Composition Theory

Everywhere It Looks

I’ve made mistakes in my early interactions with Afghans, and I’m certain I will continue to do so. I’ve failed to sit down and have tea and chat for an hour, or two, when introducing myself, too eager in the Western way to hurry up and get things done. I’ve failed to ask about someone’s health and his family before asking about work. In Sarah Chayes’ account of her experiences in Afghanistan, The Punishment of Virtue, I find my own reflected, especially in her description of Westerners who

thought in institutional terms. Their mission, as some of them understood it, was to cultivate, encourage, and foster the fledgling Afghan government. And for most of them, that meant shoring up its ‘institutions’: its ministries, its courts, its provincial administrations.

Western political culture prompts us to think this way. Over the past three or four centuries, we in the West have designed and laboriously erected instituions as our bulwark against tyranny. And we have come to revere them, for they have indeed protected us. . . But Afghanistan is not there yet. In Afghanistan, loyalties and allegiances are to individuals. (169)

Individuals, not institutions. Not abstractions. As Chayes notes, “in Afghanistan, the exercise of power remains personal. There are no institutions; there are only powerful men” (163). I’ve presumed that work and the institutions I’ve associated with my work here — building democracy, infrastructure, an educational system — are more important than other things in the lives of the people I’ve met here, a foolish and myopic assumption easily belied by even my own experience.

Some of the dissonance I’ve been encountering — some of the ways in which I’ve felt challenged, stymied, held out, unable to do what seems or feels like my mission — has been a result of my expecting to do things in familiar Western ways, in my expectation that the merits of whatever I might try to do would be as self-evident here as they are (not that they always are, but even on the many times they aren’t, they’re at least arguable in accessible terms and ideologies) back in the U.S. Which is of course a simple enough expression of cultural difference, but still a reminder to me that I ought not try to pin down or make falsely familiar cultures to which I do not have access and of which I do not have membership. And the thing is, I see a lot of that in the scholarship on composition and world Englishes under globalization to which I’ve been turning for assistance.

That’s a problem for me. There are assumptions about the self-evidentiary nature of other cultures in that scholarship, as well, that make me want to point out that Afghan culture is no more homogenous than American culture; no more authentic in its inwardly lived experience or meretricious in its gregarious and manifest outward appearance; no more situated at the teleological end of a familiar historical tradition than American culture; no more possible to subjugate via knowing or explaining than American culture. Rather, and it took Bhabha to get me to start to see this, it’s constructed, narrated into being by its contacts internal and external, always already forming itself in relation to that which is reciprocally always already there, simultaneously that which is itself and that which is not itself and in which it defines itself against. That’s the theoretical way to put it, at least. In lived experience, it’s the translator who asks to go home to his house in Kabul because it’s snowing and his mud roof will cave in if he doesn’t shovel it; it’s the instructors who shrug and profess that they can do nothing about students being late to class since the Americans have objected to beating the students; it’s all these ruptures and fissures and limit cases that are instances of cultural difference always as a function of relation.

Bhabha explains it better than I do, noting that

the epistemological ‘limits’ of those ethnocentric ideas [“of the ‘grand narratives’ of post-enlightenment rationalism”] are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices — women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed sexualities. For the demography of the new internationalism is the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasant and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees. It is in this sense that the boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond that I have drawn out: ‘Always and ever differently the bridge escorts the lingering and hastening ways of men to and fro, so that they may get to other banks…. The bridge gathers as a passage that crosses. (Introduction to The Location of Culture)

In my attempts to think about the ends of education as performed here in Afghanistan, what I’m running into is an experience of Afghanistan as the local and immediate space of difference between democracy and tribalism, village-building and nation-building, individual gain and communal advance. That’s fine: I can adjust, am adjusting, to that; doing my best, somewhat embarrassed at my initial arrogant assumptions about how little I might have to adjust myself, my perspective, who I am as a scholar and teacher and what I think I can be and know and do.

What’s not fine is that the more I read composition scholarship on multilingual pedagogies under the effects of economic globalization, the more I reject its remarkable eagerness to perceive its own privilege in others; the more I reject its unreflective emphasis on the privileges of “capital,” “networks,” “exchange,” “textuality,” “citizenship,” and especially the assumed privilege of traveling between. In these articles, there’s a narcissistic privilege that sees itself everywhere it looks, in the students who use computers just like we use them in the U.S., in the ways the homogenous capitalism just like we’ve produced in the U.S. is producing its homogenous effects in other countries just like we do at home.

