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  • The Crisis of CompositionTeaching and Resistance in the Neoliberal Era
  • Phillip Goodwin (bio)
Composition in the Age of Austerity. Edited by Nancy Welch and Tony Scott. Utah State University Press, 2016. 235 pages.

Composition in the Age of Austerity takes stock of the current state of composition studies and deftly identifies how neoliberal political economies shape programs, inform writing instruction, and change pedagogical commitments. With an implied understanding that austerity is not likely to pass soon, this book offers more than a critique of current circumstances; it offers possibilities for resistance and alternative trajectories for the future of composition in a neoliberal era.

The collection is situated within a broader trend of scholarship that includes The University in Ruins (Readings 1996), Academic Capitalism and the New Economy (Slaughter and Rhodes 2004), and The Unmaking of the Public University (Newfield 2008). However, as editors Nancy Welch and Tony Scott write in the introduction, austerity is “nothing new to this field” (5). They recognize that the challenges of the corporate university have been present in composition and have been part of its scholarship for some time. This book serves as an introduction to this area of scholarship and advances critiques that “create space and impetus” (6) for confronting the forces of austerity. As such, the collection will be useful for scholars and teachers whose [End Page 351] intellectual and emotional work is already invested in this area of study and for those who seek to better understand the pressures and obstacles currently facing both composition studies and the university.

Welch and Scott’s introduction offers a succinct and accessible critical vocabulary for developing a collective response to the current crisis of austerity. They describe neoliberalism as the “privatization and the economization of public services” (7) and the privileging of the market and market logics in decision-making processes. They describe austerity as a long-term policy “to reduce budget deficits and cut programs” (9) that has relied on “wage freezes, staff cuts, program retrenchment, [and] class size increases” (9). They also document how the rhetoric of accountability has led to reforms that reorganize colleges and universities to “be responsive to private … interests and needs” (10).

The collection is arranged into three parts: “Neoliberal Deformations,” “Composition in an Austere World,” and “Composition at the Crossroads.” Part 1 accounts for the political economic pressures of neoliberalism that are changing composition studies. The chapters in this part identify how corporate reforms in education necessarily invest new values and interests in the discipline and alter our pedagogies and pedagogical commitments. Instead of instruction that focuses on the growth of the student and imagines writing as a social act that produces knowledge within a community, instruction is individualistic and task oriented and evaluates students on their ability to transmit information through writing.

The first two chapters focus on how assessment and learning outcomes are informed by market ideology—changing not only the perceived purposes for writing but also how we teach writing. Chris Gallagher’s “Our Trojan Horse” argues that the managerial and instrumental logics of outcomes-based assessment open the door to competency-based education. He explains this is an individualized approach to education in which “students amass credentials through demonstrated competency”; for Gallagher, this approach reduces writing to a “discrete, commodified, vocational skill” and positions students as “workers-in-training” (22). The result is that students are denied the opportunity to experience a writing community in which writing is developed socially and over time.

Deborah Mutnick picks up where Gallagher’s chapter leaves off by sketching the rise and influence of political economic forces that produce assessment and accountability regimes (like those that privilege competency-based education). Though most of the assessment and accountability movement focuses on K–12 education, Mutnick recognizes a trickle-up effect in [End Page 352] which higher education reform calls for similar kinds of accountability. Mutnick argues that the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act is the “primary driver” (37) of education reform and has “fomented calls for increased accountability” (37). As a result, a dizzying web of “private donors, lobbyists, political offices, and transnational publishing companies” (41) with deep roots in corporate America have become involved in K...


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pp. 351-358
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