Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Classical Foundations

Inside many English departments, there are divisions between the literature, writing, and rhetoric programs. In a handful of departments, these divisions branch into smaller units. For example: composition (academic writing), creative writing, and technical writing. We compare "FTEs" (full-time enrollment equivalents) and compare which programs are growing and which are fading. We argue the value of our particular specialties. Sometimes, the specialties break away to join other departments or form their own free-standing departments. The debates have raged for at least 80 years, but grew in passion (and desperation) since the 1960s.

"Lit" seems to hold the power in most English departments, while composition courses fill the most classrooms. While required academic writing courses might have dozens of sections, each filled to its enrollment cap, I've witnessed literature course after literature course cancelled for lack of numbers. This has happened to rhetoric courses, too. When a composition program splits from English, it takes the bulk of FTEs with it. If composition isn't part of the English department, colleagues at other institutions tell me there is quiet (and not-so-quiet) chatter about bringing academic writing within English. It's all about the numbers.

My problem with this is that I don't see the divisions as constructive and I'm not entrenched enough yet to be defending my little village in rhetoric.

Currently, I'm working on an English department curriculum committee. I'd like to see students take courses across the fields within English and language arts — forget writing across the curriculum, I'm arguing for students to journey across the English departmental divisions.

Rhetoric is the study of effective (and ineffective) communication. We can easily include courses in the rhetorical tradition, rhetoric of fiction, rhetoric of science, and more. The ability to perform a rhetorical analysis of any communication, textual or otherwise distributed, is useful throughout the other language arts fields.

Likewise, I don't believe you can be a great writer without being a reader. Not merely a passive reader, either, but an active reader with an attention to form and style. How could we not require a literature course of students in any English department major? The underlying lit content might vary by program emphasis, but we should still have students reading, and reading a lot.

Creative writing is my avocation and vocation. I love to write, and consider my technical writing a creative non-fiction genre. We should expose students to creative expression, recognizing that creative thinking should be fostered by the university.

Finally, academic writing is the conventional discourse within higher education and general scholarship. Students need the skills to participate in academic discussions. Teaching composition helps students become participants in academic culture.

It is my hope that I can craft a curriculum report that encourages the university to require at least rhetoric, literature, creative writing, and academic writing of all students. It might be only a class or two in any one of these areas, but students need the exposure to the writing process, active reading, and rhetorical analysis.

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