Upsetting Composition Commonplaces

Upsetting Composition Commonplaces

by Ian Barnard


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In Upsetting Composition Commonplaces, Ian Barnard argues that composition still retains the bulk of instructional practices that were used in the decades before poststructuralist theory discredited them. While acknowledging that some of the foundational insights of poststructuralist theory can be difficult to translate to the classroom, Barnard upends several especially intransigent tenets that continue to influence the teaching of writing and how students are encouraged to understand writing.

Using six major principles of writing classrooms and textbooks—clarity, intent, voice, ethnography, audience, and objectivity—Barnard looks at the implications of poststructuralist theory for pedagogy. While suggesting some evocative poststructuralist pedagogical practices, the author focuses on diagnosing the fault lines of composition's refusal of poststructuralism rather than on providing "solutions” in the form of teaching templates.

Upsetting Composition Commonplaces addresses the need to more effectively engage in poststructuralist concepts in composition in an accessible and engaging voice that will advance the conversation about relations between the theory and teaching of writing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874219463
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2014
Edition description: 1
Pages: 172
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Ian Barnard is associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Chapman University. He previously taught for ten years at California State University, Northridge, where he served as chair of the University Writing Council and coordinator of Stretch Composition in the Department of English. Barnard is the author of Queer Race: Cultural Interventions in the Racial Politics of Queer Theory.

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Upsetting Composition Commonplaces

By Ian Barnard

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2014 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87421-947-0



For Theory's Sake

I. Disjunctive Impetuses

Many of the ongoing difficulties teachers face revolve around the "translation" of disciplinary knowledge — especially critical theory — into pedagogical praxis. It often seems that our teaching lags behind our theoretical knowledge by about two decades, and sometimes we wonder if it will ever catch up. This sense of disjunction has been compounded by the difficulty of "teaching" postmodern understandings of subjectivity, truth, and epistemology in increasingly commodified teaching contexts, where consumers expect to purchase clear, identifiable, and literally usable products, and where "knowledge" often means easily digestible and repeatable content rather than analytic skills, critical understandings, or complex world views. Prescriptive "standards," standardized testing, common syllabi, assessments, and outcomes become more important than ideas and dispositions.

Given the growing lag between theory and pedagogy, I am no longer surprised when the law students in my college composition classes believe that good judges are impartial judges, or when the journalism majors insist that effective journalists are objective, despite the fact that both the possibility and desirability of objectivity have been thoroughly discredited in recent and ongoing work in critical anthropology, critical legal studies, postcolonial theory, feminist theory, queer theory, and other fields and disciplines. Either my students' learning in their law, journalism, or other classes is out of sync with cutting-edge scholarship in the disciplines, or their learning is not yet able to withstand the more powerful forces of students' own and societal preassumptions.

This is not to say that writing instructors have been able to avoid theory-practice disjunctions. The order of business in many composition classrooms and textbooks seems to be business as usual. Despite the assaults on ethnographic disciplines and practices that have taken place for almost four decades now, ethnography-focused writing assignments continue unabated in many composition classrooms. And despite the force of postmodern composition theory — which has persuasively critiqued ubiquitous composition practices and notions like "freewriting" and "authentic voice" — there seems to be little let-up in admonitions to "freewrite" or appeals for "authentic voice" in composition classrooms.

These holdovers are not innocent, and have drawn fire as symptoms of composition's intransigence and conservatism. In 1986, Mas'ud Zavarzadeh and Donald Morton denounced first-year composition as the "last bastion of defense of traditional humanism against radical postmodern critical theory" (Zavarzadeh and Morton 1986 — 87, 13). Five years later, Lester Faigley, after having cited Zavarzadeh and Morton's acerbic observation, asked, "[I]f we have indeed entered the era of postmodernity, then why has there been so little change evident in the classroom conditions for teaching college writing?" (Faigley 1992, 165). My goals in writing this book were, in part, to find out if Zavarzadeh and Morton's diagnosis still holds true twenty-five plus years later, and, if so, to attempt some answers to Faigley's question.

