One of the more well-known and frequently-cited quotes in rhetoric and composition is Janice Lauer’s definition of rhet/comp as “a dappled discipline.” We are famously diverse, in terms of methodology, epistemology, theoretical assumptions, types of classes taught, departments we belong to, institutional structure…. So it’s typical, here at our biggest shindig, for someone like me to be talking about the use of ideal curves in statistical measures to define lexical density while someone nearby talks about Leibniz and ethical communication. Some people do eye-tracking research, using technology and terminology from educational psychology and ophthalmology; some people study ancient Greek arts and culture through archival and museum work. It’s a big part of what draws me to the field, the teeming diversity and possibility in what we can study, and how. It’s also the source of a lot of institutional anxiety, as we struggle to define our position and purpose within the university.
That institutional anxiety is mirrored, I’ve found, in the scholars themselves. One thing that I realized about the field long ago is that no one feels like they are at the center of it. Nobody feels confident that what they are doing is valued by the field writ large. There are degrees within this, of course. As a quantitative researcher, I can point to a lot of arguments that explicitly deny that such research is appropriate for the field. (That attitude, in my estimation, is fading.) But it seems like almost everyone, to some degree or another, feels like they are an outsider, and that their work is marginalized. Perhaps that’s the consequence of such freedom to self-define: when only you can define your field, you always wonder if you really belong.