Susan. Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition. Carbondale:
Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1991.
Susan Miller’s award-winning "study" hinges on program-data gathered from an
exhaustive national survey while following an extended metaphor, the medieval
carnival, to account for the lowly, grotesque, and stigmatized conditions of
composition studies relative to literary studies in English departments.
The gist of Miller’s work is that there are alternatives (even if they’re
limited to equal footing with literature or separatism). The "problematics
of marginalization" (13) for composition, according to Miller, stem from a
variety of sources, including its proximity to more powerful literary traditions
that benefit from elevated cultural status: "An official history of English
would preferably exclude the ‘low,’ along with any mention of anxieties about
potential textual failure or even what we might call textual rehearsals" (21).
In the opening section, a short "story" of composition, Miller attributes
comp’s grim status to the invisibility of writing (20; relative to
literary pursuits, teaching writing ranked low), the American-nationalistic
rise of the literary that tipped toward "man of distinguished letters" myths
rather than valuing populist ventures, and neoclassical continuity, which
accounts for efforts to dignify composition studies by embroidering it with a
tradition of classical rhetoric (comp as a continuation, a revival of the golden
age of rhet; 35). Chapter two situates writing instruction in its more visible
contexts, emphasizing its entanglement with the literary curriculum, its
emphases on "mechanical correctness" akin to "cleanliness" (57), and tracing
through textbooks and course descriptions (66) for patterns and tendencies.
Section two includes a chapter on the subject of composition, with "subject"
doubly referring to students and body of knowledge, prevalent images of teachers
(sad women in the basement) and the administrative considerations of money and
management (bread and circuits). The final section considers the matter of
reading evidence, of accepting as drearily representative of both composition’s
tradition and its downtrodden status (which certainly has improved in the
fifteen years since Miller published TC).
Terms: "new narrative" (1), oscillation (3), magnitude of composition (5), "problematics
of marginalization" (13), "subject" of composition (84), linguistic propriety
(89), "paradigm" of process (94; 105), underlife (112), stigma and Goffman
(128), "the rotating bottom" [syn. part-time faculty] (145), "hegemonic desires"
"Process and product are, then, a politically diversionary pair, for they
work together to help us avoid confronting the social and institutional
consequences that a piece of writing may or may not have" (10).
"I have been arguing that composition was not established as a failed set of
practices or a diminution and debasement of classical rhetoric, but as a
consciously selected menu to test students’ knowledge of graphic conventions, to
certify their propriety, and to socialize them into good academic manners" (66).
"Extrapolating from Stallybrass and White, we can see that process research
after Shaughnessy has turned up yet another ambivalently transgressive aspect of
the carnivalesque. It has, that is, assured the intellectual placement of
composition outside the recognized, incorporated ‘city’ that it originally
completed and has thereby assured that the field will be identified with foreign
methodological languages whose origins are uncertain and whose purposes and
desires are consequently suspect" (117).
"One of the chief characteristics of composition, at least of composition
perceived as teaching, has been that it fills the time that others take to build
Other considerations: magnitude of composition (five million involved as
teachers or students in 1991; 165,000 sections nationwide); ill-suitedness of
process "paradigm" as a singular justification for composition studies and
advanced training (riffs on NWP, 119); matters of women and professionalization
"Sad Women" chapter; Writing (technologies): 27-28, 107, 114.