The 4C’s: Still Lost in Theory-Land

When I started teaching college writing classes (here meaning mainly rhetoric and composition) in the early 1990s,  I attended the national Conference on College Composition and Communication at least three times at university (i.e. taxpayer) expense.

One of them produced an early Letter from Hardscrabble Creek piece back when it was a column appearing in print: “A Pilgrimage to the Parthenon.” I was learning how to pursue my own agenda.

I did that because the “4C’s” conferences themselves increasingly bored me. They were full of grad-student-ese (“foregrounding the hegemony”) and the usual citations of Foucault, Bakhtin, and Paulo Freire.

I heard papers written in perfect, grammatical English about how students did not need grammar, etc. Were the authors part of a conspiracy to keep practical language skills down so that people like themselves could succeed? Or where they so far under the spell of Freire, etc.., that they neither practiced effective rhetoric themselves nor taught it to their students?

Attending the 4C’s, I learned a lot about university writing-teacher culture but much less about teaching writing to my students.

Apparently the 4C’s conferences are still the same, only more so, according to Mary Grabar, whose piece “Writing Teachers: Still Crazy After All These Years” is a reaction to her spending “four depressing days this month at a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta.”

She quotes a presenter  who is all too typical in my experience:

“We are bigger than comp/rhetoric. . . . We do language,” she declared to nods of agreement.  Because we do “critical analysis,” we occupy the most important position in the academy.  But her own comments and repeated references by others to Marxist theorist Paulo Freire, “post-capitalism,” and “Marxian” readings, betrayed her call for neutrality when teachers engage in classroom discussions of  “what is good for society.”  In bypassing the traditional modes of argument, teachers deny students the very tools necessary to make and  [any?] “critical analysis” of their teachers’ political objectives.

It is true that a  lot of university writing teachers want to teach “critical analysis,” and true that they often have politically desirable outcomes in mind. I saw that happen frequently. Not all are that way: the honest ones can appreciate (and fairly grade) an argument that runs counter to their own personal positions.

The second group, however, is  not that much represented at the 4Cs.

One problem is that the issues faced in the first and second-year composition classes don’t make for exciting conference papers. How does the student learn to paraphrase without plagiarizing? How does the student learn to intellectually evaluate difference sources? What sentence structure best reinforces a desired rhetorical effect?

But at the 4Cs, these bright, verbal products (increasingly) of graduate-level comp-rhet programs can set aside their huge stacks of papers to be graded and instead delight in deconstructing Facebook’s “colonized vision” or whatever, well-mixed with political group-think. Think of it as the scribal class at play.