Literary Texts and Solipsistic Pedagogies

I’m glad to see Michael Faris has prompted a blog CCCarnival around Geoff Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy”: like Faris and others, I found Sirc’s review essay provocative, and I’m currently reading one of the books he reviews, Byron Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition. With Sirc’s essay, Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole has leapt to the top of my to-read pile.

I certainly agree with a number of Sirc’s points, especially his indictment of Berlin-inflected politicized pedagogies that seem to take as their primary goal the alignment of the students’ political ideology with the teachers’. Sirc’s critique that while “there have been too-precious lit profs, . . . there have been too-zealous comp-as-critical-pedagogy teachers as well” (510) echoes the spot-on point Peter Elbow makes in “Pedagogy of the Bamboozled.” However, like many who’ve already responded to the carnival, I also take issue with a lot of what Sirc has to say, both about literature and about pedagogy.

Clancy wholeheartedly endorses (“He’s RIGHT,” she enthuses) his position on the place of literature in the composition classroom, asking affirming Sirc’s question, “If you’re not going to teach a course exclusive of outside reading, why not use the most interesting reading there is?” I’m somewhat (not entirely) in agreement with her and Sirc’s strongly implied distaste for Downs and Wardle’s practice of bringing composition scholarship into the composition classroom — it seems like a bit of a self-indulgently grad-studenty practice — but I’m not sure about the “most interesting reading” statement. (I’m with Steve Krause in this regard: if you want to diminish the possible number of future readers who will enjoy Henry James, assign him to freshmen. I say this as someone who enjoys Henry James.) Clancy’s Sirc’s question seems to put a slightly more positive spin on Sirc’s the indictment of “using a literarily thin corpus of nonfiction readings as prompts” (511), and my response to Sirc and Clancy would be: what are the readings that we’re assigning that are so terribly dull? I’m aware that Sirc has taken exception to Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading, but for me, the readings in that collection — John Edgar Wideman’s “Our Time,” Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Susan Griffin’s “Our Secret,” Richard E. Miller’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (hey! That’s composition scholarship!), David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” — are breathtakingly sexy and engaging and beautiful and smart and cool. When I remember myself as a college freshman, I wish I’d had the good fortune to encounter texts like that in the FYC course I took, in which we focused on literature, and wrote essays about Hamlet and “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”: it felt rote and dull, like we were being made to take our medicine.

That medicinal approach is what I think Clancy is pointing to when she notes “that not everyone talks about composition pedagogy with the passion and seriousness that Sirc does, the warnings that if composition cedes any territory to literature, then first-year writing classes will become literature survey courses using essay exams, or worse, author-title-significance quotation-based short-answer exams. The dreaded slippery slope.” Alex Reid acknowledges a similar concern when he talks about his writing program’s instructors who are forbidden from “turning composition into a literature course. The primary concern is that such courses would lack a focus on writing. A secondary concern is that graduate students would turn such courses into versions of their dissertation projects. . . And one of [the primary concern's] interesting assumptions is that courses in literature don’t pay (much) attention to writing.” From my experience at West Point and elsewhere, I’d revise that last statement to say that courses in literature often don’t pay (much) attention to how writing gets produced: the writing-as-product is assumed to simply exist, an artifact of an encounter with language to be evaluated, graded, and returned, with the point of focus being on the presumedly beautiful object of analysis, rather than on the student’s act of writing. That’s why we moved away from the literature model. As Steve Krause contends, “It’s not that literature cannot be an engaging part of a first-year writing course; it’s just that a first year writing course shouldn’t be about literature, and it turns out there are a lot of texts and subjects and ideas that can ennoble and enrich students’ souls and minds other than literature.” My sympathies are again with Steve: first, we can like certain texts as an aspect of teaching first-year composition (FYC); second, the study of capital-L Literature has no exclusive hold on being ennobling and enriching. But arguing about whether or not we’re engaging “the most interesting reading” indicates to me that we’ve missed the point: the focus of an FYC course should not — must not — be on the outside texts that we introduce. The focus of the FYC course should be on student writing, and to that end, literature is going to be a distraction. This is the flip side of the problematic that Sirc engages: what does it look like to teach composition? Is it mentoring-as-you-go, the Donald Murray method; is it about the process and work and circulation of writing, as Sirc takes aim at with his indictment of the uses of peer review in pedagogy; is it about forms, products, models?

There’s a strong implication in Sirc that it is about models, and I reject that focus on models for a couple of reasons. First, for all Sirc’s would-be radicalism, I think the focus on texts-as-models is inherently conservative, just as a focus on canonical literature is inherently conservative. Sirc notes that he “wouldn’t expect, for example, to learn vocal technique by listening merely (or even mainly) to recordings of other music students; I would need to listen and learn from Caruso, Bjoerling, Corelli, Doming” (516), suggesting that one learns to write by reading the great old texts. I disagree. To paraphrase one of my mentors, Charles Moran, I favor the direct method of instruction: one learns by doing. As I tell the West Point cadets I teach, if you want to be a better runner, you run; if you want to be a better shooter, you shoot; if you want to be a better writer, you write. Occam’s razor places the burden of proof upon those who would argue otherwise.

Second, focusing on literature brings up questions of the necessary scope of a FYC course. If one of the starting points for the ways of talking about how literary texts get produced is Aristotle’s Poetics, and one of the starting points for talking about how persuasive texts get produced is Aristotle’s Rhetoric, then I would trace one of the starting points for the vocabulary of literary criticism — which constitutes the basis for any literary approach — to Longinus and On the Sublime. That’s way too much ground to cover in an FYC course. Sirc, I’m fairly certain, is aware of these distinctions, given the mocking way he dismisses the value of publishing student writing because it “is generated from such a third-degree simulation scenario [that] the only use value [he] can see in such counterfeit scrip is in the board-game world in which it was generated” (516). There’s an obvious nod in such dismissal to what Scholes in Textual Power characterized as the problematic distinction between “literature” and “non-literature” and their simulacra in the “pseudo-literature” of the creative writing classroom and the “pseudo-non-literature” of the composition classroom (7).

