Note: This post is part of a series on “Teaching First Year Composition.”
There are many different ways to organize a composition course. Outcomes A-F, discussed in the previous post, imply an applied rhetoric course, a course designed to prepare students to participate effectively in a variety of rhetorical contexts through concepts from classical and modern rhetoric. In the recent past, many courses were focused on formal characteristics of writing including grammatical correctness, idiomatic consistency, organizational formulas, topic sentences and transitions. This approach came to be known by the paradoxical name of “Current Traditional Rhetoric” or CTR. When I was first learning to be a composition instructor, the CTR approach was being challenged by the “process” approach, with the slogan “Teach process, not product!”
The interest in the writing process originated in work done by Janet Emig, especially in her 1971 monograph, The Composing Processes of 12th Graders. Initially, researchers imagined a four-stage process: pre-writing, composing, revising, proofreading. This four-stage model eventually became more and more complicated until it became less and less useful in teaching, but the original insight is still important: A student who is trying to do all four tasks at once is likely to struggle with writing.
The process approach was also associated with what has been called the “expressivist” or “vitalist” approach championed by Peter Elbow. This kind of course is focused on the personal essay and on helping students express their own views. For a period of time, the rhetorically-oriented teachers clashed with the expressivists.
This all changed in the 1980’s with the advent of postmodernism and French theorists such as Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. Thus, outcomes G and H:
Postmodernism brought about the practice called “cultural studies.” In a nutshell, cultural studies considers the world to be a text, subject to interpretation. In composition, perhaps the best expression of this approach can be found in James Berlin’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Cultures, which in a previous post I called, “an exposition of an unabashedly Marxist cultural studies pedagogy aimed at teaching students to recognize the insidious influence of a capitalist/consumerist ideology and to resist hegemonic discourses.” In that same post I discuss Thomas Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric, Žižek, and the Return of the Subject. Here is a passage from my post, beginning with a quote from Rickert:
“Sometime deep in the sixth inning of the 1990s, teaching my latest version of a cultural studies-oriented composition class, it struck me that something was awry. In retrospect, my unit on advertising seems particularly suspect. My students were becoming adept at picking apart ads and identifying their most pernicious features: the inducement to buy unnecessary, expensive items; the achievement of identity and modes of being through products; the reification of unjust class, race and gender roles; and so forth” (1). He reports that he faced little resistance from his students, and that they wrote competent, even excellent papers. Beyond that, there was little change other than growing cynicism, and they still bought the $75 jeans. He asks why “training students to be attentive critics of texts, culture, and ideology so seldom induces real transformation in their lives?” (3).
Rickert’s solution is to develop a Lacanian pedagogy of desire. If you are interested in that, you might want to read the rest of the post linked above.
Should You Teach Cultural Studies?
Because Rickert’s experience with a cultural studies pedagogy resonates with my own, when I teach my seminar in teaching writing, I tend to downplay cultural studies and recommend other approaches. However, I find that most grad students who begin teaching want to implement a cultural studies design. Why is that?
I think there are a number of reasons:
- Cultural studies is readily applicable to the issues that students and teachers are passionate about.
- Cultural studies is an “unmasking” process. It goes beyond the arguments, facts, and rhetorical appeals to an inspection of the ideology behind them. We like thinking that we know what is really going on.
- Social hierarchies such as structural racism and gender norms are enacted and perpetuated through cultural formations that include everything from terministic screens to architecture. Cultural studies is an ideal tool for addressing them.
There are also disadvantages:
- Cultural studies is inherently political and probably progressive in that it challenges the established order. There is no way to step out of ideology altogether and remain in a neutral unbiased state. Conservative students will certainly challenge you, or tune you out.
- The “unmasking” process can challenge the core beliefs of the students. They can become unmoored.
- The above can result in the cynicism that Rickert notices. We probably don’t want our courses to take passionate believers and turn them into apathetic cynics.
Having said all this, I want to note that outcomes G and H are only two of the 15 outcomes in the program. Including a module in the course that explores the ideology embodied in a set of terms or cultural artifacts will probably do more good than harm. As Aristotle said, “Moderation in all things.”