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Composition Forum 27, Spring 2013

A Portrait of a Scholar…In Progress: An Interview with Louise Wetherbee Phelps

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Tanya K. Rodrigue

Abstract: As a teacher, writer, administrator, researcher, theorist and philosopher, Louise Wetherbee Phelps has contributed to the construction and design of the discipline of composition and rhetoric at all stages, from its foundation in the 1970s to the eclectic dwelling in which we reside today. Louise is shaping the future of the discipline as well, mentoring and educating the next generation of scholar-teachers. She is invested in teaching and committed to cultivating stimulating intellectual engagement in composition and rhetoric. Louise’s former students often refer to her as a matriarch of the field, recognizing that her work has been foundational and highly influential. She has worked to bring recognition to rhetoric, composition, and writing studies on a local, national, and international level in such efforts as creating a stand-alone undergraduate and doctoral program at Syracuse University and securing our status as a legitimate discipline. Recently retired after a career spanning more than 30 years at Syracuse University, Louise has yet to slow down. In fact, she might be busier now than ever before. This interview takes you on a tour of the multiple, converging pathways Louise has traveled throughout her career as well as the new pathways she is forging in retirement. She discusses her work as a consultant, professor, and writer as well as the state of writing studies in the U.S. and in international contexts. She also provides insight into what constitutes a scholarly identity and how we might understand more holistically our own academic work and the work of others.

Louise is an Emeritus Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Syracuse University, and currently serves as an Adjunct Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at Old Dominion University. A former Fellow of the American Council on Education, she is a consultant on post-secondary writing instruction, writing program administration, and doctoral education in rhetoric and composition, specializing in program design and review, professional development for teachers, contingent faculty issues, and processes of transformational change in higher education. Louise wrote Composition as a Human Science: Contributions to the Self-Understanding of a Disciplines (1988) and co-edited several books including Composition in Four Keys: Inquiring into the Field with Mark Wiley and Barbara Gleason and Feminine Principles and Women’s Experience in American Composition and Rhetoric with Janet Emig. She has written 20 articles published in numerous journals including College, Composition and Communication, Journal of Assessing Writing, JAC, Rhetoric Review, Composition Forum, Composition Studies and College English as well as 24 book chapters. The articles can be categorized under a number of topics including WPA work, hermeneutics, phenomenology, feminism, discourse structure, and concept development. She is currently in the process of composing a two-volume collection of her published and unpublished work. The first volume is called Poetics of Composition: Footprints of an Intellectual Journal and the second volume is entitled Prosaics of Composition: A Rhetorical Portfolio of Scholarship in Action. Together, the volumes are called Madisonian Research. She’s given over 100 talks nationally and internationally.

Tanya Rodrigue (TR): You have a unique and interesting story about why you became interested in studying writing and how you ended up in the field. Can you talk a bit about your journey to composition and rhetoric?

Louise Wetherbee Phelps (LWP): My intellectual project to study writing started long before composition had any formal existence as an academic discipline. Writing and language have fascinated me my whole life. I studied them originally because I wanted to be a writer, so my interest was grounded in my own experiences as a writer and learner, but it was philosophical almost from the beginning. When I was 12 years old learning to write essays, I was already analyzing and reflecting with my mother—who is a writer herself—on things like composing processes, how form expresses meaning, and using models and imitation. In retrospect, I can see that in college I was looking for ways to understand language and writing from every possible disciplinary point of view. But there were no interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs to do this, so I didn’t even consider an academic career. I wanted to be a writer and editor. Later, after teaching writing briefly in high school, I started trying to write a book for teachers that led me deeper and deeper into readings on language, symbolic activity, mind and cognition, rhetoric, and so on, trying to construct a knowledge base for conceptualizing writing. This was pretty much the same territory that writing scholars were exploring to create a new discipline. When I discovered composition was emerging as a field, I realized it was possible to have a career where I could think and write about written language, and talk to people with the same interests. By the time I decided to get a Ph.D., I had this long history and specific research questions and goals that allowed me to design my own program. I was lucky that my work converged with the rise of composition studies at exactly the time I needed an intellectual community. But at that stage of the field, I didn’t find the philosophical framework and concepts I was looking for, and so I felt I could contribute to developing the discipline by bringing that perspective.

