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August 2011

A Reversal of Influence: How Composition Studies Might Transform the 'Institution' of Cultural Studies

From my 2004 cccc's presentation, "A Reversal of Influence: How Composition Studies Might Transform the 'Institution' of Cultural Studies"

Although the relationship between cultural studies and composition is configured differently in every department, more often than not, cultural studies takes on the institutional clout of literary studies/theory, while composition studies is left to struggle against the status-quo perceptions of its remedial functions -- even when composition incorporates cultural studies approaches.  (see Miller, Textual Carnivals)  And although many compositionists simultaneously work from within cultural studies paradigms in both their teaching and research, cultural studies as a disciplinary entity is, nonetheless, often imagined as a 'rigorous' specialization set apart from the more 'menial' labor of teaching composition courses.  Such an institutional hierarchy persists in many English departments, frequently regardless of how many composition theorists practice cultural studies (e.g., James Berlin & Michael Vivion's Cultural Studies in the English Classroom), and this presumption about where cultural studies institutionally resides inevitably impacts how composition studies is thought of in relationship to cultural studies, i.e., as a mere recipient of cultural studies' theories.  Michael Berube has taken note of this problem in his book The Employment of English. (87)  However, Berube's proposed alternative is actually not all that 'new' since composition studies has sought, in many ways, to make cultural theory relevant and useful to undergraduates over the past decade.  Indeed, I would argue that the specialization of cultural studies and its institutionalization in a manner resembling literary studies traditions (see Sosnoski, Token Professionals) has occluded how the various appropriations of cultural studies within composition studies might restore relevance to the field of cultural studies.

"Similar to how Susan Miller proposed in 1991 that composition possesses a transgressive potential in relationship to literary studies (i.e., the carnivalesque of the 'non-literary'),  I am proposing that a transgressive potential exists in relationship to cultural studies insofar as composition studies often invites students to envision 'canonical' cultural studies texts in dialogue with their lived experience.   For as much as experiential writing has been occasionally disparaged  by critiques of expressivism, experiential writing deployed within cultural studies-oriented composition classrooms potentially teaches us how cultural studies texts actually function (or matter) for students to the extent that students are invited to articulate, through writing assignments, how they comprehend the explanatory powers of cultural theory in relationship to their lives.  In this sense, composition studies has developed an understanding of cultural studies that constitutes an implicit critique of how cultural studies has been institutionalized in many English courses, most especially in regards to the problem of its limited effects beyond the classroom as a consequence of encouraging reverence and specialization.  This presentation will explore how composition studies' understandings of cultural studies teaching might transform the way cultural studies has become entrenched as a specialization in English studies.   How might we break down the artificial hierarchy between composition studies and cultural studies so that composition studies might be granted the status to interrogate how cultural studies is practiced within English departments (rather than perceived as merely influenced by cultural studies)?   How might composition studies overcome its marginalized status so as to be seen as offering a viable critique of and alternative to the institutionalization of cultural studies?"