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).

Muchiri, 1996, “Importing Composition”

Mary, et al. “Importing Composition: Teaching and Researching Academic Writing
Beyond North America.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 352-371.

Big Idea
     Four university composition instructors
collaborated on this article, "Importing Composition," to address the
global reach of research and prevalent assumptions disseminating from the capital centers of knowledge in the field.  Composition research often suffers a narrowed utility when it makes its way into the variously removed, distant contexts.  Muchiri’s group sets composition in the US against trends in English Language Teaching (ELT) abroad, where writing pedagogies are (almost always) combined with communication studies, where content reigns superior to personal narrative, where examinations hold greater assessment value than coursework, and where limited institutional resources make one-on-one mentoring and extensive essay-marking impractical. The project seeks to stir further conversations on these matters.  Other key issues are the political and institutional pressures proliferating a "dullness of correction and compliance"–the idea that students might not be willing to take risks because they fear failure or rebuke; Kenyan and Nigerian students often align into note-sharing groups whose solidarity is often seen as a form of resistance to the teacher’s authority; the field’s research map as a geography marked by "distant and powerful research centers"; and composition research’s assumption that students have multiple chances and plenty of time to move toward proficiencies.

Terms of Export

– primary language; L1 studies are language studies in one’s primary,
native language

English for Academic Purposes (EAP),
English for Specific Purposes (ESP)
– academic categories commonly
used to name departments responsible for teaching practical communications in
English aimed at mobilizing students’ progression toward advanced study
dependent on basic English literacy and "immediate needs."  

English Language Teaching (ELT)
– Unlike L1, ELT sets out to work with
students who come at English as a second, third or fourth language

(Kiswahili, pro-democracy movement),
(Kiswahili, crowbar),
(Kiswahili, missile),
(Economic Community of West African States)–vernacular terms shared
among students to name their systems of group resistance to institutional
forces.  Such resistance takes the form of note-sharing and
collaboration–collaboration that might be characterized as cheating in a
rigidly individualistic assessment system

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Reason #153: Blogging is Safer than Grill Repair

First signs of spring include firing up the grill and contemplating an oil
change and point by point inspection of the lawn mower.  I did both today,
firing and contemplating.  The firing was inspired when D. returned from
the market with bratwurst; the contemplating was brought on by the incredibly
rapid growth of purple-flowered weed sprigs overtaking the lawn.  Creeping
bellflowers?  Hell, I don’t know what.  But they’re tall and pleading
to be cut soon.  

The Thermos Millennium gas grill is approaching its fifth birthday.  I
spend the better part of Easter Sunday, 1999, with my brother-in-law (well, he
wasn’t my bro-in-law then, but he is now) matching up sprockets, force-fitting
parts and having an altogether bad time of piecing it together.  It’s named
Millennium, but I don’t think it will last more than another year or two, and
certainly no more than three.  Just last week I replaced a couple of bolts
holding one of the gas-regulator dials on; today, it was the igniter dangling by
a wire beneath the grease-caked underbelly.  Tough to get at.  Tough
to fix.  The igniter end is basically a spark plug–a ceramic separator
creates a space for the friction-generated voltage to arc.  The arc lights
the propane.  Burnt meat.  With the igniter end dangling beneath the
grill, I wasn’t sure what to do.  So I found a spot that looked like it
might serve as a shelf to introduce the spark to the gas and propped it
there.  But I had doubts that the igniter was working, so I popped the
ignite button and absorbed one shock.  15 volts?  20?  It was
working; we were well on our way to the first brats of 2004.  Well on our

The shock absorption and my reporting of it to you via EWM warrants a bit of
explaining.  More than a few academic bloggers I read (more conveniently
with the assistance of Mozilla Firefox’s Aggreg8, which I’m learning to love)
have been questioning the vexed relationship between their weblogs and their
scholarship.  I consider myself to be more of an academic fringe-straddler,
one whose life is spread out in ways that conflate academic interests with a
less neatly intellectualized workaday life.  But I, too, wish for EWM to
serve more than a writing habit of convenience, to do more than chronicle day to
day ironies, the flush and flex of life.  I like the way the blog becomes a
storehouse for contingent issues and ideas; its utility is multifarious: writing
habit, public engagement, free-to-explore think space, platform, social forum,
experimental lab, diary-journal, unruly zone for discursive play.  All
of this will be worth returning to in the years ahead.  I’m sure of it.