TR: You and others have worked for years to bring recognition to the field as an established and legitimate discipline, an effort that is referred to as the Visibility Project. Recently, the National Research Council (NRC) recognized us as an “emerging field” and we were assigned a code series in the federal Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP). Can you talk a little bit about the process of how you all went about gaining this recognition and why it is so important?

LWP: The Doctoral Consortium had been working for a long time to get recognition for the discipline. We learned about the National Research Council’s taxonomy of research disciplines when they put out a draft for a revision of it that didn’t include rhetoric and composition, even as a subfield! But because they invited comments, we had an opportunity to respond and make an argument. I didn’t understand until later that this was something bigger than one taxonomy—we had discovered a hidden mechanism that was playing a major role in keeping the field invisible. You might call it the rhetoric of information. Basically there is information disseminated about fields through statistics and databases that count and describe things like programs, degrees, and faculty, using discipline-based codes. As a field we weren’t represented in the codes, not just in the NRC taxonomy but in an array of others. They reinforce each other because they’re so interconnected. These informational networks weren’t deliberately excluding us. It’s simply that a bunch of historical, bureaucratic, and political contingencies (like the location of programs in English, or the placement of CCCC in NCTE) had set up a situation where it was very difficult for the people that run these networks to discover the field. It was basically hidden in plain sight. And it’s a catch-22—you can’t justify getting a code because without it, there’s no official data about the field to prove it exists. So we realized we had to penetrate these networks code by code. We got the NRC recognition first, and then a CCCC task force worked on the CIP code, which covers undergraduate as well as graduate programs with several levels of codes. Now a CCCC committee that took over the work on visibility has finally gotten a code for registering dissertations in the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). Every year Ph.D. graduates are surveyed and asked to name the research field of their dissertation by selecting a code. Without a code for rhetoric and composition or writing studies, our graduates might pick the closest code, like English or Communication, or they might mark “Other” and write something like “new media.” So the survey never recognized or counted our doctoral cohorts as in the same field, and that had a ripple effect on other codes and databases. Acquiring an SED code is a huge advance because so many other organizations use this survey to track disciplinary presence and emergence and to revise their own codes. And unlike other databases, we can potentially control implementation, because graduates themselves pick the code and report the information directly, without going through department or university filters that prevent new codes from being applied to our programs.

TR: What were some of the challenges and obstacles you faced in the process of getting these codes?

LWP: There were three kinds of challenges we encountered. The first is bureaucracy. It’s very, very hard to access the government and educational organizations that produce these codes, create these taxonomies, and revise them. Most don’t deal directly with campus faculty or disciplines, especially ones as small as ours relative to the sciences. On campuses, it is hard to find out who uses the databases and codes, for what purposes, and even what the processes are for assigning or changing program codes. The second problem was that without the SED data we didn’t have the information to prove our case. Our field has no central organization that collects it, and people on campuses don’t keep good records. So to prove how many graduates and programs we have, we had to gather information as best as we could, on a very tight time schedule. It was incomplete, but enough to prove our case. We still don’t know most of this information definitively, despite heroic efforts by some CCCC groups. The third problem is that rhetorically, the way we talk about our field, we tend to be internally focused on how we distinguish ourselves from one another, and resist the idea of a common discipline. But from the very broad perspectives that govern coding, these differences and arguments are way below the radar. We had to set them aside and approach the problem rhetorically, not in purist or essentialist terms. The problem is to construct an identity as a whole that works for outsiders. We wanted the public, the government, funding agencies, and other organizations to recognize there’s a large group of people working on overlapping issues and problems from different perspectives, who deserve to be recognized, have access to funding, have opportunities to weigh in on policy issues. But, as a rhetorical construct, this identity has to be modulated to fit each new database and the audiences that decide the codes and use them. And they don’t necessarily agree to the terms we ask for. In the case of the new SED code, we requested “rhetoric, composition, and writing studies,” but they shortened it to “rhetoric and composition.” It’s really important for graduates to choose this code even if they identify with writing studies, or professional and technical communication, or something else, because that’s the only way we will get an overall count that is inclusive and will have a big impact on other codes. That’s where we can take some control over our own destiny in the information networks.

TR: What can we learn from the Visibility Project, and how might we build on the work that has recently been done?

