CC Seesaw

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.

9 Comments

  1. Trickert
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm | #

    There’s also Jim Berlin’s Hegelian cultural studies move, where rhetorics and poetics are, essentially, sublated by cultural studies. Or Jeff Walker’s rewrite of classical rhetoric, away from Kennedy’s master narrative where rhetoric stems from the forensics of Corax and Tisias, and towards a sense that rhetorics and poetics have always been entwined.

    So, being provocative here: perhaps that’s where Sirc is coming from, and it’s not, then, a see-saw? (But nor is it Hegelian, a la Berlin).

  2. Anonymous
    Posted February 28, 2012 at 5:25 pm | #

    I’d love to have seen a Walker-esque approach in this essay (you won’t find a bigger fan of Rhetoric and Poetics and Antiquity than me), but that’s not how Sirc presents his case. To me, he seems more committed to the polemic than he does to the project of seeing rhetoric and poetics as part of the same project. If the essay didn’t go so hard at the Miller text and at the entire project of literacy studies, it might be easier to read “Resisting Entropy” as an attempt to make the Walker-like move that you mention. But do you really see that here? Are you offering a provocative reading or a generous one? I’m all for generous readings…but only in the interest of ensuring that we read someone on their own terms. I think the “see saw” frame I’m offering does in fact read Sirc on his own terms.

    For me, the style of the piece holds back the project of reintroducing the literary into composition. That’s a project I’m interested in, and that’s why I’m arguing for a different style of engagement (and here we might bring in Muckelbauer), one that is (as you note) not Hegelian.

  3. Stephanie Odom
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 1:26 am | #

    I thought Sirc’s essay was hilarious in its literary snarkitude. He re-justified my entire dissertation several times over, but especially with: “You want to teach students how to be more conscious writers? Show them Henry James.” How? How does that transfer of masterful style happen? And should all our students be learning to write like Henry James? After having studied the arguments over using literature in composition for several years now, I’m really of the opinion that the texts don’t matter as much as the pedagogy and what you ask students to do with the texts. Sirc might do a fine job of using James’s writing to teach students how be more conscious writers, but not every writing teacher would be able to pull that off. (Re)introducing literary texts won’t necessarily help students develop a better toolkit of styles on its own.

    I’m with you in appreciating the conciliatory tone and pragmatic attitude in the Isaacs article, especially her very valid point that better graduate training in composition pedagogy over the last 20 years has made literature scholars better writing teachers.  But I’m not convinced that just because most folks who teach FYC are from a literature background means that writing curricula should be adjusted to meet their expertise. Giving comp teachers the chance to teach texts they are experts in reading and writing about doesn’t seem like the best reason to make those texts part of a writing course even though it might be the most expedient one.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 10:35 am | #

    I’d love to have seen a Walker-esque approach in this essay (you won’t find a bigger fan of Rhetoric and Poetics and Antiquity than me), but that’s not how Sirc presents his case. To me, he seems more committed to the polemic than he does to the project of seeing rhetoric and poetics as part of the same project. If the essay didn’t go so hard at the Miller text and at the entire project of literacy studies, it might be easier to read “Resisting Entropy” as an attempt to make the Walker-like move that you mention. But do you really see that here? Are you offering a provocative reading or a generous one? I’m all for generous readings…but only in the interest of ensuring that we read someone on their own terms. I think the “see saw” frame I’m offering does in fact read Sirc on his own terms.

    For me, the style of the piece holds back the project of reintroducing the literary into composition. That’s a project I’m interested in, and that’s why I’m arguing for a different style of engagement (and here we might bring in Muckelbauer), one that is (as you note) not Hegelian.

  5. Anonymous
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 10:52 am | #

    Your response to Sirc’s essay is evidence for my claim. You find it “hilarious.” That is, you dismiss it. The style of this piece prevents it from persuading someone like you, who is already skeptical of the argument. If that’s the case, then what’s the point? It becomes a rallying cry for people who already see the value of the literary in the composition classroom.

    But let’s tackle some of your questions and comments:

    1) How do we know that showing students Henry James will result in a “transfer of masterful style”?

