cultural studies, ironically, is something of a colonizer

For a large academic project I’m working on, I’ve been trying to do something that is rather rare: discuss cultural studies and its practices in the academy in a nuanced and evenhanded way. Unfortunately, cultural studies and related fields have become the Battle of Verdun in our culture war, and typically any support is sorted by critics into “SJW bullshit” and any criticism into “reactionary proto-fascism” by supporters.

This is unfortunate because like all fields cultural studies has its strengths and its weaknesses. Has cultural studies been stereotyped and caricatured by its critics, reduced to a set of entirely unfair associations and impressions, forced constantly to defend the worst excesses of individual member, and in general been equated with its most controversial work while its most powerful and generative goes largely undiscussed? Absolutely yes. Is there also a powerful culture of groupthink and political conformity in the field, a social system of mutual surveillance where everyone constantly monitors each other for the slightest possible offense, and a set of publishing incentives that actively encourage obscurity and indigestible prose? I think the answer is also yes. But as long as the field is a battlefront in a much larger political-culture war, very few people will feel comfortable nuancing these distinctions, sorting the good from the bad/

What’s hard for people outside of academia (and some within academia) to understand is that cultural studies has a habit of, if you’ll forgive the term, colonizing other fields in the humanities and social sciences. As bad as the reputation of these assorted fields has gotten outside of the academy, and as tenuous as funding is, they have been remarkably successful at insinuating their views and language into other fields – sometimes in good ways, sometimes bad.

I self-identify as an applied linguist, specializing in educational assessment, and I spend most of my time these days reading, researching, and writing work that many would identify with the field of education. But I came up through programs in writing studies/rhetoric and composition, and I retain an interest in that field. I left it, spiritually if nothing else, because I am interested in quantitative empirical approaches to understanding writing, language learning, and assessment, and it had become clear that there was no room for empirical approaches as commonly defined in the field, at least beyond case studies of a handful of students or texts. I don’t think my own path is particularly interesting, but I think it is interesting and relevant how composition changed over time.

See, a lot of the origin story of rhet/comp/writing had to do with its methodological diversity. In the 1960s and 1970s, scholars who valued teaching writing and wanted to do it better were stymied in their English departments, where most faculty considered the study of literature preeminent and pedagogical work unimportant, especially when it came to writing. (This is an origin story, remember, so exaggeration and generalization are to be expected.) At an extreme, some professors who were interested in researching writing pedagogy were told not to bother to put pedagogical articles into their tenure files. These scholars, concentrated particularly in large land grant public universities in the Midwest, decided that they could never be taken seriously within literature-dominant programs and set out to create their own disciplinary and institutional structures.

Core to their new scholarly identity was methodological diversity. Their work was empirical, because investigating what works and what doesn’t when teaching students to write is a necessarily empirical practice. Their work was theoretical, because much of writing pedagogy involves considerations of how students think as well as write, and because the basic tool of humanistic inquiry is abstraction. Their work was also often literary, as many of these professors were trained in literature, retained interest in that field, and saw literature as a key lens through which to teach students to write. Their work was historical, as they often used the ancient study of rhetoric as a set of principles to guide the teaching of writing, supplying a time-tested array of habits and ideas to the somewhat nebulous subject-domain of writing. I could go on.

So you have someone like my grandfather, who predated the field but was something of a proto-member at the University of Illinois, whose large published corpus includes pragmatic pedagogical advice for how to teach students to read and write, essays on poetry that would appear comfortably in a literature journal, research articles where he hooked students up to polygraph machines to better understand how anxiety impacted their writing habits, and political treatises about why the humanities teach us to oppose war in all of its forms. The ability to do so much as a researcher, and get published doing all of it, always seemed very attractive to me.

I had always envisioned a field of writing studies that was as methodologically and philosophically diverse as its lingering reputation. There would be an empirical wing and a cultural studies wing and a practical pedagogy wing and a digital wing, etc…. There’s no reason these things would be mutually exclusive. But as I found as I moved through my graduate programs, in practice cultural studies pretty much ate the field, or so is the case that I’ll be making in this ongoing project I referenced earlier. That’s a big case to make and it requires a healthy portion of a book-length project to make it fairly. I can tell you though that if you pull a random article from a random journal in writing studies you will likely find very little about writing as traditionally understood and a great deal about hegemony, intersectionality, and the gendered violence of discourse. Empirical work as traditionally conceived is almost entirely absent. Today I talk to people in other wings of the humanities who tell me, straight out, that they can’t understand how composition/writing studies is distinct from cultural studies at all.

