4Cs: Reading and Writing

Those familiar with the literature of rhetoric and composition will likely recognize Mariolina Salvatori and David Bleich as two scholars and pedagogues of significant stature in the field. And folks who know me or who’ve been reading here a while know that Mariolina’s scholarship and mentoring have significantly shaped my theoretical and pedagogical perspective, so this presentation was one I wasn’t going to miss. (I’ve got the new book Mariolina co-authored with Patricia Donahue on order.) And I have to say: Patricia Donahue’s introduction of Salvatori and Bleich as two of the most impressively coiffed scholars in composition was certainly apt.:) In any case: it was, as one would expect, an excellent panel, and the panel this year upon which I took by far the most copious notes, feeling like I didn’t dare let my pen slow to miss an insight.

Bleich began his presentation with a provocative statement: universities have never existed solely for the sake of teaching and learning, but rather to serve the governing powers — their patrons and sponsors — all the way back to the 12th century and the Universities of Bologna and Oxford.

The university’s service of the governing powers required the study of rhetoric in Latin, and Latin communalized the privileged and exclusively male students of these medieval universities, just as did some of the life habits (drinking, fighting, whoring) associated with their gender. These students achieved status by mastering the secret and sacred Latin language, a language that was simultaneously the language of knowledge and the language of holiness — and, indeed, even today Latin holds some of its serious and authoritative power. (For those familiar with my fondness for the Romans and for Latin literature, I should probably point out that this is Bleich’s argument, not mine.) Furthermore, higher education was founded on this monolingual element, and Latin meant what the churchmen said it meant: when the priest said, in Latin, that the wafer became the body of Christ, that wafer indeed became the body of Christ. In such a context, heresy meant following a theory of language other than that of Platonic realism. The churchmen wanted to claim that their language uses were universal (I’m sure folks are starting to detect some contemporary parallels, which is clearly Bleich’s intent), while heretical language uses were largely context-driven and pragmatic. Descartes and Galileo, both accused of heresy, attempted via language use to move the transmission of knowledge into the vernacular. Ultimately, Bleich argues, the university scholars who maintain language and its authority act in cooperation with power and authority and the institutions thereof.

And with that argument, Bleich shifts gears to look at “the sad women in the basement” (to use Susan Miller’s characterization of composition teachers) and the increasing domination of English and the humanities by women. Too often, scholars in higher education construct tyranny — rather than male exclusivity — as the domination against which one must struggle in academia. But, Bleich asks, what if that tyranny is male exclusivity? In that case, the sadness will not lift until custody of the university is shared by a more diverse population. If Mina Shaughnessy’s conclusions had been followed to their logical end, we would today have an inclusive university and an inclusive society; we would have today Linda Brodkey’s revolutionary pedagogy investigating the mendacity of the law: but Brodkey’s course was stopped by her own university, because the university has always served the whims correction: interests of those who run it, its authorities and powers, the wealthy white male captains of industry who inevitably sit on Boards of Trustees. (I think of what Bleich characterizes as Brodkey’s pedagogical investigations of mendacity, and my mind turns immediately to the scandals associated with Eason Jordan and Trent Lott, and the involvement of bloggers. Could such Web-based forensic rhetoric be part of the revolution Bleich seems to seek? And if so, might composition teachers who deploy weblogs in their courses ask students to turn their weblogs to similar publicly rhetorical investigations of mendacity?) Bleich asks: what is the connection between the conclusions drawn in the work of scholars like Marilyn Sternglass and Deborah Brandt and the pedagogical practices of actual college writing programs and courses? His answer: absolutely nothing. Our courses today continue to teach writers how to comply with the demands of faculty, to the point where academic discourses function much in the manner that Latin used to in the medieval university.

Look, Bleich urges, at the homogenizing tendencies of today’s surfeit of textbooks on expository and argumentative writing. The very act of teaching writing sends the message that learning writing can be separated out from learning reading, and this divide-and-conquer approach — writing versus reading, orality versus literacy, teaching versus research, theory versus pedagogy — is a technique of domination and control. Bleich concludes by expressing a hope that we might at some point see a tipping point in the university population that will open up the governance of the university itself: only our newly diverse university populations can help us to wake up.

