Last week I wrote a long post on what I see as a dangerous trend in my field’s focus, away from the traditional prose instruction that institutions and policymakers still see as valuable, and towards increasingly abstruse and disconnected subjects in critical pedagogy, pop culture, theory, and digital abstraction. I find these areas to be engaging and generative, personally, but I also believe that they are far harder to defend in the current political climate of the contemporary university, and for that reason, I think they need to be matched with a strong research focus on practical pedagogical advice and empirical research to guide that advice. I believe, in other words, in balance, and I believe that the evidence demonstrates that the field’s research wing is far out of balance. Above, I have embedded a video of the speech at the Conference on College Composition and Communication that initially inspired my post — or really, which inspired the chatter on social media that inspired my post.
I have also recently been debating these issues on a listserv for writing program administrators that includes some of the biggest names in my field. The conversation has been lively and very cathartic for me and I’m glad to have the opportunity. I am happy to be in a field where established scholars are willing to discuss these large issues with a jobless grad student, respectfully and with patience. This is not (trust me) true in many disciplines. I’m not comfortable quoting from emailed responses to a listserv, though this one’s archives are publicly available, so I am just going to copy and paste some of my own submissions myself. This is again long and likely of interest to a small portion of my readership.
Personally, my concern does not stem from an excessive attachment to the word “essay.” It stems instead from looking at the gathering forces of standardization and assessment, which are very high stakes and are coming to many contexts (as much as I hate that), and feeling that the field is producing very little work on the kind of writing that will help students perform well in that environment. I also think that more and more administrations and state legislatures are hostile to the humanities and looking to make cuts wherever they can, and from my limited vantage, I think the field focuses far too little on what those administrators and legislators think of as our purview: writing papers of one form or another. And I think that’s particularly unfortunate because even in this hostile environment, with all of the pressure on the liberal arts and our programs, the case for writing as an essential and valued skill for college students can be made, in a way that protects our disciplinary standing and our funding. But that case can only be made if stakeholders recognize our work as concerned with writing in the traditional sense.
If the problem were just the term “essay,” or the demise of the 5-paragraph essay, I would have little concern at all. But I think the situation is much deeper, which is that our most prestigious journals and conferences appear to have very little room for what most people would recognize as writing pedagogy– training others to better use words on paper (digital or physical) to achieve some rhetorical, analytic, aesthetic, or similar goal. That’s reflected in our graduate programs. How much of a given PhD student’s time in coursework is actually devoted to teaching students how to write papers, or researching writing to discover best pedagogical practices? How many dissertations are being written on those topics?
I would never say we should ONLY concern ourselves with how to write traditional papers; I love multimodal work and theory and political work. The problem is that our research, it seems to me, is dominantly about the latter and very little about the former. You’ve got to render unto Caesar sometimes. Indeed, I want us to prioritize and highlight writing pedagogy in part because that then gives us the kind of institutional protection that can allow political, theoretical, and experimental work to flourish. Instead, I look at the Cs conferences I’ve attended and find it remarkable how rarely I’ve been able to find panels that take as their subject teaching students to write prose, and I deeply worry for what that means for our ability to respond rhetorically to administrative and political demands.
Perhaps my fears are unfounded. But every piece of research I’ve done tells me that standardized testing of college learning is coming to the academy as a mass phenomenon. Further, the continued assault on the humanities and the casualization of academic labor is a threat to everyone. Look at Wisconsin. In response to a hostile governor, the UW schools are forced to close entire programs. An Anthropology program was cut at a UW school entirely. Another UW school said that it would not offer a Women & Gender Studies class for at least three years. That’s outrageous and terrible. And it’s the kind of threat faced by any discipline that doesn’t articulate its pedagogical value to hostile stakeholders. Plenty of people would love it if college writing instruction became an entirely deprofessionalized phenomenon, taught only by at-risk adjuncts. I think that can be opposed, but the field has to think and act strategically to do so. I know I’m not alone in these concerns.
I think it would be helpful if there was more clarity on what exactly the field sees as needing to be left behind. Is it the five paragraph essay, or very strict definitions of the academic paper? Some in this thread seem to think that’s all that’s being left behind. If that’s true, then I’m 100% on board. I think there are lots of ways to teach prose, and I think if done carefully, multimodal and digital work can be integrated very effectively into a class on prose. But some seem to think it’s the teaching and research of prose, the arrangement of words into sentences and paragraphs expressed to serve some rhetorical purpose, that the field needs to leave behind. And I think that’s disciplinary suicide. In the current political economy of the university, refusing to research or teach the subject that institutions pay you to research and teach is the simplest way to get mass de-professionalization of your discipline. You can lament it if you want, but stakeholders in our institutions and in the policy world believe that being able to express yourself in writing persuasively and with clarity is important and worth funding. As the carnage in literature shows, that’s not true of the liberal arts writ large.
And I can’t stress this enough: the message that is sent to doctoral students and young scholars in the field is that the teaching of prose is not valued, that research on teaching prose is not valued. People want careers, and they see what gets published and what gets talked about in conferences, and they take coursework that is about subjects that are very far from traditional prose instruction. The result is a generation of scholars who are producing scholarship that most people outside of the field would not identify as about writing at all. I’m not conservative. I think it’s great that some people are writing dissertations on agential realism and Dr. Who and 3D printing. The problem is that the field seems to produce nothing but dissertations on subjects like these, and almost none on prose instructions. As Holly says, that’s very far from the kind of work most of our graduates are actually going to do in their lives as teachers. And I find that a source of real danger for the field given current labor and political conditions.
So I just wish I knew whether people think that we need to leave behind the essay, whatever that is, or whether we need to leave behind prose instruction in general. If it’s the latter, how do we respond to hostile administrations which are already disinclined to value our work and would love excuses to replace us with contingent labor? How do we respond to powerful departments who complain that their undergraduates can’t write papers? How do we respond to state legislatures calling for standardization of college curricula? I think these are enormously important questions.