A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Experience and Disciplinary Donnybrooks

I've been thinking a lot lately about experience as a nexus of debate and inquiry in rhetoric and composition: who tends to write about experience, from it, or both? How do they tend to define experience? Who tends not to write about it, and--if it's possible to surmise an answer short of launching a situated qualitative study, which I won't be doing in the extremely near future--why not?

What I'm finding is that it's nearly impossible in rhet/comp to talk about experience without immediately, even automatically, equating it to personal experience. Is there any other kind?, you may be asking yourself. Well, in one sense, obviously, no: all experience is personal to the extent that it presupposes a subject doing the experiencing. But it seems to me that the yoking of the terms personal and experience in composition carries with it more epistemological baggage than would seem to be suggested by the simple and relatively uncontroversial observation that all experience is subjective.

To wit: writing from and/or about experience in rhet/comp tends to be oriented around either expressivist or liberatory-critical theories of teaching, researching, and composing, or sometimes a hybrid of the two. In the case of expressivism, experience is troped as a repository of potential insights--as a way to write (about) the events of one's life to help one make sense of the world and, perhaps, communicate that sense to others. In the case of liberatory-critical work, experience tends to be theorized from within an identity politics that sees it as an effect of, or at the very least in tension with, broadly social forces--class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, and other categories we use to both read and make our worlds--as they intersect in unique ways in different individuals.

Naturally, I'm oversimplifying things a bit here. But what strikes me as important is that automatically coupling experience and the personal--even if your point is that even utterly unique personal experience can nevertheless be understood and rendered in social and political terms (a common and, I might add, convincing argument)--leaves out a realm of experience that was never truly personal, at least in a conventional sense, in the first place. I mean, generally, it's up to the individual author to explicate or reflect on her experience for us so we can appreciate whatever point about self or society she wants to make. But what of disciplinary and metadisciplinary arguments whose participants may have many experiences in common--experiences that are central to one's attitudes and intellectual commitments toward the subject in question?

For example, Marjorie Roemer, Lucille Schultz, and Russel Durst claim that new abolitionists basically characterize everything related to FYC in "evisceratingly negative" terms (see "Reframing the Great Debate," in CCC 50:3)--a claim that cannot be reasonably supported by reading published arguments against the universal FYC requirement. But how much of their sense that new abolitionists are the barbarians at the gate has come from conference sessions like the ones in '93 and '94, when the latest abolitionist debate was really building a head of steam? How much of it comes from comments made on Megabyte University or the WPA-L in the mid- and late-1990's? How much of it comes from encountering colleagues who were dismissive of "dumb" FYC students, naive FYC defenders, and evil WPAs?

These kinds of experiences seem to be off limits or, at least, are not made very visible, in rhet/comp scholarship. And, yet, I'd argue that they are precisely the kinds of experiences that can really be productive fonts of knowledge and vigorous academic debate: What really did happen at C's in San Diego in 1993? Is there really such a disconnect between the rational, relatively even-keeled published arguments for abolishing the universal FYC requirement and what encounters with my colleagues would seem to indicate is not only an intellectual but also a deeply emotional aversion to FYC?

You can't argue with an author when you read that as a child he used to run around the playground making up words for common objects or when another author recalls the details of a childhood conversation with her mother. And who would want to? But you can argue with somebody who writes that a specific new abolitionist acts as if pro-FYC folk are either simpletons or comp-bosses, even if that doesn't come through in the person's writing writing.

Imagine, then, what sorts of conversations, in print and otherwise, we might have if more of us did draw on experiences that are not uniquely ours but, rather, that belong, either in type or actual instance, to many others as well, and others who are stakeholders in the disciplinary conversations we participate in. To get there, though, would seem to call for rethinking experience in rhetoric and composition.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home