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.

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