Theory and Interdisciplinarity: Kopelson Part Two

The pedagogical imperative, Kopelson argues, is part of a problematic theory-practice relationship in rhetoric and composition studies. "Theory" comes with at least a couple of problems for rhetoric/composition. First, we end up doing hand-wringing over our anxieties that theory doesn't help people, and we ask, like Kopelson brings up, "whom does the theory serve?" Second, we fret over the argument that we only use other people's theory; we don't DO (our own) theory. I like what Kopelson says on 765: "Theory performs the invaluable service of tracing, often in order to fracture, the very consensus around 'reason.' This seems to me to be neither a 'mere' nor a 'sterile' exercise."

The material about theory/practice is most interesting to me insofar as it's connected to interdisciplinarity. Graduate students surveyed by Kopelson wanted the field to become a vibrant interdiscipline with cultural and political significance, but they expressed concern that we're not there yet. A couple of quotations:

[Survey respondents] defined theory, variously, as something we 'draw on,' 'borrow,' 'import' from other, 'different fields of knowledge' in order to 'apply' and 'use.'

That is, James seems to find our import-and-apply approach a testament to the very interdisciplinarity that he and so many other of our 'new converts' desire for the field. And in a way it is. But this approach attests to a certain, limited kind of interdisciplinarity only; to what Ellen Barton calls a 'one-way interdisciplinarity' (245), and also to a formulaic mode of inquiry that has for too long characterized composition’s relationship to other fields of study (p. 766).

Okay, fine. I want to make two points here. First, with all the articles, books, reviews, etc. being published, most people do well to read all the scholarship in their own fields. So if people in other fields aren't reading rhet-comp, maybe we shouldn't take it personally. Second, as a corollary, reception of our work in other fields isn't the kind of thing we can control.

This next quotation is a kicker, in my opinion (p. 768):

Though we have long foraged about in other bodies of knowledge—and, yes, to some innovative and crucial ends—we are still primarily importers only, consumers, an 'interdisciplinary' field, if it can be said that we are one, with little to no interdisciplinary influence. (Exceptions to this trend are perhaps our influence on assessment as a field and, in some locales at least, on secondary English education.) As Spellmeyer reminds us in 'Marginal Prospects,' even within the confines of the academy, 'College English and CCC cannot truthfully be said to circulate in the same universe as Critical Inquiry or Cultural Critique' (163).

Critical Inquiry? This is what we're going for? Is it that we want as many people to read our journals as these journals, or that we want to write the same kind of articles as Critical Inquiry and Cultural Critique? In either case, this seems like an "I wish I were taller" kind of goal -- not that they're tall and we're short, but that our scholarship is different, and that's okay. I want to raise another couple of points about interdisciplinarity. First, from Kopelson (p. 768):

Indeed, our field’s discussions of teaching—in the very journals mentioned by Spellmeyer—are not only what have helped define us, for better or worse, but are what should have positioned us perfectly to be an interdisciplinary exporter with, as James says, “much to offer . . . teachers and students throughout the academy.” In short, then, it is by no means only a testament to our own limitations, or to the potential interdisciplinary value of our work, that College English and College Composition and Communication do not circulate in other universes, but a testament to the perpetual devaluation of pedagogy itself.

Unfortunate, but a sensible point. And now what I want to say most vociferously: we can go back and forth about the nebulous notion of "impact," but I utterly disagree that we are just "consumers" of other disciplines and that the interdisciplinarity is just "one-way" (not that Kopelson is saying this). Do you think people in social studies of science, history of science, and philosophy of science don't read and cite Alan Gross and Jeanne Fahnestock? Do you think people in medical anthropology and women's studies don't read and cite Susan Wells and Mary Lay Schuster? And hello, Stanley Fish? Even my work has been cited in related fields. There are plenty of other examples.

Finally, I want to note the terms "rhetoric" and "composition," as well as several recent programs' alternative terms, such as "writing studies." Does "writing studies" succeed in reconciling the rhet-comp history, theory/professionalization, practice conflict?