By Damian C. Koshnick
Many years ago in a junior high civics course, I remember being introduced to the idea of a democrat and a republican. In the requisite textbook there was a short, bulleted list of the respective platforms. Not long after, I was frustrated. The textbook offered no connective tissue, no explanation from one statement of belief to the next; neither did my teacher who clearly valued his role as a hockey coach more than that of our civics teacher. At that time, of course, I was not familiar with the divisions, the belief systems, or the issues that defined one party from another, but I had to memorize those short lists of what was a democrat and what was a republican for a test at the end of the week. My mind raced, “But why this and not that? Why that, and not this?”
The same thing happened to me twelve years ago during my first weeks of graduate school. I was introduced to the history of composition studies in a class on theory. In those first weeks and certainly through that first year, I remember feeling what Bartholomae (1985) described. When introduced to the university, we mimic, we take on roles to gain entry. I was a ventriloquist, taking on the voices and beliefs of nearly every assigned reading. Everything, in bits and pieces made perfect sense. Everything was an equally viable contribution toward a greater understanding of an imposing discipline. Our professor, an excellent teacher, was not prone to handing out slogans, or given to simplifying matters. Looking back, I assume that he did not want to impose his perspective, or to short-circuit our messy journey of discovery between theories and their surreal authors whose names became, themselves, something to hold on to. Although I have gained critical distance in the more than decade since, my sense of the formidable nature of composition studies as a field has lessened, but not dissipated.
In those earliest, inchoate days I was only interested in the relatively carefree association of attending classes, enjoying the company of my small cohort, and occasionally demonstrating my knowledge in end of the quarter in essays written to my professors. At that time, I was primarily interested in the aesthetic gain of reading and talking about ideas-as-ideas. I wanted to make composition studies as a field “hang together” because it seemed to me a challenging, complex intellectual puzzle.
But, our relationship to knowledge and our perspectives on that knowledge within a field noticeably shift when we act in different circumstances and take on different roles. I recognize this in my own history, and it is emphasized by the fact that over the last twelve years I have played significantly different roles in five very different academic institutions. When I think about my time in and between these settings, a mash-up of William James’ title comes to mind –on “the varieties of English experience”. The degree of variety, the utter plurality of experience is inspiring. There are many ways to measure this difference –in focus, in purpose, in action, or between individuals, colleagues, departments, the universities themselves etc. For example, many good teachers care about knowledge only in as much as it can be applied to some advantage in their classrooms. Others relish the role of debating theory and pedagogy with departmental colleagues. Some, want to contribute to theory and knowledge in the field itself, publishing in national journals and attending conferences, etc. My own interests have changed at every stop, generally enlarging in ambition and scope. But a great deal has been learned through observation, and the willing adoption of local interests, which without much haste I typically came to share; I value, it seems common action. Perfectly defensible teaching-of-writing happens in many contexts; takes on many forms; and calls many guiding principles by different names. This is how, in the end I have come to this present task. My understanding of composition studies has advanced as much through my own personal growth across contexts as it has through the discovery and application of our formal literature along the way. It is the unusual nature of mixing the two that presents new difficulties even when some discovery seemed to convey resolution.
As Phelps (1988) noted, theorizing is autobiographical. And what I have come to understand about the field of composition studies neatly parallels what I have come to understand about myself as a professional within it. Upon entering the profession, I assumed that there was a center, that there was a conceptual place that I would eventually discover by which the broadest structures of the field would reveal themselves. After a bewildering introduction, I came as many peers did to take comfort in the phrase “process-approach”. But more so, I came to value it for its yin-yang relationship to “current-traditionalism,” or more abstractly stated –product versus process. In our age, even now, this easy dichotomy should not be dismissed; it played a useful part in my own development. During my first quarters teaching writing, I emphasized time for revision, multiple drafts, peer review, etc. These were things that I absorbed from somewhere. But whatever the details of my use of “process” in the classroom, my adherence to it along with colleagues afforded us a collective “in-ness,” a cache. Or at least we believed it did; we knew the “secret language” of good writing instruction; we knew what writing teachers did. That confidence, albeit temporary, was vital. The certainty of “process” however shallowly defined and imperfectly applied, was buttressed by our belief that there were teachers who did not know what we knew –they only graded final products. It was our shorthand. It offered us a reprieve from an otherwise imposing task –teaching– in an otherwise imposing field. But fashionable belief can, and does, eventually stunt discovery and curiosity. Every night doorman grows tired of the password.
And it does not take long to realize that under that thin surface, the forms that instruction takes and the institutional structures in place to support those forms regularly lead to vastly differing pedagogies. At the five institutions in which I have taught –comparing only the first year writing classes between them– I adopted the general conditions at each: Humboldt State University, critical cultural studies; Minnesota State University, literary-oriented pedagogies with a sequence of first year courses in composition taught with titles like “literature and poetry 102,”; Concordia College, a program-wide service-learning pedagogy; University of California, Santa Barbara, a writing-across-the curriculum pedagogy with an associated writing-in-the-disciplines curricular tributary; Allan Hancock Community College, a developmenal English curriculum on an Air Force base. Given this background and my sensitivity to it, it is perhaps not surprising that I am fascinated by studies of the history of English which focus on the nature of its trajectory and development within smaller, local domains. After reading Donahue and Moons’ (2007) Local Histories I have come, recently, to believe that most of us are imbued with at least two disciplinary histories –the local one in which we act effectively if colloquially, and the “meta” one in which we theorize regionally and nationally. If there is cognitive dissonance, we regularly ignore it. If we are perceptive, we recognize potential in the symmetry and in the certain discontinuities; if we are diligent as individuals, we are not constrained by either.
For those that pay attention, this local-meta dynamic could be viewed as problematic (in some instances it is), but on the whole it is a vital source of friction that can replenish our desire to consume, and even produce new theory and research. For it is that –expanding move– the theories and theorizing as thinking heuristics, that often clarifies these sources of friction; or more formally, it is the research, as it accumulates, that acts as a potential corrective. However this mix of local and “meta,” of theory and research, of experience and intuition, of context shifting and role-taking plays out, we rely on both stability and uncertainty. The trick, of course, is to get the balance right.
The nature of “English” and how we attend to it depends upon a wide-range of shifting roles and interests in the individual who moves between contexts with different purposes and responsibilities. What we want for our discipline alternates between our ever-expanding and contracting allegiances to these different realms –our students, our classrooms, our specialized knowledge domains, our department, the university, national conferences, theoretical constructs of the discipline itself. Very often we work toward common gain in many areas at once; very often a quirk, or agitation in recognition of one will cause a ripple effect through the remainder.