Faigley noted the disjunctions between composition and postmodern theory, but also pointed to changes in composition that appeared to begin to address postmodern challenges to traditional humanism, and the theories, practices, and pedagogies of composition that aligned themselves with it. However, Upsetting Composition Commonplaces delivers the discouraging (though unsurprising) news that, twenty years after Faigley published his book, things haven't changed that much. Hence, I use "upsetting" in my title in both senses of the word, to underscore the force of the discouraging news and urge along the much-needed revolution, as well as to signal my aim of doing some upsetting with this book. Each of the following six chapters addresses one of six formative composition commonplaces: clarity, intent, voice, ethnography, audience, and objectivity. In each case, I have chosen a belief (system) and the practices it animates that inform common, often taken-for-granted or taken-as-axiomatic, understandings in composition and the undergirdings of composition pedagogy. And in each case I attempt to upset the commonplace by demonstrating its incoherence, whether in the context of its explicit or implicit execution of values and assumptions that have been discredited by poststructuralist theory, or in its incompatibility with the stated goals of composition studies itself. I also try to account for these disjunctions and offer alternative epistemologies for composition theory and pedagogy that are more theoretically informed and consistent.

These alternatives are not meant to serve as prescriptive correctives, but rather to open up the possibilities of composition. In the introduction to his evocative readings of Derrida, Michael Naas reminds us of Derrida's influence:

And yes, each time we receive the tradition, each time we take it on, we are offered a chance to receive something unforeseeable and unprecedented within it. Although all our thinking, all our receptions, are illuminated in advance by the horizon of our tradition, our turning toward that horizon is not. Each day we turn toward the sun blindly: with each reading we receive the tradition anew and so are given the chance of encountering something that escapes the simple duality of "taking on the tradition" — the simple opposition between accepting or rejecting a tradition as our own. With each reception comes the possibility of rethinking what is our own by receiving it before either we or it have been wholly constituted. For although there may indeed be nothing new under the sun, there is no tradition, no sun even, before we have received it. (Naas 2003, xviii)

I use Naas's admonition to remind my own readers and myself that forms are formative, but not inevitable. I am interested in upsetting the sense of inevitability that often accompanies the composition commonplaces I play with — an inevitability that has been constructed by history, culture, and disciplinarity (including disciplinary histories and the other places where these meaning makers inflect and mediate one another). Later, Naas adds that Derrida's own work analyzes philosophical traditions "in order to reveal something untraditional within them" (Naas 2003, xx). Naas's formulation speaks to dual attempts to resist binary logic in this book: exploding open composition commonplaces to show the differences they house (e.g., rescuing "audience" from expository reductiveness in chapter 6), and a deconstructive impetus to reveal the incoherences already constituted by these commonplaces (e.g., "clarity" meaning everything but clarity in chapter 2).

The diverse antecedents to my work in this book — both in terms of what I see as the central issues that thematize the disjunctions I have described above, as well as the specific scholars who have prompted my interventions — illustrate consistent concerns across sub-fields and theoretical affiliations in rhetoric and composition. In her essay in An Introduction to Composition Studies, Lisa Ede (1991) noted the gaps between theory and practice (and between theory and textbooks) in composition specifically, without going into much detail regarding these gaps. In 1992, Faigley gave a summary of the poststructuralist critique of enlightenment conceptions of subjectivity in Fragments of Rationality (chapter 4) — I will not recapitulate this well-known critique here, but I do briefly discuss some of the attendant motifs of Upsetting Composition Commonplaces in section II below. Faigley's introduction and first chapter provided an overview of the (lack of) impact of postmodern theory and postmodernity on composition studies. A few years later, John Schilb's Between the Lines traced the divergences between composition and literary theory, in particular, noting the differing views of subjectivity, language, and rhetoric in the two fields (Schilb 1996, especially chapter 2). Other scholars who have propelled my own work — primarily in their commentary on the relationship between post-structuralism (in some cases, deconstruction) and composition, on the disjunctions between critical theory and composition, and between composition theory and pedagogy — include Linda Brodkey (1996), Sharon Crowley (1987, 1994), Min-Zhan Lu (1994), Jasper Neel (1988), Louise Wetherbee Phelps (1988), Brooke Rollins (2006), Raúl Sánchez (2005), and Kurt Spellmeyer (1993). Upsetting Composition Commonplaces builds on the work begun by these and other rhetoric and composition scholars by filling out their hunches, using some of their questions as starting points for further investigation, attempting to ask new questions, and using their frameworks to examine some of the composition commonplaces that they don't discuss.

