March 18, 2003

Anatomy of an Academic Bloat

Anatomy of an Academic Bloat

Ever wonder how new courses of study pop up in academia and rapidly become entrenched, even when, to the casual observer, they seem pointless?

This article, on the free version of the Chronicle, provides insight into just that phenomenon, even though I don't think it's the article's intent to do so. The subject is the development of the "field" of Comp-Rhetoric, which is basically teaching college students to write (At State, the course for Freshmen is English 111, which I taught for a couple of years while I worked on my MA. Interestingly, I had no idea that there was a Comp-Rhetoric discipline, or if I did, I didn't care. But I digress).

Apparently, the field is gearing up for a big "theory war." But the more interesting angle is that the development of this discipline is evolving in the same way that most twentieth-century additions to the curriculum have:


  1. Federal cash flows into universities in the '60s to address a "problem"--in this case, it's poor writing skills.

  2. Educators follow the money, and create a new sub-cateogory, "rhet comp," which has a decided lack of a curriculum. Professors fill the void by dumping linguistics, developmental psych, sociology and anthropology into the "rhet comp" field of study.

  3. Newly minted PhDs begin to take up "theoretical stances" pertaining to their discipline.

  4. Intra-discipline debate becomes Pythonesque, as the intellectual equivalent of "Follow the Gourd" versus "Follow the Sandal!" ensues and the whole discipline just gets goofy.

  5. Someone finally admits the truth, "It may very well be composition's dirty little secret that many of us who teach writing would rather talk about cultural studies or critical theory and not trouble ourselves with the writing that our students do,"

  6. The truth, however, doesn't have the power to stop or change anything, because professorial ego, cash, and prestige are now involved, the field has reached critical mass, and its own inertia keeps it moving inevitably on. When you think about it, it's kinda like a Usenet thread...

  7. Meanwhile, actual Freshman Composition is being quite adequately taught--by graduate students in the Lit. field.


For a fun exercise, substitute "Women's Studies," "Higher Education," or any other new discipline for "rhet comp" and then ask yourselves again what you're paying for when you send your kids to college. Whee!

Posted by Big Arm Woman at March 18, 2003 06:58 AM