Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition

By Schroeder, Christopher | Composition Studies, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition


Schroeder, Christopher, Composition Studies


Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition, by James F. Slevin. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001. 280 pages.

As far back as I can recall, English classes were always less satisfying than the writing and reading I did on my own, which is why as an undergraduate, I changed my major from, and back to, English more times than I care to remember. By the end of graduate school, I realized that this contradiction could sustain my interest throughout the dissertation, so with something less than godspeed from my committee, I embarked upon an exploration of institutionalized literacies. As they (and 1) would attest, the sailing was not smooth, in part because what I was trying to do seemed so heretical at the time, especially since the political winds hadn't turned institutions enough to believe in land beyond the horizon. Fortunately, I found experienced explorers, such as Patricia Bizzell and Victor Villanueva, who gave generously of their experiences and whose work served as outposts along the way.

In much the same way, James Slevin is one of those intellectual adventurers, and his Introducing English is a map that, upon arriving in the new world, assures me that the ordeal was not in vain. Although the ostensive purpose of this book is "a desire to explore, in one or another domain, the intellectual work of composition as an interpretive activity concerned with the social and cultural consequences of language and language education," the relief of Slevin's map is as much, if not more, valuable, for in exploring "the central role language education plays in the process" of "cultural hegemony," Slevin provides an explorer's firsthand account of the new frontier that is English studies (2, 6). In doing so, Slevin identifies five regions in which he considers a range of issues drawn to scale, including the ways that intellectual work of composition was represented to him and by him, the historical representations of literacy and English education, the impact of these historical legacies upon contemporary literacy, the intellectual work of composition within the larger university, and the ways that this intellectual work is represented to others beyond the university.

Together, these enable readers to step back from the new, uncharted territory in order to see it, as it appears to Slevin, in a much larger scale. In his remapping, Slevin discards dated guides based upon absence or lack in favor of one based upon difference. In doing so, he integrates the linguistics of contact and contact zones within materialist critiques of education, schools, and society as the most significant points of reference. One of its strengths is its (secret) history of the dividing line within English Departments. As such, the ambiguity of the title signals this remapping well, and while the subtitle appears to qualify this purpose, it also leaves open the possibility that the proper scale for reorganizing English Departments is literacy itself. In doing so, Slevin offers a perspective on this territory that has much in common with those of other explorers on both sides of the disciplinary divide, as well as the intersections of the two. At the same time, he reclaims this space in the name of composition. For example, colonial literature, such as the story of Pocahontas or records of Virginia Tidewater, becomes accounts of ways that "fundamental assumptions about education and language were planted, like the colony itself, in the consciousness of invaders and invaded alike" (4).

Not only does this book seek to reclaim English Departments, but it also remaps the frontier of the university itself, which Slevin acknowledges by admitting that composition is a metonym (I'd argue the stronger metaphor) for intellectual work as a whole (10). Throughout the collection, Slevin explores the implications of this new university, whose purpose is creating, sharing, and testing knowledge, whether as research, teaching, or service. …

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