Monday, July 21, 2008

New Echo, New Narcissus

Kopelson writes,

Yet, as composition studies is distinct in its penchant for 'borrowing,' we are also, in my opinion, unrivaled in our proclivity for self-examination. I am not arguing that this is an unimportant activity, but only that the costs are indeed high when self-scrutiny comes at the expense of taking up other critical concerns and of making other, more innovative and far-reaching forms of knowledge (775).

This appears in the final section of the essay, the part titled "Conclusion: Banishing Echo and Narcissus." Here, Kopelson takes exception with the field's self-reflexivity, the growing heap of self-interested and self-absorbed assessments of where we are or where we are heading. There is an unidentified villain here, and I wondered as I read whether Kopelson has any favorite 'misses', accounts that get it terribly wrong or that are built up on marsh-lands of mushy data.

Reading this section and the quotation above in particular, I had the sense that Kopelson wasn't as interested in "banishing" Echo and Narcissus as in giving them overhauls, in renewing them, even in teaching them how to resonate and reflect less recklessly. In other words, what is wrong with many self-reflexive disciplinary accounts (or "discipliniographies" to lift and bend a term Maureen Daly Goggin introduces in Authoring a Discipline) is that they succumb to a localist impulse. That is, they un-self-conciously extrapolate from local experience and anecdotal evidence onto the field at large, projecting some local knowledge onto the expansive abstraction that is the discipline (however we imagine it to be). The localist impulse can take many different shapes; often it is akin to reading patterns through the course of an individual career (i.e., "in my thirty years at Whatsittoyou U.") or by cherry-picking from an exceedingly thin selection of data (titles of conference presentations or tables of contents for teacher training manuals). We all do this to some extent--making sense of the field at large through our local, immediate experiences, but it is dangerous to arrive at conclusions about the field (or world) at-large solely by examining one's own neighborhood.

What I'm getting at is that I don't have any beef with the disciplinary practice of self-examination. Perhaps there are more than a handful of fields in the academy that would benefit from more of it. I hold history (the calling of others who've navigated this canyon) and reflection in high regard (perhaps not to the ill-fated extremes of Echo and Narcissus). Resonanceresonanceresonance and reflection are valuable, especially for newcomers, for the "new converts" Kopelson mentions. But they will not be successful--or very useful--until they get beyond that localist impulse, until they involve earnest field-wide data collections and collaboratively built databases. I don't know how well this matches with Kopelson's "innovative and far-reaching forms of knowledge," but it is increasingly where my own interests lie. If those far-reaching forms of knowledge included disciplinary data (even simple stuff, like how many programs offer undergraduate writing majors), they could generate insights about disciplinarity. In the meantime those full-view insights will continue to elude us as long as we leap from local knowledge to widespread pattern, without addressing sufficiently the intermediary scales.

Kopelson, Karen. "Sp(l)itting Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition." CCC 59.4 (2008): 750-780. [Carnival]

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