Skip to content

Composition Forum 16, Fall 2006

Downing, David. The Knowledge Contract: Politics and Paradigms in the Academic Workplace. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. 326pp.

Bookmark and Share

James T. Zebroski

Theorizing the Everyday: The Way We Work Now

David Downing’s new book The Knowledge Contract: Politics and Paradigms in the Academic Workplace, makes an important and helpful contribution to what might be termed post-Foucaultian theory. The book focuses on the relations between power and knowledge in English. Specifically, the book examines the network of power relations that underlie our century old disciplinary and professional apparatus, making possible within English studies certain ways of knowing, while at the same time, excluding, marginalizing and undervaluing many other kinds of knowledge. By starting from the ‘bigger’ concept of labor, Downing’s book very usefully connects epistemology to the material forces at work in our profession, most visibly the ongoing crisis of adjunct and (so-called) part-time or contingent labor. Devaluing certain kinds of knowing is part of devaluing certain types of academic labor. Downing notes, “The lesson of this book is less theoretical than my theory suggests: some forms of disciplinarity have delegitimized important and valuable kinds of labor and depleted many individuals’ sense of worth and dignity” (17). Downing’s book is a critical exploration of concepts like discipline, paradigm, profession and most importantly academic labor, but also a repositioning of such concepts within “little histories” of academic labor and academic discourse since Kant. As the argument moves forward, chapter sections are also devoted to teaching, curricular and counter-disciplinary practices. These sections both ground the theory in specifics and provide for what David Harvey calls spaces of hope (or Foucault, heterotopias), ways of imagining and creating alternative and more equitable social relations within the larger society and within “English.”

Because one of Downing’s points is that there may be well good arguments for integrating reading and writing inside a widened profession of English, and that independent departments based on disciplines may weaken rather than strengthen labor, rhetoric and composition folks familiar with the trend of establishing independent writing departments need to know Downing’s work and his call for a multi-disciplinary coalition of rhetoricians to renegotiate the knowledge contract (252). But also workers in rhetoric and composition would do well to examine Downing’s argument because in many ways it parallels (but deepens) the last decade and more of scholarship in rhetoric and composition that calls often and sometimes eloquently for expanding and legitimizing a labor practices (activities like teacher research, service learning, and writing program administration to name only three) that do not fit traditionally under the rubric of scholarship or even under teaching or service as they are usually imagined. Finally, while rhetoric and composition people may find Downing’s argument less focused on particulars of our discipline, all rhetoric and composition people—especially new PhDs and people in doctoral programs who desire to soon to join the profession—have a fundamental stake in understanding the crisis of contingent labor. It is the problematics of labor in the new university and its relation to what counts as knowledge that Downing’s book addresses. The book, then, is a sort of archaeology of knowledge in English in the 21st century.

Downing’s The Knowledge Contract tries to stake out a middle ground that incorporates both change (social change — in particular, the economic shifts in work and labor of the last two decades, as well as the related issue what counts as cultural diversity and identity on university campuses) and the seemingly unchanging ossified institutions we call universities, academic departments and academic disciplines. Any denizen of university departments encounters this contradiction over and over in the pragmatic question of what counts and what gets rewarded and what should or should not get recognized in all the diverse and often invisible work we do. Most of us now have to fill in annual reports representing our labor. Most of us dread this sort of time-consuming self-promotion and self-policing. This book theorizes this very issue, initiating, one hopes, the beginning of a long battle for resisting and transforming the very ideas that undergird the managerial practices of new post-Fordist corporate university.

Downing reinvents epistemology by framing these issues in terms of perhaps the pre-eminent genre of capitalism—the contract, negotiated among parties with often conflicting, if not contradictory, interests and put into formal language for future reference, guidance, adjudication, and persuasion. We find pieces of this larger “contract” in texts like guidelines for evaluating submitted journal articles given to reviewers; policy statements by professional organizations; union contracts when such exist; the annual contract letter professors get listing salary, rights, and responsibilities; promotion and tenure documents, both for the candidate as well as the committees, reviewers, and administrators; documents for evaluating and recommending (or not) the candidate; and, as noted, that pesky annual report.

