The SCE and Me:
Do not cite without permission of the author.
It is difficult for me to take an outsider's perspective on the work of the SCE, for my own professional development coincides almost exactly with Phase III : in my second year of graduate school at Case Western Reserve I was hired by Martha Woodmansee and Gary Stonum to become their first Assistant to the Directors. In this capacity, I organized databases and stuffed envelopes, but I also attended several conferences, including The Role of Theory in the Undergraduate Literature Classroom and Problems of Affirmation in Cultural Theory (PACT). Most important to my development as a scholar, however, was my participation in the organization of the 1991 Intellectual Property and the Construction of Authorship (IPCA) conference .
It may seem odd that my job of confirming caterers, word-processing programs and handing out name tags would become a pivotal academic experience. Certainly it exposed to me to a variety of bad professional habits, instructing me in just how late one can really send in a SCE paper without incurring the wrath of the conference organizer. Nonetheless, to be at the ground level of a project that would influence a variety of disciplines and scholars from around the world was exciting and inspiring. It could not help but shape my own burgeoning academic identity.
Through my interest in authorship and the legal institutions of textuality, I became involved with another developing field, which overlapped with, yet had a distinct identity from the construction of authorship: the history of the book. This led to a dissertation with Martha examining the authoring practices of a neglected group of producers: the printers, booksellers, and trade publishers who worked and wrote in the eighteenth-century print trade. These workers, I argued, had been seen as active collaborators in the making of books, but as new notions of authorship emerged—based in an individual and solitary genius whose works transcended the base realities of economics—their contributions were first denigrated, then ignored.
I was not the only one detailing and complicating the effects of this particular, peculiar, and certainly contingent way of understanding writing and publishing, however. During the decade following the conference, the work undertaken in the IPCA project influenced the way compositionists understood contemporary authoring practices in general and student authorship specifically, as several publications made manifest (e.g., Lunsford and Ede, Gere, Howard, and Spigelman ). Indeed, it became clear that to truly understand the ramifications of—and contradictions to—the author construct, one had to look beyond the canons of literature, beyond even the laws that controlled the circulation of intellectual property, to the many, everyday sites of writing: in the classroom, in the workplace, and in new technologies. The Cultures of Writing : Places, Spaces, and Interfaces of Writing and Writing Technologies conference, organized by Martha Woodmansee, Andrea Lunsford and Larry Needham, was held at Case Western Reserve University in February of 1997 to examine these activities.
I was looking for my first academic job—and finishing my thesis—during the planning stages of the conference. Conversations with Martha about how to situate my dissertation in job letters and interviews flowed into those about the intellectual substance of this new project, for I stood precisely in the awkward position the Cultures of Writing project was designed to address (if not redress). My work was definitely not purely “literary” in its outlook—in fact, I had to be persuaded to include one “real” author for marketability purposes—though it did complicate ideas about what exactly “literary” meant. Nor did it represent a traditional “comp/rhet” outlook, for although I considered this work on the history of writing technologies to be quite relevant to teachers in and theorists of the burgeoning Internet Age (and certainly to my own techno-rhetorical outlook), I did not explicitly contend with pedagogy or student writers.
My own work, then, like the Cultures of Writing project, stands in the interstices between what are becoming—unfortunately in my mind—two distinct disciplines: literary studies and composition/rhetoric. This distinction, based in a (outdated) conception of English that bifurcates consumption and production, creates a framework that can produce scholarship that is historically anachronistic and/or theoretically naïve. By contrast, the Cultures of Writing Project is devoted to the broader study of writing. Its focus comes from its investigation into the material aspects of the production, consumption and circulation of texts. “Writing,” thus understood, includes, but is not limited to either the product of “composition” or “literature” in the traditional sense. This project, therefore, runs counter to recent trends towards drawing a bright line between these two domains.
To remedy the impasses this division creates specifically in historical work, the original Cultures of Writing project has evolved into New Histories of Writing, the topic of several MLA, MMLA and CCCC's panels (see Appendix 1 for complete project history). The research agenda for this project, as Martha and I have articulated it elsewhere, “is to identify, define, and develop a new interdisciplinary research focus combining theories of the material production of texts, the history of the book, information/media studies, and histories and practices of writing instruction.” The project fosters work that interrogate[s] the boundaries between such disciplinary endeavors that, by categorizing textual production into segregated forms and genres, elide important ideological relationships among a variety of writing practices, while exaggerating claims of coherence within their own domains. The goal of this [project] is to foster conversation among scholars within these fields with an eye to discerning 1) the ways in which the material history of writing, more broadly conceived, sheds light on current sites, structures, technologies and economies of writing, and 2) how recent changes in our own discourse environments may provide new insight into the work of writing in the past.
