Don’t Panic and Bring a Towel

I’ve got at least two other blog posts in mind to write (not to mention lots of end of the semester/school year stuff), but I thought I’d try to write something this morning about Marc Bousquet’s CHE commentary “The Moral Panic In Literary Studies.”  To very briefly summarize: Bousquet notes a fairly long-standing and well-documented demand for folks with PhDs in comp/rhet relative to those with PhDs in literature and how “many faculty members in traditional literary studies have engaged in a backlash discourse against the new or renascent fields, a ‘moral panic’ in defense of traditional literary studies.” Bousquet also goes on to praise composition and rhetoric generally as a field of study and one where its graduates are employable. A long quote:

That a large percentage of tenure­-track hires in English is consistently allocated to composition and rhetoric reflects the rational, reasonable, and growing interest in fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg. More people are doing more kinds of composition than ever before, and they want to learn to do it better.

Scholars of composition and rhetoric generally teach graduate and upper-division courses packed with students who are passionate about the digital publication and media composition now inevitable in every walk of academic, professional, creative, and community-engaged communication. Comp-rhet scholarship and teaching have revived English studies, not diminished it. Programs featuring advanced writing and digital-publication curricula have soaring enrollments, often rescuing undergraduate and graduate English programs from extinction. Over the border in South Carolina, Clemson University has an active, interdisciplinary, but English-studies-based graduate program in rhetoric, communication, and information design. Its job-placement record: 100 percent.

Aaron Barlow has a post here about this essay too, as does Alex Reid right here. I agree with both of them heartily and would encourage you to go to read them. A few brief additional thoughts:

  • I don’t know if I would necessarily use the word “panic” among my colleagues in literature at a place like EMU, an institution different than the “tier one” category of research/ivy league schools I think Bousquet has in mind. What I sense is more of a frustration with the general state of things.  The challenges a lot of my friends and colleagues in literature have is the call to “justify” themselves in terms of things like more hires and support. They tend to use the same kind of slippery commonplaces for saving “The Humanities.”  By the way, the machine generated twitter account “Save Humanities” is interesting reading in a similar context.
  • In contrast, comp/rhet as a field generally is better positioned to respond to these constant calls in higher education for justifying our existence, for accountability to “stakeholders” and taxpayers, for assessment data, etc., etc. The field has always worked at justifying its legitimacy– especially to the folks in literature who have tended to be higher up in the pecking order and who have traditionally thought of comp/rhet as a “lesser” field, one (in the words of Bousquet) that is populated with  “dullards not good enough to read poetry, … lowbrow opportunists, or—worse— … saintly philanthropists who ‘should be appreciated for their love of teaching first-year writing.'”  What I think has happened is that the decades of explaining to colleagues why we weren’t all dullards or saints has served as good practice for making the case about the value of the field to to deans, provosts, and others who make decisions nowadays about things like faculty lines.

That’s not to say we’re all “winning.” Far from it. But if faculty lines are at least one indicator of perceived value and legitimacy within higher education, it’s hard not to agree with Bousquet’s basic point.

  • And this is not just about “young and emerging” scholars versus “the old guard,” in my opinion. I’ve seen plenty of younger/young-ish folks who are dismissive of the new and the digital and of comp/rhet and who long for the days when we could require Milton, and I’ve seen plenty of older/near retirement folks who are still seeking the bleeding edge and who talk about the digital work they’d be taking on if they were starting in the field now.
  • The rise and increased legitimacy of comp/rhet may indeed be “reviving English studies,” but simultaneously, it is leading to different institutional structures like free-standing writing departments.
  • It’s interesting for me to think about this recent Bousquet commentary relative to Ann Larson’s blog post/commentary “Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead.”  In Larson’s long and problematic essay ( I responded to in my post “Not Dead Yet”), Larson argues comp/rhet as a field is actually the problem because (among other things) it’s a field predicated on managing adjunct labor. One of the key thinkers she supports in her position is none other than the previous decade’s Bousquet:

The neoliberal transformation of the university into a corporation staffed by an increasingly precarious class of workers leads us to Marc Bousquet. In How The University Works, he argued that Composition as a discipline has had a particular role in processing under-employed degree holders, those he called the “actual shit of the system—being churned inexorably toward the outside.” Writing programs that employ low-wage teachers are often headed by directors with Composition credentials. In many departments, Compositionists help design and assess writing curricula that are then deployed by part-time teachers in the classroom. Thus, as Bousquet wrote, Composition’s intellectual work has helped to legitimate “the practice of deploying a revolving labor force of graduate employees and other contingent teachers to teach writing.”

Bousquet’s critique of Composition, which he first published in the early 2000s, inspired impassioned rebuttals from some who accused him of looking down on writing teachers and scholars from his perch as a cultural critic.  Joseph Harris wrote that Bousquet, like most faculty in English departments, treated Composition as the “instrumentalist Other of literature.” In JACPeggy O’Neil argued that Bousquet was letting tenured faculty in literary studies off the hook for their “ongoing prejudices against Composition” and that he had failed to recognize that “labor issues are intimately connected disciplinary concerns.”

Now, Bousquet’s critique from way back when (as I understand it at least) is also one that comes from within the field itself: after all, that essay that Larson cites was originally published in JAC and Bousquet is certainly not the first scholar in the field to discuss the labor problems with first year writing and the like.  I just have to wonder what he thought about being cited that way by Larson and what Larson thinks about this more recent commentary.


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