Revolution Lullabye

May 5, 2009

Miller, Textual Carnivals

Miller, Susan. Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991.

Miller argues that the future of composition lies in a new “student tradition,” a serious uptake of the student in both pedagogy and research, recasting students not as passive, error-ridden children to be corrected and sanctioned but rather as people capable of authorship and of participating in public, empowering, real discourse (200). Rearticulating who students are will result in a rearticulation in who compositionists are. She traces the history of composition from its English and American origins, questioning the field’s move to place classical rhetoric or scientific process pedagogy at its foundation because neither encompasses the whole of what composition could be and both reinforce the hegemonic privileges of the elitist university structure. She looks at how the field – and those outside of it – have constructed students, instructors, and the institutional position of writing programs and their directors. Her history takes up theories of marginality, isolation, and institutional critique/critical theory (Foucault, Bourdieu, Althusser) in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy, and for her evidence, she draws on course catalogue descriptions of English departments over the 20th century, published histories of composition (Kitzhaber, Berlin), and the 129 responses from a survey sent to current compositionists. Throughout the book, she uses the metaphor of a carnival to describe composition: a sanctioned place where unrecognized, usually invisible, “low” discourse operates inside a “high” discourse, elite institution. She wants composition to become a place where this carnival can be subverted, where revolutionary, counterhegemonic work can take place, and in order to do that, composition must break away from the given, current structure of the university to begin questioning the social, cultural, and political forces that keep it in power.

Quotable Quotes

Why did composition choose to take up freshman composition as its center? – “We cage ourselves by identifying with the freshman enterprise” (76)

Process pedagogy “stabilized a field that originally was a loosely connected set of untheorized practices claiming origins in rhetorical theory, religious reading instruction, and the study of classical languages” (115). The research of process allowed for tenured positions, freedom from the huge teaching loads of comp.

need to see students as “actual people in actual writing situations” (199).

“‘Composition’ contains diverse, in fact disparate, activities. Its participants, its students, and most of its teachers are uncredentialed or ‘illegitimate’ denizens of the best-established and most legitimate institution. Composition appears to be cacophonous, anarchic, and trivial, but it nonetheless produces predictable and sustaining economic and social benefits. In a strong sense, it is like the Old Testament God and the Lacanian woman – always in a state of becoming, of reinventing itself to compensate for its perceived lack of fixed goals and methods. But it is nonetheless in many ways a ritualistic performance that does not change expect by substituting new rituals and codes for old ones” (12).

need to “take student writers to be active rather than passively defined citizens of discourse communities” (200).

Notable Notes

composition is a major national industry in which large amounts of money, labor, and time are invested. Huge amounts of students, teachers

process is not a reform of product. Both ignore the social, cultural, institutional consequences of text production, look at texts in isolation. Process became the new content of composition.

uses metaphors of prostitution, gypsies, extrafamilial, surplus, maids, unnamed to talk about the labor of the teaching of composition

uses metaphors of unwashed masses, labs, clinics, the body, stripping of voices, cleanliness, infants, history of 19th century immigration and English-only  to talk about how the first-year course labels and treats students

a lot more variety of writing courses taught in 1920s than later in the century, when comp was made all about freshman comp

rhetoric is an ill fit as the foundation of modern composition

section on “Bread” draws a connection between university funding and status of composition

conclusion – Chapter 6 – explains the contradiction in the current system between how composition is talked about (important, intellectual growth of students, importance of mastering academic discourse) and what happens in the classroom and university (low status of students & teachers, no real evidence of effectiveness of 1st year comp, little use of academic writing outside university.)

freshman comp stripped students of their individual voices and their access to public discourse (silly personalized themes) – “a national course in silence” (59)

difference between English and American cultural ideals in the development of literature and composition as university initiatives. American focus on individual, enterprise, citizenship, popular literacy, democracy, responsibility.


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