will english departments

books gifwill english departments become the classics departments of the twenty-first century?

Composed in 1999, published in Rhetorical Education in America in 2004, and revised again in 2005

thomas miller, university of arizona, homepage

Since asking this question in the last chapter of The Formation of College English, I have been thinking about English departments as bastions of the culture of the book. This role is similar to that which classics played until learned languages ceased to define what it meant to be learned. The analogy to classics is more complicated than it may appear.  Our learned language is "academic discourse," or simply college English, and courses on Chaucer and Shakespeare have replaced those on Livy and Cicero. According to Sholes’s The Rise and Fall of English, college English will follow the trajectory of classics if it continues to define itself by the study of literature.  Will the literary classics, the personal essay, and even close reading be succeeded by the digital literacies identified with an information economy?

I will set up an historical frame for considering this question by reviewing how college English has been shaped by "literacy crises" that marked basic changes in literacy and the literate public. The introduction of English into the college curriculum in the latter half of the eighteenth century represented a literacy crisis in the learned culture that culminated in the delatinization of higher education. The professionalization of college English a century later was a reaction, in part, to the admission of broader classes of students after the Civil War, as is evident in the influential Harvard reports on undergraduate illiteracy that were published in the 1890s. A century later the illiteracies of the young were again bewailed in popular accounts such as Newsweek’s "Why Johnny Can’t Write?"  Such accounts of students' failures to acquire functional literacies can be understood as part of the popular debates that became known as the "culture wars."  Debates over the forms of literacy and the canons of literature that define the educated culture are part of an ongoing reassessment of how the literate culture relates to those whom it has traditionally failed to represent.  These debates have intensified with the cultural and technological transformations that are changing the subject of college English.  Reflecting back over the historical relations of literacy and literacy studies may help us to make productive use of these changes.

One way to configure this historical relationship is to define college English in terms of the technologies that do its work and the economies in which that work circulates, and thereby gains value through use. The best example of a technology for producing and distributing knowledge I know of is the trivium of logic, rhetoric and grammar that formed the core of the liberal arts.  The arts of constituting rational, persuasive, and correct discourse evolved in tandem with changes in literacy and the literate. Scholes characterizes his reforms of literary studies as a revision of the trivium, which is interesting because college English began with the reformulation of the trivium by the "new learning" of the Enlightenment. Knowledge was no longer to be acquired by deductions from traditional assumptions but by inductively generalizing from the individual experience. In a departure from the highly figured forms of Ciceronian rhetoric, knowledge was to be communicated in a plain style that could serve as a window on experience. As the educated culture began to circulate in the language of common life, educated discourse had to be distinguished from the language of common people. Two of the first professors of English--George Campbell and Joseph Priestley--were the leading advocates of correcting English by inductive generalizations from the usage of educated people. They were also influential proponents of the "new" logic and rhetoric. In fact, all the "new" rhetoricians and logicians identified by W.S. Howell's British Logic and Rhetoric in the Eighteenth Century were Scots, Irish, Americans, or Dissenters. Thus, the logical, rhetorical, and grammatical conventions of educated discourse were systematically reformulated not at the educational centers of the dominant culture but in the provinces. This reconception of the trivium reformulated the technologies of knowledge that defined education and the educated, creating the context in which modern history, political economy, psychology, science, and English entered the college curriculum, and eventually displaced learned languages and the classics.

The expansion of cheap print literacy transformed the trivium in ways that had a formative impact on the work of college English. That work was first done by belletristic essays such as those of The Spectator, which were institutionalized as standards of educated taste and usage in the first college English textbooks, most notably Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Adam Smith’s characterization of the "impartial spectator" has served as a pivotal point of reference for my analysis of the emergence of literary studies and social sciences out of the traditional relations of rhetoric and moral philosophy. Rather than returning to the arguments I developed in The Formation of College English, I want to turn to the introduction of college English studies in the colonial curriculum, and then review the professionalization of literary studies in the nineteenth century that ended up confining rhetoric to first-year composition courses. These developments were shaped by changes in the political economy of literacy that are similar to those that are raising the position of composition within the discipline, and giving interdisciplinary significance to cultural studies. Some English departments are already morphing into cultural studies departments. In many others the field of study has expanded beyond literature to include rhetoric and composition, English as a second language, creative writing, women’s studies, ethnic studies, media studies, and/or cultural studies. Nonetheless, influential reformers ranging from Elaine Showalter to Cary Nelson continue to equate English studies with literary studies, even while seeking to expand the market for work done in "the field."  I believe that a rhetorical perspective on our historical position is needed, not simply to keep English departments viable, but to provide the practical skills, civic engagement, and critical awareness that citizens need now.

a student "text book"  with marginalia
a student "text book"  with marginalia
Rhetoricians began teaching college English (ca 1760)
When we begin our history with the introduction of English into marginal institutions that failed to perpetuate learned languages, we get a different sense of where we come from than we do from histories of ideas contained within the discipline. The origins of college English challenge us to attend to the political economies and technologies of knowledge that constitute our field of study. The first American professorship dedicated to teaching English was established in 1755 with the founding of the College of Philadelphia—a hybrid institution that combined a charity school for boys and girls with a grammar school and a college. The second was established in 1784 when King’s College was reorganized as Columbia College. While the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard is often cited as the first such professorship, it was not established until 1804, and then only when Boylston’s descendent threatened to sue to recover the thirty-three year old donation.

