CCR 633: Handwriting and Withdrawal

One of the tensions in the reading, particular in Thorton, was the role that handwriting has between self, discipline, and social role. Early on, Thorton writes, “Faithful imitation of penmanship models-what teachers would call good handwriting-thereby signals  conformity and ordinariness, while breaking all the penmanship rules, even to the point of illegibility, is a mark of individuality” (x). This immediately connects with some of the disciplining that Trithemius discusses in relation to scribe work. In both, a certain rigor and repetition, a discipline of the body and the “hand” takes place.

I think, then of writing’s broader potential to discipline, like what McCruer discusses in composition’s ability to “compose bodies” in “De-Composition” (2008) or even in formal rubrics, genre conventions, curricula, the Harvard rhetoric requirement, and pre-set forms, like the five paragraph theme. This capacity that rhetoric and writing has to conform and prescribe has along history, as Thorton points out.

But, in slightly different sense, writing also created or highlighted larger social identity, and in this way it also polices or defines. For example, as Thorton points out, business, itself a core catalyst to writing instruction (p. 6), prescribed more clerk-like ways of writing, rejecting the flourishes of more gentlemanly backgrounds. Writing was also gendered, with many “feminine” scripts designed to take longer and exhibit “fair” qualities. As Thorton writes, “mercantile advice books urged men of commerce to shun penmanship refinements appropriate for gentlemen in favor of a straightforward ‘Clerk-like Manner of Writing.’ And where men might be urged to cultivate a ‘good’ or ‘fine’ hand, Women were urged to cultivate ‘fair’ one” (37).

And through this quality, handwriting, seemed to exhibit a sort of self-expressive quality, growing from social identities. As Thorton writes,  “As each human being performs a socially differentiated part, so is each given a different ‘script.’ Conversely, by reading that script for its social information one could learn all there was to know about the writer. Here at last was a sincere medium of selfhood” (37). Hand writing analysis and associations with different scripts connected the self (albeit a socialized self) to the script, presenting a certain window of expression.

But once again, the movement to “automatic handwriting” and related systems of standardization, like the Palmer method, disciplines expression, but through a certain systematized erasure. By making writing more standardized and less idiosyncratic–whether justified through “science” or a sort of “lore”–one is essentially erasing the body, or trying to. This erasure or withdrawing is particularly bad for embodied backgrounds that do not fit the standard, like lefties, people with disabilities, or those with less training and resources. It is a sort of gate-keeping, but one that erects its gates by assuming writing a certain way is a type of present-for-hand skill and not a complicated, socialized, embodied action.

With this, I often think of a quote by Nirma Erevelles about special education that has been following–or rather haunting–since last semester: “Haunting these policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. . . In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable.” (Disability and Difference). In other words, as the body withdraws from systematization, quantification, and abstraction–as it often does–what bodies and what people get left behind?

And though handwriting is still “a thing” as they say, something that we discuss and learn and use, I am curious about the same disciplining, social-signifying, and withdrawal (in a Heideggarian sense) that takes place in today’s context through digital print or new media.

CCR 611: Discussing Remedial Writing

I’m not sure what to take away from the readings. Perhaps that’s the byproduct of my own frazzled ontology as of late, but I also think part of the difficulty arises from the complex, fraught nature of the debate.

Kynard, I think, presents the most dynamic critique. By redrawing the history, she presents a completely new insight, approach, perspective, tear in the curtain. As she says:

“When I stopped looking for black folk in basic writing scholarship and in the history of open admissions and instead placed basic writing scholarship and open admissions into the already existing history of African American education and literacy, lo and behold, I got a whole different kind of story” (189).

And indeed, that story was different. Protest, tension, ransacked offices, Jim Crow and bodily danger at the heart of literacy. The voice of student. The bodies of student. The structures–both physical and conceptual–making walls and red lines. The pilling up of de jure and de facto discrimination. The hard-fought challenges. And Kynard goes on to vocalize an approach:

“The issue here then is not to insert black teachers into the basic writing paradigm, but to deliberately see black compositionists’ practices, research, politics, and discourses inside of the much longer standing protest tradition of black teaching” (189).

In other words, this “whole different kind of story” needs to keep going, not just in the way composition constructs or tells history, but in how it in enacts it. In how it makes history. How it orients itself.

In other words, composition has a lot to think about.

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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.

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CCR 611: “In order to have a language remain fixed”

“[I]n order to have a language remain fixed, it is first necessary that those who speak it become dead.” –Thomas Lounsbury (qtd. in Harker 18)

“Reality is infinitely diverse, compared with even the subtlest conclusions of abstract thought, and does not allow of clear-cut and sweeping distinctions. Reality resists classification.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

Both Crowley and Harker pick up the “gate-keeping” function of composition and its role in erecting a “great divide” between the educationally privileged and others left outside the gate, sifted into basic writing classes through exams or excluded altogether.

Harker takes a more historical approach centered around the assumptions of literacy, particularly the literacy myth. Crowley takes a more contemporary, labor-focused approach, examining the problems associated with the universal composition requirement and making the “modest proposal” to make it optional for students, though she  grounds this in historical issues.