The editors of the recent anthology Beyond Postprocess hint at the change in nuance that characterizes composition in the twenty-first century in their invocation of "the once sacrosanct gravitational pull of the writing subject" (Dobrin, Rice, and Vastola 2011b, 2). Once is the operative word here, pointing to the fact that, albeit quite late in the game, composition can no longer uncritically vaunt discredited humanist constructions of authorship and subjectivity as originating in a unified and autonomous writer. In contrast, gravity and the sacred do not lose their pull overnight; the pull is still there, even though it may no longer be sacrosanct (or gravitational). However, the loss of its power might mean the interrogations can finally be heard, and that the time is now ripe for some of these composition commonplaces to be upset. It is time for new questions to be asked, and new models of composing, teaching, and theorizing to be developed on the heels of these questions. As the Beyond Postprocess editors put it, "In defiance of the commonsensical recognition we may finally ask: Who or what is the subject of writing? What would it mean to understand the subject of writing as strictly textual? How is identity constructed and circulated in writing environments and postmodern writing practices?" (3). These are some of the additional questions that animate my critique of composition "commonplaces" in the following chapters, and which also indicate the continued resilience of discredited conceptualizations of subjectivity and indefensible epistemologies of composing.

The white elephant on the page here is theory itself, the resistance to theory in general, and the resistance to theory in composition, specifically among compositionists (scholars and teachers). Kory Ching (2007) has, in fact, argued that anxiety over theory in composition can be attributed to theory's throwing of cherished composition commonplaces into question. I address the possible ideological stakes in antagonism toward theory — and the ways in which attacks on theory can serve as a cover for other projects — in chapter 2, but I want to briefly riff on Ching's tantalizing point here. Even an unconscious recognition of how the work of theory might undermine common pedagogical practices in composition, as well as the rationales for these practices (and for composition programs and policies as a whole), might instigate backlashes against theory, in addition to the more common fears of and attacks on theory as elitist, inaccessible, and irrelevant. The resistance to theory can also take the form of composition's pedagogical imperative, which I discuss in section IV below. While the insistence that work in composition studies should properly be about teaching can appear to operationalize (and frequently is presented as doing so) a concern for students — and translate composition's social justice disposition into action — it can mask 1) ideological and material antagonism to the arguments of theory, 2) anti- intellectualism (which itself can metonymize political distaste for theory), 3) a reluctance to interrogate and modify/upset one's own pedagogy, and 4) stasis and a resistance to change in general (whether for reasons of arrogance, familiarity, comfort, fear, overwork, or the appalling politics and materialities of contingent academic labor in the United States). If anything, these deferrals and displacements point to the urgency of working through theory and making apparent the often subterranean theoretical impasses in the teaching of composition.

II. Common Threads

Several themes cut across the following chapters, and hence suture together the specific topics I address in Upsetting Composition Commonplaces. I highlight some of their foundations here, in order to avoid unnecessary repetition in chapters 2 — 7, to lay ground for my critiques of composition theory and pedagogy in twenty-first century US, and for my own theoretical, political, compositional, and pedagogical affiliations in this book.