LWP: We have to keep working to gain access and make sure that the successes we’ve had diffuse into other codes. This project has also taught us that as a field we need to gather, analyze, and control our own information in some central, systematic way. What I’m thinking about beyond codes is the idea that a field, in trying to know itself and project the future, needs to do that through accurate data and not just through opinion and personal interaction. Many claims about disciplinarity and the status of department or program formation in our field are based on guesses or anecdotes because we simply can’t keep up with the information. It evolves quite rapidly and is hard to track or disseminate. Ultimately the goal is to use technology to make this information current, transparent, and available to everyone, but it’s not clear yet how to fund and organize that process in a sustainable way.

TR: Many composition and rhetoric scholars are becoming more involved in international conversations about writing. I know you’ve done some consulting in Armenia and Canada, so you are clearly one of these scholars. Why do you think an international writing studies community is important?

LWP: Writing studies have been going on for awhile in many countries, but they’re only now coming together and coalescing into a real international research community. Rhetoric and composition in the U.S. has a unique history as a stand-alone discipline that studies writing. In other countries responsibility for writing instruction is typically very diffuse and lots of disciplines are involved, so the scholarship has also developed in a very decentralized way. International writing studies brings all this together in a network of people from different disciplines and cultures and languages who share an interest in writing and literacy education. Chuck Bazerman has been a great leader in trying to create an infrastructure for exchanging knowledge and collaborating, through international conferences and edited books, and now these have led to establishing an International Society for the Advancement of Writing Research. What’s happening now is that knowledge about this work and opportunities for contact are spreading in our own field and starting to influence the directions of work in rhetoric and composition. It’s moving from a small group of scholars to CCCC and into the graduate programs.

TR: How do you think these conversations impact the field in the U.S.?

LWP: I think this contact with international writing instruction and researchers is already changing our own field in very positive ways. It’s helping to rehabilitate the status of empirical research and science in rhetoric and composition, which was attacked in the 80s and superseded in influence by cultural studies and critical theory. I think that’s one reason many of the cognitive and social science researchers turned to the international arena where they were appreciated. Another thing I like about the international work that’s different from American rhetoric and composition is the developmental span of the studies and instruction from childhood literacy to graduate and adult writing. Then there’s the potential for international collaborations and literacy studies across the world. It’s all very exciting. The opportunities came along a bit late in my career for me to be very active in this work, but I try to keep informed and open to the possibility. As an administrator and consultant, I’ve always argued that the logic of writing instruction requires unconventional and distributed structures, and looked for ways to develop them. So I’m interested in how forms of writing instruction and programs have been institutionalized differently in other countries, and how that’s changing as these international exchanges increase and postsecondary education expands beyond just the elite in other countries. As a scholar, I’m also interested in what happens with respect to discipline formation, in terms of educating the next generation of scholars, or trying to secure a place in the academy, when you start from a decentralized system and the scholarship is so multidisciplinary.

TR: How have you specifically been involved in conversations related to international writing studies?

LWP: My first opportunity to actually participate, other than conferences, came when my friend Gil Harootunian, who is of Armenian descent, invited me to go to Armenia in 2006 as part of a review team for an educational exchange project she led between Syracuse University and Yerevan State Linguistic University, which specializes in teaching languages and linguistics. The university followed authoritarian Russian methods of education when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. When it became independent, the university expanded English language instruction and turned to the west for educational models, although the lingering Russian influence on their pedagogy was still very powerful when I visited. After being a Fulbright Exchange Scholar there, Gil got a grant to help Armenian teachers use writing-intensive instruction to develop a democratic pedagogy. Her project helped teachers develop English-language courses in subjects like political science that used writing to teach western-style analysis and argument. Her design of this project and its student-centered pedagogy were partly inspired by the Syracuse Writing Program, so she asked me to go along on the review as an observer and consultant. Cezar Ornatowski, who grew up in Poland under the Russian-style system, was the official reviewer, and the three of us observed classes together and talked with teachers and students for a week, while I took extensive notes.

Gil and several Armenian teachers took us around the city and countryside every afternoon and evening, giving us a cultural context for what we were seeing in the classroom. The students were very conscious of their role as future leaders of the country, who would help Armenia become democratic and join the international community. Most of them expected to be communicators—journalists, translators for government and business, teachers. They were incredibly liberated by the shift to a democratic pedagogy of talk and writing. It was stunning to hear them talk so eloquently about having the freedom to take responsibility for their own thinking and learning.

