break (which involves recovering not only journals that have been floating about in purgatory as described above, but also journals that I've used for one reason or another and that haven't yet found their way back to their appropriate places on my shelf. Those poor creatures--they seem to need human intervention to get there.)

At any rate, the nice part of this recovery mission is that I do pause to read things that catch my eye, things that I didn't read the first time around. This morning, it was John Trimbur's "Changing the Question: Should Writing Be Studied?" John Trimbur's name always catches my eye, so I almost certainly skimmed this article when Volume 31, Number 1 of Composition Studies arrived in 2003. But I also recall thinking, oh, I know this argument already--it's an argument for the "writing major." And feeling myself in complete sympathy with the argument as I imagined it, I decided there was little need to actually read the article. So I didn't. (Please understand that I'm not defending this logic of mine. I'm just reporting it.)

What I discovered in actually reading the article this morning is that I didn't quite get some of the nuances implied in the title, and that those nuances (which, in fact, I also agree with) help me to think about a question I was asking back in 2005 when we were carnivalizing with Fulkerson's CCC piece. (And I thought that was a particularly good time, folks. Let's do it again, maybe a little later in the semester?)

The question I was asking, as suggested in one of the archived entries linked to above: What is writing? Not that I was asking it to be answered, but, rather, I was asking it as a question worth investigation, a question that has received (somewhat bizarrely, I say) short shrift in rhetoric and composition studies. Here's how I put it back then:
Why do books designed to introduce new composition teachers to composition (like the two Fulkerson compares) actually deal very little with writing itself? With, I might say, rhetoric? . . . it makes for a curious discipline, no? A discipline in which the question, pace Fulkerson, is "what is good writing," as if we all already had decided what writing is.

In other words, the thing that was irritating me is why we in the field have tended to put so much emphasis on pedagogical questions (which are, of course, important) at the expense of questions about writing itself.

For Trimbur, "there is a tension between the participial and noun forms" of "writing":
[D]o we mean its participial form that refers to writing as an unfolding activity of composing or do we designate its noun form to refer to the material manifestations and consequences of writing as it circulates in the world? (18)

Trimbur suggests that not only composition teachers but also composition students are overly attached to the participial form. He describes students responding negatively to a shopping list in his textbook The Call to Write ("they felt insulted by such a mundane text"), and concludes
It is precisely because these students expected so thoroughly to be taught how to write, they could not imagine writing in its noun form or the shopping list as an object of inquiry.
. . .
In other words, the students provide evidence that what Lynn Worsham has called the "pedagogical imperative" operates from below as well as above--that students, as much as teachers, hold an overriding desire to convert writing theory into classroom practice. The students believed that the goal of their required first-year course was to improve their writing, and for that reason my effort to pose writing as a subject of analysis was misguided at best and at worst impertinent and irrelevant. (20, 21)

This entry is getting long, so I'll just wrap up to say three things:

(1) I realize many people in the field are further along the writing as study path than I am--that's why I'm increasingly interested in new media studies, where such inquiry seems to be happening more than in other pockets of the field.

(2) Trimbur's emphasis on the noun somewhat troubles me, since I think the emphasis can still be on a verb form, but a verb form differently inflected, perhaps, or with a different subject,

(3) I plan to invite graduate students in my "Theory and Practice of College Composition" class to engage in writing this semester at least as much as in the study of pedagogy.

OK, one more thing: really, let's do another carnival. On an article, which seems to maybe be easier than books. I know we're all busy right now, so think about late February/early March.

18 comments:

jeff said...

OK, one more thing: really, let's do another carnival. On an article, which seems to maybe be easier than books.

I'm in.

gvcarter said...

sure.shore.less

anne said...

I'm game -- but, more importantly, have you got power?

Donna said...

Thanks to all who've signed up for a future carnival. Don't be shy: keep those comments coming. Suggestions for articles welcome, too.

I've GOT the power! Thanks for asking, Anne.

Actually, I should knock on wood (plastic, pixels, what have you)--the weather service warns us not to get cocky--the winds are coming and could knock down power lines yet. But so far, we're ok here in Columbia. John in St. Louis is the one to worry about--or Lanette and Keri in Springfield. Fellow Missourians--how's your power?

And, um, Geoff: wha? I feel as though I should understand. But it's late. I don't.

jeff said...

Maybe we should keep an eye out for new articles. I'd like to do something new - though revisiting is also an idea...Heilker has a piece on the essay in the new CCC (read his book on the essay years ago...).

Jenny said...

I'd be up for the Trimbur article. I would also like to shoot for doing an article carnival every quarter (maybe with a new article from one of the major journals).

For now, let's start with the Trimbur!
-jenny

Donna said...

Yes--a quarterly carnival, moving through different journals. I like that idea a lot. So let's do it.

bdegenaro said...

Why do books designed to introduce new composition teachers to composition (like the two Fulkerson compares) actually deal very little with writing itself?

I think part of it is that the notion of "writing" already has wide circulation, independent of 'writing as a discipline.' So the discipline lays claim to particular niches: (certain genres like The Rhetorical Analysis Essay; certain practices like the teaching of first-year writing courses).

BTW, count me in for an article carnival

gvcarter said...

Oh, it was late when I posted too, Donna. Saying "sure" got me thinking of Cynthia Haynes's "Writing Off Shore," and that these carnivals offer just such an opportunity. More or less.

In other words, to enter into the carnival is to push off from sure into shore.less.

Too much to unpack at such a late hour, but this communicates what is simply a willingness to drift ...

Derek said...

Late February, yeah? And we'll take up Trimbur's article? This?

Sounds good to me.

scot said...

I'm in for Trimbur or something "more recent".

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