The Counterpublic Function of Composition

Chapter one calls for the field to move beyond an outdated model of public engagement that assumes a public intellectual works in isolation to bestow disciplinary knowledge in layman’s terms to nonacademic audiences in the form of popular publications. Drawing from public sphere theory, which reminds us that publics are multiple, diverse, constituted through the circulation of discourse, and include publics often counter to dominant publics, this chapter argues that academics who wish to confront/bridge/connect audiences beyond the academy about issues related to writing studies approach public engagement as a strategic deployment of disciplinary expertise along a range of public stances or orientations that exploit what Farmer calls the “counterpublic function” of composition. Borrowing from Kenneth Burke, who defined orientation as “a bundle of judgments as to how things were, how they are, and how they may be” (Permanence and Change 14), and extending Frank Farmer’s metaphor of the counterpublic bricoleur, which allows, he argues, compositionists to function in counterpublic ways by considering the repertoire of uses that allow them to access larger publics, I argue that we can think of public engagement along three overlapping orientations: agitation, intervention, and disruption. Agitation is critique of the status quo. Intervention is when an individual or group partnering with members of the status quo. Disruption is a usurping the status quo entirely. Each orientation comes with its own habits, risks, rewards, and potential outcomes, and taken together, can add to a growing repertoire of engagement practices. Reconceptualizing the ways writing studies specialists engage in public arguments about writing also complicates adages in the field about writing studies’ lack of public relevance and expands the ways practitioners themselves make more meaningful, sustained, and radically hopeful engagements into public issues relevant to the field.





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