A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Rhetoric and Composition’s Emotional Economy of Identification

Julie Jung, Illinois State University

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/rhetoric-and-compositions-emotional-economy (Published August 12, 2010)

Arguments in rhetoric and composition calling for an end to its ‘theory wars’ typically conclude that the field’s seemingly endless self-reflections on the nature of its work fail to produce work that matters.1 Those who contend theory is practice, for example, defuse the debates’ value by eliminating the binary that ignites them (e.g., Ching; see also Horner, Terms 226). Likewise, those who contend the real issue involves something other than a theory/practice split introduce a third term (public service, engaged professionalism) that effectively ends the ‘war’ (e.g., Gallagher). Even those who do ‘pick a side’—arguing that the debates either fail to change perceptions about the value of teaching (e.g., Miller) or to constitute real intellectual work—silence the debates by, paradoxically, occupying the same side: both imply that valuable work is work that contributes something significant to the public (however conceived).2 In all these cases, the question of whether debating the field’s theory/practice split is something worth doing begins at the level of definition, with a commonplace premise about what valuable work is. And in all these cases, the effect is the same: the debates’ resolution is their elimination.

As a rhetorician, I am predictably concerned whenever debates are resolved through strategies that elide the complexities of subject formation (especially when those complexities are my own). I am even more concerned by the ways in which arguments that depend on commonplace definitions eliminate the impetus to debate questions of procedure. That is, instead of beginning by assuming readers agree on what constitutes valuable work, and then offering a conclusion that silences debate about that very commonplace, I argue that the debates can be of more use if we locate them at the level of procedure and ask: what should we do with them? Simply wishing them away won’t make them disappear from our various disciplinary histories, nor will doing so help us understand why they continue despite compelling arguments (such as those referenced above) to stop.

Judith Butler has argued that efforts to define speech acts for purposes of regulating them invariably end up repeating the very speech such efforts are designed to eliminate (104, 130-32). Similarly, those who argue that we can make better use of our time if we discontinue the debates, for whatever reason, usually end up repeating them, an irony not often lost on those who author such reflections (a point I will return to later). In this article, I argue that rather than try to resolve and thereby eliminate the debates, we should instead regard repeated accounts of the debates (hereafter termed reflections on the debates) as spaces for locating strategies for argumentation. Understood as storehouses of disciplinary commonplaces, reflections on the debates offer diverse articulations of our work and its value from which we can draw as we make arguments about our work in a range of situations to constituencies within and beyond the field.

Toward this end, I begin by arguing that conventional readings of reflections on the debates sponsor an economy of emotion whereby teacher-scholars working in rhetoric and composition are repeatedly hailed to recognize themselves as subjects who are identifying ‘correctly.’ Such an economy aids in ‘fixing’ a rhetcomp identity, which—in making it difficult for someone to both be in the field and identify in conflicted ways—limits one’s ability to view such reflections as sources of rhetorical possibility.3 After presenting one account of how this ‘fixing’ happens, I then use Kenneth Burke’s theory of irony to analyze a recent reflection on the debates, with the aim of demonstrating how we might engage past and future reflections in ways that resist identificatory fixation.

Shame, Pride, and the Formation of Disciplinary Identity

That emotions play an integral role in the formation and reproduction of subjectivity, both within and beyond the classroom, is a claim with which members of the field should be well familiar (see, for example, Worsham, “Going”; Robillard; Schell; Trainor; Yoon; Micciche and Jacobs). In examining how a rhetcomp identity becomes ‘fixed’ through an economy of emotion supplied by reflections on the debates, I seek to contribute to this impressive body of scholarship by yoking it to diverse articulations of “value.” Specifically, I outline in the next section two competing learning/knowledge regimes (academic capitalism vs. public good) that teacher-scholars in rhetcomp are increasingly called upon to negotiate every day in our professional lives.4 The values of these regimes circulate in the discourses of the debates, clashing with each other and overlapping with dominant histories of the field to yield a template of rhetorical stances readers can assume to shame those identifications from which they seek to distance themselves. In using the term economy, I mean “the orderly distribution and interplay of parts in a structure or system” (Hansen 263). Applying this definition in the context of my argument, I mean to suggest that circulating within the system (discourses of disciplinary identification) is one part (identifications that supply shame) that makes another part (identifications worthy of pride) possible.

There are, of course, emotions other than shame and pride one might identify as circulating within the field’s discourses of identification. And it’s worth asking, as Jeffrey R. Di Leo does, “Why, of all the emotions that can be located in the academic culture of English studies, is shame particularly noteworthy?” (230). My response to Di Leo’s important question is that shame serves an integral function in the process of rhetoric and composition’s disciplinary formation. Well documented in the field’s histories, for example, are the ways in which scholars working in literature have projected onto those working in composition a shame designed to bolster the former’s academic legitimacy at the expense of the latter. This historical account has become so familiar that it can be evoked through the use of a few key terms. Consider, for example, Kurt Spellmeyer’s abbreviated account of this history:

No one here needs to rehearse the history of poor composition. Overworked, underpaid, the academic proletariat, Susan Miller’s now-archetypal “sad women in the basement”—these descriptions have marked indelibly the common sense of our field. (78)

Consider, too, Christine Farris’ direct address to her audience in the following account:

In the first part of the century (you know this story) rhetorical analysis gave way to literary criticism (poetics) in the upper division of the college curriculum, while “rhetoric” in the lower division came to refer to everything about writing . . . not taught by specialists but by the new (and still existing) “composition underclass.”

