Revolution Lullabye

January 14, 2011

Ohmann, Foreword

Ohmann, Richard. “Foreword.” In The Politics of Writing Instruction Postsecondary. Eds. Bullock and Trimbur. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991. ix-xvi. Print.

Through juxtaposing his personal journey as a writing scholar and teacher during the civil rights and anti-war events of the 1960s and the social and political turn in composition in the late 1980s, Ohmann, in this foreword to the edited collection of The Politics of Writing Instruction Postsecondary argues for the politicizing of composition. Ohmann reflects on the essays included in the collection, which include arguments about the economics of writing instruction, the labor practices in college composition, the social justice work done in the writing classroom, and the professionalization of the field within the academy. Ohmann argues that writing is always value-laden and therefore political; what has happened in the field is that scholars have overtly pointed out how it is so. He points out the revolutionary rhetoric in the current comp/rhet literature and asks how such global revolution is possible while comp/rhet and writing instructors are part of a larger and entrenched capitalist, patriarchal, and hierarchal administrative structure in the university. He does contend that keeping the revolutionary spirit and ideas alive is an essential part of being intellectuals and teachers of rhetoric.

Notes and Quotes

In the 1960s, 1970s: “Writing instructors didn’t have to politicize the field, though some did: politics flowed into the classroom, and only then did we begin to ntoice that politics had always been there” (xi)

“Surely the politicization of writing instruction must be in part understood as the insurgency of an underpaid, overworked, and disrespectd occupational group” (xi)

“With professionalization came more organizations, more meetings, more seminars, more journals – an arena within which the writing instructoriate could consolidate¬†its anger as well as share discoveries about rhetoric” (xi)

May 6, 2009

Ohmann, English in America

Ohmann, Richard. English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1976.

This educational critique that focuses on higher education English departments, arguing that they are implicit in forwarding the capitalist, military, industrial agendas of the institutions in power (government, military, big business.) Ohmann argues against New Criticism for a return to the humanist, moralistic study of literature, one grounded in people and culture, not science. English departments, he claims, act to sort and sanction undergraduate and graduate students, assimilating them into an elite class. He draws his critique from an economic history of American industry (and its effect on education) and by looking at the MLA organization, the structure of English departments, freshman composition textbooks, the AP system, and institutional writings like The Pentagon Papers. His critique is profoundly affected by the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, and the students’ rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and he wants English departments to adopt Marxist, revolutionary agendas, to shed their apolitical stance and work for societal change.

Quotable Quotes

“Ther is just no sense in pondering the function of literature without relating it to the actual society that uses it, to the centers of power within that society, and to the institutions that mediate between literature and people. In other words, the function of literature and the role of English teachers cannot be understood except within the context of a given society and politics” (303) – texts do not exist and cannot be understood in isolation

“Meetings and memoranda are main instruments in planning, prime media of discourse in a complicated technological society” (191)

Composition arose “when the modern university was being grafted onto the old aristocratic college” (134).

“writing was no longer mainly a private and public art, but a tool of production and management” (93).

“I found it harder to believe that Humanity was being served well by the academic humanities, as our official dogma held, or that the professional apparatus we had invented was a rational structure and not a Rube Goldberg machine” (5)

Notable Notes

wants what is done by English departments and professors to matter, not just be contained in some specialist world that doesn’t communicate with reality.

looks at composition and its connection with gatekeeping. Chapter by Wallace Douglas about the Boylston Professorship at Harvard – move from classical, rhetoric as art to training for the professions, a hurdle to overcome

problem with emphasis on apolitical, childish, decontextualized, solitary, individual, private themes and attitudes towards students in freshman comp – we need to look at what kinds of writing actually are written, valued, and enact policy in the world, like the memos of the Pentagon Papers.

Pentagon Papers Рthe memos set an official argument, framed action, was a point (evidence) for future reference. THe memo kept policy makers in a particular frame of mind, following the warrants of the genre because the purpose behind it, the human costs of war, were never questioned or considered.  Connection to teaching professional writing, ethics

what does it mean to be a professional? independence, jurisdiction to allow others in, to train, assertion that your knowledge is special, needed, and only attained through long training in schools

industrial society values are tied up in the history of English and comp: efficiency, centralization, measurement, capitalism, management (261)

the shift to the knowledge economy raised the importance of universities to corporations, the college degree became the mark of socialization and training

professional, intellectual choices are political choices (304-305)

January 23, 2009

Ohmann, “Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language”

Ohmann, Richard. “Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language.” In The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook. 3rd ed. 310-318.

Ohmann’s essay argues against the writing handbook maxim (specifically Strunk & White) repeated in his title, claiming that the move to push students to replace abstract words and phrases with specific, often sensory details, limits their ability to tackle complex, abstract ideas, which require students to operate in generalities. Students may not easily or clearly write in abstractions, Ohmann writes, but steering them away from this difficult, intelligent work in the writing classroom deprives them of the chance to mature as analytical, abstract thinkers and writers. Ohmann uses examples from three popular current writing handbooks (all published in 1978), pointing out five common consequences of asking students to load their writing with specific adjectives and nouns: ahistoricism (emphasis on the present moment), empiricism (reliance on sensory information), fragmentation (ignorance of social and historical context or relationships), solipism (emphasis on the individual writer’s feelings and experiences), and denial of conflict (absence of questioning or things left up to the reader’s interpretation.)

Quotable Quotes

The maxim to use definite, specific, and concrete language will “push the student writer always to toward the langauge that most nearly reproduces the immediate experience and away from the language that might be used to understand it, transform it, and relate it to everything else” (317).

A student who takes the maxim to the extreme “will lose the thread of any analysis in a barrage of sensory impressions, irrelevant details, and personalized or random responses” (314).

“Abstract nouns refer to the world in a way quite different from concrete nouns” (315) They form chains of relationships in meaning

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