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Composition Forum 28, Fall 2013

Composition and the Cultural Imaginary: A Conversation with Susan Miller

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Anis Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff

Note: This interview was originally published in Composition Forum 13.1-2 (2002): 1-22.

Susan Miller—recently reflecting on a teaching career that began in the sixties, just as the field of Composition Studies was emerging—observes, “In a field whose earliest arguments were built on a contrast between old and new, bad and good teaching, those who began their careers when I did repeatedly meet themselves in various mirrors” (Pedagogy, 2001, 479). The following interview is a compilation of Miller’s reflections—on her emergence as a scholar/teacher in a newly emerging field, on the teaching of writing as cultural production, and on the conceptualization and future of the field of Composition Studies.

Like the image of the “unified coherent authorial subject” she critiques, the Miller we meet in this interview exceeds the one reflected in her influential and impressive body of work, which includes such foundational articles as What Does It Mean to Be Able to Write? and The Feminization of Composition as well as the award-winning books Rescuing the Subject and Textual Carnivals. As we sat down to talk with Miller in her beautiful historic home in Salt Lake City, Utah—which was the host city of the 2002 Writing Program Administrators Workshop—she confided that she has always seen herself not as a theorist or historian but, first and foremost, as a writing program administrator. This should come as no surprise since during her career Miller has directed composition at Ohio State University (where she also developed the basic writing program and the writing project), the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, and the University of Utah, where she was founding director of the cross-curricular University Writing Program.

Miller’s interest in the macro-level issues of writing programs and in how writing is best taught and best learned is revealed throughout the course of the interview. She revisits the question “What does it mean to be able to write?” and discusses the cultural forces that have shaped her as a writer and teacher of writing. In addition, challenging the field’s focus on hermeneutics and preoccupation with interpreting texts, Miller argues for a renewed focus on the act of writing and the production of texts, distinguishing between “critical readers” and “writers who read.” She states, “I think that teaching people to analyze texts and the technologies of literature is not the same thing as teaching people rhetorical, oratorical performance.” She also voices her concern with current theories—such as genre theory or post-process theory—that, in her estimation, emphasize awareness and understanding of texts over the practice of writing texts.

In the interview that follows, Miller reflects on the ways in which a reconceptualization of the field as “Writing Studies” could better promote attention to the production of texts over their interpretation—an approach she has called a “pedagogy of production”—while functioning as a mode of inquiry into the cultural work carried out by acts of writing. To exemplify a “writing studies” approach, she discusses her most recent book, Assuming the Positions: Cultural Pedagogy and the Politics of Commonplace Writing, which carries out historical archival research on “ordinary” texts—commonplace writings—as they are embedded in a culture and richly reflect the texture of a culture. Miller expresses her interest in texts as cultural productions through her repeated reference to the term “cultural imaginary,” which she defines as “the way symbol systems in culture determine what people do.” If indeed the work of a culture—its beliefs, values and practices—is embedded in its language use and acts of writing, then Susan Miller’s decades of work in our disciplinary culture has significantly shaped composition’s “cultural imaginary,” and as teachers and researchers we will no doubt meet ourselves in the following reflections.

Looking Back: Interests and Influences on the Study of Writing

Q: In your Preface to Textual Carnivals, you note that writing this book “reminded [you] of why [you] first left an already validated academic field for what was then a decidedly nonserious world of composition teaching and study” (ix-x)—a moment that you describe as “a conversion to composition studies” (x). What brought about this conversion? How and why did you become interested in textual production—in the study and teaching of writing?

A: I wouldn’t now call it a conversion, having given up my belief in transformations--always a scary thought. But I expect I was also a bit disingenuous then. I was always most interested in teaching writing in graduate school, where it was the only empowered position. You had your “own” classroom, then still under the privacy model of teaching—“my students, my class, what I do”—that kind of possessive individualism. And I liked that model, I think now because as one of ten women among two hundred and fifty men in my graduate program, I needed to feel empowered. But I also had always wanted to be a writer, so I liked teaching writing. I discovered I was always interested in what students say. Every paper is different from every other paper when you are reading for what students are talking about, what their conversation is like. The relationships among what you did in the class, what you assigned, how they would interpret the assignment, and what they finally wrote—it is fascinating, to watch how people think among collective impulses, not as an isolated “mind” addressing a problem. So when I was denied tenure at Georgia State for not writing books about literature despite writing a composition textbook, I decided the time had come—I went into composition. Of course there wasn’t any composition to go into then. And that was my conversion—to a void. After I left Georgia State I went to Ohio State to direct writing. I set up a remedial program—they had not had one before. It was very exciting to work at Ohio State when I went there—Andrea Lunsford was my research assistant, and we set about to do research to find out what does work when you teach basic writing, and then did a pilot project to test what we had come to think did work. After that, the Writing Workshop at Ohio State has had its own life. During that time, I also gathered a group I ran into in various ways—David Bartholomae, Erika Lindemann, and Rick Coe and Jim Raymond. I got us all together at a San Francisco MLA in the 70's. We vaguely but energetically said, “don’t you think we ought to do something,” and so we did, like an NEH Seminar for Teachers in South Carolina one summer. It was fun. It cheered me up.