What New Histories of Writing shares with the broader Cultures of Writing project, then, is an insistence that scholarly work—even that exploring the minutia of the past—focus on issues relevant to present concerns. In this goal, it partakes of the mission of the SCE itself, which since its inception has been interested in theorizing the politics of academic work, whether located in representations or institutional practices.
Of course, one might question the “new” in “New Histories of Writing.” Certainly there are precedents for some of our themes in cultural studies, literacy studies and institutional critiques of the academy, and we gratefully acknowledge the groundbreaking work of many in the past that has enabled our own. What has troubled us, however, and what serves as an impetus to this project, is that many of these areas are developing separately and not in conversation with each other. For example, many recent works categorized under the rubric of “print culture studies” still focus fairly narrowly on literary works by a conservative canon of authors. Furthermore, while usefully pointing to the material grounds of textual production, this research all too often fails to acknowledge how historical research speaks to our own current practices of writing, publishing, and teaching writing. At the same time, work within composition and rhetoric studies constructs a history of rhetors or writing instructors that rarely takes on the technologies and materiality of their texts. “Media studies” is an area which would seem to contain common ground for both camps, yet work there rarely forays beyond the last century, and its are certainly much larger than “writing” per se.
There are notable exceptions in all these categories, but in general the project addresses concerns that the two central fields in English Studies, literary/cultural studies and composition/rhetoric—are becoming distinct discourse communities—possibly even morphing into new disciplines in their own right, as many are now divided into separate academic departments. The institutional history of this division has been discussed elsewhere—and the Culture of Writing project does not pretend to supply the panacea for injuries sustained throughout a long history of institutional ill will. Instead, the project, by setting aside these arbitrary divisions, produces new insights into the production and dissemination of many varieties of texts. We believe that this larger understanding of the object of study will enrich scholarship in both fields, making historical work more relevant both for the teaching and practice of writing today, and supplying composition pedagogy with a richer and more nuanced historical grounding.
Of course, it is possible that neither discipline wishes to become enriched in this way. I cast this as a personal narrative because the difficulties I've encountered in doing interdisciplinary work are relevant to the Culture of Writing project, as well as to the SCE's broader mission to foster interdisciplinary projects. Interdisciplinarity, once the darling of academe, is now—rightfully—being more carefully scrutinized. The complexities of undertaking rigourous interdisciplinary projects, as opposed merely to superficial quote hunting or other equivalents to academic slumming, are being investigated. Anyone who has undertaken such work knows that the issue of audience alone poses significant rhetorical difficulties in the construction of an argument. This is just the symptom of a deeper set of problems, however. Many have pointed out that disciplines, at their most fundamental, partake of radically different epistemological definitions of “evidence,” follow unique conventions within their discourse communities, and privilege certain speakers (or methods, or beliefs) over others for reasons that seem opaque to the uninitiated. Disciplines thus do cultural work. As Joseph Petraglia and Deepika Bahri have noted,
Disciplines are the enforcers of boundaries, and our investment in disciplinarity reflects and functions to preserve social regulation in the Foucauldian sense. Thus to assert one's disciplinarity is to lay claim to a specialized knowledge, one that cannot be partaken by those unwilling to discipline and be disciplined. . . Obviously, disciplines are exclusionary, and intentionally so; they regulate hierarchies that both structure the inquiry carried out within them as well as reinforce a sense of their own relative advantages (if not superiority) to other disciplines (154) .
Because of this “boundary enforcing” function of disciplines, interdisciplinary work will always be challenging, in both senses of the word. For this reason, Anne Ruggles Gere criticizes the over-used, overly-simplistic metaphor of the “bridge” in defining work that crosses disciplines. Instead, she suggests we take on the more apt, and cooperative, term of “restructuring.” She describes interdisciplinary work as that which “resists boundaries and blurs distinctions between disciplines” and “[i]nstead of simply borrowing from a given field. . .interacts [with it], changing and being changed” (109) . No wonder disciplinary hegemonies may be resistant. Yet it is this very restructuring that gives integrative work its impetus despite resistance. As myriad SCE projects have proven, interdisciplinary scholarship maps out new areas of knowledge overlooked by the disciplinary structure, engages a fuller perspective on known issues, charts connections between specialized fields, and reconstructs disciplinary domains in light of new findings and cross-fertilizations.