This commonplace—that rhetoric and composition’s disciplinary formation is inextricably connected to a shame supplied by literature—resonates with others circulating in discourses of higher education in ways that help support arguments about the kind of work we should (and should not) be doing.

To be clear, I am not arguing that any one participant in the debates—whether that participant is someone analyzing their worth (such as myself) or someone repeatedly cited to represent one side—intends to cause shame. Nor am I arguing that reflections on the debates cause this shame/pride dynamic. Rather, my purpose is to show how the repetition of the positions of the two distinct sides participating in the debates authorizes a process of identification that results in the formation of a singular and immutable "correct" identity. It does so by supplying the shameful identifications a reader needs to believe she belongs to the "right" side. In this way, then, shame functions as a required component in a discursive system of identification. To put it another way: the debates don’t cause us to feel ashamed; rather, reflections on the debates supply a shame that makes their satisfactory resolution possible.

Identification in the Competing Regimes of Academic Capitalism

Key to understanding the dynamics of rhetcomp’s discursive system of identification is the concept of academic capitalism, which Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades define as “the pursuit of market and marketlike activities” by institutions of higher education for purposes of “generat[ing] external revenues” (11). Challenging those who position academia as somehow disconnected from corporate and state transactions, Slaughter and Rhoades offer a theory of academic capitalism that involves “networks of actors that cross boundaries among universities and colleges, business and nonprofit organizations, and state(s)” (9). Their theory thus problematizes claims that universities are being passively “corporatized” by outside forces, since necessarily included among their network of actors are the faculty themselves (12). Incumbent to Slaughter and Rhoades’ theory of academic capitalism is their sharp demarcation between two competing knowledge regimes: academic capitalism vs. the public good, with only the former referring to the privatization and commodification of knowledge. This division is, of course, a reductive representation of the diverse kinds of work we actually do in the academy, where binary logics like theory/practice and private/public break down in the real-time moments of our professional lives. Nevertheless, these divisions—and the commonplaces associated with each—do circulate in discourses within and beyond the field; accordingly, my analysis of them (and their overlap) requires that I first define their key terms. For Slaughter and Rhoades, an academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime conceptualizes knowledge as a commodity and therefore a private good, one that is bought by individuals and sold for its market-determined exchange value. The construction of student-as-customer—where “a degree is a commodity . . . that (hopefully) can be exchanged for a job”—exemplifies one way the discourses of higher education legitimize an ideology of academic capitalism (Wilmott, qtd. in Hansen 247; see also Readings 11-12, 32).

Public goods, by contrast, are those that “would be either under-supplied or not supplied at all by competitive markets; therefore, these goods are supplied at no charge by governments, which finance them through taxes” (Hansen 252). In the public good regime, knowledge is considered a public good because “everyone benefits from it equally and no one is excluded from it, including those who pay little or nothing in taxes” (Hansen 253). Furthermore, academic work is believed to possess use (rather than exchange) value: faculty’s commitments to academic freedom and intellectual discovery for their own sake are valued (Slaughter and Rhoades 199), and teaching is valued not because it validates grades that yield diplomas that can be exchanged for high-paying jobs, or because good teaching evaluations can be potentially exchanged for monetary teaching awards, but rather because teaching contributes “to the development of the student as a person, as a citizen” (Hansen 247). By persuading ourselves to believe we work within a public good regime only, we avoid seeing ourselves as workers in the academic marketplace, as “laborers in a system of exchange, in which the object is to get more return for their efforts” (Hansen 247).

My purpose here is not to suggest that faculty should locate themselves within one regime over the other, even if such a thing were possible; rather, my aim is to demonstrate how the tension between what Bruce Horner terms the “capitalization and proletarianization” (Terms 15) of those who labor in rhetoric and composition sanctions an economy of emotion whereby some identifications are shamed for purposes of instilling pride in others. In the public good regime, where our work’s use value matters because it contributes to the greater good, those who evaluate their work in terms of its exchange value are shamed for identifying with academic capitalism. For Practitioners, then, the public good regime provides the opportunity to shame Theorists for caring only about producing commodities (publications) that can be exchanged for profit (e.g., merit raises, grant money, research awards, tenure, etc.) in the academic marketplace.5

In his reflection on the debates, Kory Lawson Ching observes this strategy at work in the well-known Wendy Bishop/Gary Olson exchange: “The implication of Bishop’s argument,” Ching notes, “is that doing theory amounts to a kind of careerist ‘sell-out,’ a betrayal of composition studies’ principles . . . in the rush to establish successful academic careers” (458). When publications produced by those seeking to build academic careers do not address pedagogical concerns, “selling out” is even more shameful in the regime of public good. As Karen Kopelson in her reflection on the debates explains:

Those who believe that rhetoric and composition is and must remain a “teaching subject” berate the “other side” for “failing to answer the field’s governing pedagogical imperative” (Worsham 102-03)—for producing scholarship that does not seem to bear directly on teaching, and that is therefore, to use [Robert] Connors’s term once more, considered “fatuous.” (“Sp(l)itting” 752)

Kopelson's use of the term berate gestures toward the affective dimension of the debates: Practitioners are constructed in her summary as scolding Theorists for failing to find value in the ‘real’ work of rhetoric and composition—teaching writing. In publishing scholarship that is read by a relatively small audience, Practitioners working for the public good regard this “sell-out” as particularly shameful, since it excludes nearly everyone and benefits very few. Kurt Spellmeyer argues, for example, that the work of most cultural studies scholars’ is irrelevant because it does not intervene in the public in a useful way:

I’m simply not convinced that the people who live culture feel the need to study it at the feet of our masters, nor do I believe that they would ever take to heart the sort of work that gets written about them, if they somehow happened to read it. The truth is that scholars in cultural studies write largely for one another. . . . The interventions made by cultural critics are merely symbolic gestures that no one, or almost no one, ever witnesses, which makes them autistic gestures as well. (80)

Spellmeyer views attempts by rhetoric and compositionists to mimic the scholarship of cultural theorists as but one more strategy to distance ourselves from the low-status service work of first-year composition. As he puts it: “Nothing validates our rise more decisively than the distance we have put between ourselves and that dreadful freshman English course” (78). Such discourse supplies a shame that solidifies Practitioners’ identification by constructing it in opposition to something else: those who see FYC as “dreadful” and who produce “high status” scholarship to the exclusion of engaging in work that (by Practitioners’ definition) really matters.6

While the public good regime provides the ideologic by which Practitioners shame Theorists, it also sponsors the converse: Theorists can shame Practitioners for choosing to remain servile to the demands of the increasingly corporatized university.7 Specifically, the ideologic enables members of a field whose legacy is first-year composition (see Hesse; Yancey) to argue for an intellectual legitimacy that opposes “the low status, service aspect of ‘The Course’” (Micciche 167). In his summary of the debates published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, Scott McLemee quotes Lynn Worsham as follows:

Because I’m in rhetoric and composition, people have regularly assumed that I’m a candidate for writing-program administrator. . . . Well, I know nothing about it. And I have no interest in knowing anything about it. For the past 30 years, people in the field have tried to define [composition studies] as an intellectual discipline, not a service component of the university. (5)8

Kopelson’s summary of the position of Theorists in the debates echoes similar concerns about Practitioners’ willingness to submit to a service mission:

Members of the field who believe its purview should encompass the study of any and all aspects of literacy or written language decry rhetoric and composition’s “continued preoccupation with pedagogy” (Bizzell 1) as “dangerously and unacceptably narrow,” “anti-intellectual” (Olson, “Death” xii), and as the utilitarian focus that keeps the field trapped in its service-oriented roles and reputation (Dobrin 21). (“Sp(l)itting” 752)

Likewise, in his summary of the Theorists’ position Ching includes Sidney Dobrin’s assertion that “without theory, ‘composition scholarship will stagnate, and composition as a field will be defined within the narrow confines of a service orientation’” (458). Theory is necessary because it reaches past these “narrow confines” by “set[ting] itself against the normative: its thrust is almost always to defamiliarize what we think we know, to compel us to reconsider what we assume we no longer have to think about” (Schuster, qtd. in Kopelson, “Sp(l)itting” 765). In short, when useful work is defined as scholarship that can potentially revolutionize how we conceptualize reality and our relation to it, the choice to limit oneself simply to serving the needs of the university is, for Theorists, a shameful one.

Within the public good regime, then, both sides in the debates legitimate a shame/pride dynamic by assuming the same rhetorical stance: each aligns itself with the values of the public good by castigating the other for identifying with the values of academic capitalism. As Bruce Horner explains: “[I]f the anti-theorists tend to see only the exchange value of theory and not its potential use value, theorists tend to see only the exchange value of ‘service’ and not its use value: they recognize only its reification into commodified writing skills realized as economic capital (Terms 227-28). In the regime of public good, identifying with those who champion the use value of the ‘right’ kind of work is an identification worthy of pride. Repeated citations that shame those who identify with the ‘wrong’ regime are needed to stimulate the economy because pride is made possible only by the witnessing of shame. As Sara Ahmed explains: “The ‘wrong’ that is committed provides that grounds for . . . restoring a pride that is threatened in the moment of recognition, and then regained in the capacity to bear witness” (109). Thus, Theorists’ ability to pride themselves on their commitment to intellectual work requires citations that shame others for their anti-intellectualism (see fig 1, column 1). Alternately, Practitioners’ ability to “pride themselves on their dedication to their teaching and their students” (Horner, Terms 15; emphasis added) requires citations that shame others for apparently not caring about teaching and students (see fig 1, column 2). Ahmed continues:

Shame may be restorative only when the shamed can “show” that its failure to measure up to a social ideal is temporary. Shame binds us to others in how we are affected by our failure to “live up to” those others, a failure that must be witnessed, as well as be seen as temporary, in order to allow us to re-enter the family or community. (107)

Reflections on the debates that repeat and juxtapose representative citations from both sides can be read in ways that bear witness to the shame of each. That is, such reflections supply a reader who finds use value in both teaching and scholarly publications unrelated to teaching with whichever temporary shameful identification she needs to be persuaded to believe that she ends up identifying correctly. It is this notion of ‘correctness’ that signals the debates’ end: the reader, locked into a particular identification, has found where she belongs. By this logic, then, a conflicted subject is a shameful one, and someone who wants to succeed in the field had better soon pick a side.













