Revolution Lullabye

February 19, 2009

Horner, Terms of Work for Composition

Horner, Bruce. Terms of Work for Composition: A Materialist Critique. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000.

Horner uses a materialist lens to examine many of the debates in the field of composition and rhetoric, ranging from the purpose of service-learning courses to whether or not the field should professionalize to how we regard students and their writing, focusing his critique on six “key terms”: work, students, politics, academic, traditional, and writing. The volume is very circular (Horner announces in introduction that the reader can read through the chapters in any order they see fit), but each chapter (organized around one of the key terms) takes up the debates and Horner’s perspective in a slightly different way. Horner’s two main arguments throughout the text are calls to the field at large. First, he argues that the work done in composition is commodified (seen as a product that can be acquired and exchanged), and this commodification, which occurs at all levels, from the classroom to the university to the outside world, allows us to think of our work and the issues we deal with as abstractions rather than connected to material conditions. Second, that abstract view allows us to cede control of our work to faceless systems and institutions, like their effects are inevitable, rather than regarding and critiquing our decisions as conscious choices. Horner challenges the field to ground our scholarship, pedagogy, and service in the material, social, and historical conditions of the local places we work in.

Quotable Quotes

Intellectual work: “This subordiniation and subsumption of the work of teaching to the production of written texts constitute the playing out at the site of Composition the contradictions in more general conceptions of work. These contradictions are manifested in the distinction between intellectual and non-intellectual labor and in the commodification of intellectual labor” (2).

He argues for “representing students above all else workers, working on themselves, Composition, the academy, and the social generally” (35).

“Our distrust of work identified with these terms [academic and traditional], like our trust in work that appears ‘progressive,’ may ay more about the dematerialized ways in which we conceive of them than about the actual work accomplished under such rubrics” (103).

Notable Notes

see tradition not as a fixed body of knowledge but something dynamic, always negotiated, a foundation that is ever-changing and re-understanding knowledge

professionalization of composition can lead to an abandonment of the consideration of the material conditions of our work

there is a problem with the delegitimization of academic writing in the pursuit of all things “real world.” Is academia not in the real world? What does that say about our work?  There is materiality in all writing. Students’ academic writing is not inauthentic.

we always look at what students lack, look to their work to gives us clues to their being. Instead of seeing students as the result of pressures and factors being worked on, see them as workers.

our work as compositionists is tied up in our students’ work

extracurriculum – students outside the classroom work is “wholly unrecognized” and not considered intellectual work (117)


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