TR: So you spent time in Armenia and you just recently spent time in Canada serving as a consultant. How did this opportunity come about?

LWP: I applied for the Fulbright specialist program, which makes you eligible to be a consultant on short international projects. They try to match specialists to projects proposed by universities in other countries. In 2011 I got a six-week grant to visit the University of Winnipeg to consult for the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and Communications.

TR: You said they are the only stand-alone program in writing and rhetoric in Canada, right?

LWP: It was the first department with a full-time faculty in this area. The department developed from a program that was the first in Canada to offer a writing course to all students. It was unique because writing instruction in Canada doesn’t follow the U.S. model. Here, writing programs and departments grew out of the universal required first-year composition course, which was a platform for developing a discipline. In Canada it started out as remedial and developed through structures like our writing centers or WAC programs, similar to Europe and the UK. These programs are still scattered and very diverse in terms of where they are located, what they are called, who teaches in them, and what their instructional duties are. And the relationship of this instruction to disciplines is very mixed and murky—rhetoric and composition in the American sense hardly exists there. One of my mandates was to investigate the whole scene of Canadian writing instruction and scholarship and place the work of this department in that context and comparatively with the U.S. In this respect it was a kind of extension of my work on the Visibility Project.

TR: What are some of the specific tasks they wanted you to do in their efforts to change or enhance their department and also establish a disciplinary identity within the national context?

LWP: Jennifer Clary-Lemon wrote the proposal for the project, and she organized a steering committee to work with me. They gave me a very ambitious agenda when I arrived. The overall goal was to advise and assist the department in what they called “program architecture renewal,” which included 1st year writing, an undergraduate major in Rhetoric and Communications, and a proposal for an MA. They wanted to take a fresh look at all these programs, articulate them in relation to one another, and figure out the most promising future directions for the department. Part of the problem they faced was how to manage this transition collegially and with respect for different traditions in the department. There was also a major component for me to research context and history as a basis for understanding the identity of the department and its potential for future development and contributions to Canadian instruction and scholarship.

I really loved the contextual element of the project, and the fact that it called for a great deal of inquiry and conversation onsite. I think I did over 70 hours of interviewing and lots of reading. There were so many layers—learning about the department, the university, the city, and their relationships, which turned out to be crucial. . . and then the scholarship in Canada and the whole Canadian scene in writing and rhetoric.

I wrote up my observations in a report, which was intended to facilitate their own ongoing deliberations and decision-making. I tried to make sure that the concepts and categories that ended up in my reports came from their own work and the conversations where we discussed them. It was a rhetorical challenge because I wanted to be very respectful of the department’s right to craft its own goals and processes, and not tie their hands through overly specific public recommendations. Some Winnipeg faculty did a roundtable on the project with me at CCCC last spring, so I was able to hear the progress they are making on developing their plans for reform.

Based on this work, I was asked to give a keynote talk last May at the CASDW conference (the Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing), which builds on the Winnipeg work comparing Canadian and U.S. writing studies, in order to analyze how Canadian writing studies can achieve visibility—identity, respect, a place of their own—in the Canadian academy. If I have the chance, I’d love to do more with this work and with Canadian colleagues.

TR: I remember you gave a talk about your consulting experiences at an international writing studies conference a couple of years back (Writing Research Across Borders Conference, 2008). You specifically talked about your work in Armenia. What are some of the things you addressed in that presentation?

LWP: The research question I was asking in that talk was, when we go into a country as different from ours as Armenia and observe classrooms and programs, what’s the basis for understanding what we’re seeing there? How can I trust myself to interpret it well enough to offer good advice? This is a very fundamental hermeneutical question. Hermeneutics is not just about how you understand or interpret something, it’s about how you understand meanings in texts or events when misunderstanding or not understanding is very likely. In a case like observing in Armenia, it’s cultural and language differences that create obstacles to understanding, but that’s just a specific case of the universal problem.

TR: Yes, you’re not immersed in that culture so you don’t have that cultural lens to interpret what’s going on.

LWP: Right, so what makes it possible at all? In my talk I pointed to the role of cultural mediators like Gil and Cezar, who understood the Soviet-style system the project was trying to transform, and the teachers and students, because they were so direct and explicit in making cultural comparisons. The fact their perspectives were so different was very helpful because any given event had so many different meanings to the participants and the observers. I could form a more layered understanding that took into account these complexities and conflicts.