Q: What makes someone like you interested in how a text comes to be rather than what a text does? Can you identify and describe some of the systems of language and cultural history that pushed you in the direction of being interested in how texts are produced?

A: Maybe the answer goes like this. When I said I wanted to write, I should have said I always wrote. Like Linda Brodkey as a child interviewing the neighbors about when they thought they would die, I was publishing writing all the time in high school and after. It was mostly journalistic, but it was also feature writing; in college, I reviewed movies and edited the literary magazine. In high school, I wrote a satire about being on the varsity standardized test-taking team, and claimed to have stolen books from the library in college to get its security system improved. I never distinguished how texts come to be from what they do. I didn't then know people who did. I knew writers. Some friends in high school now run for congress or are academics; some in college ended up in the State Department or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but we were all writers. I majored in political science, others in history or physics, but we thought that whatever else intellectuals would do, they would write, lots. We had great models, like Joseph Alsop and people at the New Yorker then who were politically important, and we thought that education was meant to enable writing. I expect I also work out of the religious context of my college—Lutherans are very practical intellectuals who got in trouble for writing.

In composition, when we talk about literature and about people in literature who are interested in where texts come from, we are usually talking about another sort of student, not like my friends and I, those interested in the biography of a writer. When I was being trained, the idea that authorship produces a coherent oeuvre—“the work” that Foucault has done a good job of problematizing, if not so good a job of historicizing—was accepted as normal truth. So we had Milton as a child in the wonderful Hughes’ Milton textbook: Milton from his first school exercises, to the lyrics, to the prolix tracts on divorce and to Sampson Agonistes. We were trained to see psychological and social continuity, that there is a unified coherent authorial subject who is consistent and whose work can be thematized, along with all of the unities that contemporary theory questions. That was what we learned in school to become teachers in a university. I think it may still be the literary model that many writing teachers apply. But for my activist school friends, that system was not, and is not, what we think of as writing.

At base, I also think that people in composition or literature don’t take seriously enough how the cultural imaginary is represented in literary studies. I certainly fault myself for this. But I try to read literary scholarship with enormous interest in how its readings look to a culturalist reader. That is, I take aesthetic texts and theory very seriously as persuasion, not in a banal ‘do this’ but a deeply constitutive sort of education, and see criticism as simultaneous examples of having been persuaded and of emergent persuasions to belief systems. I wish people in composition thought that the imagination of the student is what they work for and work with, not the critical thinking as formal interpretation, not feelings, not their expression, but the student’s imaginary—as it is, not as they should correct it. Maybe that’s why I like reading student papers so much. I learn my culture from reading that writing, and I feel I have made good assignments if they evoke from the students something that I didn’t know that they thought, or that tells of experiences they’ve had that I haven’t had. These writings are interesting to me precisely because without them, I wouldn't fully understand the media in which we all grow, the culture.

Q: In your 1983 College English article, What Does it Mean to be Able to Write? you define elements of the writing event—from the historical and cultural context, to the rhetorical or situational context, to the stylistics and formal qualities of the text. How would the terms either of your question or the response to the question of what it means to be able to write differ today? Nearly two decades later, what does it mean to be able to write?

A: I would just keep publishing this article every three years and pray people would start discussing it, even if it is now old-fashioned structuralism. Let me hasten to say that this is not my model; it is Dell Hymes’ model of a speech event. This is work from applied linguistics that Joe Williams has adapted from Hymes in his teaching of writing and that I, knowing Joe’s first uses of it, did too. Our students learn purpose, audience, setting, scene, readers, format, and language—and learn that they have to answer questions about each of these elements before they can begin to write and keep coming back to those questions as they write. Of course we teach this hierarchy as recursive and emphasize that any one of these elements can be an exigency that controls other choices as we write. I see the value of these questions when I talk to new faculty who have to publish, who are really eager to learn how to write. But if I ask them where they plan to publish a piece, they often look at me totally blankly, as though I had asked a really rather déclassé question—it appears that it’s truth they are writing, not a text. It is not only colleagues outside composition who think this way, obviously.

So, were I to change the answer to what it means to be able to write, I would add to Hymes’ model more emphasis on ways of creating media texts. My purpose, however, would still be to teach ways of making texts and how those texts participate in the history and purposes of writing. But now I would include more about media because I think that consumerism is no longer a useful theoretical framework for understanding writing and reading, or for privileging reading that is “active.” It is active, but it is treated as such by textual studies on a nineteenth-century model of capitalism that makes it appear that everyone is predominantly and always in capitalism a passive consumer, unless trained out of it by us. Yet one of the things that you learn from students, at least from those in the high-tech West, is that capitalism now (also) operates by creating creators.

For instance, I remember the first person who gave me a tape of songs that told a story. In my youth, such a gift was not conceivable, neither technologically nor as a way to appear a good provider, in those old-fashioned terms. To please someone, you purchased something well-made by others to show affection and economic power. Then, of course, few could afford to own a tape recorder much less to make a tape and record off the air. But now, the love token, the bouquet of roses of the undergraduate, is often to make a tape or maybe a video tape or cut a CD, to invest time and self in a gift that is itself a narrative in its selection of images and/or songs. It’s a real sharing of self, analogous to what some think happens in response to certain kinds of composition assignments.