These professorships reflected basic changes in the work of learning and the learned. Syllogistic disputations in Latin were replaced by forensic debates in English in college exercises, and student debating and literary societies became an important part of how and what students learned. Depending on whether one was an advocate of the new learning or a classicist, the introduction of English represented enlightened progress or a decline in learned languages that threatened the very foundations of the learned culture. Either way, our early history can expand our perspective on how changes in literacy are mediated through education, most obviously in courses that remediate students.

In comparison to the English universities that they were reportedly modeled upon, American colleges were relatively public institutions. Unlike Oxbridge, which was closed to anyone who would not swear allegiance to the union of church and state, American colleges were governed by boards that included lay leaders, sometimes from varied religious backgrounds, to ensure that the colleges would be perceived as public. Such perceptions were important because most colleges depended on intermittently enacted taxes and lotteries. Education was a public concern, according to Bailyn, because colonials feared that succeeding generations would devolve into what Cotton Mather termed the "the creolean degeneracy" (79). From the outset, colleges sought public support by using rhetoric to teach Americans to speak as Englishmen. In the first description of an American college curriculum, New England’s First Fruits (1642), exercises in English are mentioned, and rhetoric is advertised as the only subject other than divinity to be required from the first to the last years of study. English elocution was prominently displayed to the public to demonstrate what colleges offered. Historians have often emphasized the classicism of colonial colleges by citing requirements mandating the use of Latin, but the frequent reiteration of these mandates underlines the fact that students often fail to do what they are officially required to do. In fact the entrance requirements in classical languages were often so precise that students could have passed them by repeating the passages by rote (see Hofstadter and Smith for college laws). Such requirements were often waived for students from communities that did not have grammar schools, which were few and far between, and throughout the eighteenth century suffered from declining public support even in the immediate vicinity of colleges such as Harvard (see Teaford).

The introduction of English was shaped by the historical transition from scribal to print literacies. Colonial New England was one of the most literate societies in the world, with literacy rates among adult white males that were fifty percent higher than those in England (60% and 40% respectively according to Harvey Graff 163-5). Because they had few books, colonials read intensively but not extensively. Books were learned by heart, with literacy functioning as "a technology of the self" that imprinted the sacred text upon the consciousness through memorization (Warner 19-20). Brown has characterized the information economy of colonial America as an "economy of scarcity" that followed "a hierarchical diffusion pattern" because important information was generally transmitted orally from those with broader sources to those who lived entirely within the immediate community (Brown 19-20).

This economy and the technologies that did its work were evident in the scholastic curriculum of the first two American colleges. Because of the lack of books, knowledge was transmitted and learned orally—through declamations, recitations, commonplace "books," and compendia. Students reduced books and lectures to compendia organized schematically so that they could be memorized and recited to display their learning. In fact, a compendium, or "synopsis," was the original graduate thesis required of all MA candidates at Harvard. Such compendia were often cast in a syllogistic form. The syllogism was the primary instructional technology of scholastic education, and it inscribed the logic of a scribal information economy in the assumption that all the knowledge one needed could be deduced from shared traditions. According to Bartholomew Keckerman’s popular guide, syllogistic disputations were not just a logical model but a "political and ethical" one as well, for moral reasoning was simply a matter of deducing one’s obligation from received truths (trans. Meriwether 238; see also Fiering 60).

In the 1740s the "Great Awakening" swept through the colonies, expanding the market for print and fostering support for educational alternatives, including the colleges that helped introduce college English. Franklin’s American Magazine (1741) and the other magazines that began to appear published accounts of the moving oratory of itinerant preachers along with debates over whether it was more important for preachers to be learned or inspired. Broadsides and periodicals publicized debates about the mission of higher education. Ministers were the only college graduates in many communities, and many more communities were left unchurched and uneducated by the failure of colleges to meet the needs of a population that was doubling every twenty-five years.

Within twenty-five years, six colleges and dozens of academies were established by evangelical reformers and others who were dissatisfied with what Yale and Harvard provided. Established colleges such as Yale responded by forbidding students to attend any "private separate Meeting" not approved by "Public Authority" (Hofstadter and Smith 55). The expulsion of students for failing to respect such proscriptions sparked more debate and generated financial support for establishing new colleges. While Franklin and his collaborators at Philadelphia represented the College of Philadelphia as a practical alternative to the classical curriculum, the religious leaders who founded colleges in New York, Princeton, and Rhode Island were also careful to position their colleges as public institutions rather than as seminaries for a particular sect. Historians of literary studies have been understandably hesitant to write evangelists into the discipline, but people in rhetoric and composition should value the Great Awakening as a broad-based social movement that expanded access to education and fostered critical literacy through reading societies, schools, and academies, many of which evolved into high schools and colleges.

The Great Awakening popularized oratory but depended upon print for its sustained impact, foreshadowing the development of rhetorical practice and study in the Revolutionary decades. Whitefield and other evangelists delivered emotional speeches on the power of the religious experience that moved even the most calculated of skeptics, Benjamin Franklin. Inspired by such orators, aspiring ministers and lawyers (who were becoming a professional class at the time) devotedly set out to master the power of speaking extemporaneously in the public idiom. Within a decade, syllogistic disputations began to be replaced by forensic debates on popular themes, and by the end of the century the technology that had defined learning for centuries had disappeared from the curriculum (see Potter).

