Wednesday, January 04, 2017

On doing writing but not composition

I wrote this on this bus this morning, inspired by Frederik DeBoer's piece " We Don't, In Fact, Know What Works in Composition.

While a large portion of my teaching and research involves the teaching, learning, and practice of academic writing (much of it at the undergraduate level), I do not or cannot primarily consider myself a “compositionist.” There are a two major reasons for this that I can discern:

1)    My academic training. I have an undergraduate degree in English literature and “creative” writing, and an MA in English, but after that I made a fairly clean break with “English” as a discipline. (I’ve talked about thisbefore, but like many people who plant their flag in a vague territory called “writing,” I’m obsessed with disciplinarity.) Even while I was in my MA program, I aligned myself mainly with applied linguists even as I enjoyed reading and writing things for more rhetoric and composition oriented courses. Doing a PhD in language and literacy education and becoming firmly ensconced in the world of scholarly applied linguistics and English language teaching (even though, again, I primarily have taught writing across my career) has made me feel more acutely the gap between what I know about and what people who work in English departments know about. I went to MLA precisely one time, and even though there were people whose work I’ve read and who you could say are somewhat “in my field” there, overall I felt alienated and bemused. I will attend my first CCCC this year; I have a feeling I’ll feel a little more at home there, but not as much as I would at AAAL, TESOL, or (especially) SSLW. I commented at SSLW two years ago that identifying as a second language writing scholar actually makes me feel more confident about being able to fall in with various crews at different conferences. I don’t know if I feel equally at home in all the conferences I go to, but I could imagine continuing to rotate between, say, AAAL, TESOL, CCCC, and SSLW (with a side of IAWE) for some time without feeling too out of place. (The ability to do this is probably largely thanks to Paul Matsuda, who is active in all those organizations, as far as I know. Matsuda is probably an unconscious model for many young L2 writing scholars, his prolific output and late-night hours notwithstanding.)

2)    My location in Canada. I’m only now, after 6 years of PhDing at UBC and 1 1/2 years into my first job at a Canadian university, coming to terms with the blessing (not curse) of working on writing in the Canadian milieu. At first I was frustrated that in Canada there is not much of a tradition of “college writing” in the way there is in the US, and that scholarship from Canadian universities is rarely recognized by those in the US who teach writing to university students. However, as I start to take another look at US-based composition studies – which I remember thinking was remarkably myopic and US-focused, even when I was an MA student 10 years ago – I’m thankful that I can do “writing stuff” in Canada without getting mired in the kinds of political and cultural issues that US composition does. Not that they don’t do good or interesting work – many of them do – but many (not all) US comp teachers, when I encounter them at conferences, seem to have an interest in doing something that doesn't look all that much like the work I’ve been doing at Canadian universities for the last 8 years. That said, work on academic writing in Canada is – or can be – a small community under a big tent. There are people who do political and cultural studies work under this tent, and there are teachers of technical writing, and people who run writing centers, and applied linguistics, and so on. It’s my hope – through my recently begun co-editorship of the Canadian Journal for Studies in Discourse& Writing/Redactologie—to bring as many people under this tent together as possible. I don’t know what this means for our relationship to US composition – and I’m reluctant to use a word like “our” there or to even suggest that I know what it would mean for “Canada” and “America” to have a “relationship” in this field – but I hope to be able to play some part in building a small but broad community of scholars who care about, among other things, writing in higher education.