    Does Sirc claim that reading James will result in students that can write like James? I don’t see that anywhere in his piece, but please correct me if I’m wrong. But more importantly, are you claiming that reading any type of prose or poetry can result in a “transfer of style”? Does reading a book by Malcom Gladwell or Lawrence Lessig or Thomas Jefferson operate any differently in the classroom? How would you prove that? I’d agree that there’s no clear way to show how reading fiction results in a “transfer of style.” However, I’d make that same claim about any text. As I see it, the goal is not to give students texts to emulate or imitate (unless we are talking about an imitation exercise, which would be about attuning oneself to the language) but rather to give them texts that give them the opportunity to pay attention to how language works.

    2) “I’m really of the opinion that the texts don’t matter as much as the pedagogy and what you ask students to do with the texts. Sirc might do a fine job of using James’s writing to teach students how be more conscious writers, but not every writing teacher would be able to pull that off. (Re)introducing literary texts won’t necessarily help students develop a better toolkit of styles on its own.”

    I agree. But again, I don’t read Sirc arguing that literary texts will *necessarily* help students. I read an argument that claims that the literary has been sliced out for the wrong reasons (political, disciplinary) and that we have (as a field) stopped trying to figure out how to incorporate the literary into composition classrooms. Are there challenges? Certainly. But there are challenges with any set of texts. The field of Composition and Rhetoric has, for a number of reasons, decided to avoid these challenges altogether.

    3) Regarding Isaacs: “Giving comp teachers the chance to teach texts they are experts in reading and writing about doesn’t seem like the best reason to make those texts part of a writing course even though it might be the most expedient one.”

    Here, I think we might just disagree. While I don’t think composition classes should be devoted entirely to the literary (neither does Isaacs), it makes sense to me to use literature in the classroom toward particular ends. Why not read litearture alongside non-fiction? Why not allow people teaching composition to draw upon their disciplinary expertise?

    I think the field is worried that literature in the composition classroom will be an infringement upon disciplinary territory and that it will result in a class on “appreciation.” The first concern is frustrating because it puts turf wars ahead of the interests of students. The second concern reduces ALL literary scholarship to appreciation, something that is borderline offensive and that demonstrates an ignorance of what actually happens in literary studies.

  6. Stephanie Odom
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 7:32 pm | #

     

    Thank you for so thoughtfully and thoroughly responding to
    my comment. I shouldn’t have posted so close to my bedtime last night because I
    was unable to communicate how much I agree with Sirc’s argument–well, at least
    part of it. I agree with him that we’ve shifted so far over to the canon of
    invention that we’ve neglected style and that we should get better at teaching it
    (beyond just correctness and clarity). I agree with him that histories of the
    field that continue to paint literature teachers as the villains and rhet/comp
    teachers as the victims aren’t helpful in moving us forward to more productive
    conversations. And I agree with you that when it comes to the question of using
    lit in comp, we’re overly and often needlessly twitchy about it. “Overly”
    because, despite the experiences of many faculty in our field who got bruised
    in turf wars with literature, times have changed for the better and we have
    much more institutional clout and a greater body of scholarship behind us than
    we did 20 years ago, so we don’t need to defend our status as a discipline so
    tirelessly. “Needlessly” because, as you say, literary study is definitely not
    just appreciation, and if there is forced reverence of texts going on, it is
    certainly not confined to literary texts–“transactional” or nonfiction texts
    can also be put on pedestals. And I believe that rhet/comp scholars of an older
    generation aren’t that up to date on what goes on in literary studies and how
    much overlap there is now between how literary scholars and rhetoric scholars
    read texts.