For instance, my last cultural studies class, after a bit of a conflict about how much “work” they could and would do for the class, became very determined to show me that they had learned Althusser and the British culturalists. I came into class one day to become a character in a play: they were sitting around on the floor, and one of them got up and imitated kindergarten teaching and kept saying “You have to draw within the lines, you have to draw within the lines.” Next, a student imitated a high school algebra teacher and kept saying, “Trust me, you’ll understand it later, you’ll understand it later.” And then the last one got up and imitated me being a professor. He did a marvelous job of it, I thought. At the end they turned to me and said, “See, do you think that we learned something now?” Later, in their group work they put together sexist and classist snippets from Disney cartoons that got increasingly upsetting to watch, ending with a seldom noted rape scene from Disney. And interspersed with these clips, they inserted bits from random interviews around campus; they asked various people—the vice president for research, a cook in the student Union, grad students and freshmen—“What does ’happily every after’ mean to you?” The tape is a classic representation of a cultural norm, I think. So I believe that writing is now a media-oriented process, not that I am the only person who does, but I perhaps am a little less interested in computers and technology and more likely to equate media-composing with the text it produces, and the quality of one with the quality of the other. Sometimes I quote one of my students who said that reading modernist lyric poetry is just reading white guys having moments of insight [laughter]. I am interested in that view, not because I believe its reductive judgment of the poetry, but because it indicates students wanting to be more than interpreters of consciousness as readers, to be involved in making in maybe a new capitalism that both creates play and manipulates it.

Intersections of Writing and Reading

Q: In your work, you make several parallel distinctions between teaching texts and teaching the meaning of texts, between “teaching the power of meanings” and “teaching the making of statements,” all of which boils down to a distinction between reading and writing. What makes reading and writing competing, even antithetical, activities in your estimation?

A: Well, I don’t know that I agree with you that this all boils down to anything. When you talk about the power of meanings, you are talking about cultural imaginaries, the way symbol systems in cultures determine what people do—whether they get married, whether they have children, where they work, if and how they vote, what they eat, what they believe is good and ethical, and more. So the power of meanings is not about reading and is certainly not about reading readings in readers or projecting a personal reading onto literature; it’s about the regimes of truth of the culture. The power to make statements is the power to be significantly participatory in the making of those meanings, in shifting people’s notions of what counts as a point. I wouldn’t boil this down to a distinction between reading and writing. I think that teaching people to analyze texts and the technologies of literature is not the same thing as teaching people rhetorical, oratorical performances.

Q: So is this what you are referring to when you claim that writing is not reading, reading being a kind of hermeneutics—reading as a search for hidden meanings?

A: Yes. There’s a problem with hermeneutics, an ethical problem with its explicit and its tacit arguments that humans by nature are interpretive beings. That argument always turns out to mean that Heideigger and his students and the white people who were not Jewish in Germany in World War II are by nature interpretive beings. Or it means that people who got Ph.D.s in literature are by nature interpretive beings. But somehow the people in physics, even though metaphor is their way to portray theory, are not the same interpretive sorts of beings. In other words, it is an exclusionary way of looking at intellectual work, and its precepts demand, so far as I can tell, a boundary that excludes some. On another hand, the work of E.D. Hirsch and of Richard Young, two very different pre-post modernists in or around composition studies at its beginnings, that work has an enormous investment in the portability of protocols for writing and for invention, precisely to prevent that exclusionary move. Cultural Literacy is not my favorite read, but people often miss that what Hirsch was saying, or thought he was saying, which was that anybody can be a culturally literate participant. And now, composition has its own hallowed literacy that enacts his principles of knowing and of understanding a canon, not writing outside those lines. That is, we still are not very interested in “how am I going to help students know that they may write to the newspaper, know that they may give a speech, know that they may speak up in a meeting and disagree with people.” I think that such knowing is not accomplished through school exercises in mock- or even actual publishing, for they imply sanctioned writing and the teacher’s approval, not independent motives that students conceive and act on themselves. But we can’t take it for granted that anyone knows they may speak or write or disagree. Here, for instance, we are working on starting a forum like the one at Temple University, the “Temple Issues Forum.” Like them, we want to involve students, faculty, alums, and others in the community in periodic open forums for discussion. But we want to emphasize in a course that goes with this participation how to disagree with received opinion in productive ways, with evidence, thoughtful feedback, all the elements of making a productive text.

Q: Is there a way to conceive of and teach reading that would compliment rather than preempt writing—a way of reading rhetorically rather than reading hermeneutically?

A: Yes, as many do—to teach how the text was made.

Q: How do you read how a text was made?

Well, perhaps again with Dell Hymes’ model. What is the purpose of this? What was the best possible outcome that this writer (not this Author) could imagine—can you tell? Who was supposed to be reading this? What was the setting? When was it published? Was it published? Should it have been published? Was it dangerous work? The people at Yale in a structuralist Literature X curriculum took up in their textbook a theme I always admired, and see now used in the work of the same people, e.g., Peter Brooks, in critical legal studies. They address “stories too dangerous to be told,” adding a question to rhetorical reading about whether and how a text is transgressive, and the ethical issue of whether it should have been written. Thus we ask how do any of those desires show up in the choice of diction, in the rhythms in the sentences and the length of the piece, in the format. Of course, I realize that this approach both is and is not usual in composition courses. Many teach reading in the sense that you mean it, to teaching “thinking,” maybe, or “what can we talk about in this time I have in a classroom.” But I never have time to teach that sort of reading in a writing course. In a literature course that sort of reading is a technical professional skill, the content of the course, at least a major part of it.

