James, et. al. "Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for
Change." CCC 51 (2000): 610-642.
Institutions can be changed through rhetorical activism. Porter and
company develop broad model for institutional critique driven by rhetoricians as
agents for change and pomo geographical interrogations to stage institutional
dynamics (needing change). The authors juxtapose "despair" as
the unsatisfying alternative to a more hopeful and upbeat, even (re)visionary
empowerment: the field must vigorously imagine its potential for
changing institutions, for transforming them through language, and for thinking
about rhetoric and writing as activisms beyond academe.
The essay sets up a macro-micro paradigm for thinking about institutionality,
then, invoking a model of "boundary interrogation," the
space-made-over institutional critique ventures into the space between the
macro-micro and into the "’zones of ambiguity,’ or spaces that house
change, difference or a clash of values or meanings."
My impression is that this article and the premise it advances are much more
compelling due to the group authorship. A team-authored article suggests a
formidable solidarity, a banding together of credibility and force–the very
sort of coordinated leverage that makes institutional critique possible.
As I read the essay, I had questions about whose agency is staked in the
critique. Is rhetorical-discursive institutional critique most potent when
it is pressed by clearly recognized members of the institution? Membership
and stability can work both ways; institutional critiques, I suppose, work best
when they are formulated by stable bands of respected
members in the
institution. Contingent faculty, like new students or new workers,
probably have a more challenging time leveraging such critiques against
their own proven records for longevity and loyalty. Hear this: "You haven’t
been here long" or "You won’t be." So I wondered whether
this is a workable plan for all comp/rhet folks or whether it is much more
realistic for WPAs and groups of faculty with a shared sense of how the
institution should change. Even if, as the article suggests, we rename
"composition teachers" as "writing experts" and fashion thereby a public
sensibility about the broad applicability of rhetoric and writing, we (must)
continue to feel the tug of unsavory labor practices. In other words, it’s
not easy to promote the *new and improved* "writing expert" toward a
public role when the writing program (employing said experts) relies on
contingent and contract labor to cover courses. "Writing experts" like
"composition teachers" can’t be remade publicly until they are remade
materially, validated and stabilized by the institution’s commitment to capital
support–all of which is why this works wonderfully at an institution with a
well established writing program and works less swimmingly in places where the
writing program is already in the institution’s cellar (free of despair, not
tribulation). In such places,
routing institutional critique through a writing program (in the name of
rhetoricians for change) can be risky business–even riskier, perhaps, where
comp/rhet is a subset of English. So leaving behind the name "composition
teacher" because it reflects the field’s history of inferiority and subjugations of labor doesn’t alter
the legacy or the lingering (even prevalent) realities of exploited contingent
faculty. That said, I’m sure Porter et al. don’t take the plights of lesser
established U’s or contingent
The essay outlines the avenues of institutional critique, categorizing
critique into administrative, classroom and disciplinary areas. And in the
administrative area, the WPA can make great strides toward institutional
critique by 1.) establishing graduate programs in writing and rhetoric and 2.)
establishing a writing major. These in-house steps affirm the validity of
the writing program; they give body to the power necessary for such
critiques to be taken seriously.
In a few places, I wished for clearer examples. The critical geography references are terrific: Edwards Soja, David Sibley, Doreen Massey, Michel de
Certeau and David Harvey figure into this essay, and for composition, I suppose
this essay is attempting something new by calling on spatial analysis postmodern
mapping and boundary interrogation–both of which play heavily in their
analysis. The single diagram in the article–a map of a site for
institutional critique–is included without much of the boundary analysis said
to be so promising. It maps the space "where Institutional Critique operates,"
but it left me wondering why the map wasn’t subject to the interrogations
promoted in the essay. I
also wondered why the space of institutional critique didn’t bear out a
productive tension with the composition classroom (in the map-diagram) the way it did
with the discipline and the macro institution. I didn’t pick up on much boundary
interrogation of their diagram nor any acknowledgement of the problem that
mapping (unanalyzed, two-dimensional) tends to be oversimplified for any complex
I wanted a few more examples of a "zone of ambiguity." The
article leads with one example in which a usability expert and former CWR
student pushes for the term usability in a Microsoft development
chart. Is a space
between macro and micro ambiguous to the extent that it is contested or
institutionally unstable? In such cases, institutional critique from all
directions (not just from WPAs and faculty) inevitably continue to refigure the
zone. Its contestation is discursive and material, but can we say the
same of an unambiguous zone? Or are all institutional zones–all spaces,
even–ambiguous to the degree that they are rhetorically charged? Is this
true more so when we conceive of space as, in Harvey’s terms, "produced."
One example brought in is Purdue’s OWL, which is atop the heap of online writing
labs. The essay describes the scientific appeal of a lab space (sig.
of naming), the ongoing battle in an
English department about the usability of space. Question: how, if at a place such as
Purdue, the tension rages on, might smaller, lesser established writing programs
venture into such perilous matches. Must they? What are the risks?
"[I]nstitutional critique is an unabashedly rhetorical practice
mediating macro-level structures and micro-level actions rooted in a particular
space and time" (612).
"But we have a particular spin on institutional critique. Our spin
is more locally situated, more spatial, and more empirical than most theoretical
discussions of institutions" (613).
"We are frustrated, however, with the gap between local actions and more
global critiques (which are far more common in our disciplinary discourse). We
are frustrated, in other words, when global critiques exist only in the form of
ideal cases or statements, which all too often bracket off discussions of
materiality and economic constraints in favor of working out the best case
scenario–which, all too often, does not come to pass" (615).
"Talking about institutions at this macro level is extremely important (as we
argued earlier in respect to WPAs) because it is one way to discuss how our
public lives are organized and conducted (both for us and by us). But limiting
our analytic gaze to macro institutions also encourages a level of abstraction
that can be unhelpful if it leads to a view of institutions as static, glacial,
or even unchangeable (i.e., if it urges us to see change as requiring
large-scale action that few people rarely have the power to enforce). If
institutions are conceptualized exclusively on this macro level, we may be
restricted to visualizing an abstraction of institution that makes change
difficult to imagine" (621).
"Our discussion raises an important question about the relationship
between institutional action and reports of action. Can dissertations and
other publications themselves be instances of institutional critique?
Maybe, but as with idealized goals statements, we are suspicious of publications
that do no more than recommend or hope for institutional
change. To qualify as institutional critique, a research project has to
actually enact the practice(s) it hopes for by demonstrating how the process of
producing the publications or engaging in the research enacted some form of
institutional change" (628).