Downing sees the knowledge contract as the wider set of implicit and explicit obligations that justify both the epistemological and commercial uses of higher education” (5). The knowledge contract is a “form of discursive regularity that cuts across specialized rhetorics of different fields” (4). The basic claim of the argument is that the knowledge contract needs to be renegotiated in face of the new economic forces (8) and this cannot be done in purely disciplinary terms –i.e. by simply expanding what counts in a discipline, the tack taken most often in rhetoric and composition:

redefinition calls for renegotiating the terms of the knowledge contract so as to legitimize through specific contractual obligations domains of professional labor that do not always operate according to disciplinary paradigms. The work of many users of the university contributes enormous social value even as it emerges in nondisciplinary terms. (262)

When Downing talks of the labor that we do that is beside—not above and not below—disciplinary labor, he is including such activities as teaching which rarely ‘counts’ as much as publications, and the usual department service on committees, but also activities such as pedagogical lore, community service, creative performance, curriculum development, avant-garde happenings, fluxus events, multimedia explorations (262), pedagogical scholarship, textbook authoring, service learning, rhetorical invention (37), literacy projects, outreach programs, website and software development (224) and the myriad other things the active “professional” is now expected to do. The Knowledge Contract begins with the fact that way we work now no longer is covered under century-old agreements about what counts as labor, scholarship, teaching and service.

The argument of the book is nuanced; it is not possible to reproduce it here with any sense of the care and mastery of sources that obviously went into its composition. In the “mini-epilogue” Downing suggests this complexity of his argument as well as a few of his intellectual debts, observing that “From Latour I took the nonmodern; from Foucault, disciplinarity and biopower, from Marx commodification and exchange value; from Kuhn paradigm; from Sedgwick, beside; from Butler, performative; from Appadurai, alternative modernities and culture of diversity ” (263).

Downing devotes several chapters to doing conceptual analysis that he then inserts into shorter historical sketches that show us how the concept has been dynamically developed across time. One goal is to give the reader some sense of how we got here, that is, how the ideas of discipline and work in “English” arose and mutated over two centuries and why they take the form they have now. The order of the argument is theory, history, and then practice, though these levels are cycled through in each chapter. The argument then takes the form of a descending spiral moving its analysis closer and closer to the everyday realities we experience in English. In this sense, the ordering (if not method) is similar to that of Marx in Capital and Vygotsky in Thought and Language. It starts from the abstract and ends in the concrete. The argument is erudite with nearly four hundred sources, about 200 footnotes, and many references to the most current developments in theory including Butler, Hardt and Negri, the most recent Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and perhaps most relevant, Shumway and Dionne’s Foucaultian Disciplining English: Alternative Histories, Critical Perspectives — with which it differs. Coming out of what might be described as a neo-pragmatist approach which is sympathetic to Dewey, Peirce, James and their current acolytes including Cornel West, Steven Mailloux, Richard Rorty, and Roskelly and Ronald (159-189), Downing puts together a complex argument which he briefly describes (12) and then in more elaborate form (12-18) lays out in “Writing the Knowledge Contract: An Introduction.”

In Chapter 1, “Working Outside (and Beside) the Knowledge Contract,” Downing elaborates on the knowledge contract and labor, and does some important genealogical work historicizing the concept of discipline starting with the Enlightenment and Kant, Humbolt, and the Prussian higher education model taken over and imitated (Elliot’s Harvard always being the exemplar of that) after the Civil War in industrializing, Fordist America. Downing shows how “discipline” (and scholarship, and implicitly ideas like intellectual rigor) have always been dominated and biased toward the positive sciences to the detriment of the humanities and English. Downing begins in this chapter to make the case against simply expanding our notion of discipline to include new forms of labor.