Identifying with exchange value of  work

They are servile to university instead of pursuing real intellectual work

They are careerist and produce irrelevant work

Identifying with those who lack awareness of material realities 

Their work doesn’t earn the field respect as a legitimate academic discipline 

Their work is done on the backs of those who teach







Identifying with those whose work contributes to public good (however that public is defined)

We produce intellectual work that matters: theoretical scholarship

We engage in intellectual work that matters: teaching

Identifying with exchange value of work

Our work generates publications, earns awards, and creates PhD programs that legitimize rhetcomp as something more than FYC 

Our work generates tuition dollars and serves the needs of an important population: undergrads

[Figure 1]

Before moving on to an analysis of the shame/pride dynamic circulating in the regime of academic capitalism, I want to step back for a moment and problematize the degree to which dedication to teaching actually legitimizes its use value. Specifically, when the work of teaching (and the teaching of composition in particular) is dismissed for its vocationalist utilitarianism, Practitioners’ pride in the regime of public good exists only if the work of teaching can be disconnected from its exchange value in the academic marketplace.9 Authorizing writing administration as intellectual work, for example, is one such strategy (see Council; Roen; Rose and Weiser; Schneider and Marback). Another strategy conceptualizes student writing as a kind of discourse that “contain[s] deep intellectual content” (DeJoy 141). And in his summary of the Practitioners’ position, Bruce Horner offers yet another strategy for disconnection: he redefines classroom practice as a kind of intellectual work that, not unlike theoretical discovery, possesses non-commodified use value:

In a critique of “careers” in composition, [David] Bartholomae . . . observes that he regularly teaches the first-year writing course at his university not as a sacrifice or as service, not as a gesture of solidarity with TAs, students, or teaching in opposition to research, but out of a commitment to “a certain kind of intellectual project—one that requires me to think out critical problems of language, knowledge, and culture through the work of ‘ordinary’ or ‘novice’ student writers . . . .” This view offers an alternative to dominant definitions of intellectual work in Composition as the production of commodities . . . . It takes Composition’s non-disciplinary status, its location on the margins between the academy and the “popular,” not as a lack to be corrected or fate to be condemned, but as the basis for useful intellectual work involving both students and teachers as they confront the contact between academic and non-academic discourse and concerns. (Terms 202-03)

By redefining teaching as intellectual rather than service work, Horner and Bartholomae disconnect the work of teaching from its exchange value, thereby dis-identifying it not only from the “sell-out” Theorists who define intellectual work in non-teaching terms, but also from those who would define composition’s worth only in relation to its exchange value in the academic marketplace. In so doing, they assign to Practitioners’ work a use value worthy of pride in the regime of public good.

While Bruce Horner’s argument compellingly explains the ways in which theorists and ‘anti-theorists’ critique each other for identifying with the values of the academic marketplace, I would argue that each position also paradoxically shames the other for not identifying with the values of that marketplace, a paradox that evinces the rhetorical power of clashing regimes.10 If, for example, members of the field identified with the values of only one regime, no shameful regime to work against would exist. However, because in this historical moment academics must increasingly move across both regimes, we have at our disposal the rhetorical means to dis-identify and re-identify with either regime as needed. And while this identificatory pliancy might sound like something useful to those working in rhetcomp, my concern is that conventional readings of reflections on the debates stimulate an emotional economy that actually limits the range of identifications available to us. Under the regime of academic capitalism specifically, shameful identifications are those that ignore the material realities of working in the 21st-century university.

Practitioners’ pride in the academic marketplace requires that Theorists be shamed for failing to acknowledge the ways in which the teaching of writing underwrites the pursuit of ‘intellectual’ work (see Figure 1, column 4). Christine Farris, for example, argues that “the attachment of rhetoric’s flag to composition is what keeps rhetoric alive in English departments, and English departments from shrinking to the size of classics and speech departments. At many schools, classics and speech departments would love to take over the teaching of composition if it would save them from institutional extinction.” Making a similar argument about theorists’ dependence on practitioners, Peter Vandenberg asks: “How many dozens of Ph.D. programs housing scholars who consider themselves rhetoricians would persist absent their ostensible function of preparing teachers of writing? If writing instruction were declared irrelevant tomorrow, how many who identify themselves as rhetoricians would remain employed in the American academy?” Theorists’ resistance to recognizing the privilege of their material location is even more shameful because the work of composition is so often undertaken by exploited labor.

