A familiar story about the modern university goes something like this: Once upon a time, the freshman arrived already knowing at least the basic mechanics of writing: what a paragraph was, how punctuation marks worked, the existence of nouns and verbs (and the obligation that they agree in a given sentence), that sort of thing. But the expansion of higher education throughout the 20th century, and especially in its second half, meant that a steadily growing portion of the student body needed basic training in such things.
The job naturally fell to professors of English, even though composition stood in relation to the study of literature roughly as long division did to algebraic topology, over in the math department. Still, it was necessary. Teaching this basic (even remedial) course helped justify offering the more advanced sections in literature. As the demand for writing instruction grew, it ceased being one task among others that the English faculty performed. It was became a function planned and administered separately from the courses on literature, and sometimes it even broke off from the department entirely, to do its own thing.
And that is why there is now a writing center on campus, probably in a basement somewhere, largely staffed by graduate students. There are faculty who specialize in composition studies, every single one of whom remembers that Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors, once called them “comp droids” pursuing an activity devoid of any real intellectual content. That was more than 10 years ago, and in the original context it was a critique of literary scholars' attitudes. But the comp people still quote it sometimes, with bitterness, as if they've made a slogan of the militant online group Anonymous their own: “We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget.”
There are various problems with this narrative, including the fact that happy compositionists do exist. (I have met them.) But the most important is the fable about the golden age when secondary education produced literate students, so that the English faculty could keep its attention focused on higher things. In The Managerial Unconscious in the History of Composition Studies, published by Southern Illinois University Press, Donna Strickland quotes various exasperated statements issuing from Harvard University in the 1890s. Professors were obliged to instruct “bearded men [in] the rudiments of their native tongue,” so that “a large corps of teachers have to be engaged and paid from the College treasury to do that which should have been done before the student presented himself for admission.”
Teaching composition was the manual labor of the mind: “In quantity,” said a committee appointed by the Harvard Board of Overseers in its report from 1892, “this work is calculated to excite dismay; while the performance of it involves not only unremitted industry, but mental drudgery of the most exhausting nature.” And keep in mind that the students in question -- the raw material to be processed in the sweatshops of the Harvard English department – were typically the product of prep schools, in an era when the only distracting form of electronic communication was the telephone.
’Twas ever thus, in other words. But demolishing the belief that basic writing instruction at the college level reflects some recent dysfunction in secondary education (especially public schools) is a fairly minor element in Strickland’s argument.
The author, an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri at Columbia, reconfigures the history of composition studies, rejecting the commonplace view that the field took shape on the margins of another discipline -- a humble (but all too necessary) pedagogical supplement to literary studies. The Managerial Unconscious is remarkably compact book, its points made with much concentration. Reading it more than once seems like a good idea. Here is a brief survey, offered with with all due trepidation by someone who has been through it just once.
The title might be a good way in. It alludes to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981), which offered “always historicize” as a slogan for cultural analysis.
Strickland follows this injunction by stressing an important thing about the emergence of university-level composition courses in the U.S. at the close of the 19th century: it coincided with a rapidly growing market for white-collar labor. As companies expanded, their internal structures became more complex. Mechanization and the division of labor in manufacture increased productivity, but coordinating manufacture and distribution required new layers of managerial staff, able to turn out reports, memos, press releases, and the like.
When bearded men at university were unable to write coherently, that, rather than how prepared they were to compose a theme on Keats, was the real issue. To occupy a slot in the corporate chain of command, they had to be able to put a pen intelligibly to paper. One member of the Harvard committee that scrutinized undergraduate writing in the 1890s was the chairman of the Massachusetts Railroad Commission -- an early expert on what would soon be called systematic or scientific approaches to management. The committee’s stress on the drudgery involved in handling thousands of student compositions per semester echoes the managerial theme that work can and should be organized for greater efficiency.
“Whether the ideas of systematic management were employed consciously or unconsciously,” writes Strickland, “articulating the correct divisions of labor in the teaching of English was clearly the burden of the committee’s report.” To produce enough skilled labor to manage American business, the university itself needed to retool.
So by Strickland’s account, English professors did not shove composition out of literary studies like an unwelcome stepchild. Another dynamic was at work. Writing instruction became a discipline in Foucault’s sense – a way of inculcating both skills and the capacity to perform in a corporate workplace. Can the student rework a paper to the prof’s satisfaction, as a mid-management person might be called upon to revise a handbook? “Writing programs,” says Strickland, “… were made possible not by the devaluing of student writing in the university but by its central function in an institution that depended on writing as a tool for surveillance and assessment.”
The quest for managerial efficiency just happened to reinforce other power relationships: “The teaching of required writing [became], in the process of being divided from the English department in the name of efficiency, sometimes an entry-level position, more frequently in recent decades a position completely outside the tenure track. Because more stable, better paying faculty positions tended to be awarded to men, women often had little choice but to take on low-paying instructorships in composition.”
And by the later third of the 20th century, the consolidation of composition studies as a distinct field (with its own journals, graduate programs, academic organizations, and book series) had an odd effect. In keeping with Strickland’s title, the specialty behaves like one of Freud’s patients -- running away from “the managerial unconscious,” only to find it returning, just ahead. Comp studies established itself as an intellectual discipline. But one career track in it leads to supervising the labor of adjuncts and graduate students, preparing a syllabus that others will follow, and trying to keep the writing center’s costs down and statistics up. Still, thinking of the field as having a managerial component meets resistance, given the “negative connotations for traditional humanist intellectuals,” Strickand writes, “who have tended over the decades to distrust management as, at best, nonintellectual and, at worst, soul-murdering.” Management is where you land after doing a really good job at Pizza Hut for a couple of years.
But if the shoe fits.... "Once organizations of any kind are organized hierarchically," writes Strickland, "with a class of experts structuring and overseeing the work of a group of nonexperts, management happens. Professionalism calls for control and systematization of knowledge, and management is the group of people who reinforce that." Much of the book is devoted to how the evasion of its managerial function has played itself out over the years, even after the Council of Writing Program Administrators was established in the late 1970s. Strickland’s tone is never harsh. But when she writes that “almost from the beginning of the organization, the WPA discourse showed an aversion toward so-called managerial tasks,” somebody’s ox is being gored.
Strickland's argument implies consequences – but only implies them. Greater lucidity about how the managerial legacy of composition studies is the prerequisite for creating better working conditions; she also suggests that it will help make writing instruction a way to develop students' critical intelligence. But just how any of that will happen is left unaddressed. The Managerial Unconscious feels like the first volume of something, rather than the last word. If its implications are hard to read, that is because they remain to be drafted.