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  • Thinking Like a Program
  • Joseph Harris (bio)

For the last quarter century, much of the political and intellectual debate in our field has been driven by an opposition between literature and composition. In the terms of this binary, literature is associated with the perks and privileges of disciplinary status, while composition is defined by their absence. So literature professors are imagined as holding tenure-stream positions, with modest teaching loads, graduate seminars, book-lined offices, and release time for research, all of this so they can focus on either the monuments of high culture or the abstractions of critical theory, while writing instructors are pictured as overworked and underpaid, their hopes of promotion buried under the piles of student papers and interoffice memos on their metallic desks, holding endless hours of meetings with freshmen in shared offices or downstairs coffee shops, their very dedication to teaching the means of their professional undoing. Given such a contrast, it is easy to see why the goal of so many of us working in composition has been to gain the status of a discipline, to bring the sad women and men of the writing program out of the basement and into the upstairs offices and lounges of academic respectability.

I have few quarrels with such aims. If undergraduates are to learn to write critically and well, then we need to find ways to better support their teachers. But I am not persuaded that the best way to do so is through building a discipline. I have two reasons for thinking this.

First, I see little evidence that the disciplinary apparatus we have constructed for composition over the past twenty years—with our presses and [End Page 357] journals and conferences and graduate programs—has had much impact on who actually teaches first-year and basic writers across the country or on how they do it. To the contrary, recent surveys by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce show that U.S. universities and colleges are growing steadily more reliant on a contingent labor force of underpaid and underqualified adjuncts and graduate students to do the actual work of teaching composition ("Statement" 1998). In some cases, the disciplining of composition may even encourage such a reliance, as it is now possible for departments to imagine that they can solve the problem of first-year writing, or at least contain it, by hiring a writing expert or two to supervise the TAs and part-timers. The better the comp boss does her or his job, the less regular-rank faculty have to worry about what is going on in the writing program.

These are familiar issues and arguments, and I do not intend to say much more here about them. My point is simply that problems of gaining disciplinary status and of improving first-year teaching are not the same. Adding one more discipline to the already cluttered roster of the academy has not solved—and will not solve—the crisis we face in teaching first-year writing.

My second worry has to do with what happens to our own work as teachers and writers when we imagine ourselves as the members of a discipline. For the most part in our discussions, becoming a discipline has been cast as an obvious good for composition—as a way of claiming needed respect, authority, and security. Certainly all of those things are good, but I am not convinced that we cannot also gain them outside the familiar structure of disciplines and departments. As their very name suggests, disciplines are conservative structures—both politically and intellectually. The point of a discipline is to define turf, to limit what can be said, to regulate the work of its members. The obeisances of graduate school, the anxious uncertainties of landing a job and earning tenure, the petty jealousies of advancement and the arrogance of rank—these are the defining emotions of disciplinary life. Add to these the isolating effects of hyperspecialization, which Gerald Graff (1987) has suggested is the very logic of disciplinarity—as what begins as a single field of study divides and expands into an inchoate array of competing methods and interests—and you begin to form a...


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pp. 357-363
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