Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews.
This interview took place in Jeffrey J. Williams’ office at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on August 8th, 2007. It was conducted and edited by Williams and transcribed by David Cerniglia.
Composition is the main artery of English departments. A course in composition or basic writing is a requirement that almost every university has and that English departments typically staff. Before the 1970s most English professors taught writing, but since then composition has developed into a distinct field, with its own vein of research, journals and organizations, and those who specialize in it. David Bartholomae is a leading figure in composition. But, initially trained as a Victorianist, he has stressed composition’s link with literature rather than its separation, and resisted trends toward “writing without teachers” or without academic models.
Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005) collects a wide sampling of Bartholomae’s articles, such as his well-known “Inventing the University.” See also his survey of “Composition” in Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, ed. David G. Nicholls (MLA, 2007), and his debate with Peter Elbow, “Writing with Teachers,” CCC 46.1 (1995). Alongside his essays, Bartholomae has had substantial influence with his textbook, now entering its eighth edition, Ways of Reading, co-written with Anthony R. Petrosky (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1987; 10th ed. 2014). He and Petrosky have also written the text Reading the Lives of Others: History and Ethnography (Bedford, 1994) and co-edited The Teaching of Writing: The Eighty-fifth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (University of Chicago Press, 1986) and Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts: Reading and Writing in Theory and Practice (Boynton/Cook, 1987). In addition, he co-edits the University of Pittsburgh Press series in Composition, Literacy and Culture.
Born and raised in Ohio, Bartholomae attended Ohio Wesleyan University (BA, 1969) and Rutgers University (PhD, 1975). Offered jobs in Victorian literature at Boston University and in composition at the University of Pittsburgh, he chose composition and has been at Pitt since 1975. He directed the composition program from 1980-89 and was chair of the department from 1995-2009. He currently holds the Charles Crow Chair of Expository Writing and also has been a frequent visiting professor at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.
Jeffrey Williams: Composition is probably the most commonly taught course in English departments, yet it often has an iffy position, especially next to literature. How do you see composition fitting in an English department?
David Bartholomae: I’m on record as saying that composition with a small “c”—that is, an attention to writing in school—is best sponsored in the English department. I’m really concerned about what’s happening across the country where more and more programs are splitting out and becoming self-standing composition or undergraduate writing programs, drawing TAs from all over the curriculum with no departmental status. There are a lot of reasons why I think that’s a problem. Some are just structural. I think that, over time, if you don’t have departmental status, you don’t have a position at the big table, and you lose a certain level of clout. If the dean for whom this was a brilliant idea is no longer the dean and there’s a new dean who needs to make budget cuts, that’s the area that’s going to get the cut. It doesn’t have the same stability. No one’s in a position to speak for it at the dean’s level the way that, once upon a time, it was possible to talk about composition as part of the undergraduate mission.
It also says what I think is wrong: that the work is independent of the research mission of the university, and that the work of teaching undergraduate writing doesn’t require or rely upon faculty paid to do research—and given time to think about what they’re doing. So it’s played into a distinction in today’s American university where there’s a teaching faculty and a research faculty, and the teaching faculty teaches in the lower division or undergraduate curriculum, does the required service courses, and the research faculty teaches English majors and graduate students, and then gets all the support that goes along with them.
I’ve been around long enough to know that composition is uncomfortable in English departments, and one of the reasons is that it has to be accountable to people who don’t care about it or don’t know about it or who carry an ancient prejudice about having to teach it. It’s like you get that smell on your hands and it never comes off, and so you’re waiting for the moment in which you graduate and you don’t have to do it anymore. I think that English departments need to think about undergraduate writing, why it’s important, and how to value it.
JW: I’m sympathetic, but in reading journals like JAC (Journal of Advanced Composition), which I’ve published in, it does seem as if there is a highly developed genre of complaint in composition.
DB: That’s right, and supposedly, to compensate, there either has to be a major or it needs its own separate home. One of the positions I take that’s different from Composition with a big “C” is that I think composition has historically been a way of thinking about the lower division and general education, and about the relationship between writing and ordinary language and the possibilities of an intellectual life that doesn’t rely on specialized language. At a certain point, a distinction was made that we now take for granted, that there is something called “composition,” and that it has its own expertise, its own set of classes and professional domain and literature. Once upon a time in the American university that distinction wasn’t so fixed; certainly the lower division and upper divisions were set, the training of majors was set, but it was possible for people to imagine that, whatever their research interests were, there was a relationship between literary value and the value that you would find in undergraduate writing.