Disputations in a dead language on scholastic metaphysics were replaced by debates of public controversies, and student societies were established to provide students with opportunities to read, write and speak on those controversies. These developments tend to be glossed over when colonial colleges are treated as seminaries bound to orthodoxies recited by rote, but the fact is that English composition courses were introduced by the first professors of English, and not a century later as is often claimed. Unfortunately, the records of these courses are confined to a few sentences in the accounts of administrative boards, anecdotes in diaries and letters, and a handful of forgotten sets of lectures.

College English emerged out of the transition from scribal to print literacy, as is evident, for example, in the fact that only one textbook for college English classes was produced in America in the eighteenth century--Witherspoon’s Lectures on Eloquence. After graduating from Edinburgh alongside Hugh Blair, in 1768 Witherspoon emigrated to become President of the college that the "New Lights" had established at Princeton. Witherspoon’s lectures on rhetoric and moral philosophy presented a politically engaged alternative to the subordination of rhetoric to taste that Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres helped institutionalize. Following S. Michael Halloran’s "Rhetoric in the American College Curriculum: The Decline of Public Discourse," I have argued that Witherspoon translated the civic vision of classical rhetoric to suit the needs of a generation that included Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson, all of whom studied rhetoric and moral philosophy with Scottish college graduates.

A couple of innovations distinguish Witherspoon’s "composition" course from courses that were defined by scribal literacies. Witherspoon provided rules for "all sorts of writing" and listed readings for students, counseling them to read widely and avoid forming their style of any single author (236, 238-9). Such recommendations became commonplace in composition courses, but they only began to make sense when students gained access to books. Witherspoon’s predecessors and other college presidents had greatly expanded college libraries and were constantly seeking donations for more books. The availability of books positions the emergence of composition at the origins of the print economy. Witherspoon frequently refers to orators and writers in his lectures, and he presided over the traditional program of orations. However, he also assigned essays, and he attended to such issues as spelling and grammar, which distinguish the modern composition course informed by an awareness of the regularities of print from traditional courses that assume orations as models. In short, Witherspoon’s course was one of the first college courses in English composition.

The Author, Alexander Pope
The Author, alexander pope

from the dunciad: Providence had permitted the invention of Printing as a scourge for the sins of the learned [for then] a deluge of Authors covered the land.
until literature became a profession, while composition remained simply work (ca 1860s)
Witherspoon’s civic synthesis of rhetoric and moral philosophy was consistent with the republican ideology of the Revolution, but it was already being superseded by the project of teaching taste to the reading public, which Blair's Lectures helped institutionalize.   According to the best history I know of the origins of English as a British school subject, "by the 1770s the teaching of English literature in school had become a matter of normal educational discussion" (Michael 160). English may have been introduced into American schools somewhat later. Americans were busy making war, and education often suffered as a result.  While America had a less developed print sphere, it expanded markedly during the Revolution, and it is worth noting that the American Constitution was written down while the British was not. One way to document such differences in the cultural work of literacy is to compare the Spectator essays that Blair used as models to those of Witherspoon’s students, most notably Madison's Federalist #10.

The political rhetoric of the time fueled the periodical press in ways that need to be written into the history of college English studies. Graff and others have characterized the "Oratorical Culture" of the republican college as part of the "preprofessional" era of college English. The professionalization of literature and the reduction of rhetoric to first-year composition were instituted later in the nineteenth century according to the research of Berlin (1984), Graff (1987), Crowley (1990) Miller (1991), Johnson (1991), Horner (1992), Brereton (1995), and most recently Connors (1997). Building on this paradigm in the twentieth century, English literature replaced the classics as the only subject universally required of all educated people. This raises an interesting but little noted question: How did English literature become established as the one discipline that all educated people had to study?

Siskin has argued that the modern categories of "disciplinarity, professionalism, and Literature" are key elements of the same discursive formation (6). Giving rise to such dichotomies as "professional/amateur, discipline/avocation, [and] real/made up," the reading of English literature replaced the classics as part of what all educated people shared in common, whatever profession they worked within (6). Crowley has made a very similar argument about the bourgeois subjectivity instilled in composition and literature courses. In my own writings, I have examined how literary critics claimed disciplinary status in nineteenth-century British universities by positioning themselves as disinterested critics of refinement opposed to the utilitarianism of commercial society. Eagleton has examined how aesthetics was set in opposition to the world of work, with literature becoming a preserve for leisurely reflection. Similar arguments have been made by other commentators on the modern alienation of literary studies from the work of literacy.

The institutional demarcation of the field of literature from the work of reading and writing can be dated from the literacy crisis that was used to justify the professionalization of college English. From the outset, the teaching of writing was represented as the work of the schools, too menial for real professionals. These representations of the work of the discipline were put forward in publications that set out to define and give value to the emerging field of study, works such as English in American Universities, by Professors in the English Departments of Twenty Representative Institutions (1895) and other public commentaries on college English reprinted by Brereton and by Graff and Warner. In PMLA articles a century ago, professors of English claimed "concessions" from "classicists" by representing literature as "an intellectual study for serious workers," free from the "desultory" pastimes that wasted "leisure hours" (rptd.Graff and Warner 42, 44). By making character and style virtually indistinguishable, the course in English was institutionalized to teach the culture of the English: "the study of English literature means the study of the great movement of English life and feeling, as it is reflected in the purest prose of representative men" (rptd. Graff and Warner 35). The literature of the English was used to teach the American middle class appropriate tastes, in part because the Anglo-Saxon character of the country was being called into question by rising waves of non-English speaking immigrants (see Connors). Once the field was established, MLA shut down its Pedagogical Section and ceased publishing any work on teaching (see Brereton 187), and English professors in research universities succeeded in distancing their professional work from the teaching of writing.

