My dissertation, How Writing Goes Public: Agitation, Intervention, and Disruption in Public Arguments about Writing, analyzes how relationships between writing studies practitioners and various publics are created and sustained through rhetorical practices. While the general public clearly cares about issues in writing and writing instruction, many in our field lament that the work of writing studies scholars is rarely relevant to those public discussions (Hesse, Faigley Butler). Thus my dissertation analyzes how the field of rhetoric and composition responds when arguments about writing go public.
In Chapter one, I define public as existence of multiple and dynamic publics constituted by the interaction and circulation of discourse (Hauser, Warner), and engagement as practices that connect/bridge/confront different communities (Flower, Glass and Fitzgerald), I argue that writing studies practitioners engage in public debates about writing across three overlapping categories: agitation, intervention, and disruption. Agitational engagement is sustained advocacy for change, either through day-to-day pedagogical endeavors, solidarity with disempowered groups, or through more traditional “public” outlets like local or national publications. Interventional engagement is a sustained collaboration with those in power (“the establishment”) toward what Linda Flower calls a “mutual goal of inquiry.” Disruptive engagement is an effort to upend the status quo and change the public narrative entirely. These three orientations suggest that when academics engage in public arguments about writing, they draw from a rhetorical repertoire of potential stances that aren’t public in the sense of communicating to a unified social whole (the public), but public in the sense that it engages by connecting/confronting/bridging different kinds of groups and stakeholders through the interaction and circulation of texts and ideas. Differentiating between the different stances available to writing studies practitioners, I argue, pushes the concept of public engagement beyond the notion that going public is merely producing readable scholarship for nonacademic audiences.
Against this theoretical backdrop, I highlight three key moments in the field’s past, present, and encroaching future where writing studies practitioners have adopted these stances in varying degrees. Chapter two analyzes Linda Brodkey’s disruptive freshman writing course redesign at the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 1990. Chapter three analyzes the field’s multi-organizational intervention into the Common Core State Standards Initiative in 2009. Chapter four analyses speculative debates about impact of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in writing classrooms. Influenced by the work of Paula Mathieu, Frank Farmer, and Michael Warner, I show how the discursive themes that emerged from these three moments suggest a new theory for public engagement, one that accounts for the nuanced ways knowledge can go or be public and also for the existence of multiple and dynamic publics.
In the context of the public turn in composition, as well as the looming shadow of legitimization over the field, reconceptualizing the ways academics engage in public arguments about writing is a unique contribution to public turn scholarship in that it positions writing studies practitioners to make more meaningful, sustained, and radically hopeful engagements into public issues relevant to the field. Without viable ways to infiltrate, engage, and respond to public debates about writing, the field delivers itself, as Peter Mortensen warns, “to mere spectatorship in national, regional—and, most importantly, local—struggles over what counts as literacy and who should have opportunities to attain it” (183). Ultimately, my project reveals the complex ways scholars bridge/confront/connect different publics and also complicate adages in the field about writing studies’ lack of public relevance. Ultimately, I argue that public engagement can bring the disciplinary knowledge of writing studies to bear on immediate problems in our communities in addition to reinforcing and reclaiming the democratic mission of the university.