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Theory and Interdisciplinarity: Kopelson Part Two

The pedagogical imperative, Kopelson argues, is part of a problematic theory-practice relationship in rhetoric and composition studies. "Theory" comes with at least a couple of problems for rhetoric/composition. First, we end up doing hand-wringing over our anxieties that theory doesn't help people, and we ask, like Kopelson brings up, "whom does the theory serve?" Second, we fret over the argument that we only use other people's theory; we don't DO (our own) theory. I like what Kopelson says on 765: "Theory performs the invaluable service of tracing, often in order to fracture, the very consensus around 'reason.' This seems to me to be neither a 'mere' nor a 'sterile' exercise."

The material about theory/practice is most interesting to me insofar as it's connected to interdisciplinarity. Graduate students surveyed by Kopelson wanted the field to become a vibrant interdiscipline with cultural and political significance, but they expressed concern that we're not there yet. A couple of quotations:

[Survey respondents] defined theory, variously, as something we 'draw on,' 'borrow,' 'import' from other, 'different fields of knowledge' in order to 'apply' and 'use.'

That is, James seems to find our import-and-apply approach a testament to the very interdisciplinarity that he and so many other of our 'new converts' desire for the field. And in a way it is. But this approach attests to a certain, limited kind of interdisciplinarity only; to what Ellen Barton calls a 'one-way interdisciplinarity' (245), and also to a formulaic mode of inquiry that has for too long characterized composition’s relationship to other fields of study (p. 766).

Okay, fine. I want to make two points here. First, with all the articles, books, reviews, etc. being published, most people do well to read all the scholarship in their own fields. So if people in other fields aren't reading rhet-comp, maybe we shouldn't take it personally. Second, as a corollary, reception of our work in other fields isn't the kind of thing we can control.

This next quotation is a kicker, in my opinion (p. 768):

Though we have long foraged about in other bodies of knowledge—and, yes, to some innovative and crucial ends—we are still primarily importers only, consumers, an 'interdisciplinary' field, if it can be said that we are one, with little to no interdisciplinary influence. (Exceptions to this trend are perhaps our influence on assessment as a field and, in some locales at least, on secondary English education.) As Spellmeyer reminds us in 'Marginal Prospects,' even within the confines of the academy, 'College English and CCC cannot truthfully be said to circulate in the same universe as Critical Inquiry or Cultural Critique' (163).

Critical Inquiry? This is what we're going for? Is it that we want as many people to read our journals as these journals, or that we want to write the same kind of articles as Critical Inquiry and Cultural Critique? In either case, this seems like an "I wish I were taller" kind of goal -- not that they're tall and we're short, but that our scholarship is different, and that's okay. I want to raise another couple of points about interdisciplinarity. First, from Kopelson (p. 768):

Indeed, our field’s discussions of teaching—in the very journals mentioned by Spellmeyer—are not only what have helped define us, for better or worse, but are what should have positioned us perfectly to be an interdisciplinary exporter with, as James says, “much to offer . . . teachers and students throughout the academy.” In short, then, it is by no means only a testament to our own limitations, or to the potential interdisciplinary value of our work, that College English and College Composition and Communication do not circulate in other universes, but a testament to the perpetual devaluation of pedagogy itself.

Unfortunate, but a sensible point. And now what I want to say most vociferously: we can go back and forth about the nebulous notion of "impact," but I utterly disagree that we are just "consumers" of other disciplines and that the interdisciplinarity is just "one-way" (not that Kopelson is saying this). Do you think people in social studies of science, history of science, and philosophy of science don't read and cite Alan Gross and Jeanne Fahnestock? Do you think people in medical anthropology and women's studies don't read and cite Susan Wells and Mary Lay Schuster? And hello, Stanley Fish? Even my work has been cited in related fields. There are plenty of other examples.

Finally, I want to note the terms "rhetoric" and "composition," as well as several recent programs' alternative terms, such as "writing studies." Does "writing studies" succeed in reconciling the rhet-comp history, theory/professionalization, practice conflict?

