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content envy

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I want to spin my next set of comments off the tail end of Clancy's first carnival entry:

Anyway, one of my contentions is with Fulkerson's "content envy" observation: "Both the lit-based course and the cultural studies course reflect, I suspect, content envy on the part of writing teachers" (663). As I said before, I think that having a balance between form and content is a Good Thing; having a nice, coherent course theme grounds the writing and gives it some context. Maybe he's not arguing against having themed writing courses, but his criticism of mimeticism in writing courses leads me to think otherwise (662)...

First, I want to qualify what I'm about to write by saying that there is a great deal of merit to Fulkerson's observations, at least when it comes to the oddly flat model of "social construction" that circulates through our field. I think that there are some curricula where "reading what others have written" comes to stand for the social (sometimes with a little peer review, sometimes not), and in a fashion that represents a pretty limited shift away from CTR.

So, second. I can't be the only one who's a little unnerved by the implicit gendering behind a phrase like "content envy," can I? More on this in a moment.

It's no accident, I think, that Fulkerson ends up rehabilitating Hairston, whose argument (one that I never quite understood) was that we should feel free to make connections and draw on resources from across the disciplines, except for literary criticism. And half of what was being called literary criticism, even at the time, was being cribbed from other disciplines anyway, which lent Hairston's argument some of the intemperance (666) that Fulkerson bemoans.

More to the point, though, Hairston's argument (and to a degree, Fulkerson's) are provincial. The gendered phrase "content envy" speaks of the family drama played out in earlier generations of English departments between Daddy Literature and Mommy Composition, a drama that helps to contextualize Hairston's contribution to the discussion a little bit. We shouldn't be trying to be like them, she argued, because they were responsible for the crummy model (paradigm?) of instruction that we have been trying to break from for years and years.

But, setting the old winds of change aside for a minute, this argument feels a little thin to me, and not just because I'm in a freestanding writing program. The other day, I mentioned Laura Wilder's update of Fahnestock and Secor's "Rhetoric of Literary Criticism." In that article, F&S survey a broad range of critical articles, and distill them, arriving at a set of topoi that literary critics draw upon to make their arguments in journals. When Wilder revisits that study (or more accurately, performs her own on more recent texts), she finds ample evidence to support the list of topoi that F&S locate, but she adds a couple of others that speak to some shifts in the ways that literary critics operate nowadays. One of them in particular she calls "social justice":

The assumption in this topos is that literature and life is connected--that literature, regardless of when it was written, speaks to our present condition. But more precisely, the articles that invoked this topos sought in that assumed connection avenues toward social justice through advocating social change (98).

So here's my question: if turning to CCS (and the corresponding desire for our students' intellectual liberation) in composition is a symptom of content envy, then what does it say of literature scholarship (and, I presume, literary pedagogy as well) that there seems to be a similar turn there? Surely, literature scholars aren't acting out their own "content envy" as well, since they supposedly have the "content" we "envy"?

And here's my answer: the "turn" to social relevance, in both disciplines (and almost certainly more besides) is symptomatic of a much broader phenomenon that we might locate in the humanities in general: the charge of irrelevance. It's provincial to imagine that all we see as comp-lumbians are our lit-huanian colleagues, when in fact, we have to teach future engineers, lawyers, doctors, MBAs, etc., many of whom don't come into our classes (nor leave them) with a great deal of respect for what we do. And that lack of respect is a faint echo of the gradual erosion of the importance of the humanities in this country.

I don't mean to suggest that each of us walks into our classrooms thinking to stem the tide of an entire culture, but that motive is as least as likely as Fulkerson's suggestion that we seek "to empower or liberate students by giving them new insights into the injustices of American and transnational capitalism, politics, and complicit mass media." Unconsciously, I think that we respond to a culture that treats intelligence as a flaw and that treats the humanities as frivolous and irrelevant by insisting that there is something to be gained by the application of intelligence and by the careful interpretation and analysis of our culture's artifacts and processes.

Does that insistence sometimes come at the cost of our discipline's long-developed understanding of writing? Almost certainly. But like Clancy, I don't think it's an either/or, and I'm less than enchanted at the dismissiveness of describing a large segment of my colleagues as possessed of content envy. That phrase allows a great deal of work to be too easily "denounced as well as ignored."

That is all. More soon.


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Jeff's already got some good thoughts working on the place(lessness) of technology in Fulkerson's article, so I'm going to open with a different tack than I might otherwise have taken. Derek's riff on itineraries and maps, not to mention the trip I'll be taking in a couple of weeks, has me thinking about destinations and such.

