Connors' disclaimer about the following note

A Note from Robert Connors about Rhetoric and English Departments



From rjc4@HOPPER.UNH.EDU Mon Jun 24 08:28:04 1996
Date: Fri, 21 Jun 1996 13:20:30 -0400
From: Robert J Connors
Reply to: Writing Program Administration
To: Multiple recipients of list WPA-L
Subject: Re: accommodating rhet/comp grad work

Whenever this thread comes up--and it has come up in some form every few years on every list I've been on--it forces me back again not to divorce analogies, which are personal and individual, but to analogies of colonization and secession, which are economic and political. Looking back at the history of English departments as I have done, it is quite clear that the marginalization of composition and rhetoric in English departments, which began about a century ago, was based, finally, on simple force majeure, on weight of numbers. Philologists created departmental structures based around a hierarchy that demanded the doctorate to ascend. Literary scholars could move from study of language to study of the works in which textual language was found slowly, gradually, and by 1900 dissertations that were mostly "critical" (as opposed to "scholarly") were being allowed. Rhetoricians, coming from a non-Germanic tradition, could not jump on the philology bandwagon and were soon left in the dust as the last generation of brilliant composition amateurs (Wendell, Hill, Day, Hart) left the field and died off. They did not, could not, create younger colleagues through the mechanism of the PhD, and so comp and rhetoric langushed without much scholarly activity and without an institutional base to create it. Results we all know.

With philology gradually spun off into ever-more-recondite and specialized versions of linguistic study, English was left in the hands of an ever- more-aestheticized literary and scholarly/critical establishment, which saw two primary tasks as its mission: 1.) the scholarly task of establishing and refining the necessary literary texts; 2.) the critical task of interpreting those texts for the public.

The first was scholarly work descended from the Germanic heritage, and it was still pretty current when I got to grad school 21 years ago. We were all shown the dusty Hinman collator in the library basement and instructed in the details of textual scholarship, comparative dating, the methodologies of edition creation, etc. I may have been at the wrong schools since 1980, but it's my impression that this sort of textual scholarship was become rather rare and specialized. When was the last time you saw a colleague on the way to use a Hinman collator? The fact gradually came to be that the best texts of the most agreed-on authors were established, and once the work was done, it did not need doing over. There are still a few of the old gigantic text-establishment projects going on, multi-decade dinosaurs meant to establish the definitive version of every word Dryden or Milton ever wrote, but they have become rarer. Such projects gradually came to be appear to be art for art's sake, and funding got hard to find.

The second task, the critical project, had already come to the fore by 1975, and it is this project with which we usually associate "lit people" in English departments. Please note that by "the critical project" I *don't* mean the creation of "critical theorists" or "theory people." I mean, rather, the choice of professional specialization in the background and interpretation of a period and, usually, an author, by literature PhDs. (Such period and author specialists often distrust "theory people," as a matter of fact, as flashy but ungrounded.) These specialists, who at their best are brilliant commanders of whole cultural sweeps and moments and at their worst are narrow pedants "coughing in ink," as Yeats puts it, were and are the normal scientists of literary study. They had while I was in graduate school, and seem still to have, weight of numbers. Though their "tradition," such as it was, does not extend back more than a century, they consider themselves the heirs of Aristotle and Longinus. The literary PhD has elements of pristhood and of warriorhood in it that we cannot discount. The doctoral lineage has given many of them a sort of innocent smugness, a sense of entitlement as the equestrian class of the English department. And, when secession talk or revolt-of-the-masses talk like the sort we are hearing over the last few years begins, they can get angry. Their writ has run a long way, and it's not just because they've been lucky.

These are the heirs, after all, of the people who killed the MLA Pedagogical Section, who set up the composition sweatshops that drove our own forebears from the field in droves or relegated them to horrific overloads and made scholarship impossible. These are the heirs of the literary specialists who paid writing teachers less than any other college teachers, who hired large numbers of women to teach because they *could* pay women less, who fought Fred Newton Scott to his death, killed his program a year after his retirement, refused to hire his doctoral students or made them leave their chosen fields of rhetoric to teach literature or journalism, referred to writing teachers as "unhappy dregs." These are, still alive, the very people who would not accept Janet Emig's dissertation, who denied Janice Lauer and Susan Miller tenure, who would not allow Tori Haring-Smith to use any composition publications when she came up for tenure.

These are, in other words, the English. And we are the Irish, or the Indians, or the Americans. Or perhaps the Canadians, or the Scots, or the Welsh. We have been colonized and had our valuable raw materials taken--have, indeed, mined and harvested and loaded them onto ships ourselves--for this past nine decades. Can we tear down the white man's house with the white man's tools--the doctorate? Time will tell, won't it?

The preceding emotional outburst brought to you by Emotional Id PLC, dependable producers of dark interpretations for forty-four years.

Bob Connors