MLA 2018 - Plenary Session 237: Writing Matters

John L. Schilb Andrea Abernethy Lunsford Kathleen Yancey Deborah H. Holdstein Douglas Hesse Douglas Eyman Kristine Blair Shirley Wilson Logan Jonathan Alexander

Session Information
As a Plenary Session, "Writing Matters" is open to the public.
Date: Friday, January 05, 2018
Time: 10:15 AM - 12:00 PM
Location: Hilton - Murray Hill East
Program Listing:

This plenary brings together scholars of rhetoric and composition studies, also known as writing studies, a discipline within English studies, to share key concepts, theories, movements, and agendas of the discipline, especially as it relates to common issues faced by larger fields, such as literary studies, in English departments and in universities.

Overview | Abstracts | Bios

Session Description
For as long as there has been the Modern Language Association, there has been writing studies. Scholars in the discipline of writing studies sometimes trace their disciplinary roots to the “Harvard influence” in early 19th century America, when Harvard created the first professorship of rhetoric in the U.S., and later that century to the college’s adoption of the Harvard model of first-year composition, a course that has become synonymous (for good and ill) with rhetoric and composition/writing studies in the U.S. However, writing studies traces its history back, in part, to classical Western rhetorical traditions, drawing on Aristotle’s work to define rhetoric as the art of using all available means of persuasion to communicate. Writing studies scholars research language through rhetoric, how writing works in the world, and how writing is learned and taught. This plenary session roundtable aims to address the following big-picture questions:

  • What is writing studies?
  • What are its traditions?
  • What is its relationship to other fields of language and literary study at MLA?

For writing studies’ scholars, the concept of language includes written text, oral text, and multimodal text, which enacts Aristotle’s notion of "all available means." It is a field of study with a long theoretical tradition, a field that started to become a formal academic discipline in the early 1960s, when the first PhD programs in rhetoric and composition were created. In the 2015 publication, Naming What We Know, editors Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle (key theorists in writing studies), collected over 30 threshold concepts‐key ideas and assumptions built into our theories and everyday praxis in the study and teaching of writing, such as the following excerpted list:

  • Writing is a social and rhetorical activity that is situated and collaborative
  • Writing addresses and creates audiences
  • Writing is a technology through which writers create and recreate meaning
  • Writing speaks to situations through recognizable forms and genres
  • Genres are enacted by writers and readers and are not static
  • Writing is performative
  • Texts get their meaning from other texts
  • Writers’ histories, processes, and identities vary; thus, every writing situation is different
  • Writing is informed by prior experience
  • Writing is process-based: Learning to write effectively requires different kinds of practice, time, and effort
  • Revision is central to developing writing

While these tenets are supported by decades of research across the major journals and presses in the discipline, we recognize that they are often unknown as threshold concepts to the language and literature scholars in the office next to ours or at a major language-based conference such as MLA. For this reason, we propose this plenary panel as a celebration of the longevity of writing studies within and external to the MLA and for the MLA’s 2015 promotion of writing studies with its own forum: Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies (RCWS).

Nine esteemed scholars in writing studies will each present a 5-minute lightning talk on a topic that elaborates a threshold concept or theory they’ve developed over the course of their career. These lightning talks will open up topics for discussion and alliance between the disciplines of rhetoric, composition, writing studies and other language and literary studies. After their remarks, the panelists will engage in a Q & A session before opening the floor to the audience.

Questions for Panelists

  1. What additional concepts from writing studies (missing from the panel so far) would be useful for language and literature scholars?
  2. Which scholars should transcend writing studies into other areas of language and literary studies (besides those on this panel)?
  3. What do you see as the future of writing studies in English departments or colleges of arts and sciences?
  4. What models of collaboration between literary studies and languages, including writing studies, would you promote? Or are we better off in separate departments/siloes?
  5. Why MLA now?