With the professionalization of literature, rhetoric was reduced to the teaching of basic literacy that was properly the work of the schools. According to early justifications for college English studies, the "bugbear" of "Freshman English" would disappear when literature took over, because then "efficient English teachers" would be prepared to establish "a more serious attention to elementary English in our preparatory schools" (Hunt 42-3, 45). From its origins, the profession of literature worked hard to avoid being distracted by its dependence on first-year composition courses, which have made the majority of courses in English since the establishment of the discipline. Support for the growth of English departments was gained by promoting a public concern for the "literacy crisis" that was created when students failed the entrance exams that were established at Harvard and elsewhere at the end of the nineteenth century. The last of the Harvard reports in 1897 noted that

about the year 1870 a change began to make itself felt, first in numbers and then in the methods of the college, which gradually brought about what amounted to a revolution. The classes increased in size nearly fourfold, so as to become wholly unmanageable for oral recitation, and the elective system was greatly enlarged; step by step the oral method of instruction was then abandoned, and a system of lectures, with periodic written examinations, took its place; so that at last the whole college work was practically done in writing. (Brereton 112)

Such accounts make clear that college English was established in response to changes in the technologies and economies of literacy, and that with its establishment these changes in the work of higher education were disappeared into condemnations of the work that high schools were failing to do.

As professors of literature got serious about scholarship, composition ended up being taught by about the only instructors left without claim to a research base--former journalists, ministers, teachers of oratory, and men and women of letters doing a highly gendered job, the "mad woman in the basement" as Susan Miller has characterized the situation. According to Brereton, Connors and others, rhetoric did not become part of the professional field of study because the model for scholarly disciplines was imported from German universities, where aspiring young faculty completed their studies and learned how to work in an educational economy segmented into specialized fields for faculty and electives for students, an economy that valued research over teaching and the reproduction of the discipline through graduate studies over "general education." Rhetoric had disappeared from the German curriculum at the beginning of the century, and it never really fit into the two cultures of the modern American curriculum because rhetoric was not disinterested and methodical enough to be a science, and it was too mechanical and political to be an art. Denied the status of a scholarly discipline, rhetoric became confined to mere teaching, "women's work."   That work was defined by theories of current-traditional rhetoric that were purveyed through the marketing of teacher-proof textbooks--"great steam-driven mass productions of ten and twenty thousand copies," circulating through "extensive sales and distribution networks" (Connors 84; see also Crowley). Making this enterprise invisible within published accounts of college English studies took concerted professional will, but it became much easier for English professors to divorce scholarship on literature from the teaching of reading and writing after their object of study was demarcated from nonliterary forms of discourse, the political economies in which they circulated, and the needs and experiences of the students who attended their institutions, none of which have traditionally been visible in the profession's representations of its field of work.

The alienation of literature from literacy is perhaps best characterized by the work of the essay, the genre that students and scholars have both worked in, but which neither really worked on until recently. While it has always been the genre produced by scholars and students in English departments, the essay has been the least critically examined literary genre, according to Susan Miller, Ross Winterowd, and a range of recent commentators. As the technology that has done the work of literature and composition since their origins, the essay may also serve as a paradigm for the culture of the book. Trimbur’s and Spellmeyer’s views of the genre may help clarify this point. According to Trimbur’s concept of "essayistic literacy," the personal essay divorces itself from the conditions that produced it in an easygoing and free-form manner that mystifies its own disciplinary work. As a conversation with no one in particular for no evident political or economic purpose, the essay effaces its social sources and functions as peripheral to its unmediated representations of individual experience, sometimes cast in terms of just the facts and at other as matters of mere fancy, depending on whether one worked in the tradition of Bacon or Montaigne.  In opposition to Trimbur’s characterization of the essay as a genre of literacy that exemplifies the "rhetoric of deproduction," Spellmeyer has valued the dialogical elements of the essay—its abilities to accommodate multiple voices, incongruities, and discontinuities. The dynamics and limitations of the most author-centered of genres are becoming clearer to us as we move beyond the culture of the book, as occurs, for example, when composition programs go ‘on-line’ to teach web pages and other digitally mediated texts rather than five-paragraph essays on literary classics.

Such remediations of basic literacy are often characterized as crises. College English has been shaped by literacy crises ever since Thomas Sheridan claimed that teaching English would preserve oral traditions and maintain respect for established hierarchies by enabling the educated to speak eloquently to the illiterate. Contemporary dictionaries of cultural literacy and encyclopedia’s of educated virtues continue the work of the anthologies of the literate culture that have been the mainstay of college English. The culture wars were launched by books such as Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) that have more than mere similarities in titles to the orality campaign that helped establish college English, Sheridan’s British Education: Or the Source of the Disorders of Great Britain; Being an Essay towards Proving, that the Immortality, Ignorance and False Taste, which so Generally prevail, are the Natural and Necessary Consequences of the Present Defective Systems of Education (1756). Dictionaries and defenses of a cultural literacy appear both when an educated culture is losing its currency and needs to be preserved and defended, and when one is expanding to new groups and needs to be codified and taught. The literacy campaign genre becomes historically important in encyclopedist periods when an educated culture is beseiged by cultural changes that are redefining who and what is literate. Some of the contributors to the "culture wars" positioned themselves at just such a moment, standing at the twilight of an era witnessing the light of good books passing from the world. The left and right basically agreed that the humanities were experiencing an eclipse of public support, though they disagreed about who the public was.  Across the spectrum, people were asking what had happened to literacy, and what would happen to literature now that its public was passing into history.

