Moving Beyond Academic Discourse

Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere,

Christian R. Weisser.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002. 145 pages.

Reviewed by Robert Tinajero, University of Texas-El Paso

In this book Christian Weisser provides an overview of how composition studies has evolved and how the field is currently focused on writing in and for the public sphere.  He begins by pointing out some of the major shifts that have occurred in the discipline (in theory and pedagogy) and ends by positing that composition teachers/academics should move toward becoming more socially aware and active.  The compositionist should be a public intellectual and activist.

I will start by saying that Weisser’s book is well-formulated and easily understood.  Though he points to some complicated theories and theorists throughout his book, he writes in a manner that is easily accessible.  From my perspective, it is rather simple to read, but not simplistic in its information or message.  Each chapter builds on the previous and does so with engaging introductions that assist the reader in remembering where the last chapter/concept left off.  I was never confused as to his need or intent in moving on to the next idea to be introduced and discussed.  He also weaved a number of theorists in and out of the five chapters with ease; not bombarding the reader with endless references but referring to enough theorists to grasp the history of his thoughts and composition in general.

What follows is a general overview of each of Weisser’s five chapters.  While these are not in depth explorations of each, I hope they are doing justice to Weisser’s main claims.

Chapter 1, “The Growth of a Discipline,” discusses how composition studies have moved from a teacher-centered to a more student-centered approach in theory and pedagogy.  Weisser points to the likes of Kuhn, Christensen, Moffett and Elbow for brining about a student-centered model of discourse and teaching, something James Berlin called “the Renaissance of Rhetoric” which occurred in the 1960s and 1970s (7), but states that expressivist and cognitive models, while being student-centered, still followed the notion that knowledge was an individualistic enterprise.  The next shift that occurred was social constructionism in the 1980s.  Where before knowledge was seen as something an individual goes out to get, and which the teacher “got” and gave to the students, knowledge was now seen as something produced by communities. The focus now was the social nature of writing, with its “most widely recognized and cited advocate…Kenneth Bruffee” (21).  Academics Weisser sees as having “expanded social constructionist thought in more sophisticated directions” were Ann Berthoff, Janice Lauer, John Trimbur, Lester Faigley, and Evelyn Ashton-Jones, among others (23).  The second chapter moves into a more politically aware approach to social constructionism and begins to tackle the issue of the “public sphere.”

In Chapter 2, “Radical Approaches to Composition,” Weisser begins where chapter 1 left off, that is, the politicizing of approaches in composition, of the creation of knowledge and of pedagogy.  A key figure for Weisster, in what he calls “radical composition,” is Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed), whom he states “is directly responsible for the discipline’s current focus on public writing (37).  He sees this new radical composition as a critique of social constructionism.  This “radical” approach owes much to the socialization of thinking about knowledge and pedagogy that came out of social constructionism but points out that those previous theories did not take into account issues of politics, power and inequality. Theorists such as Ira Shore and Jane Tompkins have become “Freireistas” (37) and advocate that education must become a “practice of freedom” (41).  Weisser then moves on to a discussion of the “public sphere” and begins to lay out a notion of having students of composition engage in writing for a more public space.  This writing should not simply be “letters to nonexistent editors” outside of the academy because they have no true audience and “appeal to no particular public sphere” (47).  Instead, students should be engaged in writing assignment that are historically situated and important to the student.  Weisser touches on the notion of using computer technology and the Internet to open the public sphere to student writings but warns against using the technology uncritically.  The Internet is in many ways still “sound-byte” technology that may not lead to any significant public discourse and as Irene Ward points out, there are “a number of social, economic, and cultural forces that undermine the possibility of the Internet becoming a democratic sphere” (51). Weisser ends the chapter with a short discussion on service learning (something he complicates in chapters 3 and 4) and advocates it because it “put[s] a human face on the student’s education” (54) but warns that students doing service learning should be made aware of larger social issues so that they may be involved in social change and not an elitist form of charity.