I think it’s been a loss that, as composition has gotten more firmly defined professionally by drawing the boundaries between what’s composition and what’s not composition, we’ve lost that possibility. It’s a fantasy, but I’m imagining an English department that sometimes I think I’ve lived in and chaired, where people do a variety of kinds of work, see their work as being part of a larger common mission, share interest in each other’s research, value each other’s scholarship and teaching, and understand the difference between general education and a kind of specialized training. But there’s a great labor to make that happen and keep it going. I can easily understand why in certain places people have said, “I cannot do my work in the English department. I don’t get the support. I don’t get the resources. I’m tired of being dumped on. I’m tired of the whole thing.”
JW: I want to come back to the history of composition, but first I want to ask you more about where you would place yourself. For you composition is linked to reading literature or other kinds of texts that have some degree of difficulty. For instance, in one essay you talk about assigning Foucault and how students struggle through it. Maybe you could say what you do and how you link composition to reading.
DB: I think of composition as a commitment to a course, and it’s a lower-division, introductory course. It’s a course where students have to learn to work with materials that aren’t written for them and that they’re not prepared to read. That’s the defining moment of the undergraduate curriculum, and I think it’s the reason why composition is a requirement across the country. Some people say it’s because we have to make them good citizens. What I have said is that it’s to prepare them to do the work of the academy, at least as I can represent it in that course. It’s not mathematical work—it’s work with written language, and it’s to learn to work with materials that you’re not prepared to read because you’re not a part of that disciplinary or intellectual community.
So the job of the composition course is to prepare students to do that work, which means to learn how to read and how to write about what they read. They need to learn how to work with compelling and powerful texts beyond summary and paraphrase, and the way I usually put it is that there has to be a way for students to have something to say too. There’s a way in which students can extend a project, they can apply it, they can see some connection with something else. They have an idea and they find a way of making that work something other than a summary statement of somebody else’s text. That’s a pretty interesting and exciting moment.
The reading piece has always been important to me. As I’ve imagined students encountering intellectual life: they make use of something that they’ve read, something the academy values. That’s why I think it’s important to give students the opportunity to read Foucault. The composition course also has to be a reading course because, if there’s really a project where students are going to work on their writing, it means they must revise. There has to be a paper that they have written and then learned to read critically so they suddenly understand what it is doing and what it isn’t doing, and they revise it not to clean it up but to make it smarter or to make it take the next step. That’s always going to involve rereading.
The student who reads something that’s difficult will write a paper that’s sort of seamless and perfect. If you ask the student, “How did you do that?” the student will say, “Well, I just ignored everything that I didn’t understand and I wrote about what I could understand,” which is a very powerful strategy. My response as a teacher is to say, “Now, what I want you to do is to go back to read the parts you didn’t understand to see how you would bring those into the text that you’ve written.” And the first thing that happens is the key moment for me in the freshman course—it’s the moment of translation, when the student says, “What I think Foucault is saying is this.” Then the next moment is the student finding a way of taking that translation and putting it to work on something—a reading of another book that’s in front of him, or a situation that he’s encountered, or something that’s going on in the news. So then he’s doing a Foucauldian project. So there’s now a reading of the work the student did last summer on a construction crew, and the way in which he was defined and placed on that crew in a hierarchical arrangement, in relation to Discipline and Punish. That is a kind of work I can value, because I know that there’s an investment beyond just, “How can I fit Foucault into my pocket?” That’s the reading piece. It doesn’t require the literary text, but it certainly can.
JW: That’s the direction of the textbook you’ve done, Ways of Reading, which is different from the usual run of comp textbooks. I understand it’s done very well.
DB: It’s going into its eighth edition. It’s important to me to think that one of the ways that I have done my work is by organizing the experience of hundreds of thousands of writers and their teachers. The challenge of the textbook was to figure out how you might take your course and make it into a course that other people can teach. The pleasure of the textbook is hearing from people for whom it’s been an important experience, both teachers and students, saying something like, “The book took me seriously as a thinking person.” I refer to students as intellectuals, and people laugh at that, but I’m not being ironic. They’re trying on the role of the intellectual, and we help them to do that by forms of engagement that we arrange.
