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Monday, September 25, 2006

The Ethics of Academic Reading

We were discussing the "New Abolitionist" debate in my Intro to Composition class tonight, and suddenly I found myself giving--to both my students and myself--an impromptu discourse on the ethics of academic reading.

After discussion had snaked its way through several of the central points of contention between advocates and critics of abolishing the universal FYC requirement, I decided to pull back the curtain and say what I really thought about one of the texts we read for this week. In "Reframing the Great Debate on First-Year Writing" (CCC 50, Feb.), Roemer, Schulz, and Durst defend the FYC class as a potential "site of struggle and change within the institutional hierarchy of academia" (378). As they do so, they make it clear that they have no great love for the new abolitionists, who share an "evisceratingly negative depiction of the first-year course, its students, its teachers, and its defenders" (378). What I began to tell my class was that there is no evidence to support this claim, that new abolitionist arguments are often based on a deep respect for the complex literacies students bring with them to college, and that new abolitionists care deeply about those who teach FYC. I meant to tell my students that Roemer, Schulz, and Durst had fled reality, plain and simple.

But as I spoke, I began to remember Maureen Daly Goggin's and Susan Kay Miller's contextualization of the debate in "What is New About the 'New Abolitionists'" (Composition Studies 28:2). Their "brief history" of the new abolitionist debate recounts not only published, written volleys in the skirmish, but also C's roundtables at which people with stakes in various positions in the debate were present. I began to wonder what the tone of these roundtables must have been. I know from my research that written, published arguments in disciplinary debates are often mostly or totally cleansed of deep emotion that tends to drive such exchanges. I began to see that, perhaps, when Roemer, Schulz, and Durst characterized new abolitionists with such vague constructions as "those who argue against the (FYC) requirement" and "members of our field" in place of specific, supported references to authors and texts, they may have been trying to capture the spirit of those face-to-face encounters (and doubtless many others) in a genre and discipline that are decidedly stacked against relying on the undocumented as evidence.

I remain critical of the position Roemer, Schulz, and Durst take, but I am no longer willing to dismiss their critique of new abolitionists as either simple fantasy or, worse, sloppy research. In fact, I'm left with the nagging sense that their version of the debate, despite my instincts to the contrary, is potentially more reflective of reality than characterizations of the debate that have access to, or choose to use only, its published offerings. Indeed, I am left with the question of whether--and how--we ought to carve out a space in academic argument for using the undocumented, and perhaps the undocumentable, as evidence.


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