From Service Function to Discipline

Professors of writing and rhetoric consider evolution of their role -- and the questions raised by more independence.
March 23, 2007

As thousands of the professors who teach writing and rhetoric gather in New York City this week, many of their programs are on a roll. Instructors who long felt tethered in English departments, and relegated to teaching freshman comp or remedial writing, are increasingly running their own programs -- and watching the numbers of majors skyrocket.

In hallway gossip and in formal sessions at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, there are still horror stories about being viewed as the worker bees, especially by "literary types" -- staffing section after section of writing. But many here are either talking about the successes of relatively new writing departments or putting the finishing touches on proposals to create majors, minors and programs. In fact, some of the most interesting talk was about the questions that were all too hypothetical a few years ago at many institutions. Instead of just talking about why writing programs need to be thought of as their own entity, the discussion is on how the writing and rhetoric curriculum should evolve and what a degree in writing should mean.

One issue facing many of the young writing programs is that they have multiple missions. Dan Royer, chair of writing at Grand Valley State University, said his program was created five years ago -- stepping out from a large English department, where "too many competing identities" made it difficult for writing to get sufficient attention. "Students want a community to be part of, as writers," he said.

The numbers suggest that the program's independence is creating that community. The number of majors is now 170, up from 50 when the department was created. The department has two tracks: creative writing and professional writing. Two-thirds of students opt for the former, but all students take a common introductory sequence (including a course in American literature) and a capstone course.

Royer said that when faculty searches are conducted, the department must think seriously about what it is trying to accomplish. Creative writing may seem well defined, but professional writing? That could mean an expert in journalism, document design, business communications, publishing, digital rhetoric or more. The field is still trying to figure out its priorities, he said.

And while creative writing is secure at Grand Valley, the word "creative" is causing problems elsewhere. Celest Martin, associate professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island, gave a talk about how some writing departments resist courses in creative nonfiction and some English departments want to hold on to that subject. The impact, she said, is to leave this subject 'twice marginalized."

Thomas A. Moriarty, associate professor of English and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at Salisbury University, said that he sees many writing programs currently divided between rhetoric and composition (training people in academic writing) and professional writing (training people for writing in various careers). Moriarty argued for the importance of a third category: civic rhetoric.

"Civic rhetoric is the lifeblood of our democracy," he said, and yet receives too little attention in academe. Whether helping students understand the role of rhetoric in ancient Greece or analyzing modern political commercials, Moriarty said that rhetoric is about "how we connect with each other."

Moriarty also offered a more practical reason for emphasizing civic rhetoric. With many educators and others worried about the breakdown of civilized discourse in society, civic rhetoric may appeal to them, and help them understand the importance of supporting writing programs.

Others at the meeting noted that it's not always philosophy that wins writing programs more support. Several noted that business faculty members have been among their biggest advocates, worrying that today's accounting and marketing students lack writing skills that they need.

With more programs attracting more majors, one set of questions at the meeting concerns shifts that this may bring in both undergraduate and graduate education. Greg A. Giberson, assistant professor of rhetoric at Oakland University, said that when he went to graduate school in rhetoric, he didn't have much of an idea of what to expect, and neither did his fellow students. Graduate programs in writing and rhetoric are now starting to enroll people who have studied the theory of writing and rhetoric with some intensity, and that may mean the graduate programs should change.

Likewise, he said, there are interesting implications of these changes for the classic of all writing courses: freshman comp. Because writing programs have designed freshman comp around the writing needs of students in every major, there hasn't been enough thought given to the writing major equivalent of Econ 101 or Chemistry 101, he said.

And then there's the question of who will teach all those other freshmen -- now that more undergraduates want the courses that make up a major program. Sanford Tweedie, professor of writing arts at Rowan University, said that the major program there, started in 1999, has grown from having 30 majors to 330. With all the demand for courses to fill the major, he said, it's a struggle to staff freshman comp.


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