TR: This reminds me of your earlier work on hermeneutics. How is it related?

LWP: Talking with you, I’m realizing that my question about observing in Armenia is a variation on a hermeneutical theme that goes way back in my work. One of my very first productive research questions was, how can we understand student drafts well enough to offer advice about revising? When I thought about how difficult they are to read, it was amazing that teachers—myself included—were so confident about giving advice, based on the meanings we attributed to these texts. We didn’t even consciously realize we were making interpretations. That led me to call for a hermeneutics of student writing to explain this kind of reading, as a foundation for any theory of response. And part of my conclusion was that this understanding is necessarily a form of co-authorship or collaboration. There are lots of parallels in something like my Armenian experience, and Winnipeg too, where I had to coordinate so many perspectives, insider and outsider, to construct my own understanding. In each case interpretation is problematic, and it matters that it be trustworthy and useful because we’re giving advice that someone else is relying on to make decisions and take action. What I’m thinking about now is the possibility of writing a description of consulting that characterizes it as a hermeneutical art. I would draw on my experiences in Armenia and Canada, but international cases aren’t unique. They’re just an especially vivid example of something that’s true for any consulting situation in our field, that you have to “read” an unfamiliar institutional culture in order to make judgments and recommendations appropriate to the local situation.

TR: After spending more than 20 years at Syracuse University, you’ve recently retired. Well,retired isn’t completely accurate because you’re still very active in the field and are now teaching classes at Old Dominion University. How did you end up at ODU and what are your responsibilities there?

LWP: I started talking to my husband about where we might move when we retired. We wanted to go south and stay fairly close to family in the DC area, but I wanted to be affiliated somehow with a graduate program. I thought that would help me stay active in the field, keep learning, and continue writing. And I wanted to be able to contribute and be useful. You know, I’ve always been deeply interested in life-span development and most enjoyed working with adults, as a teacher and administrator. I’ve read every book that George Vaillant has published about the Harvard longitudinal study of adult development, and I realized I was in the decade of life where we need to master Erikson’s task of “generativity,” which requires moving on from your own career advancement and investing your self in helping the next generation. Vaillant says that means caring for younger people but giving up control, giving them their autonomy. So I wanted to find ways to be a mentor, coach, consultant, in new contexts.

About that time I heard Joyce Neff describe Old Dominion’s new doctoral program and learned it was in Norfolk. I immediately fell in love with the Hampton Roads area—Tidewater, Virginia—because there is so much water. We eventually bought a house that overlooks a river and marsh. I was also attracted to ODU because it was a young, interdisciplinary program, with lots of graduate students who were going to be writing dissertations, and they didn’t have many experienced senior professors in rhetoric and composition. I thought they could use someone like me so it would be mutually beneficial.

TR: So ODU wasn’t actually searching for a new faculty member at the time. How did you persuade them to hire you?

LWP: With Joyce’s encouragement and support, I went to the department and made a proposal for a position where I would teach one course a year, serve on doctoral committees, and do other kinds of things to help their grad program. They said, “That’s never been done before but maybe we can figure out how to do it.” I was lucky that a wonderful department chair was flexible and far-sighted enough to make it happen. When you retire where you’ve taught, you have certain privileges at that institution, like the use of the library, maybe an office, and the possibility of part-time teaching. But when you move to a new place there’s no professional channel for making these connections, and institutions have no models for the different kinds of role that retired faculty could play. From my consulting experiences, I was already interested in the problem of generational change and how it is affecting our field. A whole generation of academics is retiring with a lot of very valuable wisdom that we still need. Many of them in our field want to stay active and contribute, especially as mentors. So Carol Lipson and I started a SIG in CCCC’s for retired and retiring faculty and we’re trying to get people working on keeping retired faculty connected and getting support when they need it, like to go to conferences. But more than that, I want to encourage cross-generational connections that are mutually beneficial, exploring what each group needs and can contribute to the other generations. So for CCCC 2013 we’re doing a featured session on Cross-Generational Connections among Retired Faculty, Retiring Faculty, and the Emergent Professoriate.

TR: Tell me more about your teaching at ODU.

