Re-Writing the Humanities: The Writing Major's Effect upon Undergraduate Studies in English Departments
Carpini, Dominic Delli, Composition Studies
Calls for Composition Studies to move beyond the "universal requirement" of first-year writing,1 and toward "a sequenced curriculum of courses that introduce students to discipline-specific principles and practices" (Crowley 9) have been partially realized by the growing number of writing majors. But only partially. Public descriptions of these programs have traditionally focused on developing writing techniques that are useful in a wide variety of careers, rather than on developing the "discipline-specific principles and practices" of our field. As such, less attention has been paid to the ways that this emerging group of majors might - and has indeed begun to - change our disciplinary relationships with English and humanities programs, where (despite the secession of many) most programs still reside.2
I will first provide a brief look at the ways that public representations of undergraduate writing majors have grown beyond claims to production or profession and toward wider definitions of "writing studies." I will then draw upon the example of the Professional Writing major at York College of Pennsylvania to illustrate how this natural, largely student-driven evolution has begun to carve out a new disciplinary status for writing majors. A funny thing happened on the way to our (rhetorical) forum. As we prepared students for writing professions, they also became interested in the back story, in our shoptalk - i.e., in the scholarly and theoretical bases of our discipline. This interest was not limited to students in the major itself; rather, it included students majoring in other areas of the liberal arts. Our experiences, then, illustrate the potential that writing majors have to influence the disciplines with which we share institutional homes and to introduce undergraduate students to areas of research that, until recently, were reserved for graduate studies.3
WHAT IS A WRITING MAJOR?
The undergraduate writing major has no single shape; it is, rather, an amorphous and still-developing construction that has varied missions, purposes, and course requirements. A brief survey of the public presentations of various programs reveals this diversity.4 Perhaps the most interesting way to categorize the descriptions and development of writing majors is upon a continuum moving from praxis to gnosis. That continuum is evident not only across program descriptions (i.e., with some focusing upon one or the other), but within the rich - and sometimes schizophrenic - representations of these programs. In most cases, the practical, career-oriented facets of the programs get center stage, speaking to the difficult question that has increasingly plagued English studies and other liberal arts programs as the demographic of college students has shifted dramatically toward career-based educational goals: "what will you do with that major?"5 (see figure 1). But unlike other technical or pre-professional programs such as Business, Nursing, or Computer Science, writing program descriptions migrate into areas like cultural studies, analysis, theory, and other forms of gnosis - often framed as a corrective or apologia to the impression that our programs are based in vulgar careerism (see figure 2). Other programs (including our own at York College; see appendix 1 for program details) explicitly keep one foot in each world, showing how the liberal arts and practical focuses can co-exist (see figure 3).
It would, of course, be shortsighted not to acknowledge the role of power in this evolution. Our major - and majors nationally - have attracted many talented students who came to the program with a rich mixture of affection for writing (and the liberal arts more generally) anda desire for career and personal rewards. Had the major not gained status by numbers (we became, in just our third year of existence, the largest major in an interdisciplinary department that includes Literary Studies, Secondary Education English, Philosophy, Film Studies, and Foreign Languages), and by its "fit" within an institution that recognizes the need to provide pre-professional training as well as liberal education, we would not have gained a place at the table. …