Last week I trundled off to a Writing Across the Curriculum conference and the first session I attended on Thursday afternoon featured the recent progress of a writing program at a private university in North Carolina. The presenters had managed, by leveraging requirements of their regional accreditation commission, to score money for reassigned time, for program assessment, for their writing center, and to hire a prominent figure in the field of writing studies as their Writing Across the University Director.
In contrast, the next session I attended that afternoon was entitled “WAC in a Time of Budgetary Crisis,” in which all three presenters were from public universities experiencing funding cuts similar to those visited upon my own institution in recent years. Their discussion was of various strategies for survival and for achieving small, incremental steps regarding writing instruction at their institutions. Their narratives were similar to the one a colleague and I would recount the next morning about our own struggles at Slippery Rock University employing existing assessment structures to create some kind of coherent, and effective, approach to writing instruction within our undergraduate programs.
The obvious lesson was that private institutions, usually with yearly tuition charges of $25,000 or more, could currently act in a far more nimble and visionary manner regarding WAC programs than could public institutions afflicted by dropping political support and the consequent budget shrinkage. (The last session of the conference I attended, Saturday morning, included a presenter from a Jesuit college with class sizes for their first-semester, first-year written composition course of 17 to 18 students. At Slippery Rock the minimum size of such classes is 25, and for years prior they had ranged from 27 to 28 students.)
My purpose here is not to discuss that obvious contemporary contrast between public (ever dwindling) and private spheres but to reflect on the disconnect I experienced between the generally upbeat atmosphere of such events as the conference and the rather funereal state of my own consciousness, as I continue grimly to look for ways to strengthen my own school’s writing curriculum, a search that I might add is now entering its second quarter century. My reflections are helped along by a book review in the most recent College Composition and Communication by Nancy Welch, entitled “The Point is to Change It: Problems and Prospects for Public Rhetors.”
Welch discusses four books that “bear witness to the richness and the paradox of rhetoric’s public turn.” (That phrase always strikes me as a little odd. What would a “private turn” on the part of rhetoric look like, exactly?) The paradox is that while academic “activists” believe “public rhetorical work can result in substantive, even transformational change” (701), those same activists almost invariably content themselves with employing “local” tactics that may have an immediate benefit for their own programs, their own institutions and, not surprisingly, their own careers. Meanwhile, the external forces, most often represented by the “decision-making forums” (703) to which academic rhetoricians are denied access, remain notably untransformed by our efforts and continue to determine the conditions under which we struggle to make some small difference. Elected officials, voters with a conscious interest in higher education, and even university functionaries in the upper reaches of administration clearly have other things on their mind than our utterances, or our goals and ambitions regarding our students.
I get it that, given this situation, there doesn’t seem much point to the embrace of despair or rage or helpless frustration. None of those reactions would appear to be “transformative” either. Most of the attendees at last week’s conference are younger than I am, with lives to live and careers to pursue. Many of them may aspire to accumulate a curriculum vitae like that possessed by one of our keynote speakers, a vitae his introducer said “resembled in length a Tolstoy novel.” And in accumulating such vitae the attendees will possibly do a considerable amount of good, in terms of developing vital programs and educating many striving students. In the meantime, however, resources will continue to shrink, class sizes to expand, trained scholars to languish in temporary positions, and public institutions to desperately struggle to retain some semblance of viability. As Welch says, we prefer to “stress the primacy and even the exclusivity of the local, the subjective, and the discursive” (709), presumably because those are the elements of our professional lives upon which we can exercise some agency.
There will be no material reward for hitting the streets, or for even mildly remarking upon an emperor’s nakedness. Professional satisfaction seems equally unlikely. Raging Against the Machine does have rewards for rock artists. For academicians, we’ll always have our conferences.