When I first began the history project that would serve as a foundation for my dissertation, I was told by a faculty member that I would be entering a "minefield." As much as I accepted this precaution, I forged ahead, certain that I had a story to tell about the displaced potential of the D.A. program. I had surveyed practically all of the dissertations from the D.A. era of the program, and I saw patterns in the ideas and issues being privileged in those dissertations. Many of the D.A.'ers were creative writers who had come to the program to prepare to be university teachers of creative writing, only to find a program that offered an array of theoretical courses that also prepared them to be theorists of the institutional terrains in which they would be practicing creative writing. Such institutional terrains in which creative writing and composition teaching tended to be marginalized pursuits in many universities, undercompensated and considered lower on the hierarchy than the pursuits of literary theory and literary studies courses. However, at Albany, during the D.A., some of the students were being prepared to confront the challenges these conditions offered; they were being prepared to do battle with the presumptions of what constituted the important work of English Studies. Not only were they being prepared to do battle, but they were encouraged to construct their own visions of the field of English Studies, particularly one in which teaching was privileged over scholarship -- since many of the D.A.'ers were headed towards liberal arts colleges to teach writing. And their visions were radical ones in which writing served as a foundation for inspecting cultural values held by students. Some of the D.A.'ers worked in the writing across the curriculum (WAC) program, designed by Professor Lillian Brannon, and in which they coupled with professors in other disciplines to teach courses in which writing was privileged as a means of learning the materials. It was argued that integrating writing into these courses would encourage students to construct meaning out of the materials by dialectically drawing upon their own lived experiences, expressed through their writings.
But I want to argue something further about the D.A. program, something that contrasted it with the PhD program that was to follow in the early 1990's. As mentioned previously, many of the D.A.'ers were older students, returning to get their D.A.'s after already having taught and worked outside the university. As such, they brought with them a lived experience that informed their thinking about issues of institutionality and the limits institutions such as Albany place on the teaching of writing. For instance, these experiences informed their work in the WAC program, where they encountered resistances from their colleagues as to the extent to which writing would be used and responded to in the courses. This was true of a history course that Dan Mahala wrote about in his dissertation; that is to say, he wrote about the resistances that his historian colleague exhibited towards using writing in a productive manner in the course that they co-taught. Rather than use writing by the students to interpret the materials through their lenses, the historian colleague wanted writing that conveniently evinced facts and figures about history, essentially making the writing easier to evaluate and grade. Mahala diagnosed this resistance in his dissertation. He diagnosed the difficulties in getting his colleague to view writing as a more interactive experience for the students, one in which writing served to produce meaning about the materials -- one where students were engaged in knowledge-making through their interpretation of the materials. His colleague's unwillingness to see writing as anything other than a recitation of facts ultimately served as a limit on the possibility of using writing in this more dialogic, knowledge-making manner. This was the limit he faced as a WAC practitioner, and sometimes when faced with such resistances, all one can do is diagnose and move on to other projects. But what I want to use this example to argue is that the D.A. program was one in which grad students learned to diagnose the limitations of entrenched, institutionalized thinking. They were being prepared to be diagnosticians, in a sense, of the institutional terrains they would be operating in once they obtained faculty positions.
Naturally, a program does not set out to produce what I am calling diagnosticians; there is no way to predict what the grad students are going to do with the materials and experiences they are being given. Rather, what can be said at most is that the program attracted an array of graduate students, particularly poets, who had a predilection for experimentally pressing the limits of institutionalized thinking and examining how it occasionally obstructed the growth of writers. And one might further say that this predilection grew out of their own felt experiences with the constraints of academic life. For what makes a good diagnostician is the experience of having lived through the same circumstances and pressed up against the same (or similar) limits as those experienced by their students. Having experienced the weightiness (density) of institutional prose and struggled against its requirements and demands as creative writers made them more sensitive to the struggles faced by the students in their classes, arguably making them better teachers in the process. They were also good diagnosticians in the sense that they practiced a form of critical theory which I call organic critical theory. Organic critical theory begins with what people feel, whether they are feeling oppressed, suppressed, repressed, silenced or trapped -- or in pain. As such, organic critical theory is rooted in the body and the psyche -- the soul. It is what bell hooks describes when she writes, "I came to theory because I was hurting -- the pain inside me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend -- to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory a location for healing" (Teaching to Transgress 59) Theory of this nature does not begin with analysis nor methodology; rather, it grows out of the felt constraints of lived experience -- of bodily or psychic pain. It is what Freire called a limit situation -- when one comes up against the unnegotiated demands of a life dictated by other people and which impedes upon one's own freedom. As Freire described limit situations: humans "because they are conscious beings -- exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom." "As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, as they separate themselves from their own activity, as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them: 'limit situations'"(80). What Freire calls "limit situations" is also what Foucault would call "limit experiences" -- both being concerned with what limits human agency, freedom and creativity.
One of the articles written by Mark Hurlbert and Michael Blitz, two D.A.'ers, speaks to the ways in which institutions limit or constrain human agency. In their article, "The Institution Live(s)," they write about how institutional documents or evaluations serve to constrain the agency of students by prejudging them. ...