Overview | Abstracts | Bios

Lightning Talks

The New Humanities
John L. Schilb, Indiana University

John Schilb will acknowledge the ongoing issue of how best to relate composition studies to literary studies, contending that both fields now need to address declining public interest in the humanities. The turn to digital media can help both fields reverse this decline, by championing how students are active creators, shapers, and circulators of culture. To cultivate such an image, literary studies will need to shift from its traditional emphasis on the student as mere reader of texts and composition studies will need to resist the anti-human stance taken by several current theorists of rhetoric.

"My own biggest concern these days is with the matter of the humanities: a domain that includes literary studies but extends to other fields. How can the humanities matter in a neoliberal, relentlessly pragmatic age? To literature specialists, the fate of their field looks bleak: undergraduate enrollments are shrinking; graduate students can’t get jobs. Meanwhile, in all sorts of respects, composition studies thrives. Nevertheless, I think writing studies should see itself as part of the humanities and join with literary studies, among other fields, to make the humanities count in a world bent on rendering them moot. I’m not saying composition should identify itself only with the humanities. Aspects of it are cousins of the social sciences. But much of the field’s best work, I’d say—in the area of pedagogy as well as scholarship—reflects humanistic issues and interests that ought to be touted as such."

Writing as Collaboration
Andrea Abernethy Lunsford, Stanford University

Andrea Lunsford examines the relationship between cultures and technologies of writing and the collaboration authors engage in during every writing situation. This foundational research in writing studies is crucial to humanists within the MLA, as the kinds of composing, writing, and scholarship we all produce is changing rapidly.

New Ways of Composing
Kathleen Yancey, Florida State University

Kathleen Blake Yancey takes up the concept of assemblage, located at the intersection of artistic practice (e.g., Picasso; Schwitters) and critical theory (e.g., DeLeuze and Guitarri). Assemblage as a method of composing attends to both the aesthetic and the becomingness of text as it assists in theorizing texts in the world, in defining the role of the non-human in composing, and in re-imagining ways of teaching composing in the classroom.

"In critical theory, assemblage defines composing as proceeding from interrelated combinations of bodies, concepts, and ideas: approaching composing in this light allows us to see and trace the assembled components and to map out how they work together, how they are related, to generate a particular composition. Critical theory also credits assemblage as a constellation, with text being understood metaphorically."

Poetics as Rhetoric
Deborah H. Holdstein, Columbia College

Deborah H. Holdstein will explore the ways in which the aesthetic is indeed practical and how false, political arguments use aesthetics as a way to keep literature “away” from composition studies. To what extent do our discussions of keywords, threshold concepts, and the like within composition studies hinder an intellectually expansive view of writing studies and a renewed link to literary studies?

Rhetoric and Poetics
Douglas Hesse, University of Denver

Doug Hesse will discuss the tradition and future of belletrism within different areas in writing studies. How are the tensions between the practical and the aesthetic taken up in rhetoric, composition, or writing studies, depending on how one is defining each of those possible in-disciplines of the field.

What is Digital Rhetoric
Douglas Eyman, George Mason University

Eyman's remarks consider the nascent field of 'Digital Rhetoric' as it relates to both writing and literary studies and how MLA is a fitting venue for digital rhetoric work. "It is as we wrestle with new writing technologies that digital rhetoric has emerged as field of study. Digital rhetoric doesn't lose sight of past theories and technologies, but draws on them (particularly the theories and methods of classical rhetoric, and, increasingly, non-Western rhetorical traditions), to better understand the rhetorical capacities and functions of these new forms of communication. And we certainly need to be engaging these forms in an era when we are both scrutinized and channeled by the practices of big data. And in addition to our more traditional methods, digital rhetoricians are inventing and developing new approaches to understanding circulation, network, and interactivity, which are rapidly becoming instrumental to the rhetorical context for all writers."

Digital, Feminist Pedagogies
Kristine Blair, Youngstown State University

Kristine Blair aligns feminist pedagogies and digital literacies, which is both political and pragmatic: to explore the ways in which technological spaces are gendered domains that have impacted access and equity across cultures and classrooms, and to create more hospitable spaces that empower individuals to compose in multiple modalities. Enabling these goals is a priority for all English faculty seeking to bridge the gap between academic and non-academic literacies as a more equitable point of entry for students with diverse cultural, literate, and technological histories.