In the regime of academic capitalism, where the importance of use value takes a back seat to the material realities of exchange value, refusing to acknowledge who funds the pursuit of theoretical scholarship and under what conditions is shameful. This shame in turn makes it possible for Practitioners to reclaim the value of service—its exchange value—for purposes of restoring pride. Richard E. Miller argues, for example, that rather than “model ourselves after the other disciplines, with our scholars and our scholarship, our national awards and our national conferences”—forms of recognition that “have done little to improve the lot of most people who teach writing” (244-45)—we should instead reclaim our commitment to undergraduate education. Such a reclamation recognizes that because “institutions of higher learning are more and more dependent for survival on tuition revenues,” tuition-paying students are institutional assets. As such, we can more persuasively argue for improved teaching and learning conditions if we “embrace the very activity that is so disdained across the disciplines: serving entry-level students” (247). By dis-identifying from Theorists wrapped tightly in their public good cocoons, Miller aligns himself with Practitioners laboring in the real world.11

From the Theorists’ perspective, service work under the regime of academic capitalism is shameful because it lacks exchange value: it does not earn the field the kind of legitimacy its members need to succeed materially as academics (see Figure 1, column 3). Consider, for example, Ching’s inclusion of this passage by Beth Daniell:

Theory . . . has a kind of market value within the academy, and its adoption by practitioners in a field like composition, which has struggled to legitimize itself in a relatively short history, ought to come as no surprise. . . . . One way for compositionists to “attain academic respectability”—to render their work visible (or simply comprehensible) to their literary colleagues—is to demonstrate their facility with theoretical models drawn from more prestigious departments. (qtd. in Ching 458)

Ching continues to cite Daniell to explain more specifically theory’s exchange value in the academic marketplace: “Because talk about theory has ‘cachet and prestige,’ theory talk helps articles get published in journals and helps panels find places on conference programs. It gets grants, curricular changes, graduate courses’” (qtd. in Ching 458). At research institutions, publications are necessary for tenure and promotion. Publications also underwrite university administrators’ cyclical logic of funding: a scholar who has already published is more likely to publish again. And because those with proven research records are perceived to be safer investments, they are more likely to receive course releases, summer research grants, sabbaticals, etc., all of which help them continue to publish, which will later prove they deserve additional releases, grants, etc. Theory’s exchange value in the academic marketplace, then, is defined in relation to its ability to garner material rewards, rewards that are possible only because the field is now recognized as being intellectually legitimate by those who distribute (increasingly limited) resources.

Making explicit claims about the materiality of theory, however, is not a popular move to make, given that those who identify as intellectuals (in theoretical terms) typically prefer to locate themselves in the regime of public good (see Horner Terms 7; DeJoy 142-43). Thus, Theorist arguments in the academic marketplace typically rely on terms such as legitimacy and academic respectability to both make the case for theory’s exchange value and, paradoxically, elide the specific material conditions within which “theory work” gets done.12 Consider, for example, Sue McLeod’s observation that within the last twenty years, the field has “added even more doctoral programs . . . [and] the growth of our professional journals . . . and scholarly books has been such that it is no longer possible to keep up with them all” (529). Theorists could argue that this growth is possible only because the field is now regarded as being intellectually legitimate. They could, in fact, explicitly reclaim the value of work Practitioners dismiss as “careerist” and self-serving by demonstrating how the exchange value of such work actually ends up materially benefiting the field as a whole (which, if one agrees with Bill Readings, is the only kind of value such work possesses in the corporate university anyway [175]). However, this kind of argument is not common, since it makes visible how scholarship that earns legitimacy in the regime of public good is produced in and made possible by the specific material and social practices of academic capitalism. Even without explicitly making an argument for the exchange value of theory, however, such an argument nevertheless exists. Yoked to the disciplinary god-term legitimacy, it allows Theorists to take pride in their material successes because it shames those whose work, understood as service, “has little to no exchange value within the academic institution’s economy of faculty status and rewards” (Horner, “Redefining” 166).

Like the ideology of public good, then, the ideology of academic capitalism delivers commonplaces that can be used to support arguments made by both sides in the debates. Once circulating in opposition to one another, these respective commonplaces exert a kind of identificatory pressure that makes it difficult for someone to both be in the field and identify in conflicted ways. After all, most people resist identifying publicly in ways they know will be regarded as shameful by those who exercise some control over their material realities. What assistant professor employed by a research university, for example, has not felt pressure to dis-identify from those who ‘only’ teach? And what WPA attempting to improve working conditions for non-tenure track colleagues at that same university has not felt pressure to dis-identify from those who ‘only’ publish? This identificatory pressure, which seeks to stabilize an otherwise complex, contradictory, and dynamic process of identification, deters our ability to build alliances across fields of difference for purposes of effecting mutually productive change. Furthermore, once circulating with an economy of emotion, the repetition of the familiar Theorists vs. Practitioners arguments generates an emotional logic that justifies such stabilization. As Sharon Crowley explains, “The relation between emotion and belief” is a “reflexive” one: our emotional responses to events both affect how we interpret those events and persuade us to believe in the rightness of those interpretations (87). In terms of the shame/pride dynamic circulating within the field’s debates, when shame is invoked for purposes of restoring pride, that pride functions as evidence in support of the action that restored it. Thus, for example, the feelings of pride experienced by a graduate teaching assistant who identifies with Practitioners become proof that she, in fact, has nothing much in common with those distinguished professors who ‘only’ publish; the feelings of pride experienced by an assistant professor as she puts together a persuasive tenure case become proof that she, in fact, has nothing much in common with those adjuncts who ‘only’ teach. Given these terms—where the absence of conflict becomes a marker of pride—with whom does a conflicted member of the field identify?

