CCR 611: Professionalism, Boundaries, and Theory

As an undergraduate, my first taste of “composition” was through a sort of disciplinary tension between three schools of thought. In a creative writing club on campus, I worked heavily with one set of professors: communication instructors with a penchant for creative writing and literary journalism. Most of the club was also journalism majors. But we were also poets, fiction writers, and and creative nonfiction writers.

In this camp, I found a practical outlook: write often, read often, experience widely. While one of the profs had an MFA–and later a PhD–in creative writing, he was skeptical of the MFA rout, thinking it to be little more than an expensive qualification badge. “Real” writing could still take place without this training.

Camp two was a literature professor who edited a poetry journal and was well-steeped in Literature and contemporary work. Without much taste for theory, he celebrated the passion of writing and reading. Reading my short stories, he encouraged me to pursue the MFA and didn’t have much feeling about composition beyond, “The job market seems better than literature.”

Finally, the rhet-comp faculty encouraged me to go the rhet-comp rout. I heard the job market argument, but they also asserted how it connected to my philosophy interest. And like the communications professors, discussed the difficulties of the MFA–although one of the profs was a published creative writer with an MFA.

Each of these camps intersected and fractured in odd ways. The communications side considered rhet-comp boring. “They can’t persuade the school to pass a writing major, even with rhetoric in their name,” one said. But the communications faculty also critiqued the Ivory-Towered literature profs talking themselves into circles over Derrida and Keats. For their part, the English profs disparaged the dirty hands of those engaged in the “dark arts” of PR or the slipshod quality of fast-paced journalism.

And most other departments had never heard of composition as a field, and those that did thought it dealt with things like comma splices and thesis statements. Even more bizarrely, our philosophy department taught the second required writing course, with many making it a class in symbolic logic and syllogisms.

All I knew was that I liked writing. But everyone talked about writing in different ways, caught in disciplinary worldviews.

Looking back at these experiences after about two years of exposure to the writings of the field–I believe Cynthia Selfe was the comp scholar I read–I think I understand it better. For me, it connects to what Ede says:

“To what extent is theory a content, something to be mastered, or at least interrogated? To what extent is theory a practice-an action? How does theory function discursively? Is it best to think of theory through the lens of epistemology as the production of knowledge? Or is a more pragmatic understanding of theory–an understanding that emphasizes theory’s material situatedness and its imbrication with the ideological, cultural, political, and ethical as well as with the epistemological–more productive” (128).

These elements of theory–its content, its epistemology, its situatedness, its cultural or political imbrications, etc.–highlight its messy qualities. Breaking down the critiques of Miller and Crowley presents the potential dangers of the totalizing quality that Theory can have, giving credence to Ede’s more situated and classroom-grounded theory. Personally, I’m feeling a connection with Sedgewick’s “weak theory” and its critique on the abstracted, totalizing nature of much Theory. But in Ede, the classroom is the primary frame of reference. We are a “teaching discipline” after all, as Harris argues.

But I think Shipka’s exploration of the composition/communication rift is helpful and something that connects to my own experience. While I think things have changed, I do feel some of the “conservative” elements of composition, but I don’t see this as tradition v. nontraditional. I think much of it comes from the situation of composition in the field: the expectations of the institution, the labor market, the thoughts of students etc.

As part of this situatedness, comp has professionalized its boundaries, gained its jargon, cited its names, anthologized its works, asserted its theories, written its histories. It has things like “process theory,” as Ede argues, to justify its place to other academics and administrators. In this way, a sort of rift with communication feels somewhat inevitable. Each serves different situations and develops different theory to address those situations, calcifying into Theory.

Thus, I think Shipka’s expansive notion of “composition” (as opposed to “writing”) offers potential. As Shipka requotes, “What happens when we write?” In her hands, this becomes, more broadly, what happens when we compose or communicate? Or, what do these words mean in the first place?

Tossed between philosophers, MFA-fans, comp-rhet faculty, MFA-critics, journalists, etc., I always saw myself writing, or communicating. Different Capital-T Theories clashed, names didn’t add up, and jargon differed, but the task at hand and the “process” undertaken to fit that task remained fluid. I “wrote” amid disputation.

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