Lynn Bloom was determining the canon of nonfiction as created by the composition reader, and there was a set of pieces that ran through all of them, but the one textbook that didn’t fit the study was Ways of Reading. We were bringing a set of materials that nobody else was using, that were dense and difficult, that were experimental in certain ways, that you had to work to teach and that students really had to work on over time to be able to handle with any skill and pleasure. Many of the other books said, “Let’s make the course as easy as possible. Let’s give them what they can handle.” The attitude was that freshmen were pretty stupid and their writing wasn’t very interesting. Perhaps it’s because they weren’t being asked to do anything interesting.
JW: What kind of material do you have in it?
DB: Let’s see, in the new edition we’re including about twenty poems from a book by Cornelius Eady called Brutal Imagination. It’s the story of Susan Smith, the woman from Union, South Carolina who drowned her children by letting her car go into a lake and then saying that a black hijacker did it. So he’s imagining the role of the black man. With that we usually ask students to do two kinds of things. We ask them to think about how they understand this project as a project. One of the compelling things about it is that it places the black man in the history of black representation. There’s a set of poems on Uncle Tom and Step’n Fetchit and media representations of blacks. There’s a series of poems that works from the transcript of Susan Smith’s confession. This series tries to imagine the position of the person for whom the only alternative is the invention of the black man who drowned her children. And then this quite brilliant final poem called “Birthing” is a remarkable piece for its unwillingness to make Susan Smith into a simple villainous character (just to reverse the race politics, so that it’s black people who are good and white people who are bad). One of the things we want students to do is to think through that sequence, if it’s a making an argument. Another thing we want them to do is an Eady-like project. If they want to do it in the form of poems, they can—they can imagine the limits of speaking for that person or bringing that person into light. The other kind of assignment we give is to have students think about history and its rewriting. They can go to the newspaper accounts on the Susan Smith investigation and trial, and think about what Eady can do that can’t be done in those other forms.
We also include the opening chapter of Anthony Appiah’s new book The Ethics of Identity, where Appiah is trying to think through the need to define yourself in relation to some larger collective. How do you do that, and what are the costs and benefits?
Ways of Reading is organized in such a way that the first set of questions is called “Questions for a Second Reading,” so it assumes that rereading is the opening moment. And then it will help to direct that reading. The idea is that when students go back to work on the essay, they can be driven by a piece of it that seems interesting to them but that’s slight or small or not necessarily what you would produce if you were being tested on your ability to summarize Appiah’s argument. There are questions directing students to work inside of the text and there others directing them to imagine an Appiah-like project.
JW: It strikes me that a big part of what you do focuses on revising. As an editor, I’ve become more and more adamant about revision, and my method is usually paring things down. My saying is that no one ever complains about a shorter essay.
DB: My sense is that in the world of the professional writer (as academics are professional writers), one of the problems is too much revision. On the one hand, the rush to publish keeps people from being serious about revising, but on the other hand, too much revising keeps people from finishing, from publishing. I know people who’ve revised their book for so long that they’ve left three books behind them.
For students, it’s often that they literally don’t know how to revise, that they haven’t had the experience. They may have revised papers, but it’s usually to clean them up. At best, even when it’s an intellectual project, it’s to make it tighter rather than to make it messier. I think in teaching students to revise, the ideal is to teach them to come to terms with the formal limits of what they’ve done. The simplest example is that you have an idea, you gather the examples, and it leads you to your conclusion. If you ask students to bring in counterexamples, the parts of this book that don’t fit the argument, or even just to write three possible conclusions, or two paragraphs that think tentatively rather than with certainty, that’s a major task, but that makes revision a form of critical inquiry. To learn to do that requires an act of faith, since the good writers in your class have been good writers because they’ve found a form that works for them and they’ve got a set of routines.
Undergraduates need to learn how to take revision seriously and how to imagine it’s something other than correction. Sometimes it means, “OK, you need to read another book—now that you’re writing about images of women in advertising, you need to read Susan Bordo, or you need to read Judith Butler and see if you can bring that into the argument.” But it’s also a matter of a student seeing the problem of his or her own paper. A student has to learn to read it, to begin to understand what it doesn’t do, or what its limits are. We like to have students write like the people that they’re reading. We have students write about Emerson, but there is never an Emersonian paragraph, and we’ll say, “When you revise, make one of those paragraphs an Emersonian paragraph,” which means that they have to go back and read to figure out what an Emersonian paragraph is, and what would it mean to be able to do that, and then something happens. It’s like asking students to write poems like Cornelius Eady. It’s not to train them to be poets.