LWP: I teach in the six-week summer doctoral institute, the SDI, which is required for all distance students in the Ph.D.. They make up about half the program. It’s a hybrid course—roughly two weeks online, two weeks on campus, and two weeks online. I live on campus the two weeks they are in town. It was very intimidating when I first started because I had never taught at a distance. Turns out I love it. The students teach me what to do technologically, and some of my colleagues help too. The most interesting but challenging thing is to plan a course to fit into those tight parameters and have the right rhythm and pace.

TR: I know that part of the reason why you teach graduate students is so you can continue learning about the field. Have you been able to dive into areas of research you haven’t yet explored with graduate students and create new courses, or have you been teaching courses you’ve already taught?

LWP: The first year I was asked to teach a version of my writing program administration course, which I had to adapt to the SDI format. I’m on a three-year cycle for teaching that, so I’ll teach it again this year. I’m replanning it with the help of two graduate students who are already working in administrative roles. But all the other ones I’ve taught or that I’m planning are new.

From the first course, an idea emerged for teaching a course on productive theory. Many of the distance students work full-time and have programmatic or leadership responsibilities. One article they read argued that critical theory is not very useful for productive activities like this. Some were very taken aback at the heresy of questioning critical theory. It was just a totally new idea that there could be any other kind of theory, or that you might evaluate theories based on what they’re good for. I said, well, critical theory is great for critiquing but it’s not very good for supporting you when you’re trying to construct or create something. For that you need a different kind of theory, a productive theory. I gave as an example my own experience developing a new writing program, or how many of them were working on developing a curriculum or an assessment plan or a learning center. When someone asked me to name some productive theories, I had to really think! There were so many theories I had used, but what made them productive? I planned the course to explore and illustrate that idea.

But before I could develop that concept specifically, we had to do a lot of groundwork first on theory in general. It turned out the students were really eager for something like this, not so much to learn specific theories but to understand what theory is, how it comes into being, the difference between producing theories themselves or using theories from others, and how do you go about doing both. Many of them will be doing empirical dissertations and they needed to understand the possible roles of theory in that work. It was very unusual to pick out readings to illustrate all these things, like how theory evolves historically, rather than for any specific content.

TR: So how did you end up defining productive theory?

LWP: We came up with a three-level definition. First, it’s a theory or concept that explains or describes production or productive practice. Second, it’s a theory or concept that is designed to afford production or productive practice, or a concept that wasn’t designed to do this but can be appropriated for that purpose. The third, more inclusive, is any concept or theory that is generative, meaning that historically it has produced new problems, ideas, questions, other concepts, elaborations, etc. One thing they found really useful was the concept of affordance—the idea that productive theory affords or enables constructive action, building or creating anything. We tried to look at different theories from the point of view of how they would afford the different kinds of constructive work they do—teaching, administration, community work, research itself. Once you get that idea, you realize you’re not stuck with just one theory. You can pull parts from different theories because they support different parts of what you’re doing. That was a revelation to them that they didn’t have to pick one theory and become a true believer. They could look for what was useful and understand what made it useful; they could be critical of some aspects of it and use other aspects of it. They could revise it themselves. I’ve tried to teach this view of theory many times, but this was the first time I ever thought it worked. The students really understood, and they said it was tremendously useful.

TR: That’s wonderful. It’s often very difficult to understand how theory can inform work like administration. What other courses have you developed?

LWP: Well, last summer I taught a really adventurous course, on Embodied Cognition. The subtitle is Appropriating New Understandings of Mind and Brain for the Study and Teaching of Writing and Rhetoric. I read a lot about cognition early in my career and I never lost my interest. Recently I noticed a growing interest in the latest research on neuroscience and how it’s related to rhetoric and composition. International writing studies have also brought back cognitive research into our conversations. So it seemed like a good time to revisit this topic. We started by reading Janet Emig’s 70s article Hand, Eye, Brain because she, as one of the founding scholars of our field, emphasized cognition and also embodiment. Contemporary accounts tend to be very reductive and ahistorical about cognitive studies in the early field, and I wanted to ground the current reading in a more accurate sense of their range and historical importance. Janet visited the class on a video link. That was fun. She’s very up-to-date on current brain and mind research! Our contemporary readings sampled studies of mind from a cognitive perspective, especially those that stress embodiment and embeddedness, and also studies of the physical brain, its plasticity, its development, its rhythms, its relation to mind and body. I had to do a lot of research to put this material together—almost all of it was new to me, although I discovered it had roots that were part of my own “tacit tradition.” I like doing courses that are exploratory, where the students and I are learning together. Part of of what I always do in a course like this is to directly address the difficulty of reading intelligently in fields that are way outside our own knowledge. It was hard at first for some students to see the connections to their own teaching or research. But maybe they will see it wasn’t so eccentric as they thought, because I just read a review of several books on brain research in the latest WPA journal!

