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Clinamen » Back and forth on the see saw

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Back and forth on the see saw

Image Credit: “Seesaw” by nzgabriel

Michael Faris has kicked off a CCCarnival in which he invites bloggers to respond to Geoffrey Sirc’s recent review essay, “Resisting Entropy” (pdf). I’m glad to see this kind of conversation happening, so I wanted to throw my hat in the ring.

“Resisting Entropy” is vintage Sirc. It is a fairly brutal critique of what he sees as the boring, flat, uninteresting approaches to writing that dominate the field of rhetoric and composition. I will not rehearse his arguments here, and I won’t even provide a detailed evaluation of those arguments.

I will say that I agree with him when he says that carving the literary out of composition is a bad move:

“Part of refiguring English studies means rethinking composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness; it means our subfield’s reimagining literature as a cultural value and practice, refiguring how it fits in a first-year course centered around writing.” (510)

But I will add that I could not help but think of Maxine Hairston’s 1985 CCCC Address “Breaking Our Bonds and Reaffirming Our Connections” as I read Sirc’s screed. As I see it, Sirc sits on one side of the see saw, and Hairston sits on the other. At a very different historical moment, Hairston calls for Composition and Rhetoric to break away from the stuffy literary theorists. This call happened at a moment when our field was attempting to assert itself as a legitimate scholarly pursuit. And Sirc’s piece could be seen as contemporary correction to Hairston’s insistence that the field escape what she saw as an abusive relationship. But what is accomplished with such a see saw act? Is anyone actually persuaded by the various journal articles that either call for literature’s abolition from composition or for its value?

That’s a leading question, and as you can probably gather I don’t think much is accomplished in such articles. But then again, I’m not one to write (or be persuaded by) polemics. In fact, I recently drafted an article about the rhetoric vs. literature split, attempting to argue that electronic literature would offer a “middle way” for this debate, but I have since scrapped that approach (framing the article differently) because its such treacherous territory.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have the conversation. And in fact, I would point everyone to Emily Isaacs’ article in Pedagogy, which approaches the question in a way that’s more likely to push the conversation forward. Isaacs offers her own institution, Montclair State, as a local example of how literature can be productively used in a composition program. But she makes that argument in ways that also gesture toward the broader problems that Sirc takes on. I think articles like Isaacs’ might (might) signal a shift in the discussion, away from the battles that Hairston et. al. fought and toward more pragmatic solutions. Or, at least I hope so. Regardless, I hope the field lets go of its aversion to literary texts and literary theories, but I hope it happens in a way that understands the difficult disciplinary histories (the scars and wounds) that continue to block productive discussion in this area.


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