Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Since it is the end of the month, it makes sense that I would be finishing up my reading of this month’s College English. In particular, I wish to respond to William M. Morgan’s review essay, “Process and Performance: Style in Composition and Rhetoric,” in which he evaluates and critiques two relatively recently published textbooks. It is not to his specific assessments that I wish to respond, however; I do not know the texts Morgan discusses well enough to either agree or disagree with his valuation of them--although I am inclined to go along with him, given that he specializes in the field and I do not. Rather, I wish to address some few comments that he makes in offering his critiques; they resonate with things that I have been considering recently in the blog (such as the posts I make here and here).

Morgan makes the comment that, given the lack of engagement of compositionists generally with the subject, “public intellectuals specializing in literary criticism and other fields step into the vacuum of discussion about style, and speak for [compositionists] to a public still hungry for a reductive understanding of style as correctness and mechanics” (269-70). That the public does have such a view of writing, of “good English” in general, is amply attested by my own experience. Whenever people find out that I teach English, they promptly inform me that they will mind their usage--despite the fact that they readily admit that “English is not [their] best subject.” My students also look to me first and earliest for help with their commas and spelling--despite the fact that they never follow up on my best advice, which is to read more. I try to stress to my students that the content of what they write--whether it makes a claim and supports that claim with abundant and abundantly explained evidence--is far more important than whether they have every jot and tittle in its exact place. The latter can be corrected with a modicum of time and attention, but the former can only be amended with significant effort--if it can be changed at all.

There is much that is written that is empty, even if it is exceptionally well proofread. That people tend to jump to the idea that it is only in mechanical perfection that a piece of writing be deemed good is a lamentable one, and it underpins, I think, many of the tacit assertions that courses in writing are service courses best relegated to the least skilled in the profession and least able to engage with the students.  And that creates a problem in that it tends to foster students who are taught poorly, thereby lacking the skill sets to make adequate judgements but having in abundance a view of the study of writing that is...less than favorable.

It is a circle that needs to be broken by and by, Lord, by and by.

Morgan adds an invocation of Stanley Fish as an exemplar of the problem he outlines in compositionists not acting as public intellectuals (!) before making the assertion that part of the reason they tend to not do is relates to "the field's history of 'female coding,'" which, "when combined with literacy studies' masculine anxieties about its own prestige and with the relative dearth of women who are recognized as public intellectuals, causes the media and the public to look outside the field for commentators on the state of writing and teaching" (272-73).  I am particularly struck by this remark for a number of reasons.  One is my own wrestling with my identity as a man hailing from the working classes and a family of tradespeople who opted to become a scholar; I very much have "masculine anxieties," although not so much about the field's prestige as about the "female coding" that still persists for teaching and reading at large.  Another relates to that very "female coding."  Most of the professors I had through undergraduate and graduate coursework have been female.  Much of the work done examines the construction of, and works to deconstruct received notions of femininity.  That literary studies, which I have seen as female-dominated in practice (although I will admit that my experience may well be atypical), has "masculine anxieties" strikes me as odd.

Then again, many things strike me as odd, as I do many people.  And, as I said, my experience may well be, well, odd.

Work Cited
~Morgan, William M. “Process and Performance: Style in Composition and Rhetoric.” Review Essay. College English 73.4 (January 2012): 268-81. Print.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


I have been working on my dissertation, trying to finish it up so that I can defend this semester and at long last get my playa-hatin' degree awarded.  I got a couple of pages written already today, and I am tracking down materials to write more.  It annoys, because I thought I would actually be able to get away with working from home today; and now that I realize that's not going to happen, it's really too late for me to get anywhere from whence I can actually gather the materials I would use.


Things have been productive this weekend, though.  In addition to the (insufficient amount of) work I have gotten done so far today, I was able to go get my passport application put in yesterday.  I am planning on taking a trip overseas in the summer, and so I am glad to have gotten at least that one bit of work towards that end done.  And, as ever, my head is bubbling with ideas of other projects for me to undertake.  It is one of the things that tells me I am very much in the right line of work, that I cannot work on one thing without other projects coming to mind from my doing so.  Work on the dissertation points me to other things I might be well-served to do (after the dissing is done, of course).  Contemplation of those things in idle moments when I realize I need to go get more materials but am not in a good position to be able to do so leads me to other ideas for projects.

