Hot and humid summer day in DC. In the past, I’ve done plenty of 4th of July celebrations on the Mall between the National Monument and the Capitol, but — with all the security stuff and the crowds — not much inclined to this year, so it’s out to the family’s old no-longer-rural farm for the afternoon. I met up with Joanna for iced coffee drinks yesterday afternoon, and it was good to chat with her for a while.
Lately, I’ve been feeling like the kid stuck inside doing dissertation homework, looking out the window watching everybody else go to the carnival. Well, hell, I figure: I got a couple chapters turned in, and I’ve lately gone back through a couple hundred pages of Raymond Williams; why not spend at least a day over at the Fulkerson Fair?
I share the sentiments of those who found Fulkerson’s retrospective artice — save for its somewhat forcedly polemical ending — rather uncontroversial: to me, there simply wasn’t much that was startling in there. I do think he starts out making an apples-and-oranges comparison with his two texts; differences he sees as “representing a growing ‘scholarizing’ of the field” (657), I see as rather obvious differences in the texts’ genre, audience, and purpose. Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition is a more of a textbook for teachers, aimed at helping new practitioners position themselves within the classroom, while the historical-bibliographical “surveys” of A Guide to Composition Pedagogies are clearly aimed at giving new scholars in composition a sense of the landscape of the discipline — which I think explains quite well the differences Fulkerson rather unfairly complains about on page 672. For that reason, the thrust of Fulkerson’s critique — aimed at the theoretical Balkanization of composition — seems misplaced, since the problem that constitutes the exigency of his critique is essentially that we work through a diverse array of theoretical rationales in service of a somewhat more unified array of practical ends. And on that topic, there’s plenty that’s been said in our literature and elsewhere about the relationship between theory and practice, but that’s not a debate Fulkerson seems interested in pursuing, and — at the moment — nor am I.
Still, there are some obvious points of connection. I was glad to see him bring up Flower and Hayes on page 669: having taken one of Hayes’s cognitivist psychology classes, I’ve often found it curious that compositionists draw a strong distinction between the theoretical scholarship and qualitative research done by Hayes and Flower on cognitive processes and the practical classroom assumption that writing is a process. As Fulkerson points out on 670, “linear rigidity was never faithful to what the process researchers learned,” and people who critique assumptions about what they mistakenly call the writing process are making a category error: again, the fundamental insight is that writing is a process, often sloppy and recursive, but not “formulaic.” The work of Flower and Hayes and our work in the classroom are two sides of the same coin, and perhaps one of the most easily visible correspondences between theory and practice in our field.
Such correspondences between theoretical outlook and classroom practices seem to be what Fulkerson addresses in point 7 of his “Conclusions and Implications” with his characterizations of various institutions. Certainly, “University of Pittsburgh grads are into cultural studies” (680), and that function of the Pitt English Department’s scholarly orientation shows up in the Pitt Writing Program’s first-year composition courses — which are rather different from the University of Massachusetts first-year composition courses, with that being a major motivation for my coming from one institution to the other. I’m not making a value judgment here, but rather pointing out a self-conscious desire of mine to inhabit as broad an understanding as I could of composition’s diverse theories and practices: I find much to recommend the orientations of both programs, and I think those orientations can coexist in our field. So in that sense, I’d take issue with Fulkerson’s use of Gary Olson’s — yes, I think hyperbolic — quotation about “theory wars” in ending his article (681). The assumption seems to be that the different “axiologies” Fulkerson describes cannot co-exist in one course, or at least cannot co-exist with any sort of pedagogical rigor (and the menu analogy he uses to make this point struck me as facile and reductive), but he seems to ignore the fact that he’s borrowed the term “expressive” from James Britton, who argued that a variety of purposes of language use (including the transactional, which seems to be the equivalent of Fulkerson’s catch-all kitchen-sink “rhetorical” category, and the poetic) can and do co-exist in all individuals.
To borrow Leonard Cohen’s words: “There is a war between the ones who say there is a war / And the ones who say there isn’t.”