Review: Keynote Address: Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key, by Kathleen Blake Yancey
Reviewed by: Mike Palmquist, Mike.Palmquist@ColoState.edu
Posted on: April 15, 2004
Updated on: April 15, 2004
In a conversation the night before her address, Yancey had told me that her talk would be challenging. It was. It was challenging in its delivery – two synchronized Powerpoint presentations were displayed on screens to the left and right of the podium, complementing and sometimes distracting the audience from the points she made. It was challenging in its conception – touching on large-scale social changes in public and private writing practices, changes brought about by increased access to and increased possibilities afforded by information technologies, and on the implications of those changes for our work. And, most important, it was a challenge to a field that might be in danger of losing its focus and direction, or worse, of losing its connection to the lives and work of our students.
Yancey’s address was, at its heart, a call to action by a mature scholar who is at once troubled by the current direction of our field and intrigued by possibilities for growth and renewal. In her talk, she identified three areas where change should occur: the development of a new composition curriculum, the assessment and revision of our writing-across-the-curriculum efforts, and the creation of a major in composition and rhetoric. Time limitations kept her from articulating her vision of what we might do with WAC and the composition major. The majority of her talk, as a result, focused primarily on curriculum redevelopment.
Yancey laid the foundation for curricular change by relating the growth of a reading public in the 19th century with a new writing public in the 20th and 21st centuries. This writing public is forming in response to new possibilities afforded by information technologies, in particular blogs, email, instant messaging, listservs and other discussion fora, and the multi-genred texts that are emerging to support communities that form across the boundaries of location, class, and ethnicity. Most important, it is a writing public that is writing outside the academy and without our instruction. Members of the writing pubic, noted Yancey, “need neither self assessment nor our assessment: they have a rhetorical situation, a purpose, a potentially world-wide audience, a choice of technology and medium—and they write.”
In keeping with the “call to act” genre, Yancey asked whether we are becoming irrelevant. She noted, for example, the decline in “English departments” over the last two decades. She pointed out that roughly 30 percent of the English departments in existence in 1985 are either gone or renamed, and that an ADE study suggested if the percentage of college students graduating with English degrees in 1966 had held steady, we would be graduating 100,000 students this year. Instead, she noted, we will graduate half that number. Yancey also told her audience that, although the number of high school graduates has increased significantly since the founding of the Conference on College Composition and Communication – from roughly 30 percent to 89 percent – and although the number of students entering post-secondary education has increased dramatically, the number of students who are graduating with college degrees is still quite low: “Only 28% of Americans have college degrees, and it looks bleaker as you go to certain categories,” she said. “Ten percent of African Americans have college degrees, 1.7 % of Latinos, even fewer Native Americans.”
Connecting these statistics to the field of composition, Yancey argued that all too often the required first-year composition course has served a gatekeeping function. She suggested that we would be wise to rethink that notion, that we should consider composition as a gateway. Such a shift in thinking has implications not only for the first-year course, but also for a curriculum extending vertically through the academy – and, by extension, for a major in composition and rhetoric. “It is past time,” she said, “that we fill the glaringly empty spot between first year composition and graduate education with a composition major.”
Yancey’s discussion of the development of a major addressed the importance of considering information technologies as sites of production and distribution of writing. She also addressed the implications of the process movement in composition studies and the challenges posed by post-process theorists to that movement. She chose to focus the majority of her discussion, however, on a more fundamental issue: our model of teaching writing.
“Our model of teaching composing, as generous, varied, and flexible as it is in terms of aims and as innovative as it is in terms of pedagogy—and it is all of these—(still) embodies the narrow and the singular in its emphasis on a primary and single human relationship: the writer in relation to the teacher,” said Yancey. This model is not consistent, she said, with the development of a writing public in which collaboration within and across communities is the norm. Nor is our focus on print-based academic genres consistent with the development of documents that employ multiple genres and multiple media. Instead, she said, our current model privileges “a singular person writing over and over again--to the teacher.”
Referring to the dominant model of teaching composition as a “remediated tutorial model of writing,” Yancey suggested that the continued pursuit of this model – particularly in settings where class size and total student numbers worked against individual attention to students – will result in frustration for both students and teachers. She suggested that we pursue a new model that pays attention to issues that are not addressed by the current model, including:
Yancey’s discussion of the model focused on three key areas: the circulation of composition, the canons of rhetoric, and the deicity of technology. She related “circulation” – texts circulate across time, place, and medium and, more specifically, the circulation of student work within an educational culture – to activity theory, drawing heavily in her talk from work published in Charles Bazerman and David Russell’s Writing Selves/Writing Societies, published by the WAC Clearinghouse. “Thinking in terms of circulation, in other words, enables students to understand the epistemology, the conventions, and the integrity of different fields and their genres,” she said. “Using that as a point of departure allows students to complete the task and move closer to the big picture of writing.” She also drew on work by Trimbur, Bolter, Grusin, and McLuhan to explore circulation through the lenses of remeditation and genre.
Yancey also focused on circulation within the academy – and more specifically within composition classrooms. She considered the range of texts students might create, the locations where students are created and read, and the impact of this type of circulation on students’ development as writers.
Yancey’s consideration of the canons of rhetoric focused on a critical problem: treatment of the canons as discrete activities. She noted, “I’ve begun to see the canons not as discrete entities … but rather related to each other in much the same way as the elements of Burke’s pentad are related: the canons interact, and through that interaction they contribute to new exigencies for invention, arrangement, representation and identity. Or: they change what is possible.” She was particularly interested in delivery, vis a vis the impact of digital technologies on the writing and reading of texts.
Yancey’s consideration of deicity – “Deixis, linguistically, refers to words like “now” and “then,” words whose “meanings change quickly depending on the time or space in which they are uttered” or read.” – focused on how the speed of technological change was affecting literacy and, by extension, our teaching of writing.
Yancey’s keynote address is among the most important presented at recent CCCCs. Her call to action is incomplete, but there is talk of a book that will extend and deepen the discussion begun in
In the meantime, I will respond to Yancey’s challenge by reflecting on the development of the curriculum used at my own institution. I will also consider its implication for my work in Web-based writing environments and online support for WAC. Each of us, I imagine, can think of ways in which we might respond to her challenge. Each of us should.