The Debates Reread; or, Taking Irony Seriously

If there are other members of the field out there who find all kinds of value in teaching writing and producing theoretically rigorous scholarship unrelated to teaching and administering writing programs (and I sincerely hope there are), my goal in the remainder of this article is to offer one way we might contend with the debates without feeling forced to pick a side. Specifically, my goal is to demonstrate how we might engage reflections on the debates in a way that sustains rather than eliminates what I consider to be one of the field’s greatest strengths: its conflicted sense of self. I want to sustain this conflict because, for me, sustaining conflict means resisting the rush to stabilization that so often ignores the presence and potentialities of difference. In sustaining this conflict, I also hope to find strategies for identification that do not require a ready supply of shame.

For the purposes of my demonstration, I draw on Karen Kopelson’s recent disciplinary reflection, which includes her analysis of data from surveys of graduate students currently enrolled in two Ph.D. programs in rhetoric and composition. I analyze Kopelson’s reflection for several reasons. First, in surveying graduate students, Kopelson provides us with insight into how some members of the field who have not directly participated in the debates are nevertheless affected by them. Second, Kopelson concludes her reflection on the debates by calling for their end, thereby exemplifying how such reflections can silence debate through the stabilization of identification. And third, Kopelson acknowledges the irony of producing the very kind of scholarship she counsels us against, an irony that gestures toward a way of reading such reflections with an eye toward engaging their revisionary possibilities.

Like most who reflect on the field’s theory wars, Kopelson includes and juxtaposes representative citations from the two sides; however, she also includes quotations from graduate students she surveyed as part of a study aimed at investigating

the continued power and influence of what scholars . . . have characterized as the field’s “pedagogical imperative.” More specifically, [the study] originated with the desire to ascertain the extent to which some graduate students still feel pressured, or not, to bend to this implicit (and some would and do say explicit) mandate that any research and theorizing they do have relevance and even immediate, direct application to the writing classroom. (“Sp(l)itting” 752-3)

Her analysis of the survey results indicates that graduate students do indeed experience—and are worried about the effects of—the pedagogical imperative. One survey respondent, Paul, for example, writes:

I don’t want to denigrate pedagogy. I’ve been a teacher for 12 years now in a variety of settings: middle school, high school, college . . . , [but if] we are to avoid the service trap—and I believe we should—and gain respect as a “legitimate” area of study, we must not continue to define ourselves from an exclusively pedagogical basis. Otherwise, I fear we will become nothing more than servants to other causes and outside forces, i.e., preparing better lawyers and business-persons. (qtd. in Kopelson 757)

We might read such a passage as evidence of Paul’s being hailed to identify with Theorists situated in the regime of public good: teaching is limited to its exchange value, whereas intellectual work has use value. But Paul might also be seen as identifying with Theorists working in the academic marketplace, since the status afforded to work deemed “legitimate” signifies both its material worth and its use in the world of ideas. As these dual readings demonstrate, the term legitimacy engages commonplaces and sets off ideologics circulating in both regimes. As such, claims about threats to the field’s legitimacy pack a double punch. For Kopelson, the field’s ongoing struggle for self-definition itself threatens its status, since a preoccupation with debating the nature of our work prevents us from actually doing that work:

I am not arguing that [self-examination] is not an important activity, but only that the costs are indeed high when self-scrutiny comes at the expense of taking up other critical concerns and of making other, more innovative and far-reaching forms of knowledge. . . . I am suggesting that we make a concerted, collective effort to release ourselves from the pattern reflected here: from the pattern of producing so much scholarship about ourselves, from the pattern . . . of attempting to determine what our current and future intellectual work is as a primary facet of our intellectual work. (775)

According to Kopelson, if we want rhetoric and composition to become/remain a legitimate knowledge-making field, then we need to make knowledge that “‘travels outside the field’ to affect larger publics” (Kopelson 761, quoting Spellmeyer). Kopelson’s terms for ending the debates, then, require that we identify ‘correctly’ by accepting as true this commonplace: valuable work is intellectual work defined as something other than a) teaching, and b) publications that debate what valuable work is.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Kopelson, I’ve been arguing thus far that conventional readings of such disciplinary reflections—which supply shame for both sides—persuade a reader to believe the pride she feels for identifying ‘correctly’ is proof that the debates need not continue. In effect, her feeling of pride tells her: “See? I am right to think those theorists are a bunch of elitist snobs who don’t care about teaching!” Or, alternately: “See? I am right to think those practitioners (or those who insist on publishing about the debates) are holding us back!” In either case, the pride is proof that she is correct in identifying as she does; consequently, she need not feel compelled to listen to arguments to the contrary. (And this is especially the case if she’s also been persuaded to believe that wanting to listen to those arguments is itself a source of shame.)