Nonetheless, all the good faith, steely reserve, and hard intellectual work of interdisciplinarians may not be sufficient to surmount serious institutional obstacles, especially in a time of scare resources. It is not news to point out that the job market and publishing venues are set up along disciplinary lines, yet this continues to be an issue inadequately addressed. Indeed, with financial pressure on publishers to specialize to target audiences this problem may be becoming worse. Furthermore, cost-cutting universities often choose to downsize or eliminate innovative integrative programs as they conserve traditional disciplinary departments ( Henry “Disciplinary Hegemony”), a process which has been ongoing nationwide and which, unfortunately, I have witnessed personally ( Stuart Henry describes the Wayne State situation in “Disciplining Interdisciplinarity”). These material constraints not only prohibit current scholars from engaging in interdisciplinary scholarly work, but squelch the production of new scholars in interdisciplinary fields.
Given these difficulties, we might predict obstacles for New Histories of Writing as we move from the conference to publication phase of the project. Literary Studies and Comp/Rhet may find it more strategically useful to regroup as separate disciplines more easily accepted by the neo-traditional academy. Denizens of embattled camps may find it too risky to partake of work that threatens to restructure their field instead of enforcing its boundaries.
However, I am not completely pessimistic. Other interdisciplinary projects supported by the SCE have done quite well—I'm thinking especially of another IPCA spin-off, the recent Con/Texts of Invention conference, which attracted scholars from English, the law, history, art history, anthropology and music. Nonetheless, the SCE must do more than provide role models for interdisciplinary endeavors, though this is a significant gesture in and of itself. It must continue to actively support such projects—perhaps even those done outside its auspices—and foreground the intellectual effort and theoretical maneuverings necessitated by such projects. Finally, I hope that the SCE can begin to interrogate the conditions that make interdisciplinary work so difficult, especially the institutional constraints that work to inhibit it. It should continue its tradition of activist scholarship in this domain. The SCE after all, created at least one interdisciplinary scholar—will it be able to sustain the careers of future interdisciplinarians?
Gere, Anne Ruggles. Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women's Clubs, 1880-1920. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1997.
-----. "Introduction." Into the Field: Sites of Composition Studies . Ed. Anne Ruggles Gere. New York: Modern Language Association, 1993. 1-6.
Henry, Stuart. "Disciplinary Hegemony Meets Interdisciplinary Ascendancy: Can Interdisciplinary/Integrative Studies Survive, and If So, How?" Issues in Integrative Studies 23 (2005): 1-37.
-----. "Disciplining Interdisciplinarity." Waves: A Bulletin of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies 7:1 (Fall 2005): 1, 16-17.
Howard, Rebecca. Standing in the Shadow of Giants : Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators . Stamford, CT: Ablex, 1999.
Lunsford, Andrea and Lisa Ede. “Collaborative Authorship and the Teaching of Writing.” Woodmansee and Jaszi, eds. The Construction of Authorship. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1994.
Petraglia, Joseph, and Bahri Deepika, eds. The Realms of Rhetoric . Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003.
Spigelman, Candace. Across Property Lines: Textual Ownership in Writing Groups. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.
1997: “Cultures of Writing: Places, Spaces, and Interfaces of Writing and Writing Technologies,” a Society for Critical Exchange conference at Case Western Reserve University .
1997: "Cultures of Writing: Inscription, Implementation, Sites" panel at the MMLA
1999: "Digital Humanities" panel at the MMLA
2000: "New Histories of Writing: Pedagogies, Technologies, Economies and Cultures" double- panel at the MMLA
2000: “ Economies of Writing" panel at the MLA
2001: "Economies of Writing: How Economics Promises (Threatens?) to Change Writing" panel at the CCCC
2003: "New Histories of Writing" one-day seminar at the MMLA
2007: Special double issue of Genre on "New Histories of Writing" (forthcoming).