There’s Criticism, and Then There’s Criticism

It’s almost transparently self-serving of me but I am happy to see that a recent session on the ‘future’ of Rhetoric and Composition at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference has gotten some attention. (“What Direction for Rhet-Comp?“). It’s self serving because that’s one of the main themes of my book. The ‘hotter’ that topic (at least I hope!) the better my book will do.

On the other hand, the idea of professional self-criticism promulgated in the article (and in a blog post –“Response to ‘What Direction Rhet-Comp‘” — that’s also making the rounds) is typically narrowly focused, if not narrow minded. The problem, to be blunt, is that the piece represents the point of view of privileged academics. The privilege takes two main forms, professional and disciplinary.

First is their unconcern with professional issues. They don’t have to worry about the erosion of tenure or the rise of part time faculty.That part of the “future” is not in play. Second is their confidence in disciplinary boundaries. They don’t have to worry about the legitimacy of their field; that too is simply assumed. No more battles with Literary Studies; that’s a separate department.

So when we talk about the “direction” of Rhet-Comp we are not talking about the need to address the professional and disciplinary fragmentation that cripples English Studies– the divisions between Rhet-Comp and Literary Studies on the one hand, and between the (decreasing numbers of) tenure track professors and everyone else. That would be gauche.

I certainly don’t want to bemoan the call for relevant, community based projects, especially when it’s linked to writing that students will do as professionals or as community members. I certainly agree that the humanities have lost what used to be called its ‘narrative’– the story that gives the investment of time context and meaning. I make these same points in my book.

My problem is that any new media project, however relevant, rings hollow given the ongoing degrading of education on so many other fronts, from labor exploitation to the rise in tuition costs and loss of accessibility. Academics quibble over Foucault– and he’s turning over in his grave over the irony!– while the education system burns. Happy New Year!

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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