JW: How would you say your way of doing composition is different from other ways of doing composition? One that I especially know is the more expressivist line, since I went to Stony Brook when Peter Elbow was directing the composition program there. Another might be the critical pedagogy line, to train citizens.
DB: I want to do this in a way that doesn’t make me singular or exceptional. I’ve been speaking with some passion about the way I imagine the course, but I’m not alone in imagining the course that way—that is, a course that asks students to be seriously involved with other people’s ideas. Peter and I published a debate, and my essay was called “Writing with Teachers.” Peter is a brilliant teacher, but the notion that there is a free writing, the notion that you can, at some point, be free, is one of the most powerful myths that circulates across the culture of writers, whether they’re undergraduates or not. It means getting school out of the way. My argument is that: the moment somebody is writing seriously as an academic or an intellectual, they are always writing in the face of tradition, power and authority. At the undergraduate level, to pretend that they aren’t is to make them foolish. You must make them aware of their responsibility to authorities beyond themselves, or to texts that have had a circulation. That means that they don’t get to invent the discourse on the family or the discourse on the nation or citizenship or patriotism. They have to be worried about where their language is coming from.
Some imagine the composition course as a place to prepare citizens for a democracy. This reaches back into the history of the American university. The rise of the newspaper led the rhetoric course to be about writing, not public speaking. The notion was that you would be writing in relation to the public, and that you would have a way to be able to participate in democratic life. Now there’s a strong movement to use the composition course and to justify its requirement by making it a service-learning course, where the course is the occasion for students to go out and work in a community literacy center or some community setting. I have a very skeptical and jaundiced view of this. It’s a required course, and sending groups of 20 undergraduates out to meet poor people and to write about it—I’m not sure that achieves what it’s meant to achieve, and I think in many ways it’s a form of patronization. And often these programs fail to ask the necessary questions, “What are the genres of writing that are appropriate? What is the writing for? How good is it?” It’s often descriptive, or it falls into a kind of op-ed genre, so that there’s this Rush Limbaugh quality, or the liberal version of it, where the point is to summon up a strong feeling.
Kurt Spellmeyer and Richard Miller, both at Rutgers, have a very interesting book called The New Humanities Reader, and in it they say that, because freshman composition is a required course and we have the attention of so many students, we must turn students to the major issues of the day. They use the course to have students attend to social issues—the environment, poverty, globalization. The textbook produces a serious set of readings that can give students an informed position, and then prompts them to write about major issues. Of course it’s hard to find the undergraduate paper in response, let’s say, to the problems of poverty in Africa, that finally has an authoritative built-in knowledge, rather than that simply takes the right position. But to have students read serious works on public issues, I think that’s something to do.
The other version of the course that prepares students to do the work of the academy is the writing-across-the-disciplines course, where you spend some time thinking about writing in the sciences, writing in the social sciences, and writing in the humanities. There was a time when there was a lot of energy being spent on that. The limit of this conception of academic writing is that enforces a kind of formalism: it assumes that there is something called “historical writing” or “economic writing.” But within a field like economics, the genres vary wildly. Whenever I do faculty workshops, I use something I learned from Jim Slevin. One of the first things Jim would say, if he were going to meet with a group of anthropologists, was, “Send me what you think to be a really good piece of writing, and then send me a piece of your writing.” What would happen is that there would be strong disagreement among the anthropologists about what good anthropological writing was. The disciplines have multiple genres and a contested sense of the good. All of that is hidden or erased in the writing-in-the-social-sciences approach to preparing students to write in the academy.
There are also those who argue that students should change the genres of academic writing. I’m thinking here of Geoff Sirc, who has a book called Composition as a Happening. He sees the composition class as the place to bring the discourse of the academy and its values and standards into productive conversation with popular or emergent culture. There’s a lot of interest now on the research side of the composition community in what’s happening in chat rooms, text messaging, rap or hip hop, the varieties of forms of writing that are emerging now out of youth culture and technologically mediated culture, and the idea is that composition should allow students to imagine the place and power of those in relation to the sort of stuff they’ll read in the class.
JW: So the writing of Facebook? One could imagine a very different kind of composition course in twenty years.