Now I’ve started collecting materials for my course in 2014. It will be on disciplinary histories of rhet-comp and writing studies. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, because I don’t think students can grasp what the field is today without a rich historical appreciation of how it came into being. This course will use alternate histories and counter-histories, and pair these up with primary sources, to help students understand the complexity of the past as a resource for constructing different futures.

TR: In addition to moving, teaching, consulting, and all of the other things you’ve recently been doing in your so-called retirement (ha!), you’re also working on a collection of your work. What was your overall vision for the book? What did you want the book to do and what do you want people to get from it?

LWP: Actually, I’ve planned it as two volumes. I’m still working on the first one, Poetics of Composition, which is my conceptual and phenomenological work. The second will be Prosaics of Composition, writings where I put my scholarship into action. In the first volume, writing and rhetoric are topics. In the second one, they are the means. That’s the connection between the two volumes and also between the two sides of me. My ideal model for that relationship between scholarship and constructive action was James Madison in his work on the Constitution, so I called the two volumes together Madisonian Research.

I was inspired to do the collection originally, believe it or not, by what I learned from J. Hillis Miller, who was my teacher when he was still a phenomenological critic, before deconstruction. When we studied a poet in his graduate course, he assigned every single thing that person ever wrote including letters and journals. In his lectures he would pull together images, metaphors and ideas from the entire body of work and show us that something you would never think of as important was profoundly revealing. I can’t remember much of the course except a marvelous analysis of mud in Browning. But I was permanently imprinted with the idea that in order to understand a scholar deeply you have to read a very large body of work, from two angles: one, for the continuity of it, the repetition of patterns, which are often times unconscious, and two, for its development over time. After I finished Composition as a Human Science I was intending to write a book where I would read the collected work of some of our major scholars and try to appreciate that work fully the way that Miller made us appreciate the figures we studied in his class. But the field was young and not well-published, and it was very hard then to access a sufficient body of writing so you could really follow their thought over a lifetime of work.

TR: Yes, and talks are generally not archived. There are so many people that have very few publications but give many talks, and these talks are important. They capture a wide range of a scholar’s ideas, interests and research. Unless colleagues attend every single talk, it’s impossible to truly know someone’s work.

LWP: I agree. I found about half of my work was unpublished talks that I never had time to develop into the full-length articles I had originally outlined, but are essential pieces of the puzzle. When people talked about my work, they would usually focus on one particular idea or piece I’d written and not have any conception of this whole body of work or how my thinking evolved over time. So I thought, if I want my work to be read the way I learned from Miller, I have to make the work accessible by collecting together the published and unpublished work.

TR: You’ve produced a tremendous amount of work and so I’m wondering how you went about selecting the work to include in your book.

LWP: After I dug out everything from my files—and I had kept everything, drafts, notes, journals—I started building and rebuilding a table of contents by grouping things together by topics or themes. That helped me decide which talks were worth including, because of the way they fit into one of these groups. The table took on a sort of life of its own, demanding that I fill in progressions or bring out some theme I had never even consciously recognized. And, of course, it’s taken a long time to put this together and I continue writing, so it’s hard to know where to stop.

TR: You said a lot of the talks were unfinished, at least in terms of your original plans for them. How did you handle those talks?

LWP: Most of the unpublished writings needed some kind of work, but they were sort of temporally displaced and I had to decide what to do with them. I want to give a sense of the development of my work and where each piece fits into it. So for any for the unpublished talks, I’ve worked out a system to indicate the period of time of its composition from the original date to any revisions made subsequently. I didn’t try to update them for the book, except in the footnotes. This gives some chronological sense to my work, and if someone wants to reconstruct the development of the ideas, they could. I also like the historical sense of the occasion and the context you get from reading them in close to the form they were actually spoken, just edited for clarity.

TR: I’ve heard you describe the book as an autobiography. What do you mean by that?

