Dangerous Writing: Understanding the Political Economy of Composition

Dangerous Writing: Understanding the Political Economy of Composition

by Tony Scott

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Building on recent work in rhetoric and composition that takes an historical materialist approach, Dangerous Writing outlines a political economic theory of composition. The book connects pedagogical practices in writing classes to their broader political economic contexts, and argues that the analytical power of students’ writing is prevented from reaching its potential by pressures within the academy and without, that tend to wed higher education with the aims and logics of “fast-capitalism.”

Since the 1980s and the “social turn” in composition studies and other disciplines, scholars in this field have conceived writing in college as explicitly embedded in socio-rhetorical situations beyond the classroom. From this conviction develops a commitment to teach writing with an emphasis on analyzing the social and political dimensions of rhetoric.

Ironically, though a leftist himself, Tony Scott’s analysis finds the academic left complicit with the forces in American culture that tend, in his view, to compromise education. By focusing on the structures of labor and of institutions that enforce those structures, Scott finds teachers and administrators are too easily swept along with the inertia of a hyper-commodified society in which students---especially working class students---are often positioned as commodities, themselves. Dangerous Writing, then, is a critique of the field as much as it is a critique of capitalism. Ultimately, Scott’s eye is on the institution and its structures, and it is these that he finds most in need of transformation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874217353
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 03/15/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 202
File size: 508 KB

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Understanding the Political Economy of Composition


Copyright © 2009 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-734-6

Chapter One

PROFESSIONALS AND BUREAUCRATS The state didn't send out the secret police to transform higher education into an entrepreneurial sector; we have done that all by ourselves by taking on the ethic of managerialism as the practice of institutional life. Stuart Hall

I recently became the head of a first-year writing program that is in a situation that I very deliberately call a "crisis." The character of this crisis, however, is all too familiar to many who have done program administration work at large, public, "second-tier" institutions. Prior to my becoming director, there was little general knowledge among tenure-track faculty of what goes on in the first-year writing program-who is teaching what under what conditions. I consider promoting awareness of the terms of labor in the writing program a fundamental part of my job as head of the program, and an essential piece of any strategy of transformation. Starting from the premise that what we do is powerfully shaped by how we do it, I am trying to move the program away from a rather deeply entrenched "new formalism" and toward a more social approach to writing. I am also trying to dramatically curtail the program's use of part-time teachers. These two factors-pedagogical philosophy and terms of work-are connected within a broader economic and institutional dynamic. The shift in teaching philosophy cannot (and should not) be enacted without a concurrent shift in the terms of labor for teachers in the program.

My university is in a high-growth urban region, and its enrollment grows steadily year by year. The university projects continued steady annual growth over at least the next decade. The writing requirement is currently two sections-typically taken in fall and spring of the first year. To accommodate steady annual growth in enrollment, the writing program has expanded by an average of ten sections per year over the past ten years. During the year in which I began directing the program, it staffed and fully enrolled almost three hundred sections.

This rapid annual expansion in sections has been covered entirely by contingent teachers. This year, over 50 percent of our first-year courses were taught by part-time teachers. Less than 1 percent were taught by tenure-track faculty, and only about 8 percent were taught by teaching assistants. The remainder, about 40 percent, were taught by full-time, non-tenure-track lecturers. In the first-year writing program, part-time faculty outnumber our full-time, non-tenure-track faculty by two to one. Consistent with the national average identified by the American Association of University Professors, our part-time faculty also turns over by about a third each year. We are a public university in a so-called "right to work" state: this means that our part-time teachers and lecturers have had the right to engage in collective bargaining taken away from them. Part-time teachers with MAs at my university make about two thousand dollars per class before taxes and receive no health care coverage, no paid vacation, and no assurances of employment beyond the current semester.

Because our steady growth in enrollment is being covered by a concurrent steady expansion in contingent hires, the department faces the same dilemma that English departments across the country often face. A number of responses are possible. Do we, for instance, just stay the course and increase our already-heavy reliance on a contingent instructorate in an atmosphere in which we have to make annual arguments for every new full-time hire? Do we revisit the first-year requirement-perhaps eliminating it or cutting it to one semester? Do we change the numbers of people who are required to take FYC through testing and adjusting exemption requirements? These are complicated questions involving a host of elements, including financial considerations, core requirements, and general curricular philosophies and goals. Disciplinary turf issues also enter the equation. Some colleagues in rhetoric and composition vehemently oppose cutting the requirement, in part because they feel that surrendering the first-year requirement means surrendering important disciplinary "turf" or the field-diminishing the overall position of writing. Over the years I have been struck by how different FYC becomes depending on what we need of it at a given time-by how the enterprise is compartmentalized based on rhetorical expediency. In what sense is FYC the special "turf" of rhetoric and composition? How do those of us who self-identify as professional compositionists occupy it? Do we own it at all times or just when the turf is at stake? It is common in instances like discussions of the first-year requirement to retreat behind old, familiar battle lines, referencing present and past denigrations of our field by literary faculty, and fortifying our collective professional identity through protecting FYC as the "turf" of writing.