Genre and the Teaching of Writing

Q: In Technologies of Self? Formation, you express concern that James Berlin’s pedagogy in Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures is directed more toward “a smart awareness of generic power” rather than toward “practice in manipulating genres.” At the same time, within rhetorical genre theory, scholars debate the value and efficacy of the explicit teaching of genre. How would you respond to teachers and scholars who argue that teaching an explicit awareness of how and why genres function to produce situated relations and actions can lead student writers to more reflective and informed writing choices? Are there circumstances when teaching an explicit awareness of generic power can lead to a more informed production and manipulation of genres? Or are genres best learned tacitly and through imitation and practice?

A: No, they’re not learned tacitly. My answer is probably in the What Does it Mean to be Able to Write? article, where genre is a very important component of what a writer needs to know. Knowing it is not enough, but not knowing relevant genres leaves you at sea. If you don’t have a model for what you are doing, you can’t do it—you can do something, but not the fully realized, socially embedded, historically referential it. So, that said, you use the word “awareness” here, and what I’m hearing you say is the same thing that Jim Berlin was saying: “be conscious of, be aware of.” It seems like splitting hairs, but in the actual lived experience of the writing teacher, I don’t think it is a quibble. Having a discussion of what a text means is not practicing doing it.

I am trying to moot the adversarial structure in your question, this either/or-ness, and to say no, a smart awareness of genre is not the same thing as the power to manipulate genres. You seem to be trying to totalize the word genre, to make it mean something beyond what one has to know. It sounds to me as though you want to give agency to genre, and to meaning, to give agency to awareness instead of giving agency to the person who is holding or typing or inventing in a medium of expression. The agency goes with what the writer is doing in light of everything you are talking about. To disagree cautiously with many more versed in genre studies than I am, I respond with “the power of the genre is only the power that writers give to the genre at a particular time.” Genres can be thought of as equal to knowledge bases that do or do not inform research projects, depending on what the researcher knows to refer to.

But I don’t know that if I teach you how to write a constitution that you are going to become James Madison. In fact, I am pretty sure that you’re not. I think this is one of the major problems with teaching composition that we haven’t sorted out. It’s easy enough to say that rhetoric was an elitist and entitled discipline, that women didn’t learn it (which is in fact really not entirely true—women of certain classes did not learn it, just as men of certain classes did not learn it, the men who always get left out of our academic conversations). That’s all easy enough to say, but I don’t see work that tries to articulate carefully how the connection that you are taking for granted is a problem, whether these conventions are learned tacitly. If it is a problem, we haven’t solved it by saying it is a problem.

We teach students who really have systematically been disempowered from participation beyond very small social units; they are now engulfed in technologies that may well keep them from going to public places to meet. They (we) stay home, they watch television, they listen to the radio, they work on their computer—increasingly, every technology of communication is an isolating technology, whether as a receiver or as a newer tool for making. So someone might study what the power of teaching genre is, if there is any power there at all. There may well be. I’m saying it’s not an assumption for me unless what is taught is the various concepts of genre we’ve been batting around here. One way to test these assumptions would be teach people to write texts that they never write, that they have no notion of wanting to write and that they would think would be a little bit weird to write. What would happen if you were made to write the specs for building a building? Would you become a builder? I think you would become a good reader of specs. We have here another return of the repressed, teaching genre as you assume it must/should be taught is another way to teach reading, not a way to expect people to participate in the genre’s social worlds. I don’t think this teaching is intended to be that, another reading lesson, but it is.

Q: In Australia, where a lot of the curricular momentum for teaching genre started, they did it for the very purpose that you mentioned, which is to give access to students who are marginalized, particularly the aboriginal students who don’t have access to the forms of cultural power. It was an effort to even the playing field by not assuming some students already know these forms.

A: This brings us back to the issue of E.D. Hirsh and hermeneutics. Is there a portable protocol? And yes there is, but no, learning it as a portable protocol doesn’t entirely give anyone cultural power. Any woman can tell you this: there’s nothing about knowing the ball scores that makes you one of the guys. [laughter] Any person of color could find the same analogy, but my interest is always in class. I know many people of color whose status makes me think it is racist always to attach the problems of differential access only to race, or only to gender. I am always interested in those non-classed people (since we avoid talking about a lower class as non-classed people) whom I’ve most often taught, people who are much more realistic about these matters than most teachers of composition. They like and need and benefit from strategies, as strategies, and sometimes the strategy is deploying a genre. But teaching a genre does not necessarily teach that it is a strategy that you may want to deploy in X situation. I think people in composition are often squeamish about taking that next step. They rarely act as though they expect to make participants, which would be more reasonable as their choice if the field did not claim a moral/ethical access to the population. Maybe people who teach seem to me to privilege the intellectual observer-participant position—critical readers, not writers who read. But writing an editorial for a writing class after learning the genre is not identical to practicing the nuances of being in power in your community. We cling to the idea that neutral knowledge, here a sort of scientific ‘truth’ about a graphic technology, is power. It isn't, so far as I can tell.

