Porter, et al., 2001, “Institutional Critique”

James, et. al. "Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for
Change." CCC 51 (2000): 610-642.

Big Idea

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."  

Wondering About

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 participants
members in the
institution.  Contingent faculty, like new students or new workers,
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
faculty lightly. 

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).


  1. I must not have read this article when it appeared in CCC. Reading your rendering of it took me back to the late 60s when I and five other colleagues (Philosophy, Biology, Geology, Sociology, Counseling) formed a group at Foothill College to bring about institutional change.

    We met as a group several times and had trouble finding a focus. We brought in two expert facilitators and final wrote a position paper attempting to promote change in the way the college approached programs and curricula. I wrote a paper on the experience for a course I was taking at Stanford at the time. I’m thinking posting on my blog this summer when I have time to transcribe it.

    In retrospect, our real agenda was personal/professional change. We got a lot more out of it than our group had impact on the college. That experience and 35 years more make me very skeptical of rhetoricians who think institutional critique will bring planned, intended change. In my view: only if you’re lucky and circumstances create a window of opportunity.

  2. The article makes it clear Porter et al. anticipated resistant readings. They lead with a fairly clear disclaimer that their pitch might be read as naive, and they balance that premonition with reminders that institutional change is not easy nor guaranteed, but it is better than the drone of despair common in higher ed (not unique to comp/rhet).

    Your point about individuals and immediate colleagues changing through the processes of institutional critique is important; I don’t think that issue comes up in the article. But in too many cases, that is the extent of the impact of the critique–it fosters bonding, collegiality, and re-energizes small groups of hopefuls. And while that’s no insignificant matter, it’s short of the grander goals.

    I’m at an institution now where there is an abundance of language about change (if I write another strategic planning report, I’m going to gnaw my hand off!). There’s been a lot of talk about changing this and that, but it folds back into the usual administrative flow, and that might be the result of institutional critique coming from all areas of the institution at once. Most often, it’s not a by-the-book place; I wrote a 200-page policy manual for athletics four years ago. It sits on a shelf, only periodically referred to as a strict guide for policy issues. And it’s not that I’m a by-the-book type as much as it is the deep sense I’m coming away with that institutional critique is as often ignored as taken seriously–especially when it is brought on by folks whose local status in the institution isn’t universally accepted.

    I appreciate your comments here, John. Porter’s is a thoughtful article that raises a whole bunch of questions.

  3. Glad to see you reading and thinking about this, D. My plan next spring is to combine this kind of work (along with P&S’s Opening Spaces), Jameson’s cognitive mapping, and some of the more accessible social network analysis to work on ways that network theory might be compatible methodologically with more recognizable comp/rhet theories.

    My .02 is that, in some places, the scalability of macro and micro is presented as much more simple and easy than is actually the case. (Lots of examples, not just here. Think of how often our discipline is hailed (or assumed) as a single community of like-minded folk…) John’s experience above argues against that simplicity, I think, and network theory will too (if I understand it correctly). My sense, though, is that the kind of mapping that this article advocates might help us understand institutions in their complexity, and perhaps (perhaps!) give us additional resources for effective action.

  4. Sounds really great. Like I needed one more reason to be excited about SU and CCR?

    I’m roughly familiar with Jameson’s Postmodernism, and the Porter article is my first brush with a reference to Opening Spaces. Your comment about unified “communities of like-minded folk” takes me all the way from D’Angelo to variations in echo chamber dynamics (are they hard-shelled or soft-shelled, conduit-like, bendy, tangled, discrete?) and even the listserv cultures that make me feel like a *gulp* outsider most of the time.

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