In their 2001 bibliographical essay, “Cultural Studies and Composition,” Diana George and John Trimbur contribute to the text A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (Tate, Rupiper & Schick) by chronologically mapping the rise and themes of cultural studies in the composition classroom. They end with a call to hold a key contradiction in sight as cultural studies within the field of composition studies continues to develop: contributors, such as the authors, who create theory and methods for teaching writing through cultural critique engage in “the production of scholarly commodities” at the same time that their work aims to critique the rhetoric and power dynamics behind cultural production (87).
Arriving at this essay in May of 2012 with a desire to re-engage with the field of composition studies after having earned a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in Composition & Rhetoric in 1999, I found myself surprised by three key issues raised in the course of the chronology. Firstly, the use of cultural studies in the composition classroom has been mainstream since at least 2001 when the Guide was published. Secondly, writing teachers who focused on cultural critique as a way to 1) arm students against media influence, 2) examine the ethics of cultural production, and 3) teach students the art of analytical, ethical and effective content production were themselves being criticized over a decade ago for indoctrinating students with elitist, leftist ideologies. And thirdly, more than ten years ago, composition lecturers in the United States were suffering from an internal split as they struggled to not only produce “scholarly commodities,” as George and Trimbur state, but (my addition) to become scholarly commodities on the intellectual market simultaneously with their efforts to critique the dynamics of cultural production and market-based life.
On the first issue: while I’m satisfied that cultural studies has become solidly mainstream in the composition classroom, my own aim to use consumer cultural critique to teach writing will not, by itself, make me stand out amongst the many highly competitive candidates out there seeking coveted positions as composition lecturers in my local college and university market. That which makes me distinct might then be my professional experience in consumer products marketing research, web communications and visual design. This brings me to the second issue.
I find myself suspicious of those who would critique the presence of cultural studies in university-level composition courses, more so as an elitist leftist indoctrination process. If such critics knew what I have learned in my professional life, initially, as a marketing research writer in consumer products marketing (electronics usability, packaging, print ad design, brand development and positioning, and more) they would agree that young people do need to be armed against the powerful and devilishly detailed manipulations that large businesses cook up in populous, moneyed, competitive teams of well-dressed MBAs who have flown business-class sipping mimosas into your hometown to mine the minds and spirits of wide-eyed, brand-cowed locals for the purposes of mediating their every thought and decision. They don’t get paid so well because their machinations don’t work. (My student loans, for example, are paid in full.)
Later, I pulled out of the marketing research industry and became a research writer, project planner and graphic designer for web design and development focusing on underserved non-profit organizations—using my powers for good. As I look now to return to my roots in English composition, I’m fascinated by the internal contradiction that George and Trimbur cite in their essay: that of creating oneself as a scholarly commodity by producing theories and techniques for analyzing and criticizing cultural production. In my venture of redirecting myself toward an academic profession, I am, due to my professional background, hyper-aware of myself as a commodity and of my embodying a potentially inherent contradiction. I am designing myself as a scholarly commodity and planning to deliver intellectual commodities in the form of techniques for critical thought and academic writing by way of consumer cultural analysis.
Yet there is a misunderstanding in this sense of “contradiction” that seems to occur when composition scholars emphasizing cultural studies work too closely within their own cultural context. They may risk consenting to believe they have used their incisive knowledge of power dynamics to make themselves into corrupt wielders of influence. Inside the classroom, it becomes possible for composition lecturers to buy into the idea that, in spite of their good intentions, they have become hypocritical intellectual commodities. They might consider that if they are to be true to themselves and their professions, they need to step back from the heights of this intoxicating precipice of depraved, elitist, leftist commercial power before they find themselves wearing Cuban military berets and T-shirts depicting Che wearing a Che T-shirt whilst seeding young people’s unsuspecting minds with the tools they’ll need to form an Apple-branded, internet-streamed World RevolutionTM.
Composition lecturers, in truth, hold a modest and duly placed kind of power when using cultural studies to teach young people how to think critically and produce well-reasoned, ethical content during their university studies and beyond in their lives as working citizens. Wielding this limited but substantial power through the creation of scholarly commodities or even by becoming a scholarly commodity is not hypocritical or even contradictory. It is, instead, a demonstration of the creation of ethical cultural products, products that enable students to understand more completely the breadth and complexity of the intensely mediated world they live in and will need to work in. It is a laudable vocational model that wisely integrates our inescapably market-based lives with principled, reality-based, professional work.
To close, this is not to say that there isn’t something discomfiting and misplaced in the American model of scholarship where each academic creates oneself as an individual commodity in competition with others in one’s field. It may seem to create a sense of suspicion within the profession, a grasping for closed intellectual ownership that stagnates creativity, shrinks one’s breadth of knowledge and breeds anxiety. As models for vocations that integrate American market-based life with ethical productivity, composition studies scholars might try to very consciously relate to one another not as commodities in competition for scarce resources, but as people who belong to a knowledgeable, insightful, intellectually opulent and generous community. My sense is that this trend already exists and that, as I reach out to update my knowledge base, potential colleagues in the field may help me to become a new, open and contributing member of their community.