you'd never know it, but buddy i'm a kind of poet frank sinatra
you'd never know it, but buddy i'm a kind of poet
Frank Sinatra
[from the cover of the university of arizona english course catalogue, fall 1999]
and then composition became disciplined, while cultural studies went interdisciplinary (ca 1960s)

The interpretive turn in the humanities and social sciences has become a benchmark for assessing how textual conventions became understood as ideological mediations. While theories of interpretation changed dramatically in the seventies, literary studies retained an intepretive stance. This point was made in 1980 in Jane Tompkins’s "The Reader in History":

What is most striking about reader-response criticism and its close relative, deconstructive criticism, is their failure to break out of the mold in which critical writing was cast by the formalist identification of criticism with explication. Interpretation reigns supreme both in teaching and in publication just as it did when New Criticism was in its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. (224-5)

While the "locus of meaning" had moved from the "text to the reader," professors and students continued to "practice criticism as usual." Tompkins foresaw that the focus was continuing to shift toward the constituitive practices of discourse, and that this concern for "language as a form of power" would establish a place for critical theory that was "very similar to, if not the same as, that of the Greek rhetoricians for whom mastery of language meant mastery of the state" (226). However, two decades later J. Hillis Miller concluded "the future of criticism is a non-question" (xi). What had brought literary criticism to the end of its history, at least in the assessment of one of its leading practictioners? Rhetoric, composition, and cultural studies.

Cultural studies and composition emerged out of the same moment in the history of the culture of the book.  Cultural studies followed the interpretive turn through critical theory to focus on textualities rather than concrete texts, i.e. books.  Composition also followed upon the increased access to literacy and education that came with "open admissions," but it took a decidedly more utilitarian turn.  In the assumption that modern disciplines must be founded upon a research base, North and others have dated "the birth of modern Composition, capital C to 1963," when research books began to appear (14). Cultural studies did not claim disciplinary status in this way, but it too emerged in comparatively broad-based institutions such as the Open University and Birmingham that were more accessible to broader classes of students, and apparently to new forms of scholarship as well.   Berlin and others have synthesized cultural and composition studies into a "postmodern" project, and I will examine a couple of the curricular models that have been put forward to institutionalize this project.

Before turning to practical exemplars, however, I want to posit another claim for the sake of argument, if nothing else: cultural studies and composition represent parallel responses to the changes in the "information economy" that effaced the distinction between work and leisure. This distinction was established as the modern reading public evolved into the "bourgeois public sphere." The erasure of these modern distinctions is refiguring the romantic alienation from labor that reduced English studies to literary studies by divorcing production from reception, demarcating creative and utilitarian texts, and valorizing "works" of genius as autonomous artifacts divorced from the social work that created them, the economic conditions governing their distribution, and the political purposes to which they are put. Simply put, cultural studies and composition are both about the work of reading and writing in a way that literary studies traditionally were not, and though their politics have differed, both cultural and composition studies foreground economies and technologies of knowledge production in ways that can be identified with broader changes in literacy.

Of course, any generalization is only as good as the purposes to which it is put. Berlin applied his analyses to the purpose of synthesizing composition and cultural studies to foster critical thinking and collaborative action. In his last writings, especially his last book, Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies, Berlin integrated cultural studies with composition and rhetoric to redefine college English as a postmodernist field of work. Berlin was very influential in rhetoric and composition because he could convincingly map disciplinary trends and represent them in categories that were broadly useful. He worked "dialectically" from the opposition of rhetoric and poetic, translating basic Aristotelian categories to make sense of the dichotomies that defined college English. For Berlin, cultural studies provided "methods for interpreting the cultural codes" that produced subjectivities (119). These methods would enable people to critique modes of representation and the hierarchies that governed them, such as the hierarchies that had defined college English: high/low, imaginative/functional, disinterested/political, aesthetic/objective.

Berlin maintained that the transition from literary to cultural studies followed from the need in the postmodern economy for information managers who can network to interpret changing situations for shifting purposes--lifelong learners who can be retooled continually as needs change. Beneath this educated elite, production work is outsourced and temped, resulting in fewer decent-paying production jobs and more structural unemployment, as had occurred in college English itself with the reliance on part-timers, which is but an extension of the profession's historical treatment of literacy work as unprofessional. To institutionalize an historical alternative to such trends, Berlin and Vivion published curricular models and histories of institutional reforms. It is worth noting, that unlike other popular anthologies of cultural studies, their collection emphasized teaching, a natural point of reference in composition studies, but not in cultural studies, which according to Giroux have been generally indifferent "to the importance of pedagogy as a form of cultural practice" (242).

This indifference can be related to Zarvarzadeh and Morton’s division of cultural studies into two opposing camps, with a coalition of textual and literary studies on the right, and on the left a cultural studies concerned with intervention and not just explication. Zavarzadeh and Morton develop this opposition in considerable detail to avoid the anti-intellectualism that tends to arise when theory is criticized for being impractical.  Two examples of the educational changes at issue are provided by Scholes’s The Rise and Fall of English and by articles on the return of rhetoric to Syracuse, which has been represented quite differently by Mailloux and by Zavarzadeh and Morton. These points of reference provide cases in point for considering how English majors are being reconfigured by the literacy crisis that is ensuing as the culture of the book gives way to digital forms of literacy.

