Pragmatism, disciplinarity and making the work of writing visible in the 21st century
v Table of Contents Chapter 1: T he Hidden Pr esence of Pr agmatism in Composition 1 Chapter 2: Br idging the T heor y Pr actice Gap in Wr iting Center Scholar ship 26 Chapter 3: Wr iting Center s, Metonymy and I nstitutional Discour se 51 Chapter 4: Pr agmatist Conceptions of Play in the Wr iting Center 77 Chapter 5: Pr agmatism and T enur e 100 After wor d: Can Pr agmatism Save I tself Fr om Pr agmatism 127 Wor ks Cited 136
1 Chapter 1: T he Hidden Pr esence of Pr agmatism in Composition At the tail end of my 50-minute daily commute, there’s a billboard on the side of the road featuring a happy young woman in graduation regalia smiling broadly at me. Beneath her pearly- white smile the sign reads, “Real learning for real life.” While the university likely intended this advertising campaign to read in the most straightforward of ways—“go here and you’ll find success,” the elated graduate combined with the emphasis on “real” learning embodies for compositionists a much larger and more complicated problem currently being worked out on a disciplinary level with implications for higher education writ large. The billboard represents a conceptual shift in higher education that drifts away from a traditional liberal arts curriculum and into a more practically-oriented vision of what colleges should be. The university advertising on the billboard, a baccalaureate degree-granting institution with an accelerated program designed to meet the needs of non-traditional college students, is one of the more explicit examples of this trend, to which the declining importance of the humanities can be attributed. Even at traditional land grant state colleges and universities, the most popular majors include management, business and other pre-professional programs designed to introduce students to a specialized career path. If current trends persist, there is ample reason to believe that writing and the study of writing will not meet the same fate as their belle-lettres relatives. For better or for worse, Composition is a field that fits into the paradigm of the corporate university. This is neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but it is something for which scholars in the field have to
2 account when we discuss our role in higher education. Being aware of how we can use our "practicality" as a way to increase our institutional standing while at the same time being mindful of the social justice principles that jump-started the field in the first place (and which may be at odds with the practical vision of higher education) is a philosophical conversation that will be of utmost importance in the 21 st century. Partly as a response to the corporatization of the academy and partly as a way to make sense of a postmodern higher education landscape, composition researchers have started to rethink the term pragmatism as a way to theorize the discipline’s institutional positioning. There are a number of scholars who believe the “pragmatic turn” in Composition will help program administrators and researchers make disciplinary expertise more intelligible to stakeholders both within and outside the university. Scholars in this camp argue that doing this work within the existing macro structure of the university is the most effective way to reform institutional practices because, as Richard E. Miller writes, “education has been a business for well over a century and is sure to remain one for the foreseeable future” (203). For critics like Miller, putting into practice a vision of reform necessitates becoming entrapped by the structure itself. By understanding institutions as changeable rhetorical constructions, we are best able to locate possible sites of resistance and reform. At the core of this Pragmatist resurgence is the idea that our institutions are not faceless monoliths too daunting with which to be engaged, but rather a series of real people who are capable of being persuaded and who make a series of interconnected decisions. In fact the pragmatism-based argument of James Porter and his colleagues won one of Composition and Rhetoric’s highest honors, The Braddock Award, in 2001 for the article “Institutional Critique: A
3 Rhetorical Methodology for Change.” The central claim of the essay is that a brand of pragmatism based on the local, changeable circumstances of a given institution were subject to change through smartly deployed rhetorical action. The widespread acclaim of Porter et al.’s essay signified a move in Composition and Rhetoric that “eschews theoretical abstractions in favor of a materially and spatially situated form of analysis” (613). Porter’s call to not just explain how structures work and point out when they are problematic marks a shift away from postmodern critical theory and attempts to change the conditions of real people in real places through direct, observable action. Despite its resonance within the discipline of Composition and Rhetoric, the arguments of Miller and Porter and the like also have been met with a striking amount of resistance. Critics of the pragmatic turn in Comp/Rhet argue that the fundamental logic of its reform methods acquiesces too easily to the results-oriented, profit-driven conditions created by academic capitalism. For these critics, when compositionists accept the existing terms of work within higher education and embrace a fundamentally unprincipled system, the opportunities for authentic and lasting structural change decline. Pragmatism, then, becomes less a realistic way to do the work of reform than a weak-kneed bow to authority. As Marc Bousquet writes, “What troubles me the most about the pragmatist movement is the way it seeks to curb the ambitions of our speech and rhetoric.” For Bousquet, the pragmatist account dictates that all non-market idealism will be dismissed out of hand and that “complicity with domination” is the only way to effect institutional change (512). This “complicity with domination” Bousquet describes would likely trickle down to students as well. In a higher education environment where students often are treated as consumers of a product, a case articulately can be made that an inability to see