I think of Pico Iyer’s description of the tourist and how we’ve replaced the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that nothing abroad is the way it is at home with the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that everything abroad is just like it is at home.

Chasing Down the Problematics of the LTV

I keep finding myself running into the problem of the labor theory of value (LTV) when trying to think about composition as an economic act, to the point where I’m wondering if its being a problem should serve as an indicator of the possible richness of the questions it raises. So on the one hand, I’m chasing down recent work in economics on that angle, from comparisons between Sraffa on commodities versus Marx on labor-times to thoughts from the Austrians on the economics of time (with reservations about both); but on the other hand, I’m seeing the aggregation problem — how do we disentangle measures of writing as economic activity from the pitfalls of the labor theory of value; how does the value of writing accumulate, in Sraffa’s sense — as the direction to follow, enthusiastically. If we understand pieces of writing as moments in the cyclic process of production-ownership-use-reproduction that embody addings-up of the labor of their authors and the authors upon whose work they draw as well as of the other contributing factors of production (including, e.g., computers; machines that stand themselves as aggregations of capital, and as substitutions of capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes), then thinking of the value of those pieces of writing becomes easier to do even algebraically, even though the algebra of the labor theory of value itself doesn’t quite work. There’s a way that the aggregation problem can make the economics of time as applied to writing actually work, I think, with implications from the way we value peer-reviewed articles to the counting behaviors associated with the Stanford study of writing to credit hours to time-use studies. (This is also a return for me to the Bourdieu chapter in my dissertation, where I looked at the limitations of Bourdieu’s X and Y axes of cultural and economic capital in tracing the relative values of cultural objects as being partly overcome by adding a Z axis for time and thereby tracing a trajectory of valuation as a three-dimensional shape, further complicated by producers’ and consumers’ disparate positions on those X and Y axes making those three-dimensional shapes slightly different depending on which angle you look from: thick-skinned balloon animals of valuation, maybe.) But looking at writing’s accumulated value through the LTV could help writing studies to respond to the “service course” critique (and likely find a lot of use for the Downs-Wardle approach), and also makes enormous amounts of sense for the citation-heavy, association-heavy new media-based compositions that seem more appropriate or at least more common in the context of the information economy: such compositions wear their factors of production on their collective sleeve and move away from the economic obfuscation of the romantic-author model (which, of course and interestingly in this context, was itself partly a response to the upheavals of the previous technological-economic revolution).

Chiasmus: Surveillance, Power

I got word that my Computers and Writing 2009 proposal was accepted, but I’ve been hesitant to blog about it, for reasons that may be apparent in my proposal, which follows in slightly paraphrased form.

My proposed presentation poses as its problem the environment of pervasive computer-enabled surveillance at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The problem is both practical, in the labor and logistics associated with the ubiquitous application of technologies of surveillance, and ethical, in my concern that ubiquitous surveillance may inhibit the development of the risk-taking thinkers essential to the Army’s mission. The presentation theorizes possible responses, contrasting the writing of political philosopher Leo Strauss and Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus on writing and domination. Finally, the presentation offers suggestions for how those responses might be enacted at West Point, and possible implications for other institutions.

At West Point, Web surfing is monitored, and spiders crawl the web for any mentions of the Academy, with mentions sent to the chain of command. (Interestingly, the Academy writing program endorses the use of digital technologies in the classroom, following the lead of the Academy’s general embrace of digital technologies.) Such a seemingly contradictory context requires a rhetorical response that moves beyond crude applications of Foucault’s “unequal gaze.”

I pose two alternatives for such a response: first, using the analysis of simultaneously esoteric and exoteric texts suggested by Leo Strauss in Persecution and the Art of Writing, and second, using the perspectives implied by Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus wherein authors intentionally place their meaning sous rature in ways that deliberately challenge hermeneusis depending upon interpretive context. Both writers suggest the possibilities of texts that can be interpreted in opposite ways by different audiences, depending on all parties’ positions of relative power within the rhetorical situation. However, I argue that Tacitus’s accounts implicitly offer the possibility of a counter-imperial micro-politics of resistance to the combination of domination and surveillance. The presentation then explores ways to enact that possibility of resistance in ways that open up opportunities for rhetorical risk-taking without compromising military missions, principles, or hierarchies.

