English Composition as a Happening

English Composition as a Happening

English Composition as a Happening

English Composition as a Happening


What happened to the bold, kicky promise of writing instruction in the 1960s? The current conservative trend in composition is analyzed allegorically by Geoffrey Sirc in this book-length homage to Charles Deemer's 1967 article, in which the theories and practices of Happenings artists (multi-disciplinary performance pioneers) were used to invigorate college writing. Sirc takes up Deemer's inquiry, moving through the material and theoretical concerns of such pre- and post-Happenings influences as Duchamp and Pollock, situationists and punks, as well as many of the Happenings artists proper.

With this book, already a cult classic, began a neo-avant-garde for composition studies.

Winner of the Ross W. Winterowd Award for most outstanding book in composition theory.


I suppose the reason none of us burn incense in our writing classes any more is because of the disk drives. Smoke’s not supposed to be good for them, right? But what about the sounds, the candlelight, the students on the floor, the dark? What about that other scene of writing instruction? Where has that gone, the idea of the writing classroom as blank canvas, ready to be inscribed as a singular compositional space?

The next class was held in the same room; only this time I made a few alter
ations in the physical arrangements. There were no neat lines of folding
chairs. The students sat, stood, or lay wherever they wished. When everyone
was comfortable, I closed the drapes, turned off the lights, lit one candle in
the middle of the room and a few sticks of incense, and played the same
music as before [Ravel’s “Bolero,” Strauss’s “Zarathustra,” some Gregorian
chant, selections from the Association, the Doors, Steppenwolf, Jefferson
Airplane, Clear Light, Iron Butterfly, Simon and Garfunkel, and others]. The
class just listened to music in the dark with the flickering candle and the
scent of incense permeating the room. Again, when the period was over, the
students were asked to pick up their books and leave. Some of them did not
want to. (Lutz, “Making Freshman English” 38)

I begin with this souvenir—from William Lutz’s 1969 writing class— because I want to reflect on the novel textures that might be brought to Composition’s current course designs, the possibilities that exist for altering the conventional spaces of a writing classroom, allowing the inhabitants a sense of the sublime, making it a space no one wants to leave, a happening space.

Because designing spaces, I think, is what it’s all about. It’s a matter of basic architecture: Robert Venturi has shown that simplified compositional programs, programs that ignore the complexity and contradiction of everyday life, result in bland architecture; and I think the reverse is true as well, and perhaps more relevant for Composition: bland architecture (unless substantially detourned, as Lutz’s) evokes simplistic programs. The spaces of our classrooms should offer compelling environments in which . . .

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