4 beyond an existing capitalist schema reduces the potential of students to see beyond their sometimes unwitting acquiescence to capitalism. Instead of being capable citizens who uphold a democracy as a result of their education, students, lacking the ability to critically assess what’s around them, are reduced to functionaries in a fundamentally exploitive system. To critics of the pragmatist turn, the move away from theory and towards pragmatism is linked closely to the corporatization of higher education. As scholars like Slaughter and Rhoades who have written extensively about the corporatization of the university point out, the distinction between private interests and public responsibility frequently are becoming more blurry. From students being targeted by credit card marketers at the student union, to federally funded researchers holding equity in private corporations, to prospective students being advertised to on billboards, the business of higher education has become more apparent in the higher education landscape of the 21 st century. Because the corporatization of American higher education never has been more pronounced, the need for critical theory never has been greater. In a sense, institutional reformers championing the approach of Miller and Porter are akin to the successful graduate advertised on the billboard—utilizing a problematic system to suit their own needs with no certainty of lasting, intended results. On a disciplinary level, Composition and Rhetoric is at the center of this conflict. Throughout its marginalized history when the teaching of writing within English departments was regarded as auxiliary to the teaching of literature, Composition has existed in order to serve what was seen as the legitimate interest of the university, which in the past was the individual professor’s disciplinary research. The work of teaching writing was left to a contingent and largely female labor force who taught under poor working conditions for little pay. The
5 marginality of Composition within English departments led to a long, hard struggle for academic legitimacy (Berlin; S. Miller; Crowley). Within roughly the last 15 years, Composition and Rhetoric has emerged as a legitimate academic enterprise with at least modest respectability within the academy as a scholarly discipline. The fastest-growing subfield of English Studies is Comp/Rhet and more and more Comp/Rhet specialists are gravitating towards leadership positions within English departments, colleges of arts and sciences and even whole universities. A materialist view of Composition’s ascendancy would say that is no accident and did not happen for the reasons one might expect. Far from being the result of a long, hard struggle by disciplinary pioneers, Composition’s rise “has a great deal to do with its usefulness to upper- management in its legitimating the practice of deploying a revolving labor force … to teach writing” (Bousquet 500). In Bousquet’s mind, the discipline’s complicity with academic capitalism plays a significant role in its status. On the other hand, Porter et al. cite the burgeoning material changes to the discipline as evidence that Composition’s track record for enacting change is strong. Since the 1970s, the professionalization of the teaching of writing has included the establishment of graduate programs, the increased value of researching writing, and “if nothing else, we now have a field where once there was none” (614). Thinking about the history of Composition and Rhetoric is important because questions about the discipline’s role in the university are not going anywhere—they are just changing in scope. Specifically, the role of writing at many sites of higher education has shifted from remediation to an educational point of emphasis. In disciplines all across the university, the importance of studying writing for all students, not just ones tagged as remedial, has been realized. From Writing in the Disciplines programs, to Writing majors, to the increased valuation
6 of writing centers, the financial and ideological commitment to writing in higher education presents a series of potential opportunities for Composition to become an integral part of the educational mission of higher education in the next generation. Unlike in any prior historical moment, Comp/Rhet will have opportunities to be part of the life of a university in previously unimagined ways. Composition and Rhetoric has the potential to play a very prominent, public role within the future of higher education. While this increased institutional stature is exciting, special care must be taken to insure the changes happen in principled ways. To extend the metaphor, it likely would not be worth selling out our old friends and forking over our tater tots just to achieve greater status within the institution. Successful and sustainable writing instruction depends largely on how well writing program administrators, including writing center directors,are able to recognize emerging trends in higher education and effectively communicate what we know about good writing instruction in response to a wider audience both within and outside higher education. Amongst the important question this line of thinking raises for Compositionists is how success will be defined as writing and the teaching of writing is opened up to the larger university. Whose definition counts? Do WPAs and writing center directors have to be willing to cede some control over how successful writing is defined in light of increased institutional visibility? A deep inquiry into how Compositionists best can do this work requires taking a more thorough look at the rich philosophical history of Pragmatism as well as analyzing how pragmatismand materialism can compliment one another in an effort to establish a coherent framework for disciplinary decision-making on both micro and macro levels. In this book, I will
7 explain how Pragmatism can be used to mediate in philosophically and ideologically consistent ways a series of issues facing the field of Composition and Rhetoric as well as writing center scholarship. In an effort to lay the foundation for my argument, I will devote the rest of this chapter to an examination of the history of Pragmatism and explore how the philosophy has been incorporated into Composition and Rhetoric scholarship and outline the major ideological resistance to the idea. After doing this groundwork, I will explain how the reapplication of “real” Pragmatism will continue to be refined through the course of this project. I will pursue four main questions: —How can a detailed treatment of pragmatism as a philosophical movement with a rich history help us better understand the pragmatic turn in Composition research? —How can emerging academic disciplines like writing center scholarship work to establish institutional credibility while at the same time challenging existing structures embedded within them? —How can pragmatism, richly considered, help us think about the ways we make the work of writing centers intelligible to external and internal stakeholders?