Why? Well, academia is faddish, particularly as pertains to the job market, and the strange forms of mentorship and patronage that are inherent to its training models means that there are network effects and path dependence that dictate subfields. But more, I think, the moral claims of cultural studies make it uncomfortable to study anything else. Because these critiques tend to make methodological differences not abstract matters of different legitimate points of academic view, but rather straightforwardly moralizing claims about the illegitimacy of given approaches to gathering and disseminating knowledge.

I want to preface this by saying that I know “cultural studies professors say it’s bigoted to do science” sounds like a conservative caricature of the humanities, but it is absolutely a position that is held straightforwardly and unapologetically by many real-world academics. I’m sorry if it seems to confirm ugly stereotypes about the humanities, but it is absolutely the case that there are prominent and influential arguments within the field that represent quantification as not just naive “scientism” but as part of a system of social control, a form of complicity with racism, sexism, and the like. I know this sounds like a story from some bad conservative novel, but it is not unheard of for rooms full of PhDs to applaud when someone says that, for example, witchcraft is just another way of knowledge and that disputing factual claims to its power is cultural hegemony.

The idea that conventional research and pedagogy are straightforwardly tools of power are abundant. +Take Elizabeth Flynn:

…beliefs in the objectivity of the scientist and the neutrality of scientific investigation serve the interests of those in positions of authority and power, usually white males, and serve to exclude those in marginalized positions….

Feminist critiques of the sciences and the social sciences have also made evident the dangers inherent in identifications with fields that have traditionally been male-dominated and valorize epistemologies that endanger those in marginalized positions.

This might sound pretty anodyne, but in the context of academic writing, it’s extreme. In particular, the notion that empirical methodologies actually endanger marginalized people is a serious charge, and one that is now ubiquitous in fields that are social sciences-adjacent. There are those in academia who believe not just that empirical approaches to knowledge are naive or likely to serve the interests of power but actively, materially dangerous to marginalized people. And there are those who prosecute this case within our institutions and journals quite stridently and personally.

This results in some awkward tensions between pedagogical responsibility and political theory. Patricia Bizzell exemplified the perspective that the purpose of teaching is to inspire students to resist hegemony, rather than to learn, say, how to write a paper – and that professors have a vested interested in making sure they stay on that path:

…our dilemma is that we want to empower students to succeed in the dominant culture so that they can transform it from within; but we fear that if they do succeed, their thinking will be changed in such a way that they will no longer want to transform it.

This strange, self-contradictory attitude towards students – valorizing them as agents of political change who should rise up and resist authority while simultaneously condescending to them and assuming that it is the business of professors to dictate their political project – remains a common facet of the contemporary humanities.

The broad rejection of research as a process of learning more about a world outside our heads, and of pedagogy as an attempt to share what we’ve learned therein with students, is quite prevalent. Take the late James Berlin, offering up a critique of these supposedly-naive assumptions:

Certain structures of the material world, the mind, and language, and their correspondence with certain goals, problem-solving heuristics, and solutions in the economic, social, and political are regarded as inherent features of the universe, existing apart from human social intervention. The existent, the good, and the possible are inscribed in the very nature of things as indisputable scientific facts, rather than being seen as humanly devised social constructions always remaining open to discussion.

Well. I am a rather postmodern guy, actually, compared to many, but I confess that I do believe that certain structures of the material world are inherent features of the universe. Though I am always open to a good discussion.

There are many other critics of the pursuit of knowledge as commonly understood in the field’s history, such as Mary Lay, Nancy Blyler, and Carl Herndl, and some of them are quite adamant in their rejection of the inherent hegemonic impulses of conventional research. This post will already be quite long, so I don’t want to get off on a tangent about postmodernism and change. I’ll just quote this apt observation from Zygmunt Bauman:

behind the postmodern ethical paradox hides a genuine practical dilemma: acting on one’s moral convictions is naturally pregnant with a desire to win for such convictions an ever more universal acceptance; but every attempt to do so just smacks of the already discredited bid for domination.

In any event, by 2001 John Trimbur and Diana George would write “cultural studies has insinuated itself into the mainstream of composition.” By 2005, Richard Fulkerson would say plainly, “in point of fact, virtually no one in contemporary composition theory assumes any epistemology other than a vaguely interactionist constructivism. We have rejected quantification and any attempts to reach Truth about our business by scientific means.” And so a field that in my grandfather’s era enjoyed great epistemological and methodological diversity became a field that only told one kind of story.