In Chapter 2, “Professions, Disciplines, and Paradigms: Reconstructing Academic Labor Within the Nonmodern University,” shows why “discipline” won’t work in covering new forms of labor, by critiquing the idea of the modern using the work of Bruno Latour ( We Have Never Been Modern), particularly looking at the modern university. In theorizing discipline and profession, Downing's argument favors the latter. “By thus maintaining the heuristic distinction between profession and discipline within higher education, it becomes possible to contractually resituate forms of academic disciplinary work within a broader spectrum of professional work that can exist beside, not just below, the disciplinary” (87-88).

In Chapter 3, “Paradigms Performed and the Kuhnification of the Humanities” Downing critiques Kuhn’s idea of paradigm as politically reactionary, scientistic, narrow, but also uses performance theory (Sedgwick) to make paradigm and discipline more dynamic concepts. This is a must-read chapter for rhetoric and composition people whose history since the 1970s has drawn extensively on Kuhn and paradigm shift.

In Chapter 4, “Radical Diversities and the Cosmopolitan Self: The Disciplinary Intellectual Confronts the Multivalent University” the book begins the turn from primarily theoretical practices to discussions of teaching and curriculum.

Replacing the dominant concept of “cultural diversity” in the corporate university with that of a “culture of diversity” (134), the book sympathetically examines James Slevin’s call for a discipline with learning at its center, extending that idea with Appadurai’s call for an education that would produce a world and local citizen. Downing then represents his alternative work on the multivalent classroom and university as a new way to think diversity.

In Chapter 5, “Pragmatic Interventions: The Lure of Method and the Rise of Disciplinary Labor” Downing does a revisionist reading of Dewey, the pragmatists and the neo-pragmatists, including Mailloux and Roskelly and Ronald, finding perhaps there the approach— with a few tweaks— most amenable to his project.

In Chapter 6, “The ‘Mop-Up’ Work of Theory Anthologies: Theorizing the Discipline and the Disciplining of Theory” the book’s argument is brought closer to the everyday by examining the recent proliferation of a theory canon embodied in theory anthologies and textbooks—an obviously contradictory enterprise. To promote as canonical (and as commodities) the texts that critique the canonical (and the consumerist society), is, among other things, a specific example of how discipline won’t help us in renegotiating the knowledge contract. Within the disciplinary empire, new labor (knowledge, approaches) simply gets translated for profit into dead labor. If theory can be co-opted, anything can be co-opted. The chapter closes with an extensive description of Downing’s approach in a unit of his course that focuses on theory as inquiry rather than as knowledge to buy and memorize. This is must reading for theorists and anyone teaching a theory course.

In Chapter 7, “Beside Disciplinary English: Working for Professional Solidarity by Reforming Academic Labor,” may be the most important chapter for rhetoric and composition readers; it draws the threads of the argument of the book together by dividing its attention between history and curriculum. Starting from Patricia Harken’s work on counterdisciplinary narratives that begin with Francis Child, Boylston chair of rhetoric at Harvard and first English (i.e. literature) professor in USA, who threw a chair across a room in frustration at the drudgery of grading “themes”—which were probably rhetorical disputations rather than themes as we know them—Downing traces out the development of the problematic of “discipline” in English in Child and A.S. Hill, and so on to our time. Downing calls for “sustainable English studies” acknowledging these early sources of the current “toxic division between reading and writing,” examines several curricular reform proposals, including North’s fusion English, but especially Robert Scholes’s reformed English studies, wary of trying to make discipline cover our labor and that of others. Downing, in fact, sees disciplinary (and departmental) divisions of the sort now popular in rhetoric and composition “sustained by the narrow terms of the modern knowledge contract only serve to weaken broader forms of professional solidarity” such moves fitting in with the current corporate order.

Indeed flexible accumulation favors separating writing into smaller, independent units of programs, free of the imposing size of English departments, so that the smaller unit can then be more quickly fine-tuned to shifting market needs whether toward electronic forms of literacy, professional writing, technical writing, or business writing. Disciplinarity has greased the skids for this kind of exploitation because its powerful divisiveness shatters the grounds for professional solidarity (251).