I would like to offer a non-conventional reading of Kopelson’s reflection, one that does not provide such a stable conclusion and thus creates a space for conflicted members of the field to identify openly as such. To do so, I draw on Kenneth Burke’s theory of irony, which differentiates two kinds of synecdoche. The first, which Burke terms adjectival synecdoche, conceptualizes a key part of some whole as “embodying one of the qualifications necessary to the total definition” of that whole (Grammar 516). In the second type, substantial synecdoche, the same key part does not simply describe the whole but instead becomes the “summarizing vessel” that “represent[s] the end or logic” and “embod[ies] the conclusions of the development as a whole” (Grammar 516). Irony is produced, Burke explains, “when one tries, by the interaction of terms upon one another, to produce a development which uses all the terms” (Grammar 512). In contrast to Socratic irony, then, Burkean irony—where the incongruities between what is and what should be emerge as revisionary possibilities rather humiliating exposures—manifests humility. A humble irony, Burke says, “is based on a sense of fundamental kinship with the enemy, as one needs him, is indebted to him, is not merely outside him as an observer but contains him within. . . (Grammar 514). In short, a humble irony, which admits rival perspectives for purposes of debunking the certainty of perfection, makes revision possible. Applying Burke’s theory in the context of my argument, the whole (rhetcomp’s ‘correct’ sphere of work) is both described by and finds its culminating logic in its key element—an identification that produces pride.

Kopelson’s reflection on the debates concludes by calling for their end, given that they fail to produce the kind of intellectual work she advocates. She begins her final paragraph as follows: “In closing, I must note the deep irony that this essay is yet another instantiation of the very work I am suggesting is detrimental to our discipline” (775). From a Burkean perspective, Kopelson’s recognition that her own article ironically exemplifies the very kind of scholarship she counsels us against can be interpreted as a humbling (not humiliating) reminder that other kinds of worthwhile intellectual work do in fact exist. Put another way: the irony of Kopelson's argument, which I contend hails rhetoric-compositionists to feel proud for doing a certain kind of work, is that it finds its culminating logic in an authorial subject who is doing something else. It is this irony, which threatens the immutability of the very subjectivity Kopelson’s article calls into being, that I argue makes a revisionary reading of Kopelson’s reflection possible. It does so by recognizing the presence of a conflicted identification, a disciplinary subject who both identifies with Kopelson and is willing to question, if only temporarily, Kopelson’s definition of intellectual work worth doing.

Irony’s Futures: Some Potential Returns

Adopting an ironically humble stance as we engage existing reflections on the debates constitutes a specific kind of readerly work. Rather than reading for purposes of evaluating arguments that in turn provide a ‘correct’ identification, we instead read for purposes of locating a diverse range of commonplaces upon which we can draw as we make arguments about our work and why it matters. By resisting the inducement to stabilize our professionalize identities, we as readers also have a means to develop strategies for building temporary alliances with colleagues in and beyond our field.

Recently, for example, in a highly charged department meeting in which faculty at my institution debated priorities for future hires, colleagues in British Literature argued that the six-plus years of refusing to search for an un-filled line in British Literature communicated to them that the department as a whole found no intellectual value in their area of expertise. As I listened to these impassioned arguments, I thought about the different articulations of value I discuss in this article, which in turn enabled me to shift from my admittedly knee-jerk “You think you get no respect? Ha!” to a consideration of how these colleagues, operating within a regime of academic capitalism, are themselves now struggling to establish a professional legitimacy (vis-à-vis market-driven estimations of “relevance”), one that simultaneously communicates respect for their intellectual work. This struggle is, of course, one with which we in rhetoric and composition are well familiar, although historically we have argued for our professional legitimacy using the terms of the other knowledge regime (i.e., our work is scholarship that does have use value). By being able to situate my colleagues’ arguments within these overlapping and competing histories and knowledge regimes, I found myself both able to identify with my colleagues’ plight even as I recognized the differences that remain between us. When I spoke out in support of my colleagues’ proposal for a hire in British Literature (for reasons that go beyond the scope of this article), I noted that although being able to articulate the exchange value of one’s work is certainly important in our communications with university administration and broader publics, I would also hope that within the context of our own department we could—and should—acknowledge and respect non-commodified kinds of value as well. In doing so, I continued, we can demonstrate respect for diverse areas of expertise as we collectively strategize ways to speak back to broader publics’ implied or explicit charges of irrelevance. I readily acknowledge, of course, that my argument may or may not affect my departmental colleagues in ways I intend; the point I want to emphasize here, however, is that in being aware of how articulations of value adhere to commonplaces associated with competing knowledge regimes, we can become more supple rhetors, colleagues who can identify, dis-identify, and re-identify with others in ways the serve our purposes. Furthermore, although up to this point I have been advocating the benefits of reading reflections on the debates from a humbly ironic perspective, we can also adopt this same stance to write reflections that destabilize the kind of identificatory fixation I have been arguing is counterproductive to effective rhetorical practice. Specifically, Burke’s theory of irony provides a method for reflecting on our work in ways that allow for the continued articulation of tensions between Theorists and Practitioners without also removing those tensions through a ready supply of shame. To carry out the method, we must first remember how Burkean irony is produced: “when one tries, by the interaction of terms upon one another, to produce a development which uses all the terms” (Grammar 512). In other words, future reflections will need to situate the perspectives of Theorists and Practitioners within some larger development to which they collaboratively contribute. This larger development will be no simple third term, one that achieves consensus through the excision of important differences; rather, the development will be a storyline that supplies a “‘guiding idea’ or ‘unitary principle’” through which a “diversity of voices” emerge as “successive positions or moments in a single process” (Rhetoric 187). In this article, for example, I have suggested that academic capitalism offers an interesting storyline, one that can guide our exploration of how practice and theory accrue value (albeit different kinds) within it, and that these different valuations can be tapped not only to supply persuasive arguments within the reigning regime but also to contest the very terms by which it operates. In such a storyline, the key element—the ‘theory wars’ themselves—would be seen as both describing the ideologic of academic capitalism (adjectival synecdoche) and embodying its end logic (substantial synecdoche). Following this storyline and applying Burke’s theory, then, a humble reflection on the debates would necessarily consider the irony inherent in disagreeing with one another such that competing for scarce resources is seen as both logical and natural. It would acknowledge, in other words, the irony that results when our professional debates about the value of our work end up reducing the episteme of rhetoric to mere competition.

