following up on the future of rhetoric and composition

Last week I wrote 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.


Fredrik deBoer


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.


Fredrik deBoer


  1. You’re framing the threat to humanities instruction as issuing from above, as in the case of Gov Walker; an administration hostile to progressive values grasping for pretexts to de-fund educational programs that cut against the grain of conservative ideology.

    But what of the other threat? The cost of a college education has skyrocketed, and for most students that means taking on a level of debt that makes getting a degree in a field with sparse job opportunities seem like a really bad idea. If the only jobs one can get in a given field are teaching jobs, unless the ratio of graduates to instructors is one to one, that’s a lot of people graduating with a high level of debt and no realistic plan for repaying it. (To say nothing of those who do get teaching jobs in the new environment, where they are hired as adjuncts and therefore don’t earn enough to pay back loans.)

    Is this an even greater long-term existential threat than politicized spending cuts? And to what extent is the Academy responsible to its students (or “customers,” as they are increasingly being viewed) to prepare them to pay back the debt they are accruing every minute they spend there?

    1. This topic is in fact the subject of my dissertation, more or less, and I can’t adequately respond to it a comment. However, here are some salient points:

      1. The common assumption of terrible job prospects for graduates in humanities majors is profoundly lacking in evidentiary basis.

      2. The tuition crisis, to an enormous degree, is in fact a crisis of funding– of state governments slashing state support for public universities to an enormous degree. If state funding of public universities had held constant from the 70s until today, there would in large measure be no tuition crisis or debt crisis.

      3. The tuition crisis that does exist is the product of rampant increases in the number and pay of college administrators, and in the rampant expansion of expensive physical facilities like dorms, gyms, and dining halls. There is ample room to cut those things while restoring tenured labor as the default in college education.

  2. So maybe documenting high job placement rates for humanities grads is key to staving off program cuts, even more so than modifying curricula to better match the biases of conservative legislators?

    (I’ll admit to my own bias here: As a non-college-grad, seeing employers preferentially hiring graduates with degrees in fields that bear no relationship to the skills required to do the job seem like a de facto system for legalized class discrimination; “if you have enough money to complete your studies in early Renaissance textile art, you seem like the kind of employee we need in this warehouse!” But I realize this is a tangent.)

    1. It is discrimination but it will never be called that because the people that label things are largely (future) college grads.

      The same people who are absolutely convinced that unemployment or income differentials between just about every demographic is evidence that markets don’t work and discrimination is rampant are often quite confident in the ability of the market when it comes to unequal outcomes driven by degrees.

  3. This is only tangentially related, but I’m wondering how you handle students’ grammar/punctuation mistakes. When I took comp/rhet pedagogy classes in grad school, the CW was VERY strongly against using the methods I grew up with: sentence diagramming (actually, this was only barely alive even in my childhood), rule-memorizing, etc. All this, I was told, is “teaching a metalanguage,” and has no bearing on students’ ability to generate sentences that, e.g., actually use commas correctly. Which, OK, fine. But my classes were a lot less specific about what DOES work in teaching students to generate correct sentences–you’d hear a few vague remarks about Kolln’s “rhetorical grammar” and some injunctions to keep things specific and make your example sentences funny, and that was usually it. I’ve experimented with different approaches and had little success, and I know that students really do get judged on such mistakes (albeit by employers or other professors whose own prose is far from flawless). If you feel the slightest inclination to write about your pedagogical approach to this stuff, you’d have at least one very eager reader.

    (Corrected because there was an extra comma in the first sentence! A meta-mistake!)

  4. As a literature master’s student at the University of Louisville, I was surrounded by and became good friends with many Rhet Comp Ph.d. students. I can safely say that, by the end of my time there, the field was almost indistinguishable from cultural studies. Most of the published scholarship was about radical politics (often in the classroom) or popular culture, not writing or the teaching of writing. Also, the field has developed a quality endemic to literature–it uses an enervated, tired jargon that obscures arguments and renders the writing nearly unreadable. It’s a left academic problem, of course, and that’s why it’s become a problem in Rhet Comp. There’s a sense of a very insulated world of people talking to one another in a language only they can understand. I doubt I disagree with the politics of the people doing this research; I’m a leftist, after all. But I’m convinced that it’s professional suicide to develop a hankering for writing about left-wing issues for a living while, at the same time, refusing to express left-wing ideas in a language the average person can at least try to understand. Writing about left-wing issues already places the researcher in an embattled state vis a vis the university and the outside world–very few people are as left-wing as the average humanities academic. To then articulate left-wing ideas in the incomprehensible gobbledygook of the humanities academy is indefensible arrogance and presumption.