Crowley’s modest proposal to end the requirement did not seem as far fetched as I initially thought it would. Combined with Harker’s historical look at literacy and role it played in similar proposals, I found myself more responsive to the proposal. I’m not sure it would do all of the things that Crowley lists–like the erasure of intake exams or the creation of more equitable curricula and labor–and as she notes, “if you work in a corrupt system, you have to face the fact that making things better for people working
in one part of the system may make things worse for people who work in another part of it.”

But I think the “universal” nature of this requirement is worth considering, but to do so, I want to step back from the readings, focusing on the notion of “death” evoked by Lounsbury and Dostoevsky’s title, a reference to the Czarist prison he served time in. For Dostoevsky, the people “die” through their exile from society. Although many of his characters will face literal death via execution, their exclusion results in a sort of death-in-life.

In Lounsbury’s quote, I see a potential link with “dead” languages. Latin and Greek may seem more fixed than contemporary English because the speakers are all “dead”–though I think this stability is somewhat simplistic and wrong. But also, the “death” here is a similar exclusion from the influence of language. The language is both “fixed” (repaired) and “fixed” (made stable) as one “fixes” (sterilizes) the speaking public in a given context. Heteroglossia and utterance give way to print’s perceived permanence and longevity.

Thus the question of who and what get excluded from composition becomes the more salient question. Phrased another way, perhaps the difficulties of this “universal requirement” aren’t in the required part, but the universal. Needing to fit a unified goal across an institution or a set of institutions feels both impossible and oppressive. And in particularly top-down universalizing curricula goals–like in states like Colorado–I wonder how assumptions get made about students, institutional goals, and literacy.

I argue that these assumptions lead to the exclusions that “fix” language student voice, creating the gate-keeping that Harker and Crowley critique. In an ideal world, composition could be about opening gates or complicating gates, drawing from the embodied, enworlded, and contextualized “reality” of students and instructors, which remain frustratingly unfixed and non-universal.

But ever resilient and reified, myths of literacy persist and perpetuate power structures. Thus, I think the step may begin more basically by challenging these myths. Perhaps this may involve repealing the requirement, but it may also involve something more basic: checked assumptions, nomadic sensitivities, and a careful assumption to listen closely to both labor and student–not just as abstracts, but as ever-changing bodies.

CCR 611: Materiality, Medium, and Voice(s) of History

Reading Gold’s Rhetoric at the Margins and Mailloux’s “Reception Histories” proved to be a somewhat refreshing contrast to the big picture histories of Berlin, Harris, and Gold et al. Considering these readings, I was thinking harder about the way medium, materiality, and genre affects the telling of history, drawing somewhat from my last response on the subject. Regarding this, I was somewhat inspired by Gold’s framing of the narrative, Mailloux’s use of quotes, and a recent project with Vani regarding a timeline with SWR. 

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The Telling of History and its Absences

Encountering the readings–Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality and David Gold, Catherine L. Hobbs, and James A. Berlin’s “Writing Instruction in School and College English”–I was thinking about the role that history plays. As someone who is new to the discipline, the past few readings have been helpful at giving some definitions and names. And with a few of them under my belt, I can start making connections and noticing absences.

But more broadly, I was thinking of these histories along four different frameworks: as genealogy, progress story, hagiography, and catalog.

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Specialization and Openness

Something that rings through David Russell’s “Nineteenth Century Backgrounds” and Clay Spinuzzi’s All Edge and “Symmetry as Methodological Move” is the tension between specialization and openness.

For Russell, the changing demographic of students entering higher education and their educational needs and expectations created a conflict between more general education and the specialized training of a discipline. On the one extreme, outlines Russell, one has the elitist liberal arts curriculum, “a single required course, identical for all students, regardless of abilities, interests, or career paths” (37). In this model, departments were flexible, and each educator could change roles easily. Schools were small and communal.

This unified, homogeneous education broke down amid increased discipline-specific and technical needs, though vestiges sometimes remained–like Harvard’s “forensic system”–as a general writing requirement.

Often, this general requirement has seemed to gain power from serving some need, ranging from civic or moral formation in its early years to solving the 1970s literacy crisis more recently. Thus, a compromise often took place between the two extremes: a school empty of general requirements, and one with a substantial one. In Russell’s history discipline-specific training has seemed to push out much of the general requirement.

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Harris, Dartmouth, and Composition

One of the more helpful elements in Harris’ Teaching Subject and his introduction to “updating Dartmouth” is his insistence on the perennial nature of issues he outlines and the fact that either side has much to other.

For example, he outlines the tension from the 1966 Dartmouth Summit between English as a discipline and content area (like Albert Kitzhaber’s approach) and the more lived out, experience-driven role of language that James Britton, James Moffett, and others argued for. As Harris writes in the introduction to “updating Dartmouth, “there is something to both sides of the argument. There are real things to teach students about literary genres, figures, and traditions. . . But those things become valuable only when students put them to use in their own work” (xxii).

In writing studies and composition, I think a further tension presents itself. Composition models, terms, theories, heuristics, histories, and paradigms—in short, a field of content knowledge—now comprise the field. But as Harris right points out in A Teaching Subject, many people in the field—including himself—see “teaching as an integral part of (and not just a kind of report on)” their scholarship (xv-xvi). Thus, this scholarship is always tested in light of the student and the classroom, with pedagogy acting as a desired end, not a byproduct.

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