LWP: Well, first of all, this process of creating the table was a constant revelation to me about myself as a scholar. I kept reorganizing it and renaming sections to reflect clusters and themes I discovered in my writing that completely surprised me. So it was a shock when I found an actual intellectual autobiography I wrote in graduate school in 1973 and discovered it was organized into roughly the same broad categories as my table of contents for Poetics! I ended up including it. So I came to see the actual form of the book, the categories and the implicit and explicit connections they make, as indirectly expressing my identity and my development, kind of the same idea I meant when I said “theory is autobiography” in Composition as a Human Science.

TR: Where did the subtitle come from—Footprints of an Intellectual Journey?

LWP: After working on it awhile I began to think of this as representing a composing life rather than collecting a set of compositions. I started looking at really minor bits of writing and everyday genres and realized that even if I included all my talks and published work it was still only the tip of the iceberg. Most of my work was below the surface, in classes or workshops or committees that would never circulate beyond there. And I know this is true of any scholar’s intellectual life. So I decided to scatter particularly telling bits and pieces through the book—I’m calling them fragments for lack of a better word—and I subtitled the volume footprints of an intellectual journey, because we just have to deduce that journey, and the whole scholar, from their footprints, the work we do get to see.

TR: So what about the Prosaics volume? Why do you call it that?

LWP: Prosaics deals with everyday activities like administration, teaching, consulting, and institutional and professional work on committees and task forces. Some of it is scholarship about this kind of work and some of it is performative, rhetorical documents written to accomplish things. These are important sites of inquiry and theoretical thinking for me, but it’s challenging to represent them, because many of the best examples are confidential, like promotion and tenure reviews or consulting reports, or they were collaborative products of a faculty or committee. But I really want to make this link between scholarship and activities and genres that are not valued enough because they are prosaic. I took the title from an article by Gary Saul Morson, which was developed later in a book on Bakhtin. He means several things by prosaics: preferring the messiness of ordinary everyday life over the ideal or utopian. . seeing meaning in apparently insignificant little things, like my fragments. . . and taking disorder as the norm, so that you see order as something you have to explain, and work hard for. I feel very strongly identified with this perspective and its respect for the prosaic, as a counterbalance to my philosophical, theoretical side.

TR: How far along are you in the process, and when do you expect to finish?

LWP: Well, I’ve done all the substantive writing for Poetics, but retiring and moving caused quite a long interruption, and I had limited access to my books and files for two years while we built me an office. I’m working on the technical problems of converting everything to the same format, and I need to write all the introductory materials that make sense of it as a whole, as an autobiography. I also have to decide what to do with things I’ve written since I made the original selections.

TR: What are you doing besides working? Are you having any fun in your retirement?

LWP: It was time-consuming but very exciting working with an architect and designer to build my office, which has a gorgeous panoramic view of the river and marsh. I love being able to look out and see eagles and egrets and blue herons and deer, and going for walks every day in the sunshine. The transition has kept me pretty busy, but I have a secret wish list of things to do in retirement, like taking jazz piano lessons. Now that we’re more or less settled in, we hope to explore the area and learn more about it, do some kayaking, and once we’re through the chaos of remodeling, which is now on its last stage, we’d love to have visitors.

Works Cited

Emig, Janet. Hand, Eye, Brain: Some ‘Basics’ in the Writing Process. Research on Composing Points of Departure. Ed. Charles Cooper and Lee Odell. Urbana: NCTE, 1978: 59–72. Print.

Morson, Gary Saul. Prosaics: An Approach to the Humanities. American Scholar 57 (1988): 515-528. Print.

Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1990. Print.

Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. Composition as a Human Science: Contributions to the Self-Understanding of a Discipline. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.

---. Interpreting Transformational Teaching Practices in Armenian Writing Classes: Methodological Considerations in a Cross-Cultural Observation. Writing Research Across Borders, Santa Barbara, CA, 22 Feb., 2008.

---. The Historical Formation of Academic Identities: Rhetoric and Composition, Discourse and Writing. Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing, Wilfred Laurier University, 28 May, 2012.

---. Liminal Practice in a Maturing Writing Department. Fulbright Project Report, Aug., 2011. Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications, U of Winnipeg, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.

Phelps, Louise Wetherbee and John M. Ackerman. Making the Case for Disciplinarity in Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies: The Visibility Project. CCC 62.1 (2010): 180-210. Print.

Vaillant, George E. Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002. Print.

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