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Composition Forum 24, Fall 2011

Video clips from “A Responsibility for ‘Thinking More Capaciously’ about Composition: An Interview with Jonathan Alexander”

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Bre Garrett

This page contains three video clips and transcripts from “A Responsibility for ‘Thinking More Capaciously’ about Composition: An Interview with Jonathan Alexander.

Disciplinary structures and media studies

I think I see my work as very much cutting across a few different disciplinary divides—certainly intersecting composition studies, but also intersecting new media studies and certainly sexuality studies as well. Maybe that’s a complex intersection when I juggle them all at once. And, it’s interesting that I resort to the mixed metaphor to describe this, but it seems to me that one of the things that’s most provocative and theoretically, methodologically useful about something like composition studies is its openness to thinking in terms of multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. And when I see work in discursivity occurring in sexuality studies, I inevitably think about composition studies and how the discursivity of sexuality studies might impact composition studies and vice versa. And, certainly when I see work in new media studies that is deeply rhetorical, I am very much concerned with who is communicating and how and for what purpose, through what media and in what modalities and genres. I inevitably think about, of course, composition studies as well, and its deep concern with issues of diversity, multimodality, genre.

Fetishizing the research paper, forgetting the public sphere

In some significant ways I really see my work as having nothing substantively to do with composition studies per se. I’m thinking particularly of a composition studies that fetishizes the composed text—the text that is thesis-driven, that develops a logically unfolding argument, that considers counter-arguments, etc. And certainly I understand the necessity of training students in the production of these kinds of texts, but I also see the focus on these texts, to use the word I use before, as fetishistic. Time and again we see the culminating paper in the composition sequence is the research paper—this kind of strange genre. Students tackle a topic, tend to unpack it sometimes with historical valences, sometimes not. It has an issue, puts forth a thesis, considers arguments, might have a nod towards pathos as a kind of argumentative strategy or possibility for persuasion, and then ultimately considers counter-arguments and refutes them and has a conclusion.

And, this is supposedly the paradigmatic product for a post-enlightenment, still relatively rationally-driven, Habermassian public sphere, and that’s all well and good. And it certainly sounds good, and I would like our public sphere to be rationally driven, but it’s most often not, and in fact Michael Warner in Publics/Counterpublics talks very eloquently about the public sphere and its contemporary manifestation as one in which textuality moves less through the development of rationally driven logical arguments and much more through citationality, through the iteration of—through the postmodern mixing and matching and pastiche and bricolage we have come to expect from so much contemporary culture. So it seems to me that composition, in the modality of the fetishization of the composed text, only gets at part of the kind of textual production that is so much a part of our public sphere. It seems to me that another type of composition would pay a lot more attention to the kind of media convergence and textuality that we are starting to see in the public sphere and frankly I’ve been seeing for a couple of decades now. The DIY (Do it yourself video) that is so prominent on YouTube for instance, I think, reaches the level of real interactive engagement when you see a provocative video and multiple video responses. Some of those video responses certainly unfold as rationale arguments, many of them not, many of them serving as remixes, reiterating, reciting, redesigning the original postulations, theses or arguments in ways that are not necessarily logically driven or rationalist. So it’s that kind of textual production, and by that point I’m using text very, very loosely, hopefully in the most capacious way. It’s that kind of communicative production that I think most excites me right now and I think is most in need of study, particularly vis-à-vis its rhetorical participation in the public sphere, and it’s precisely that which much contemporary composition studies doesn’t seem particularly invested in.

Literacy, publicity, and democracy

I do think of my work as deeply invested in the enterprise of composition studies in that like much work in composition studies since the social turn, I am profoundly invested in issues of literate participation and pluralistic democracies. And my work in a book such as Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy is all about trying to figure out productive ways to enhance students’ ability to enter critically into public debates about issues that are pressing and vital to the maintenance and propagation of pluralistic democracy. So in that sense, I see the work that I do as very much taken up with some of the central concerns of what it means to be a compositionist.

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