The Pedagogical Imperative: Kopelson Part One

Derek has chosen Karen Kopelson's "Sp(l)itting Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition" for our most recent rhet-comp blog seminar. I think it's a great choice, and here's the first part of my response:

Kopelson's article is a much-needed, frank discussion of the pedagogical imperative, the idea that any rhetoric and composition research project must necessarily have a "pedagogy hook," or a section about implications of the project for college composition. The pedagogical imperative, Kopelson points out, is for many a matter of ethics: our field's mission, and I use that word with all the evangelical valence it has, is to teach college students how to write. Kopelson brings up the argument that "our research is funded with student dollars," not that she agrees with it or says it's valid -- I don't think it's that simple by any means.

Kopelson's concern is that graduate students are too constrained by the pedagogical imperative and that it will overdetermine the future of the field. She also goes through a number of concerns about how the field of rhetoric and composition has gone about attempts at interdisciplinary scholarship as well as the creation and use of theory, which I'll get to in a later post.

Now, though, I need to explain how I came to the field of rhetoric and composition. I'll tell you why you should care about this a little later.

I got my B.A. having had courses in literature and linguistics. I was prepared very well in those areas, but I never took a rhetoric course. One was offered, but for whatever reason I didn't take it. When I set out to get an M.A., I wanted to study rhetoric simply because it was a gap in my knowledge. I said as much in my statement of purpose when applying to programs.

At Tennessee, my first semester in graduate school, I took a Classical Rhetoric course. It was like someone had taken me over to a big pile of wood, brick, sheetrock, and shingles and said, "okay, now build a house." That is to say, I was submerged in unfamiliar material and ways of thinking. The way I was taught composition had nothing to do with rhetoric but consisted of the modes.

Anyway, sometimes when I'm in this kind of situation, I think, eh, who needs it? But other times, I buckle down and stubbornly think, I MUST MASTER THIS. Rhetoric was one of those instances. I went on to get really into it, and you can see where that led me.

Kopelson's research is based on a survey of graduate students and professors at two universities. On pages 753-54, she writes:

When asked if they encouraged dissertating graduate students to do work that makes direct connections to pedagogy, the vast majority of our faculty respondents (over 80 percent) claimed to do so only when “appropriate”—that is, when a student’s “project calls for it by its very nature,” or when there are “clear pedagogical implications” to the work. Interestingly, however, the majority of students in our sample revealed feelings of intense pressure to create clear pedagogical implications and applications whether their projects led them in that direction or not, and, most tellingly I think, whether they experienced such pressure firsthand and directly or only as some vague sense of what is required by the field.

When I was at Minnesota doing my PhD, my professors never issued the pedagogical imperative. Still, like the students surveyed, I got the sense that I'd never succeed unless I could answer the "implications for pedagogy" question in a job interview and an article manuscript. My dissertation didn't have to do with pedagogy, but I put in a section in the conclusion about pedagogy anyway, as I wanted to align myself explicitly with composition, and I was coming out of a program that (at the time) was more known for technical communication.

“It’s not necessary,” [a faculty respondent writes], “to write five chapters about Heideggerian philosophy’s importance for broadening our conception of the rhetorical basis of epistemology only to turn to the last chapter and talk about teaching Heidegger to first-year students. I have seen people try similar moves, [and] have heard colleagues make such demands.

Like this faculty member, my committee members didn't think it was necessary, and I suspect that they felt it was a little tacked-on. But they didn't make me take it out. All this being said, I have four thoughts about the pedagogical imperative:

1. A pedagogical implications section is not necessary, but it's impressive if the researcher can explain implications for pedagogy. Along the lines of the argument that you don't really understand something unless you can explain it in clear, simple terms to a non-expert, it would really be something if the person in the Heidegger example COULD connect that research to first-year writing.

2. Not all rhet/comp people are passionate about teaching (and that's okay!). Those who are passionate about it, particularly the early leaders in the field whose cross-over from literature to composition due to love of teaching is described by Kopelson as a religious conversion narrative, have put the pedagogical imperative in place. Now you know why I explained how I came to the field. It's not that I don't enjoy teaching or don't think it's important, but I came to the field another way.

3. So much of this issue has to do with gatekeeping -- for jobs, grant funding, publications. I'd like to know this: how often does it actually occur that manuscripts are conditionally accepted pending insertion of pedagogical implications or rejected due to their absence?

4. Sometimes it takes TIME to figure out the connections of research and theory to pedagogy. A lot of time, years. Perhaps graduate students just want to be trusted to take that time.

More later on the use of theory and the terms "rhetoric" and "composition" (and new alternative terms).

