Trimbur: Composition and the Circulation of Writing

In “Composition and the Circulation of Writing,” John Trimbur critiques the prevalent practice in composition pedagogy of reducing the canon of delivery to mere submission of a paper, which separates writing education from modes of production and delivery and over-emphasizes the act of writing — “the creative moment of composing” — which becomes what writing means to students. Trimbur wants to prolematize this “isolation of writing from the material conditions of production and delivery as a problem” (189). Delivery in the writing classroom has been reduced to a mere technical issue — the physical presentation — of writing, instead of as ethical and political in additional to technical. His desire is for “a democratic aspiration to devise delivery systems that circulate ideas, information, opinions, and knowledge and thereby expand the public forums in which people can deliberate on the issues of the day” (190).

Trimbur describes the composition classroom as domestic, as a place in which the teacher has become in loco parentis, which neutralizes the potential for delivery (the classroom instead becomes a place where students, like children at the dinner table, recount ideas and are asked questions by their father [193]). He notes, however, that he does not believe we can get out of the in loco parentis model in the teaching of writing (194), for a classroom that focuses unproblematically on “real world” writing in rejecting the domestic “draws upon a gendered separation of spheres that fails to see how the public and private merge in the domestic space of the middle class” (195).

Drawing from the work of cultural studies and Marx, Trimbur shows “that the epistemological and discursive status” of a text “depends on how it circulates and, in effect, how it is exchanged and capitalized” (204). He then makes two points: 1) “that we cannot understand what is entailed when people encounter texts without taking into account how the labor power embodied in the commodity form articulates a mode of production ands prevailing social relations”; and 2) “that the unity of opposites in the commodity form — exchange value and use value — enables not only tangential and impertinent readings. Its unity is a contradictory one” (210). Production and delivery are linked, Trimbur argues: “to understand and, potentially, to change the way knowledge circulates requires thinking about how the means of production are distributed in the first place” (212).

Trimbur shares a few class activities/assignments from his course “Writing about Disease and Public Health.” In one he asks students to take a science journal article and to write a news report to make the information accessible to the public. The idea isn’t to privilege “the moment of scientific discovery as the origin of production.” Rather, he wants “students to see that the shift in register and genre between a journal article and a news report amounts to a shift in modality — the relative credibility and authoritativeness invested in written statements — that marks journal articles as ‘original’ contributions and news reports as secondary and derivative” (213).

I’ll admit that I’m confused by parts of this article, but this example Trimbur gives helps me a lot. He discusses the ways in which the change in delivery is also a site of knowledge production, creating “the work of science as a heroic and agonistic struggle” (213). So, production and circulation are not separate, but must be considered in relation to each other.

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One Response to Trimbur: Composition and the Circulation of Writing

  1. Dennis says:

    I’ll add – from a high school classroom no less – that I think Trimbur’s point holds for much more than just writing. I know that as a sub I’m viewed by students far more as a babysitter than a teacher of any kind (and in all fairness, this view in general is not without merit; many subs act as babysitters, and that expectation is often put forth by school administrators and other teachers). However, this has created a bit of a problem for me, since I’m idealistic enough to actually want to spend my time subbing in a productive fashion (and no, babysitting is not productive).

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