8 —What can Pragmatism offer as an ideological framework that will help writing teachers and administrators respond to external institutional pressures and negotiate issues within the discipline? A History of Pragmatism Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which we would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?”—William James, Pragmatism (1907) When early pragmatists like William James asked us to consider the material consequences of our theories, it marked an intellectual move away from capital-P Philosophical questions and attempted to locate a theory of praxis where the validity of our theories and beliefs was tested against the outcomes of real events. The effects of pragmatism were felt in a wide range of disciplines from the social sciences to psychology to law, and they continue to be advanced, most notably, by analytic and legal philosophers. For the pragmatist, theory and practice are inseparable because theories are only useful to the extent they can mediate practical actions (Macklin 279). While pragmatist philosophy has taken on a number of different tracks, ranging from Dewey’s progressive interpretation to Rorty’s use of pragmatism as philosophical criticism, a core tenet of this mode of thinking holds that our sense of reality always is mediated
9 by and constructed through language and that the ambiguity and bias inherent in discourse always leads to an unstable reality. Simply put, pragmatism holds that lasting change cannot occur without simultaneous attention to both the theoretically experimental ideas and the practical application necessary to make these ideas real. The benefits of practically applying ideas are dependent on the validity of the ideas themselves and vice versa. For the Pragmatist, knowledge is a mode of doing because it enables us to interact with the world (Quest 220). Reading Pragmatism this way enabled John Dewey’s interpretation of the philosophy to become more public and also acted as a foundation for Compositionists and Rhetoricians who base a great deal of theory on inquiries into the rhetorical situation. Dewey explains that “For ordinary purposes, that is, practical purposes, the truth and realness of things are synonyms” (“Philosophy” 190). Because the only things we know for sure are ones which we’ve experienced (ex. don’t touch the stove because it’s hot) the best our theories can do is to act as a guide for our future interactions with the world. Simply put, values and theories are hypotheticals that serve as the starting point for inquiry and the validity of that inquiry will be determined by the public consequences of their implementation. C.S. Peirce put a slightly different emphasis on pragmatism. It was his contention that it was impossible and not very helpful to know everything there was to know about the way all things fit together. Instead, what he advocated was an understanding that our experiences are so limited that only the decisions that would get us to a more favorable destination are worthy of our attention. For Peirce, humans’ ability to evolve rested heavily on the ability to keep making these small decisions with increasing degrees of complexity. Peirce saw hope in such a reading of knowledge because this type of “provisional optimism” would guard us against both
10 positivism and idealism (Brent 19). When William James credited Peirce with founding this intellectual movement, he was paying homage to an early articulation of the idea that the value of knowledge is contingent on its worth in the tangible world. For administrators of writing programs, including writing centers, and Compositionists interested in engagement with others outside the discipline more generally, the pragmatic maxim that the ability to determine consequences is a more useful measure of truth than thinking about the essence of something seems salient. However, as I discuss later in this chapter, Composition and Rhetoric as a subfield of English Studies has been slow to warm to pragmatism of any strand. What has been done deals mostly with classroom interactions and semiotics and we haven’t turned to pragmatism to guide our institutional decision making much at all. One of the reasons for this might be the idea that in practice, pragmatism has led to a kind of short-sighted vision that reduces highly complex material into a reductive form of idealism or a mode of thinking long on quick fixes that uphold the status quo and reform only the interests of those in power. James Mackin points out that short-term solutions to problems are always more visible than long-term consequences and many times these short-term solutions emphasize profit or cost-saving as opposed to a utilitarian social good over the long term (301). In my view, however, this criticism is a misreading of pragmatist philosophy because there’s no theorist who advocates for short-term economic interest over long-term social well- being. The problem is that we don’t (and can't, for that matter) have an adequate methodology to determine the long-term efficacy of our rhetorical action. It’s not that pragmatism is reductionist or inherently capitalistic, it’s that consequences that don’t have an easily identifiable bottom line are hard to assess. Consider Dewey’s idea that the ends and means of something always are