Situations like this necessitate a more fully three-dimensional discussion of the FYC requirement, and undergraduate writing more generally. They need to be informed by a nuanced understanding of the deep connections between the political economic terms of labor in composition; the pedagogies that are encouraged by, and practiced according to, those terms; and the assumptions and institutional practices that shape them. They also need to be informed by a more complicated and up-to-date understanding of the history of the academic field of rhetoric and composition-particularly the professional dynamics that have emerged over the past three decades and the economic logics that now shape our work.

Being a professional in rhetoric and composition has required a willingness to cope with the unique contradictions that come with being in a scholarly field that is intimately connected to the introductory-level institutional requirement of FYC. My sense is that most Ph.D.s in rhetoric and composition are not prepared by our professional training or our scholarly discourse to fully grasp and effectively account for the organizational and professional contradictions we encounter when we enter into our professional lives. For the most part, we learn that we are doing scholarly work within an academic discipline and we do administrative work: we don't struggle to examine the two as a part of a more general political economic framework. Rather, most of us are compelled to adopt a peculiar, transposable ethos that moves-sometimes opportunistically, sometimes desperately-from the scholarly/professional to the bureaucratic/managerial to the pedagogical, depending on the work we are doing at a given time. These roles are juxtaposed, often daily, but they are rarely brought into dialectic in scholarly forums. We assume a natural and rightful identification with FYC teachers, even as we expect full status as professional scholars and managers of FYC labor, without rigorously exploring how material conditions create irreconcilable contradictions between these roles. Our lives as administrators, scholars, and teachers therefore tend to play out in distinct realms, with their own distinct discourses and concerns. Discussions of pedagogy and literacy theory rarely deal with the material conditions of teaching and writing in the university. Discussions of academic labor and writing program management rarely touch on the specific effects of faculty hierarchies and pervasive managerialism on day-to-day pedagogy-or literacy in the university more broadly.

In this chapter I will describe the nature of this compartmentalization and its consequences for both the scholarly field of rhetoric and composition and for postsecondary writing education as a situated material practice (the two are not synonymous). I will start with a discussion of the issue of ownership of the first-year requirement-a primarily historical and institutional question. I then move to a discussion of the necessity of distinguishing professional from bureaucratic subjectivity, arguing that professional training in rhetoric and composition tends to avoid the distinction-with negative consequences.


A number of very widely read histories-including those by Sharon Crowley, James Berlin, and Susan Miller-have dealt with the complicated history of the first-year writing requirement. While there are certainly important differences in their approaches, Crowley, Miller, and Berlin approach the issue of institutional position primarily in terms of the historical relationship between composition and the more powerful literary studies. Crowley points out that both fields have developed problematic relationships with FYC. Since its inception, the FYC requirement has been used for social and intellectual gatekeeping and enculturation. Moreover, because composition has been situated within English departments dominated by literary faculty, it has been assumed that writing instruction is intellectually unchallenging-and thus marginal to the primary, more important work of literature. Crowley points to the elements of classism, racism, and ideological interpellation that have long been intrinsic to the writing requirement. As she describes it, FYC is grounded in nineteenth-century hopes for literacy, assumptions about who

was, and who could become, "an educated person" and about the most efficient ways of fitting people to compete aggressively, if obediently, in a capitalist society. Freshman English has always been a gesture toward general fears of illiteracy among the bourgeois, fears generated by America's very real class hierarchy. (1998, 235)

Crowley believes that the first-year writing requirement is too firmly grounded in this "oppressive institutional history" to be salvaged.