You’re thinking it was more than 15 volts, eh?  Well, actually, the
shock is significant because I plied through 80 pages of Obedience to
today, and Stanley Milgram’s study was all about the willingness
of a subject to expose a learner to voltage-shocks,  escalating with each
incorrect answer and commanded by an authoritative experimenter. I don’t want to
leave behind the idea of agentic shift as a rhetorical event, especially as it
manifests through deference to technology in the guise of authority.  My
notes are still messy, and I’m just now chomping through the theoretically
tastiest one-third of Milgram’s book, but I am seeing connections, seeing needs
for differentiation and refinement in terms, seeing lots of ways agentic shift
can serve as a descriptive apparatus in composition and rhetoric. 
[situation is a locus of action, opposition to authority, agentic state, peer
rebellion, cybernetics, conscience and tensional system of the individual,
authority communicates itself, constancy of authority system, surveillance-panopticon
iterations *Bentham/Foucault*, Berlin’s noetic
]. I will flesh out those visions here, just as soon as I get my notes
in order.  That, too, is what the weblog does for me.  It’s
ever-present, bringing me to the edge of the reading chair, excited and
interested because my mind feels as if it is wrapped in one of those, "I’m
blogging this
" t-shirts.  The constancy of weblogging potential
while reading is invigorating.

This brings me to one other out there prospect for EWM.  In the
weeks ahead, I have slotted the return of Cross-Talk in Comp Theory and The
Braddock Essays
to my reading list (when does a list grow into something too
big to call a list?).  Brush-up reads to lubricate(!) the merge into a
doctoral program in the fall. So hold me to that; hold me to the promise of
bringing notes (even brief summative jottings) from those fine essays into this
space.  I know, lubricate sounds smartass, but it reminds me of my
big brother who is an adhesives chemist working and living in Detroit.  He
called today from his cell phone while driving to Toronto where he was heading
to troubleshoot something (likely) to do with robotic arms and glue
distribution.  J. and I have a terrific relationship; today he said he
called because he had spare weekend minutes.  And I want to come back to that, also–agency in the communicative act, deference to commodified time as it correlates to telephony and telegraphy.  But not now.  The Practice is on the tube.

E Pluribus Trivium

I wrapped up Scholes’ Rise
and Fall
on Monday morning while I was waiting in the auto shop. 
Since then, I’ve been reconsidering it from a distance–the full displacement
brought on by a hearty paper load, full-time work, and other important
stuff-o-life.  I keep coming back to a few basic ideas set up by Scholes in
chapter four, "A Flock of Cultures."  Throughout, Scholes uses a
split chapter system, so, for example, chapter four has a postlude called
"assignment four" in which he details–in practical terms–an
application of much of the theorizing he summons in the early portion of the
chapter.  Before the "assignment" section, he proposes a
design  for a general education curriculum parsed into grammar,
and rhetoric. Scholes introduces this threesome under the
heading, "A Trivial Proposal."  He’s having fun with the
connotations of "trivial,"
enlisting it as something of lesser consequence (than the Western Civilization
and Great Books canonical approaches) and also as a modern resurrection of the
medieval model for foundational education–the basis preceding advanced
scholarship in "arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music." He
explains the subtle differences between each of the course-types.  For grammar,
a course called "Language and Human Subjectivity" would comb over
pronoun usage and alienation in language structures.  A second grammar
course would concern "Representation and Objectivity." 
Anthropological perspective, ethnography, the objective discourses pervasive in
the observational sciences: these would be done up in this second grammar
course.  For rhetoric, he suggests a course on "Persuasion and
Mediation," which "would obviously include the traditional arts of
manipulation of audiences but would also point toward the capacities and limits
of the newer media, especially those that mix verbal and visual textuality to
generate effects of unprecedented power" (125).  To round this one
out–and because Scholes spends relatively little time on it–I would toss in technology

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