May 3, 2008

Who Says/What Says

Filed under: WPA,writing — jrice @ 8:10 pm

With amusement, I spent some time today reading through WPA-L posts on its archive. The threads that interest me: “Graff doesn’t get it very well” (both parts) and “Re:Graff & Birkenstein reply.” The WPA-L community is upset with a Graff and Birkenstein essay published in the MLA newsletter and one published in the Chronicle that discuss their textbook They Say/I Say and their formulaic approach to teaching argument.

What amuses me is to see compositionists accuse two other academics of the crime of teaching formulas.
Almost every composition textbook is formulaic. Many of these critics, many of whom are WPAs, teach from textbooks, or who have written textbooks, participate in formulaic pedagogies all the time. How do composition textbooks teach argument? Which essays are reprinted from book to book? Which images? How is research taught? What about grammar? How many composition textbooks ask students “What do you think about…” and then follow up with “this image,” “this idea,” “this essay.” The “what do you think/how do you think” question is one of the most formulaic of composition textbook pedagogy. How many textbooks teach the formulaic “clear and coherent” directive for writing? How many textbooks ask students to “be restrictive” when they come up with the most formulaic of all composition approaches to writing, the topic sentence?  How many textbooks (and teachers) adopt the formulaic phrase “multimodal” as if it is not merely a formulaic idea regarding a vague understanding of technology? And critical thinking with its call for “liberation” at the hands of the enlightened teacher? Pure formula. Formulas? Please. Composition uses formulas all the time.

I often get paid to review composition textbooks, and a question in the typical survey that always perplexes me is the one that ask how this book differs from others on the market (or how its approach to X differs). I don’t see any differences in the many books I review. They almost all teach a pedagogy, method of research, understanding of argument, understanding of invention, etc. that resembles (more or less) the kinds of banal teaching found in James McCrimmon’s 1963 Writing with a Purpose. Composition textbooks excel at the formula.

So what’s the deal here? Why are these folks so upset with, of all people, Gerald Graff? Graff is hardly an enemy of composition studies. Reading most of the listserv responses – many of which are very bad readings of Graff’s work (either his textbook, his Chronicle piece, or his scholarship) -
I started asking myself: Do these folks really think they, and whatever pedagogy they profess, is beyond the same kinds of critiques? Are these WPAs who make their instructors all teach from the same textbook or teach the same assignments not guilty of formulaic pedagogy? Or what about those “pioneers” or “veterans” of the field who often (at least when I was a member of the listserv) respond to issues of technology with formulaic thinking (“We don’t have time,” “It’s not writing if it uses images, video…” “I can’t do that; I’m not a computer geek”)?

The responses, in short, are quite silly. Composition needs to get a grip on itself, realize that it can handle Chronicle pieces like Graff’s (which are hardly critical of composition), and finally admit to its own shortcomings.  Formulas? Listen. Graff and Birkenstein are correct when they write: “What critics of the five-paragraph model should be objecting to is not that it is a formula, but that it is a weak formula, one that produces arguments that are disengaged and decontextualized, severed from any social mission or context.” I may add that I find their book guilty of similar problems, but as a WPA I don’t object to instructors using it. It’s hardly worse than Everything is an Argument (with its new formulaic glossy images), Seeing & Writing, Picturing Texts, Signs of Life, The World is a Text, and so on. I just don’t find textbooks very useful in general unless an instructor wants a formula.

Still, we all use formulas, as Graff and Birkenstein remind us in their piece. Rhetoric is based on formulas (I can never remember all the names or formulas; I do remember the endless lists…if needed, I consult the list). Many times, in this space, I play with my own formula of juxtaposition in the hope that I might tease out ideas from the mix of personal moments, popular culture, temporal moves, and rhetoric. I would only extend Graff and Birkenstein’s statement of “weak formula” to that of almost every single composition textbook I’ve read, or every composition program that standardizes its pedagogy to the point of everyone following the same syllabus, textbook, approach, and so on. Formulas? My goodness. Composition is awash with weak formulas.


  1. Amen.

    I’ve only been reading the discussion peripherally, but right away, the irony of it was almost overwhelming. Not all of Graff’s remarks resonate particularly well for me, but the overreaction (and jokey violence) was something to behold.

    On the other hand, I wish that we got to advertise our books in Chronicle feature articles and the MLA Newsletter, too. That wouldn’t hurt.


    Comment by collin — May 3, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

  2. I realized the other day that a CCCC had come and gone without WPA-l going through it’s annual flurry of “we hate the literature folk and how dare they consider becoming one of us.” I was thinking how nice it was to have skipped that ritual.

    I could go on at length about how this ritual performance, as a form of social memory, is an enactment of group identity. And, I could suggest that it is an attempt to shape future direction of said group, which is one of the primary functions of social memory. Rather than do that, I’ll note that as ritual, the whole thread is highly formulaic.

