I just recently presented at the biannual Thomas R. Watson Conference at the University of Louisville. The conference was a really great experience for me personally, since most of the keynotes were scholars publishing directly in fields that matter to me. The theme of the conference was responsnivity–or thinking how the study and teaching of rhetoric can be more “responsive” to communities. Particularly meaningful keynotes: Jeff Grabill’s admission that rhetoric is knowledge-work, and knowledge-work can be studied in the analysis of the mundane; John Duffy’s argument that the teaching of writing is the teaching of ethics (and that dirty word “Virtues”). And of course, Paula Mathieu’s opening talk on mindefulness.
I want to use this space however, to elaborate a bit on my contribution to the conference, which I presented on a panel with my advisor Dr. Carrie Leverenz and my colleague and friend at Navarro college, Terry Peterman. Conceptually, the panel looked at how we could turn to artifacts, revisions, and concepts of our past to think more purposefully about how to be responsive in the future. Terry spoke about looking back to consumer scholarship on threshold concepts and learning architecture to structure responsive 21st century learning environments. Dr. Leverenz spoke about the revised WPA outcomes of 2014, what was gained, and what was lost. My talk was from my dissertation, and blended two chapters: my theoretical framework for public engagement, which I blogged about last month, and my chapter on the disruptive efforts of Linda Brodkey at the University of Texas in 1990. I’ve been thinking a lot about the career of Linda Brodkey lately (I organized a CCCC panel reflecting on her career later next year), and especially considering that 2015 is the 25th anniversary of her ousting from UT, I think it’s important to reconsider her legacy, and what the field of writing and rhetoric has learned since then. Ultimately, I want to suggest that Disruption is a form of public engagement, because it confronts the public in a way that is designed to fundamentally intrude upon the status quo. We should be weary of disruptive strategies, to be sure, but also aware of how it works and has worked to engage and captivate different public spheres.
As I’ve mentioned before, I think the way our field conceptualizes public engagement needs to change from an Enlightenment model to a more dynamic model that understands engagement as a repertoire of potential public orientations. One takeaway from this shift, I argue, is that it opens up room for scholars who would never have considered themselves publicly engaged to re-situate their expertise across a range of public orientations, and it also forces us to reconsider some of the work we already do as directly and deliberately responsive to public issues. This isn’t to say we should be patting ourselves on the back, but rather, that knowledge in rhetoric and composition can go and be public in many ways, and differentiating between them will help us mark out a more thoughtful and mindful future.
For example, we can learn a lot about public engagement from studying Linda Brodkey’s experiences at the University of Texas campus in the summer of 1990. I describe what happened that summer as a form of Disruptive Engagement. And, if we define disruption as a significant intrusion, or a usurpation of the status quo, then clearly what happened on the campus of UT Austin in 1990 was deeply disruptive. Brodkey, hired on the UT faculty in 1989 to redesign the required freshman English course, “English 306: Rhetoric and Composition.” revamped the course that summer (in collaboration with a group of faculty members and graduate students) into a new required course called “English 306: Writing about Difference.” E306 required students to read and write critically about ‘difference’ in the context of antidiscrimination law and discrimination lawsuits” (Brodkey, “Making a Case” 236). While working in writing groups, analyzing arguments in Supreme Court cases, and reading supplementary material that depicts the social and cultural context of race might not seem incredibly controversial, it is important to note that this was a proposal for a common syllabus to be taught in every introductory writing course at UT, not to mention the fact that the cases, readings, and topics were prescribed for the students in advance. This narrow focus, many argued, opened up a space to unfairly politicize the writing classroom, which was endemic to many of the politicized nature of higher education.
Here’s some of the responses in the media that propelled this debate to a national stage, and eventuated in the cancellation of the class by the Dean in 1990, and the departure of Linda Brodkey from the University in 1991.
- June 18th, 1990, Daily Texan, Alan Gribben: “[E306 explains] to presumably benighted UT students how they ought to feel about issues of ethnicity and feminism… [We must] resist this presumptuous move to grade them on ‘politically correct’ thought in a required English course.”
- June 23rd, 1990, Austin American Statesman, Alan Gribben “[English 306 is] the most massive effort at thought-control ever attempted on the campus.”
- July 24, 1990, Daily Texan, John Ruszkiewicz: “Students are less likely to write significant and challenging pieces when they find themselves constrained by a subject matter that seems to hide a political agenda.”
