The need for scholarship on the “Design” and “Administration” of Rhetoric and Writing programs

Intrigued by the conversations I have had in classes regarding the titles of rhetoric and composition programs—should the term composition or rhetoric come first, for example—I wanted to look at the websites of programs other than my own to think about (1) why they are titled the way they are and (2) how these titles are clarified within the overarching program description on the home page. The site I focused on was California at Davis’ program, titled as follows: the Designated Emphasis (DE) in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies. The first thing I noticed was that this program is not listed as one within the English department (the only two graduate programs they have within English are the Ph.D. in Literature and the M.A. in Creative Writing).  The English department website is starkly different, in terms of design alone, and it has no links (that I could find anyway) to the DE in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies. In fact, within the DE, English is only listed (along with Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies, Education, Linguistics, and Performance Studies) as an “Affiliated Program”.

 Yet, at the same time, the English department is very much attached to the DE: all DE students need to be admitted to one of the six affiliated PhD programs (listed above). I found it interesting that these programs serve as the students’ home departments during the course of their graduate work (once enrolled in these programs, students apply to the DE). Indeed, professors within the DE come from all six affiliated programs—thus allowing a student housed within English, for example, to take a course on the relationship between sexuality and cultural studies—yet the DE does not belong to one of these programs (it is not housed in or labeled as a graduate program within the English Department).

Now I would like to be clear that I’m not arguing that Composition and Rhetoric programs should try to separate themselves from the English Department. As a student who initially intended to study Literature, I see great value in the relationship between Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition and Rhetoric at my institution. After taking multiple courses on the theory and practice of teaching—in which colleagues of mine from all three areas have studied together—I continue to see great value in how the insights of people from all three concentrations strengthen  how I, and we, teach composition courses. A conversation I would like to approach, however, is the extent to which we should be more explicitly studying—within programs that offer courses in both rhetoric and composition— the politics behind the structure of writing programs, administrative approaches to them, and how Rhetoric (as well as other fields of study such as Education or Cultural Studies) shape how we teach and interact with the greater university structure. The home page of the DE at Davis, for example, explicitly states that students will be introduced to the following four areas of research: “research methods and practices, rhetorics and/or literacies, writing pedagogy, and writing program design and administration” (emphasis mine).

Thinking about this title, I call to mind discussions with people in my program regarding its title (Should it be “Rhetoric and Composition”, “Composition and Rhetoric”, etc.). I also call to mind discussions—which also ultimately get into the design of our program— regarding how other departments perceive what we do in the composition classroom or within the English Department more broadly. Although these discussions (especially those regarding how the composition classroom is misinterpreted) may seem tangential, I think are anything but this, and I think we need to take them up more frequently—in specific seminars and in individual and collaborative research. I think it is more important to explicitly study—and spend more time doing so—the the “administration” and “design” of writing programs within the field of rhetoric and composition. And I think this involves aligning inserting ourselves—as scholars and teachers— more aggressively within the institutional politics surrounding the the changing structure of the university.

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