11 bound up inextricably in one another (“Later Works” 214). The value of the end is determined by the way we consider the means. Simply put, when the end is not easily discernible, how can we measure success with any certainty? While a pragmatist assessment of outcomes must be comfortable with the ambiguity of measuring progress through a variety of means, I would argue that we make these kinds of choices every time we decide something. In Chapter 2, I show how creatively thinking about practical judgment is a necessary component of any program administrator’s job. I also would go as far as to say it is irrational and wrong-headed to go into any situation concerned completely with the end without considering the means along side it. It is my intention in this book to highlight how every reflective practitioner who makes decisions or tries to make any institutional reform uses a version of pragmatism whether it is named or not. A more in-depth look at pragmatism in Composition and Rhetoric would help us become more mindful of our practices not just in the classroom, but in our institutional decision- making as well. As opposed to taking what we know and value about writing as dogmatic and transmitting those values across the university, thinking about those values from a pragmatist stance would allow the kind of inquiry where what we know is just an impetus for further inquiry and reflection as opposed to a fixed end. In this next section, I briefly will examine materialismas a critique that critics of pragmatism often cite. While both pragmatism and materialist critique are concerned with examining the structural conditions that form institutions, a materialist critique argues for imagining structural change in grander terms. I want to explain how the various applications of materialist critique have a history as rich as that of pragmatism and question whether the two schools are as opposed as some critics have thought them to be.
12 Comp/Rhet’s Treatment of the History of Pragmatism In the critically-acclaimed HBO crime drama The Wire, methodical and precise detective Lester Freamon languished on the margins of the Baltimore Police Department for the bulk of his career. Assigned to monitor the department’s pawnshop after charging a politically-connected local business owner with a crime, the quiet, reflective detective completed his duties in obscurity for the better part of a decade. Eventually, the higher-ups in the departmental bureaucracy forgot about Freamon and he was called out from behind the desk to assist in an investigation involving a major player in the city’s drug trade. After his promotion, Freamon used his shrewd investigative instincts to uncover major clues in the large-scale operation. Quietly, as if he never had left, Freamon began to make in-roads with the police department’s brass and by the time the television series ended, he’d established himself as one of the premier detectives in the city’s homicide department. Freamon’s fall from favor and his subsequent return in some ways acts as a metaphor for pragmatism’s potential place in Composition and Rhetoric research. Never far from the discipline’s practice, but often detached from its theory, pragmatism has been at best nodded to for what it can tell us about our classroom practices and at worst dismissed as weak-kneed subservience to existing academic structures that preferences academic capitalism over institutional reform. In this section, I aim to detail existing literature that takes up the idea of pragmatism in Comp/Rhet and argue how these conceptions, both positive and negative, fail to account for the rich intellectual history of the pragmatist movement.
13 Discussions about pragmatism in Composition and Rhetoric historically have taken two main forms. Ann Berthoff’s well-known book The Making of Meaning argues that C.S. Peirce’s conceptions of pragmatic semiotics are worth noting because they provide a philosophical test for the potential value of other rhetorical theories. Central to Berthoff’s argument for the relevance of Peirce is the idea that psychology and politics are intertwined to the extent that a study of each of them as foundational will lead to positivist thinking that is ultimately antithetical to the notion that writing is a socially-constructed process. More commonly, Comp/Rhet scholars have invoked the more civic-oriented pragmatism of John Dewey as a way to articulate the praxis of process-pedagogy and critical theory in the writing classroom. While Berthoff’s utilization of pragmatist philosophy takes a decidedly rhetorical approach, Stephen Fishman offers pragmatism as an alternative to a more radical pedagogy centered on critique. What Fishman suggests in his essay “Teaching for Student Change: A Deweyan Alernative to Radical Pedagogy” is that a Deweyan approach to the classroom “is an effective alternative to radical or confrontational pedagogy.” Fishman contends this mode of teaching is not intended to shy away from conflict, rather that “conflict must occur within the context of appreciation for cooperative inquiry and the virtues which sustain it” (344). In his case study example, Fishman looks at an approach to handling contentious topics in a class discussion. In this instance, Martin, a student who proffers a series of objectionable comments that Fishman, as a teacher, finds deeply troubling, is allowed to articulate his ideas without immediately being challenged by the teacher. Instead, Martin is listened to and his ideas are subjected to the class’s scrutiny without the teacher stepping into the debate. In approaching the discussion in this way, the teacher exercised the Deweyan principle that people cannot be handed