What is Writing
Shirley Wilson Logan, University of Maryland, College Park

Shirley Logan's brief talk considers some of the ways in which writing studies both complicates and facilitates our understanding of the freighted term “diversity.” The topics to be discussed include writing and diversity, two core values of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), along with literature, advocacy, integrated language arts, public education, and knowledgeable, caring teachers.

I will consider two intellectuals who have pushed against the use and abuse of the term diversity. Cornel West, in a recent interview for the introduction to the 25th-anniversary edition of his book Race Matters, claims that “One of the ways of making sure you sanitize any talk about racism is to talk about diversity.” Rhetoric and Composition critical race theorist Joyce Middleton, in a personal communication, observes that diversity can mean anything, including things unrelated to culture, race or whiteness, e.g., “diversity of biological life.” I will mention some of the words allegedly suggested to be avoided in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant proposals, including the word diversity, probably because it suggests perhaps a kind of pampering to a special group, or to certain groups considered “needy” but less deserving.

I argue for an understanding of diversity that embraces a variety of meanings—diversity of people, diversity of contexts, and a diversity of purposes.

What is Composition
Jonathan Alexander, University of California, Irvine

Jonathan Alexander considers how queer theory prompts us to ask what kinds of composing practices become naturalized as the right and “appropriate” ones to reproduce across curricula and student populations. At the same time, Queer theory, with its embrace of excess and the elided, invites ways of thinking about writing that open spaces not only for marginalized voices but also for considering writing as a technology, opening us to the un-predetermined, the unknown, and the utopic. Alexander draws on his 2017 research review article, "Queer Ways of Knowing," publishd in WPA: Writing Program Administration 41.1: 137–149.

Overview | Abstracts | Bios

Presenter Biographies

Shirley Wilson Logan
Shirley Wilson Logan is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Maryland. She is the author of With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of African American Women (1995), We are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of African American Women (1999), and Liberating Language: Sites of Rhetorical Education in Nineteenth-Century Black America (2008), along with several essays in collections on writing and difference, nineteenth-century women’s rhetorical performances, and technologies of writing. She is co-editor with Cheryl Glenn of the Southern Illinois University Press series, “Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms.” She has served as chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Director of the UM Professional Writing Program, Chair of the Campus Writing Board, and Associate Chair of the English department at the University of Maryland. Logan has also filled leadership roles as a member of the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, the Modern Language Association, and the Rhetoric Society of America.

Jonathan Alexander
Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, where he also serves as the Founding Director of the Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication. Jonathan’s research areas include Writing Studies, Composition/Rhetoric, New Media Studies, and Sexuality Studies. His scholarly work focuses primarily on the use of emerging communications technologies in the teaching of writing and in shifting conceptions of what writing, composing, and authoring mean. Jonathan also works at the intersection of the fields of writing studies and sexuality studies, where he explores what theories of sexuality, particularly queer theory, have to teach us about literacy and literate practice in pluralistic democracies. Jonathan’s recent books include Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), On Multimodality: New Media in Composition Studies (with Jacqueline Rhodes, CCC Studies in Writing & Rhetoric, 2014), and Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (with Elizabeth Losh, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013). In 2011 he received the Charles Moran Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Field of Computers and Writing. The author, co-author, or editor of thirteen books, he is the general editor of College Composition and Communication, the flagship journal in composition studies.

Andrea Abernethy Lunsford
Currently the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of English Emerita, Claude and Louise Rosenberg Jr. Fellow, and Former Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, Andrea Lunsford has designed and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in writing history and theory, rhetoric, literacy, and intellectual property. Before joining the Stanford faculty, she was Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at The Ohio State University. Currently also a member of the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English faculty, Professor Lunsford earned her B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Florida, and she completed her Ph.D. in English at The Ohio State University (1977). Professor Lunsford's interests include rhetorical theory, women in rhetoric, collaboration, cultures of writing, style, the graphic novel, and technologies of writing. She has written or coauthored nineteen books including The Everyday Writer: Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse; Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing; and Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women and the History of Rhetoric, as well as numerous chapters and articles. Her most recent books include Writing Matters: Rhetoric in Public and Private Lives, Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice (with Lisa Ede), The Sage Handbook of Rhetorical Studies (editor), and Everyone's an Author. Professor Lunsford has conducted workshops on writing and program reviews at scores of North American universities, served as Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and Chair of the Modern Language Association Division on Writing, and as a member of the MLA Executive Council. She is currently the general editor of The Norton Anthology of Rhetoric and Writing, forthcoming.