And that’s it for the proposal, which I know will make the crawls come Monday morning, and which my bosses will see. (Hi, sir!) That’s enough for some nervousness on my part. But I’ve also been thinking that a blog entry — this one, for instance — is really the only way I can frame the project (after all, the conference program’s going to be indexed at some point) without making the presentation into some sort of rhetorical ambush. So I feel like there’s a whole lot of stuff in here: about classroom pedagogy, first and certainly, and about theories of rhetoric, but there’s the back-text as well, the usually unsaid except in my explicit invocation of it, about professionalism and what it means to talk about your job. (I don’t think I’m saying anything bad, but some might suggest I’m better off not saying anything at all.)

We’ll see.

My Theoretical Apparatus

Can I show you it?

It deals with the day-to-day immediacy of lived experience qua experience, mediated through writing and particularly understood as the economic activity of immaterial production, appropriation, circulation, ownership, and use, and through use back into production. As such, it deals with the process of producing or composing (or recomposing) and circulating and consuming (or interpreting) signs.

I’ve decided to call it Phenomenological-Economic Semiosis Theory.

Going Back to Cali

Two weeks ago, I was happy to receive two emails from NCTE notifying me that my co-proposed special interest group (SIG) meeting and panel presentation for CCCC had been approved: it looks like I’m headed back to San Francisco in March of 2009. The SIG, “Writing at the Military Service Academies,” will be a welcome opportunity to exchange ideas with writing faculty from the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Navy at Annapolis, Virginia Military Institute, the Citadel, the Coast Guard Academy at New London, and the post-secondary academy prep schools; and also an opportunity to talk to other curious folks from outside the Academies about the unique nature of what we do, and about the ways that — as we wrote in our proposal — “many of the challenges faced by composition today are crystallized by the service academies’ hierarchies, structures, and obligations.”

But of perhaps broader interest to composition scholars — especially given past strong critiques of the ways we rhetorically frame the work of our discipline — might be the panel presentation I’m on (hat tip to Aerobil for passing on Jungian title inspiration), and the other folks on that panel. I think some sparks may likely fly, but even given those anticipated sparks, I think (and hope) we’ll manage to have a productive, respectful set of brief presentations, and I’m excited about the discussion that I hope will follow. At last year’s CCCC, I heard Cheryl Glenn, Peter Elbow, and Bruce Ballenger all express, in various ways, the concern that our discipline isn’t very good at representing what we do (or what we ought to do) to those outside the discipline. The panel I’m on attempts to engage a (very) wide range of perspectives responding to that concern — and yeah, we’re gonna have some fun in breaking down the walls of our various echo chambers.

The Plagiarized Field Manual, Part 2

(This post, the second in a series, builds upon, responds to, revises, and condenses a number of emails sent in somewhat different form to WPA-L, the writing program administrators’ listserv.)

In response to the emerging controversy over the plagiarized Army field manual on counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, Chuck Bazerman and Christopher Strelluf made what I think are some important points on WPA-L. On October 31, Bazerman observed that anthropologist David Price’s article “is not just a plagiarism gotcha,” and I’m inclined to agree: as Bazerman points out, the article offers some “subtle observations about the writing and research process, the ability to handle source material and depth of disciplinary understanding, a subtle understanding of the motives for plagiarism,” among other things. For the reasons Bazerman notes, I think Price’s article is valuable — although it also seems to me quite clear from Price’s tone that the article was, indeed, primarily intended as what Bazerman and other very smart people before him have referred to as a “Gotcha!” in support of his broader strongly implied claim that Military=Bad. (Note the supporting characterization by the Counterpunch editors of “military enterprises” as “evil.”) In serving the ends that its author intended, Price’s article critiquing the plagiarized field manual raises other, more complicated issues as well.

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The Plagiarized Field Manual, Part 1

(This post, the first in a series, builds upon, revises, and condenses a number of emails sent in somewhat different form to WPA-L, the writing program administrators’ listserv.)

The Army recently published a revised version of its field manual (FM) on counterinsurgency, FM 3-24. Field manuals are how-to guides for soldiers: step-by-step, easy-to-follow instructions for everything you can imagine you might have to do in wartime, from loading a boat to reading a map. They’re some of the most clearly written documents I’ve seen, and they’re also all in the public domain, since — like any writing I do in my current official capacity — they’re products of taxpayer dollars.

