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Response to “What Direction for Rhet-Comp?”

by ridolfo on December 30, 2009, no comments

I must have attended a different session than the author of the IHE article on MLA session number 413, “Has Composition Moved Away from the Humanities? What’s Lost?” Although Scott Jaschik unfortunately made claims about rhetoric and Composition as a whole based on the more limited claims of each of the panelists, to my understanding Schilb was hardly critiquing rhet/comp alone, Lyon spent most of her energy lamenting the state of the humanities as a whole, and Bjork and Schwartz’s helpful talk on digital teaching technologies was not limited to rhet/comp scholars, but was intended for a much larger English Studies audience that included literary as well rhet/comp scholars.

John Schilb’s talk, “Turning Composition toward Sovereignty,” was more a reminder to English Studies that the “drive-by Foucault quote” is not the only way to approach the question of agency. Basically, Schilb argued (and I think correctly) that Foucault never said anywhere that the State ceased its use of violent, corporeal force once it developed more insidious forms of control over its subjects’ psyches. On the contrary, as Schilb correctly pointed out, State violence is alive and well in the form of torture and internment.

Jaschik accurately highlights the above point from Schilbs’ talk, but I was very disappointed that the article did not mention Schilb’s praise of Scott Lyons’s work on rhetorical sovereignty or Schilb’s nod to the other scholarly work in cultural rhetorics. Although Schilb did not mention Malea Powell, Ellen Cushman, Qwo-Li Driskill, Angela Haas, Kendall Leon, Doug Walls, Collin Craig, Victor Vitanza by name, these scholars are very much concerned with issues of cultural/rhetorical sovereignty, State power, and bodies. While the growing field of cultural rhetorics is by no means limited to the work of the aforementioned scholars, surely the field has developed significantly because of them and their work.

Jaschik also apparently missed the point that College English, the journal Schilb edits, is not an exclusively rhet/comp journal. Therefore Schilb’s disappointment over the scarcity of politically informed submissions is not a critique of rhetoric and composition alone, but rather English Studies scholarship more broadly conceived.

Arabella Lyon’s talk, “Composition and the Preservation of Rhetorical Traditions in a Global Context,” would also benefit from a more careful consideration of the cultural rhetorics research I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Lyon argued that we should address the “intellectual bankruptcy of the humanities in the university today.” Scholars tempted to complain about the humanities and new media might do well to look into the growing number of digital projects that involve cultural stakeholders. For example, Ellen Cushman’s multimedia, web-authoring students have done important work in cooperation with the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, producing a brilliant educational DVD on the Allotment period for Cherokee youth as a final course product. Projects such as Cushman’s should be highlighted as exemplary digital humanities research models because they increase engagement, undergraduate cultural learning while building collaborative research relationships.

The third talk, “What Composition Can Learn from the Digital Humanities,” was a pleasure for any rhetoric/composition scholar even though Bjork and Schwartz are not rhet/comp scholars by training; Bjork is a Miltonist and Schwartz is a Modernist and both hail from the literature side of the English department at U. Texas-Austin. Bjork and Schwartz did exactly what Lyon didn’t do, but probably should have: they searched for examples of digital humanities projects that corresponded with the claims they made about students’ pedagogical needs. The digital humanities examples in their talk focused primarily on literature and the teaching of literature: the famous William Blake archive, a multimedia Spanish poetry project, and several examples of classroom datamining practices. And while their focus was literature-based, it was informed by a desire to enhance humanities-based instruction through the purposeful use of digital technology, a desire that many in rhetoric and composition studies, especially those using the new media that Lyon was quick to dismiss, share.

In short, there was no “new direction for rhet/comp” at MLA this year as Jaschik claimed. Rather, English Studies as a whole needs to think about (1) corporeal State violence (Schilb) and (2) new digital [humanities] pedagogies (Schwartz & Bjork). In turn, those concerned about a general crisis in the humanities might benefit (and consider participating in) a growing number of digital cultural rhetorics/digital humanities projects.