In the Mini-Epilogue, “Imagined Futures” key claims are summarized and a call is made for wrestling with these “cultural rhetorics” (from Mailloux and Phelps). The book ends by approvingly quoting Eileen Schell on the need for a rhetoric that opposes binaries, encourages agency and works on coalition building.

The Rhetoric of The Knowledge Contract: Ethos, Persuasion, and Audience Motive

As I have suggested often, this book is not an easy read. Still, it deserves close study by scholars in our field and especially by students in doctoral courses who really need to know before they go out into positions, the claims and arguments here concerning contingent labor, knowledge, and disciplinarity. The language is dense. Sentences like:

Those relations institutionalize the ideological justifications for elevating disciplinary knowledge above all other ways of knowing not as a horizontal buffet of variably appealing dishes but as a vertical scale of unequal rewards so that, for example, even for those who champion ‘community’ values, collaborative forms of community work will always pale under the yardstick of individual competition for disciplinary knowledge. (7)


In an age of disaggregation the aggregating function of anthologies must be more effectively attuned to the play between modern and nonmodern domains of work within the rapidly transforming conditions of the modern university in which some domains of important professional work cannot be contractually specified when reduced to the academic disciplinary economy of value. (195)

do not help. Still, as someone once said there is no royal road to science, or in this case, theory. Even if all such sentences were edited for reader ease, the concepts and the argument would still be, by their nature, very complex.

More to the point, Downing, whose ethos toward rhetoric and composition is always positive, respectful, and constructive through the entire book, may have a hard sell on his hands when we turn from style to the motives of at least his audience in rhetoric and composition. For a group that has taken the disciplinary road at great cost and reward (at least for some) over the last thirty years, and for a community that increasingly sees its reason for being at the undergraduate level to help students enter academic discourse of the disciplines, there is likely to be some doubt about this project and how it impacts them. I am dubious especially of the latter, yet there is little doubt that this is where rhetoric and composition at the moment is. Some in the field might well wonder what is in it for them; if the current knowledge contract is working for them, why change? Rhetoric and composition, at least for people who have new PhDs, is in a boom phase after all. One of things rarely said in discussions of contingent labor—and let me note I do support unionization and the very sort acceptance of unvalued labor that Downing, Bousquet, Schell and the others propose — and that makes it hard to make this case to rhetoric and composition folks, is that the contingent do not seem to be just a random sample of underemployed, overworked and underpaid folks. Rhetoric and composition people—who often early on in their graduate careers and doctoral study, consciously made hard choices not to have the cachet of more elite work—may see contingent labor differently than literature folks. Surprisingly often for this audience, the contingent seem to be either unemployed PhDs in literature, MA or MFAs in creative writing, MAs in English, or even BAs in English which is still mostly literature at most universities. At the least, the contingent workers seem not to be in rhetoric and composition. If this is the perception of established RhetComp folks, how does one persuade the ‘haves’ to give up some of what they have for the ‘have nots.’ It is hardly a new question; and I certainly do not have the answer. But perhaps one locates one’s appeal in self-interest in the near future—you too, rhet comp folks, will eventually in the not too distant future be put out of work or underemployed since that’s the historical tendency of this whole system. You are replaceable; you will be replaced. Perhaps one draws on ethical appeals—no one should work under these conditions at these slave wages with this load. Perhaps one broadens the appeal—certainly our students deserve the best including regular faculty as teachers. Perhaps one could make the claim that staying inside the English department does provide some personal career advantages—but what might these be?

The Knowledge Contract is central to raising these questions and to continuing this dialogue between literature people and composition people. As such it is a must-read for scholars in both disciplines, but maybe more importantly for the WPA-, teacher- and scholars- to- be- now in doctoral programs—that is, for the people who will make the future of rhetoric and composition. The book is important for them no matter the difficulty, because these are difficult issues in which they will all necessarily and inevitably soon be involved.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 16 table of contents.