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Composition Forum 28, Fall 2013

“Held Together by Memories and Archives”: A Retrospective on an Interview with Susan Miller

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Anis Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff

Looking back twelve years ago to when we conducted our interview with Susan Miller, we are first struck by her generosity. We were both still early in our careers, both of us assistant professors not far removed from graduate school; she, on the other hand, was a pioneer and an intellectual giant in the field. It was in some ways an audacious act on our part to request an interview. But we went for it. The Council of Writing Program Administrators was hosting its workshop and conference in Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah that year, 2002. Mary Jo was attending the pre-conference workshop for new WPAs, and we were both presenting papers at the conference. So we wrote to Susan to see if she would be willing and interested in meeting with us between the workshop and conference. Her reply, astonishingly, was yes, but in her unassuming way, she added that she wasn’t sure why anyone would be interested in hearing what she had to say. We told her she needn’t worry about that! She invited us to her home in Salt Lake City; so that July, we found ourselves, surreally, in her living room having an afternoon-long conversation with Susan Miller. It was an extraordinary experience, one that we still share stories about.

Reflecting back on the interview through more seasoned perspectives, we find it even more appropriate now than perhaps we did then that we had met with Susan amid the WPA conference. We had approached her at the time because of her stature as a theorist whose work had challenged our conceptions of the subject of writing, its history, its position and status within institutional and political contexts, and whose work had troubled the relationship between reading and writing in intriguing ways. We had framed her in our minds as an abstract, theoretical figure, but what we note now as we look back on the interview is how much the interview reveals that she was driven, first and foremost, by the pragmatic making and doing of writing. During the interview, she identified herself primarily as a WPA, and as we re-read the interview, we were struck by how much pleasure she received from being in the presence of making, imagination, production, and play. Throughout the interview, she recalled classroom experiences and acts of student writing, all of which reveal her commitment to and respect for students’ imaginations and work. In the most profound way, Susan Miller embodied the ethos of our field, and in looking back on her words, we find that ethos reflected in her respect for student texts, her commitment to writing as engaged performance, and her reminder that—for the field to have a unique identity—we should never lose sight of the fact that what we do is research “writers in the process of writing.”

Writing as Mediated Performance

Reflecting on our interview now, we noted especially how much Miller enjoyed reading students’ writing and how much she respected students’ imaginations. She emphasized that we know and make culture through writing, and students’ writing, with its participation in cultural imaginaries and its power to make meanings, is no exception. Indeed, it is in her attempt to break down hierarchies of authorship and textual production that Miller most forcefully challenged hermeneutics, which she claimed sets up systems of exclusion as interpretations become credentialed and hierarchical. Miller’s emphasis on production sought to make intellectual work more inclusive and democratic, looking for it everywhere, in all kinds of cultural productions: from student writing to WPA work to commonplace books to mix tapes.

When we interviewed Miller, we were in the midst of writing a textbook focused on the analysis and production of genres in multiple contexts, and our discussion of genre led to one of the liveliest exchanges, with Miller troubling the relationship between genre awareness and performance. While perhaps taken a bit aback at the time by Miller’s critique of genre approaches, what we understand and appreciate even better now, looking back, is how much Miller resisted the idea that agency resides in texts, in genre, in awareness. Instead, Miller reminded us that agency resides in persons being aware, making texts, performing genres (learning genres as strategies rather than as things to be understood). Our sense then, and now, is that Miller was not acknowledging genre’s dynamic relation to context and its agentive role in text production—genre as nexus of text and context (see Freadman). But her critique of genre theory’s early fixation on genres as objects to be analyzed anticipates more recent efforts among genre scholars, including ourselves, to acknowledge and account for genre uptakes: the strategic, selective performances of genres in real time and space. Anne Freadman has recently argued that a focus on genre uptake shifts pedagogical focus from genres to “discursive events” (559)—in ways anticipated by Miller’s commitment to writing as a historically, temporally, and spatially situated, interactive performance.

We note this commitment to performativity as well in Miller’s foresight about writing as “a media-oriented process,” even as she admitted that she is “more likely to equate media composing with the text it produces.” Here again we are reminded of Miller’s desire to help students authorize themselves to become participants: “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.” Miller articulated as well as anyone that it is not knowledge of things that grants someone power; it is in the making of things that power resides. Through this recognition and its enactment, Miller offers perhaps the most compelling case for the value of our field.