     

    But I disagree with you about the other argument I see Sirc
    making, though he doesn’t make it explicitly. You don’t think he’s claiming
    that literary texts will necessarily help students, but I do and here’s why.
    One of his main gripes about composition is that we don’t savor prose as much
    as we savor ideas, that as far as style goes we only teach clarity and
    correctness, and that the texts we give students to work with are “thinly voiced
    unimaginative prose” (512, 518).  In
    contrast, he says that the poetic is useful because it opens up “the enormously
    rich possibilities of language,” and about James specifically, he says that his
    writing is “the most interesting reading there is” and that he and Bob Dylan
    are “shining examples of the extraordinary in verbal creation” (510). So when
    he says “Show them Henry James,” I think he’s offering that as an antidote for
    the bland writing we accept (and may even encourage) from students. The fact
    that he doesn’t make the connection from reading good literature to writing
    better very clear is symptomatic of the fact that it’s not clear how that would
    work. I don’t know if this is true for Sirc, but I suspect that many teachers
    think that students learn good writing from literary texts by osmosis.

     

    He does say that good writing is sometimes just inspired or
    accidental, and therefore there are limits to how teachable it is. But I need
    to, and want to, get better at teaching style. That’s where I was coming from
    in reading his essay, but he’s not helping me out. I actually really enjoy his
    own writing style, but wouldn’t want to teach all my students to write like him,
    just like there are plenty of folks who wouldn’t like students to write more
    like Henry James, who can be very dense and difficult.

     

    As for the Isaacs argument, I have very mixed feelings about
    it because of my mixed loyalties. When I think about the Montclair State
    program as a graduate student with friends and colleagues very much like the
    adjuncts Isaacs is talking about, I know that having a literature background
    doesn’t necessarily predict anything about how a person will teach writing,
    except for the fact that lots of adjuncts coming out of those programs have
    training and experience teaching writing, as Isaacs observes. And I understand
    the workload from the teachers’ perspective, and that it would be nice to be
    able to teach texts that you know well instead of needing to learn new ones,
    which takes time away from the hours needed to grade papers. And from the
    perspective of the WPA, I admire the pragmatic approach of making the best with
    the pool of teachers at hand–she’s right that the most experienced teachers of
    writing are often people who have degrees in literature, though that doesn’t
    mean that lit scholars are the only ones who would make good writing teachers.
    Teaching writing is a skill that someone from any disciplinary background could
    have, and I think it would be odd to require some from history teach with
    literary texts…though if they were really flexible as a teacher, they would
    probably do a good job.

     

    But from the perspective of the students, I think it’s also
    odd that all of them have to write about literature in their second semester,
    especially if there’s another required literature class that they have to take
    as well. Like Sirc, I think that teachers in the other disciplines should take
    responsibility for teaching students writing so that they don’t think that
    writing is something only English teachers care about.

     

    I feel like I’m making the same wishy-washy moves as Peter
    Elbow does in “The Cultures of Literature and Composition: What Could Each
    Learn from the Other?” (which you should definitely check out if you haven’t
    yet)…I think there could be a useful place for literature in composition, but I
    also think that teachers from other disciplines need to get in the game and teach
    students about the possibilities of language in chemistry, nursing, criminal
    justice, and so on. So, I agree with Sirc and on those points, I just don’t see
    how Sirc helps us productively incorporate literature in the short term or
    convince our colleagues in other disciplines that they should also be teaching
    writing in the long term.

     

  7. Michael McGinnis
    Posted March 1, 2012 at 6:27 pm | #

    I haven’t yet read the Sirc piece (dissertation tunnel-vision, ha), but your argument here and in several of the comments below give me reason to draw attention to some of the work being done to bridge the gap between rhet-comp and creative writing. That might be (yet another) way to tread between the fields of rhetoric and literature without risking so much emphasis on either imitation or transfer (although imitatio was an important pedagogical device in classical rhetoric …). Focusing on even “creative writing” as the result of invention, development, and process might bear more fruit than simply calling for an appreciation of “literariness” in composition.  

  8. Anonymous
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm | #

    Yes, Mike. I think this could be a productive approach. This is why I thought Donora could carve some new paths, given her background. However, it does open up a whole new can of worms….different disciplinary boundary, same general problem.

  9. Michael McGinnis
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 3:57 pm | #

    Ugh. Boundaries are dumbth.

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  1. […] Page Techtonics: Sirc Blog CCCarnival • Culture Cat: Fashionably Late to the Sirc CCCarnival • Clinamen: Back and Forth on the See Saw • englishgal516: CCCarnival: Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy” This entry was posted […]

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