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Theoretically Speaking

Ten years ago, the scattered members of the classics department — all four of us, dispersed in the departments of history, English, and modern languages — were finally given a distinct physical locus on campus. After eighteen years in the English department, I moved two buildings away to my new office.

Of course, the student pickings these days are slim for specialists in Greek and Latin, so the classics faculty justify their existence by making their department unobtrusive, inexpensive, and useful. In addition to the Latin and Greek and ancient studies, each of us teaches “core” classes of relatively high enrollment. My own repertoire includes the two-course sequence of English composition.

I have taught that sequence now for nearly thirty years — for eighteen years before moving into classics. I’ve used more than a dozen different texts and tried perhaps half a dozen techniques, but the broad outline of each course in my two-course sequence has not changed since I decided what it had to be four or five years into teaching the sequence.

In the first course, we practice three of the four traditional modes of discourse: exposition, description, narration. In the second course, we do the fourth mode, the biggie: argumentation, with the attendant study of material fallacies and research techniques. The traditional (that word again — well, now you know where I’m coming from) point of it all is to disabuse the students of their pet illiteracies and to leave them with some independent critical facility and grace of expression. Rather a noble end, reachable only through much tedium.

There’s just one snag, without which my knowledge of the contemporary debasement of freshman composition would be happily abstract. Owing to a school policy of first-come-first-served enrollment, I don’t get the same students in the second course of the two-course sequence. Rather, at best I get back maybe a third of my English 001 students in English 002. The rest come to me after doing English 001 with other teachers.

The snag was a minor annoyance until a year or so after my move to the classics department, when I started getting students in English 002 who exhibited writing troubles of a sort English 001 would ordinarily have resolved: sloppy misspellings, run-on sentences, pointless fragments, shaky coherence, inept diction, and so forth. For almost a decade now, it’s been the same story, class after class. Most of the students I get from other comp teachers are startlingly deficient in their writing skills.

In the past, a few students with severe writing troubles would finish English 001 and then be tracked into a special two-course sequence called “Guided Writing.” But among several changes in the English department, the sequence was canceled — allegedly to preserve the “self-esteem” of students who might otherwise be tracked into “Bonehead English”; but also, beyond reasonable doubt, because the troubles of Guided Writing students were, by ideological fiat, no longer deemed troublesome.

Still, Guided Writing students were never more than twenty or thirty of an incoming freshman class of about 900. Few of my English 002 students come with crippling troubles in need of “bonehead” remediation. Nearly all those I get from other teachers, however, come with telltale weaknesses and a certain mildly corrupt cynicism.

“All I had to do was tell her what she wanted to hear and I got an A,” one of my C- students in English 002 explained last quarter. His English 001 writing class had been about feminism. I asked him what he had learned about writing.

“Nothing. I mean, not the kind of stuff you’re looking for.”

“What am I looking for?” I asked.

“Oh — you know. Grammar and spelling and organization and word choice and stuff.”

“Well,” I ventured, “has it occurred to you that all you need do is tell me what I want to hear and you’ll get an A?”

The student laughed. “I’d need a lot more time and effort to do that.”

The exchange took place near the end of this past spring quarter, one of ten or fifteen such exchanges I can anticipate every year now, after ten years of evolution in the English department’s personnel and policies.

It used to be said that inside every composition teacher a literature teacher was struggling to get out. This rueful witticism alluded to the sheer tedium of teaching composition well: close readings, minute fussing over detail, knocking predictable habits of illiteracy and stupidity while somehow resisting the debilitating encroachment of a crotchety temper. Sort of like raising kids, come to think of it, and academia has never been heavily populated with people suited to that calling.

In the past, then, some comp teachers would give in to the temptation to blow it off by assigning poems and short stories and asking students to relate their “feelings” about this or that character or theme or setting. If they learned little about writing, the students at least learned some literature.

In the early seventies, though, literature started being displaced by literary theory, and gradually the trends and pretensions of literary theory seeped into composition classes: a whole new way for comp teachers to blow it off.

As one might expect, each trend or set of trends — being trendy — did not last long. In the seventies, theorists blathered about “process” and the students’ right to their own language. In the eighties, the chaotic self-expression of the seventies gave way to deconstructionism, with its curious notion that the self is a fiction; group writing and “peer counseling” became the rage, and traditional notions of voice and coherence in writing became cultural artifacts.

In the nineties, with the stage set by the nihilism of deconstruction, multiculturalism entered, braying its obsessions over race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and postcolonialism. Writing classes have now become studies in oppression (the “School of Resentment,” in Harold Bloom’s phrase), with English teachers doing amateur hour in sociology, anthropology, cultural history, economics, political science — anything but literature; almost everything except the art of writing well.

IF YOU THINK I EXAGGERATE, sample the last several issues of College English, flagship publication of the perennially trendy National Council of Teachers of English. Not only will you come to admire my restraint, but you will gain intimations of things-to-be, as the academic drones inevitably tire of multiculturalism. The prose in College English is woolly and gnarled, of course, the cardinal rule of composition theory being little sense delivered with zero sense of style. But the titles alone suggest approaching trends.

To be sure, some of the multicultural obsessions are not going away soon: “Theorizing Queer Pedagogy in English Studies after the 1990s.” New trends, however, are afoot: “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships Between Discourse and Environment.” And among the new trends, it looks as if the comp theorists will be adding philosophy to their list of incompetencies: “Living Out Loud within the Body of the Letter: Theoretical Underpinnings of the Materiality of Language.”

Then too, there will be factions and retrospectives and attempts at redefinition. Henry Giroux, guru of oppression pedagogy during the nineties, appears to be going out of fashion under feminist suspicion of phallocentric insensitivity. Yet the theorists press on toward new horizons. A breathless credit line describes one reviewer as “currently writing a book on debasement, engaging switch points between black and other queer connections to anal economics, miscegenation, stone butch wounds, and the brain’s prophylactic relations with the dead.” Cutting-edge stuff, possibly on the way to a unified field theory of bosh, and no doubt generously subsidized by the grants culture of liberal academe.

How did all this happen? Among dozens of essays and books deploring the nonsense over the past generation, one conjecture keeps popping up: the theorists have no real passion for the printed word; they write badly and think foolishly because they hate reading.

Writing in defense of traditional literary criticism, Berkeley’s Robert Alter (The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age) speculates that the dominance of theory, with its “bristling conceptuality empty of an experiential ground in reading,” may be the consequence of “the unprecedented expansion of the American university system that took place during the sixties.” With the population explosion in academia came “intellectual disorder” amid hollow and frantic career hustling. This seems to me a decent man’s way of speaking an unpleasant truth: that academia is now crowded with people of middling talent, loose morals, and sinuous emotional problems.

“In practice,” an eccentric Jesuit professor of philosophy once said to us in an undergraduate seminar, “academia is a small slice of hell: the only place on earth where everybody hates everybody.” That was almost forty years ago. He was a charismatic teacher, given to hyperbole in his jokes about the publish-or-perish ethos and the serpentine culture of tenure. I recall how we laughed over his expansive bluntness; none of us knew he was being prophetic.

Perhaps some measure of gratitude is owed to the composition theorists for dropping the last pretense of virtue and thus exposing academe in all its petty, vagrant, abusive, blithely destructive imbecility. As Hercule Poirot says in a flash of recognition: “Ah yes, mon ami, there is evil under the sun.”

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