The counterinsurgency field manual, however, represents a shift in perspective on the Army’s part. Field manuals are efficient, straightforward, commonsense. For the most part, FMs are careful to avoid complexity and ambiguity, and eschew the complications that attend upon the intricacies of intercultural interaction. But the Army realized that what’s going on today in Iraq and elsewhere is a whole lot more complicated than what they were initially prepared for, and that realization prompted a fundamental revision in doctrine; a revision than actually engaged the complexities and ambiguities of intercultural interactions, and relied upon peer-reviewed academic scholarship in anthropology and sociology to do so.

So there’s the initial ground for debate, which has made the rounds in various forms on WPA-L and elsewhere: is it acceptable for the Army to adapt scholarship — yours, mine, anybody’s — to the warfighting and peacekeeping ends decided upon by the nation’s civilian leadership? (I’m doing my best here to make careful distinctions as to who does what, both out of a self-conscious awareness of my status as a civilian instructor at a military institution, and out of a discomfort with the ways I’ve seen academics sometimes unknowingly conflate military leadership with high-level civilian command.)

The scandal, though, is this: according to anthropologist David Price, the published version of the Army’s FM 3-24 on Counterinsurgency is deeply and thoroughly plagiarized, particularly in its Chapter 3, which patches together a wide range of verbatim or minimally edited passages from prominent sociological and anthropological texts without any sort of sufficient documentation in order to establish a series of definitional terms for use by officers, NCOs, and soldiers seeking to implement counterinsurgency tactics in the field.

Now, initially, when I saw this, I immediately got out all my old FMs: not a single works cited among them. David Price writes that “The cumulative effect of such non-attributions is devastating to the Manual’s academic integrity,” but apparently fails to grasp that this is in some ways a matter of genre: FMs are manuals for use in the field rather than the library, and the sergeants and lieutenants and captains who will put them to use are far less interested in where ideas come from than in matters of implementation. Some officers I’ve spoken to have echoed the observation that Army writing is community property and definitionally in the public domain, which likely contributed to the habits of mind that led to the failures of documentation. I don’t believe that excuses the plagiarism — particularly given Price’s point that “The most damning element of the Manual’s reliance on unattributed sources is that the Manual includes a bibliography listing of over 100 sources, yet not a single source I have identified is included” — but it does help to explain it.

But I’ve put my hands on a copy of the new FM, and the plagiarism is unfortunately damning, particularly given the hyperattention to citation in other areas. I don’t know whose intent it was, but the bottom line is this: there is clearly some intent to deceive associated with the citations in this document.

(More to follow.)

UNH07 A3: The UNH Longitudinal Study

Mike Garcia, Jim Webber, and Kate Gillen presented on various aspects of the ongoing University of New Hampshire longitudinal study assessing the university’s current writing requirement. Mike led the presentation with a relaxed, comfortable talk offering an overview of the various forms the study has taken and the way it’s evolved over the years. The university has a set of writing-intensive courses, and according to Mike, the study was designed to assess what writing- intensive meant, precisely, and whether as a course requirement it actually did any good: in sum, the longitudinal study responded to the fact that the Writing Program had instituted a writing requirement without any built-in assessment method.

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Recuperating the Individual

In his chapter “Can Economics Start from the Individual Alone?,” Geoffrey M. Hodgson gives an account of how economics turned its attention as a discipline away from a systemic focus and toward the individual homo economicus as its sole starting point. As Hodgson describes it, within the span of a few decades, scholars in economics chose to make their topic the “allocation of scarce means between alternative uses, as a universal matter of choice for every individual in a world of scarcity. Instead of the whole system of production and allocation of the means of life, the choosing individual alone became the foundation stone of economic theory” (57). To the contrary, Hodgson proposes that “the isolated individual is not viable as an analytical starting point” (58), and I see in his argument some instructive parallels to the shift in philosophical emphasis that some in composition have called “the social turn.” One of the more widely recognized indicators of that social turn is James Berlin’s landscaping of the field, wherein scholars focusing on formal concerns were labeled current-traditionalists, others focusing on the mental processes of composing were labeled cognitivists, and those focusing upon the authorial choices of the composing individual were labeled expressivists, to whom Berlin counterposed social-epistemic rhetoric, with its examination and critique of the ways social structures and institutions construct knowledge and interpellate individuals into hegemonic ideologies.