Douglas Eyman
Douglas Eyman teaches courses in digital rhetoric, technical and scientific communication, and professional writing at George Mason University, where he directs the PhD in Writing and Rhetoric. Douglas has served on the editorial staff of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy since 1996; he is currently the senior editor and publisher of the journal. In addition to Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice (U of Michigan Press, 2015) and Play/Write: Digital Rhetoric, Writing, Games (co-edited with Andréa Davis, Parlor Press, 2016), Eyman’s scholarly work has also appeared in Composition Studies, Computers and Composition, Pedagogy, and Technical Communication, as well as a number of edited collections. Eyman is a recipient of the Computers and Composition Michelle Kendrick Outstanding Digital Production/Scholarship Award the Computers and Composition Charles Moran Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Field. He will chair the 2018 Computers and Writing Conference held at George Mason University May 24-27, 2018.

Kathleen Yancey
Kathleen Blake Yancey, Kellogg Hunt Professor of English and Distinguished Research Professor at Florida State University, has served as President of NCTE; as Chair of CCCC; and as President of CWPA. Immediate Past Editor of College Composition and Communication, she is author/editor/co-editor of 14 scholarly books—among them Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing; A Rhetoric of Reflection; and Assembling Composition—and author/coauthor of 100+ articles and book chapters. She has received several awards, including CCCC's Research Impact Award; two best book awards from the Council of Writing Program Administrators; and Florida State's Graduate Mentor Award.

Kristine Blair
Kristine Blair is Professor of English and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Youngstown State University. She taught courses in digital composing and scholarly publication in the Rhetoric and Writing Doctoral Program at Bowling Green State University from 1996-2016, where she also served as English Department Chair from 2005-2014. In addition to her publications in the areas of gender and technology, online learning, electronic portfolios, and faculty development, Dr. Blair currently serves as editor of both the international print journal Computers and Composition and its separate companion journal Computers and Composition Online. Among her awards are the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s Technology Innovator Award and the Computers and Composition Charles Moran Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Field.

Douglas Hesse
Doug Hesse is Executive Director of Writing and Professor of English at the University of Denver, where he’s been named University Distinguished Scholar. He’s the current Past President of NCTE, former Chair of CCCC, and former President of WPA. He chaired the MLA Division on Teaching as a Profession and served on its Committee on Contingent Labor. His six dozen essays and four co-written books focus mainly on creative nonfiction and professional issues in composition and English studies. Previously, he taught at Illinois State University, where he directed the graduate program in English, the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, and the University Honors Program.

Deborah H. Holdstein
Deborah H. Holdstein is Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago, where for seven years she also served as Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her books include On Composition and Computers (MLA), Computers and Writing (MLA), and Personal Effects (with David Bleich). Her scholarly work has appeared in numerous journals, among them,CCC and Pedagogy, as well as numerous edited collections, one of which has won the CWPA Outstanding Book Award. A past editor of College Composition and Communication and an officer of CCCC, Holdstein has also published numerous textbooks, among them, Rhetorical Choices (with Keith Gilyard and Charles Schuster), and two through Oxford University Press: Who Says? and Food: A Reader for Writers, with two new books currently in progress with Oxford. Holdstein has also served for two terms on the Publications Committee of the Modern Language Association.

John L. Schilb
John Schilb is Culbertson Chair of Writing and Professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he also served for six years as editor of the journal College English. His book Rhetorical Refusals: Defying Audiences’ Expectations won the MLA’s Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize. He is co-editor of Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers as well as two MLA collections, Contending with Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age and Writing Theory and Critical Theory.