Ammunition for the New Culture Wars: Writing, College, and More Writing

Sometime in August I decided I’d go from blogging once a week (roughly) to blogging once a month.  I’d be busy writing so I wouldn’t be able to write.

At least not write this blog, with its dubious relationship to “real” work. While it is true that in August I had almost-finished pieces waiting for singular focus, once I let go of continuous posting, I embraced sanctioned disconnect.

Time for a separation between writer and reader I thought.  Some “space” from each other would yield heightened clarity and purposeful progress.

But blogging forces a persistent relationship with an audience. Without that, my work space was too quiet. Writing for academic journals and book presses requires attention to readers, but not the kind of readers who talk back and stay tuned.  Editors are tied to you by the timing of your submission.  Readers are bound by the continued relevance of your words.

Still, deadlines loom.  Is the path to progress paved by circuitous connections or determined direction?

My dilemma about writing–breadth or depth?–mirrors a larger debate about higher education. Do we pursue curriculum built on thematic concerns or should we “cover” core material?  Is college for professional “preparation” or is it for helping students stave off that inevitable skill-driven reality?

Progressive literacy initiatives like Writing Across the Curriculum programs often highlight conflicting aims of curriculum. When I coordinated a WAC program we told overwhelmed but well-meaning teachers to sacrifice “content” for critical thinking.  Our motto:  less is more. Teaching with writing, fostering small group projects, and using interactive technology offered an additive affect to learning, even if took up more class time than lectures do.

After ten years of faculty development, we got some believers. Professors report an increase in students’ interest, focus, and commitment to their courses.  But ten years later I also realize that getting students and professors talking and writing about learning only brings this central dilemma of college into sharper focus.

The question of canon versus connection or critical thinking versus skills preparation pervades Andrew Delbanco’s recent book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.   The “what” of college’s “should be”  is of great interest to writing scholars and teachers.  It is, after all, the first-year composition course that most often greets students as they embark on the enterprise of higher education. Delbanco’s book isn’t about writing but it is about the culture of learning, with lessons that speak to anyone who cares about the “college experience.”

Delbanco, who is a professor of American Studies at Columbia University, was one of my introductions to higher education when I was enrolled in his survey of American literature. That was in the early 1990s, when the “what” of courses like American lit–Melville or Morrison?–occupied academics and the popular press.  (See the cover of John Guillory’s book Cultural Capital for an apt picture of that time.)

Here Delbanco shifts his critical gaze from canons to college, from literary criticism to liberal arts analysis.  The undergraduate curriculum, what we sometimes call “distribution courses” is at the heart of what he sees as  a uniquely American contribution–of profound value and at risk of extinction.  Tomes on the fate of college are creeping up everywhere.  But College resists a rhetoric of crisis, with its requisite praise and blame.  Instead Delbanco offers history, pragmatism, and passion using prose as meditative as one of his literary heroes, Emerson.

But for all his reason and wisdom, Delbanco’s worry about the “liberal arts” curriculum and the future of young people’s minds radiates every page. He rebukes many who demand a more skills-based focus to higher education and also argues against a focus on “meritocracy”–largely an excuse to increase educational inequality.  Evidence that points to short-minded politicians sits next to testimonies of college’s value from the Puritans onward.  History and politics, but also a personal plea about pedagogy–that the teacher and student relationship that cannot be exchanged for technology–turn this book into a manifesto for a new/old mission statement.  That mission statement might read: the life of the mind knows no better home than the college campus. And everyone in a democracy deserves that life. Delbanco writes: “Very few colleges tell their students what to think,” and “most are unwilling even to tell them what’s worth thinking about.”

What’s “worth” thinking about might be a good definition for issues that stirred up those “culture wars” of the late 1980’s and 1990’s, when attention to “crisis” in American higher education reached its most feverish pitch.  But as Delbanco’s book attests, the central problems of those culture wars were never fully addressed. What is the relationship between knowledge acquisition and educational access? Between what’s rigorous and what’s relatable?  Between covering material and connecting to it? They linger in the form of debates about tenure, adjunct labor, remediation, skills, and “preparedness.”

When writers debated these issues in the 1990’s they pitted the public against the academy.  One reason for this is because “they”—the people declaring crisis and offering solutions—were largely entrenched in the systems they decried: cultural critics in leading newspapers, political pundits on television, established professors at well-known universities.

The writers were distinguished from the readers.  There was too much space between them.

Today distinctions are not so finely drawn between who writes and reads, who writes back to “crises” and how these responses get read.  That shift in the technologies of communication suggests that though the issues may be the same, our return to them must be different.

The culture wars have become the college wars.  But its warriors can be writers. The message for today might be that more matters: more participation, more posting, more response, more access, so that writers and readers recall that the space they inhabit is mutual and necessarily reciprocal.

See you next week.

Dedicated to all affected by Sandy. And to my cousin.  Though very far from this particular storm, he knew enough to send me the kind of message that helps regenerate any writer. Even when the power goes out.


About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
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1 Response to Ammunition for the New Culture Wars: Writing, College, and More Writing

  1. Nora says:

    I enjoyed reading this blog and taking a senitmental journey through the cultural wars of a pre-plugged in generation. Is it possible that over two decades have passed since DWM and their legacy were the major villians of progressive enlightenment and inclusion? I am especially thinking of your comments about how new technologies have changed the relationships between who reads , who writes, who responds. The digital age has made both the canon and and the ultra-trendy just a click away, and unleaslhed our inner author/ critic/ social commentator via a menu of interactive options, inluding this perceptive blog. I look forward to the next month’s installment.

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