Chapter 3, “Social Theory, Discourse, and the Public Sphere,” continues to expand and complicate the notion of “public” and public writing.  The author opens by pointing to the fact that  “radical” theorists have created “better understanding of the relationships between power, discourse and ideology” and has allowed some student writing to have “real political and social ramifications” (57).  Weisser focuses much of the chapter on discussing the term “public” and discusses the work, among others, of Jurgen Habarmas, a German social/cultural theorist, who posits that “the true public sphere was born in Europe in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries” (66).  Habarmas discussed how the “public,” through capitalism, was expanded to include a much larger segment of society.  It was no longer the ruling aristocrats and everyone else, there was now a growing middle and upper-middle class of merchants, bankers, manufacturers, etc., who began to influence authority (68-69). Wiesser critiques Habarmas’s notions of “public” by pointing to his “failure to fully address the issue of power and ideology in the bourgeois public sphere” (69).  Weisser, citing Negt and Kluge, calls for a more complex and complicated notion of public sphere which takes into account these issues and which does not create a universalized ideal of a single public.  He then brings in the work of Nancy Fraser who critiques Habermas’s distinction of the “public” being something separate from the “realm of the state” (81).  Fraser states that Habarmas did not recognize issue of race, class, and gender and how they affect what is called the public sphere.  Habarmas “idealize[d] the bourgeois public sphere, [and] fails to examine other nonliberal, nonbourgeois, competing public spheres” (81).  Another main point made by Fraser is that the terms “public” and “private” are not easily dichotomized and that some issues are at once public and private such as domestic violence.  Also, writing for the “concern of everyone” should not be an ideal because not all may be concerned with what is important for a particular writer. Weisser ends the chapter with Fraser’s assertion that “public spheres could become sites for the exclusion of groups and individuals, based upon their race, class, sexual orientation, or gender” and believes that her analysis “moves us closer to the sort of discursive spaces we might help to create in our efforts to empower marginalized others” (89).

In chapter 4, “Rethinking Public Writing,” Weisser continues his complication and sophisticated analysis of the “public sphere” and begins to posit “what public writing should be” (94).  For Wiesser, “the public” is not a stationary or nonpolitical phenomenon and points to a hot word in composition studies today: ideology.  By focusing on the reality and implications of ideology, what he describes as “the understanding that ideas, knowledge, thought, and discourse are shaped and controlled by cultural contextual forces” (96), Weisser believes we can move towards a pedagogy and lived reality that teaches and challenges ideological assumptions.  We cannot assume that public discourse is open to all or the same for all.  Just as in society (and because of society) composition classrooms cannot divorce themselves from issues of power, politics and inequality. Towards the end of the chapter the author begins to make specific comments regarding pedagogy.  Teachers cannot presume that, for example, having students send a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, is meaningful public writing. Teachers must provide other avenues for students to make their writing “public” and must not forget that “going public” does not mean that it must reach an eclectic audience or a huge “general public.”  Fraser’s concept of “subaltern counterpublics” is brought into play here and are described as spaces where usually subordinated voices can have a say, not necessarily in opposition to the dominant culture, but apart from it, where they can “formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs” (106).  These “counterpublics” or sites may include “Internet chat rooms, volunteer organizations, community outreach programs, or other smaller venues that target more specific issues and strive for and generate significant local results” (107). Weisser also once again addresses that the dichotomy of public vs. private should be blurred.  To end the chapter, the author discusses a class he taught which employed the public writing tactics aforementioned.  His course focused on “Environmental Discourse” and, after doing much reading and discussing on environmentalism, his students joined the public discourse on the issue by writing letters to newspapers and politicians, articles for Greenpeace, conducting interviews with local developers and some even became volunteers or employees of environmental organizations.

The final chapter, “Activism in the Academy,” was Weisser’s final statement on what he believes should be the role of composition teachers.  He calls for these instructors to be public intellectual that are engaged in and with social matters and believes that “we can promote change in our communities and public spheres in three general and interconnected [ways]:  through the classroom, through scholarship, and through our own public actions” (123).  He points to linguist Noam Chomsky and educator Paoulo Freire as examples of intellectuals who are/were public social forces. Weisser ends the book by graciously pointing to those theorists that influenced him the most: Susan Wells (“Rogue Cops and Health Care: What Do We Want From Public Writing?”) and social theorists Richard Sennett, Jurgen Habarmas, Oskar Negt, Alexander Kluge and Nancy Fraser (132).

My only critique of Weisser is that he did not totally “practice what he preached,” it seemed, in his class on “Environmental Discourse,” which was given as his model on how to make writing public for students. Weisser was the one that picked the topic of environmentalism and he picked the readings for the course.  While the course seemed to highly engage the students in the topic and in public writing that meant something to them, they were not allowed to choose what topic they would be spending the whole semester investigating.  I realized they chose the class after seeing its title (probably), but what if a student, if allowed to choose, really wanted to talk about sports or domestic violence instead of environmentalism.  Did Weisser create a public sphere that marginalized some voices?  Probably.  Did he engage the students in a powerful and innovative way and help them make a connection between the public and private?  Yes, I believe so.

To conclude, I would highly recommend this book to those studying composition for it gives an easily understood framework to the development of composition studies.  Though not very in depth, this book does show how composition studies has changed/evolved over the years and situates the discipline in its contemporary context. I would also highly recommend this book to all teachers of writing for it is at the same time a rather “easy” book to read while providing an important blueprint to composition studies.

“We should encourage students to write for publics

where their discourse can have real import, and we

should help them to develop the rhetorical skills

they will need to sway opinion and bring about

change”           -Weisser-