Also making primarily historical arguments, Susan Miller and Jim Berlin have examined the practice in terms of its ongoing and semiotic relationship with literary studies. They argue that composition has survived and flourished, in part, because it has functioned as "the other"-the necessarily inferior half of the literary/composition binary. To sustain its own status, literary studies needs composition as a foil against which it can assert its identity and superiority. Sacred texts gain their status and sanctity only when juxtaposed with the mundane and the everyday. As texts have been differentiated by level, so too have students by the level of development they are believed to have achieved. Miller makes the case that composition classes were initially offered as a way to differentiate economically privileged white males from the immigrants, women, and first-generation college students who were starting to find their way into American universities in increasing numbers with the development of a fully industrial economy. An early incarnation of composition was developed at Harvard. Charles William Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, sought to admit students from "all conditions of life," but those students would not be accepted as is; rather, they would be uplifted-made legitimate-by their literacy education, through a combination of composition and literature (1991, 52). Composition's function within this curriculum was as a type of filter: it certified that deserving students, with a little help, were worthy of joining their social betters and moving fully into higher education. It was therefore identified with basic learning, "thought of as freshman 'work,' not as the study of writing throughout college" (53). More advanced work that can be embarked upon once students pass through the literacy gate became the realm of literary studies. Berlin makes a similar argument that identifies a consequential binary between composition and literary studies. Within English departments, composition classes enabled those texts deemed "literary" to become more highly valued in comparison to the functional, everyday, nonartistic writing that constitutes the realm of rhetoric and composition. Modernist claims concerning the distinction and transcendence of certain texts have been all but destroyed in literary theory; nevertheless, they can still resonate in departmental justifications for the subordination of writing to literature. The imagined trajectory of "basic students learn basic writing before they move on to the consequential work of literary study" has been functionally beneficial for those who work in literary studies.

This territorial distinction has played itself out in the ways that English curriculums are structured as well as in hiring and promotion practices. While literature classes continue to be staffed primarily by tenure-track faculty, FYC and undergraduate writing-at least at large, public universities-continue to be taught primarily by people whose position at the university is tenuous: contracted, non-tenure-track faculty; graduate students; and part-time lecturers. This work has certainly been important to the general understanding of the professional ethos and institutional position of rhetoric and composition. However, while I am certainly persuaded by arguments that literary studies needs composition, I am also convinced that composition now needs literary studies, and that the contentious relationship between the two fields has enabled compositionists to mask certain aspects of our own problematic and sometimes opportunistic relationship with FYC. Professional enculturation into the field involves learning how compositionists have often had to work against literary studies to establish the field-oftentimes this "comp/lit" battle is playing itself out in low or high frequency in the very programs where we are doing our graduate study. This split has served a number of necessary functions in the construction of the professional identity of those of us who work in rhetoric and composition. Within the disciplinary metanarrative of rhetoric and composition, literary studies has been the elitist "other" against which "we" have struggled on a variety of fronts-"they" are the British and "we" are the Irish. Literary studies certainly bears much of the weight of the formalist conceptions of literacy against which expressivist and process pedagogy asserted itself-incompletely, as I argue in the next chapter. Moreover, because literary studies was well established before the open enrollment era, and contemporary composition came about much more recently in response to open enrollment, rhetoric and composition has been able to cast itself as the politically progressive, democratic element of English departments that might otherwise be more exclusionary and elitist. Finally, because the exploitation of writing teachers and the basement-status of writing education predates the rise of contemporary composition as a scholarly field, many in composition studies have continued to include contingent instructors who teach FYC in the field's "us." This "us" is broad enough to include those primarily contingent teachers who teach the vast majority of writing classes and the tenure-track Ph.D.s who have truly professional status, do research, and manage writing programs. But the way that we tend to distinguish ourselves from literary studies has enabled rhetoric and composition to largely avoid recognition and examination of our own opportunistic and contradictory relationship with FYC.


The scholarly field's strong identification with FYC is certainly logical. The rise of contemporary rhetoric and composition as a scholarly field has been as much an effect of the first-year requirement as its cause. In a sense, all fields produce what they study: literary studies, for instance, continually reproduces (and changes) the contents of the category of study called "literature"-and while the subject might appear stable, even minimal scrutiny shows that it isn't. Contemporary rhetoric and composition studies is unique, in part, because a considerable part of its subject was produced by a bureaucratic imperative. The subject/object relationship between our field and what it studies is especially murky among academic fields in the humanities: what we study as scholars is more intimately, recursively involved with what we do as teachers and administrators.


Excerpted from DANGEROUS WRITING by TONY SCOTT Copyright © 2009 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction: Embodying the Social in Writing Education 1 Professionals and Bureaucrats 2 Writing the Program: The Genre Function of the Writing Textbook 3 How “Social” Is Social Class Identification? 4 Students Working 5 Writing Dangerously Appendix A: Initial Questions Appendix B: Code List References Index About the Author

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