Academic journal article College English

Divided by Primes: Competing Meanings among Writing Studies' Keywords

Academic journal article College English

Divided by Primes: Competing Meanings among Writing Studies' Keywords

Article excerpt

I have often got up from writing a particular [keyword essay] and heard the same word again, with the same sense of significance and difficulty: often, of course, in discussions and arguments that were rushing by to some other destination. I began to see this experience as a problem of. . . the explicit but as often implicit connections which people were making in . . . particular formations of meaning-ways not only of discussing but at another level of seeing many of our central experiences. (15)

Raymond Williams

Introduction, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (revised edition)

Keywords are said to be "key" because of their multiple interlocking meanings. Yet their meanings don't so much interlock as messily overlap; though we depend on them to discuss "many of the central processes of our common life," we can only ever share their meanings "imperfectly" (Williams 14). Ubiquitous and highly polysemous, keywords do many things even within academia: they are ritually invoked or provocatively redefined; they anchor course titles, cue manuscript reviewers, situate curricula vitae, ping research-alert notifications, and tag conference panels. Trying to come to grips with these maddening, essential words, many disciplines have followed Williams's lead by historicizing their "strong, difficult, and persuasive words," including our own 1996 Keywords in Composition Studies (KCS) and the 2015 Keywords in Writing Studies (KWS). Like Williams, Paul Heilker and Peter Vandenberg, coeditors of both collections, assure readers that "fixed, unitary meanings" were never their goal (KCS 4; KWS xvi) and indeed that "contested and unsettled" meanings are both inevitable and generative (KCS 4; KWS xi). Instead, they urge readers not to mistake the incompletely mapped meanings in each essay for efforts to reify (KCS 4) or domesticate (KWS xvi) particular meanings, but as invitations to respond (KCS 7; KWS xvi-xvii).

As these prefaces suggest, to trace the shifting and branching meanings of keywords is to glimpse the "competing perspectives and . . . often bitterly contested beliefs and values" that characterize a discipline (Hyland, Disciplinary 11). Such essays (dubbed "little monsters" at one point [KWS xvii]) are challenging to write since a keyword's meanings are usually "implicit and must be 'read' from the contexts surrounding its usages" (KCS 6). In other words, specific iterations of a keyword as it rushes by to some particular destination ("audience," say, or "text") are seldom defined explicitly, and even when so, only to the ends of that particular project. To define the keyness of a keyword, annotators induce patterns of meaning by closely examining many iterations of the word-in other words, treating secondary sources as primary ones. The closely reasoned and densely cited essays that result are what Derek Mueller would call "epitomic" (36, original emphasis), highly compressed accounts that rely on the informed sensibility of a well-read reviewer.

That reliance starts with the choice of the keyword itself. Williams says only that each keyword "virtually forced itself on my attention" (15); Heilker and Vandenberg describe their tables of content as "highly selective, but not capriciously so" (KCS 5) and as "a partial view" (KWS xvii, original emphasis). Indeed, until recently most disciplinographic work proceeded in this fashion: think of Robert Connors anointing Research in the Teaching of English (RTE) the home of "serious researchers" (355), JAC an "orphanage" for articles rejected by College English and College Composition & Communication (CCC) (361), and so on. Think of Janice Lauer concurring (qtd. in Vealey and Rivers 178) across the decades with Louise Phelps's sense of "reflexivity" as the defining feature of composition studies ("Domain" 182), or of the "crowd-sourced" nature of the Threshold Concepts contributions (Adler-Kassner & Wardle 3-5). What we learn from such deep and narrow methods can be augmented-not replaced by-broad and flat methods such as bibliometrics, which can empirically corroborate (or problematize) such dominant, if impressionistic, accounts of a discipline, as Louise Phelps and John Ackerman recommend (202). …

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