Which brings us full circle: to a final irony that circulates in all reflections on the debates that call for their end. It emerges when we consider how, from a Burkean perspective, the key element, in representing the whole, attempts to ‘perfect’ it, to render it finished and unopen to change. A ‘perfect’ disciplinary identification can thus be understood as requiring the presence of subjectivities unwilling to question the commonplaces that give rise to those subjectivities in the first place—which I have been arguing is an effect of reading reflections conventionally. However, when read through the frame of Burkean irony, we become able to ask: how does a ‘correct’ identification ironically perfect the nature of our work in rhetoric and composition? It does so, I contend, by making further debate not only unnecessary but also undesirable. In imperfectly read (and written) reflections, however, Theorists and Practitioners would remember the Rhetoricians, those disciplinary subjects whose belief in the epistemic value of disagreement demands that we both acknowledge and be humbled by the irony inherent in identifying in ways that end debate.

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  • 1. Of course, when they are published, reflections on the debates do have value—exchange value in the academic marketplace.
  • 2. For a thorough review of these arguments, see Kopelson, “Back at the Bar of Utility: Theory and/as Practice in Composition Studies (Reprise).”
  • 3. I use the term rhetcomp here and throughout this article not only to eliminate the polysyllabic bulk of rhetoric and composition but also to disrupt binary associations that link only rhetoric with theory and only composition with practice. Such a disruption is necessary if I am to make my argument that the field’s conflicted sense of self—when understood as a space of inventional possibility—can productively induce its members to resist identifying as always only theorists or practitioners, compositionists or rhetoricians.
  • 4. For more on economies of emotion, see Woodward, who considers the value of emotions and their “general distribution . . . in terms of gender taking place in contemporary culture” (75).
  • 5. I capitalize the terms Practitioner and Theorist here and elsewhere in this article in order to emphasize that I am not trying to represent the arguments of actual people; rather, I am trying to articulate two idealized discursive positions circulating in the debates.
  • 6. Interestingly, in her reflection on the debates, Kopelson cites this same essay by Spellmeyer, except she references it in her summary of the Theorists’—not the Practitioners’—position, ostensibly to support her argument for an expanded notion of pedagogy. Specifically, she cites Spellmeyer’s call for more scholarship that “travels outside the field” to support her view that composition’s use value lies in its ability to “study and theorize discourse” in ways that sustain our work as public intellectuals (“Sp(l)itting” 761). While I would agree that Spellmeyer is calling for more publications of a certain kind, it seems clear to me that he is most invested in publications that do not try to emulate scholarship in literary and cultural studies.
  • 7. Ideologic is Sharon Crowley’s term for “nam[ing] the connections that can be forged among beliefs within a given ideology and/or across belief systems” (75).
  • 8. It should be noted that McLemee, who is not a rhetoric and compositionist, broadly characterizes the debates as a “standoff between tenure-track theorists and adjunct-level pedagogues” (4).
  • 9. For more on faculty members’ disdain for work deemed “utilitarian,” see Salvo 117; Slaughter and Rhoads 198-99; Wiederhold.
  • 10. For more on features of clashing regimes, see Slaughter and Rhoades 8, 30.
  • 11. The tendency to ignore differences within the category of Practitioner supports my claim that the repetition of the two sides in the debates exerts a pressure that deters us from identifying in multiple, potentially conflicted ways. Specifically, Practitioner arguments make no distinction between those who teach composition and those who direct composition programs, a slippage that fails to contend with, among other things, the differences between the working conditions of NTTs who teach composition and the “bosses” who manage them (see Bousquet; Jung; Strickland). This slippage is especially noteworthy in the context of my argument, since the pride of service, which depends on the shame of those who exploit labor, enables Practitioners—broadly defined—to take pride in their refusal to “sell out.” As such, the affective pay-off associated with one’s willingness to do the work Theorists refuse to do substitutes for material compensation (see Schell, Gypsy 68), which problematically invests Practitioners in their own exploitation.
  • 12. Bruce Horner explains, for example, that the material relationship between research grants and faculty “accomplishments” is often “obscured by the common practice of identifying grants as in themselves discrete manifestations of the scholar’s intellectual worthiness, listed in CVs as accomplishments, not explanations for how the scholar has managed to produce so much” (Terms 7).