But if one is going to make such distinctions, one has to take into consideration questions of purpose and scope. In a 15-week semester, you simply can’t teach an introduction to literature and its accompanying methods and an introduction to composition and its accompanying methods and and introduction to creative writing and its accompanying methods. It doesn’t work. I like to think that my MFA in creative writing might give me some authority in this regard: there’s so much work to do in helping students see how to produce and talk about producing poems and stories, and there’s so much work to do in a literature class in helping students see how to figure out how poems and stories work and what they do, that there’s no possible room for what we do in a composition course. We teach the habits of a writer’s investigative imagination and discovery; we teach how to manage and sequence prose; we teach audience and purpose and how different types of writing do different things (and I think exploring and extending Britton’s taxonomy still holds considerable use here); we teach how to seek out the kinds of feedback and input that will help you revise (and I here wonder that if Sirc is so opposed to editorial input, then what business does he have sitting on Clancy’s dissertation committee?); we teach (most importantly to me) the work and habits and rhythms of becoming a good writer and help students set up the rhetorical spaces in which that regular work has to take place. In accomplishing those tasks, there’s so much to do that I cannot see how any sort of literature- or creative-writing-inflected pedagogy can take place: I’ve got too much to do in my FYC course, not too little.

These objections I’ve raised to Sirc’s arguments lead me to agree with Alex Reid’s summing-up that “this is less about texts than it is about methods. There are two mainstream composition pedagogies that come under critique here. The first is the avowedly political, James Berlin-inspired, cultural studies classroom [and] . . . [t]he other is the even more conventional writing process pedagogy that is only modestly political in its claims for empowerment. What these pedagogies share is an abandonment of affect, imagination, voice, and experimentation for an emphasis on a more mechanistic, predictable, and replicable writing practice.” Now, I’ll admit that my pedagogy is likely vulnerable to some aspects of that second critique: I do believe in the value of habit and regular work that could be characterized as “mechanistic, predictable, and replicable.” At the same time, I certainly don’t think I’m abandoning “affect, imagination, voice, and experimentation,” and for West Point cadets — especially for the plebes — the FYC classroom can be an exciting place where they have the freedom to do risky things and write about what they like and what they imagine and what actually interests them, but it’s also a place where they learn that to do so effectively, to do justice to the things that excite them, takes work — and when they put in that work, they can produce astonishingly good texts. And they like seeing those astonishingly good texts.

In fact, thinking about how student writers value one anothers’ finished products leads me down another pedagogical path. Sirc, in criticizing Joseph Harris, says he “could never teach. . . a course” that “use[d] student text as the primary focus” (516), and and expresses his dislike for the ways such “courses are focused on the artifice of peer response, rather than on an actual writer’s single most important need, the notebook” (517), explicitly contradicting his enthusiastic endorsement of Shipka’s grasp of “how much of a writer’s work is done while walking, watching TV, doodling, shopping, listening to music, even daydreaming in class” (514). That grasp is what I try to capture in the reflections (or production narratives) that I ask students to write on the days that they turn in their assignments. I think I’d like to revise my own pedagogy somewhat so that students not only pay attention to one another’s completed texts, but also to one another’s production narratives, to share their reflections with one another in order to attend to the ways good writing gets written, and how much it’s bound up in the material contexts of individual writers and their interactions with their worlds.

That’s what Sirc ignores. He admits that he’s “received good feedback from editors, but never such that [he] radically rethought a piece or even did more than tweak” and that “[o]utside feedback never really enters into what [he's] doing” (518). Good for him: the lone genius, beyond critique or response. But not all students have that genius: some actually have something to learn, and want to learn. Not all students are English majors with an instinctive love for Henry James. And I reject the projection of Sirc’s solipsistic pedagogy onto all students.

7 thoughts on “Literary Texts and Solipsistic Pedagogies

  1. Kelly Ritter

    Mike: This is a great response to that review; thanks for writing and posting it. And kudos for keeping your response civil, reasoned, and reasonable, even if the review itself is occasionally none of those things.

  2. Pingback: Call for CCCarnival: Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy” | A Collage of Citations

  3. Clancy

    Good points all. Just to be clear, though, the “If you’re not going to teach a course exclusive of outside reading, why not use the most interesting reading there is?” part is not something I wrote; it’s a quotation from Sirc. The way I read your post, it looks like that sentence is attributed to me. Or maybe you meant it as more like a Clancy-endorses-this statement, which is understandable. But I intended the quotation only to explain how my experience at UMN colors my reading of Sirc, especially the “writing studies” remark. It probably would have been better if I’d ended the quotation with the sentence preceding that question: “His is, indeed, writing worth studying.”

    I only espouse literature in the composition classroom insofar as I adhere to the “use all there is to use” idea.

  4. preterite Post author

    Thanks, Clancy — I’ve used the del tag to clarify, and apologize for the mistrepresentation. And thanks, Kelly, as well: as you know, your comment on my less than civil, reasoned, and reasonable response to your article several years ago taught me something about how to try to promote those qualities in scholarly discourse, whether on weblogs or in articles. I’m grateful to you for being a gracious interlocutor, and thinking about the blog traffic around your article helped me temper my response to Sirc’s occasionally intemperate review.

  5. Pingback: Rancière and Stultification « Vitia

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