Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Composition and Rhetoric, in Literature's Shadow

A comment on an education listserv this weekend raised an important question: Why do we assign anyone with an "English degree" to teach composition, rhetoric, or technical writing? A science graduate with a degree in computer science would not be hired to teach "closely related" courses at most institutions. How closely related are the various "communication" courses and can most instructors of one move laterally into any other?

I am torn on this issue because most of the English and rhetoric scholars I know have completed coursework in a myriad of topics. It isn't uncommon for rhetorical scholars to come from English literature, social studies, journalism, or the sciences. I've also met a literature professor with an advanced biology degree. We need to remember that people with doctorates probably love learning in general and are flexible enough to cross fields and disciplines.

Yet, it does seem literature people are favored for openings with ads that read: "World literature professor sought. Must be willing to teach one section of first-year composition." The phrase "willing to teach" implies teaching composition is an unpleasant obligation, a necessary evil if you want to teach literature. I have yet to see the advertisement that reads: "Composition and rhetoric professor sought. Must be willing to teach one literature course."

This seems to be a one-way problem. Why is that? If you have any English degree, we ask you to teach first-year composition. Yet we seldom ask the composition teacher to cover women's literature or dramatic writing. It is as if "composition and rhetoric" are assumed to be easy, basic courses to teach. Professional and technical writing also experience a similar disregard, even disrespect, as disciplines.

I am not trying to argue that either rhetoric or technical communication is superior to other fields. I am stating that neither rhetoric nor technical communication receive professional respect on many campuses.

Would we hire a computer science graduate to teach electrical engineering? After all, computers are electrical, right? Or maybe the computer science graduate could teach logic! Yes, computer programming is all about logic. Yet, I don't want a most computer scientists to teach philosophy course on logic and reasoning.

While I definitely endorse teaching in multiple disciplines, and team teaching, the key is that we want teachers to be the best and the most passionate in the topics they teach. Passion should matter — and so should some specialization.

I have taken literature courses, but I do not view myself as qualified to teach any and all literature courses. I would teach some literature courses, and have. I know a fair amount about American literature and existential literature, but nothing significant about Asian, African, or South American literature. The best I could do is learn alongside my students when asked to teach a literary tradition beyond my knowledge. That might not be a bad approach, but it wouldn't be the same as having an Asian literature expert teach a course. The idea that "teaching is teaching" and "communication is all rhetorical" seems problematic to me.

My degrees do not demarcate all my skills or knowledge. Yet, my degrees and certifications are a good indication to an employer of my strengths and interests. (I would love to add a degree or two, in additional disciplines I enjoy.) A school would need time to understand what I should or should not teach outside the areas of my doctorate.

"We've all had to teach things we don't really know," said a colleague. She suggested that my degrees prove the various communication disciplines overlap sufficiently as to be "one and the same" for teaching purposes.

The fields I studied are loosely related, but they are not "one and the same." My journalism degree did not rely on units from my English degree. The courses were housed in different schools, with different approaches to writing and editing. A newspaper article is not an MLA research paper. "Writing is writing" ignores how wonderfully different communication fields are.

I started an MFA program in poetry, but I did not complete the degree — switching to a master's degree in composition theory and rhetoric. It is important, because I am a creative writer but I did not embrace the pedagogies I experienced in creative writing courses. I didn't "fit" the course models as a student and I would not employ the practices as an instructor. Instead of completing the MFA in poetry, I took courses in film, stage, and visual rhetoric. I am passionate about the performing arts, namely stage and screen, not classic literature. Since the program offered no specialty in dramatic writing, I found the rhetoric emphasis more aligned with my passions. Rhetoric has an obvious connection to public performance.

I love the rhetoric of fiction — but that's a different approach to literature than is practiced in most courses. Personally, I don't know why. Studying the rhetorical choices of authors fascinates me and many others. The works of Wayne C. Booth demonstrate the potential of a rhetorical approach to literature.

My doctoral studies focus on technology ("new media") and rhetoric. I did not take a single course in literature, nor did I research anything connected to literature. I studied ways to improve writing instruction via technology. I studied online course design, how online communities function, and the technologies themselves. I created prototype websites, applying my technical skills. Not many literature graduate students spend two years immersed in software and Web development.

I understand that many English and communication departments are small and need teachers willing to lead almost any course offered. The problem is that the impulse exists to hire literature experts and assume those professors will be "good enough" for the writing courses. Can someone with no coursework in writing pedagogy be a great writing instructor? Certainly. Can we always assume any "English" teacher can teach writing or rhetoric? No.

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