    Comment by John — May 4, 2008 @ 12:24 am

  3. true, true, everything here. but, the material effects of conversations like the one on wpa-l are real; the conversation emerges from these material effects. people are trying to make sense of troubling power differentials, and yes, we do so in ritual performances that likely reproduce the social structures we hope to critque and reshape. i don’t know. i’m struggling on my campus w/ many of these issues, and, very *very simply, it’s nice to know i’m not alone.

    Comment by bonnie — May 4, 2008 @ 9:56 am

  4. I’ve been wondering this: when are formulas patterns to follow in order to make something know-able by others, and when do they (and ritual) become, well, formulaic? I think I know the answer to that, and Jeff, your point about the five paragraph essay helps me see what it is that has been troubling me about the Graff WPA-L discussion, as I haven’t had time to really read the discussion deeply, but have been fascinated with the energy and attention others are bringing to it. I think it’s great that Bonnie and others are articulating their concerns expecially because, as she points out, the issue exists on real-world campuses–not just electronically and in print. My sense has been that the conversation has grown into one much larger than perhaps was intended. And I’m not certain how much sense I’m making here and now, so I look forward to reading the archives in a month–when the semester is behind me.

    Comment by joanna — May 4, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  5. Joanna: I don’t think we can draw a simple line between formula and ritual as pattern for making know-able and formula and ritual as “formulaic.” In fact, I want to say that this is an artificial binary. In seeking to privilege one over the other, we to realize that the “formulaic” can be and often is a pattern for making something know-able to ourselves and to others. We’re far too down on the formulaic because we’re still all far too beholden to Romantic ideology and its myth cult of originality even if we now believe that invention is a social act.

    Comment by John — May 4, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

  6. “when are formulas patterns to follow in order to make something know-able by others, and when do they (and ritual) become, well, formulaic?”

    Many of the Graff critics act as if the field they are in is not dependent on formulas in order to run. The WPA profession is, of course, dependent on formulas. Whether they are bad or good is contextual, but at the least, we need only flip through the endless stream of textbooks, some written by WPA-L participants, to see the “formulaic” at work. The textbook industry is formulaic. Why that is belongs to a larger discussion of labor and WPA practices.

    I do not see Graff’s article as a “power” move. The knee jerk responses make it out to be one, but I didn’t see any evidence in his plug for his textbook that he was belittling composition. My own post, written by me, a compositionist, is far more belittling of the discipline I am a member of.

    Comment by jrice — May 4, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  7. Jeff, i’m not sure that i, for one, wanted to (or did) read the piece as an *intentional* power move, but, um, it’s a power move. this post is a power move; it’s all power moves, or in Keith Johnstone’s performance terms, “status moves.” and, in a way, Graff has the conch shell (cheesy, i know, but there you go; this is exhausting).

    whatever Graff’s intentions, i and others received his message as probelmatic because of the ritual conditions under which we did so — the MLA president writing in that major forum with such authority, nearly suggesting, “you fools! it’s all so simple!” . . . and at the end of a semester, when everyone is struggling and wondering what went wrong? or how they can better do the work? . . . we heard Graff from our various positions — situated in our understanding/experience of Comp struggles (generally and, likely, as is the case for me personally just now, locally), and also in the context of our memories regarding admittedly tired/tiring but still quite complicated conflicts with formulae. of course we use formulae, but the pronounce it so grandly and create that strawman of us compositionists who do not quickly and easily dismiss formulae even if we find their wholesale use problematic . . . too much.

    i don’t know. maybe it’s all kairos. the timing. the sweeping sense of “we’ve got it!” and here is our gift to you . . . now, as you struggle to discover a better way . . .

    Comment by bonnie — May 4, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

  8. I think the conversation on WPA-L is a good example of how sometimes these things on mailing lists– blogs too, I suppose, but particularly busy lists– really just “get away” from the conversation or even the topic, and sometimes onto a more interesting topic. I agree that there was a lot of kettle calling black there for trashing Graff and Birkenstein for writing a textbook that has formulas. But I do think there often is a “we said/they said” dynamic in English departments between the comp/rhet people and the lit people.

    So in that sense, I agree with Bonnie. I’m not sure it is an intentional power move, but I do think it is still a power movie.

    Comment by Steven D. Krause — May 5, 2008 @ 10:17 pm

  9. “, but I do think it is still a power movie.”

    Austin Powers?

    Comment by jrice — May 6, 2008 @ 7:03 am

  10. Wow, what an excellent typo!

    Anyway, maybe a better way of putting it, to paraphrase what Alex Reid wrote on his blog: there are two conversations going on here. One has to do with this particular article, and one has to do with the divide between comp/rhet and literary studies. I care a lot more about the second of these issues since that’s a tension that actually impacts my work-a-day world.

    Comment by Steven D. Krause — May 6, 2008 @ 8:30 am

  11. J,

    yes, a groovy power movie ;)

    Comment by bonnie — May 7, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

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