Research in the Field

While looking back on Miller’s interview renews our focus on the central role that student writing performances play in the field, we are also invited to turn our attention to what constitutes the core of our scholarship: inquiry into cultural writing performances and the act of writing. Her commitment to a field of “writing studies”—and to the study of writing performances, texts, and authorship—serves as a reminder that what uniquely distinguishes the field is that we are “a field about writing,” with an investment in “who does it, why they do it, how much they have done it, their uses for it, [and] its results for individuals and communities.” Certainly Miller embraced this approach to writing studies in her own work, such as the archival research that was the basis for Assuming the Positions: Cultural Pedagogy and the Politics of Commonplace Writing. And in the decade since her interview, her call for more “data driven” research—that is, “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”—has been answered by new developments in writing research, such as research on literacy development in multiple contexts (Roozen), research on teaching FYC as an introduction to Writing Studies (Downs and Wardle), or the surge of recent studies on writing knowledge transfer (see, for example, Beaufort; Bergmann and Zepernick; Brent; Nelms and Dively; Nowacek; Wardle). Miller might have also appreciated the recent special issue of Written Communication (of July 2013) focused on new methods for the study of writing and research on “documents written to have been written, not to be read.”

Given her commitment to “studying the practice of writing itself—why it’s done, what function it performs” and to “never distinguish[ing] how texts come to be from what they do,” it is not surprising that Miller continues to challenge us not to lose sight of where our expertise resides. If we “don’t study writers in the process of writing,” she wondered, then what are we as a field? She concluded the interview with her concern that movements such as post-process and the elevation of hermeneutic interpretation that comes with cultural studies will “prevent the field from [its] distinction as a field about writing.” While her mistrust of post-process theories may have been based at the time on claims made by Thomas Kent that writing practices could not be codified into pedagogical processes, hence undermining a core value of the field, we wonder if post-process’ more recent turn toward spatiality and materiality (see Dobrin; Hawk) would have appealed to Miller’s interest in situated writing performances, even as post-process theories embrace a post-humanist view of agency. Nonetheless, her embrace of the core of what we do—our field’s identity and value—reminds us of our uniqueness even as we vie for transdisciplinary status. Despite her lack of optimism for “what lies ahead” for the intellectual future of the field, what stands out in looking back on her interview was her vision of a “marvelous future,” where classicists, philosophers, rhetoricians, compositionists, pedagogues, ancient historians, and archeologists would meet and exchange ideas, and her wish that she “could be there a hundred years from now to see what happened.”

Miller clearly saw the intellectual future of the field as dependent, in part, on its past and on reclaiming the “writing practices [that] are significantly absent from cultural history.” Yet, when reflecting on the history of the field and its future, she challenged historical conceptions based on ideas of progress, evolution, or change, noting instead that “history . . . accumulates situated moments that are held together by memories and archives.” Our interview with Susan Miller constitutes one such situated moment in a rich history held together by numerous memories of those who had the privilege to work with and participate in conversations with her; and for those of us not fortunate enough to work with her directly, her work lives on in the archives of our field. Hers is a legacy, then, “held together by memories and archives”—and she will play a lasting role in our field’s cultural imaginary.

Works Cited

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan: Utah State UP, 2007. Print.

Bergmann, Linda, and Janet Zepernick. Disciplinarity and Transfer: Students’ Perceptions of Learning to Write. WPA: Writing Program Administration 31 (2007): 124-49. Print.

Brent, Doug. Transfer, Transformation, and Rhetorical Knowledge. Journal of Business and Technical Writing 25.4 (2011): 396-420. Print.

Dobrin, Sidney I. The Occupation of Composition. The Locations of Composition. Ed. Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser. Albany: State U of New York P, 2007. 15-35. Print.

Downs, Douglas, and Elizabeth Wardle. Teaching About Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.’ College Composition and Communication 58.4 (2007): 552-84. Print.

Freadman, Anne. The Traps and Trappings of Genre Theory. Applied Linguistics 33.5 (2012): 544-63. Print.

Hawk, Byron. Reassembling Postprocess: Toward a Posthuman Theory of Public Rhetoric. Beyond Postprocess. Ed. Sidney I. Dobrin, J.A. Rice, and Michael Vastola. Logan: Utah State UP, 2011. 75-93. Print.

Kent, Thomas. Beyond System: The Rhetoric of Paralogy. College English 51.5 (1989): 492-507. Print.

Kent, Thomas, ed. Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. Print.

Miller, Susan. Assuming the Positions: Cultural Pedagogy and the Politics of Commonplace Writing. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998. Print.

Nelms, Gerald, and Ronda Leathers Dively. "Perceived Roadblocks to Transferring Knowledge from First-Year Composition to Writing-Intensive Major Courses: A Pilot Study." WPA: Writing Program Administration 31.1-2 (Fall/Winter 2007): 214-40. Print.

Nowacek, Rebecca. Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2011. Print.

Roozen, Kevin. Tracing Trajectories of Practice: Repurposing in One Student's developing Disciplinary Writing Processes. Written Communication 27.3 (2010): 318-54. Print.

Wardle, Elizabeth. Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study. Journal of Writing Program Administration 31.1-2 (2007): 65-85. Print.

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