Mariolina (yes, I’ve given up my gendered language experiment for this post, because I know Mariolina and I don’t know David Bleich, and like Collin, I’m deeply uncomfortable defamiliarizing someone I know, and especially someone like Mariolina, who I very much admire) began her presentation “Reading and Writing in Composition Studies” with a historical observation: composition’s investment in investigating the interconnections between reading and writing that bloomed massively in the 1980s debates over the teaching of reading and writing has since substantially declined. The decline of reader-response theory, Mariolina suggests correction: Patricia Harkin has suggested, may have been due to its populist stance that stood in apparent contrariety to the difficulty of Theory. So, Mariolina asks, does reading really not matter — or does it matter in a way different from how we’ve conventionally understood it? And, if so, what might be the effects of this alternate understanding? The work of scholars like Ann Berthoff and David Bleich made it easy for compositionists in the 1980s to deploy the work of continental philosophers as a theoretical foundation for the investigation of connections between reading and writing, connections that were apparently dismissed (did I misinterpret this remark?) by Thomas Newkirk’s suggestion that the relation between reading and writing was unclear and perhaps not worth investigating. Historically speaking, then, why was the connection between reading and writing so ephemeral?

One possibility: because the implications of that connection had not yet adequately filtered into pedagogical practice. Despite and because of the popularity of the mantra “To read is to write” (and, of course, vice versa), the reading-writing connection was reified into fact, into common and axiomatic knowledge, into something not needing investigation. Yet any investigation of the literature — Barthes, Bleich, Fish, Gadamer, Hirsch, Iser, et aliis — quickly demonstrates that the meaning (and pedagogical implications) of said mantra shifts radically depending upon who speaks it. This led to the ascendancy of apparently commonsensical notions (“Learn to write by reading!”) and the foreclosure of any in-depth critical inquiry into theories of reading and writing. According to Mariolina, the most important thing about connecting reading and writing was in learning to teach at that intersection, that hinge, between the two, rather than separating them or privileging one over the other: articulating the transactions that occur at that intersection or hinge required an immense intellectual agility on the part of both teachers and students, at a time when broader political tendencies in the U.S. were demanding simplicity in education. In the heyday of composition’s focus on the intersection of reading and writing, everybody was learning the theory as they went, which made it immensely difficult to conceptualize the reading-writing nexus and its concomitant pedagogy in sustainable ways: it wasn’t that the discipline couldn’t set up and practice a sufficiently rigorous pedagogy, but rather that because of institutional constraints and demands, such a pedagogy was expected to be easy, not difficult. And one consequence of this political circumstance has been a diminished attention in composition to students’ reading practices. Furthermore, this diminished attention has become self-sustaining: CCCC has dropped the Reading and Writing category from its proposal form.

Mariolina concludes by offering a quotation from a student’s reflection on the interconnection of reading and writing. She points out that the observations made in the student’s concluding paragraph indicate a clear intersection with and awareness (perhaps even an inhabiting) of the perspectives of others — which is perhaps the best that any of us might ask of ourselves and our students.

In the Q&A that followed, Mariolina and Bleich both argued that our pedagogies must deeply concern us with the problems of alterity; with the perceptions of the Other. Bleich’s concern was largely with how language is actually used as a social act in ways that might contravene authority; Mariolina posed questions about the connections between textual difficulty and individual subjectivity, and how students’ awareness of the way they internalized the effects of textual difficulty might shape their consciousness of the effects of their texts on others.

It was one of those panels where you walk away happily exhausted, feeling like you’ve learned more than you possibly could have in a semester-long graduate seminar.

4Cs: Reading and Writing

2 thoughts on “4Cs: Reading and Writing

  • September 8, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    I don’t know what remark I made could be interpreted as dismissing the significance of the reading-writing connection. Clearly it is one of the most generative intersections anyone could imagine.

  • September 8, 2005 at 8:40 pm

    Tom, thanks for the response! My note-taking was slow and so I missed the context of Mariolina’s remark. I ran this by Mariolina before posting it, so I’ll ask her again about the reference to your work and see if I can find a cite. As I hope my parenthetical question indicates, I’m uneasy about the risk of misrepresenting either your work or hers, particularly since I find both your work quite valuable: I’ve lately returned to The Performance of Self in thinking about the practice of blogging in composition pedagogy and Thomas de Zengotita’s thoughts in Mediated about the contemporary public performance of self. I’ll try to further clarify here when I’m able to get more information. Thank you again for the comment and the correction — and I’d be grateful to hear more of your thoughts about the role of reading in the composition classroom.

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