Saturday, January 29, 2005

the transfomative comma

So the other day (Wednesday) a number of us from the department are having lunch. We were talking about the teaching of writing. After reading Susan Miller's book (Textual Carnivals) and John Schilb's article "Cultural Studies, Postmodernism, and Composition," it was interesting to see the way that even the most well-meaning and progressive of instructors/professors continue to view (inadvertently I hope) composition as a service course--as Schilb puts it "a plodding servant of other disciplines" (apparently--according to this lunch conversation--also as a servant to the English Studies). Composition is often seen as doing its best job when it focuses on basic writing skills. It's interesting because I know that these same professors see the classroom as an inherently political space, and yet when they lament the fact that their students can't write they say things like: "Why don't they know how to write? They don't know MLA or proper sentence structure. We should have a required composition class to teach them how to write. What am I supposed to do teach them to write in the middle of a literature class?" The implications in these statements are numerous: Certainly it is implied that skills-and-drills should be the focus of the composition classroom so that literature instructors don't have to "waste their time" with such things. It seems as though the implication could be that literature teaches will cover the politics, the exploration, the "enlightenment" of their students. They will take care of opening student eyes (so to speak), while writing teachers simply prepare students for those more intellectually rigorous tasks. And yet, I'm sure these same professors if and when assigned to teach writing make it into the political and contextual/politically contextual task that it is. I'm sure these instructors, when teaching writing, would want to/need to stress the interrelations of discourse, culture, and society. Because what is also being overlooked in these statements is their root(s). Where does this push for "knowing how to write come from"? What does it mean to produce students who "know how to write"? And within what kind of system is this particular production of students overwhelmingly helpful? We are producing students en masse as workers for capitalism. They will be easy to train and efficient producers because they know how to write. They may not know who to think, but they'll know how to write--perfect. In terms of the University--"sales" will look good as student consumers (and their parents) can purchase necessary skills in order that they can enter the workplace.

BUT, then during the lunch coversation, Helen brought to the table this wonderfully subversive idea--a semester-long course on the comma!!! In Fiske's book Understanding Popular Culture I've been reading about the ways that resistance always embodies the thing that it is resisting, and the comma course seems a marvelous example of this. Present a study of slowness, deliberate close-reading, a study of politics through language-use, an examination of society through the use of punctuation--present this in the "disguise" of a back-to-basics skill course. I love it! It's brilliant. This could be just the thing that composition needs. I can also envision arguments against this idea of resistance as manifesting the thing it is resisting, but we need to pay close attention to the way that capitalism tends to subsume resistance for its own purposes. Consumer capitalism appropriates the things that tried to be antifoundationalist. And so it is possible that donning a similar "disguise" to the one that capitalism wears, we may be able to avoid that within this example of a semester-long comma study.

While thinking about all of this today at Uncommon Grounds, I was looking around at the artwork adorning the walls. The contemporary pieces sported images of men in suits placed against funky, slightly psychedelic backgrounds. On the pieces, overlapping with the images, were words: "My mom's proud of my corporate merger" and "Capitalism is contagious--catch the fever." And I had to wonder whether these pieces were subversive or were they just art. By this I mean that "As Peter Burger observes, 'If an artist today signs a stove pipe and exhibits it, theat artist certainly does not denounce the art market but adapts to it....since nwo the protest of the historical avant-garde against art as institution is accepted as art.'" If, in teaching writing, we can circumvent the avant garde, but supposedly going "back-to-basic," maybe we can avoid corporate appropriation. Maybe?

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