Berlin sets up social-epistemic rhetoric as a strong critique of what he characterizes as expressivism’s focus on the authorial choices of the individual composer, indicting that focus as divorced from the social and thereby unable to engage in anything other than apolitical, disconnected writerly solipsism. So, too, does Hodgson see a shift in political economy toward an emphasis on the choosing individual, which his essay strongly critiques — but his critique takes a direction quite different from Berlin’s.

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Someone Not Trained

There’s an excellent article in the June 2007 CCC that’s had WPA-L abuzz with excited discussions, objections, and elaborations. I think the excitement over the piece — “Teaching About Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies'” by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle — is merited: there are some startling ideas here, provocatively posed, and Downs and Wardle have certainly got me thinking. Composition, they suggest, isn’t only (and shouldn’t be) about teaching a set of discrete and isolable techniques that help students write good essays in standard academic discourse for their other classes; and they thoroughly demonstrate how the study and teaching of writing has been shown in our discipline’s research to be considerably more complicated than that. (My inadequate account of the article does it discursive harm: please, read it yourself, rather than relying on my poor summing-up.) As some on WPA-L have pointed out, the article is not without its difficulties, and there are perhaps some underexamined terms and arguments, but overall, it’s a smart and exciting piece that’s sure to continue to stir discussion.

One passage in particular got me going, because of my institutional situation here at the Point, but I imagine others might have found it provocative as well. My situation: I’m civilian faculty, an assistant professor, with a PhD. As in most departments here, our faculty split is around 70/30 or 80/20 military/civilian. Military junior faculty come in with an MA, teach three years, and rotate back out into the Army, possibly coming back when they’ve got their PhDs, while civilian faculty tend to be more permanent. This proportionally faster turnover rate for military as opposed to civilian instructors creates some unique instructor training exigencies, as does the fact that the Army pays full ride for its military instructors’ graduate degrees, and strongly discourages (perhaps even forbids?) them from working as teaching assistants. So our Army instructors come to us with no college classroom teaching experience, although of course they’ve held company command and have immense experience leading and managing hundreds and sometimes thousands of soldiers. The military junior faculty are, on the other hand, burgeoning experts in their chosen fields, which tend for the most part to be associated with literature.

And therein lies the rub. According to Downs and Wardle, the pedagogy they propose “cannot be taught by someone not trained in writing studies” (574). Later, they elaborate, describing and indicting

the myth that content is separable from writing — that a FYC [first-year composition] instructor need not be expert in the subject matter of a paper in order to evaluate the quality of writing in that paper, or need not be a subject expert on writing in order to teach writing. Such claims accept the premise that writing instruction can be limited to fluent English syntax, grammar, and mechanics.

The first statement raises some difficult and complex concerns for me, but I very much agree with the latter sentiment. I can’t help but bristle when I get well-meant emails from friends or family equating what I do with teaching basic rules of grammar and mechanics. I am an expert on writing, just as my friends who teach chemistry or literature are experts on their topics, and I teach writing well. And this summer, I’m taking part in our arriving faculty workshop, and helping to talk to junior officers about best pedagogical practices for teaching first-year composition. Some of them — who’ll be teaching sections of first-year composition — have barely heard of our discipline. Certainly, some are enthusiastic: one major, although she wasn’t presenting, registered for this year’s CCCC in New York and took the train down two mornings to attend as many sessions as she could, and came back (to teach her afternoon classes) deeply enthusiastic and quickly put together a proposal for 2008. And certainly, we’re training them, to the limits of our time: we’ve got sessions on the rhetorical situation, the writing process, peer response, conferencing, commenting, reflection; we’ve got a set of required comp-theory readings; they’re watching Take 20 — but does that constitute being “trained in writing studies”?

I don’t know. It’s a start, maybe. But it’s a question Downs and Wardle raise: how does the pedagogy they propose intersect with academic labor practices? Even if the pedagogy they propose is a good thing, which I most definitely think it is, how can it be done? What do we do at my institution, if we have only a tiny fraction of our composition instructors with expertise in writing studies — and what does it mean to have expertise?