    1. Exactly right. All of it. And it’s a perfect example of the perverse incentives of the academic publishing, hiring, and tenure process. People do so much of this work because that’s what gets published and so that’s what gets people tenure. And then the political dimension creates the rhetorical instrument through which other kinds of work are denigrated: what, you don’t care about minority voices? You don’t want to liberate people from hegemonic narratives?

      I mean the biggest journals publish an endless stream of identical pieces about why we can’t teach X in our classes because that puts Y voices “under erasure.” It’s an absolute obsession of our top journals, talking about some minority population in our classrooms and why traditional pedagogy fails them and why we have to change everything to avoid that. I find these pieces immensely condescending to those groups, and essentializing. And they also simply don’t talk to the vast majority of writing teachers in the vast majority of contexts. But if you say so, you’ll be accused of not caring about those minority voices and respecting their needs. So over time those pieces just crowd everything else out and rhet comp becomes indistinguishable from theory and cultural studies. Which invites the question of why we think we’re entitled to a better job market than theory and cultural studies when our research is identical to theirs.

  5. Again, I don’t want to imply that everyone writes in the style I’m critiquing. I also understand that what I’m saying is an old canard that’s been used by conservative critics of the humanities. But, I’m not conservative, and the criticism remains valid, I believe, regardless of who makes it. Conservatives don’t actually care if the writing is better, I think; they just want a reason to criticize the left. But, I actually do care; hell, the requirement that I write like a person who forgot how to express myself in English is a major reason I declined to pursue a Ph.d. in literature (a field with so many problems at this point that it’s hard to see any virtues). I didn’t want to spend my life feeling pressured to write garbage for publication, garbage I didn’t actually care about and felt embarrassed to be writing. And, it didn’t help that I was an adjunct for a year after graduating, teaching six classes per semester at three different schools, all while surrounded by tenured academics in English and Rhet Comp who were publishing pieces expressing radical ideas, and yet none of those people, as best I could tell, were doing anything to help the left, or even us adjuncts. They seemed exactly like the kind of hypocritical radicals who call for the downfall of the state in their writing but protect their bourgeois comforts when it comes down to it.

    1. I mean, part of my deep frustration is that I know personally how committed and sincere and well-meaning many of these people are. But there’s a powerful, enculturated inability to recognize the threat of the current economic reality of the American university. And of all the criticisms, the one I think is the harshest, and one of the most fair, is that all of these people know how to write. They know how to express themselves in prose. They have the skills that they are reluctant to teach or to research. That’s, I think, a profound mistake, both practically and ethically.

      1. Thank you for saying this! I will never forget coming from my graduate class on teaching writing (the first one I had ever taken), where we had just talked about the difficulties in teaching grammar, sentence structure–the basic building blocks of English prose–as if the very act of doing so was an oppressive act, and then going to a conference with a poor student from a rough part of KY who desperately WANTED me to tell him how to develop those building blocks. The disconnect was shocking. It’s when I realized that no one in the field was asking the students if they felt erased. And, as you point out: these people know how to write; they can try to teach this kid who needs help; they can do work that will help give him what he wants. It’s a conscious choice not to, and a very bad one.

  6. Final caveat: I definitely knew some Rhet Comp people at Louisville who agreed with you, Freddie, and Louisville was very much a lively place where this debate was happening in real time in classrooms and meetings across the department. I don’t think all hope is lost, not at all. Too many smart people who care too much. So, I still don’t believe that Rhet Comp is going to completely turn into English, or, at least I hope it doesn’t.

  7. Today I noticed the New York Times website is featuring “Opinion on Facebook” as part of its Sunday Review offering. I’m guessing the analytical and rhetorical quality of that opinion isn’t very high, and it does beg the question why we need university humanities programs at all if the most prominent politicians (and now our most prestigious media outlets) are just going to tap into Joe and Jane Schmo’s streams of consciousness to get the “best” of current written expression.

    I’m very glad you’re writing about this, Freddie, and glad you care about education. We are going through a pretty dark age (I embrace the Roman – Western European hegemonic narrative here) and everybody in charge of our “flagship” educational institutions is more concerned with basketball, football, and Twitter presence than with anything resembling an education for civil society. I fear that the Obama plan to tie federal aid to a new ranking system will shut out all but the richest 5% or so from attending private liberal arts schools, and that state universities will be wholly co-opted by athletic interests. Then, voila, new caste system complete.

  8. “They have the skills that they are reluctant to teach or to research.”

    A thousand times yes! One of the most enraging things about so much “radical pedagogy” is all these people using precise, grammatically-correct sentences to decry the teaching of precision or grammar. It looks less like inclusion and more like pulling up the ladder behind them.

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