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content envy

I want to spin my next set of comments off the tail end of Clancy's first carnival entry:

Anyway, one of my contentions is with Fulkerson's "content envy" observation: "Both the lit-based course and the cultural studies course reflect, I suspect, content envy on the part of writing teachers" (663). As I said before, I think that having a balance between form and content is a Good Thing; having a nice, coherent course theme grounds the writing and gives it some context. Maybe he's not arguing against having themed writing courses, but his criticism of mimeticism in writing courses leads me to think otherwise (662)...

First, I want to qualify what I'm about to write by saying that there is a great deal of merit to Fulkerson's observations, at least when it comes to the oddly flat model of "social construction" that circulates through our field. I think that there are some curricula where "reading what others have written" comes to stand for the social (sometimes with a little peer review, sometimes not), and in a fashion that represents a pretty limited shift away from CTR.

So, second. I can't be the only one who's a little unnerved by the implicit gendering behind a phrase like "content envy," can I? More on this in a moment.

It's no accident, I think, that Fulkerson ends up rehabilitating Hairston, whose argument (one that I never quite understood) was that we should feel free to make connections and draw on resources from across the disciplines, except for literary criticism. And half of what was being called literary criticism, even at the time, was being cribbed from other disciplines anyway, which lent Hairston's argument some of the intemperance (666) that Fulkerson bemoans.

More to the point, though, Hairston's argument (and to a degree, Fulkerson's) are provincial. The gendered phrase "content envy" speaks of the family drama played out in earlier generations of English departments between Daddy Literature and Mommy Composition, a drama that helps to contextualize Hairston's contribution to the discussion a little bit. We shouldn't be trying to be like them, she argued, because they were responsible for the crummy model (paradigm?) of instruction that we have been trying to break from for years and years.

But, setting the old winds of change aside for a minute, this argument feels a little thin to me, and not just because I'm in a freestanding writing program. The other day, I mentioned Laura Wilder's update of Fahnestock and Secor's "Rhetoric of Literary Criticism." In that article, F&S survey a broad range of critical articles, and distill them, arriving at a set of topoi that literary critics draw upon to make their arguments in journals. When Wilder revisits that study (or more accurately, performs her own on more recent texts), she finds ample evidence to support the list of topoi that F&S locate, but she adds a couple of others that speak to some shifts in the ways that literary critics operate nowadays. One of them in particular she calls "social justice":

The assumption in this topos is that literature and life is connected--that literature, regardless of when it was written, speaks to our present condition. But more precisely, the articles that invoked this topos sought in that assumed connection avenues toward social justice through advocating social change (98).

So here's my question: if turning to CCS (and the corresponding desire for our students' intellectual liberation) in composition is a symptom of content envy, then what does it say of literature scholarship (and, I presume, literary pedagogy as well) that there seems to be a similar turn there? Surely, literature scholars aren't acting out their own "content envy" as well, since they supposedly have the "content" we "envy"?

And here's my answer: the "turn" to social relevance, in both disciplines (and almost certainly more besides) is symptomatic of a much broader phenomenon that we might locate in the humanities in general: the charge of irrelevance. It's provincial to imagine that all we see as comp-lumbians are our lit-huanian colleagues, when in fact, we have to teach future engineers, lawyers, doctors, MBAs, etc., many of whom don't come into our classes (nor leave them) with a great deal of respect for what we do. And that lack of respect is a faint echo of the gradual erosion of the importance of the humanities in this country.

I don't mean to suggest that each of us walks into our classrooms thinking to stem the tide of an entire culture, but that motive is as least as likely as Fulkerson's suggestion that we seek "to empower or liberate students by giving them new insights into the injustices of American and transnational capitalism, politics, and complicit mass media." Unconsciously, I think that we respond to a culture that treats intelligence as a flaw and that treats the humanities as frivolous and irrelevant by insisting that there is something to be gained by the application of intelligence and by the careful interpretation and analysis of our culture's artifacts and processes.

Does that insistence sometimes come at the cost of our discipline's long-developed understanding of writing? Almost certainly. But like Clancy, I don't think it's an either/or, and I'm less than enchanted at the dismissiveness of describing a large segment of my colleagues as possessed of content envy. That phrase allows a great deal of work to be too easily "denounced as well as ignored."

That is all. More soon.


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Like much else in the article, the phrase is not happy or true, but sometimes a cigar, etc.

I thought about that statement, too. I agree with the critiques you make, C & C. However, the other part of that "content" statement was that the CCS approach (which is the envier) isn't necessarily concerned with writing. Unfair? Oh, sure. I know that's not true. (And this is where Hairston's argument comes back to haunt us.) But Fulk's argument is that a CCS approach is more concerned with the content of cultural critique than with writing.

The problem is that this basically reduces writing to little more than a format, a formula, a genre. I don't like this argument much, but I might slightly revise his argument: one of the promises and potentials of composition is that we can re-imagine and re-create what "writing" is. . . or can be(come). So, for example, this leads us back to the technology question. Writing as digital design, etc.

Here's my honest question: Is it fair to say that CCS approaches (and lit, for that matter) don't emphasize this creative potential as much as the content of cultural critique?

As someone who was raised up to do CCS more or less, I would have to agree with you or, rather, answer in the affirmative to your question. Obviously, it doesn't have to be that way. And my affirmative answer is kind of reductive unless I qualify it.

It's certainly *possible* to do CCS so that the emphasis is on the critical and the creative. I've tried to actively encourage students to work on being "creative," by which I mean pushing against the limits of academic-5-paragraph-like-ese, even as they're writing more or less critical pieces.

But I'm not sure I've seen a lot of people talking about this in their scholarship. It's as if talking *about* writing as "creative" or something puts one into the expressivist camp, which no card-carrying CCS person wants to find themselves in (despite, say, I. Shor's early use of Elbow).

And from my own experience, thinking about "writing" as writing just isn't something I was trained to do. And I do think that speaks to the cultural moment and location in which I was trained: a moment that really did tend to emphasize approaches to doing something called "cultural studies" rather than to pushing the possibilities of writing.

But, then, I sort of think Fulkerson's taxonomy itself forgets about writing (as I've been saying over on my blog). Not that there's really anywhere to put it. But if the only question is "is it good," then we aren't really asking other kinds of questions, like, what is possible? Or what isn't possible? How to push at the possible?

Or maybe this just speaks to my own frustrations right now and my own search for more textured approaches to writing and the teaching of writing.