Why 'Writing'?

Why 'Writing'?

May 7, 2010

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

These lines from Romeo and Juliet are often quoted to indicate the triviality of naming. But anyone who has read or seen the play through to its end knows that the names Montague and Capulet indicate a complex web of family relationships and enmities that end up bringing about the tragic deaths of our protagonists.

Lore also has it that Shakespeare's lines were perhaps a coy slam against the Rose Theatre, a rival of his own Globe Theatre, and that with these lines he was poking fun at the stench caused by less-than-sanitary arrangements at the Rose.

I write now in response to the naming of a newly created department at my large state university called "the Department of Writing and Rhetoric." This new department is being split off from the English department and given the mandate to install a new Writing Across the Curriculum program, convert adjunct positions to "permanent" instructor positions, and establish a related B.A. degree.

While the acronym WAR may seem appropriate to some of my colleagues, many of them think we have more important things to worry about than a name right now. We have also been repeatedly told in the face of previous protests that referring to Composition as Writing is a trend nationwide. Nonetheless, I believe that this title is an indication of bad faith and a negative harbinger for the work of the new department and programs like it elsewhere.

Since the announcement of this change, I attended a tenure party for a colleague in another department. Every single person I spoke with at this party assumed from the title of the new department that "all" writing would be taught there, including my field of Creative Writing. People repeatedly asked me what I thought about being in a new department, and I repeatedly corrected them as confusion spread over their faces. They couldn't understand how the Department of Writing and Rhetoric would not include the writing of fiction, poetry, and so on. I repeatedly had to say that “Writing” in this usage means Composition. They repeatedly asked me why, then, the department will be using the title Writing.

That's a very good question, and one that indicates something disturbing, not just here, but in that nationwide naming trend mentioned above and so often cited. Referring to programs in Composition by the title "Writing" indicates that this field is the authority over all meaningful types of writing – in all other fields. By implication, it implies that no other type of writing but what Composition Studies teaches is valid or important – or even exists. Both of these claims are demonstrably false, although they are the silent assumptions that often underlie Composition's use of the term Writing to describe itself.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that using the name Department of Writing and Rhetoric indicates a willingness to write badly in order to empire-build. Good writing is always about clarity and insight, precision and accuracy. Therefore, this confusing name calls into question the very quality of the writing instruction that will be given in the new department. If the department cannot and will not name itself accurately, then what does that bode for the students to be educated there?

Don't get me wrong. I also differ from some of my colleagues in that I am happy about the creation of the new department. Composition is an upstart field that, like my own of Creative Writing, has often not gotten its due. Partly this is because it stems from a remedial function -- Composition became necessary when the sons and daughters of the working class began attending colleges and universities and were not adequately prepared in the finer points of belles lettres.

Naturally, due to the fact that the background -- and the goals -- of these individuals differed from those of the upper classes that had established belles lettres, Composition began to explore and defend less artistic, more practical forms of writing. This evolution differs from that of such programs in mathematics, for instance, where remedial algebra still focuses on the same formulas as those used in advanced courses. In Composition Studies and Writing Across the Curriculum programs, there has been a focus on supplanting the literary scholarly essay as the gold standard of writing. In the past few decades, Composition as a field has worked hard to establish the legitimacy and importance of other forms of writing and their teaching. Much of this effort I admire.

I am also happy that Composition will be given resources long absent. Having taught Composition courses myself for several years, I understand the need for acknowledgment and support, even if the specifics of the plan at my university have not been widely shared or discussed and seem to me based on suspect methods. I wish the new department nothing but the best in its attempts to improve basic writing instruction for our students.

However, many in the field of Composition have also brought resentment of old wounds and insults to bear by attempting to claim that it is foundational and that it is the expert in all types of writing. Advocates for the field have accomplished this by theorizing what they do and by selling it to those in other fields as the answer to literacy. Among other things, they have also tried to change its name to something less associated with its remedial roots and more grandiose in its scope. However, it remains the case that Composition Studies does not represent a universal approach to literacy, critical thinking, or writing.

In my own field of Creative Writing, for instance, we have far different assumptions about what constitutes effective writing instruction. Admittedly, we have somewhat different purposes. But let me also point out that the rise of Composition Studies over the past 30 or 40 years does not seem to have led to a populace that writes better.

In fact, it has coincided with a time when literacy rates have dropped and where complaints about the poor writing skills of college and university graduates (especially of large public universities) have continued to rise. Obviously many complex social factors contribute to this. It is also debatable whether universities have contributed to this state of affairs because the changing methods of teaching Composition are misguided or because there simply haven't been enough resources. I'm all for giving Composition the resources it needs, respecting its right to self-determination in its field, and letting us see what happens. I am all for the general population writing better, even if it is in an instrumental and limited form disconnected from the literary traditions that have fed most love of and respect for the written word in our culture.

Beyond the details of these various professional debates, my negative reaction to the new departmental name stems from the corruption of language that is so prevalent in our society today, where advertisers and politicians and many others lie through exaggeration, omission and indirection. The best analysis of this is perhaps Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature. In it she talks about uses of language that are destructive, about language that obscures rather than clarifies, and how so often such language "tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind."

If we put the writerly education of our students into the hands of people who insist on rejecting the accurate term Composition for the grandiose and unclear one Writing, what will they learn? They will learn, I am afraid, that they can say whatever they want, even if it is sloppy, confusing, manipulative, or a knowing lie.

Misnaming this department also evokes the negative definition of the title's other half: Rhetoric. In academe we know that rhetoric can be "the study of effective use of language," but most of the world is more familiar with rhetoric defined as "the undue use of exaggeration and display; bombast." This latter definition seems apt when combined with Writing in this name.

I, for one, will never call it the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. I will call it what it actually is: the Department of Composition and Rhetoric. If its practitioners truly respected their own history, they would call it that, too. A "rose" sometimes can smell not so sweet, especially if it turns out not to be a flower at all.


Lisa Roney is associate professor of English and coordinator for the undergraduate Creative Writing program at the University of Central Florida.



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