14 ideas like bricks by either the lecturer or other students. The role of the teacher in this moment was to ensure each speaker in the discussion directly engaged with the topic as careful listeners and considerate speakers. Berthoff’s semiotic approach and Fishman’s attempts to use Pragmatism to rethink the fairly common pedagogical problem of what to do with the contentious student who raises a problematic worldview in the classroom are connected by their explicit attempts to name Pragmatism in what they were doing. Furthermore, these two cases highlight the paradox of Pragmatism within Composition circles—on one hand, attempts to name Pragmatism as what the discipline does have not been engaged with very deeply, but on the other hand, Pragmatism’s mark is all over the work that we do. As far back as 1980, Janet Emig labeled John Dewey’s influence on the field as “everywhere in our work” (12). While the field of Composition rarely mentions explicitly pragmatism as a philosophical movement, Dewey’s association with the American philosophical field is undeniable. Tom Newkirk later tries to use Dewey’s way of conceptualizing experience as a bridge between process-oriented, student-ownership championing and E.D. Hirsch’s highly questionable call for what he termed “cultural literacy” that emphasized subject-specific knowledge (199-208). Other scholars have looked to Dewey more for what his philosophy of education can tell us about the teaching of writing. For example, in Radical Departures,Chris Gallagher inquires more deeply into the Deweyan notion of progressivism. Stephen Fishman posits that one of the reasons Dewey’s work does not figure more prominently in Composition Studies is because he “says so little specifically about writing” (315).
15 While numerous scholars in both Education and Composition have taken up Dewey’s work for what it can tell us about education’s purposes, Donald Jones (1996) is one of the only composition researchers explicitly to name pragmatism as a way to rethink our classroom practices. For Jones, “Dewey can help us realize a pragmatic theory of agency, one that creates a new theoretical context for the best aspects of two supposedly competing pedagogies: writing process and postmodern composition instruction” (2). Jones saw pragmatism as a way of thinking that neither erased the experiences and expertise of any given writer nor ignored the postmodern view of knowledge as a socially constructed experience made possible through dialectics with competing cultural norms. Pragmatism’s explicit influence on writing center scholarship similarly has been slight. Beth Carroll published a narrative in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal that chronicled her development of a tutor training course centered on pragmatic philosophy. Carroll described the desire for a theoretical framework to negotiate the theory/practice binary in writing center work. Drawn to more inquiry-driven writing center research like Beth Boquet’s Noise from the Writing Center and Nancy Grimm’s Good Intentions,but worried new tutors might not be able to identify with the abstractions, she contends pragmatism can be used in a consultant development program because the philosophy “refuses to separate” theory and practice (2). A common thread running through both Comp/Rhet and writing center scholarship is the way pragmatism’s influence looks exclusively at the relationship between teacher and student and director and consultant. One of the primary goals of this project is to explicate how a re- reading of pragmatism can help inform and theorize our professional work outside the classroom or writing center. For too long, pragmatism has been relegated to the pawnshop of our
16 scholarship, recognized only in passing for what it helped us think about in a different historical moment. After tracing the history of materialism in Composition, I will consider the criticisms of pragmatism and suggest that while many of these criticisms indeed are warranted, they are based on problematic interpretations of the philosophy. Pragmatism as the Anti-Theory A common complaint leveled against Pragmatism is that the changes it may enact within institutions are too small in scale to have much lasting effect. Furthermore, critics believe the philosophy to be short-sighted and ahistorical. The alternative, to critics like Teresa Ebert, is a form of critique that views the role of education as the gaining of the recognition that each time we act, we are continuing a series of historical practices that uphold and sometimes challenge the ideology of those in power. Speaking back to postmodern critics who contend the role of critique is an outmoded, modernist conception, Ebert argues, “Critique is the cornerstone of feminist political practices and struggles against exploitive orders of differences produced in global- patriarchal capitalism” (810). The role of critique functions as an agent of institutional reform by exposing the “concealed operations of class and underlying socioeconomic relations connecting the myriad details and seemingly disparate events and representations of our lives” (816). To its detractors, what critique offers that Pragmatism doesn’t is a wide-angled lens through which all salient variables are accounted for and lasting change occurs as the result of class solidarity and collective action, not the well-intentioned whims of a few people within the embedded system. Convinced that dismantling a broken, exploitive system through a careful study of the oppressive material practices in Composition was preferable to working within the system for