DB: That’s true. Actually, Jim Slevin, who died a year ago and who’s one of my intellectual heroes and was a very good friend, had this notion that composition was something that he would work with but not in. The last piece he wrote tried to imagine a course that wasn’t bound by all the predeterminations of, “Is it a literature course or is it a composition course?” But Jim saw that composition was the place where a set of institutional standards and values met with emergent, popular, ordinary language—acts of reading, ways of writing, that come from outside the classroom, and that they would transform each other. It was not just the students who would be transformed, but the academy would be transformed as well.
There was a time in the academy when a professor (and departmental chair) could pay the kind of attention to the lower division and general education that Jim paid. One could imagine that happening again, where scholarship changed because of what came through the door in the freshman class. It might seem hard to imagine this now, but this was the world that Jim imagined. John Norton, who’s chair of History and Philosophy of Science at Pitt, teaches a senior seminar where students learn to write as though they were historians and philosophers of science. Most departments at Pitt have a capstone course like this. John said that “the future of the profession depends on a course like this senior seminar,” and what I heard him to be saying was not that courses like this prepare students to go to graduate school, that as we watch smart, young people who are intellectually serious trying to imagine themselves in the roles that we occupy, roles manifest in our writing, we learn about ourselves and our writing and what we have learned to take for granted—what our blind spots are, what our discipline might mean to those on the outside. That’s how I understand our relation to freshman composition and general education.
JW: That’s a good justification of composition. But, to look at the less optimistic side of things, there are a number of critiques of it. You and I both admire Richard Ohmann’s work, but he exposed some of the less than humanistic functions of the composition class. And more recently there are critiques of labor practices and composition’s complicity in them. Many compositionists have become middle managers instead of professors, as Marc Bousquet, whose work I especially admire, points out. How would you respond to some of those criticisms?
DB: I think they’re very different criticisms. I haven’t done the homework to work this out in detail, but the thing about Ohmann is that he actually believed that the teaching of writing could produce the forms of intellectual and social change that he valued. The canonical piece “Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language” (in College English 41, 1979) tells how the values that we bring to the writing class ask students to look only at the local and not to theorize. His point is that what you teach students to do with sentences can be imagined as a form of political enslavement. The argument, then, is that what you teach students to do with sentences can also be a form of powerful critique and liberation. So the question is: “What do you teach students to do with sentences?”
I think teaching students to do things with sentences is a very powerful political act. Teaching students to only look for examples that fit is a kind of Bush politics: you look only to find what you have to, in order to do what you want to do. Teaching students to use a parenthesis when they have two thoughts at once, or to imagine that they occupy two linguistic positions, makes them different people. My sense is that Ohmann is right. He was a teacher; he did at least one textbook.
JW: And he edited College English. He had Harvard training in literature and he was writing on stylistics, but he chose a different career path from most of his cohort.
DB: That’s right. And his hero, Wallace Douglas, who was at Northwestern, is a very important critical thinker who published only in relation to classroom practice.
JW: Douglas was the author of one of the chapters in English in America.
DB: That’s right, the one that looks at the history of instructional practice. I was chair of CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication) when the Wyoming Resolution came in…
JW: What’s the Wyoming Resolution?
DB: There was, annually, a conference on composition at the University of Wyoming. It was exciting to be there because you felt like things were happening. There was more discussion than paper-giving, and it seemed free of hierarchy, and there was a great barbeque and people drank a lot. One year at the Wyoming conference, people said (there were a number of part-time and adjunct faculty there), “Think about the division of labor and the contract conditions of part-time faculty,” and a resolution was passed to address the problem of an underpaid, part-time faculty primarily assigned to teach composition.
The resolution was addressed to CCCC, and Jim chaired the committee charged to respond. The political history was like the history of the proposals that Bousquet and Cary Nelson and others brought to MLA. The Wyoming Resolution charged CCCC to sanction departments that were in violation of best practices in hiring. Of course CCCC was not in a position to be able to do that; they had no legal standing, they didn’t have the money, and it wasn’t in keeping with their charter. Everybody felt that changes needed to be made, but no one could figure out how to make them. This was when we first started to think about the organization and distribution of labor as part of what we thought about when we thought about composition.
One of the interesting things that happened was that the initial proposal said we should get rid of part-time faculty (that composition should be taught only by full-time, tenure-stream faculty members), but, in the first of several meetings that Jim chaired, one of the angriest groups was a group of adjunct faculty who didn’t want tenure-stream jobs and who saw us eliminating their positions. They had a variety of reasons. The committee wanted to solve the problem of the inequity in pay and course-load in composition, but they couldn’t figure out what to do about it other than take positions.