Scholes sets out his purpose as helping students develop a "usable cultural past" and an "active relationship with the cultural present" (104). For this purpose, he transforms the trivium (104-37). "Grammar" courses on "Language and Human Subjectivity" and "Representation and Objectivity" replace "traditional composition courses." "Dialectic" courses will "study discourses that work at a high level of abstraction and systematization, in which texts are constructed not so much by representing objects as by abstracting from them their essential qualities or their principles of composition" (124). Finally, "rhetoric" is to be taught as "Persuasion and Mediation" by examining how purposes are mediated in all sorts of texts.

Scholes’s reformation of the traditional core of the humanities has clear parallels with how Mailloux attempted to revise the English major at Syracuse into a major in "English and Textual Studies."  As chair at Syracuse in 1986, Mailloux proposed that "cultural rhetoric" be the guiding focus for the new major, which would be organized around a triangle that included "culture," "theory" and "rhetoric," on the three sides, with "reading" situated at the center of the triangle.  His proposal was modified to define the three curricular areas as "history," "theory," and "politics," with "textual studies" replacing "cultural rhetoric" as the unifying focus.  The purpose of the revised curriculum at Syracuse is "to make students aware of how knowledge is produced and how reading takes place, and thus make them capable of playing an active and critical role in their society, enabling them to intervene in the dominant discourses of their culture" (161).  Mailloux characterizes the opposition to the reforms from the left and right as arising from an arhetorical stance that he traces back to the critiques of sophism by Plato and Aristotle.   While Mailloux quite effectively depicts materialists and humanists as foundationalists, the criticisms of Zavarzadeh and Morton call for more concerted attention to how teaching students to criticize established ideologies will enable them to intervene purposefully in civic life, as I will discuss further in the conclusion.

Zavarzadeh and Morton’s critique of the curricular reforms at Syracuse provides a benchmark for reflecting upon how English majors are evolving with broader changes in literacy and the literate.  Since I wrote the first version of this  essay for a conference and had it published in a collection, I have been researching national trends in English majors.  Drawing on a stratified sample of one hundred English majors, I gave a presentation at CCCC and created a related website entitled "what's going on with English majors? Historical Contexts and National Trends in Undergraduate Curricula"  This website includes an essay on the history of the English major with links to the surveyed departments' majors and statements of purposes, published research on English majors, and my own writings on the history of English studies.  This program of research was developed to compare how rhetoric is taught in English and communications departments, leading to the creation of a second website: "Rhetoric in Composition and Communications: Historical Contexts and National Trends in Undergraduate Curricula"  This research, which was published in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, shows that rhetoric is generally little more than an isolated course or two in English and communications departments.

The concentration of English studies on literary classics has become increasingly problematic because of the broader changes in literacy that may be moving literature toward the same historical position that Classics occupied when the literate culture shifted away from treating the learned languages as the gateway to higher learning.  These broader changes are documented in the national study of literate practices undertaken by the National Endowment for the Arts entitled "Reading at Risk," a title that was meant to enkindle the sense of public urgency sparked by "A Nation at Risk."  That US Department of Education report in 1983 created a public furor with statements such as this: "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament" (5).  This identification of illiteracy with national security has a strong tradition that reaches back to those who instituted college English studies to remediate the illiteracies of college students.  As noted in the "Ten Key Findings of Reading at Risk," in the last twenty years there has been a precipitous decline in book reading, especially among younger people, and that decline closely parallels the decline in "literary reading."  This deepening decline "foreshadows an erosion in cultural and civic participation."  What are we to do about this literacy crisis, and how is it related to the changes we face in our field of work?

The majority of college English classes are writing courses, and many English majors plan on becoming teachers, though neither of these facts are well represented in most undergraduate programs in English departments.  The traditional concentration of English majors on literary studies has contributed to the temping out of composition courses by encouraging the profession to see such courses as a service obligation that is peripheral to the real concerns of the discipline.  The profession of literature has in recent decades become very concerned with the shrinking market for PhDs in literature and for the working conditions faced by many graduates. Berrube and Nelson’s Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities explicitly adds an economic dimension to the "culture wars," and both Berrube and Nelson have pressed MLA, our most influential professional organization, to consider the broader institutional work of the discipline.  According to such critics, the discipline has been invigorated with new theories, but its work has been limited by the economic reliance on part-timers and temps who have denied professional employment to the graduates of literature programs. Nelson and Berube have translated their criticisms of the "job system" into coalitions with graduate students within MLA, and their criticisms have been answered by proposals from the President of MLA to take the profession public by expanding the nonacademic market for literature graduates.