Axiom 1: The Humanist Subject Is Dead

In 1990, Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede predicted that "the challenge of responding to contemporary critiques of the author and of the subject comprises one of the most important tasks faced by those in composition in the coming years" (Lunsford and Ede 1990, 140). Although poststructuralism announced the death knell of the humanist subject, composition — for various reasons and in multifold incarnations that I will attempt to unpack in the following chapters — has been reluctant to let go. Lunsford and Ede's yoking together of the concepts of author and subject hints at composition's particular entanglement in the modernist self, given the difficulty of denying subjectivity to the living authors to which composition attends most closely — students in the classroom. And, as Jeff Rice (2005) suggests, expressivism and process pedagogy are attached to the modernist subject.

In the United States, composition's historical ties to social justice movements — and, in particular, activism for educational equity — linked the idea of process to ideas of individualism, upliftment, and agency that belied poststructuralism's more complicated postulations of subjectivity. However, composition's balking at the evaporation of the liberal subject and its loyalty to romantic myths of the self-contained author also evince a refusal to recognize subjectivity's social constitution and imbrications. As Bruce Horner suggests, "recognizing the social production of consciousness meets with resistance because it undermines the concept of the Author as a quintessentially autonomous individual on which English literary study specifically but also academic institutions and capitalist ideology generally depend" (Horner 2000, 217). I would argue that this is a fortiori the case for composition, as my explorations around intent and voice in chapters 3 and 4 demonstrate. But bourgeois constructions of subjectivity are also intricated in the assumptions about objectivity that I interrogate in chapters 5 (Ethnography) and 7 (Objectivity), since a belief in the self-contained subject is a precursor to the conviction that the subject can get beyond or outside itself, a conviction that undergirds faith in the possibility and desirability of objectivity.

Axiom 2: The Author Is Dead

See axiom 1. Also, cherished romantic constructions of the unitary, solitary author who is the sole originator of His writing have been displaced by the recognition of the culturally and historically contingent nature of authorship, especially in relation to ideologies of individualism and their emergence in bourgeois capitalism. The belief in the Author as sole originator of meaning belies poststructuralism's claims to language's determinations (and unpredictabilities), and to the social and political contexts that shape authorship and writing. What is composition's twenty-first century relationship to what Susan Miller (1989, 3) called "the now easily deniable claptrap of inspired, unitary 'authorship' that contemporary theorists in other fields have so thoroughly deconstructed"?

The romantic visions of authorship persist in composition, as I discuss in chapter 3, despite composition's own investments in process, collaboration, and, now, technology, that seem — notwithstanding Rice (2005) in axiom 1 above — to run starkly counter to Romantic/romantic and modernist constructions of authorship. For poststructuralist theory, assumptions of authenticity — whether in reference to voices, texts, processes of writing, or writing subjects — are constructions that belie the non-self-subsistence of the non-foundational, decentered, and radically contingent subject, a subject that composition studies has often been reticent to embrace. As Faigley pointed out in Fragments of Rationality, composition studies has proven least receptive to postmodern theory in its refusal to surrender

its belief in the writer as an autonomous self, even at a time when extensive group collaboration is practiced in many writing classrooms. Since the beginning of composition teaching in the late nineteenth century, college writing teachers have been heavily invested in the stability of the self and the attendant beliefs that writing can be a means of self-discovery and intellectual self-realization. (Faigley 1992, 15)

Faigley's observations here are important on several counts. Not only does he identify a problematic composition precept, but the internal contradiction he describes in the first sentence quoted above also illustrates a field that is already at odds with itself, in addition to being out of step with postmodern theory. Faigley gestures toward the longevity and resilience of composition's outmoded values and assumptions, both in terms of their historical continuity and in the ways in which they inform, define, and even constitute the discipline. The beliefs that these values and assumptions inform and animate erupt all over composition, from processes like "freewriting" to personal narrative assignments to specialist and institutional rationales for composition courses and programs.


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Table of Contents


1 Introduction: For Theory's Sake,
2 Clarity,
3 Intent,
4 Voice,
5 Ethnography,
6 Audience,
7 Objectivity,
8 Conclusion: Unbecoming Institutions,
About the Author,

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