So how does this public response indicate a disruptive form of engagement? Well, for one, Brodkey chose to harness the institutional and departmental channels available to her, rather than arguing in the press. But that doesn’t mean Brodkey wasn’t publicly engaged. She was using her professional position as a faculty member and her theoretical orientation toward disruption to usurp the status quo of what counts as writing and what counts as writing instruction. Citing Susan Miller’s Textual Carnivals, Brodkey argues in her book Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only that composition traditionally functions as an institutional legitimation of high culture. “Hired to police grammar,” Brodkey writes,
Composition teachers transgress if they comment on content, for it follows, apparently, as naturally as the night the day, that if the grammar police are not surveiling language they will police thought, which is the legitimate domain of historians, sociologists, scientists, and so on. Composition teachers who look on “content” as part of writing, and hence part of writing instruction, run the risk of being seen as illegally crossing the line and singled out as rogue cops.
However, Brodkey orients herself in a disruptive way by refusing to police student writers:
The rogues of one theory are another’s teachers, however, and I count myself among the composition teachers whose refusal to police students—in the name of something called tradition, standards, excellence, discipline, or language—is theoretically as well as practically warranted by poststructural/postmodern accounts of language and reality” (xiii).
To me, this indicates that Brodkey understood, at least after the fact, that her stances put the discipline of composition 1) In a conflictual relationship the status quo, and 2) In an orientation that Patricia Harkin later called her “non serviam” to the detractors who saw writing pedagogy as merely teaching students to “use language correctly” (284).
Other scholars who have published on the “Troubles at Texas,” have different interpretations: Mark Andrew Clark wrote that Brodkey’s syllabus took away “a student’s power to choose a topic that interests him or her” (273-74). Virginia Anderson argued that Brodkey wrongly assumed composition had rightful ownership over a public issue like freshman writing and thus “compromised her ability to manage the unconverted public” (456). Ryan Skinnell argues that the Battle of Texas reveals “the kinds of writing and pedagogy compositionists take as their intellectual domain are always already part of public conversations,” and that “scholars in composition studies need to actively foster a productive ethos for talking about writing in the public sphere” (144). However, I argue that if Brodkey would have collaborated in a more sustained way with her detractors, yes, perhaps the results might have been different. But Brodkey wasn’t interested in collaboration; she was first and foremost a disruptor. Why collaborate, Brodkey asked:
What resolutions would the campus have debated. ‘Resolved: Extremism in the defense of academic privilege is no vice?’ What would have been the point of these debates? To confirm that professors who know nothing about the theory, research, and practice of teaching composition are entitled to ‘their opinions?’ . . . Politicians debate. Faculty argue—in committees and meetings and in their publications” (Writing Permitted 186).
Brodkey was invested primarily in changing the social order. It’s not that she didn’t have a productive public ethos for discussing writing in the public sphere, or that she misjudged her ownership of composition—I believe that she knew exactly the stance she was taking, and she understood the seriousness of bringing poststructural theories of writing to bear on the required writing course at UT. And by prioritizing change over collaboration, Brodkey adopted a disruptive orientation and the results were thus different than if she would have adopted a more interventional (or collaborative) orientation.
Brodkey’s disruptive engagement also reveals how the results of disruptive orientations, while directly responsive to institutional and public culture, are often unheeded and unanticipated. After E306 was canceled the English faculty voted unanimously to adopt the E306 syllabus developed by its new chair James Kinneavy with zero votes against it. And just two years later, in 1993, the English department at UT Austin split into the Department of Rhetoric and Writing and the Department of English. In my opinion, the result of Brodkey’s disruptive orientation was not just the cancelation of the course, but the splintering of the department of English at UT.
In the department of Rhetoric and Writing at UT, “Writing about Difference” still stands as “Rhetoric 306: Rhetoric and Writing,” which is “grounded in the rhetorical analysis of ‘controversies,’ broadly defined.” A 2013 list by a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh contains 35 independent writing programs. I think it is safe to say that without the efforts of Linda Brodkey’s disruptive proposal to reform freshman English to teach argument through court cases on discrimination in the summer of 1990, the history of both the UT English department and that of freestanding writing departments across the country would be vastly different.
The lessons we can learn from this, I argue, are not that Brodkey was correct or even that she was wrong and should have acted differently. In my opinion, the lessons here are threefold:
- There is a difference between intervening in a conversation and disrupting the status quo surrounding it.
- We need to differentiate among the range of public orientations available to us to understand the nuanced ways knowledge can go or be public
- Brodkey complicates adages in the field that composition studies lacks public relevance
Differentiating between the range of public orientations available to compositionists wishing to be more responsive to public problems will help us understand the nuanced ways knowledge can go or be public beyond merely communicating directly to nonacademics through popular publications. Moreover, revisiting and rereading this moment in composition’s history complicates adages in the field that composition studies lacks significant public relevance, and it might also help us think more productively about current or future moments in the field where we can become even more responsive to the communities, institutions, and publics to which we belong.