These debates are but one example of how the cultural wars took on an economic dimension in the 1990s as a result of changes in the political economy of literacy and literacy studies. In rhetoric and composition the dependence on part-timers became a central point for debate, most notably in calls for abolishing first-year composition requirements in order to take back control of staffing. I do not find such proposals convincing because I have seen how other departments teach writing when English fails to meet the demand for courses. I also have reservations about the economic phase of the culture wars because neither the MLA or its critics really value the work with literacy that they are trying to reclaim for the profession, as is evident in how they assume that the profession’s problems will be solved by turning composition jobs into tenure-track positions for literature graduates, and in how "English education" generally remains a dirty word in English departments--an unprofessional and unseemly term for work better done elsewhere.  Berube and Nelson have failed to see rhetoric and composition as anything more than "instrumentalist" work concerned with the "’sorting’ of the student body" (18-20).  They have shown little interest in how graduate education would have to be redefined to prepare students as teachers, other than to suggest that a lower track ought to be created to prepare the less worthy to do such work.  The critics and defenders of the MLA persist in equating English studies with literary studies in ways that suggest that they do not understand the teaching of basic literacy as more than unavoidable service work.  Nonetheless, the economic phase of the cultural wars is notable for having brought working conditions into scholarship on literature (see also Watkins).  The disinterested stance of the traditional literary critic has become unworkable as the work of research universities has ceased to be defined by the traditional hierarchy of research, teaching and service.  We need to be thinking about how we can make more productive of this change because these categories have not served the humanities well.

the egyptian god thoth, the  inventor of writing
the egyptian god thoth, the  inventor of writing

In the Phaedrus, Plato invoked Thoth to condemn writing as a  threat to the dialectical method of transmitting knowledge after criticizing rhetoric's lack of concern for real knowledge
the criticial turn/return to rhetoric

While rhetoric has traditionally been associated with oratory, rhetoric was established at the center of the humanities as part of the first technological transformation of education.  The debate between the philosophers and rhetoricians over who would inherit the educational mission of the poets perhaps represents the first Western literacy crisis.  In the Phaedrus, Plato wrote against the rhetoricians by idealizing the aristocratic mentoring involved in oral modes of instruction.  After criticizing rhetoric for circulating the appearance of knowledge among the unlearned, Plato cites the invention of writing by Thoth or "Theuth" to criticize writing for not being as interactive as speech.  Given the formative association of rhetoric and literacy in ancient Greece, perhaps the association of rhetoric with oratory is more historically complex than it has been represented.  From its origins, rhetoric has also been associated with public discourse, so it is not surprising for professors of English to return to it as they redefine their public role in a "post-literary" culture faced with interactive forms of literacy that are redefining the relations of production and reception.

As we consider how to "go public," we need to reconsider rhetoric's historical identification with public discourse.  Rhetoric and composition occupy strategic if under-valued sites at the boundaries of the traditional field of study.  Many people in rhetoric and composition are already collaborating with schools, community colleges, corporations, and agencies, and some are doing research on service learning, community literacies, workplace writing, political rhetoric, computers, and writing in the disciplines.  Given the fact that rhetoric and composition have generally been ignored in the debates in the profession over "going public," we should perhaps reflect on how the selling of private corporations’ stock in the "public" marketplace came to represent a model for reforms of MLA. Literary studies were institutionalized as part of what Habermas has characterized as the "bourgeois public sphere," and the proposals to become more broadly involved in the public sphere are explicitly motivated by concerns for professional preservation rather than by any real desire to change the profession’s purpose. While mere pragmatism should bring increasing numbers of English professors to "outreach" efforts, the projects themselves should help us develop a more genuinely pragmatic sense of education. Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems provides a model of educational institutions’ duties to create a learning society that works collaboratively to challenge established assumptions in order to realize the potentials of public issues. The civic tradition in rhetoric presents many other sources that can be reinterpreted against changing conceptions of service, teaching, and research to make remediations of basic literacy central to the public mission of college English.

Such a critical reassessment should begin with service because that is how many English departments' most promising collaborations have been characterized. Public service provides an institutionalized category that can be appropriated to value civic engagements with social problems, as is being done with service learning in writing instruction at Arizona State University and elsewhere. Community-based learning projects call upon us to rethink the boundaries imposed by our sense of the profession.  Too many English professors still identify with specialists across the country who work "in their area," while not considering the English teacher across the street as in anyway involved in their work, other than as a scapegoat for their students' failures. Though more needs to be done, some English professors are visiting schools to provide teacher workshops, build bridge programs for minority students, and develop interdisciplinary curricular partnerships. Research and consulting on workplace writing have expanded these relationships in ways that are proving very strategic as we establish the internships and courses for new English majors. Some rhetoric and composition specialists are using work on community literacies to develop coalitions with social service providers and government agencies, and these sorts of coalitions are crucial to creating networked English departments that can serve as resources for public problem solving.

We also need to attend more broadly to the fact that English departments offer the first-year composition courses that are about the only studies still required of all undergraduates. The recent waves of reform proposals all cite the first two years of college as the most important in the curriculum because that is where student forge links that keep them in school and create a context that enables them to make sense of their specialized studies.  In large public universities, composition courses may be the only class in which teachers know students' names and work closely with how they make connections with their studies and their experiences outside the classroom.  The University of Arizona has been at the center of the debate over higher education initiated by John Merrow's "Declining by Degrees," which has yielded national media attention, including this provocative article in the The New York Times, a PBS special and popular book, as well as blogs of varying perspectives.  In his article on the influential Carnegie Foundation's website, Merrow reviews his two years of experience visiting institutions ranging from local community colleges to elite universities and focuses particularly on introductory English courses. These accounts of our work provide a useful context for reflecting upon the historical functions and popular relevance of English studies.