And I must admit, as I was reading through the article the first time, that my eyes tripped a little over Comp-landia. It appears in the first subheading ("Mapping Comp-landia: Now and Then"), right before the first sentence promising "a suggestive picture of large-scale changes in the discipline." The table that follows, the one that lines up the chapters of the two collections Fulkerson discusses, bills itself as "Two Views of the Composition Landscape." All sorts of spatial metaphors abound here, and as Jenny notes, the article closes with Fulkerson echoing Bob Broad's call for "dynamic mapping" of our programs.

So, Comp-landia. Not Rhetoria, Saskatchewriting, or the District of Comp-lumbia. How much more do I need to say here? Heimlich is quite literally "home-like," and already I'm a little leery of what's to follow, because I don't recognize myself as a citizen of Comp-landia. Maybe something closer to a dual (or trial?) citizenship, perhaps. Already there's a "home-ly" assertion here that I'm not entirely on board with.

And still, I was ready to reserve judgment. I distributed the first few pages of this article to my graduate class this summer, at a time when they were reading Fahnestock and Secor's "Rhetoric of Literary Criticism," Laura Wilder's recent "revisit" to that article from Written Communication, and Richard McNabb's study of opening gestures in graduate student submissions to Rhetoric Review. From the first few pages of Fulkerson's article, I anticipated a close reading of two exemplary texts, two instances of the same genre, that would be used to suggest some differences between the times and places they were written and collected. I expected that, at some point, the case might be made for the texts' status as representative anecdotes of, if not the entire field, at least that portion of it devoted to the teaching of first-year writing.

There are some moments where my expectation of close reading is at least acknowledged, if not fulfilled. For example, Fulkerson's comparison of Lauer's and Covino's respective chapters on rhetorical pedagogy (672) hints at the possibility of a close read, I suppose. And there's certainly enough information about each book to give the reader a general sense of each.

And yet. Maybe it's too facile, but I was struck by some of the basic differences between the books, like the fact that Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition was published by NCTE, while A Guide to Composition Pedagogies comes to us from Oxford, not the most comp-friendly press out there, and one much more likely to publish a relatively conservative, "scholarized" version of composition than, say, NCTE or BCH. And I think that's reflected in the titles themselves: "approaches to teaching" on the one hand, and a "guide to pedagogies" on the other. The latter volume is a victim, to a certain extent, of academic nominalization. The rule for chapter titling in this recent volume is so strict that, rather than break the pattern of "X Pedagogy" (9 or 10 of the 12 chapters, depending on how you count), they allow the title of Becky Howard's chapter, on "Collaborative Pedagogy," to stand, even though that title is misleading (my first thought upon seeing it was "team-teaching," not using collaboration in one's pedagogy). Approaches to teaching are flexible, negotiable, and variable in my mind; a guide to pedagogies surveys a terrain (Comp-landia, perhaps) where the provinces are clearly demarcated and established.

I find it no accident that the method Fulkerson uses tends towards the latter model of envisioning the field, because he himself is one of the most active contributors (along with Berlin, Faigley, et al.) to that model. Tate et al. write in their preface that the word "pedagogy" is widely used and poorly defined, and while that may be true, I'd argue that "composition pedagogies" have seen a great deal of definition and explication, enough so that the weird flattening of the term that appears in the Guide doesn't merit a mention. In some chapters, it refers to particular sites, in some places to specific techniques or approaches, in some places to philosophies. The end result of this is that, for me, at least, "pedagogy" feels a lot like "excellence" as Bill Readings describes it, an empty term that can be infused with whatever seems appropriate.

I really didn't plan on going on and on like this, so I'll save some comments for another post. Let me close, though, by suggesting that it feels a little like Fulkerson is trying to put the genie back in the bottle, a genie that he played some role in releasing in the first place. To return to Jeff's observation, there's really no question (among F's quartet) for which technology is the answer, and so he just ignores it. And I get the feeling that the other "new" approaches that he names are similarly ill-suited for the grid, enough so that there are places where it feels like he doesn't quite get them, either. The funny thing about this is that, like Jenny, I'm actually sympathetic to several of the claims made here. But they're erected on a foundation that doesn't actually support them. There's a feint here, at the beginning of the article, that implies one approach to his attempt "to make personal sense of composition studies" while it actually takes another.

And that other is more personal observation than anything else. And I'll write a little about those in a day or two...

That is all, for now.

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