The Wyoming Resolution did produce statements on campuses that outlined the rights and responsibilities of faculty. It served union efforts on certain campuses, and CCCC issued a series of statements about maximum course-load and the role of part-time faculty in making decisions about curriculum, about office space, and so on. I can only dredge up the memories of it, not the details very well, but to my mind it long preceded the work of Bousquet and Cary Nelson. This was when people in composition started to realize that you couldn’t think about the field without thinking about the employment conditions of those who were primarily engaged with the field.
I mean, I directed a composition program for 10 years. I knew all the part-time faculty, and I knew them intimately. You rely on them. They are the teaching faculty in the provost’s formula, the formula that provides a non-tenure-stream teaching faculty and a tenure-stream research faculty. At Pitt, we have begun to produce more full-time, non-tenure-stream positions. We haven’t changed the formula (which disturbs me), but we have considerably improved working conditions. I’m on an ADE (Association of Departments of English) committee doing a survey of hiring practices, to create a database so we can chart change in the use of adjunct, part-time, non-tenure-stream faculty. Having participated in that process, I have no idea whether I’m going to rot in hell for what I’ve done or whether I’ve made my way to heaven, because on many campuses and on my campus, there are maybe 50 people working full-time outside of the tenure stream. The have continuous employment, get paid a decent wage, are given responsibility for the curriculum—and we haven’t traded in a single tenure-stream line to achieve that. However, it plays into the distinction that I find problematic, between a teaching faculty and research faculty. The teaching faculty teach 3/3 loads. They get to make decisions about the courses they teach, they really run the curriculum in many ways, they’re wonderful colleagues, but they don’t get sabbaticals, and we now have to think about the difference between the research faculty and the teaching faculty.
JW: I want to ask you about your background and the situation of comp when you came into the profession. I know that you come, indirectly, out of the tradition of Hum 6, which Reuben Brower and others developed at Amherst after World War II, and which Brower brought to Harvard, where Paul de Man and Richard Poirier and probably Ohmann encountered it. Poirier was one of your mentors at Rutgers, which helps to explain your stress on text-based writing. Maybe you could talk about how composition developed from World War II through the time you came into it.
DB: I’ve come to believe in the following: once upon a time it was not so natural or inevitable to think that we had composition on the one hand, and on the other we had literature, and these were two separate professional worlds, each requiring its own forms of professional development, its own meetings, where people in one world were either mysterious or suspicious to people in the other. There was a time when people could imagine being interested in their own research, and they could imagine being interested in the preparation of English majors, and they could also imagine being interested in the lower division and in general education.
One of the places where this was done in a very interesting and influential way, at the end of the Second World War, was at Amherst. It was Theodore Baird, not Brower, who was the key figure there—although in the project I’m working on, it’s also Robert Frost. Brower was Baird’s student, but there was a larger group working together. The course they created is actually very similar to the course that I described as my own earlier in this interview. I do feel that I’m part of a project (because of the teachers that I’ve had and the commitments that I’ve made) that is connected to the course at Amherst, English 1-2. Students wrote, often more than once a week, and spent a considerable amount of time learning to read closely and to criticize their own work—not in order to finish an essay, but because they were engaged in an intellectual project that had a topic to it. The topic was usually imagining general terms: “What does it mean to be located? If you’re in Amherst, where are you?” You’d think about Amherst in relation to its place on the globe, its place in history, its place in the economy of Massachusetts. But in the end, it was a course about the problems of language and reference. The final question would always be something like, “And so what, then, does it mean to be ‘located?’” Actually, one of the first courses that Baird taught had as its central text Henry Adams’ autobiography. What does it mean to be a student? What does it mean to be a person? Here’s Henry Adams working this through. Students were set a series of tasks where they would write short papers, where they would try to locate themselves, and then the question was phrased something like, “Who are you and what do you know if that’s how you define yourself?”
There were a number of interesting people who went through there. Reuben Brower left with a number of people, including Richard Poirier, who was one of my teachers, to go to Harvard; de Man was one, and Ohmann was one. There’s a long and interesting list of people, and they took seriously their charge to do a freshman course, a gen-ed course. They didn’t see it as something that should belong to someone else.