Scholarship is a vocation, not simply a job, folks.  And I am glad that I have had the luxury and resources to pursue that calling in my lifetime.  More, I am glad to be in a position to be able to earn a living from doing so, rather than having to pursue it as a hobby with an uncertain sustainability.  I know that it is a very middle-class thing to have had working in academia as a major life goal, and my contentment in it is surely a marker of how much among the unmarked population I am.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


As part of the teaching I am engaged in, I try to provide a number of examples to my students of how I want things done.  This semester, I am teaching three classes which have as explicit requirements the composition of summaries; I have them read and summarize articles from the New York Times Opinion/Editorial section, and because I want them to succeed, I show them what kinds of things I want done.  To that end, I recently put together the following summary, posting it to the teaching blog I maintain so that my students can more easily access it:
On 23 January 2012, Stanley Fish's "Mind Your P's and B's: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation" appeared in the online New York Times.  In the article, Fish complains that the tools being developed and employed by digital humanities scholars are changing methods of study for the worse by eliminating the possibility and need for critical interpretation.  He opens by carrying out a mock-reading of Milton's Areopagitica, using it as an exemplar of the kind of work that digital humanities facilitates, pointing out the inadequacy of such work by asserting that the simple existence of a pattern does not suffice to support a given interpretation of that pattern.  Fish moves on to assert that the simple identification of patterns is the focus of digital humanities research, a paradigm diametrically opposed to the methods by which literary criticism has been carried out for nearly a century.  He assails digital humanities work because it does not, in his view, offer closure and meaning, but rather rejects the certainty of meaning that he presents as the end-point of his own critical analysis.  Unfortunately, the article fails to convince for several reasons: he indulges in reductio ad absurdum arguments based on supposition errors (such as a tacit assertion that digital humanities research never approaches a text with an idea of critical approach already in hand, that researchers wholly hand over their agency to the machines), over-simplification, and, in his last paragraph, an excessive degree of smirking sarcasm.
Fish exerts a certain influence on those working in the academic humanities.  For instance, more than a third of Profession 2009 is devoted to responses to and from Stanley Fish; for an annual publication to focus so narrowly on a single scholar bespeaks the importance of that scholar.  Even those people who take issue with him concede that he does have useful things to say.  Patricia Bizzell provides one example ready to hand for me.  Jonathan Culler provides another.  So it is clear that he is worth attention.  And even in critiquing digital scholarship, he is not entirely in error; there are, admittedly, problems with the field.  Some of the questions he raises are questions that need to be asked.  And there are other stress-points in doing digital work; one of the major ones is the shift towards an attitude and social context which facilitate what we currently regard as plagiarism.  It is a potential problem, as I have discussed.

The great opening of information that digital work performs does set up a climate in which anyone can access and contribute to information, and the concepts of ownership of ideas and the receipt of credit for articulating them are becoming more contested.  That Fish makes claims that grate is not a reason to reject him out of hand; he does make a number of good points, and even when he does not, the fact that he does pose questions, that he compels them and the defense of ideas that they entail, is a good thing.  One of the tenets of critical thinking, that chimera we are exhorted to pursue in our classrooms, is that one must question ideas and claims, and in the questioning, they are either strengthened or shown to merit being discarded--an idea DePalma lays out quite succinctly in his article.

That he says what he says is not the problem.  What he says can be argued against--and any scholar should expect that there will be argument against it.  Certainly, Fish's position against the value of the digital humanities is argued against.  Purdy and Walker, for example, assert the need to integrate digital scholarship into the rubrics used for hiring, promotion, and tenure, noting that it is "often more likely than print to be read and used" (190).  Their position is hardly in line with that of Fish.  In addition, Profession 2011 gives as much of itself to discussion of digital scholarship as Profession 2009 devotes to Fish, and it would not likely do so were there not something to discuss about the matter.  In it, Schreibman, Mandell, and Olsen make the point early on that "humanities disciplines must find ways not simply of evaluating but also of valuing digital scholarship" (123).  The position is one more or less diametrically opposed to that Fish outlines in his New York Times piece, and it is one supported by a number of other scholars.  Excellent speller Geoffrey Rockwell, for instance, remarks on the potential for the development of new modes of inquiry by digital scholarship, viewing it as one of the assets of digital work (154-55).  Jerome McGann, whose “On Creating a Usable Future” I have discussed, even asserts digital scholarship as a potential corrective to the crisis in which the academic humanities currently find themselves.  It is hardly a condemnation of the field of study.

