The construction of the student writer


Material Information

The construction of the student writer composition studies, anthropology, and youth cultures
Physical Description:
v, 199 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Keller, Christopher John
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
English thesis, Ph.D   ( lcsh )
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- UF   ( lcsh )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Florida, 2001.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 189-198).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Christopher John Keller.
General Note:
General Note:

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 027704457
oclc - 48222050
System ID:

Full Text








A B STR A C T ..................................................................................... iv


1 ANTHROPOLOGY AND COMPOSITION STUDIES..................................... 1

Culture Talk: Anthropology and Composition Studies Converse.................... 1
Composition Studies and Culture: Encountering Anthropology..................... 4
Anthropology for Composition Studies: A Brief Account........................... 11
Culture Concepts: Building Bridges Between
Composition and Anthropology................................................. 22
Dimensions of Culture: Working "In" and Working "With" ........................31
N o te s ...................................................................................... ... 3 7

2 WHAT IS A STUDENT WRITER?........................................................... 39

Making Composition Studies' Knowledges:
Theorists and Anti-Theorists................................................ .. 39
Versions of Student Writers: Ideational and Material ................................44
Materiality of Student Writers: Bruce Homer and "The Real".................... 51
Emics and Etics: Viewing and Reviewing............................................. 57
Keeping Things Strange: Distance not Immersion................................... 63
N o te s ......................................................................................... 7 1

COMPOSITION STUDIES............................................................... 72

Determining Composition Studies: Power and Influence............................. 72
Re-Writing Student Writers: Toward a Theory of Authorship...................... 80
Where Are All the Youth?: Student Writers, Authors, and
Cultural Gaps in Composition Studies ..........................................85
Tipping Our Wands: Composition Studies and the
Transformation of Youth.................... ................................... 102
N o te s ........................................................................... .......... 10 9

4 PUBLIC STUDENTS AND PUBLIC AUTHORITY..................................... 113
"Viva, Las Vegas!": Composition Studies and City Planning...................... 113
Public Pedagogy: Outside of Classroom Spaces..................................... 117
Publish and Perish: Student Writers of Public Texts ................................ 134
Public Eyes and Voices: The Inclusion of Youth.................................... 140
N otes ........................................................... ............................ 150

Into the Maelstrom: Theories and Pedagogies of
Resistance in Composition.................... .................................. 151
Care, Concern, and Subversion: Resisting the Powers that Be! .................... 155
Being Critical of Critical Pedagogies: Expanding the
Disciplinary Conversations..................................................... 162
The Other College Transcripts: Youth and the Dialectics of Domination ......... 168
Writing Composition Studies: A Final Look at the
Construction of the Student Writer............................................ 178
N otes ....................................................................................... 183

6 CLOSING WORDS...................................... ......... ............................. 185

W O R K S C IT E D ................................................................................... 189

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH..................................................................... 199

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in
Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Christopher John Keller

August 2001

Chair: Sidney I. Dobrin
Major Department: English

Those in rhetoric and composition studies have been engaged in theory-practice

debates for a couple of decades now. That is, compositionists have argued over whether

the field should be identified by its theoretical endeavors or by its allegiance to teaching

students how to write. These sorts of debates, however, often complicate and

problematize the discipline in that they often disregard or misunderstand how student

writers themselves influence how the field moves, changes, and is identified. In other

words, by focusing intently upon whether composition studies should be a theoretical or

pedagogical discipline, compositionists have viewed themselves as solely in positions of

power that dictate the direction of the field.

This project examines some of the theories and methodologies of anthropology in

order to question the ways that the discipline of composition studies is affected,

influenced, and changed. In particular, the dissertation appropriates the theories of

anthropologist Adam Kuper, who suggests that we should not look to codify culture or

try to envision culture holistically. Instead, we should try to disaggregate the pieces of

culture and see how they affect each other, the processes by which cultural components

relate to one another. With this anthropological prompt, the dissertation attempts to

disaggregate the various pieces of composition studies, to break it apart, and to no longer

see it as a disciplinary whole with strict boundaries. This, the dissertation contends, will

allow us to debunk the notion that composition teachers and scholars solely determine the

discipline and help us recognize the other factors and influences that shape composition

studies, particularly the various positions of student writers themselves.

In particular, the dissertation investigates student writers, youth, public spheres,

and concepts of resistance as "cultural pieces" that have important relationships with one

another for composition studies. These are by no means the only components that could

be disaggregated but are pieces that have great importance for the field today. Studying

these components not only demonstrates how compositionists should not try to construct

boundaries around composition studies but also manifests the diverse and numerous

forces that serve to construct disciplinary knowledge and practices, therein showing how

compositionists are not the only proprietors and actors of disciplinary thought and

recognizing the other forces and factors that build and mark of the status and identity of

the field.


Culture Talk: Anthropology and Composition Studies Converse

I don't know how many times I've wished that I'd never heard the damned word
-Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams's frustration with the term "culture" is well understood by

those whose academic work has centered on this concept-this word. However, the

aggravations associated with the word culture have not slowed down the ever-increasing

production of texts that deal with culture in its almost incalculable versions and

definitions. "Culture," Marshall Sahlins observes, "is on everyone's lips" (3). Sahlins is

referring to the various and diverse peoples of the world: "Tibetans and Hawaiians,

Ojibway, Kwakiutl, and Eskimo, Kazakhs and Mongols, native Australians, Balinese,

Kashmiris, and New Zealand Maori: all discover they have a 'culture'" (4).

Culture-once the province of anthropologists studying other peoples-has become a

term of interest and debate to those who themselves were long the objects of cultural

study, to those who now have some say in all this "culture talk," as Sahlins notes.

However, all of this chatter about culture-or the war over "culture," as some might see

it-has spread well beyond the academic territory of anthropologists. Disciplines in the

arts, humanities, social sciences, and even the hard sciences all have their various ways of


defining culture, using culture, applying culture, approaching culture, dissecting culture,

and connecting culture to other disciplinary conversations, social formations, and

institutional contexts. In the academy, one might say, culture is on everyone's lips and

on the ends of everyone's pens. This, however, is not by any means a new occurrence.

I cannot even begin to provide a complete history of the study of "culture" that

has taken place in various disciplinary writings and conversations, nor is this necessary

for my purpose at hand, which is more specific and less comprehensive. Culture, this is

to say, is a complex and uncodifiable concept that stretches among academic disciplines

and the popular media, for instance. I wish here, however, to examine the relationships

between two areas of disciplinary thought that have had some minor overlap in the past:

anthropology and composition studies. Each of these disciplines in its own way studies

something called "culture," though there is no one statement that can adequately

characterize the ways in which these disciplines involve themselves with culture or define

themselves as "cultural." In particular, though, I am troubled by composition studies' use

and understanding of the term "culture" when made in reference to anthropology and

ethnography; I refer specifically to the ways in which the word is often flung around in

disciplinary jargon without much discussion of the term's various historical and

disciplinary nuances and subtleties. That is, composition studies rarely provides enough

terminological attention and scrupulousness to its discussions of "culture," particularly as

the term is used in connection with anthropological and ethnographical discourses.

I do not wish, however, simply to look for overlap between anthropology and

composition studies, to understand the ways in which these two disciplines are similar or

the ways in which they share methodologies and approaches to the study of culture. In

other words, I do not want to make parallels between two disciplines that on the surface

seem only to have a few things in common. Instead, I want to show that composition

studies is a field not only that examines how cultural meanings are produced through

discursive production but also that composition studies itself is involved in certain

cultural practices and processes, a discipline whose meanings and practices can be

examined with more clarity by submitting them to specific kinds of anthropological study

and critique. My purpose in this, however, is not to prove that composition studies is just

another kind of culture-one more to add to the list of many; that is, I do not wish to

make such awkward claims and then do nothing more than attempt to prove the veracity

of these statements by showing the differences between a "culture" and an academic

discipline (though this may be necessary to some degree). That is, I do not merely hope

to construct some type of "culture" of composition, pull it apart, analyze its components,

and somehow sew it all back together, therein doing little more than analyzing parts and

providing a structural, ahistorical, and apolitical analysis. My argument about

composition studies proposes instead that to acknowledge composition studies as

something of a culture-as something that functions culturally and can be examined

through certain types of cultural analyses-provides not only a new understanding of

what the discipline means and how it functions but also, at a more "practical" level, how

compositionists may approach, observe, represent, and teach students how to write-

students who themselves participate in various cultures. Before getting into this

specifically, however, some background about both composition studies and

anthropology is necessary in order to come to a more specific understanding of how

terms such as "culture" and "anthropology" will be used in this project, both of which

have been historically problematic, complex, contentious, and ambiguous. A more

specific understanding of culture-seen through anthropological lenses-will help

compositionists investigate the complexities and dilemmas of their own disciplinary

meanings and practices.

Composition Studies and Culture: Encountering Anthropology

As a discipline that works specifically with students and their writing,

composition studies has in some sense always been interested (often implicitly) in

ethnographical questions. That is, compositionists have long been involved in work that

figures out ways to teach writing to students by investigating-often through empirical

methodologies-students' personal traits as well as their social and cultural backgrounds.

At the turn of the century, for instance, freshman composition began at Harvard in order

to meet the "needs" of those less economically-privileged (and therefore less

"academically-prepared") students who began filtering in Harvard's doors, students who,

Susan Miller notes, "took on 'dirty' associations that the nonelect, nonpredestined student

could embody .... Composition... focused on (while its new handbooks simultaneously

formed) correct written vernacular language, as a matter of politeness and good breeding"

(Textual 55). In recent years, compositionists have debated the potential for ethnography

to deliver more detailed data that uncover greater understandings of those students who

sit in composition classrooms and produce written documents. Ralph Cintron believes,

"For writing researchers... ethnography seems both puzzling and enchanting-puzzling

because its methodology is difficult to standardize and enchanting because the profession

has sensed ethnography's potential for delivering new kinds of data and for providing

answers that are otherwise elusive" (378). Cintron is, perhaps, correct in his assertion


that ethnography provides composition studies with the potential for numerous new

forms of knowledge about students and the discipline itself. I would like, however, to

take a closer look at both the productive and unproductive ways in which compositionists

have taken up this preoccupation with ethnography, anthropology, and culture, and I hope

to look more closely at the status of this knowledge that is being produced in composition

studies. 2

Voices & Visions: Refiguring Ethnography in Composition is one of the few

recent collections that is devoted specifically to intersections among composition studies,

ethnography, and anthropology. The editors of this collection suggest that its authors

seek to answer the following questions:

What is unique about how compositionists conduct ethnography? Should
positivism or postpositivism inform the authority of ethnography? To
what extent should ethnographies be about the ethnographer, the research
community, or the surrounding community? To what extent should an
ethnographer act as a cultural worker or an objective scientist? How can
ethnographers "tell the truth" when doing so reflects negatively on the
communities or when they can they cannot get respondents' written
permission to be published? (Kirklighter, Vincent, and Moxley viii)

These five questions begin to address the ways in which ethnography itself relates to the

study of culture-but perhaps only tangentially at that. This is not to suggest that

composition studies' use of ethnography must align itself closely and tightly with various

anthropologists' use of ethnography as a method for studying "other" cultures; however,

the above questions are posed to find ways that ethnography is "used," but they do not

make clear the ends to which it is used. In other words, how can compositionists ask

questions about how to conduct ethnography, the authority of ethnographic texts, the role

of the ethnographer, and the situation of students in the classroom and in ethnographies

before they ask questions about the roles ethnography and anthropology will play in the

discipline of composition studies as well as questions about the cultural situation of

ethnography itself both inside and outside of composition studies? The questions posed

by the editors of Voices & Visions appear to address some of the practical-nuts and

bolts-aspects of ethnography but fail to take into consideration how ethnography is

placed within composition studies as well as how ethnography gets at larger cultural and

institutional questions about how composition studies functions and makes its meanings

and practices.

In "Describing the Cultures of the Classroom: Problems in Classroom

Ethnography," one essay in the Voices & Visions Collection, Kay Losey relates a past

recognition that the composition classroom is not a single community, that "the

classroom was composed of a number of smaller communities, each with its own culture.

Obviously, there were teachers and students. There were also men and women. There

were Mexican-Americans, Anglo-Americans, Portuguese-Americans, Asian-Americans.

... The classroom I studied had a number of different communities with a number of

different perspectives" (86). In addition to Losey's problematic conflation of the terms

"culture" and "community" throughout the essay, her ethnography of various classroom

"cultures" reduces one's "culture" to one's racial background or gender, which posits that

ethnography serves composition as a methodology to get at cultural identities that were

formed outside of the composition classroom itself. In suggesting that a composition

classroom is made up of many different "cultures," as indicated by the diverse racial

make-up of this classroom under discussion, Losey implies that cultural identities in the

classroom are rooted in some preexisting difference-of race or gender. This perspective

supposedly affords compositionists the opportunity to view the classroom as a space

where various cultures meet-or make "contact" to use Mary Louise Pratt's phrase-but

such an understanding of "classroom cultures," consequently, neutralizes the composition

classroom itself, posits it as a space in which cultural discourses, meanings, practices, and

knowledge circulate but are made elsewhere. Losey's classroom may appear

"multicultural," but one must remember, first of all, that "cultures are the result of a

mishmash, borrowings, mixtures that have occurred, though at different rates, ever since

the beginning of time.... Diversity is less a function of the isolation of groups than of

the relationships which unite them" (Levi-Strauss 243). Second, and perhaps more

crucial, the composition classroom is not merely an arena for ethnographers to examine

"culturally-defined" students who have gathered to produce writings and express

themselves; it is not a forum or space that is devoid of its own cultural values, meanings,

histories, beliefs, and materiality; it is not, in other words, simply a space that brings to

the forefront issues and identities that exist outside of composition studies itself. The

composition classroom, that is, is a space that exerts its own cultural and institutional

impacts upon student writers.

Losey also contends that "Although anthropology, like sociology, addresses the

ways of a group of people, it is important to remember that groups are composed of

individuals who are as various as they are many. We should not assume that the

perspectives of most students or several students are the same or that all students have a

single perspective" (90). Composition teachers will no doubt classify students in certain

ways, perhaps as "hard-working," "lazy," "talkative," "brilliant," or whatever; however,

I do not think any teacher or theorist of writing would purposely assert that all students

share a single perspective-though many students, of course, do hold similar views and

perspectives. If we do escape this problem of a singular perspective, however, and,

according to Losey, "allow for the presentation of multiple perspectives," (94) what does

this tell us about composition studies or student writers? In this rhetorical paradigm, we

are shown that students are dissimilar in their perspectives-they are people who enter

the classroom from various ethnic and economic backgrounds and communities-and

that we as teachers/researchers of writing should avoid the pitfalls of singular

perspectives because we must be aware that we are actually observing the "real-life

communities" (94) of students as they exist in the spaces of the classroom itself. Losey is

correct that problems arise when multiple "cultures" come together and that such

problems cannot necessarily be solved with single solutions. However, her viewpoints

and arguments about the relevance of a "postmodern" ethnography for compositionists

are actually detached from any understanding of composition studies to begin with. This

is to say, Losey's postmodern polemic about the need to recognize and observe multiple

"communities"-used synonymously with "cultures"-in the classroom sheds little if any

light on the composition classroom itself, the ways in which these multiple perspectives

are negotiated and expressed specifically in and through writing pedagogies. One may

well wonder how this approach to observing the composition classroom is any different

from observing one's neighbors, friends, co-workers, or fellow passengers on an airplane.

We all wish to find and give meaning to our observations-written or not-but

recognizing the ethnographer's representational dilemmas provides compositionists with

little to go on unless there is some acknowledgment of the ways in which composition

studies itself provides a larger, complex framework of cultural meanings and questions in

which one begins ethnographic and anthropological studies in the first place.

Kristi Yager's "Composition's Appropriation of Ethnographic Authority," also

included in the Voices & Visions collection, suggests the following about critical

anthropology: "Represented by such theorists as James Clifford, Clifford Geertz, Mary

Louise Pratt, and Renato Rosaldo, critical anthropologists examine the discursive

elements of ethnographic methodology to discover the underlying assumptions of a given

ethnographer's work" (37). Like a number of other compositionists who invoke

anthropology to answer questions about culture, textual authority, ethnography, and

representation, for instance, Yager presents a very small, selective group of

anthropologists who speak to compositionists about what anthropology does and how it

may be used in composition studies. Yager, for example, discusses critical anthropology

as an area of anthropology which seeks[] to uncover the power-knowledge relationships

that structure and determine a given author's meaning" (37); however, generalizations

such as these fail to take into account the larger frameworks and contexts in which

something called "critical anthropology" arose and functions. Critical anthropology, for

instance, does have ties to the Frankfurt School's concepts of "critical theory"; simply

stating this single connection, however, is a gross oversimplification of this strand of

anthropological thought. Critical anthropology has roots that go back to the 1920s when

anthropologists began using cross-cultural perspectives in order to critique their own

societies, particularly the mass, liberal bourgeois societies facilitated by industrial

capitalism. Anthropologists then participated in public debates about issues involving,

for example, immigration, educational reform, crime, and family life. Anthropologists

such as Margaret Mead (1928), Bronislaw Malinowski (1926), Franz Boas (1928), and

Robert Redfield (1947), just to name a few, sought not only to inform their own societies

about others' ways of life but also to challenge their own societies' cultural

assumptions-those meanings, values, practices, and beliefs that people (habitually) take

for granted.

Critical anthropology also rests in a larger tradition of Marxism and materialist-

oriented criticism, which led eventually to another branch of anthropology known as

"cultural materialism," and in the 1960s critical anthropology helped inspire other

movements such as British Marxist historiography and cultural studies, as well as

supplementations by postmodern theorists in the 1980s, in which questions arose about

such things as the flexibility of cultural forms, hegemonic cultural structures, the

pervasiveness of power, and the changing locations of knowledge production. Moreover,

critical anthropology recognized that earlier anthropological texts and theories were used

as tools of imperialism, therein making many racist and primitivist assumptions about the

peoples it studied.3 All of this is an excessively brief account of critical anthropology;

however, my point here is not to correct or supplement Yager's version of critical

anthropology. Instead, I attempt to critique the ways in which anthropology has been

introduced to composition studies, the ways in which anthropologists and other scholars

interested in anthropology such as Clifford Geertz, Renato Rosaldo, James Clifford, and

Mary Louise Pratt have been ushered into composition studies as figures who are

representative of anthropology as a whole rather than as a very small, specialized slice of

a much larger area of disciplinary thought. Yager, in addition, though correct that

subjectivity and objectivity are central theoretical issues in anthropology, suggests that

"subjectivity" and "objectivity"-operating as polarities-have "little value for

humanistic inquiry such as anthropology or composition studies" (my emphasis; 38).

Even Clifford Geertz, despite his sympathies for the connections between anthropology

and the humanities, would probably discourage the notion that he is not involved in some

sort of "scientific" pursuit. This is to say, listing three or four anthropologists who pose

questions about authorship, representation, rhetoric, and interpretation by no means

makes anthropology a "humanistic" discipline; one may well wonder the extent to which

composition studies itself is or is not "humanistic."

I have by no means covered the entire range of texts in composition studies that

take up issues of ethnography and anthropology. Instead, I have attempted to cite from a

few texts that I see as problematically representative of composition's use and

understanding of anthropology and ethnography. This chapter, as well as this project as a

whole, attempts to provide a more thorough and detailed account of some of the

anthropological theories that are commonly referenced in composition studies, not simply

to pinpoint the inaccuracies and oversimplifications of anthropology and ethnography as

used by compositionists but to show the depth with which anthropology can help

composition studies come to a greater understanding of its own meanings and practices-

its identity-and the ways these relate to and affect student writers.

Anthropology for Composition Studies: A Brief Account

The writings of Clifford Geertz are the best known, most quoted, and most

influential anthropological texts that have made their way into composition studies.

Consequently, I would like to provide a more thorough examination of Clifford Geertz's

work-as well as the work of a few other anthropologists-in order to give an initial, yet

brief, and critical background of anthropological writings that have proved themselves

important and significant in composition studies.

Geertz studied anthropology at the (multi-disciplinary) Social Relations

Department at Harvard in the 1950s-a department, headed by Talcott Parsons, which

sought to bring together the work of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim in order to

formulate a systematic type of American sociology. Parsons's theories of "social action"

classified the "objective world" as having three components: social, physical, and

cultural. These three systems interacted in order to govern the choices all human "actors"

had to make. In Parsons's system, "culture" was the term which covered the realm of

ideas and values, as mediated in the form of symbols. In The Social System, he suggests,

"Cultural objects are symbolic elements of the cultural tradition, ideas or beliefs,

expressive symbols or value patterns" (4). Culture does not function by itself but only

within the larger system of "action"-a system which, according to Parsons, needed a

precise and limited definition of culture that could be approached scientifically.4 In the

1950s, Geertz (along with David Schneider) became a representative figure of Parsonian

American anthropology; however, it did not take long before Geertz (and Schneider)

began to question the Parsonian notion that cultural anthropology merely served a larger

project, that the study of culture was only apiece of a larger theory of social action which

sought to establish laws, norms, and patterns of culture. Geertz eventually began to

theorize culture as an autonomous system that could be investigated in its own right and

for its own sake, and he contended that anthropology should be seen as endeavor that

focuses on the investigation of symbols and meanings, therein centering on interpretation

rather than scientific discovery.5 In The Interpretation of Cultures, for example, he wrote

that there was "an enormous increase in interest, not only in anthropology, but in social

studies generally, in the role of symbolic forms in human life. Meaning, that elusive and

ill-defined pseudoentity we were once more than content to leave to philosophers and

literary critics to fumble with, has come back into the heart of our discipline" (29).

Geertz tries to move anthropology toward the study of symbols and away from the

material and empirical.

Renato Rosaldo once dubbed Clifford Geertz the "ambassador of anthropology."

This is to say, despite the numerous harsh criticisms directed at Geertz's work from

within anthropology (criticisms that will be explored more in chapter two), his influence

outside of his home discipline has been less caustic, more accepted, and, perhaps, much

more widespread. Geertz has written prolifically over the last half century, though his

most influential and most often cited ideas derive from The Interpretation of Cultures

(1973), Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (1983), and

Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988). The popularity of these works,

however, tends to overshadow his other writings, including those that stemmed more

directly from his fieldwork and narrow cultural analyses: for instance, The Religion of

Java (1960), Agricultural Innovation: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia

(1963), Peddlers and Princes: Social Change and Economic Modernization in Two

Indonesian Towns (1963), Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and

Indonesia (1968), and Negara: The Theater State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (1980).

Although I cannot do justice to the depth and complexity of Geertz's oeuvre in this

summary, I would like to discuss a couple of his main suppositions about anthropology,

ethnography, and culture that have not only influenced but helped re-shape the

humanities and social sciences in general and composition studies in particular.

The basis of Geertz's "interpretive," or "symbolic," anthropology is that an

analysis of culture

comes down therefore not to an heroic "holistic" assault upon the basic
configurations of the culture, an overarching "order of orders" from which
more limited configurations can be seen as mere deductions, but to a
searching out of significant symbols, and clusters of clusters of significant
symbols-the material vehicles of perception, emotion, and
understanding-and the statement of the underlying regularities of human
experience implicit in their formation. (Interpretation 408)

Geertz's interpretive anthropology reacted to the statistical, behaviorist, and formalist-

linguistic studies of human societies and cultures. Positing theories that viewed cultures

as texts, this form of anthropology initially suggested that anthropologists, like the native

"actors" themselves, read the various meanings within cultures; that is, the social actions

of natives left behind vestiges of meaning that anthropologists could read like texts.

Interpretive anthropology, then, sought to provide an understanding of other cultures

from the inside; however, these understandings were not meant to be static. Geertz's

brand of anthropology maintained that meanings are actively negotiated, that symbols

both decay and grow, and that culture can be read and interpreted with the help of

language's metaphoricity.6 Interpretive anthropologists, however, have often been

criticized for their tendencies to see meanings wherever and in whatever fashion they

wish, without having any objective methods or evaluative criteria.

Geertz's cultural analysis proceeds by reading a people's culture as if it were "an

ensemble of texts" (Interpretation 448); this type of analysis, then, seeks not to discover

how social and cultural systems operate but what social and cultural discourses,

institutions, and practices mean-a sort of cultural hermeneutics. Geertz's notion of

"thick description," a term borrowed from Gilbert Ryle, is a type of ethnography that

reads and interprets a culture-as-text in order to make a culture's meanings

comprehensible to others. This process is necessary, Geertz says, because "Doing

anthropology is like trying to read (in the sense of 'construct a reading of) a

manuscript-foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and

tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in

transient examples of shaped behavior" (Interpretation 10). "Thick description,"

consequently, is also a form of translation and inscription. The ethnographer, according

to Geertz, "inscribes" social discourse: "he writes it down. In so doing, he turns it from a

passing event, which exists only in its own moment of occurrence, into an account, which

exists in its inscriptions and can be reconsulted" (Geertz's emphases; Interpretation 19).

Critics have been concerned with this mode of anthropology because its basic concepts-

"meaning," ".... translation," and "construct," for instance-are unclear and ill-defined. That

is, one's ability to construct a reading or interpretation is severely limited simply because

the connotations surrounding terms such as "interpretation" and "meaning" are

themselves muddled and unclear. In other words, many are uncomfortable with

anthropological methods that are grounded in "guesswork," interpretations negotiated in

the absence of some form of (scientific) validation.7 In addition, Geertz's work has been

problematic to critics for its notion that cultures can be equated with texts and that

symbols and superstructures are more significant than material conditions and

structures-these problems I shall discuss further in chapter two.

Geertz's work derives in large part from studies in hermeneutics, semiotics,

psychoanalysis, and textual criticism, and it is more diverse and complex than I have

shown here. This summary of Geertz's interpretive anthropology, however, is meant less

as an attempt to provide a thorough and fastidious account of his writings than it is an

attempt to show the appeal that interpretive anthropology provides to numerous

disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, and particularly appealing to

composition studies as a discipline that holds great interest in the supposition that

cultures can be written and read like texts. Geertz's writings, furthermore, led the way

for a number of anthropologists in the 1970s and 80s who championed postmodern

perspectives. Although Geertz himself is rarely defined as a "postmodernist," his

insistence on interpretation as the basis of anthropological writing-as opposed to

empirical and objective validation-paved the ways for anthropologists such as Paul

Rabinow, Vincent Crapazano, George Marcus, Michael Fischer, Renato Rosaldo, and

Victor Turner, all of whom reject a science of anthropology because of its empirical


Texts such as Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures, Local Knowledge, and

Works and Lives have figured somewhat prominently in studies by compositionists who

examine relationships between anthropology and composition studies. Nonetheless,

other anthropological writings have influenced the shape of composition studies too. In

order to provide a more thorough account of anthropologists whose presence have been

felt in composition studies, I would also like to take a look at the works of James

Clifford-most notably, his The Predicament of Culture. Clifford teaches in the History

of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Though Clifford

is not an anthropologist, he considers himself a "historian and critic of anthropology"

(289). Much of Clifford's writing centers on the notion that cultures and identities are

always changing, always in flux, and must be historicized. In particular, Clifford asks a

number of questions about the ways in which culture gets written: "Who has the

authority to speak for a group's identity or authenticity? What are the essential elements

and boundaries of a culture? How do self and other clash and converse in the encounters

of ethnography, travel, modem interethnic relations? What narratives of development,

loss, and innovation can account for the present range of oppositional movements" (8).

Clifford explains culture's "predicament":

Ultimately my topic is a pervasive condition of off-centeredness in a
world of distinct meaning systems, a state of being in culture while
looking at culture, a form of personal and collective self-fashioning. This
predicament-not limited to scholars, writers, artists, or intellectuals-
responds to the twentieth century's unprecedented overlay of traditions. A
modem "ethnography" of conjunctures, constantly moving between
cultures, does not, like its Western alter ego "anthropology," aspire to
survey the full range of human diversity or development. It is perpetually
displaced, both regionally focused and broadly comparative, a form of
both dwelling and of travel in a world where the two experiences are less
and less distinct. (9)

Clifford abandons any belief in cultural wholes that have rigid boundaries, ones that can

be marked off and easily categorized. Ethnography is in a state of crisis, then, according

to Clifford, because it is itself a cultural invention rather than a transparent mode of

documentation; it is an activity that "appears as writing, as collecting, as modernist

collage, as imperial power, as subversive critique" (13). This is all to say, ethnographers

fashion their subjects and objects of analysis in order to persuade readers, and

one must bear in mind the fact that ethnography is, from beginning to end,
enmeshed in writing. This writing includes, minimally, a translation of
experience into textual form. The process is complicated by the action of
multiple subjectivities and political constraints beyond the control of the
writer. In response to these forces ethnographic writing enacts a specific
strategy of authority. (25)

In short, much of Clifford's work is interested in examining how writers of ethnographies

evoke authority in their writings: "Experiential, interpretive, dialogical, and polyphonic

processes are at work, discordantly, in any ethnography, but coherent presentation

presupposes a controlling mode of authority.... If ethnographic writing is alive, as I

believe it is, it is struggling within and against these possibilities" (54). Clifford's

interest in the ways anthropologists produce texts provides an avenue for overlap between

composition studies and anthropology.

In The Predicament of Culture, this is all to say, James Clifford treats

ethnography as a literary genre. Whether he discusses the problems of "representation"

and "poetics" in Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, identity

formation and narration in Michel Leiris's L 'Afriquefantome, or metaphoric structure in

Marcel Griaule's Methode de 'ethnographie, Clifford is interested in ethnography as a

form of writing. That is, he is less interested in what ethnographers and anthropologists

believe they have found out than in their authorial processes and imaginations.

Consequently, Clifford's interest in the ways that peoples and cultures-if there is such a

thing-are rhetorically fashioned as well his interest in the writing processes of

ethnographers are no doubt part of (this type of) anthropology's appeal to composition


James Clifford, furthermore, edited (with George Marcus) an influential

collection of essays entitled Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography.

This collection stems from a seminar in which numerous anthropologists and literary

theorists participated. The contributors to this volume differ in their critical perspectives,

including, for instance, literary theory, cultural translation, Marxism, postcolonial theory,

and world system theory. However, they all tend to emphasize the importance of

studying acts of writing in anthropological and ethnographic texts. George Marcus

asserts that the task of the Writing Culture seminar was "to introduce a literary

consciousness to ethnographic practice by showing various ways in which ethnographies

can be read and written" (262). Writing Culture responds to the ideas and images of the

classical ethnographer, he or she who is represented as a detached, scientific observer-

an individual who enters a new, exotic cultural realm and reports cultural facts in

unbiased, objective prose. Contributors to the Writing Culture collection attempt to show

the illusion of this image and argue that ethnographers write "fictions." Furthermore,

they suggest, these ethnographers are merely engaging in rhetorical "tricks" of

authorship, therein imposing order on the multiple and chaotic perspectives and voices

they encountered in their fieldwork. Moreover, they argue that thefictions produced by

classical ethnographers served colonizing projects which sought to implement order and

stability upon colonial subjects abroad.

It is difficult to summarize the eleven essays in Writing Culture in this brief

account without essentializing them; one might safely say, however, that the contributors

to this collection all argue that there should not be any privileged perspectives in

ethnographic narratives. That is, the ethnographer no longer oversees culture with

omniscience; instead, ethnographers should try new writing practices that include a

variety of voices and perspectives that are never allowed to remain static. Writers of

ethnographic texts are expected to usher in a form "postmodern anthropology" in which

peoples and their ways of life are never essentialized and never presented with

boundaries-all cultures, this is to say, are in movement. "Culture," James Clifford

writes, "is contested, temporal, and emergent" (Writing 19). The Writing Culture

contributors created a new movement which sought to render obsolete these old-

empirical and fact based-writing practices. Clifford suggests that the Writing Culture

team is positing a "historical and theoretical movement" that will

dislodge the ground from which persons and groups securely represent
others. A conceptual shift, "tectonic" in its implications, has taken place.
We ground things now on a moving earth. There is no longer any place of
overview (mountaintop) from which to map human ways of life, no
Archimedian point form which to represent the world. Mountains are in
constant motion. So are islands: for one cannot occupy unambiguously, a
bounded cultural world from which to journey out and analyze other
cultures. Human ways of life increasingly influence, dominate, parody,
translate, and subvert one another. Cultural analysis is always enmeshed
in global movements of difference and power. However one defines it,
and the phrase is here used loosely, a "world system" now links the
planets societies in a common historical process. (Writing 22)

Writing Culture attempts to open a theoretical rift between a past, objective, and

scientific anthropology and a new, postmodern anthropology rooted in experimentation,

fragmentation, irony, subversion, polyvocality, and critique of Western thought and

assumptions. The heavy emphases on rhetorical fashioning of cultures and peoples as

well as the emphases these contributors place on the roles of authorship in ethnographic

texts seem to have made postmodern anthropology particularly important and exciting to


I have provided only a brief background of anthropological works that have

influenced composition studies. There are, without a doubt, many more; however, I

discussed texts by Clifford Geertz and James Clifford primarily because they, more than

any others, have played the role of anthropology's "ambassadors" to composition studies.

Anthropologists who have influenced composition studies have often done so by

expressing an interest in examining questions of writing, rhetoric, and authorship. Gary

Olson suggests that "Perhaps it is Geertz's preoccupation with seeing science and

scholarship as rhetorical, as socially constructed, that makes his work so eminently

appealing to many of us in rhetoric and composition" (245). Matthew Wilson, in

addition, uses James Clifford's ideas about "ethnographic authority" to argue that "Our

students are like the traditional ethnographer in valuing integration over ambiguity and

diversity, in separating the 'research process' from the text, and in their inability to see

the relevance of the 'dialogical [and] situational aspects of... interpretation" (252).

Furthermore, Michael Kleine adopts Clifford Geertz's interpretive anthropology as a

basis to claim that compositionists "have not subjected ethnographic practice and

discourse to the kind of radical critique that would allow it to become-and seem-what

it actually is: an act of social construction performed in relationship to other acts of social

construction" (121). Anthropologists' inquiries into the realms of writing and rhetoric

have allowed the discipline to become more self-reflexive and, furthermore, have allowed

compositionists to begin making interdisciplinary connections with anthropological

theories and methodologies, which has greatly enhanced compositions' understanding of

ethnographic practices as well as relationships between students and teachers. However,

by investigating mainly those anthropologists who are concerned with issues involving

rhetoric, authorship, and textual construction, compositionists have typically only

touched upon a small contingent of anthropologists and anthropological thought. That is,

compositionists have tended to see as important and influential only those anthropologists

who are aware of certain problems and issues that compositionists themselves confront:

for instance, objectivity, textual construction, hermeneutics, writing, and rhetoric. This,

in short, has isolated a great number of other anthropological theories and methodologies

that might help compositionists better understand their own disciplinary theories and


Culture Concepts: Building Bridges Between Composition and Anthropology

Composition studies has held important and critically useful conversations with

anthropology about the complexities and problems of writing "others" into texts-that is,

rhetoric and representation are inseparable when it comes to textual construction in

ethnography. I would like, however, to begin building more bridges between

composition studies and anthropology. In other words, examinations of rhetoric and

writerly practices have kept composition and anthropology conversant for the last couple

of decades, but more intricate and complex analyses of culture concepts should provide

larger plots of interdisciplinary ground for compositionists to examine anthropological

thought and practice and build from them. I would like, however, to look first at how

many compositionists already approach "culture" through cultural studies theories and


Cultural studies is no more reducible to a few sentences than anthropology;

however, one might reasonably assert in a few words that cultural studies is comprised of

both academic and political pursuits merging to combat the hegemonic powers of ruling

classes and dominant discourses. According to John Storey,

"Culture" in cultural studies is defined politically [not] aesthetically....
culture [is not]... a process of aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual
development; but culture [is] understood as the texts and practices of
everyday life.... Cultural studies also regards culture as political in a
quite specific sense-as a terrain of conflict and contestation.... culture
is a terrain on which there takes place a continual struggle over meaning,
in which subordinate groups attempt to resist the imposition of meanings
which bear the interests of dominant groups. (Popular 2-3)

Although this is merely one overview of what cultural studies is and what it does---other

scholars and critics certainly have room to disagree here-one might use Storey's

identification of cultural studies as a method of political "contestation" and "struggle" to

begin understanding how compositionists have sought to incorporate such methodologies

in writing classrooms. To connect cultural studies and composition studies is to assume

that one's pedagogy and one's theory have political consequences and that teaching is

never politically neutral. James Berlin, for instance, suggests that "Our effort [as

compositionists] is to make students aware of the various cultural codes-the various

competing discourses-that attempt to influence who they are. Our larger purpose is to

encourage our students to resist and negotiate these codes-these hegemonic

discourses-in order to bring about more personally humane and socially equitable

economic and political arrangements" (50). Similarly, Henry Giroux argues that

"Cultural studies theorists must grasp the importance of pedagogy as a mode of cultural

criticism, useful for questioning the very conditions under which knowledge, values, and

social identities are produced, appropriated and often challenged" (Fugitive 19).

Furthermore, Raymond A. Mazurek suggests that

Cultural studies provides some resolution to the dilemmas radical teachers
like myself sometimes experience regarding sharing their political
viewpoints with students. For if the focus of the course is on "rhetoric" in
the broadest sense-on the social processes and conflicts which produce
ideas and discourses-rather than on specific issues perceived only as
"content" to be written about, then the instructor's views do not seem as
individual, odd, or intrusive. (187)

Compositionists and educators such as Berlin, Giroux, and Mazurek emphasize the

classroom as a space in which critical and political intervention may take place, a space

in which students may analyze cultural texts, contexts, and social relations in order to

understand better the workings of power, discourses, and their own positions in the

world-particularly their positions as writers. Cultural studies, in short, has had an

important and influential position in composition studies, particularly because of the way

it asks students and teachers to investigate the conditions in which discourse is produced,

to struggle over meaning, and to seek "liberating effects" in the production and analyses

of various discourses. However, cultural studies approaches, both inside and outside of

composition studies, are not without their critics. Stefan Collini, for instance, in a review

of Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paul Treichler's influential anthology Cultural

Studies, remarks that

The suspicion is that most forms of cultural activity are essentially a
disguise for the fact that Somebody is Trying to Screw Somebody Else...
Hardly a page of this fat volume goes by without our being told that
somebody who possesses some kind of power... is trying to "dominate,"
"suppress," occludee," "mystify," "exploit," marginalisee" ... someone
else, and in response it is the duty of those engaged in Cultural Studies to
"subvert," "unmask," "contest," "de-legitimize," "intervene," "struggle
against." (457)

Collini's frustration with cultural studies-like a number of other scholars and critics-

stems from his view that cultural studies produces pessimism because of its dogmatic

notions that power is ali a s dominating and oppressive and used negatively to "screw"

people who are in subservient positions. Collini implicitly, it seems, questions whether

culture is always a battleground between the strong and the weak, the oppressors and the

oppressed. Critiques such as Collini's are in many ways applicable to composition

studies' usages of cultural studies.8 In particular, when educators and compositionists

such as Giroux, Berlin, and Mazurek discuss how students can "subvert" dominant

educational paradigms, "contest" discourses that try to influence who they are, or

"struggle" against or "resist" hegemonic powers and discourses, for instance, students are

necessarily placed in positions against dominant powers and values-always positioned

with the exploited, marginalized, and powerless. Consequently, theories and pedagogies

of writing that derive from these kinds of cultural studies perspectives often begin with

assumptions about what students lack and what they do not have, rather than from an

investigation of the positions of power that students already occupy and from any

understanding of the cultural criticisms and perspectives that students already possess.

This is to say, within the frameworks of many cultural studies pedagogies and theories in

composition studies, students are constructed as the marginalized and dominated others,

those whose goal in the composition classroom should be liberation from or contestation

against the various forms of oppression working against them and others.

Proponents of cultural studies in the composition classroom also are at risk of

criticism by those who suggest that such theories and pedagogies focus too intently on the

interpretation of texts rather than the production of them, that, according to Susan Miller,

"By teaching texts rather than their making, by teaching awareness rather than rhetoric,

and by teaching the power of meaning rather than the making of statements, we

inadvertently reproduce a politics that is aware but passive.... Writing taught as reading,

that is, accomplishes political stasis" ("Technologies" 499). In short, Miller questions the

role of cultural studies in the writing classroom, the ways in which cultural studies can

help students actually produce texts rather than simply creating an awareness of texts'

various political and social positioning. Julie Drew offers a way out of this dilemma by

suggesting that production and interpretation should not be placed in binary opposition to

each other and that we should not so quickly equate writing with political activism and

interpretation with political stasis. Drew contends, "What cultural studies has to offer

composition pedagogy is not reading instead of writing, interpretive skills instead of

rhetorical skills, political passivity instead of engagement" ("Teaching" 418). Rather, she


the moment the field [of composition studies] turned from product to
process was the moment cultural studies had something to say to writing
theorists and teachers.... Our publications and conference presentations
indicate that many composition instructors are becoming increasingly
interested in the objects of cultural studies analysis as texts for students to
read and interpret; this trend may... indicate a decrease in actual writing
instruction. Instead of looking to cultural studies for texts to analyze, we
might attempt to help students conduct and incorporate analyses of the
conditions in which they themselves produce cultural meaning-academic
texts-as an integral part of their writing process.... Cultural studies'
tradition of textual and cultural analysis may benefit students enormously
if that analysis is part of a writing process and thusfirmly embedded in
writing instruction. (Drew's emphases; "Teaching" 416-18)

Cultural studies for composition students, Drew believes, should no longer center on the

simple introduction of texts that focus on race, class, gender, and sexuality, for instance.

That is, cultural studies in composition is less effective if it simply focuses on specific

kinds of cultural texts and objects that have been neglected in the past.

Cultural studies, instead, according to Drew, has a place in students' actual

writing processes; students should be engaged in analyzing the "structures that constitute

the sites of [their] own writing" (424). Despite the importance of repositioning cultural

studies within the processes that constitute the writing of texts, Drew's analyses

unfortunately are a bit vague. She suggests, for example, that "A pedagogy based on ...

a cultural studies tradition of analysis of the conditions of production would ask students,

as part of their writing processes, to identify those forces that are working for and against

their authorship.... Cultural studies has at its core an insistence that the act of textual

production is intimately and irrevocably linked with cultural forces that construct social

relations and institutions of power" (my emphases; 425-26). What, one may well ask,

are all of these "cultural forces"? And how exactly are we expecting students to

"identify" them? To what end? This is not to suggest that Drew needs to move her

argument squarely into the realm of the pedagogical, but "cultural forces" can mean any

number of things to all people and may, at best, seem quite perplexing to students. I

agree with the premise of Drew's argument that cultural studies has a place in students'

writing processes; however, delving into these "cultural forces" should not be left to the

devices of students only. Instead, this is the responsibility ofcompositionists as well, a

responsibility that should help compositionists better theorize how "cultural forces"

qffect-not oppress or dominate-students and better understand how this knowledge can

be used in the everyday space of composition classrooms.

Composition studies' recent emphases on cultural analyses by way of cultural

studies have been diverse and prolific, but compositionists have tended to study culture

only through cultural studies texts rather than anthropological texts, turning to

anthropologists, paradoxically, only to answer questions about rhetoric and writing.

"Anthropologists," Terrence Turner believes, "have been doing a lot of complaining that

they are being ignored by the new academic specializations in 'culture'... Most of us

have been sitting around like so many disconsolate intellectual wallflowers, waiting to be

asked to impart our higher wisdom, and more than a little resentful that the invitations

never come" (411). I doubt that many anthropologists are actually sitting around like

"wallflowers," hoping to impress large numbers of academics with their superior

expertise in culture; however, compositionists might have something to gain by

importing anthropology's versions of culture into composition studies. A closer look at

anthropology's study of culture concepts-and ultimately cultural "forces" and

processes-is in order.

Anthropologists tend to accept the notion that culture serves power and that there

is a place in anthropology for critical studies of "cultural" producers. Many

anthropologists, however, are concerned that cultural studies is too restricted to the arts,

the media, the educational system, and categories such as race, class, and gender, thereby

dealing with only a small portion of anthropological understandings of culture. In

addition, anthropologists often fear that a cultural product is judged by cultural studies

theorists only by "applying the test of the radical. It is either "oppressive" or

"liberating"-only one or the other (Kuper 231). In this sense, cultural studies creates

binaries between what is good and evil, examining only power relationships between

oppressors and the oppressed. Furthermore, anthropologists critique cultural studies for

its focus on Western society: "When they [cultural studies proponents] look abroad,

which they do not do very often, what [they] see is a process of Americanization (call

Globalization).... Subject to the same media, the whole world will enact the same

struggles" (Kuper 232). In short, something is lost when cultural studies analysts focus

on only Western societies and their influences-comparative analyses of cultures and

societies are replaced by skepticism and fear of global homogenization. "Alas, the

traditional ethnographer," Adam Kuper writes, "getting to know what life is like in some

village, has little to say about all this. Monographs on village affairs therefore remain on

the shelves, while publishers compete for accounts of how Indonesian urbanites read

Mexican soaps" (232). Cultural studies theorists and practitioners, then, to some

anthropologists' dismay, isolate the voices and ways of life of the very people they wish

to free from marginalization and oppression.9

Culture is, no doubt, a problematic and complex word that anthropologists have

long struggled to define. Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn's Culture: A Critical

Review of Concepts and Definitions (1952) tabulated 164 conceptions of culture in order

to specify precise meanings of the term. Frustrated by culture concepts that tried to

encompass too much, Kroeber and Kluckhohn sought to distinguish culture from society,

and, in order to do so, they placed culture in the realm of ideas and values: "the essential

core of culture consists of traditional... ideas and especially their attached values"

(181). In a sense, Kroeber and Kluckhohn's classifications facilitated an intellectual

revolution in anthropological thought about the meanings of culture. However, even

before Kroeber and Kluckhohn's volume on culture definitions, debates about the

meanings of culture underwent a long and complex history. E.B. Tylor, for instance,

defined culture in 1871 as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art,

morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member

of society" (1). T.S. Eliot believed he was getting at an anthropological understanding of

culture when he contended that culture is "the way of life of a particular people living

together in one place.... a culture is more than the assemblage of its arts, customs, and

religious beliefs. These things all act upon each other, and fully to understand one you

have to understand all" (121). Edward Sapir, furthermore, suggested that culture "may be

briefly defined as civilization insofar as it embodies the national genius" (311). Disputes

about what culture is before the 1950s are themselves complex, yet these complexities

increase exponentially in later years. Consequently, providing a quick summary of what

anthropologists mean when they discuss culture is difficult if not impossible. The range

of considerations and arguments about culture are too far reaching in themselves, not to

mention those theories which suggest that the term should be abolished altogether.

A number of anthropologists are concerned that culture can never truly describe

what it promises to describe and, therefore, it has outlived its usefulness. In particular,

some argue that culture concepts posit boundaries, structures, homogeneity, and

coherence, as opposed to the fragmentation, instability, change, and disruption that take

place in real social existence, therein hiding the many acts of oppression and domination.

Arjun Appadurai contends that "The noun culture appears to privilege the sort of sharing,

agreeing, and bounding that fly in the face of the facts of unequal knowledge and the

differential prestige of lifestyles, and to discourage attention to the worldviews and

agency of those who are marginalized or dominated" (12). Many argue that culture

cannot be examined as a thing (as a noun) and, therefore, anthropologists should only use

the adjectival form cultural, which suggests difference, contrast, and comparison. Lila

Abu-Lughod argues, similarly, that "Despite its anti-essentialist intent... the culture

concept retains some of the tendencies to freeze difference possessed by concepts like

race" (144). This is to say, differences between anthropologists and those under study are

not only kept static but also exaggerated, often placing those studied in subordinate

positions. "Perhaps anthropologists," Abu-Lughod continues, "should consider strategies

for writing against culture" (147). Many anthropologists and other cultural theorists

attack the validity of culture concepts, although they do so from a variety of critical

positions and backgrounds; I have only touched the surface of such arguments, but

perhaps there is something valid in these propositions, that culture is more trouble than its

worth, and that no matter what we do with the term it will still somehow always be

misapplied. 10 However, such questions, perhaps, should not necessarily ask whether

culture concepts are beneficial or not; instead, one might question whether people can do

without culture. Christoph Brumann proposes, "Whether anthropologists like it or not, it

appears that people-and not only those with power-want culture, and they often want

it in precisely the bounded, reified, essentialized, and timeless fashion that most of us

now reject" (11). These "people," whomever they are, might misunderstand the

implications of this kind of reasoning about culture, but this, some anthropologists argue,

does not necessarily justify the killing of culture. Anthropologists, instead, should see it

as their duty, according to Brumann, to remind "people of a given nation" that what they

"really have in common is often trivial things such as familiarity with certain soap

brands, commercial slogans, or TV stars and not an ever present awareness of their

common history and heritage. Anthropologists should remain capable of showing people

that what they see as 'their culture' is often a rather arbitrary selection" (12). Culture,

though, despite such problems should not be abrogated but kept-with certain restrictions

and conditions imposed upon it.

Dimensions of Culture: Working "In" and Working "With"

As I have discussed so far, compositionists have been interested in working with

concepts of culture both inside and outside the writing classroom. This cultural turn in

composition studies is a necessary one because composition scholars and teachers must

be aware of the various cultural situations of textual practices-both their own and those

of students. However, many in composition studies, it appears, tend to see the discipline

as one that works with culture rather than in culture. In other words, composition studies

might benefit if it is examined more often as a something of a culture itself, if

compositionists can see themselves participating in something cultural-something

comprised of cultures, cultural formations, and practices. Critics often claim that we

want to see everything as a "culture" nowadays-academic cultures, museum cultures,

corporate cultures, sports cultures, visual cultures, and drug cultures, just to name a few.

Thus, I can foresee a number of sighs and groans directed at the notion that composition

studies also has its own culture.' However, I do not wish to argue that composition

studies in and of itself is a holistic culture that we can somehow delimit, dissect, or

thoroughly describe, that we can narrow down the concept of culture to something as

specific as composition studies. "Complex notions like culture, or discourse," Adam

Kuper notes, "inhibit an analysis of the relationships among the variables they pack

together. Even in sophisticated modem formulations, culture-or discourse-tends to be

represented as a single system, though one shot through with arguments and

inconsistencies" (245). Cultural components, on the other hand, Kuper suggests, should

be "separated out from each other rather than bound together into a single bundle labeled

culture.. if the elements of a culture are disaggregated, it is usually not difficult to show

that the parts are separately tied to specific administrative arrangements, economic

pressures, biological constraints, and so forth" (245). Rather than looking for ways to

better describe or dissect a "culture," this is to say, we might engage in anthropological

thought that studies cultural processes. Eric Wolf, moreover, believes, "A 'culture' is

thus better seen as a series of processes that construct, reconstruct, and dismantle cultural

materials, in response to identifiable determinants" (387). Similarly, Roy D'Andrade

argues for breaking culture up into parts, which "makes a particulate theory of culture;

that is, a theory about the 'pieces' of culture, their composition and relation to other

things" (247). This idea of "pieces" of culture and "relations to other things" is important

in analyzing culture as fragmented and scattered, and, furthermore, it abolishes notions of

cultural determinism which contend that culture can be treated in and on its own terms.

Kuper maintains that "unless we separate out the various processes that are lumped

together under the heading of culture, and then look beyond the field of culture to other

processes, we will not get very far in understanding any of it" (247).

This takes us back to composition studies and student writers; these various

cultural processes-and the "cultural forces" acting upon these student writers and the

discipline itself-that I have been discussing thus far might be separated out and

examined in "relation to other things." Composition studies itself is made up of various

beliefs, knowledge, values, material locations and practices, institutional politics,

disciplinary lore, rhetorical genres, and canonical texts. Compositionists study writerly

practices and writers themselves, those whose textual practices are influenced by other

social, cultural, political, racial, gender, and economic factors as well as biological and

cognitive processes. To categorize all of these things under a single heading "culture of

composition," or "composition's culture," would diminish the dynamic and ever-

changing configurations of something called composition studies. However, this type of

anthropological thought helps compositionists understand the processes of composition

studies itself and the ways in which they relate to each other. By separating out various

elements, one may better explore how language, texts, knowledge, and values-among

many other components-change and influence composition studies' various historical,

institutional, political, social, and cultural arrangements. Documenting and separating

out all of composition studies' processes and elements, however, is impossible since one

cannot demarcate an entire discipline in such a manner-particularly a discipline that so

often draws from other disciplines. And, consequently, such an attempt would suggest

composition studies is some sort of a whole, a notion that contradicts the reasons for

examining processes in the first place.

The dissertation appropriates the theories of anthropologists such as Adam Kuper

and others who suggests that we should not look to codify culture or try to envision

culture holistically. Instead, we should try to disaggregate the pieces of culture and see

how they affect each other, the processes by which cultural components relate to one

another. With this anthropological prompt, the dissertation attempts to disaggregate

various pieces of composition studies, to break it apart, and to no longer see it as a

disciplinary whole with strict boundaries. This, the dissertation contends, will allow us to

debunk the notion that composition teachers and scholars solely determine the discipline

and help us recognize how and why other factors and processes shape composition

studies, particularly student writers themselves.

In particular, the dissertation investigates student writers, youth, public spheres,

and concepts of resistance as cultural pieces that have important relationships with one

another for composition studies. These are by no means the only components that could

be disaggregated but are pieces that have great importance for the field today. Studying

these components not only demonstrates how compositionists should not try to construct

boundaries around composition studies, but they also manifest the diverse and numerous

forces that serve to construct disciplinary knowledge and practices, therein showing how

compositionists themselves are not the only proprietors of and actors on disciplinary

thought and formation.

I have chosen only a fraction of composition's components-those things that are

now deemed important aspects of composition studies-that help comprise a larger,

unstable, and dynamic configuration. First of all, the next chapter examines how students

are in many ways the basis of composition studies, and it investigates the roles of the

student writer in composition studies not simply as the learner of our knowledge but as

both a material and ideal component of our discourses that is actually much more

complex than we as teachers and scholars of composition studies have allowed for in the

past. Student themselves, that is, actually help structure our disciplinary knowledge and

practices to a greater degree than compositionists have recognized. This is to say, I will

investigate the ways in compositionists construct students in discourse as well as how

students themselves construct texts in relation to the numerous discourses, values, beliefs,

and texts that circulate inside and outside of composition studies-the cultural "forces,"

to use Drew's phrase. In chapter three I examine how youth is an often overlooked

component of composition studies. That is, compositionists often consider the ways in

which students' writings are affected by discourses of race, class, and gender, but they

often disregard youth as an important social and cultural category, one that greatly affects

composition's material practices and its knowledge about students and their writings.

Youth, however, is a difficult and broad term, so I will discuss in greater detail the way

that youth is relevant and important for composition studies in particular. Chapter four

looks at the ways in which compositionists have become interested in having students

write public texts, or write for the "public sphere." Related to these theories and

practices are concerns about how compositionists now provide avenues for student texts

to circulate beyond the writing classroom. These theories and pedagogies raise a number

of important questions about what sorts of social, cultural, and institutional processes

compositionists want students to engage in, the ways student texts themselves should

"relate to things." Finally, in chapter five, I investigate the roles that theories and

pedagogies of resistance have played in composition studies during the last decade or so.

The writings of Paulo Freire, for instance, have been incorporated into composition

studies by scholars such as James Berlin and Ira Shor. Teaching and theorizing

resistance in composition studies connects closely with the ways in which students are

figured and constructed both inside and outside the classroom. Students' participation in

various youth cultures, additionally, will figure into these constructions as well since

resistance itself, in many cases, is already deemed an action of young people-one of the

few if venues of agency for youth.

These four components of composition studies-student writers, youth,

resistance, and public texts-not only relate to and connect with each other but also with

other cultural, institutional, social, and political processes that are typically understood to

exist outside of composition studies and the institutional walls that surround it. This type

of methodology, furthermore, leads to the construction of a text that is not linear in the

sense that its chapters build upon one another in order to lead up to some ultimate theory

in the end. Instead, the chapters are both forward looking and recursive. Each chapter

studies the way compositionists might re-envision the cultural processes that take place in

the discipline-processes that tend to show that the control of the discipline is not so

much under the control of composition teachers and scholars. This project then is more

ecological than it is linear and evolutionary. These types of investigations, in addition,

do not simply attempt to make something that might loosely be termed "cultural" more

precise, but instead they show the complexities of composition studies' relationships to

and rootedness in other processes. That is, I would like composition studies to open up

its understandings of other social, political, institutional, and even cognitive, processes.

This is, of course, not to make composition studies into some kind of totality but to

rethink the ways in which composition theorizes and teaches "culture" and functions as

something that is itself "cultural"-the ways it is implicated in various cultural processes.

This is done not only to show how studies of culture (anthropological or otherwise) can

help us better understand composition studies and student writers but also to illustrate

how studies of composition can help us improve our understandings of "culture" and

cultural processes in general. This project is, consequently and blatantly, a study of

composition studies' construction, status, and identity as an academic discipline.


1 Taken from Politics and Letters (London: New Left Books, 1979), pg. 174.

2 In this chapter my discussion of culture for composition studies is limited mainly to the
terms used in anthropological and ethnographical texts, despite the fact that "cultural
studies" has taken an important place in composition's disciplinary identity.

3 These topics are taken up in detail in Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How
Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia UP, 1983) and Eric Wolf,
"Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People," Current Anthropology 35.1 (1994): 1-12.

4 For more on Parsons and his theories of social action, see Bruce C. Weame, The Theory
and Scholarship of Talcott Parsons to 1951 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989) and
James Peacock, "The Third Stream: Weber, Parsons, and Geertz," Journal of the
Anthropological Society of Oxford 7 (1981): 122-29.

5 For a materialist critique of Geertz's "idealism," see William Rosenberry, "Balinese
Cockfights and the Seduction of Anthropology." Social Research 49.4 (1982): 1013-28.

6 For more on the bases of interpretive anthropology, see Michael M.J. Fischer,
"Interpretive Anthropology." Review ofAnthropology 4.4 (1977): 391-404; also, Paul
Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essavs on Language, Action, and
Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981).

7 The debates about Geertz's interpretive anthropology and "thick description" are
numerous and far-ranging. One, however, might begin with the following critiques of
Geertz's work: Michael Carrithers, "Is Anthropology Art of Science." Current
Anthropology 31 (1990): 263-82; P. Steven Sangren, "Rhetoric and the Authority of
Ethnography: 'Postmodernism' and the Social Reproduction of Texts." Current
Anthropology 29 (1988): 405-35; Jonathan Spencer, "Anthropology as a Kind of
Writing." Man 24 (1989): 145-64; Sherry B. Ortner, ed. The Fate of "Culture ": Geertz
and Beyond (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1999).

8 Victor Vitanza criticizes the ways that compositionists have devised cultural studies
theories and pedagogies in such a way that encourage pessimism among students. See
"'The Wasteland Grows'; Or, What is 'Cultural Studies for Composition' and Why Must
We Always Speak Good of It?: ParaResponse to Julie Drew," JAC: A Journal of
Composition Theory 19.4 (1999): 699-703. Also, see Julie Drew's response to Vitanza,
"On Critique, Cultural Studies, and Community," in the same issue of JAC, pp. 704-06.

9 For more on the relationship between anthropology and cultural studies, see Nicholas
Thomas's "Becoming Undisciplined: Anthropology and Cultural Studies."
Anthropological Theory Today. Ed. Henrietta L. Moore (Malden, MA: Polity P, 1999.

10 Others who discuss the eradication of culture concepts are Robert Brightman, "Forget
Culture: Replacement, Transcendence, Relexification." Cultural Anthropology 10 (1995):
509-46; Tim Ingold, "The Art of Translation in a Continuous World." Beyond
Boundaries: Understanding, Translation, and Anthropological Discourse. Ed. Gisli
Palsson (London: Berg, 1993. 210-30); and Jack Goody, "Culture and Its Boundaries: A
European View." Assessing Cultural Anthropology. Ed. Robert Borofsky (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1994. 250-60); and Susan Hegeman, Patterns for America: Modernism
and the Concept of Culture (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), particularly chapter seven,
"On Getting Rid of Culture."

11 For more in-depth discussions about "narrow" conceptions of culture, see Terry
Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), especially chapter two,
"Culture in Crisis." See also Geoffrey Hartman, The Fateful Question of Culture (New
York: 1997).


Making Composition Studies' Knowledges: Theorists and Anti-Theorists

The gap between engaging others where they are and representing them where they
aren't, always immense but not much noticed, has suddenly become extremely visible.
What once seemed only technically difficult, getting their 'lives' into 'our' works, has
turned morally, politically, even epistemologically, delicate.
-Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives

In order to begin thinking about the cultural pieces and processes that help construct and

change the formation of composition studies, particularly those that aid in our

understanding of student writers, it is necessary to look first at how composition studies

sees itself, on one hand, as a knowledge-making discipline and as, on the other hand, a

field primarily dedicated to teaching writing. Composition studies, this is to say, suffers

from an identity crisis about the discipline's primary goals and endeavors. The points of

dispute that facilitate the crisis, nevertheless, are numerous and involve diverse sides and

voices; however, the arguments between supporters of theory and supporters of practice

have formed the biggest rift in the construction of composition's disciplinary identity and

knowledge making. Sidney I. Dobrin writes that "This debate has a direct impact on

those of us in rhetoric and composition since our task as teachers and scholars seems to

be twofold: to participate in practice, our pedagogy; and to produce theory that explains

the nature, function, and operation of written discourse. In other words, on a

daily basis we are forced to participate in this argument, or at least to acknowledge how

this debate affects the profession" (Constructing 6). Those primarily engaged in making

pedagogies are often understood as educators who participate in a student-oriented

discipline, a discipline that must center on finding new and productive ways to teach

students how to write "better"; on the other hand, those who theorize writing are often

viewed as scholars who create knowledge about the workings of discourse, with little

interest in how their theories connect to the everyday world of the composition

classroom. Gary A. Olson expresses the danger involved in these opposing disciplinary

viewpoints: "More than any debate over which modes of scholarly inquiry are most

valuable, or which journals privilege which mode, the theory/anti-theory split emerging

in the field threatens to polarize us in unproductive ways-in ways that serve to silence

the debate and to narrow our conception of the discipline of rhetoric and composition"

("Role" 4). While there is some middle-ground between these poles, compositionists

must often resort to choosing sides. However, Dobrin and Olson find some comfort in

composition studies' current split, as long as composition theorists and practitioners can

hold "a responsible conversation that allows theory and practice to interact in dialectical

operation. The field will benefit by engaging in professional dialogue about the

relationship of theory and practice" (Dobrin Constructing 26). Both agree that this "non-

solution" will perpetuate meaningful and constructive conversations in composition

studies, that this dialectical tension will somehow keep propelling composition studies


Joseph Harris in similar fashion argues that composition studies cannot rely solely

on only one type of knowledge making; Harris, however, is concerned that composition

studies is moving too far away from its roots as a "teaching subject," which, according to

Harris, is "a loose set of practices, concerns, issues, and problems having to do with how

writing gets taught" (x). Harris, though, supports "the professionalizing of the field. But

I do not want that professionalization to come at the cost of close ties to teaching that are

what give so much work in the field its political and intellectual edge.... [because]

composition as a teaching subject [is] that part of English studies which defines itself

through an interest in the work students and teachers do together" (Teaching ix-xi).

Harris reinforces Dobrin's and Olson's notions that composition's identity is split

between those who favor teacherly practices and those who favor theoretical inquiry, that

composition studies' identity is rooted (and flourishes) in these debates, struggles, and

tensions, and that composition studies must be wary of one side eclipsing the other.

Harris, however, argues that composition studies (as a "teaching subject") defines itself

through the interactions between students and teachers in the world of the classroom-a

point Dobrin and Olson would disagree with-which suggests that composition studies'

pedagogical endeavors rely on students and their exchanges with teachers of writing in

order to form practitioners' knowledge. This, consequently, implies that composition

studies' theoretical pursuits are not defined by students and by their interactions with

teachers and theorists of writing.

Composition studies, nevertheless, is a student-centered discipline on both sides

of this theory/anti-theory debate because each side makes knowledge by thinking

through various concepts of student writers-figures through which disciplinary

knowledge flow. That is, the fundamental problem with the theory/anti-theory debate is

that it posits the student writer only on the side of the pedagogical, assuming that the

student writer does not influence theoretical knowledge. These debates, consequently,

are as much about the placement of the student writer within the discipline as they are

about the primacy of pedagogy or theory, debates that in most cases see the student as

relatively innocuous in forming the "true" meaning and identity of composition studies.

However, whether we place the student writer on one side of the theory/anti-theory

dichotomy is perhaps less important than looking for ways to escape the binary altogether

and focusing instead upon how the student writer affects and helps compositionists build

both their theories and pedagogies. This is not to put theory and practice on opposite

ends of a disciplinary spectrum but to assert that student writers-as either rhetorical

constructs or as real individuals-are the means through which composition studies is

shaped and changes over time. That is, our understandings and observations of students,

affect our theories and pedagogies as much, if not more, than our theories and pedagogies

affect our students.

I use the phrase "figure of the student," in particular, to suggest that the various

conversations about student writers that take place in composition studies-in books,

journal articles, and conference presentations-may never truly represent the students

under discussion, or somehow capture the "reality" of these individuals who sit in

composition classrooms, visit office hours, and turn in written assignments; that is, one

may well wonder whether there is a (static) reality of students that can be captured in

texts. Charlotte Aull Davies suggests, "The purpose of research is to mediate between

different constructions of reality, and doing research means increasing understanding of

these varying constructions" (6). Davies' perspective helps pose questions about whether

composition studies' own disciplinary texts can document "students" as an empirical

sociological category or whether the discipline can only invent and present textual

figures. In other words, scholarly texts in composition studies that range from the most

detailed ethnographic case studies to those that theorize more generally about the

relationships between discourse and student writers all are subject to questions and

problems of representation, subject to inquiries about whether compositionists can do

anything more than rhetorically create various versions of student writers in their texts.'

These questions, however, cannot be approached simply through rhetorical and textual

analyses; instead, they need to be investigated through other modes of disciplinary

thought and knowledge as well as various other social, cultural, political, and institutional

processes. This chapter examines the "student writer" in composition studies-its

functions, meanings, values, materiality, and construction. In doing so, I hope to move

beyond questions that ask whether theory or practice defines composition studies and,

instead, examine the roles and functions of the student writer in composition studies-

how the student writer shapes and is shaped by composition studies. This is to say, if we

want to examine the "cultural forces" at play in students' writing processes-as Drew

suggests-we might first come to a better understanding of the student writers

themselves, their own relationships with composition studies and their relationships with

other processes that affect the discipline. To begin looking more closely at the placement

of student writers in composition studies, we should look at the some of the debates about

the primacy of the ideationall" and the "material," debates that have largely taken place

in anthropology and are beginning to come to the fore in composition studies.

Versions of Student Writers: Ideational and Material

I have suggested so far that the "student writer" is one element or component of

composition studies; I have asserted, furthermore, that the student writer is one of the

main components by which the discipline functions, creates meanings, and changes over

time. Examining how composition studies understands, observes, and represents student

writers as both ideationall" and "material" entities is first necessary in order to

comprehend better how composition studies has "figured" the student writer in the

discipline and how the student writer helps figure composition studies. By invoking the

age-old debates about ideal realms and material realms, I do not simply seek to answer

questions about which of these two spheres should take precedence in composition

studies, I do not necessarily just wish to see the two operate in dialectical fashion in

composition studies, nor do I hope merely to collapse one into the other. Instead, I look

at how some anthropologists have handled the ideational and the material in order to

show the various ways the student writer already does figure into composition studies as

well as to examine how the representations of student writers play such a key role in

composition studies' own functioning and knowledge making. This is to say, a

discussion of the ideational and material shall lead into larger conversations about the

processes by which the student writer is understood and represented in composition

studies and about how the discipline circulates these understandings in order to create

both stasis and dynamism.

In The Interpretation of Cultures Clifford Geertz contends, "Believing ... that

man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to

be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search

of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (5). Composition studies does

encompass various knowledge, dialogues, and practices that may be understood as

"webs of significance" that construct the discipline. Geertz's notion of culture, however,

is not only hermetic but also deterministic. That is, Geertz sees culture as a system that

can be understood by interpreting its symbols, and he also sees culture as a symbolic

system that in large part determines social action. He argues, in other words, that culture

is "the fabric of meaning in terms which human beings interpret their experience and

guide their action" (144-45). For Geertz, culture rules the roost; it is theprimuum mobile

of human affairs, a dominant force in history; that is, Geertz views culture as a guiding

force for human action, but he also suggests that culture is a framework for human

understanding and interpretation-culture leads us but it also provides us retrospective

understanding. All in all, and most significantly, however, he treats culture on its own

terms-as a system of metaphors, signs, and texts. Thus, it is not surprising that his

emphases on textual interpretations and hermeneutics have been applauded by many in

the humanities, while his work has often been disparaged by those in the social sciences

for not developing more "scientifically-oriented" social theories. Geertz, despite his

works' shortcomings in the eyes of many social scientists, does aid in understanding how

culture is ideational, and Geertz, for that matter, does not stand alone. A number of

contemporary anthropologists defend the notion that a culture consists only of socially

shared and transmitted ideas-values and beliefs, for instance. William Durham, for

example, suggests that such shared and transmitted ideational entities exist only "in the

minds of human beings" (3). Composition studies, in some regards, holds its own

ideational understandings of student writers-its own shared values, meanings, and

beliefs about student writers that circulate within and beyond the discipline.

Composition studies, this is to say, is in part held together by the meanings,

understandings, and beliefs that compositionists share. Donald Davidson's "A Coherence

Theory of Truth and Knowledge" complicates the notion of "belief':

What distinguishes a coherence theory is simply the claim that nothing can
count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief. Its partisan
rejects as unintelligible the request for a ground or source of justification
of another ilk. As Rorty has put it, "nothing counts as justification unless
by reference to what we already accept, and there is no way to get outside
our beliefs and our language so as to find some test other than coherence."
About this I am in agreement with Rorty. (310)

Davidson's "coherence theory of truth" contends that statements cannot be judged as

truthful by the degree to which they represent reality, or the objective world. 2 Instead,

statements are "truthful" only by the degree to which they "cohere" to beliefs already

shared by groups of people. Beliefs, that is, are considered "objective" only by the ways

in which they cohere to other people's beliefs, the degree to which other people hold

these same beliefs. Thomas Kent adheres to Davidson's coherence theory because, in

doing so, we in composition studies would "no longer need to justify our beliefs by

claiming that our assertions refer to objective truths residing outside language.... By

promoting a coherence theory of truth.., we no longer require a master narrative of

objectivity" (70-71). Composition studies is a discipline whose meanings are often made

by teachers' and theorists' interactions with students and the consequent representations

of these students in texts, as well as by the ways those (classroom) interactions are, in

turn, affected by texts that portray and characterize students in certain ways. Thus,

Davidson's and Kent's theories allow compositionists to see how the student writer in

composition studies is "meaningful," the ways the student writer is tied into systems of

beliefs rather than empirically or objectively presented in composition studies' texts.

That is, composition studies has its own shared beliefs about who and what students are

as well as what they are capable of accomplishing in their own textual practices because

they are not objectively represented.

In discussing ideational aspects of the student writer in composition studies, one

can begin with the issue of the stereotype. Certain stereotypes about student writers

obviously exist within composition studies; compositionists, in particular, tend to share

beliefs-stereotypes-about what students "lack," about students' deficiencies in

producing and interpreting texts, and about what students "need" in order to become

better writers. From a post-colonial perspective, Homi Bhabha argues in The Location of

Culture that

Fixity, as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourses
of colonialism, is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes
rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and
daemonic repetition. Likewise the stereotype, which is its major
discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that
vacillates between what is always "in place," already known, and
something that must be anxiously repeated. (66)

Benita Parry, in addition, asserts that "By showing the wide range of stereotypes and the

shifting subject positions assigned to the colonized ... [Homi Bhabha] sets out to liberate

the colonial from its debased inscription as Europe's monolithic and shackled Other, and

into an autonomous native difference" (40). Bhabha, in short, believes that stereotypes

are forms of knowledge that disregard historical, generational, cultural, and racial

differences in order to inscribe a static conception of a colonized group of people.

Although I do not mean to offer a strict comparison between student writers and the

colonized individuals Bhabha refers to, composition studies does often stereotype student

writers in various ways that places them in ahistorical, cultural, and asocial conceptual

categories that create and manifest certain (timeless) deficiencies in their production and

interpretation of texts. Stereotypes, this is to say, are ideas and beliefs circulating within

composition studies that are not derived from any strict connection to the material world

of the classroom. That is, stereotypes are a form of ideological power that not only make

meaning but try to make meaning stick; they perform a closing off of the signifying

chain in order to fix individuals in a certain position of closure.

Thomas Kent argues that "Because we employ coherence strategies in order to

weave our utterances into the webs of belief that hold together the discourses of social

life, these strategies cannot be regarded as structural semantics or syntactic units of

language; rather, they are hermeneutic constructs that allow us to shape our discourse so

that our discourse will be meaningful to others" (72) and, therefore, "a coherence strategy

may be regarded as a paralogic-hermeneutic guess about what we take to be the beliefs

held by others in a particular communication situation" (72). Composition studies is held

together by its own "webs of belief,"-or "webs of significance," to use Geertz's

phrase-that cohere because shared understandings and interpretations about student

writers are believed-beliefs that partially (in)form composition studies. Student writers,

according to these theories, are neither objectively nor subjectively presented in the

discipline's texts but written (produced) according to strategies-hermeneutic guesses

and rhetorical maneuvers-that attempt to conform to the beliefs already held by other

compositionists and readers. Texts that contribute to the formation of composition

studies, then, are effective and interesting because compositionists believe them, not

because these texts put compositionists in touch with an objective reality of student

writers that exists beyond texts themselves; compositionists, instead, are put in contact

with ideas-beliefs and meanings-that are accepted and circulate within composition

studies. Composition studies' shared meanings and beliefs-its ideas-are, however, not

ahistorical and timeless but rhetorically fashioned within particular historical, cultural,

political, institutional, and social contexts. That is, the ideas and beliefs about students

are constructed, and they are protean.

A number of compositionists, consequently, like many anthropologists and other

cultural theorists, are interested in the politics of naming-the ambiguous authority of

words-and the conditions in which naming creates possibilities and hindrances for

social connections and social capacities among individuals and groups. In Language as

Symbolic Action, for instance, Kenneth Burke-often appropriated by interpretive

anthropologists to speak about the ways language constructs meaning and "reality"-

argues that even the most simple and most natural acts of naming put a topic, metaphor,

or entity in a discursive context that prefigures a response: "Not only does the nature of

our terms affect the nature of our observations, in the sense that the terms direct attention

to one field rather than another. Also, many of the 'observations' are but implications of

the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made. In brief, much

of what we take as observations about 'reality' may be but the spinning out of

possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms" (Burke's emphases; Language 46).

The terms "student" or "student writer" in composition studies tend to prefigure students

as politically innocent and naive and prefigure them as beginners and novices who lack

the appropriate abilities, skills, and literacies necessary to produce and interpret

(academic) discourse-I shall take this up in greater detail in my discussion about public

spheres in chapter four and critical pedagogy in chapter five. Bruce Homer is absolutely

correct when he asserts that "Students are predominantly characterized by what they

lack-maturity, ability, interest, creativity, knowledge, experience, and so on" (32).

Composition studies, as Homer suggests, does define and stereotype student writers by

what they lack. What students lack, however, is in large part defined by the knowledge

and beliefs in composition studies' own, already accepted, disciplinary domains.

Students and their "deficiencies" and "critical emptiness," that is, are already recognized

as part of composition studies-an integral, expected, and needed part of the discipline's

knowledge, meanings, and beliefs. Composition studies, perhaps, would even

undermine itself if it did not somehow construct and understand students as people who

lack certain knowledge and skills that compositionists' could help them gain.

Compositionists, then, may begin to consider the consequences of "owning"

student writers in their discourses. Anthropologists, by comparison, not only examine

social and cultural objects and subjects but also recognize the ways that these objects and

subjects are positioned in and written under various relations of power, the ways in which

theories and practices are inscribed in wider historical, institutional, and discursive space.

Debbora Battaglia suggests, "For a politics of naming, then, the issue becomes to decide

which names have value and significance for whom, situationally.... The question .. is

whom we disown by our choice of analytics and rhetoric, and how we might achieve a

more properly nuanced understanding of the practices in which we are implicated" (125).

Composition studies, then, through such lenses might examine more closely its own

powers and reasons for shaping such ideas and beliefs about "students" and "student

writers"-those individuals and groups whose placement in composition studies is

positioned in large part by compositionists' ideas and beliefs about them. I shall return to

this in a moment; however, I would like first to discuss the other broad side of viewing

and representing "student writers" in composition studies-their materiality.

Materiality of Student Writers: Bruce Horner and "The Real"

The complexities and dilemmas associated with a politics of naming, as I have

discussed, are endemic not only to anthropology but also to disciplinary fields and sub-

fields such as rhetoric, cultural studies, post-colonial theory, and identity politics.

Anthropology, in particular, however, often attempts to "get real," which means,

according to Debbora Battaglia, "examining the cultural imaginary, as it is revealed and

configured in social practice, in order to determine the value of particular relationships to

people at particular times and places.... [getting real] is grasping the pragmatism and

imagination and feelings people reveal, in their common, and uncommon practices. It is

recognizing one's self, or an other's, as anything but given" (114). "Getting real" means

asserting the need to examine the historical and social situatedness of relationships and

practices; that is, it moves toward the materiality of living and the materiality of


"Getting real" for composition studies, then, much like "getting real" for

anthropology, has also meant that compositionists must examine in greater detail the

material aspects and consequences-rather than the ideational aspects (often termed, by

Bruce Homer, as "theoretical")-of their disciplinary practices. Homer, for example,

argues that

Composition reveals what most disciplines deny: the contradiction
between the apparent stability of their disciplinary subject as an abstract,
reified entity, and the necessity for its continual, material reproduction
through pedagogy generally and writing in particular. Academic
disciplines both need and resent their need for Composition, hence the
close parallel between the attitude taken toward Composition and the
attitudes often taken toward the auto mechanic, plumber, or electrician,
and toward women in general in their "mothering" function.... For the
composition course calls attention to the material location and
production-the labor-of academic work that academics are at pains to
deny. (Terms 146-47)

Composition studies, this is to say, is also caught in debates between supporters of the

ideational and supporters of the material, and more specifically, debates about which

determines the other.

Homer is one who insists on the materiality of composition studies and is quite

specific in his arguments. I quote him at length again in order to show the detail of his

perspectives and the importance he has to my argument:

[t]he materiality of writing might be understood to refer to networks for
the distribution of writing, controls over publishing (in whatever form),
and global relations of power articulated through these. And it may be
discussed in order to include particular subjectivities-the
consciousness-produced by the conditions of "postmodern," "post-
Fordist," or other sociocultural conditions. Similarly, the materiality of
writing may be understood to include social relations-say, between
students and teachers in the composition classroom; relations of race,
gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, generation, and region.... the
materiality of the work of teaching composition can be understood to
include physical classroom conditions; the teacher's physical health and
office and library resources; clerical support, teaching load, salary, and
job security; intra- and interdepartmental relations between composition
staff and other faculty; characteristics of student population;.., and
teachers' lived experience of the history of these relations to which any act
of teaching may be seen as responding. (Terms xviii-xix)

Composition studies in almost every aspect, Homer contends, is made up of a series of

material relationships-in some form or another. Student writers are tied into all of these

demarcations of the material; however, this, as I will discuss in a moment, raises

questions about whether we can dismiss the relationships and interchanges between the

ideational and the material. Homer, in particular, maintains that "the material social

conditions make] [composition's] work possible and shap[e] it; we cannot use its

intellectualityy' as a basis for denying its materiality" (9). Homer, this is to say, rejects

certain ideational images present in composition studies: for instance, "ideal images of

Studenthood and Teacherhood... deny the pressure of grading and the pursuit of grades

in favor of a more flattering image of classroom work as the disinterested pursuit of

knowledge" (242). Homer's insistence on focusing on the material in composition is, no

doubt, a much-needed boost for the discipline because it provides examinations of

numerous unexplored spaces, conditions, and relationships, and, furthermore, his work

helps demystify the abstractions of classrooms, teachers, and students. He suggests, for

example, that "For students-as living, thinking, speaking human beings changing not

just every semester but from class meeting to class meeting and often within class

meetings-constitute some of the most intransigent reminders of the materiality of

academic work" (31). This is to say, composition studies needs to focus more on its own

materiality in order to recognize better its social, historical, and institutional situatedness.

Homer, however, argues here against an overly specific conception of the "ideal" or

ideationall," one that seems like some type of false consciousness, for example. He

contends that ideas too often take the shape of either (1) "ideal images" that are idyllic,

exemplary, or perfect or (2) "theories" and "theorizing" that are not connected to

materiality of the production of theories themselves: "The work of theory, or, better,

'theorizing,' is not typically imagined as material practice but as commodity whose

properties reside in the 'theory' itself, understood as existing outside the material realm"

(225). This is all to say, Homer's narrow conception of the ideational discounts any

understanding of composition studies' involvement with social and cultural processes that

partially consist of "webs of belief' or "webs of significance," those which might be

analyzed outside of material realms.

Homer's assertions-that we should focus greater attention on the material

entities and relationships in composition studies-challenge those who wish only to

improve the status of composition as an "intellectual" endeavor, those who want to cut

composition studies' ties to "work" and material social practice, and those who do not

wish to be seen as the "mechanics, plumbers, and electricians" of academia. Homer's

points, to be sure, are timely and valid, but he may take his argument too far by entirely

and quickly dismissing the ideational aspects of composition studies and student

writers-particularly his conflation of the ideational and theory-and by, in large part,

attempting to move all traces of the ideational into the material. This brings to mind

some of the writings of Karl Marx who, like many others, sought to synthesize idealism

and materialism, to abolish the contradictions between these two terms by showing that

philosophical ideas are themselves part of the material processes they describe:

We see how subjectivity and objectivity, spirituality and materiality,
activity and suffering, lose their antithetical character, and thus their
existence as such antitheses only within the framework of society; we see
how the resolution of their theoretical antithesis is only possible in a
practical way, by virtue of the practical energy of many. Their resolution
is therefore by no means merely a problem of understanding, but a real
problem of life, which philosophy could not solve precisely because it
conceived this problem merely a theoretical one. (302)

Marx suggests here that false consciousness exists not in idealism or materialism but in

the contradictions that exist between these two separate modes of thought. By unifying

the two, according to Marx, the debate between idealism and materialism can be

resolved, forming a totality instead of a hostile split. Homer's argument folds the

ideational into the material but, in doing so, it places the material as the determining

factor in cultural, social, political, and historical constructions-all the time disregarding

the influence of the ideational.

I am suggesting here neither that compositionists should focus their attention

solely on the ideational nor that they should-like Homer-emphasize only the material.

Instead, the student writer in composition studies is shaped by both the ideational and the

material, and we might attempt to understand better the ways in which composition

studies needs both and is both, the ways the discipline needs to comprehend how each

affects the other in order to facilitate disciplinary meaning and identity-rather than

dismiss one or fold one into the other; in particular, from such analyses compositionists

can better understand the role of the "student writer" for composition studies. Teachers

and theorists of composition, then, may study how ideas-stereotypical or otherwise-

affect material practices and also how material practices and spheres create ideas, beliefs,

and values, therein examining how the two operate dialectically and are inextricably

linked-how the two are equally complex and problematic. However, beyond these two

traditional means of understanding how students may be represented, there is a third way,

one that helps us move beyond this dualistic thinking. This is to say, looking at the

theories of the ideational and material are important in helping us begin to understand

how student writers have been discussed, observed, and represented by compositionists

but investigating the student writer as either or both an ideational or material entity is

perhaps less important than examining how these knowledge and representations

circulate in and out of composition studies, how they move and flow and affect the

disciplinary make-up of composition. Michael Taussig argues that

To ponder mimesis is to become sooner or later caught, like the police and
the modem State with their fingerprinting devices, in sticky webs of copy
and contact, image and bodily involvement of the perceiver in the image,
a complexity we too easily elide as nonmysterious, with our facile use of
terms such as identification, representation, expression, and so forth-
terms which simultaneously depend upon and erase all that is powerful
and obscure in a network of associations conjured by the notion of the
mimetic. (21)

Compositionists' larger concern about student writers, perhaps, should not be so much

whether or how they are accurately represented in their discourses; instead, they should

be interested in how compositionists' various knowledge and perceptions are involved in

these representations-whether ideal or material or both-and how these knowledge

move in and out of the discipline, how our knowledge are dynamic and historical, and

how they relate to other things beyond what falls within the typically accepted "network

of associations" in composition studies. This, in short, is meant to question the

epistemological frameworks in which we as teachers and theorists understand student

writers and produce knowledge about them, to question our habits of mind and vision

and ask what sorts of knowing are involved here. Taussig suggests,

Of course what happens is that the very concept of "knowing" something
becomes displaced by "relating to." And what is troublesome and
exciting, not only are we stimulated into rethinking what "vision" means
as this very term decomposes before our eyes, but we are forced to ask
ourselves why vision is so privileged ... in Euroamerican cultures at
least, so linguistically impoverished yet actually so crucial to human being
and social life. (26)

Looking more closely at student writers, then, affords us the opportunity to understand

better how composition studies tends to see student writers but also, in turn, how these

visions-literal and tropological-help composition studies function as a discipline-one

that moves and changes based on its various views of student writers. This is all to ask,

in what ways is composition studies a discipline that relies on compositionists' own

vantage points and observations, how does the discipline make its knowledge

accordingly, what dangers are involved, and how might we begin rethinking and

reviewingg student writers and the discipline as a whole?

Emrnies and Etics: Viewing and Reviewing

There is certainly a danger in trying to connect anthropological theories and

methods with those of composition studies. Thus, I would like to qualify my argument

briefly by suggesting that composition studies should look to anthropology for better

understandings of the construction of student writers but should not assume too strict a

comparison with it. Equating student writers too closely with the various other (often

colonized) peoples of the world is problematic and dangerous; however, composition

studies can continue to exchange knowledge with anthropology in a looser sense, one in

which compositionists think more deeply about questions of culture, boundaries,

representation, ethnography, and discourse, for example. These anthropological methods

and theories, though, must be reshaped and re-understood more appropriately within the

context of composition studies itself, that is, without expecting a direct and

unproblematic importation of knowledge from one discipline into another.

Anthropologists often distinguish between an understanding of cultural meanings

and representations experienced from the viewpoint of a native of that culture (emic) and

an understanding of cultural meanings and representations experienced from the

viewpoint of an outside observer (etic).3 Similarly, Clifford Geertz in Works and Lives

defines these perspectives as "experience-near" and "experience-distant": "An

experience-near concept is, roughly, one that someone-a patient, a subject, in our case

an informant-might himself naturally and effortlessly use to define what he or his

fellows see, feel, think, imagine, and so on, and which he would readily understand when

similarly applied by others," and, on the other hand, "an experience-distant concept is one

that specialists of one sort or another-an analyst, an experimenter, an ethnographer,

even a priest or an ideologist-employ to forward their scientific, philosophical, or

practical aims" (57). When compositionists observe, categorize, and represent students in

their texts, they often do so from an emic viewpoint. That is, as I have investigated so

far, compositionists share beliefs about student writers and how they examine student

writers in relation to various material and ideational realms. These ideational and

material modes of understanding and classifying student writers, this is to say, have been

emic or "experience-near" because emic points of view suggest to compositionists that

their discipline is a holistic enterprise in which experts in the field have complete access

to its knowledge. Thus, as compositionists, we see ourselves as insiders in the discipline

that we call composition studies, and we believe that as insiders we make knowledge

that construct this discipline-a problematic understanding and vantage point that I

discuss more in this chapter and in chapter three.

By looking more closely at how compositionists try to understand, view, and

represent student writers from an emic perspective, we might realize that we as teachers

and scholars of composition have sought to study only the knowledge, discourses, and

cultures that flow within composition studies itself. Thus, compositionists have failed in

large part to investigate the various positions student writers occupy and the powers they

hold both inside and outside of something called composition studies and how, therefore,

such knowledge, discourses, and powers constantly flow in and out of the discipline-

making it fluid and dynamic. Consequently, those of us in composition studies have not

considered looking at the ways in which student writers affect and change composition

studies as much as we have considered how composition studies affects student writers.

Compositionists, then, might start exploring how student writers may be situationally and

contextually defined outside of composition studies (etic). In other words, composition

studies can make etic--"experience-distant"-perspectives more prevalent in the

discipline by first paying attention to anthropology's self-reflexive critiques, the ways

anthropologists and ethnographers participate in and observe various other cultures under

study, always attempting to renew and review their own accepted knowledge about

groups of people. Dell Hymes believes that "The general mission of anthropology in part

can be said to help overcome the limitations of the categories and understandings of

human life that are part of a single civilization's partial view" (7). Theories and

pedagogies in composition studies that utilize etic perspectives, consequently, would

begin to provide composition studies with new and always changing beliefs, practices,

and viewpoints. That is, such perspectives would allow compositionists to begin to see

themselves as outsiders to the complexities of students, thereby not only disrupting the

previously held knowledge of student writers but acknowledging that these complexities

need to be constantly re-contextualized within the discipline. In other words,

compositionists, then, might begin asking questions about the various cultural situations

of student writers in and out of composition studies-keeping in mind that what is in and

out are constantly shifting-rather than questions about how student writers' deficiencies

may be repaired and how students can be taught to write "better." It is not enough, in

short, to argue that students are rhetorically constructed figures in composition studies,

that our knowledge are "socially constructed," and that we should be satisfied with the

predictability of postmodern arguments that attempt to show how all forms of

representation are futile and unfair. Rather, we in composition might start examining

what our views of and knowledge about student writers are and what they tell us about

ourselves, the discipline, and the student writers themselves, therein investigating our

own interpretations and practices of knowledge making, which are ultimately tied to

those of students'-and vice versa.

Thus, we return to questions about observation, the methods and ways in which

theorists and teachers of writing examine and see student writers in order to theorize their

various cultural, institutional, political, and social situations. However, we run into

problems when we discuss ways of observing students if we don't connect our theories

and practices to the larger frameworks of composition studies itself. That is, we must

remember that intricate theories of observing student writers do little good if they are

disconnected from any understanding of composition studies' own knowledge, values,

practices, and beliefs. We cannot dissociate "observation" from the various disciplinary,

institutional, political, cultural, and social contexts in which it takes place. Let's first take

a closer look at some of anthropology's methods and theories of observation.

Anthropology as a discipline has long been connected to ethnographic methods of

research, which have also held important and lasting places in composition studies.

George Marcus and Michael Fischer write that ethnography focuses "precisely on

problems of the recording, interpretation, and description of closely observed social and

cultural processes. While long associated by its public with the study of so-called

primitive, isolated societies, anthropology in fact has been applying its 'jeweler's-eye'

method for some time to complex nation-state societies, increasingly, our own" (15).

Moreover, anthropologists discuss the rhetoric and politics of ethnographic inquiry in

conversations that use synonymously the, almost oxymoronic, phrase "participant

observation." Participant observation, in its classic form, "consists of a single researcher

spending an extended period of time (usually at least a year) living among the people he

or she is studying, participating in their daily lives in order to gain as complete an

understanding as possible of cultural meanings and social structures of the group and how

these are interrelated" (Davies 67). Furthermore, Paul Rabinow writes the following

about participant observation:

Observation is the governing term in the pair, since it situates the
anthropologists' activities. However much one moves in the direction of
participation, it is always the case that one is still both an outsider and an
observer.... In the dialect between the poles of observation and
participation, participation changes the anthropologist and leads him to
new observation, whereupon new observation changes how he
participates. But this dialectical spiral is governed in its motion by the
starting point, which is observation. (79-80)

Composition studies functions on a similar participation/observation axis. The

classroom, for instance, is one space in which compositionists observe and participate in

students' writing and interpretive practices-despite their observations, though,

compositionists as I have argued tend to see themselves as insiders, engaging emic

perspectives. However, as Keith Rhodes notes, "observers mainly see patterns already

suggested by their own theories" (27) and, in addition, "'ethnographic' studies in

composition consistently focus on predetermined goals and make persistent reference to

theories developed outside the culture under study. Hence, such studies profoundly alter

the methodology they claim to use" (31). Compositionists' observations and

participation are necessarily reflected and biased strongly by their already-held theories

of and ideas about writing and student writers, those predeterminedd by their own

participation in composition studies. James Clifford, furthermore, contends that

"participant observation is a paradoxical, misleading formula, but it may be taken

seriously if reformulated in hermeneutic terms as a dialectic of experience and

interpretation" (34). One's observations are always already prefigured to some extent by

ideas and understandings of student writers that circulate within composition studies.

In The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz forefronts the importance of

cultural frameworks by suggesting that "We are, in sum, incomplete or unfinished

animals who complete or finish ourselves in culture-and not through culture in general

but through highly particular forms of it: Dobuan or Javanese, Hopi and Italian, upper-

class and lower-class, academic and commercial" (my emphasis; 49). Students

themselves are figured within composition studies as individuals who need to be

completed by learning how to produce certain texts, to interpret certain discourses, or to

learn things about themselves in relation to oppressive discourses, for instance. The

student writers are figured as individuals who will "finish" themselves by taking part in

this or that "culture," and composition studies itself, conversely, is based upon the notion

that its purpose is to help students do so. This may not necessarily sound like such a bad

thing; however, composition studies must also realize its own social, historical, and

institutional situatedness in order to critique how one defines a student's necessary

completion. Consequently, a greater emphasis on etic or "experience-distant" modes of

observation provides composition studies with methods that seek the knowledge that

student writers already possess-the knowledge, meanings, and practices of students

that reside outside of composition studies. These are knowledge and practices that can

be observed and interpreted by compositionists in order to re-think the discipline's own

ideas and material practices, which perhaps already assume too great a familiarity with

students and what students need. Composition, then, would gain new modes of

understanding and practices by allying itself with anthropological and ethnographic

methods that "revise our own conceptual framework(s) by introducing alternative ways

of understanding the world, by putting conceptual frameworks in dialogue and tension

with one another" (Gorzelsky 60). That is, the boundaries and classificatory systems in

which we place students need to be re-examined and, in many cases, replaced. But

instead of simply standing in the ashes of our deconstructions, we must think about

creations and re-creations of student writers as well as, most importantly, how these

various versions of student writers-old and new-circulate in and out of composition

studies, how they shift, change, move, and disrupt our perspectives and the larger

discipline itself. In other words, we might concentrate on how composition studies

fluctuates, flows, travels, and how it grasps, dispenses, and forms (new and old)


Keeping Things Strange: Distance Not Immersion

What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.
-Clifford Geertz

Ed Corbett, in his essay "Teaching Composition: Where We've Been and Where

We're Going," laments his (supposed) ineffective teaching:

If I were dragged before the Inquisition, I would have to confess that I do
not seem to be doing my students much good. I do not turn my good
writers into excellent writers; and I do not detect that my bad writers are

any less bad at the end of the term. It has become increasingly difficult for
me to cash my paycheck every month. After all these years, I still believe
that writing can get taught, and for that reason, I keep flailing around in
the composition classroom. But am I really teaching any of my students
how to write? Maybe all of us composition teachers need to ask ourselves
this question. (452)

Many of us in composition studies (and a great many more not in composition studies)

often ponder the effectiveness of the teaching of writing; some, for instance, often argue

that writing cannot be taught at all, and others debate whether composition should be a

required course. However, any notion about the "ineffectiveness" of composition studies

and the performances of its students is based in large part on how the discipline makes its

meanings and practices and, most importantly, on how the composition studies functions

by (1) relying on an evolutionary model of writing theories and pedagogies and (2)

assuming too great a familiarity with student writers.

In Constructing Knowledges Dobrin contends, "Because of their evolutionary

quality, theories are not usually seen in terms of true or false; rather, new theories are

seen as more adequate or more usefully explanations of phenomena for which past

theories could not account.... Thus, the real value of theory has been its evolutionary,

generative power, its ability to adapt and change over time" (9). Composition studies is

thought of as "evolutionary," and even teleological at times, but unfortunately, what

"evolves" and "progresses" are the theories of writing themselves and not our

examinations of student writers; thus, it is no surprise that many compositionists like to

label the discipline such things as "discourse studies" in order to shed its associations

with students. Compositionists, moreover, often complicate (and see as progressing) the

meanings of the discipline by addressing in their research such theorists and scholars as

Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, and Julia Kristeva, for

instance, but the discipline's understanding of the student writer has changed very little in

relation to the theories and pedagogies of writing themselves. This is not to say that

composition studies does not benefit by incorporating such theorists into the field;

however, I contend that these kinds of theorists do not assist composition studies if they

do not help compositionists recognize the (material and ideational) complexity of student

writers, and, in particular, the ways in which student writers are observed and represented

in light of these theories. That is, if composition studies is "evolving," its theories of

writing and theories of student writers have "evolved" on different paths, thereby

splitting in unproductive ways those two aspect of composition studies that should always

be examined in conjunction with one another. The evolutionary model of composition

studies, additionally, puts composition's meanings and knowledge more in competition

with each other than in conversation-meanings that are always trying to supersede other

meanings by becoming the "next big thing" in the discipline. Ann Berthoff writes, "An

idea which one year is everywhere hailed and celebrated vanishes the next without a

trace. In its place appears another which may or may not be consonant, may or may not

be antithetical. The new idea is not introduced in the context of preceding discussion,

perhaps because its time in the spotlight is limited" (279). Furthermore, Kurt Spellmeyer

notes that "the value of most knowledge rapidly decays once the luster of it novelty has

dimmed. For this reason, the power of the knowledge class lies in the production of

estrangement rather than in the preservation of stability" (901). We perceive how the

field changes from year to year, recognizing new theories and pedagogies as somehow

evolutionary, but we often fail to perceive that our understandings of student writers do

not move as quickly. Thus, frustrations such as Corbett's, for instance, may derive

partially from watching the discipline change so rapidly without any recognition of how

these "evolutionary changes" are connected to student writers themselves, students whom

he feels are not benefitting from his instructional practices. In other words, theories

change but the student writer, through which these theories should be derived in the first

place, remain relatively static. Students still occupy a fairly stagnate place in

composition studies as individuals who are "empty" and "naive" vessels and should

somehow become completed by theories and practices, those which are always becoming

"new and improved."

Composition studies, consequently, needs to begin de-familiarizing itself with its

understandings of student writers-the ways student writers are categorized-and begin

recognizing the places in which student writers reside outside of composition studies,

other realms and spaces in which they are (in)forming themselves. Compositionists

might loosely follow the lead of numerous social and cultural anthropologists who, as

Michael Donham notes,

have used portraits of other cultures to reflect upon their own practices-
to disrupt our common sense, to disorient our moral certainties, and, in
general, to place in doubt much of what we have always assumed as
simply given. Anthropologists attempting to accomplish these ends have
had to construct other cultural worlds-that is, write ethnography-in
enough density and detail to overcome the initial resistances set up by
their own cultural conditioning. (2)

Composition studies, then, according to such strategies, might push for theories and

modes of observation that look beyond composition studies itself, beyond the shared

understandings and practices that involve student writers, and beyond what is accepted as

"studenthood" in composition studies in order to get at the greater "density and detail" of

student writers. What is familiar needs to be seen in terms of un-established knowledge

and what is unfamiliar needs to be seen in terms of already established knowledge.

Therefore, compositionists should begin examining unexplored discourses and practices

of students, discourses and practices that inform, shape, and construct students but have

not shaped the meanings and practices of composition studies. In Works and Lives: The

Anthropologist as Author, Clifford Geertz asserts,

Seeing through to the foundations of strange-looking lives-"being there"
in the general sense-cannot be achieved by personal immersion in them.
It can only be achieved by subjecting the cultural productions (myths, arts,
rituals, or whatever), the things that give these lives their immediate look
of strangeness, to a universalizing analysis that, in dissolving the
immediacy, dissolves the strangeness. What is remote close up is, at a
remove, near. (48)

Whether compositionists consider themselves theorists or practitioners, they are always

in some sense interested in how students produce and interpret various kinds of

discourses. However, compositionists must also consider how they themselves produce

and interpret various kinds of student writers in their discourses and pedagogies. Thus,

composition studies may appropriate Donham's and Geertz's passages to its own modes

of observation-near and distant. These spatial metaphors are not meant to be taken

literally, however; instead, we should purposely make strange-distant-our various

understandings of student writers, and we should constantly try to de-familiarize

ourselves with students by invoking strangeness. That is, rather than look for ways to

immerse ourselves in student cultures that exist outside of composition studies-which

might mean trying to incorporate and neutralize them-we should keep observing and

representing from afar.

Robert Brooke, for example, argues in "Underlife and Writing Instruction" that

students often misbehave (take part in an "underlife") in the classroom in order to assert

that they-their identities-are different than those assigned to them by the teacher and

the institution because "No one but the complete fanatic completely associates herself

with only one role-instead, the self is formed in the distance one takes from the roles

one is assigned" (232). Brooke believes that students must begin to see themselves as

writers instead of just "students" or "student writers": "What is at stake is who the

individuals in the classroom will be. Student underlife primarily attempts to assert that

the individuals who play the role of students are not only students, that there is more to

them than that" (239). Brooke's concept of underlife prods compositionists to recognize

students by the various ways in which they are not just students; however, Brooke

concentrates his attention on student activities within classroom environments.

Compositionists, nevertheless, should not be concerned only with the ways "students are

not just students" in the classroom but also with the ways "students are not just students"

outside of the classroom and outside of composition studies' accepted beliefs and


In her article, "The Politics of Place: Student-Travelers and Pedagogical Maps,"

Julie Drew argues that the figure of the student

resonates within the culture as the novice, young and as yet un(in)formed.
Any attempt to construct a pedagogy based on such an unexamined
understanding of student is necessarily saddled with such cultural baggage
and is therefore likely to exclude most knowledge and experiences
outside classroom walls. But students pass through, and only pause
briefly within, classrooms; they dwell within and visit various other
locations, locations whose politics and discourse conventions both
construct and identify them. ("Politics" 60)

Keeping students afar first begins with the recognition that students are never simply just

students in any location.4 Compositionists, then, might begin looking toward these other

locations, those locations in which compositionists themselves are strangers and

outsiders. In other words, compositionists might start engaging more etic modes of

observations in those cultures, spaces, and practices in which students are both

comfortable and uncomfortable inhabitants. However, these sometimes "strange"

cultures, spaces, and practices should function dialectically with those knowledge and

practices already accepted by composition studies. That is, emic and etic modes of

observation and understanding-"experience-near" and "experience-distant"

perspectives-should always work together, always informing one another in order to

present fluctuating and circulating versions of student writers. Such dialectical

interpenetrations will affect not only ways of seeing-ways of observing-but also

textual and pedagogical practices and the overall meanings and workings of composition

studies as well, in both its theoretical and pedagogical aspects and prerogatives. That is,

composition studies moves and changes but does not evolve. It may be as recursive and

regressive as it is expeditious and progressive, and it may be more ecological and less


Composition studies, in brief, is a discipline that needs to look "here" and "there,"

a discipline which needs to examine the ways in which students produce and interpret

discourse in the various sites and locations in which they "dwell"-in the classroom and

"elsewhere." Only then can compositionists devise theories and practices that get at the

knowledge and forms of authority and empowerment that students already possess rather

than the ones they lack. Consequently, composition studies can then become a discipline

not of hierarchical relations between teachers and students but one that consists of

conversations, explorations, and juxtapositions across cultural elements and entities-all

of which is meant to recognize the importance of ever-changing representations and

relationships. Corbett's lamentations may never cease completely; however, the lenses

through which the student writers are experienced, seen, and understood do shape the

languages, perceptions, encounters, and associations between compositionists and student

writers, encounters and relationships that help compositionists understand better how

students write, how we would like them to write, how they are written in our own

theoretical and pedagogical texts, and how we may recognize that composition studies as

made up of various processes doesn't "evolve" but simply changes and shifts its ideas

and practices. In discussing student writers I have focused an equal amount of attention

on compositionists and composition studies as a discipline. This is not meant to take the

emphases away from student writers but instead to assert that no understanding of student

writers for composition studies can be derived in a vacuum, no knowledge of student

writers can exist entirely apart from their placement in the discipline as well as the ways

in which they have been placed there by compositionists. Donald Donham correctly

states, "Like all systems of thought that operate by contrasting 'us' and 'them,' when it

gets 'them' wrong, it also gets 'us' wrong.... Know what an anthropologist thinks his

own society is and you know-by negation-what he will say about whatever tribe he

happens to be studying" (14). My analyses of student writers, then, as they occur in

subsequent chapters, will be contextualized by my own understandings of composition

studies' disciplinary meanings and practices. I hope to expand our sense of possibilities

in composition studies but also argue that this cannot be done without escalating and

intensifying our investigations of student writers.


1 This refers to many of the questions posed by postmodern ethnographers such as
George Marcus, James Clifford, and Vincent Crapazano, as I discusses in chapter one.
My purpose, however, is not to solve such a dilemma but instead to begin moving beyond
questions of classroom ethnography-as discussed in the Voices & Visions collection-in
order to look at the larger processes that shape and re-shape composition studies.

2 For a recent discussion of the ways that Davidson's theories have entered composition
studies, see Thomas Kent, ed., Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing Process
Paradigm (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999).

3 For a more detailed discussion of emics and etics, see Thomas N. Headland, Kenneth L.
Pike, and Marvin Harris, Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate (Newbury Park,
CA: Sage, 1990).

4 For more conversations about this notion of traveling and the space that students
occupy, see Julie Drew, "Cultural Tourism and the Commodified Other: Reclaiming
Difference in the Multicultural Classroom," The Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural
Studies 19 (1997): 297-309. Patricia Yaeger, "The Strange Effects of Ordinary Space,"
The Geography of Identity, Ed. Patricia Yaeger (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996).
Nedra Reynolds, "Composition's Imagined Geographies: The Politics of Space in the
Frontier, City, and Cyberspace," College Composition and Communication 50.1 (1998):
12-35. From a more anthropological perspective, see James Clifford, "Traveling
Cultures," Cultural Studies, Eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler
(New York: Routledge, 1992. 96-116).


Determining Composition Studies: Power and Influence

One of the most striking changes we find when examining the development of rhetoric in
American colleges over the last two hundred years lies not in the theory or even the
pedagogy of rhetoric, but in its status.
-Robert Connors, Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy

Debates about the identity of composition studies have progressed well beyond

simple arguments over the "right" or "wrong" kinds of writings that students should

compose; composition studies, instead, has become a discipline whose meanings and

identity cannot be found and shaped in only one particular theoretical or pedagogical

arena. Despite the complexity of the formation and movement of something called

composition studies, the premise of many of the "identity" debates in the discipline,

however, rests on certain assumptions about the power of the compositionist, the power

that a compositionist has to shape the discipline-regardless of whether he or she argues

for the primacy of theory or practice. What I am suggesting, in other words, is this:

typically those who debate composition's identity assume too quickly that the discipline

is fashioned and re-fashioned, built and re-built, in large part by teachers and theorists of

composition themselves, that professionals in the field struggle for and against various

theoretical perspectives and critical positions in an attempt to guide composition studies

in a certain direction. That is, in short, compositionists engage in hegemonic struggles

over composition's direction and identity, all of which supposedly determine the course

of composition studies' theories, practices, values, and meanings-its identity.

In response to Wendy Bishop's criticisms of and frustration with theoretical

"jargon" in composition studies and her arguments that favor composition studies as a

field comprised of "teacher-writers," Gary A. Olson suggests that "Since the beginnings

of composition as a field, we all have been struggling over how to define it, over its heart

and soul .... We all wish to convince others that our way of seeing the world is best;

that's the basis of hegemonic struggle, of democracy, of rhetoric itself' (39-40).' Olson

also clarifies this point by acknowledging Chantal Mouffe's distinction between

"'enemies" and "adversaries": Enemies, according to Mouffe, always try to destroy each

other, while adversaries, on the other hand, value and respect their opponents' right to

defend certain positions and opinions, and, therefore, composition studies' future is about

"whether we as individuals will position ourselves as 'enemies' or as 'adversaries' in this

struggle" (Olson 40). Olson asserts correctly that theorists and teachers of writing

should resist those avenues which lead them to become "enemies" attempting to abolish

each other, enemies trying to wipe each other off the disciplinary map.

Olson and Bishop, despite their differences of opinion and their enormous

contributions to the field, nevertheless, each conceive of composition studies as a

discipline determined in large part by people like themselves, the "Boss

Compositionists," to use James Sledd's phrase, who "have been complicit in the wider

society's division into bosses and bossed, and they have been so conditioned that they

enact the values of the wider society even as they denounce them" (25). Sledd, in short,

criticizes those who have readily accepted and acquiesced to the formation of

composition studies as a strictly hierarchical discipline, another field of study where

"Gold-star professors look down on the unstarred, professors of both varieties look down

on associate professors, all the tenured look down on the untenured, the untenured but

tenurable look down on assorted underlings, and [so forth]" (26). Although our system of

tenure and promotion in English studies in general is problematic, I am not interested in

taking up such questions here. Instead, I wish to examine how the term "boss

compositionist" might also be used to label those in the field whose work we not only

admire but whose work we assume gives composition studies its ultimate disciplinary

direction, guidance, and meaning. Gary Olson's article demonstrates how many

"leaders" in composition studies, people such as Olson himself and Wendy Bishop, often

imply in their various and distinct arguments that composition studies-in its numerous

hegemonicc struggles"-is manipulated, created, and changed mainly by teachers and

scholars of writing, that there are few other important influences on the discipline that

resonate with the same magnitude as the knowledge, practices, and ideas created by the

"professional" voices in the discipline. Olson writes,

My own sense of how rhetoric best works, how one can persuade one's
colleagues that a certain way of defining the world is superior [comes
about]... through dialogue, through persuasion, and, finally, through
mutual respect.... Wendy [Bishop] wants creative writers to "matter,"
and I want composition studies to matter as an intellectual discipline. I
don't begrudge Wendy's attempt to swing the discipline in a certain
direction, and she shouldn't begrudge me the same.... it's about the
future of composition as a discipline. (40)

Olson discusses how theorists (and "teacher-writers") attempt to "swing the discipline"

and dictate the future of composition studies. In some sense, this is a completely

reasonably way of thinking. I mean, there are, of course, leaders in the field-scholars

who raise and answer important disciplinary questions, individuals whom we rely on to

facilitate important and necessary conversations, and people who take charge in the

production of composition studies' numerous books, articles, and conferences, for

instance. However, we might begin to consider in new ways how compositionists

themselves are not so much the sole proprietors, knowledge generators, and rainmakers

who "swing" the discipline but individuals whose work is a function of the discipline, a

function that interacts with the numerous other factors which influence the formation and

identity of composition studies.

Michael Murphy, for instance, in "After Progressivism: Modem Composition,

Institutional Service, and Cultural Studies," contends that composition studies' service

ethic-derived from a larger institutional and social context-is so deeply enmeshed in

the discipline that even the most radical teachers and theorists (inevitably) have to think

and function from within this institutional paradigm, whether they like it and know it-or

not. Murphy, in particular, criticizes James Berlin as one whose work does not escape

the confines of composition's service ethic:

All that is potentially radical about Berlin's deployment of "social
epistemic rhetoric" . seems to me in this way quickly coopted by its
implicit association with composition's progressivist baggage. The
progressivist discourse of educational democracy.., is so fundamental a
part of the language of composition scholarship that it can effectively
underwrite the work of even as guarded an anti-foundationalist as Berlin.
... Berlin's discourse of essentialized democracy reenlists composition in
the service of the institution by ignoring differences between contesting
social interests in favor of some "greater good for all," his corresponding
vision of classroom practice also serves, I think, to make students
impotent in the larger economy of cultural politics. (355-56)2

Compositionists' debates and arguments-such as those by Olson, Bishop, and Berlin,

just to name a few---often neglect to comprehend that the compositionists' own powers

of disciplinary persuasion, influence, and understanding can only go so far, as far as they

enmesh with other "powers" and "forces" that manipulate composition studies-in both

its theories and practices. Sharon Crowley, furthermore, argues, "Even though teachers

who espouse current-traditional rhetoric, or process, or some other approach to teaching

composition may assume that their practice is governed purely by personal preference, or

expediency, or tradition, or lore, it remains true that pedagogies and practices are

implicated in the politics of the institutions in which they work and with the ideologies

that are in wider circulation as well" (217).

Compositionists' work is no doubt embedded in the "politics of institutions" and

other social, cultural, and political forces, and in order to understand such networks of

power in which composition teachers and theorists operate, compositionists need only

remind themselves of the public furor which took place over the freshman writing

curriculum at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s. In the spring of 1990

the freshman writing committee at UT designed "Writing about Difference," a course

which asked students to read a number of court cases in which "plaintiffs had run afoul of

some practice that elided their differences) from other members of groups with whom

they work or associated" (Crowley 229). The selected cases were meant to raise issues

about and awareness of what it means to be defined "differently" from mainstream

American culture. The syllabus proposed that students, for instance, discuss and write

argumentatively about these cases and also work both by themselves and in larger groups.

Faculty both inside and outside the English Department as well as others outside the

academy argued stridently against the implementation of this syllabus, most suggesting

that the focus on "difference" was an indoctrination of students into a "politically

correct" mindset. I do not mean here to review all of the particulars of this (very public)

argument about the University of Texas's writing program, particularly since others have

done so already.4 What is important here, however, is the way that composition and

rhetoric departments-more than most other academic departments-are regarded as the

province of a much larger community that extends well beyond those whose professional

identities are associated with the discipline.

Regardless of the number of times compositionists teach writing courses, present

conference papers, write articles and books, hold departmental meetings about writing

programs, and argue with administrators about the direction of writing curriculums and

the students therein, compositionists themselves, however, play only a partial role in

developing the shape of rhetoric and composition in the classroom as well as in its

theoretical discourses, for instance. Composition theorists and teachers no doubt discuss

and theorize both the external and internal factors that affect students' abilities to write,

read, and think; they also, however, dispute the factors and forces that affect not only

students but also composition studies as a discipline that is situated within certain social,

cultural, and institutional settings. Thus, no one factor can solely determine the

discipline. Compositionists, nonetheless, often neglect certain vital areas of study that

would provide them greater insight into the processes, workings, and identity of

composition studies. James Marshall notes,

But though we have been fairly successful at seeing what happens within
our classrooms, we have often failed to acknowledge that those
classrooms are nested within schools, those schools within communities,
and those communities within larger networks of cultural and political life.

In not addressing those larger contexts, or at least not addressing them
very often, we have left out of our picture of writing instruction some of
the forces that are most powerfully shaping it. (54)

I discussed already in chapter two the ways in which (constructions of) student writers

themselves can and do (sometimes unknowingly) formulate, create, and help shape

composition studies as a discipline, one with its own theories, knowledge, and practices.

In doing so, I have tried to investigate an area of influence in composition studies that

has, according to Marshall, been "left out of the picture." This discussion of student

writers-the way student writers affect the discipline as much as the discipline affects

student writers-can, however, be complicated further by looking more closely at student

writers' influences on the discipline, the way student writers filter into the discipline and

aid in the shaping and politicizing of composition studies' identity as an academic field of

study. In particular, I shall examine the way student writers are entangled not only in the

theoretical and pedagogical discourses of composition studies but also enmeshed in a

larger cultural category that complicates their own identities as well as that of

composition studies-Youth.

"Youth," Lawrence Grossberg states, "is the last and almost always ignored

category in the traditional list of subordinated populations (servants-i.e., racial and

colonized minorities, women and children) who, in the name of protection, are silenced"

(Qtd. in Giroux "Public Pedagogy" 9). In Fugitive Cultures Henry Giroux, however,

clarifies that "youth" is not simply a demographic category in which we can place people

who fall between certain age groups but, instead, that youth is "a complex social

formation to be analyzed, interpreted, engaged within the largely repressive apparatus of

youth socialization" (15). The fact that the majority of students in college-those who

take composition and rhetoric classes-are young people engaged in certain "complex

social formations" does, no doubt, affect the ways these individuals read and write as

well as the ways those of us in composition both theorize and teach these students.5 In

examining the "external" factors that affect and shape the practices of both student

writers and compositionists (as well as the forces that affect composition studies as a

discipline), composition scholars and teachers have not only neglected how student

writers affect and shape composition studies (as I argued in chapter two) but also how our

understandings and constructions of youth-and lack thereof-have affected our own

practices, theories, and disciplinary identity. Sharon Crowley asserts that

The academic discourses that affect or have affected composition
instruction include liberal education, humanism, general education, and
progressivism, as well as the discursive practices of testing, grading, and
ranking; the cultural discourses that affect composition include those of
literacy, class, and race. This is to say, composition is administered and
taught in a much thicker discursive network than are many other academic
courses. (259)

Although one cannot reasonably expect Crowley to list here every "cultural discourse"

that somehow affects composition studies, composition students, and composition

teachers and theorists themselves, Crowley's list is indicative of the field's rare

willingness to acknowledge youth as an important and necessary area of examination.

The rest of this chapter explores the ways that youth-and something called youth

culture-have been missing in most composition scholarship, as well as the ways that this

absence has not been particularly noticed or theorized. Additionally, I investigate more

closely the way that theories of youth have been left out of recent and important debates

in composition about the authority of student writers and their texts.

Re-Writing Student Writers: Toward a Theory of Authorship

Students in those freshman courses taken to be at the center of composition studies are
socially and politically imagined as children whose Victorian innocence retains a tainted
need for 'civilizing.' Institutional practices toward them... treat them as emerging, or
as failed, but never as actually responsible "authors."
-Susan Miller, Textual Carnivals

Scholars and teachers of composition have been acutely aware that the

denigration of composition studies by other disciplines and fields of study (namely by

literature departments and faculty) has focused on composition's ties to texts produced by

"students" rather than the professional, creative, or literary texts written by "authors," as

Susan Miller suggests above. Composition studies' academic depravity, that is, derives

from its association with the "low" or "basic" texts written by students rather than the

"high," "complex," or "aesthetic" texts composed by real authors. James Sledd,

nonetheless, argues that compositionists should happily embrace these designations, that

composition studies is a discipline defined by its service to student writers-not to

authors-and that composition studies should not strive to become an "intellectual"

discipline defined and justified solely by its theories. Those who eschew composition

studies' connections with student writing, according to Sledd, are merely searching for

academic status and upward mobility. Sledd writes, "I make no apologies for undignified

concern with maligned Freshman English, a course whose careful teaching is infinitely

more important than the further development of 'composition theory'" (11), and, he

continues, "Composition studies-the plantation culture of compositionists-can thus be

best understood if the unpromising attempt at intellectual justification is abandoned" (21).

Others in the field such as Susan Miller, however, believe that compositionists

need to re-theorize the "student writer" entirely in order to empower student writers and

student writing-thereby, in turn, also empowering the status and identity of

compositionists and composition studies as a whole. Scholars and teachers of writing,

this is to say, need a "redefinition of student writing and of the subjectivity of the student

writer [because]... powerful attitudes toward student writers and unprivileged writing

inevitably control the status of composition studies, its relations to those outside it, and its

self-images and ways of working out its new professionalization" (191-95). In other

words, definitions, understandings, and metaphors of student writers determine the

identity of compositionists and composition studies as much as, if not more than, what

compositionists themselves practice, teach, theorize, and write.

Composition studies' service ethos-the focus on teaching students the "skills and

drills" of academic discourse-has been under attack from a number of other theoretical

positions as well. Morris Young, for instance, criticizes composition studies' connection

with "service" because such a connection only "serves" to reproduce certain (dominant)

communities, values, and politics of academic institutions: "Too often the classroom has

been constructed as a site for reproduction; students are trained in standard academic

discourses; they deploy these discourses as part of required practice; they become

participants in a community, often reproducing the practices of that community" (52).

Young and others see the role of the writing teacher as facilitator of resistance to these

traditional academic values. In other words, teachers of writing should no longer initiate

students into "academic discourses" but instead should provide students with the

knowledge that "to participate in public life and to use public language is not to lose part

of themselves. Instead they theorize their roles as writers and their place in the Nation

because they recognize that they are cultural workers and already live literate lives" (70).

This is meant, in short, to dissociate the concept of "student writer" from terms such as

"basic" and "beginning," terms which signify students as writers of texts that have no real

consequences for anyone except the student and no ramifications that extend beyond the

classroom walls.6

Compositionists such as Susan Miller, Min-Zhan Lu, Bruce Homer, and Joe

Hardin have argued specifically that the rigid distinction between student writer and

author must collapse in order for student writing to have more power and authorityt.

This binary, in other words, must be torn down in order for student writing to begin

escaping and resisting the various dominant institutional values and discourses. Bruce

Homer argues that student texts can resist the institutional paradigms already in place and

have important social and material consequences instead:

There is also the dominant's denial of the materiality of writing, which we
can see operating in the binaries distinguishing art from mechanical craft
and the academic from the "real," part of a chain of binaries linked to the
Author/student writer and the individual/social binaries.... Failure to
locate student work materially can interfere with the best intentions of
teachers to locate student writing in the social. (506)

For Homer, "locating" the "materiality of student writing," then, not only helps move

student texts into social realms, but it also makes sure that student writing does not

simply serve an acculturative function of the university, that is, that it does not simply

demonstrate the "standards" of academic discourse that have already been set by the

traditional, dominant values of the institution. Thus, teachers of writing become

facilitators of critical consciousness and writing rather than mere gatekeepers and

guardians of certain types of university standards.7 This is to say, as Joe Hardin notes,

"students in the writing classroom have the potential to engage in real production of

cultural texts instead of merely writing documents that certify their readiness for

academic work or that demonstrate their effectiveness at mounting standard classroom

critiques" (53). Hardin continues a critique of the rigidity of the author/student writer

binary that exists both inside and outside of the academy:

Clearly, the future of pedagogical methods that hope to challenge the
traditional acculturative nature of the writing class lies in the movement to
resist the barriers that keep student writing from having real authority in
the class, in the academy, and in national culture. However, if student
writing is to have real material effects, both in the lives of the students and
in academic and in national culture, then compositionists must develop
strategies to expose, critique, resist the way academic culture constructs
textual authority. Composition does, in fact, occupy a strategic site within
the academy for the empowerment of students, for it is the place where
student texts may be foregrounded as actual work. In order to increase the
authority of that work, we need to find ways to help each student further
historicize his or her place within the acculturative moment of the writing
class in order to emphasize the dialectical, the conflicting, and the social.

Hardin and others suggest that student writing ought to have more authority, that it ought

to be composed and conceived of as "actual work"-as opposed to mere academic

exercises. Collapsing the author/student writer binary is, nevertheless, tricky business.

That is, compositionists such as Homer and Hardin attempt to help student writers divest

themselves of those numerous discourse conventions, labels, and stereotypes that relegate

their texts to academic dustpans, where instructors collect and place other meaningless

and trivial academic endeavors such as the take-home test, the vocabulary quiz, and the

multiple choice exam (all of which are also thought to have no real material and social


I agree with scholars such as Hardin, Homer, and Miller that the reproduction of

elitist, exclusionary, dominant, and academic discourses in the composition classroom

problematizes and abolishes students' textual authority, that the "personal" in such

courses becomes "immune to the play of the social" and becomes "another passive

register of the social" (Homer 325). In other words, the reproduction of these discourses

merely enacts the dominant paradigms that have already constructed students as passive

and naive beginners. Composition scholars who have theorized the author/student

binary-those especially who have sought to deconstruct this binary-have done so by

arguing for the materiality of writing, by investigating how student writing can have real

effects both inside and outside the classroom and the academy. However, these scholars

have promoted the "authority" of students and student texts without investigating the

ways in which cultural and social categories and discourses of youth have kept student

writing "unauthorized" and dispatched to the marginalized spaces of the academy.

This is all to say, composition teachers and scholars cannot theorize a transition

from student writer to author without examining how discourses and concepts of youth,

on the one hand, have hindered this movement but also, on the other hand, how

discourses and concepts of youth may help make this transition a successful one. In

short, those terms associated with student writers such as "basic," ".... beginner," "naive,"

and "passive" as well as other important terms such as "critical," "author," "academic,"

"social," "cultural," "personal," and "material"-just to name a few key terms that help

construct the student writer/author binary-cannot be investigated thoroughly without a

keen eye toward the ways that discourses of youth have helped shape and made rigid the

various terms listed above, both inside and outside of composition studies. In other

words, scholarship in composition studies that attempts to "authorize" students and

student writing by theorizing the construction and deconstruction of the student

writer/author binary has neglected to consider the importance of youth in these

frameworks, the ways in which youth has helped build this binary in the first place as

well as the ways more thorough studies of youth may help tear it down. These scholars

also have tended to neglect investigating what this transition does not only for students

but for the status and identity of composition studies in general, which I shall discuss

throughout the rest of this project.

Where Are All the Youth?: Student Writers, Authors, and Cultural Gaps in
Composition Studies

But as soon as the young American begins to approach man's state, the reins of filial
obedience are daily slackened. Master of his thoughts, he soon becomes responsible for
his own behavior. In America there is, in truth, no adolescence. At the close of boyhood,
he is a man and begins to trace out his own path.
-Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

I'm only an adolescent, so I'm not responsible for what I do.
-Holden Caulfied, Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Youth and adolescence have changed dramatically, it seems, in the 116 years

between De Tocqueville's and Salinger's writings. Callow indifference, laziness, and

pessimism in the twentieth century replaced the pioneering independence and

industriousness of young people in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries-

or so it appears. This supposed change in young people's attitudes and moral and ethical

characters has held strong in the popular imagination, particularly as a form of nostalgia

for the way things "used to be." That is, a tendency exists among the older generations to

malign the present state of youth while, at the same time, idealizing the past generations

of young people. This practice, however, is not new. Even the ancient Greeks, despite

their many idealizations of youth, in many instances looked negatively upon the ephebe,

an upper-class young man who had finished several years of schooling and who was

supposed to receive military training. An ephebe was well known and criticized for his

dissolute behavior: drunkeness, violence, and destruction, for example. 8 At one point,

the Athenians even passed a law which forbade young people from beating their parents.

Fear of and indignation against young people-despite De Tocqueville's confident

evaluations and observations in the nineteenth century-seem to have been passed down

quite smoothly from the ancient Greeks to America today, therein disrupting and

debunking these various nostalgic visions of the past, those which construct the past as a

brighter place for young people and a safer place for adults.

The Greek poet Hesiod, for example, declared in 700 BC that there is "no hope

for the future of our people if they are to be dependent upon the frivolous youth of today,

for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words, exceeding wise and impatient of

restraint." In England in 1554, London alderman were ordered "to have a vigilant eye...

to the inhabitants and specially to the young" (Bridgen 539) and an English statute of

1563 warned of the "licentious liberty of youth," accepting that "until a man grow unto

the age of twenty-four years he... is wild, without judgement [sic] and not of sufficient

experience to govern himself' (Thomas 217). Increase Mather stated in 1700 that "if the

body of the present generation be compared with what was here forty years ago, what a

sad degeneracy is evident." One American scholar proclaimed in 1935 that the younger

generation, "numbering in the millions, has gone so far in decay that it acts without

thought of social responsibility [and] is even now rotting before our eyes."9 And, in 1997

President Clinton remarked, "We know we've got about six years to turn this juvenile

crime thing around, or our country is going to be living in chaos" (Hine 18). These are

merely a few examples; however, blaming young people for a society's moral collapse

and ethical deprivation has become commonplace-and perhaps it always has been.

Mike A. Males eloquently captures a common sentiment of today: "Like Cub Scouts

around a nighttime forest campfire terrifying themselves with embellished slasher tales,

latter-day grownup America delights in horror stories about suburban stone-killer

kids" (9).

Turning young people into the scapegoats of society's dilemmas not only

essentializes, simplifies, and fictionalizes the current generation of young people, it also

neglects to examine in any depth the way youth is created by and enmeshed in certain

kinds of social and cultural formations. That is, these stereotypes also fail to

acknowledge how youth itself may be a type of social and cultural invention. "The

politics of culture," Henry Giroux argues, "provide the conceptual space in which

childhood is constructed, experienced, and struggled over. Culture is the primary terrain

in which adults exercise power over children both ideologically and institutionally....

[childhood] is a historical construction. It is also a cultural and political category that has

very practical consequences for how adults 'think about children'; and it has

consequences for how children view themselves" (Stealing 4-5). Many like Giroux have

argued voraciously that we need to escape the cruel stereotypes and myths that culturally

construct young people, in some cases, as "innocent" and others as "trouble," as nothing

more than no-good criminals, immoral sex-fiends and drug users, and uncontrollable

pleasure seekers.10 However necessary it may be to abrogate these stereotypes, doing so

does not necessarily put us on stable ground, in a firm place where understandings and

portraits of youth are somehow apparent, lucid, and more truthful. In other words,

studying and defining youth always present numerous difficulties because "youth" is

necessarily characterized in opposition to something called "adulthood," another slippery

term. Youth and adulthood, that is, each identify themselves against the other. Thus,

since understandings and definitions of adulthood change not only from generation to

generation but change according to different social, cultural, and political discourses

within any given era, it is, therefore, even more difficult to construct a clear and accurate

understanding of young people-and the meaning of something called "youth."

In his essay "Youth, Culture and Modernity," Johan Fomrnas explains that the

difficulty in delimiting youth exists because there are so many different analytical and

interpretive tools with which one might try to do so:

Youth is... a physiological development phase, commencing in puberty
and ending when the body has more or less finished growing. On the
other hand, it is a psychological life phase extending through different
phases of adolescence and post-adolescence.... Youth is also a social
category, framed by particular social institutions-especially school, but
certain rituals as well such as confirmation or marriage, legislation
directed toward age limits and coming of age, and social acts such as
leaving home, forming a family, getting educated and finding a profession.
And ... youth is something which is culturally determined in a discursive
interplay with musical, visual, and verbal signs that denote what is young
in relation to that which is interpreted as respectively childish or adult. (3)

Youth, to summarize, is a mish-mash of biological, psychological, social, cultural, and

political discourses. Thus, defining youth today perhaps poses more difficulty than in the

past because we tend to do so according to a greater number of social, biological, legal,

psychological, and cultural criteria.

In some eras and in some cultures, youth is the period in an individual's life

marked by one's ability (or inability) to perform certain skills, at other times and in other

places, youth is seen as a transitional period into adulthood that ends when an individual

completes some sort of ritualistic performance, and elsewhere, for instance, youth is

defined by a person's reaching and passing through specified age groupings. In America

before the twentieth century, for example, working class families based their perceptions

and definitions of youth not on a person's age but on his or her physical size. If a

fourteen-year-old boy looked big enough and strong enough to do a "man's work" in the

city or on the farm, most people would view this person as an adult-as a "man," that is.

On the other hand, if a seventeen-year-old boy was less physically developed and

couldn't perform the duties of a "man," he, in short, was not one. Such was the same for

women during these time periods. In order to be marriageable and ready for motherhood,

a girl was judged according to her physical development rather than her age. In many

cases, however, a young person-depending upon his or her social class-could exhibit

certain skills, learning, or religious inspiration (rather than physical size and

development) that might lead other adults to recognize his or her maturity-adulthood.

In most cases, nevertheless, the maturity (or adult status) of a young person was judged

individually, where age provided less for a basis of judgment than it does today. "

Nowadays, however, we often define youth according to the activities that the

government will or will not let young people "legally" participate in. "Young people,"

for instance, might be categorized as those under sixteen because they are not allowed to

drive an automobile, or as those under eighteen because they cannot vote, fight in a war,

or buy cigarettes, or they may be defined as those individuals under twenty-one because

these are the people who are not allowed to purchase alcoholic beverages. Automobile

insurance companies, furthermore, rarely lower their premiums for males until they reach

the age of twenty-five, therein implying that a certain youthful (and dangerous)

immaturity still exists innately in males until they reaches their mid-twenties.

Youth, this is all to say, is not only a social and cultural construction but a

historical one as well-a construct that is, according to Fomrnas, historically and culturally

"determined." Though I recognize that there are numerous and complex discourses that

contribute to the construction of youth, I have chosen to focus on three cultural, social,

and discursive arenas that I believe are most appropriate for examining youth in

relationship to composition studies and the work that occurs in writing classrooms. I

shall investigate the way that youth is defined and constructed by the interplay of the

following categories, all of which have an important place in composition studies: (1)

social and cultural rituals, (2) pop culture and other media forms, (3) academic literacy

and the "lack" thereof. I would first like to lay out each of these three briefly in order to

begin examining ways that compositionists may re-theorize the student writer/author

binary and, ultimately, discover how students and student writing may become more

empowered and more credible both inside and outside the academy. This, furthermore,

will also lead to a critique and reconsideration of some current theories and practices in

composition studies that I take up more specifically in chapters four and five.

American youth, compared to other societies, perform few rituals that somehow

signify the beginning of their status as adults, those which manifest the flowering of their

maturity. The high school senior prom, however, serves as one such ritual in which

young people play both a fervent and active role. The prom designates the end of high

school-a fairly common experience for American youth today-by allowing students an

avenue to express their maturity that is not available at, say, their actual graduation

ceremonies. For young people, the prom is expected to be a magical night that they shall

remember for the rest of their lives. Gone are the days, however, when the prom took

place in the high school gym and young men borrowed their father's cars for the big

occasion. Such events, instead, are now typically held in fancy hotel ballrooms, where

couples are chauffered there in rented limousines; boys rent tuxedos while the girls are

expected to wear sexy gowns that make them appear as adult and mature as possible.

The evening, in short, is quite expensive, an average couple spending nearly $1000. This

is all to say, the prom has become not so much a young person's farewell to high school

friends and experiences but more so a strong declaration of his or her grown-up status, a

status that is, of course, somewhat tenuous since youth is judged according to various

other social and cultural factors.'2 As we shall see in a moment, the freshman writing

classroom itself also functions as a ritualized experience that most college students must

perform in order to assert their "validity" as worthwhile learners-a ritualistic passage to

more "advanced" studies.

Popular culture, in its broadest sense, is often used as an umbrella term for the

texts and practices of "everyday life," and the study of popular culture is, in addition,

based upon the notion that these texts and practices of the everyday are not only

important and powerful but political as well. Although I will not try to codify "popular

culture" with some sort of an all-encompassing definition, I hope instead to provide a

number of different takes on popular culture and ultimately show how these may affect

student writers, their writing, and their own status in composition studies. Thus, my

purpose is not to posit specifically what popular culture is or is not but to show how

certain versions of popular culture help construct and affect the student writer in

composition studies.

More than anything else, perhaps, popular culture has been the subject of criticism

by those who see it as a corrupting influence on young people. Popular culture, in this

sense, signifies "low" culture that has no redeeming social, cultural, or aesthetic worth-

it is, this is to say, not refined and elite, and, therefore, it may have debilitating

consequences to those who consume it. Writers and social critics have long criticized

popular culture for its debasing influence on the "masses," and particularly on young

people. 13 In the 1950s Dwight MacDonald wrote about popular culture as "a debased,

trivial culture that voids both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and also the

simple spontaneous pleasures.... The masses, debauched by several generations of this

sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial and comfortable cultural products" (72).

Similarly, Ernest Van den Haag argues that

Corruption of past high culture by popular culture takes numerous forms,
starting with direct adulteration. Bach candied by Stokowski, Bizet
coarsened by Rodgers and Hammerstein.... Freud vulgarized into
columns of newspaper correspondence advice (how to be happy though
well-adjusted). Corruption also takes the form of mutilation and
condensation . works are cut, condensed, simplified, and rewritten until
all possibilities of unfamiliar or esthetic experiences are strained out.

More recent critics such as Neil Postman suggest that popular culture not only corrupts

other, higher versions of culture but that it blurs the boundaries between childhood and

adulthood, therein erasing "childhood" altogether: "Everywhere one looks, it may be seen

that the behavior, language, attitudes, and desires-even the physical appearance-of

adults and children are becoming increasingly indistinguishable" (4). Postman continues:

[T]he popular arts have rarely depicted children in an authentic manner.
We have only to think of some of the great child stars of films, such as
Shirley Temple, Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper, Margaret O'Brien, and the
harmless ruffians of the Our Gang comedies, to realize that cinema
representations of the character and sensibility of the young have been far
from realistic. But one could find in them, nonetheless, an ideal, a
conception of childhood. These children dressed differently from adults
talked differently, saw problems from a different perspective, had a
different status, were more vulnerable. Even in the early days of
television, on such programs as Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows
Best, one could find children who were, if not realistically portrayed, at
least different from adults. But most of this is gone, or at least rapidly
going. (123)

Postman, no doubt, mourns the loss of childhood innocence, as captured in television

shows and movies of the 1950s and earlier-where children were presented as children,

distinctly different from adults as they should be. For Postman, this loss of childhood-

its "disappearance"-is directly a result of new electronic technologies such as television,

movies, VCRs, computers, and so forth. However, this blame tends to neglect looking

critically at questions of race, class, economics, and gender that have structured past and

present "versions" of young people and these various media forms. Postman is certainly

correct that contemporary television shows, commercials, and movies, for instance, often

portray young people as unrealistically and annoyingly precocious and beyond their

years. Postman, furthermore, spends a significant amount of time criticizing the ways

that popular culture "corrupts" the innocence of young people, but he fails to take into

account how such "low" forms of "entertainment" are politically and economically

influential on young people's identities. In Stealing Innocence: Youth, Corporate Power,

and the Politics of Culture, for example, Henry Giroux also notes some of the negative

effects popular culture, arguing that we cannot overlook the fact that popular culture is

linked to corporate culture and power, that much of popular culture consists of the

constructions of market-based identities for young people. That is, popular culture

closely ties to market culture:

Growing up corporate has become a way of life for American youth. This
is evident as corporate mergers consolidate control of assets and markets,
particularly as they extend influence over the media and its management
of public opinion.... Schools are being transformed into commercial
rather than public spheres as students become subject to the whims and
practices of marketers whose agenda has nothing to do with critical
learning and a great deal to do with restructuring civic life in the image of
market culture. (98-99)

Despite a pessimistic assessment of the ways that young people form their identities and

construct meaning in the world, Giroux unlike Postman is optimistic that these sites of

identity formation also function as sites of critical negotiation, wherein young people

may front their own interests, speak for themselves, and mobilize their own public

spheres: "Rather than acknowledge that the new electronic technologies allow kids to

immerse themselves in profoundly important forms of social communication, produce a

range of creative expressions, and exhibit forms of agency that are both pleasurable and

empowering, adults profoundly mistrust the new technologies-in the name of protecting

childhood innocence" (Stealing 13). Thus, popular culture, according to Giroux-

particularly new forms of electronic media-may function as sites of knowledge-making

for young people, places where they might critically and purposefully construct identities

and meanings.

Stuart Hall, much like Henry Giroux, suggests that popular culture "matters" so

much because it is "an arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony

arises, and where it is secured. It is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture-

already fully formed-might be simply 'expressed'. But it is one of the places where

socialism might be constituted" (466). Raymond Williams, similarly, theorizes the

cultural powers and symbolic hierarchies that construct "high" and "low" discourses in

society. Williams's "inherent dominative mode" explains how the most powerful socio-

economic groups exist at the center of cultural power and have the "authority" to

designate what is high and low culture, what is superior and inferior.14 Many theorists of

popular culture no doubt ground their studies in Marxism, though others certainly hesitate

to do so to the extent that Hall and Williams do. Most, nevertheless, share Hall's and

Williams's concern that (popular) culture should be approached politically.

For Hall and Giroux, then, popular culture is never neutral; instead, it provides narratives

through which (young) people identify themselves and (against) others as well as

narratives through which youth construct meanings of the world-for better or worse.

Furthermore, in a sociological critique of taste, Pierre Bourdieu identifies popular

culture as a certain kind of class aesthetic:

Everything takes place as if the "popular aesthetic" were based on the
affirmation of continuity between art and life, which implies the
subordination of form to function, or, one might say, on a refusal of the
refusal which is the starting point of the high aesthetic, i.e., the clear-cut
separation of ordinary dispositions from the specifically aesthetic
disposition.... the popular audience delights in plots that proceed
logically and chronologically towards a happy end, and "identifies" better
with simply drawn situations and characters... Their reluctance or refusal
springs not just from a lack of familiarity but from a deep-rooted demand
for participation. (32)

Bourdieu's treatments of the relationships between aesthetics and socio-economic classes

provide a theory of how daily life is organized. That is, according to Bourdieu, a social

hierarchy is in place, which enables us to know how we will behave in different

situations, and our success in these situations depends upon how well we learn to play the

game. Taste, however, is the name of this game. In it, we must learn not so much how to

evaluate things in general but how to evaluate the "right" things, how to participate in the