carnivalous: January 2007 Archives

Trimbur Calling

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I hadn't planned on participating until later next month, but for whatever reason, Jeff's comments struck a chord, and sent me back to Trimbur's original article. I may talk more about it then, too, but one of the things that struck me as I looked back over his piece today was Trimbur's call, the way that he frames his essay as a response to a particular debate:

...another debate is currently brewing. You can see signs of it, for example, in Gary A. Olson's response to Wendy Bishop's argument in the lead article of a special issue of College Composition and Communication. According to Bishop, the teaching of writing has fallen victim to the theorists whose convoluted prose has taken the "joy" out of writing, and self-identified "expressivists" such as herself are being marginalized by the theory machine (a claim Olson--and I--find suspect on the grounds she was, after all, elected chair of CCCC). From Olson's perspective, Bishop's complaint represents a "backlash" against the hard-earned work of composition theorists to make the field intellectually respectable.

I've included the whole passage here rather than just the bit of it I want to use. That bit is actually quite small--I'm mainly interested at the moment in the parenthetical comment, Trimbur's off-handed refutation of Bishop's claims to marginality,

(a claim Olson--and I--find suspect on the grounds she was, after all, elected chair of CCCC)

In the next paragraph, Trimbur explains that "I cannot in this article do justice to the full range of issues involved," but that parenthetical remark, in a single line, does the kind of casual injustice to the issues that is far too common in these kinds of discussions. We can't study "the social relations and bodies of knowledge" or argue about the proper scope of our variously named discipline if we're not willing to unravel these kinds of comments and see them for the problems they raise.

At issue for me here are the competing claims made by both Olson and Bishop of marginality--each of them at different points lays claim to underdog status. And Trimbur supports Olson's claim with a reference to Bishop's status as a former CCCC Chair, an elected position and probably the highest profile office or position in our discipline. Well, yes and no.

One of Trimbur's most significant contributions to our discipline, for me, is his observation in "Composition and the Circulation of Writing" that the canon of delivery has been reduced, in contemporary rhetcomp, to the submission of student writing. His essay reopens that canon to the notion of circulation, the various ways that writing travels and the ways that such circulation enables and constrains our understanding of it. The issue that I have with the backhanded, parenthetical "compliment" above is that it disregards what we know about how knowledge and social relations circulate within the discipline.

The easiest way to put this is the following: a person's election to the office of CCCC Chair only tangentially relates to the currency or centrality of that person's avowed positions. One may use certain of the privileges of that office to advance a particular position, but honestly, what happens in Trimbur's parenthesis is a non-sequitur. In fact, one could say that Olson's position as editor of JAC for many years put him in a far more influential position than nearly anyone else in the discipline.

The more complicated way to put this is to acknowledge that the discipline of writing studies or rhetcomp is a deeply-layered ecology of networks, a few of which we might isolate conceptually like this. The discipline is, among other things,

  • a scholarly network, comprised of various genres, publication venues, publication speeds, and specialities;
  • a pedagogical network, running sometimes parallel, sometimes behind, and sometimes perpendicular to the scholarly network;
  • a dispersed set of local, social networks, in the form of writing programs, graduate programs, and/or both; and
  • a national social network, taking place at national and regional conferences, driven in part by the logics of celebrity.

Bishop, Olson, and by extension Trimbur, are engaged in a debate and locating it within the scholarly network, but in the case of the parenthetical remark, evidence for the quality of the scholarship network is being drawn from the social network. Is there some relationship between the two? Of course. But that relationship is not nearly as straightforward as I think we assume. There are multiple paths to celebrity in our field, and it manifests in different ways.

So I don't find it suspect in the least that someone who was elected CCCC Chair might feel that her beliefs are being marginalized--the two things have very little to do with one another. Our names as scholars and the ideas we advance circulate in different ways; each of us may experience those circulations, when it comes to our own names and ideas, as entirely paired and parallel, but they're not. There are people who know me who couldn't tell you the second thing about what I believe, and likewise, there are probably folks out there who have read an article or two by me who couldn't pick my name out of a list.

And that's really just author function. In fact, I may simply be arguing that our particular disciplinary identities are intermixes of various functions that correspond to the different networks that mesh to produce the discipline. And in the case of the capital-d Debates that Trimbur references are capitalized in our field because they combine functions. They get at the heart of the (knowledge) enterprise, but in part, this is because their participants already occupy a fairly central place in the (social) enterprise.

Why make such a big deal out of a prefatory, parenthetical remark? Because at the root of that remark is what I take "writing studies" to mean. Like Jeff, I'd like to see us more sensitive to the multiple networks that inform the practice of writing in any context. And the practice of framing our discipline in terms of Debates over Ideas conducted by Celebrities is one model of circulation that remains fairly invisible to us. It's a model that privileges a particular scale or network while occluding others. And at the heart of Trimbur's essay is a call to draw on our beliefs in one network (a broader conception of the scope of the scholarship of the discipline) and translate them to our local, pedagogical networks in the form of writing majors--"the question "Should writing be studied?" suggests a shift in symbolic space from the workshop to the seminar room," he writes. But shifts like those are never seamless, nor should we trust those who treat them as such. (Nor am I arguing that Trimbur does, by the way--he does admit that this shift can be "wrenching.")

For me, the shift to "writing studies" necessitates the awareness that such a shift ripples across our different networks in various ways. Which is obvious enough, I suppose, except that ours is a discipline where that kind of awareness isn't always on display, to put it kindly.

I fear that this post has become far more about me than about Trimbur. Ah well. I'll try to follow it up with something a little more on point, later in Feb.

Until then, that is all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the carnivalous category from January 2007.

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