No, the problem is not that he says what he says.  The problem is where he says what he says.*

Many people read the New York Times, whether in printed or online format, and so Fish is positioned to be able to address a wide audience through writing for it.  The position is one that not many in academia have; most of us speak to our students and our colleagues about our work and the views we come to have through it, and we try to publish articles and books, but in reality few people outside the academic establishment (and not as many within it as should be the case) pay attention to what goes on within the walls of the proverbial ivory tower.  The affairs of those descended from Chaucer's Clerk do not often penetrate the perceptions of the bulk of people in the United States, something I think I have commented on before (here, here, here, and here, if not elsewhere).  So what Fish writes has the opportunity to exert disproportionate influence on popular perception of the work done by those in the humanities.  When he decides to condemn a field of study, then, he does more than simply express a divergent opinion of scholarly discipline--which he is certainly within his rights to do, both as a human being and as a scholar.  He marshals opposition to the ability of others to do their work--and in that, he undermines himself, for in saying that any one of us working in the academic humanities is wasting time to no good purpose, the accusation that any others of us, or even all of us, are similarly wasteful becomes not just possible but viable.

After all, if even our own are calling into question whether or not the work we do is actually worth doing as a field, as opposed to simply disagreeing about results or specific methods...

Works Cited**
~Bizzell, Patricia. "Composition Studies Saves the World!" Profession 2009 (2009): 94-98. Print.
~Culler, Johnathan. "Writing to Provoke." Profession 2009 (2009): 84-88. Print.
~DePalma, Michael-John. "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief." CCC 63.2 (December 2011): 219-43. Print.
~Fish, Stanley. "Mind Your P's and B's: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation." NYTimes.com. New York Times, 23 January 2010. Web. 24 January 2012.
~McGann, Jerome. “On Creating a Usable Future.” Profession 2011 (2011): 182-95. Print.
~Purdy, James P., and Joyce R. Walker. "Valuing Digital Scholarship: Exploring the Changing Realities of Intellectual Work." Profession 2010 (2010): 177-95. Print.
~Rockwell, Geoffrey. "On the Evaluation of Digital Media as Scholarship." Profession 2011 (2011): 152-68. Print.
~Schreibman, Susan, Laura Mandell, and Stephen Olsen. Introduction. Profession 2011 (2011): 123-35. Print.

*I understand that this comment is somewhat problematic.  I think I explain the reasoning behind it in the following paragraph, but I do know that I appear to tread dangerously close to advocating censorship.  For the record, here as often, I am not generally in favor of restricting speech, particularly academic speech (do I need to make a full disclosure statement here?).  Fish has every right to voice his opinion, and he goes to great length to support that opinion, so that he is exercising sufficiently due diligence--even if he is wrong.  And the Times has the right to print what it pleases, both as an instrument of "the press" and as a business providing a product.  That does not mean that I have to be happy, or that I in fact am happy, to have seen it pop up where it did.  There is a lot of potential for damage in it, and since I am one of those who may be damaged by it, I think I have the right to express my displeasure at the decision no less than did Fish and the Times to make it.

**I am aware of the irony of my employing a preponderance of print sources in discussing digital scholarship.  Many of my sources, however, discuss the necessity of interplay between traditional print and new digital media.  I hope to be aligned with the practice current research suggests is preferable.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


As I mentioned, I have been reading the December 2011 issue of CCC (I took the inter-session break more or less off).  I wrapped it up yesterday, actually, and, as ever, I found it quite engaging.

Of particular interest to me was Michael-John DePalma's "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief."  In the article, DePalma argues that the pragmatism outlined by William James obliges composition teachers to allow the use of religious discourse by students of faith as a means to negotiate the tasks of composition and to perform the acts of knowledge production that are often encouraged in first-year writing.  In doing so, DePalma articulates the commonly-held dichotomy between religious and academic understandings, citing a fair amount of scholarship to assert that the view is widely held before applying James's pragmatism to undermining the view.  He also provides an extended case study of a former student's writing, using it as an exemplar of successful classroom performance by a student who is very much a person of faith.  DePalma is careful to point out the difficulties attendant upon opening mainstream composition teaching to the use of religious resources, but he argues that the benefits to teachers and students justify enduring the challenges thereof.  The article is an effective outline of a pedagogical approach, one well-grounded in theory and speaking to common sense.

While I am going to copy the above summary over to one of my teaching resources, I am for this venue interested more in articulating a response to it.  I have very much felt the discord that DePalma points out between academic and religious discourse.  Having only relatively recently returned to the practice of faith--and not really being very good at it--I find myself uneasily negotiating my identity as a church-going man and a scholar.  All too often, I do find myself caught between my desire to believe in something greater than myself and the trained need to question that information with which I am provided.  This is not aided by the tendency towards professed atheism among those in higher education; I feel as though I must be circumspect in admitting to my membership in a faith community around those with whom I share scholarly endeavors, for I have long known them to deride those who do--and for no other reason than articulating the fact of their faith.

I suppose that in some ways I deserve the unease I feel.  I spent quite a while actively rejecting theistic belief, and even now, I am apt to call the beliefs of others into question--even those whose beliefs ostensibly agree with mine.  So on one level, I am being forced to take what I dish out, and I really ought not to complain about that.

But accepting something as just does not mean that it must be enjoyed, and in DePalma's article, I find there is much to consider.  In New York as in Louisiana, I have classrooms full of students who form their identities in large part around their faith--and the faithful in New York tend to be very much so, since there is nothing like the social pressure towards religious conformity that I experienced growing up where I did.

I went to school with a televangelist's kid, if that clarifies.

In addressing those students, many of whom do form their understanding of the world in large measure through their faith traditions, I have had to tread carefully.  I do not know enough even about my own faith tradition to discuss it in great detail; how, then, can I have meaningful conversations about what my students believe?  And how can I satisfactorily address issues where their beliefs conflict not just with my own but with more broadly held principles of equal treatment and the rejection of stereotyping?

It is because I find myself obliged to address such questions that DePalma's article speaks to me as it does.  I look forward to trying to integrate it into my own work.

Work Cited
DePalma, Michael-John. "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief." CCC 63.2 (December 2011): 219-43. Print.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


I am well aware that it has been some time since I wrote anything in this space.  I am just recently returned from a break in teaching, and I actually took the break more or less off.  So I feel reasonably well rested and ready to proceed into things.

Among those things are the ever-present dissertation--which I am still working on, if perhaps too slowly--and my ongoing readings.  I am in the middle of the most recent CCC at the moment, and, as usual, I have found much to provoke thought in it.  I have no doubt that my responses to it, belated though they are, will appear here before too long.

Some of the materials I prepared for my teaching have served to remind me that I do view a large part of my role as a scholar as being bringing new information and understanding to people.  I have discussed this before, and so I am not going to rehash it, but I do find my commitment to that idea renewed as I begin again on the many projects that I have facing me.

And now I need to move on to another couple of them.

One of note, one to which I should like particular attention paid, is my proposed special session for the South Central Modern Language Association conference, which will be in San Antonio, Texas, this November.  My session is titled Bullshit Studies, and it looks at the forms and deployment of various written and spoken instances of "bullshit"--as defined by Frankfurt and a number of others--so see how they work in their given iterations.  I would like to drum up some more support for it, especially since the existence of the panel has occasioned some negative comment.  So please, take a look, and if you know some folks--scholars or not--who might be interested in putting together short papers on the topic, let them know.  Submissions can be emailed to me at geoffrey.b.elliott@gmail.com.