I don’t mean to exaggerate the uniformity. There are of course critics of the “cultural turn,” whether from empiricists like Davida Charney and Richard Haswell or theorists like Richard Miller and Thomas Rickert. And there is a diversity of subjects in writing studies research. But to a remarkable degree, the epistemological assumptions of cultural studies rule the field, and indeed the way that diversity is achieved is through applying a cultural studies lens to different subjects – a library full of dissertations on the cultural studies approach to Dr. Who, the cultural studies approach to Overwatch, the cultural studies approach the the communicative practices of the EPA, the cultural studies approach to Andrew Pickering’s theoretical construct of “the mangle.” I don’t dismiss any of these projects as projects; I am generally committed to radical cosmopolitanism when it comes to other people’s research interests. But I maintain a belief that the field would be healthier and more capable of defending its disciplinary identity (and its funding) were it to include more straightforward pedagogical work, historical work, and empirical work. But there is genuine fear among graduate students and early-career academics over whether one can wander too far from the field’s contemporary obsessions.

In applied linguistics/second language studies, a fairly close sibling field, I have seen less of a field-wide colonizing and more of a split into two very different camps, which do not have conflict as much as mutual incomprehension. This may be largely an idiosyncratic reading for me, colored more by my personal perceptions than anything else. But I do know that there are people who share the SLS banner whose work cannot talk to each other in any meaningful way. In grad school there were a large number of students whose approach to second language research was entirely in keeping with the mania for critical pedagogy, with student after student writing papers about how second language students should be encouraged to resist the hegemony of first-language practices and recognize the equal value of their own English dialect. At an extreme, this leads you to the position of someone like Suresh Canagarajah, who has long argued that research that compares the linguistic habits of second language speakers to first language counterparts is inherently judgmental and thus inherently offensive.

Meanwhile, these grad students, whose work was almost entirely theoretical and political in its methods and typically eschewed quantification altogether, would attend seminars next to students in language testing, corpus linguistics, or phonology whose work was almost purely quantitative. One group would cite Freire and Foucault while the other would run regressions and hierarchical linear models. This never erupted into real interpersonal conflict; it just meant that you had people whose work was not compatible in any meaningful way. This was always my frustration and fear myself in writing studies: when I spoke the language of effect sizes, ANOVAs, and p-values, I could make my work comprehensible to people from a large variety of fields. When I spoke to people outside the field about work I had read concerning, say, what Bourdieu could tell us about the rhetoric of play in Super Mario Bros, we both ended up at a loss. I know that sounds like a terribly cutting value judgment of that kind of work, but I don’t intend it to be. I mean simply that over time I became too frustrated by how incomprehensible the work I was reading for school appeared to anyone outside of a small handful of subfields. If I understand the field correctly as an outsider, this is a similar dynamic to that of anthropology, where evolutionary anthropologists engage in some of the “hardest” science possible while in the same departments many cultural anthropologists reject their work as inherently masculinist, naively positivist, and hegemonic.

From my completely anecdotal standpoint, the political and cultural side of second language studies is growing, the quantitative side shrinking or breaking off to join other broad disciplinary identities. I might be wrong about that. But either way, I am left to ponder whether these trends threaten the long-term existence of these fields – and by extension the humanities writ large, which are now dominated by a narrow set of political theories that insist on the inherent immorality of many conventional ways of looking at the world and thinking about it. As I have said, I value many things that have emerged from cultural studies. But those within the field sometimes seem eager to confirm every ugly stereotype the outside world has about hectoring, obscure, leftist academics, and there appears to me to be little in the way of professional or social incentives to compel professors to think and speak in a more pragmatically self-defensive way. One of my core beliefs about the academy is that how we talk about our research and teaching matters, that we can act as better or worse defenders of our fields and institutions if we pay attention to what the wider world values. But we are not currently doing a good job of that. At all.

Perhaps this is all just a long fad, and times will change for writing studies and the humanities writ large. There are trends like digital humanities which cut in the opposite direction, though they are ferociously contested in academic debates. I suppose time will tell. I worry that by the time some of these trends have worked themselves out, there will not be much left of the humanities to fight over.

One thought on “cultural studies, ironically, is something of a colonizer

  1. […] Cultural Studies Ironically Is Something Of A Colonizer by Freddie deBoer – An origin story for Writing Studies. The fields initial methodological diversity. Cultural studies took over the field, empirical work has been pushed out. Evidence that some cultural studies professors really do believe its fundamentally bigoted to do science and empirical research endangers marginalized students. The field has become insular. […]

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