Post-Process Theory

Q: To the satisfaction of some and the frustration of others, the phrase “post process” is gaining currency. What does the “post” in post process mean to you? What is suggested by post process that would make it a threatening notion to some in composition studies? Is it a useful phrase?

A: I am a very simple person when asked about definitions. I think the word means after the process movement. In the sense that the people who use the term think that the process movement is over and since very few people are studying writers in the act of writing now, I guess I have to credit that maybe they are right about that. It also means, in time there was a process movement and it endures, with all history, a part of its cumulative nature. So there are still process orientations and we are waiting to see what is going to be added to the pool next, perhaps under the rubric of “post-process.”

Q: If post process suggests time after the study of what writers do when they write, what does post process then suggest?

A: That’s what I want its advocates to tell me. Critiques of the process movement have appeared to me to dominate the work of post-process people. I don’t agree with their assessments, but there is another issue about their claims: I think to assert that they are not experts about the writing process and that no one can be is to announce that there will be no reason to hire faculty members in composition at any institution. I am very cautious about the implications of saying that we don’t study writers in the process of writing. If you don’t, then what is your career-long, Ph.D. trained expertise? That is, if one has a degree based on a dissertation on Pynchon and publishes work saying that Pynchon's thinking was so varied and variable that no one can tell how the texts relate to him or to each other, would I think of this person as more qualified to teach Pynchon than any reader of the novels?

Q: At least in Thomas Kent’s discussion of post process, it’s more the systematizing of that process that is under critique. So, he is very much interested in what happens in the actual moment of communication, which in some ways could be like the focus in writing studies on the act of writing. He’s interested in the moment of exchange or interaction.

A: But he doesn’t want there to be a system? All credit to him, I am interested in that moment too. But if I can’t say more to my colleagues or, more importantly, my students, than that composition studies' graduates are interested in the moment of exchange, I don’t believe that my colleagues or my students are going to look to my field for help, and I don’t believe they should. So again—we can make anything sound like a rigorous and thus almost useless protocol, in formalist notions of what the writing process is, like saying the process has a beginning, middle and end. And then we can dismiss this outline, as people seem to me to do when they finish quoting this model from Aristotle’s Poetics, where it seems to have begun. Nonetheless, there is quite a bit of variation in the processes and results of cancer, yet people seem to be able to do research about it without much trepidation. I don’t want to trivialize that position, but I do think it has been little too easily won. There’s variation in every human phenomenon; what is so wonderful that people in composition have both the methods of hermeneutic interpretation and of social scientific observations to work with to describe processes as against their results.

Rescuing the Subject: Writer and Audience

Q: In Rescuing the Subject, you write that within the study and teaching of writing, the writer “remains an undertheorized entity.” That was in 1989. Does this remain true today? If no, what has changed? If so, why do you think this is the case?

A: Janet Emig and I and many others have tried to identify what we are doing as theorizing the writer. Many other people have done work that certainly accomplishes that goal, but they evidently don’t see it as the project of the field, so they don’t name it in that way. So on the one hand I’d say the concept does very much remain under-theorized. But on the other hand, I’d say writers have been translated as “variously successful critical readers,” and as such, they have been theorized a great deal.

Q: In Rescuing the Subject, you acknowledge that the oral tradition of rhetoric cannot account for the complexity of written composition, and propose instead a textual rhetoric. While this textual rhetoric rescues the writing subject, it simultaneously “fictionalizes” the “real” audience of oral situations and seems to bring about its disappearance. For example, the interest of those in Writing Studies, you later argue, is “in investigating relations between a writer and text.” Is there a role for audience in a textual rhetoric or in a newly conceived field of Writing Studies?

A: Well, I would think that would depend on how you are conceiving of audience. If you think of audience as something in the horizon of the writer, then of course there is a place for it in Writing Studies.

Q: Is that the only place you would locate audience? Is audience only the conceptualization of the writer’s imagined audience or is that shaped by encounters with actual audiences?

A: Every text has its own ideal writer and ideal reader embedded in it, just as Walter Ong said. Unfortunately, a schooled writer gets that pit-of-the-stomach reaction to audience quite frequently, but any writer who has encountered readers has a crisp memory of people responding to their writing, I think. So, in that sense audience is important. It is very important, though, to remember that readerships are not audiences; they are post-modern; they are fragmented; they are like people watching TV with remotes in their hands. The model of the dedicated reader sitting by the fire turning the pages is probably not very accurate, at least not widely so, even in history. My guess is that people often read as I do—they read while they’re listening, while they’re watching; they get up and they move around, and they read to see what is said not to see how it is said. I don’t think this sort of reading is a disservice to a text, depending on the kind of text it is—with some but not all poetry, it would be a disservice to the text.