I believe that such accounts underline that our lower-division teaching provides us with a power base of expanding importance.  We need to  work to revitalize a civic vision of the relations of rhetorics and poetics as we collaborate on general education reforms because reformers often lack a unified curricular philosophy such as that which could be developed through a critical reinterpretation of civic humanism. In our research, as in our teaching and service, we need to learn more strategically from the institutional work we are doing, for we are already doing much of what reformers in the profession are calling for. English as a second language, composition, and rhetoric have a stronger tradition of research on teaching than any other disciplines outside education, and some English professors are better connected to the workplace than any other faculty in the humanities. We are already expanding our research on community literacies, and that program of research is converging with the scholarship on the new historicism, which in rhetorical studies has expanded beyond The Rhetorical Tradition of theories of rhetoric to examine the rhetorical practices of varied traditions. This convergence is giving rise to courses such as Roxanne Mountford's English 102, which combines historical analysis, institutional critique, and service learning to teach the literacies of citizenship.  From a broader historical perspective, this convergence has the potential to revitalize the relations of rhetorics and poetics and forge new relations with the ethical and political concerns of moral or "practical" philosophy.  I have recently been thinking about this possibility in terms of a revitalization of the relations of rhetorics and civics.

We are already doing research on how higher education is organized and funded, but we need to expand our institutional research to be more persuasive with other educators and to better serve our external constituencies. We should be preparing graduate students to head general education programs, work with state legislative committees, and consult on educational policies ranging from dual enrollment programs to international transfer credits. We also need to prepare graduates and undergraduates to do research as a means to advance reforms in other sorts of institutions in order to teach students the arts of civic action in nonacademic settings.  Activist research and community-based work is already being done in areas such as women's studies as well as in community literacy work in composition.  As Richard Miller has argued, we need to appreciate the values of institutional research and service if we are to identify institutional reforms in English with broader social transformations.  Such institutional research is just beginning to be understood as intellectual work as humanists move beyond what Berube and Nelson have characterized as "a kind of idiot savant academic culture" that assumes that any idiot can do administration, and only those with nothing better on their minds would actually do it (24).

Those of us who have spent years developing and administering programs are used to being treated as idiots by colleages, though savant is not a term that was ever used to describe me. While we need to explain our work more effectively to each other, we especially need to do a better job of explaining what we do to the public, as Berube, Nelson and many other commentators on the profession have stressed. The public generally assumes that English departments teach people how to write effectively and read responsively.  The "culture wars" were pretty much confined to arguing about what English departments teach people to read.  As the debate shifts to the institutional work of English, I hope that we can focus the discussion more on what English departments teach people to do.   If English departments are evolving from literary to literacy studies through the influence of cultural studies, composition, rhetoric, English as a second language, media studies and other expanding "subdisciplines," then rhetoric can provide a useful historical point of reference for the pivotal shift from an interpretive to an activist stance.  As Paulo Freire has discussed, literacy involves not just interpretation but action, and our research, teaching, and service work on literacy need to attend to how citizens can act equitably on behalf of the cause of social justice.   Critical reinterpretations of the civic tradition in rhetoric, poetics, and moral philosophy can help us to define this project in ways that value the practical ability to reflect upon shared values, mediate conflicts and speak to common problems.  This is the work that I hope we can include within the field of college English as it evolves in tandem with the cultural and technological changes that are transforming what it means to be literate.

coda on codex

this was my first webpage, so excuse the digression, but i want to raise some questions to create a 'practical' context for the discussion of the historical relations of literacy practices and studies.

first of all, is this an essay? if you did not simply print this off and read hard copy, consider how you read this webpage as well as how i wrote it.  it has the form of a traditional argumentative essay because i am a pretty traditional writer.  how does your experience of it differ from the ways you read an essay in a book?  did you follow links and read other texts?  too pressed for time?   time presses, away perhaps from the culture of the book--the "codex" as lanaham and others have described it.  okay, so how is clicking on links really all that different from reading a footnote and following a reference to the library?  internet-work and the experience of the intertext are obviously quite different.  significantly different and far more expansive relationships become possible.  the possibilities of our writing and our experience of reading are changing so fast that is hard to keep track of where we are, or even where this text is.

do you remember when you began to do email?   on many days i read more on screen than in hand.  of course i have been involved in administration for over a decade.  that's why i first got on email.  now it is there every day all day in a way that paper wasn't.  i was moving out of the director's office when i first "published" this page in the summer of 1999.  as i "stepped down" from being an intellectual bureacrat and returned to the books, i noticed that they had changed.  maybe it was just me.  do you read scholarly books more like magazines than you used to?  scanning intros and conclusions, checking references, but rarely reading from first page to last.  didn't we use to read from beginning to end?  i wonder how long it will be before we write like we read.  obviously many of us already do.  as discussed everywhere, books are already much shorter, with more topical headings, spread out to be scanned rather than read.  soon many scholarly books will look like magazines or text-books.   lots of boxes and other textual features that display information in a manner quite unlike the concentrated linear flow of text that we knew as reading.  however, traditional forms persist: when i recently submitted an article for publication in college english, i was told that i had to cut the topical headings as well as the boldface that i had used for some key terms because such formatting was not to be used.   college english's companion journal college composition and communication has just switched to a more modern layout, and other journals and scholarly books will undoubtedly follow suit to adapt to the changing forms of literacy that we are experiencing.

i am too illiterate to claim to understand all this, so i won't.   this was my first networked whatever you want to call it.  i could not have gotten it done without ellen price's help scanning the images and ron scott's help getting the page itself  up.  thanks for reading this, if you did.  if you want to write back, i would appreciate receiving any feedback you have time to offer

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