my contribution to the carnival

Here’s my carnival contribution on John Trimbur’s article “Changing the question: Should writing be studied?” (Composition Studies 31.1, Spring 2003):

The discussion so far is pretty rich (see my previous post for a list of other contributors; Ten Minutes a Day and Wind Farm add to the discussion today; I missed Digital Digs from a few days ago), and I definitely don’t have the background that other readers/writers do (I think this is my first Trimbur text), but I’ll give it a shot. I think I see 5 topics of interest to me in regards to Trimbur’s article:

1. Should we be concerned about a movement away from actually composing texts?

Derek Mueller writes:

As I read Trimbur’s article, I also thought about another passing conversation with a colleague who described someone else’s work in film this way: “[S.h]e does film studies, not production. Students who take film classes want production rather than all of the history, theory, and methodology that go along with film studies. They’re impatient and even bored with film studies.” That was the gist of it, anyhow. Out of this half-remembered conversation comes one question about a shift from workshop to seminar room and toward writing studies: at the cost of what? If the answer is that we study writing (n.) at the expense of writing (p.v.), the proposition becomes considerably messier. Of course, nobody is saying this explicitly, but to what degree is a quiet displacement of something else implied by the asking?

Something that is often brought up when the idea of studying/criticism of writing/discourse is emphasized is “what about student production of work?”, which I think is a really valid concern. For instance, in many literature-focused first-year composition courses, the analysis of literature takes precedent over the improvement and production of student writing (I’m not trying to say this happens all the time, or even most of the time). If the focus of a writing classroom becomes the analysis of writing (n.), what happens to student production?

Which perhaps leads me to my next point of interest:

2. What modes of delivery do we value in the classroom?

Collin writes about another Trimbur text:

One of Trimbur’s most significant contributions to our discipline, for me, is his observation in “Composition and the Circulation of Writing” that the canon of delivery has been reduced, in contemporary rhetcomp, to the submission of student writing. His essay reopens that canon to the notion of circulation, the various ways that writing travels and the ways that such circulation enables and constrains our understanding of it.

I find this particularly interesting because it’s something that I’ve been pretty critical of first-year writing — that it focuses on the text that students turn into the teacher rather than an engagement in and with the public. One concern of a focus on analysis is, I think, that it perpetuates a system where students’ sole form of delivery is to the teacher (in the form of analytical papers critiquing other writing). How can we encourage both analysis and production that engages in the public sphere?

The fact that many composition courses focus solely on the paper to be turned into the teacher leads me to my third point of interest:

3. What modes of discourse do we value in the composition classroom?

Jeff Ward writes:

The issue of “writing studies“ is a matter for deep consideration at the University of Minnesota right now; a new “writing studies“ program created from the facilities of Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication and the compositionists from the English department is being created. The label troubles me, because of my focus on visual rhetoric.

The label of “writing studies” troubles me as well. I’m not primarily interested in visual rhetoric, but I am interested in the various different ways in which we communicate, and how we should value all sorts of discourse (I use the term discourse here meaning communication, though I understand it usually connotes verbal communication). Probably because of my interest in engagement in the public, I’m interested in the types of “texts” students produce. Why couldn’t these texts be video, graphical, photographical, musical, etc.? Isn’t a punk song as much an entry into the public sphere as a letter to the editor (and perhaps often a better, more influential argument)?

4. Returning to critique, I’d like to echo Jenny‘s question: “What does it [critique] produce?”

Lance writes a reply on Jenny’s post:

At best, it produces informed behavior. That’s especially important to note if you buy into the idea that critique, like many forms of discourse, is undergoing a fundamental shift right now as a result of electronic networks, which may give it more teeth than it has ever had (may, that is, allow it to coordinate with other critiques and emerge as a full-blown movement rather than simply exist as so many dust-gathering pages in a few arcane journals). Just off the top of my head, seems to be an example (though admittedly not an academic one–maybe Berube’s blog, before he killed it?).

I’d say I have to disagree. I’m not sure if “informed behavior” does much good. I’m considering here Victor Vitanza’s question about after instruction in cultural studies, “‘they [some of the masses, students, or patients] know very well [can now see] what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.’ Or, ‘they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it.’ In other words, they remain ‘fetishist in practice’“ (700, italics and bracketed material in original). He goes on:

do they, in taking on an understanding of false consciousness in your “class“rooms, only become more cynical in their acts of violence against other human beings and themselves? In other words, do they know such thinking and acting are wrong but do it anyway? (700)

Of course, Vitanza is talking about cultural studies composition classrooms, but I think that his questions are relevant to our discussion here. I agree with Vitanza’s concern, that “informed students” might merely be cynics, continuing their everyday lives as before with the added knowledge that “this text is doing this, and that text is doing that.”

I think that any discussion of composition and analysis is incomplete without an added discussion and provocation (is that the word I want?) of desire (Marshall Alcorn, Jr.’s excellent book Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Construction of Desire is helpful here).

5. How can we listen and inquire?

Related to desire, I think, is our habits of listening (or lack thereof). Part of the teaching of writing (both noun and verb), to me, is the teaching of listening. We are trained in society to not listen, to ignore that which does not agree with our sensibilities, to silence the Other, to not acknowledge others’ existence or claims. Iris Marion Young writes that for strong democratic public discourse to occur, the first step of acknowledgment must occur, and I think that acknowledging others is vital to listening. Too, is our desire to inquire. I particularly like the way Donna ends one of her posts:

And I’m just finding myself more and more interested in the latter two things [listening and inquiry] these days. And less and less interested in the former two [posturing and empty accusations].

And, to go way back to my concern in 2005 about Fulkerson’s jumping to the question of what makes writing good and my desire to ask–but what is writing?–I’ll say this: I’m still asking that question. But not to answer it. To push an exploration.

I wonder if I have been too abstract at points here, but it’s been fun reading others’ responses to Trimbur’s article, and thinking about my responses to their posts.


Vitanza, Victor J. “‘The Wasteland Grows’; Or, What Is ‘Cultural Studies for Composition’ and Why Must We Always Speak Good of It?: ParaResponse to Julie Drew.“ JAC 19 (1999): 699-703.

This entry was posted in Carnival, publics, Teaching Composition, Trimbur, Victor Vitanza. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to my contribution to the carnival

  1. Sara Jameson says:

    First quick reaction – after my thanks for this stimulating discussion – people continue to do what they have been doing even if they know more – have informed consciousness. For example, people know smoking is unhealthy but they continue, they even start. So I think it is unrealistic to expect sudden changes in behavior after some consciousness raising.

    I like your point about audience — even though I point “I’m not your audience, just your coach – who are you intending to perform for?” — and this is more true in business and technical writing classes where students prepare reports for someone else — students have trouble visualizing an outside audience they don’t see or know (which is why it is helpful to send them to meet those they might actually be writing their reports for – or to encourage them to write for OSU’s Daily Barometer, where they know that their classmates and professors are the audience.

    As for producing texts besides writing, we do have classes for those – creative writing classes and art classes (Not sure about music lyric classes).

    More on this later.

  2. Michael says:

    I’ve been thinking about this idea of writing with an audience but still turning it into the teacher (and not actually performing the writing for someone else) for a while, and I don’t think it’s as rhetorically useful. In fact, I think students are learning:

    What are the modes of discourse/rhetorical moves/available means for convincing my professor (my real audience) that I am trying to work this essay towards a conceived audience?

    Instead of What are the modes of discourse/rhetorical moves/available means to convince my real audience of my argument/point?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.