Academic journal article Composition Studies

Canon as Palimpsest: Composition Studies, Genre Theory, and the Discourses of the Humanities

Academic journal article Composition Studies

Canon as Palimpsest: Composition Studies, Genre Theory, and the Discourses of the Humanities

Article excerpt

Profession 2005 begins with a series of essays titled "The Future of the Humanities." Without exception, the authors contend that literary studies must reaffirm, or in some cases reassert, its connection with the humanities in order to retain viability for the foreseeable and distant future in American higher education. In the words of Robert Scholes, the humanities serve to "[remind] us that we have a responsibility to the great works of the past and to those students who may benefit from coming to know and appreciate them" (9). While they stop short of proclaiming that primary texts of literature would share the level of "first order discourse" that many in English Studies afford to theory, these voices insist that the humanities must remain viable in higher education and that we must emphasize them in our scholarship, our teaching, and even in our evaluations for tenure and promotion. They offer no long-term prescriptions as to the curricular or scholarly formulation of the humanities in the contemporary university, but they do set the table for such reflection and discussion.1

In this essay I hope to augment the critical reflection on these matters with a focus on their implications for Composition Studies. Even though many scholars in this field have distanced themselves from literary studies, and not without good rationale and fair-minded intentions, our discipline may benefit from cultivating a relationship with the m eta- discipline of the humanities. When viewed as a set of interacting, historically contexualized discourses, the humanities offers a focus of inquiry that is more broadly contoured, more open to revision, and more critically accessible than has been recognized by many voices eager for a more autonomous definition of Composition Studies. Once I have contextualized this point in reference to some notable voices in the discipline, I will then incorporate genre theory in order to foster a connection between Composition Studies and the humanities. Thus, I hope to answer the call of the essayists mentioned above and in so doing enhance the positions of both fields of academic inquiry.

The recent calls for increased pragmatism in pedagogies and curriculum revision by the likes of Kathleen Blake Yancey and Kurt Spellmeyer would seem to offer Composition Studies a decisive identity and direction for future scholarship and presence in the academy. In her 2004 CCCC Chair Address, Yancey gives most of her attention to what she terms a new "writing public," a population for whom writing happens primarily outside the academy. Instead of rhetoric, argumentation, or even academic literacy, Yancey offers competing definitions of public literacy and the impact of new technologies of writing as the emerging focus for Composition Studies. While her discursive context is an academic one, she acknowledges that the writing that commands the attention of composition professors "seems to operate in an economy driven by use value" (301). She suggests that we adapt to this new discursive/linguistic context by changing our curriculum so as to train students to write and translate across multiple mediums, textual, electronic, public, and so on.2 The pragmatism exemplified here would allow the discipline to connect classroom work to real-world employment concerns and writing contexts, thus signaling a potentially decisive break with both the formalism and modes-based writing pedagogies of an earlier era and the expressivist pedagogies of recent decades.

Yancey's vision offers valuable ways to proliferate the loci of composition studies, and the opportunities articulated in her address offer hope for new avenues of critical inquiry and pedagogical development. For all of her apparent expansiveness, though, she neglects the aesthetic and imaginative aspects of rhetorical inquiry and analysis that would complement her more pragmatic ideas. If in fact Composition Studies should pursue a public academic language (see Yancey; Brooks; Gorzelsky), we should remind ourselves that the aesthetic offers a meaningful point of entry into the semiotic and epistemological concerns of our discipline. …

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