The Devil’s Bargain in Composition and Rhetoric

I am grateful to all the smart people who read and commented on a post I wrote here in which I argued that the labor crisis in Composition and Rhetoric can only be fully understood through a global economic lens. I used David Harvey’s theory of capitalism in crisis to make the claim that finance capitalism circumvents barriers to accumulation by creating low-wage industries staffed by contract workers (such as academia) that are managed and legitimated by the very intellectuals who ought to know better.

My grief over Rhet Comp’s complicity in perpetuating this system is captured in many of the comments made by readers, including one by Anthony Paré, a thirty-year veteran of the field. You can read his full note here. In brief, he writes about “a central and damning paradox at the heart of rhet and comp’s history”:

 

[It is a paradox] that I think explains some of the situation you describe: to attract funding and status, we [Comp professionals] were willing to play along with those who saw us as mechanics or technicians – the folks down in the basement who could fix comma splices, undangle modifiers, and repair those horribly deficient non-native writers of English. We knew that wasn’t what we really did, or what we primarily did, and we would make the occasional pitch for a broader vision of writing, but as our comp courses multiplied and our tutorial services became overwhelmed, we reassured administrators and colleagues that we could make student writing “better,” without quibbling too much about the difference between what they though “better” meant and what we though it meant.

 

Paré’s incisive assessment exemplifies a truly remarkable characteristic of the field that I admire despite everything. Comp and Rhet has a long history of self-reflexive scholarship. Paré’s comment can be situated in a tradition of critiques of what we might call the devil’s bargain in Composition and Rhetoric. Indeed, as Paré articulates so well, scholars who happened to enter the discipline at the right moment gained a measure of institutional status in exchange for tacitly agreeing to “fix” student writing, or at least they refrained from complaining too much when their colleagues and their flagship course were used as a convenient punching bag by the “real” professors who needed someone to blame for the fact that students don’t miraculously “learn to write” in Freshman Composition. This is not to point fingers at any single person or disparage a generation of scholars who deserve credit for putting Comp and Rhet on the academic map.

In fact, the devil’s bargain predates everyone who’s still breathing. It has been in effect since at least the 1890s when Harvard created what was essentially the first basic writing course. Yes, everyone complained that wealthy white Harvard students couldn’t write back then, and each year since professors at colleges at every level have lamented the state of their students’ prose. Who is to blame? The people most likely to know that writing effectively is a long-term, complex process deeply connected to identity, material conditions, and to concrete matters of time, place, purpose, and audience. In other words, Composition teachers.

Getting blamed for not doing something you know can’t be done under current circumstances inspires reflection and often produces astute theorizing. That is why, as part of an admirable tendency for self-critique, a number of Comp scholars have made the case that writing teachers really can’t “teach writing” in the way most people think of it anyway.

We can see this view in David Russell’s analysis of “Universal Educated Discourse (UED),” a mythical code (related to “standard English”) that writing teachers are supposed to teach (usually in a single semester), even though such a code isn’t actually used by anyone anywhere.

A similar critique of the idea that anything like “general writing skills” can be taught outside a genuine rhetorical context is also apparent in Sharon Crowley’s work, more than 20 years old now, arguing for the abolition of freshman writing. Institutions, she claimed, like to keep Freshman Comp on the books because the course makes them look benevolent and, at the same time, dedicated to high standards.  In other words, institutions need Freshman Comp as a curricular offering a lot more than students need it to learn to write.

What if we correct all the comma splices in the world without improving student writing one whit?

In fact, that is exactly the situation writing teachers have found themselves in. More recently, for example, scholars have argued that it makes no sense to teach abstractions called “writing” or “term papers.” These categories are what Elizabeth Wardle calls “mutt genres” that have no relevance outside of school because learning to write for one teacher in one course does not necessarily mean that such skills will be transferable to other courses, locations, or writing tasks. How eminently reasonable!

Let me repeat this surprising (or unsurprising, depending on your point of view) fact: there is an important strand of scholarship in Rhetoric and Composition that is based on the idea that writing teachers cannot teach writing in general at all! Like unicorns, “writing skills” are lovely to think about, even though they don’t exist. Yet, we take care not to challenge too robustly the idea that we’re “teaching writing” because what would the academy do with us then?

Oops.

It turns out that, even though Compositionists haven’t been very good at advertising what they know about writing and literacy, the academy has had less and less use for them anyway. Why hire a full-time, tenure-track faculty member to teach Comp when you can get an adjunct to do it for a quarter of the cost?

We made the devil’s bargain and got screwed anyway.

The stakes bear repeating: two-thirds of college courses are now taught by contingent faculty, many of whom receive no benefits and earn poverty or near-poverty wages. This is, above all, a catastrophe propelled by global capitalism’s need for cheap workers to maximize profits and for a tiered workplace to blunt the potential for employees at different levels getting together and asking impertinent questions.

The devil’s bargain was clearly a compromise that was always going to blow up in our faces eventually. Moreover, the growing divide between full-time professors and adjuncts suggests something about what brute economic reality does to even our most powerful arguments. We can know something, and we can say that we know it, and some people will believe it. But without the political will to turn ideas into coalitions and coalitions into actions, what we know to be true is all too easily absorbed by the machine.

 

One thought on “The Devil’s Bargain in Composition and Rhetoric

  1. “we made the devil’s bargain and got screwed anyway.”

    so freaking true.

    The ‘mutt genre’ categorization seems especially apt.. when I found myself teaching 5 ‘writing’ classes a semester, my initial thought was to connect assignments to something that would seem tangible and important to my students lives- current events, politics, important decisions being made that were affecting all our lives. That went out the window when I realized that 95 percent of my students had serious reading comprehension problems that couldn’t be addressed in one semester. And honestly, I didn’t know how to address them because I was so freaking unprepared for the reality of how badly they were (un)prepared for college. A vicious cycle. So then I was stuck. And found myself assigning the kinds of essays I never in a million years wanted to ask anyone to write. Because they weren’t important and my students knew it.

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