Amherst had access to people whose careers became distinguished enough that it’s left a very interesting trace across the history of English studies. At the same time, in 1947, there was a group of people—John Gerber is one, who became chair at Iowa—who were at MLA and were furious because there was nowhere, they felt, inside of the structure of MLA to talk about the freshman composition course, which mattered to them. So in 1948 they organized a meeting in Chicago, I believe concurrent with a meeting of NCTE (Nation Council of Teachers of English) and decided that they would apply to NCTE to form a conference, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, which then had its first meeting in 1950. They felt a need to create composition as a professional category so that one could have a career in composition, there would be a journal that you could publish in, there would be a professional identity that wasn’t shameful. With a new field, they had to seek and find a scholarly foundation, a tradition. So on the one hand they sought and found the history of rhetoric and ways of applying the history of rhetoric to the teaching of writing. On the other hand, they received funding to create a scientific foundation by doing usage studies, basically, and studies of classroom practices. It was a moment that produced great energy. It produced a journal. It produced a set of key figures. It started to evolve its own canon.
JW: But it precipitated a split, unlike the Amherst model.
DB: I think that’s what happened. It wasn’t just Amherst; Brooks and Warren were writing a modern rhetoric, and there were a number of New Critics who, early in their careers, were seeing the work they were doing connected to undergraduate writing, often in a freshman English course. One of the early reviews in the journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, on the Brooks and Warren rhetoric, criticized it for being too involved in literature. There was a desire then to create another kind of textbook, founded differently, like James McCrimmon’s Writing With a Purpose, one of the early composition textbooks to command the field. So suddenly the split was formalized in competing professional organizations and competing professional identities.
I felt this in my own career. I came from a PhD program at Rutgers where our study was literary study, and there was not one single graduate course that we took that had anything to do with composition, or with rhetoric for that matter. We were told that we would teach composition to pay our bills, but that we shouldn’t spend much time with it because it wasn’t important. What was important to us was our graduate work—work, ironically, pointed not to authors or periods but to problems of written language.
JW: And your field was Victorian literature?
DB: That’s right. I wrote my dissertation on Thomas Hardy. So I was of a generation who made a set of professional decisions to do composition. For me it was a kind of “two roads in the wood” decision. I was offered a job as a Victorianist at Boston University and I was offered a job at the University of Pittsburgh in composition, and I just thought that the composition job was more interesting. I thought I could spend my life doing that, and I didn’t think I could spend my life writing about Thomas Hardy.
JW: Were you an anomaly then? Your advisors must have been surprised.
DB: Oh, they were shocked. People thought I was out of my mind. I was not only choosing composition instead of literature, I was choosing Pittsburgh instead of Boston. It was in 1975, and it was not until the 1980s that the separate PhD programs or PhD tracks in composition and rhetoric became common. As you create a category of PhD preparation and you name jobs with the same name, you assume that the only person who can take a job in composition is somebody who’s gotten a composition PhD, even though the generation before were all people like me who had written on Dickens or whatever. This is the great divide.
An interesting sidebar is that my class at Rutgers produced a surprising number of people who made careers, very successful careers, in composition, including your colleague Linda Flower, but also Don McQuade, Pat Bizzell, Bruce Hertzberg. I think it’s partly because they were savvy and saw opportunities opening up that seemed interesting and exciting. They could have had jobs either way, but they were people who got very interested in teaching and the problems that teaching presented. I think that’s a part of the tradition that Amherst started, when folks like Richard Poirier, Julian Moynihan, Tom Edwards, Paul Bertram and David Kalstone, who had been at Harvard, came all at once to be in the graduate program at Rutgers. It was partly that they gave us a way of thinking about teaching, and it was partly the critical frame that we were given as we were working with literary texts—which was that we were thinking about the problem of language as represented in Norman Mailer, or Robert Frost, or Marvell or whomever.
JW: Your students nowadays probably don’t have the same sense of it.
DB: Rutgers nurtured faculty who work with composition but not in composition. That is, composition doesn’t define everything that they are or do. And I think there are a number of graduate students whose careers will be defined similarly.
But the history I wanted to tell is of a moment when we wouldn’t have had to think about composition and literature as the necessary designations of an English department. I think that we ought to imagine ourselves back in that place. Joe Harris said, very rightly, that I was trapped inside a structure of feeling that was going to make me forever nostalgic. I wrote him to say, “Joe, I think you’re right. But I cannot, or I will not, let that nostalgia go.” Whatever time I have left to work, I would rather write about Frost and Amherst and Humanities 6 as a way of thinking and teaching than anything else.
