4Cs Keynote: Who Owns Writing? Part 2

(This is a continuation of my previous post on Doug Hesse’s amazing CCCC keynote address. For the reasons why I’m referring to the CCCC chair, a distinguished scholar who I’ve never met, by his first name, see here.)

Doug continues with another question: who owns the idea of writing; the construction of writing as inquiry, as technical skill? These constructions of writing and its ownership are at the heart of the arguments made by those in the so-called abolitionist movement in composition; the movement offering an end to enslavement for teachers and students and a tearing-down of the plantation of first-year composition. I’d never given much thought to the slavery metaphor implicit in the name those who would abolish first-year composition choose to give themselves, but Doug brings it into startling relief with all its economic implications. The abolitionists are implicitly arguing that students and teachers are forced to labor under conditions they are powerless to change, with the value of their labor entirely appropriated by the institution — which of course is patent nonsense. As Doug notes, the term abolitionist is unfortunate in the way it equates what students and teachers do in the classroom to the massive suffering of millions of African-Americans in what is the hugest and most grievous stain on the face of American history. The term is simply wrong in its hyperbolic and overdetermined nature, and writing is more than the abolitionist cynics would make it. Writing is not the tired colorless busy-work of producing texts that will only be read by so-called Intelligent Essay Assessors — but (I want to ask of Doug’s argument) is perhaps the tension between service and elective, between art and knack, between writing’s use value and its exchange value, is that tension perhaps precisely the thing that constitutes our discipline and sustains our conversations?

Doug names the five spheres of writing that he sees as constituting the work of composition: academic, vocational, personal, belletristic, and civic. Civic writing, he points out, we have turned into a school genre; we have students write about the public sphere rather than in it. Weblogs, however, are not far from personal and belletristic writing, in that they’re done for pleasure and art. (Is that all?) He then moves on to the example of companycommand.com, a Web site started by two former Army officers on their own individual initiative (rather than on the Army’s behest) as a lore-sharing resource for other officers stationed in Iraq; a way to buck the Army hierarchy and share information on a peer-to-peer model, so that those who know exactly what information they need can connect directly to those who have that information, and adds the additional example of wikipedia.org (where he’s recently contributed an entry for CCCC), as evidence for his claim that writing for the civic sphere out of individual motivation rather than institutional motivation is now more common than it’s ever been.

But the Army bought out companycommand.com, and hired the former officers as instructors at West Point. The nature of an activity, Doug argues, changes with who sponsors it, and the ends to which it is put. This, ultimately, is why the question of who owns writing is so important.

Doug closes his presentation as he began, singing:

My Lord what a morning
When the stars shine over all.

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