Conceptualizations of the Field

Q: In a recent article in Journal of Basic Writing (2000), you draw on James Paul Gee’s notion of “recognition work,” an alternative form of work in BW that would “join active interests in a locale to create various mutual, not ‘service,’ projects” (64). In describing these school-community projects, you are careful to draw this distinction between “mutuality” and “service.” As a result, what advice would you have for increasing number of writing programs that are attempting to connect teaching and research to local publics—through community literacy projects and/or service learning?

A: I make that distinction because to describe community interaction only as service is to further a delivery model and even more to smooth over what I have found to be complicated implications of service learning. Universities have always welcomed local business leaders who need, for instance, relevant statistics, the research data of many fields. At least I’ve encountered that root metaphor when I’ve tried to organize a different sort of mutual project. It is very difficult for people in universities and people in communities to get their minds around equal needs and equal benefits since many hierarchies of status and knowledge get in the way. So, while the learning part of service-learning is wonderful, the element of service can also participate in many kinds of imbalance. The university may be perceived to be delivering left-overs to a servants’ quarters, as an old Peter Sellars skit had it. And while I think we should encourage any sort of interaction that will fly locally, there are class issues that are very important to keep in mind when “service” is the articulated model for these interactions. A student who is working two jobs to go to school, who is the first or the second generation of a family to go to college, is not paying tuition to go back into the home neighborhood and read to children. She or he is paying tuition to be taught how to analyze texts, not to learn how to entertain or to teach. That is, an expectation of service learning is a very highly classed expectation that middle and upper-class people can afford. Here, we have talked about having a service-learning requirement that in a community dedicated to volunteerism might make sense. But we have many, many students who can barely afford the time away from their jobs and their families to come to the university. Asking them to go out on weekends and tutor in the community, or even to plant trees, although most could afford to do that, blatantly divides the insiders from the outsiders to education.

But there is yet another complicating implication of service. I am thinking of Ralph Cintron and the excellent work he is doing at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the students I taught when I visited at UI-C, who were little like the students at my home university. They, on yet another hand, would have been disenfranchised by not being given an opportunity to go back into their communities to connect them to their university learning experiences. So in addition to other potential mis-cues, one can become a class snob by appearing to avoid the class snobbery that may attach to a blanket service-learning requirement.

Q: In Textual Carnivals you say that Composition “is like the Old Testament God and the Lacanian woman—always in a state of becoming, of reinventing itself to compensate for its perceived lack of fixed goals and methods. But it is nonetheless in many ways a ritualistic performance that does not change except by substituting new rituals and codes for old ones” (12). What would you identify as the “ritualistic performances” that have stayed constant in our field, even as the field experiences paradigm shifts and theoretical revolutions?

A: Janet Emig said in an interview that was published this year that not many people have looked into the improvements in teaching practices in composition that the national writing project and projects like that have actually formed, she believes, and I expect she’s right. So I am tempted to answer this question by saying that what has not changed in composition is its evaluative culture. People who may be the most open-minded, open-hearted scholars in the world still are capable of going to classrooms and thinking that it is only an often poorly articulated quality of the writing that is at stake. They are predisposed to think of the content of students’ writing as uninformed or puerile or marginal or not the thoughts of people like us. And that, I fear, until we have research that would show us differently (and I wish we did have such research), is the ritualistic performance that lasts. It is the tightness in the stomach that most of us have when someone takes our writing to read—that tightness in the stomach remains the realized, not the stated or openly desired purpose of composition. I’m not happy to think that writing courses are still psychologically invasive, but I do think they still usually are, and not always in joyous ways.

Q: Recently (in Olson, 2002), you proposed that the field of Composition and Rhetoric adopt the label “Writing Studies” as both the title of the field and its topic—its mode of inquiry. If the situated writing subject and the production of texts are the subjects of Writing Studies and the texts themselves are not evidence but are “primary sources,” what are the methods and methodologies of teachers/researchers who carry out writing studies? Can you talk about how your most recent book, Assuming the Positions, enacts such methods and methodologies?

A: Well, it doesn’t, I suppose, enact a method or a methodology—I’ve never been able to understand the difference between those two words. The book was a space in which I found various methods that other people knew very well, like how to do archival research, how to do manuscript research in history, how to do paleography. My colleagues taught me these skills, or librarians did. I had no idea when I began the book what the actual history of writing education was. My view was that everyone had always gone to school and sometimes they had been one room schools but that people always went to schools that were somehow community sponsored or state sponsored or nationally sponsored. So I learned new ways of looking at writing as a result of an educational process, as a result, primarily, of family processes. I’ve now read enough family and cultural history to understand that writing practices are significantly absent from cultural history. There’s some excellent work like Harvey Graff’s work on literacy, but as far as studying the practice of writing itself--why it’s done, what function it performs to the family, for instance, I didn't find much work that helped me then. Even historical archival studies generally see the texts as items comprising history, as sound-bites, not as examples of someone actually writing.

