Organizing, Advocacy, and Knowledge Work

The Cart, the Horse, and the Road Not Taken; or, incomplete thoughts on Tony Scott’s article

Posted by k. mahoney on March 12, 2008

I just read Tony Scott’s, “The Cart, the Horse, and the Road They are Driving Down: Thinking Ecologically about a New Writing Major,” from the Spring 2007 issue of Composition Studies. On the forth page in, I actually wrote, “hmmm…you interest me, sir.” Whatever. I do that.

Anyway, my point of logging back on tonight and writing is because I found myself with Scott, then arguing with him (OK, with his article). Back and forth the whole way. Scott’s article takes issue with Kathleen Blake Yancey’s 2004 CCCCs chairs address–in particular the lack of a consideration of labor when thinking about developing new undergraduate writing majors. Scott recounts Yancey’s proposal for “new writing majors” as follows:

Yancey proposed a major that emphasizes the ability to adapt to new trends in technology, and rhetoric as situated action. Yancey’s proposal realizes that emerging digital technologies are dramatically changing literacy and that academic writing is increasingly disconnected from the shape that writing is taking virtually everywhere other than classrooms. Postmodern in content and form, the proposal blends visual rhetoric with a creative style of explication, and resists framing the major itself in terms of what one might call traditional disciplinary content (83).

Scott calls attention to Yancey’s focus on circulation–in particular, her desire to have a range of “approaches” to composition “all oriented to the circulation of texts, to genre, to media, and to ways that writing gets made, both individually and culturally” (Yancey, qtd in Scott, 83).

While Scott is sympathetic to Yancey’s interest in grounding a writing major around the concept of circulation (he raises questions–good ones–about how we should theorize circulation), he points out a serious gap in Yancey’s proposal: Labor.

While I certainly find aspects of Yancey’s proposal very engaging and reflective of current scholarly concerns, her avoidance of institutional factors–of the material terms of labor that frame everyday writing pedagogy and the production of students’ texts–is crucial. This avoidance becomes especially salient when Yancy asserts that “First-year composition is a place to begin carrying this [major] forward…” (315). The proposal doesn’t mention the circumstances under which first-year composition is typically taught: it doesn’t mention contingent teaching labor, or the fact that professional scholars with Ph.D.s in rhetoric and composition don’t actually teach the overwhelming majority of first-year composition classes. If professionals in rhetoric and composition who are in a position to do so “carry forward” from first-year composition, will it be as managers and theorizers of a project that further expands the de-professionalization of teaching in academia? (83).

Bread and roses, brother. Seriously. I got my union up. This is exactly the kind of critique that needs to be made of any proposal for a new writing major. As a matter of fact, that is the critique I made of the proposal for a new General Education curriculum not to long ago here. The idea of a new General Education curriculum like a new writing major is great in the abstract. But what happens when you consider issues of labor? The question I raised to then-provost Rinker was “how will we staff an additional 95 sections of a new General Education course?” No answer. In fact, as it turns out, several key articles in the General Education Restructuring Team’s toolbox argued that any attempts to reform General Education curriculum should avoid discussing any issues of resources. Why? Well, you know, that would lead to “turf wars.” My question was aimed at dealing with the question of content and resources as inextricably linked. But I digress (and will do so again later). [note: this is the importance of “having the fight.” That is, not of “giving up” FYC, but staking a claim around issues of labor]

After a very useful discussion of activity theory and marxist theories of circulation, Scott returns to his focus on labor: composition programs–even those programs that have become well established, Ph.D. granting departments–still rely heavily upon contingent labor. Despite the fact that comp/rhet argues furiously for the importance of writing, we still staff the majority of our first-year courses with contingent faculty.

So, the $64,000 question: what is to be done?

And here is where I end up arguing out-loud with the pages in my hands. Here’s where Scott leads us:

Institutional transformation is necessarily local and varied, so eroding the numbers of courses taught by people who don’t hold full professional status will involve a number of measures, perhaps including abandoning the first-year requirement. The issues of “abolition” and situated administrative pragmatism are well-covered and beyond the scope of this essay, but with the development of a variety of classes staffed by fully-vested professional teachers, we might see letting go of first-year composition programs in their present incarnations as liberating. Rhetoric and composition might be able to move into a post-writing program era. Professionals in rhetoric and composition can then get out of the business of teacher management, and postsecondary writing pedagogy can be less constrained by technocratic mechanisms, such as mandatory syllabi and textbooks, and coercive assessments of teachers and student texts. More writing classes can be taught under conditions that enable professionally informed divergence and experimentation in pedagogy (90).

What’s my beef? Well, it’s what’s bypassed by giving up on first-year composition. First, there’s the issue about the purpose of the course and the reason why it is supposed to exist–“supposed to” in the pedagogically sound version, not as the “gatekeeper.” But, more to the point of Scott’s argument, the issue of labor does not go away. Instead of an organizing campaign to unionize contingent faculty, we get downsizing and lay-offs. And, I would argue, we get further de-professionalization insofar as the needs of our students do not go away with the “abolition” of the first-year course. More likely than not the work of tutoring–both through colleges and universities and new on-line writing labs–will be contracted out. When Nike rose as one of the “super brands” it hired the best and the brightest to “build the brand” and engage in “quasi-spiritual marketing,” to use Naomi Klein’s term. But those folks did not make the shoes. Production was contracted out. Out of sight, out of mind. I get concerned about these kind of moves insofar as the alternative of organizing contingent faculty and/or organizing to take back higher education from the logic of the market fades away.


3 Responses to “The Cart, the Horse, and the Road Not Taken; or, incomplete thoughts on Tony Scott’s article”

  1. sethkahn said

    Kevin: You’re probably honing in on the same passage, but the rub is clearest to me right here–

    “so eroding the numbers of courses taught by people who don’t hold full professional status ”

    Why erode the number of courses instead of elevating the professional status of anybody who teaches however many courses we need? Unless he wants to argue that the expansion of FYC is driven by bad market logic (which would be a makeable argument, but it doesn’t sound like the one he’s making), what he’s arguing is akin to, “If we just killed everybody, nobody would get cancer.” No thanx.


  2. […] The Cart, the Horse, and the Road Not Taken; or, incomplete thoughts on Tony Scott’s arti… […]

  3. Ok…So, I read Kathleen Blake Yancey’s article in CCCs and have been thinking a lot about her argument and Scott’s response to her. I didn’t want to re-post my post from my other blog here, but just in case anyone is interested, here’s the link to the post:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: