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Notes on "We Compositionists" and Class Conciousness


Chris Gallagher, in a 2005 article in JAC titled "We Compositionists:  Toward Engaged Professionalism" offers various suggestions on how the field of composition can, for wont of better terms, remain relevant.  The term relevant appears to bother Gallagher, however, given that he throws relevant in (mildly ironic) quotation marks in his discussion that compositionists seem to be bereft of an audience other than themselves and seem to be constantly worrying that what they are doing is irrelevant:  "And it's consisten with a whole range of efforts to make composition and rehtoric more 'relevant,' including various calls for 'public intellectuals'...the study of 'everday literacies...' and service learning....What is behind this fear of not mattering?" (76)

All of this worry about relevance seems to come from a certain worry that what we are doing as compositionists just doesn't matter; that it is unimportant; that it is a waste of time.  No one, of course, wants to see what they do as a waste of time nor unimportant:
"what compositionist, striving for tenure, has not wondered if her talents might do more good in the world outside the academy?  What compositionist, upon earning tenure, has not felt some guilt--and perhaps more than a touch of depression--as a result of being rewarded by a system that is demonstrably corrupt?  What compositionist has not looked upon his publications and wondered, Do these make a difference?  How else could I have spent my time?"  (79-80) 
Gallagher then goes on to quote Barbara Ehrenreich about the dangers of a hedonistic, soft, cushy middle class Babbittesque existence that seems to befall all professionals at one time or another.  Gallagher states early in the piece that all this self-referential discussion of disciplinarity is a "middle-class psychodrama" (75) that the field seems to be stuck in:  "Whether we are looking 'down' at the 'mere teachers' or 'up' to our colleagues in literature and critical theory, we are plagued by self-doubt" (80).  All this self-conscious worrying about worrying about worrying is best summed up by Gallagher in one like "Isn't there more important work I should be doing" (77)?


A friend and colleague of mine, Jason Pickavance, and I have from time-to-time discussed the ins-and-outs of teaching at a community college with its teaching load that is at least two and a half times the load of a research university teaching load.  Community college classes usually also have greater enrollment caps.   It isn't uncommon for a community college compositionist to take home (and I do mean take home) over a hundred portfolios every few weeks.  Added on top of that, as well, is committee work and other institutional activities as well as community service obligations*.  Most CC compositionists, as well, strive to stay abreast of the field and to engage the field, whenever possible.   At the same time, some CC compositionists are uneasy at even calling themselves "compositionalists" or actively engaging in a field where they may feel "looked down upon" by the gentry of our field (the researchers and not the 'mere' teachers.)  Many CC compositionalists, too, bristle at being thought of as burned out drudges working a menial job.   

"At least I don't have to work in a coal mine," Pickavance once said in response to a complaint about how bad CC compositionists have it.  I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that some CC compositionists also ask themselves "Isn't there more important work I could be doing?"  They often don't say this aloud, however, but actions, which I won't go into here, often show evidence of the desire to take on other kinds of work

*I'm not making this blog entry a complaint against community college working conditions, mind you.  This is just a simple reality of our existence. 


Now, dear reader, I suppose you would like me to find some neat  reconciliation between these two sections.  Frankly, my dear, I don't know that there can be reconciliation.  As long as the working conditions are what they are and being a researcher is valued monetarily more than being a teacher or an active agent in the classroom, there is going to be a very distinct class divide.

What can happen, however, is that we apply something that Gallagher offers up in the final part of his piece:
Redefine traditional categories of academic work....Research and teaching should be defined as two forms of the collaborative discovery and sharing of knowledge.  "Service" should be done away with as a category of academic work, but academic professionals should be expected to demonstrate how their research and teaching both involved and affect others within and beyond their immediate institution.  So instead of ticking off how many committees faculty sit on or how much administrative work they do, personnel committees might instead consider how professionals contribute to the collaborative discovery and sharing of knowledge in multiple sties--including, of course, on committees and in academic programs.
 In other words we can take our field--our discpline--and activate it.  Our field does something in other words, and doesn't just sit and navel gaze and worry about its relevance.

I will say that I am just a bit bothered by this call for action.  While I heartily agree we should be engaging in praxis (I am a writing center person, after all), I am a bit flummoxed about how a CC compositionist takes on this call, or even if we are included in it.  Rather than navel-gazing, CC compositionists seem to be preoccupied by their position in academia and inundated with work.  Again, I don't want to make CC work out to be like some Mike Leigh movie where the beset working class can never escape. Worrying about position seems to be just as disabling as navel gazing.

What's the answer?  I think the only way we can find that out is by actually applying the ideas we believe in and taking action through them.

Work cited

Gallagher, Chris.  "We Compositionists:  Toward Engaged Professionalism."  JAC.  25.1 (2005).  75-99. Print.


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