Of course Jeanne Carr at Pittsburgh and Sue Wells at Temple have published fantastic archival research, and, of course, John Brereton and David Russell have. But I think it is also a writing studies, a metaphor shift, that would expand this work to see writing as interesting to, but perhaps not yet discussed in, a number of fields that are very accessible. People in composition should care, I think, about the history of education, so we need research about it that doesn't focus on Harvard in 1880 but does account for writing lessons. My views changed, for instance, when I learned that there were more women enrolled in post-secondary education in 1830 than men. And historical study can help in other ways. For instance, Kathryn Fitzgerald’s Braddock Award essay this year (2002) on the Normal School, showing that the expressivist movement in composition was a very normal result of normal school teacher training tells us a completely different story from the one we have used, in which expressivist teaching “comes out of” creative writing. That story may be congenial to creative writers who teach composition, but this approach to writing doesn’t, at least in America, begin there.

All of those probes would go on in writing studies: we take writing to be interesting in regard to who does it, why they do it, how much they have done it, their uses for it, its results for individuals and communities. Many fascinating primary sources expose these topics. For instance, there was in the early nineteenth century at the University of Virginia a commencement address on the value of writing. The speaker had a vision that all the students at UVA would be writing all the time and publishing magazines. He said, “it’s better to write a tract to save one heathen soul than to acquire all sorts of wealth.” He saw writing as a national project. That’s the sort of thing writing studies discovers--a writing culture.

Q: In College English (May 2002), Peter Elbow takes up the issue of scholarly interaction between the fields of composition and literature. How would you respond to the “practical professional questions” that Elbow poses, which include not only the question of “What does the tradition or culture of literature have that composition needs?” but also the question of “What does composition have that literature needs?” What, in your estimation, could each learn from the other? Is this a question you still find necessary or relevant?

A: These issues are why I’m interested in something called “writing studies.” If people in our field were interested in writing studies—the history of writing and the history of texts, including the history of authorship, then people in literature would learn much from us and we from them in ways beyond textual readings. The people who read my work in literature who like it, don’t like it because it mirrors back what they know; they like it because it’s a culturalist perspective on texts, on the act of writing. I think that Peter and people who celebrate our pedagogy in composition often forget its ordinary qualities and the achievements of literary teachers. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of student writing are marked by teachers who consistently say, “I have to grade papers,” or “I have to mark papers” instead of “I’m going to read what my students wrote.” And I find my literary colleagues, at least here, are fantastically good teachers. They are very interesting, they do a wonderful job of engaging the students, they know their students, they talk to their students, and they encourage interesting writing about literature. Most do fewer workshops in class and collaborative work than we do. But I also know many in composition who, when they are asked to teach cultural studies or literature, immediately start lecturing just as their teachers taught them. They forget about having workshops and doing group collaborative work and may not even allow revisions. What I am saying is that I don’t like talking about pedagogy as “ours” because I feel I am oblique to these two categories, a composition vs. a literature, and I sound critical when I’m instead just not on that topic.

Q: Our field is known as “Rhetoric and Composition,” which suggests that the two terms, “rhetoric” and “composition” exist in harmony with each other. Yet this title hides tensions within the field that often remain unexamined. Recently, for example, at a CCCC panel in honor of Winifred Horner, the speakers lamented the marginalized status of rhetoric in composition. Could you comment on the relation between composition and rhetoric? What’s at stake in keeping them related and what’s at stake in keeping them separate?

A: Naming the field “rhetoric and composition” does not assure that those two concepts are in harmony with each other. The name can be a rubric under which people who have studied in either of those fields, or who haven’t studied the other field in the pair but thought they should have, may come together. If there is a harmony, it is among people in harmony with each other, who like each other, who often don’t read in the contexts for each other’s work but respect each other. Lately, in writing a book on rhetoric and emotion, I am subtextually redoing an aspect of Rescuing the Subject. There, a history of rhetoric supplies the continuity of the argument for defining rhetoric against changing technologies for writing. Now that I am better informed about rhetoric, I am attempting to apply the interpretive framework we in English Studies use to rhetorical history. I am trying to reinterpret rhetoric in a way that I hope makes it more accessible or, if not transparent, at least a natural part of the field of English studies, in addition to the natural but marginal concerns of English studies with stylistics.

In that process, I’ve come to think that people in composition are necessarily handicapped in the study of rhetoric. I know I am. I don’t read Greek and I don’t read Latin and I don’t read Hittite or Hebrew. Yet I find people in rhetoric who are very helpful and very generous scholars—people like Carol Poster, who do not lift their skirts around the fact that rhetoric has always been a teaching practice. No rhetorical theory was written for any reason but to describe how to teach, at least not before the 20th century when text as text became an object of study. What we call rhetorical theory may have been written to shore up class distinctions, to regulate and inculcate manners, or further morality. But all were pedagogic practices, only rarely abstract philosophical speculations. I would like to emphasize this quality of rhetoric, to find ways that people in rhetoric will address composition studies.

As it is now, the field of rhetoric remains a speech-communication field; it generally holds to the unity and coherence of the speaking subject on an oratorical model, which doesn’t fit, at least as I think about it, writing studies. So to go back to an earlier question, I would like to see a Peter Elbow article about a future composition and rhetoric bridging the gap. It would describe the wonderful event of Gerald Hauser, Rosa Eberly, Andrea Lunsford and Sharon Crowley at the RSA in 2002, starting an organization that will meet maybe once every two or three years so all of the scholars interested in rhetoric can come together. Classicists, philosophers, rhetoricians, compositionists, those in pedagogy and, I hope, ancient historians and archaeologists will meet exchange ideas. I think that’s a basis for a marvelous future. I wish I could a hundred years from now see what happened.