JW: I wanted to ask you about being chair of a department and how you see administering fitting with what you do.
DB: The simple answer to how I became a chair is that our department elects a chair, and I stood and was elected. It was my turn. I really like the department; it’s a department where we have a shared sense of purpose. We have programs in creative writing, film, literature and composition, but we’re not in separate annexes. I’ve always taught literature courses. There’s movement back and forth. I never thought of myself as being in composition in such a way that it was the only way I had of inhabiting an English department.
So it was my turn. I thought, “Sure, I can do this job.” And I’ve enjoyed it. The parts of the job that are interesting are hiring and promoting. I was very interested in committing myself to figuring out how to do that well across the areas of my department, and I like the job of reading my colleagues’ work in all the areas. I’ve had, I think, the trust of most of my colleagues, and they think that I will act with their concerns in mind and that I’m not going to take sides programmatically.
There were things I wanted to work on. One of the things I’ve worked hard on is increasing the number of full-time, non-tenure-stream positions. I’ve been eager to support the work of my colleagues in composition, but I’ve been eager to support all of the work across the department.
I’m in my third term. I felt like I was called to do something and I’m glad I did it, but I’m eager to be done. I’m very eager to be a professor again.
JW: You’re also involved with the press at Pitt, co-editing a series in composition. I noticed that it had a long list of award-winning books, including one I’ve used in my research on the history of criticism, John Brereton’s Origins of Composition Studies. How did it come about?
DB: The press thing was just fortunate. The director of the University of Pittsburgh Press, Fred Hetzel, had a young assistant named Peter Oresick, a very fine poet and an old friend. Peter said, “Would you be interested in doing a series?” and I said, “Absolutely.” I think the first book came out in 1985. There weren’t many opportunities to publish in composition at that time—Southern Illinois, and that was just about it. I felt that there was a kind of scholarship that I wanted to be able to make a case for, and I asked one of my colleagues, Jean Ferguson Carr, if she would co-edit with me, and we wrote up a proposal and it was accepted. We publish three or four books a year. I think most people, if asked, would say that it’s the premier series in the field. We have won more of the major book awards than any other series.
JW: How do you find manuscripts? Over the transom, or do you ask people?
DB: Initially we went to a number of people. Among the first books we published was the one by John Brereton that you mentioned. We said he ought to do this, because we knew that he’d been working with archival materials, and Graff’s book had just come out providing a documentary history of English, but really only of literary studies. Lester Faigley was working on a book and wanted to bring literary theory into it but felt that it wouldn’t suit the audience. We said, “No, this is the audience we want to create, the audience for whom that set of connections would make the book interesting”—that is, to read student papers in relationship to poststructuralist theory. As an editor you like to believe that the books that you publish create possibilities for others to imagine books.
Now it’s the case that most of the books come in over the transom. You get dissertations, and sometimes you know that there’s a book there and sometimes you know that there isn’t. We tend to get the second or third book of people with established careers; they want to publish with the series. I really like making books.
JW: One last question, more on the prognostication side: do you see composition gaining a more equitable standing with literature? Or literature declining and English becoming almost entirely a service department?
DB: I have a dystopian vision of the future. Composition at major institutions is now more and more being directed not by tenure-stream faculty but by full-time lecturers or senior lecturers, and I think that’s one version of the future. We’ve produced people who do PhD work in composition and rhetoric and want to have nothing to do with any course called composition. They want to teach the comp theory course, but they have nothing to do with composition with a small “c,” with general education.
A lot of schools are creating writing majors which are cobbled together. It’s a bizarre combination of creative writing and business writing, as though somehow they have the same roots, and they serve the same ends. These programs become self-perpetuating and they don’t have much to do with interesting problems of general education. For composition, literature, creative writing: faculty in all three areas are abandoning the lower division, the one place, it seems to me, that must be reinvented and that must demand the attention of the tenure-stream faculty.
I don’t have a very happy vision of the future, which is why I’m a nostalgist. If you listen to the way people talk at RSA (Rhetoric Society of America) or CCCC, it’s odd for literature or the literature faculty to enter the discussion as anything but a punching bag. On the other hand, I have been involved at a number of levels with the Modern Language Association, and there’s not even a sense of political correctness in how they refer to composition and composition programs. They say things that make your hair stand on end, like, “Who would ever want to teach that?”