Compounding Pharmacies

This issue wasn't on my radar until just recently when I had to get some prescription cream from a compounding pharmacy, but apparently there's a conflict between compounding pharmacists and the FDA over regulation of compound drugs. The drug companies have a lot at stake in this, what with patents for combinations of drugs and all. That's what interests me the most -- the view from the intellectual property angle. I'd really like to write an article about the way each side is using rhetoric, especially as it pertains to patent rights. There's a lot more information about the various issues in these white papers.

But if you know someone who's already doing research on this topic, kindly let me know so that I don't waste my time, and direct me toward the person doing the research so that I can read it with interest.


I just now started watching The Onion's cable news spoofs, and they're great. Here's one in particular I like:

In The Know: The U.S. Moat

Assessing Sophistication

I am on a team of judges for an essay contest. There are around fifty entries in the contest, so I decided to make my selections in a series of cuts. I recently did a first pass over all of them, choosing some to advance to the next round. As I was making the cuts, I wrote down the reasons for the first few decisions I made, then used those criteria to assess the rest. I figured I'd post the criteria here both to get feedback on them and to save them for future retrieval.

I made my decisions primarily using the criterion of general sophistication, but what does that mean? Here's a more specific idea:

  • Choice of topic -- while it may be true that some of these topics were suggested by an instructor, I tend to assume that the student has final say in the decision of what to write about, and I chose papers with thoughtful, fresh, unusual topics. While students certainly can do something different with a topic such as underage drinking, it doesn't usually work out that way in practice. I tended to award more cachet to a paper with a topic such as "public education's use of for-profit consulting corporations" than a topic such as "doing drugs while pregnant." By the way, in writing studies, there's a term for that: a "cheerleader paper," an argument no one would possibly argue against. What reasonable person would argue that a woman *should* do illegal recreational drugs while pregnant?
  • Command of material -- some of the papers read like they were parroting the investigative style of television news of the 20/20, Today Show, or Dateline NBC variety.* That is to say, they read more like a recital than an argument, they oversimplified the topic, and they repeated banal messages (eat more fruits and vegetables, and do thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day). The papers I chose to go to the next round had more of an authorial presence -- there's an author in these papers who is clearly in control of the subject matter. Some of the papers I chose also used personal experience and/or vivid physical description (pragmatographia) in interesting and effective ways to bring the material to life.
  • Marshaling of evidence -- this is related to "command of material." In the papers I chose, there seems to be evidence which is deliberately chosen (not just a data dump) and arranged in order to make specific points. In the marshaling of evidence, these writers seem to have an awareness of the credibility of sources. These papers' writers were also better at integrating source material into their own arguments.
  • Looking beyond the obvious -- this is related to "command of material" as well insofar as the stating-the-obvious papers were the more recital-esque ones. The writers of the more sophisticated papers seemed thoughtful enough, for example, to recognize when an argument was facile, when a representation was stereotypical, or why a proposed plan to address an issue wouldn't work. They also demonstrated their understanding and consideration of differing views.
  • Bibliography -- the papers I chose tended to cite more, and more credible, sources. By the way, all the entries are research-paper type essays.

* Imitation is fine, actually; I understand the impulse to try on various authoritative voices. In fact, it's a good rhetorical strategy. My disappointment with the 20/20 papers has much to do with mass media discourse, and again, I don't know much about the context -- they could have had teachers who assigned 20/20 in class, for all I know. I contend, however, that more sophisticated readers and writers can recognize the canned quality of that style and try to avoid it.

Brilliant from start to finish

Read Mandolin's mashup poem based on pro-life rhetoric from some threads on Alas.

Hugh Burns Award

I'm very happy to say that I have received the 2006 Hugh Burns Best Dissertation Award, given each year by the journal Computers and Composition. In 1979, Burns wrote the first computers and composition dissertation. Here I am with him:

Awards banquet at Wright Museum of African American History

That sheet is a facsimile of a plaque I'll receive later.

Recent References on Women and Blogging

Collecting articles about the John Edwards campaign will have to wait for another day.

A Call for Manners in the World of Nasty Blogs, by Brad Stone, New York Times, 9 April 07

Sexual Threats Stifle Some Female Bloggers, by Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, 30 April 07

Fear of Blogging: Why women shouldn't apologize for being afraid of threats on the Web, by Dahlia Lithwick, Slate, 4 May 07

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