Looking Ahead: Possible Futures

Q: In The Feminization of Composition (1991) you conclude by noting that the field of composition is positioned “to transform its negatively feminized identity by engaging intellectual as well as practical political actions” (52). Yet, as you have pointed out, the intellectual discussions over the past decade have “tak[en] place far outside the interest of producing text” (Pedagogy, 2001, 486). If, indeed, the status of our field is “marked by an opposition between a masculine published theory and a feminine untheorized practice” (486), does the goal of writing studies—to emphasize the teaching and practice of textual production—risk deligitimizing the field or putting the status we’ve gained at risk?

A: I don’t think I would assent to the terms of the question precisely as you put it because rhetoric has always been coded as manly, in an association rooted in patriarchic societies, between going out (of the house, the compound, the town) and men, not women. Women make much of not having been taught--nurtured--to speak publicly. Men make much of women speaking privately, but not much of their common exclusion from teaching--from nurturance--to do so. I don’t focus on rhetoric as a practice, although of course it is one; I identify it as a pedagogy. It’s a pedagogy taught by men to men, sometimes taught by women to boys and girls, sometimes taught by women to men. But it is a pedagogy for being-in-the-social; few texts in rhetoric, except perhaps in the theoretical literary tradition for the twentieth century and other modern work, were not meant to teach people how to realize their place in a culture through language. So I don’t think pedagogy has always been feminized except as the many excellent studies of ‘work’ in English show, as labor and a managed increase in numbers of female teachers. Then the association of the field with an imagined ‘close’ relationship with the student also feminizes it. The subject positions required of people in the discipline of English, whether in writing or any other interest, are so different from those required of people who are, for instance, in sciences that a reproduction of academic stances is very clear.

My claim was at the time based on thinking that what was counting as success was primarily a male-dominated Marxist model of the ideological subject who is autonomous in speaking; that most in composition who publish their work thought that by associating with that particular kind of theory of ideological subjects, we would become academically and intellectually respectable. I participate in that sort of success and participated in it then. But I did come to see this interpretation as unfortunate because, as the article in Basic Writing points out, such success doesn’t work in the ways it appears it will, or should. Computer specialists have been treated as little gods, for instance, as web gods, until they noticed, like Road Runner in the cartoons, that there wasn’t very much money under them. They are working ninety to a hundred hours a week, practically living on the premises, and not making anything like the amount of money that that kind of time gets most professionals.

So many of us have been seeing ourselves as connected to new theory, as new comp gods? But to try to maintain an image of a profession that is all service and all theory all the time is not working. It makes little sense to stratify the profession by saying, “well, you’ll be the boss compositionist, and we’ll have a lot of sort-of-boss-compositionists, and then we’ll have the graduate students but we’ll be very nice to them, and then, by the way, we’ll have at least 90 percent of our courses taught by lecturers, but we are not going to mention that.”

This is not a way to make a field newly respectable. It’s a way to put it back where it was in the 50s, when required comp was seen as absolutely necessary—a given—and no one questioned that there would be someone who ordered its textbooks—that was the boss compositionist—and that other people would teach technical writing and business writing. They would be middle-level sort-of bosses. There would be graduate students who would teach writing but love literature, and maybe 50 percent of the classes then would taught by adjunct lecturers, only these teachers were called faculty-wives-who-teach-writing and thus it was OK to exploit them, for what else would they do?

Q: In your recent Pedagogy article, you make the following statement: “The facts of ‘how I teach’ replay almost the entire history of writing instruction in the twentieth century. With the energy of a true believer, I have moved from workbook-and-whip versions of writing themes about literature; to in-class light shows designed to demonstrate the uniqueness of perception; to sentence combining; to and through cognition, writer-based prose, and revision checklists; to and through imported multiculturalism; to, finally, teaching the genres and processes of academic writers” (480). What lies ahead—for you, for the field of writing studies? Do you foresee any returns to earlier approaches? What further impact do you think electronic technologies will have on the study and teaching of writing?

A: As I said, I don’t think of history as a series of changes , from This to That, or as a progressive teleology. History, in fact and in representations of it, accumulates situated moments that are held together by memories and archives. Consequently, I don’t think that we can return to earlier approaches; they are embedded and still available in any moment and we all inevitably replay them. I don’t have light shows any more, but I do most of the other activities I mentioned there. I might start doing light shows again. [laughter]

I wish I were very optimistic about our history beginning to see itself as a history and taking on accountability for a future. I am not. I’m very concerned, as I said, especially because of the claims of the post process movement and the elevation in composition and in many rhetorical studies of hermeneutic interpretation, that we again focus on emphases that will prevent the field from distinction as a field about writing, if not necessarily about required composition. The domination of composition by textbook readers and computer labs doesn’t seem to me to be accountable for the intellectual future of the field. I would like to see research about situated writing processes, about the learning curves that create writers, about genre uses, and about documents written to have been written, not to be read. I keep thinking, “I’d love to know more about that [some X].” But I don’t think people are training students toward such data-driven interpretive research. I don’t know what lies ahead.

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