CCR 611: “In order to have a language remain fixed”

“[I]n order to have a language remain fixed, it is first necessary that those who speak it become dead.” –Thomas Lounsbury (qtd. in Harker 18)

“Reality is infinitely diverse, compared with even the subtlest conclusions of abstract thought, and does not allow of clear-cut and sweeping distinctions. Reality resists classification.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

Both Crowley and Harker pick up the “gate-keeping” function of composition and its role in erecting a “great divide” between the educationally privileged and others left outside the gate, sifted into basic writing classes through exams or excluded altogether.

Harker takes a more historical approach centered around the assumptions of literacy, particularly the literacy myth. Crowley takes a more contemporary, labor-focused approach, examining the problems associated with the universal composition requirement and making the “modest proposal” to make it optional for students, though she  grounds this in historical issues.

Crowley’s modest proposal to end the requirement did not seem as far fetched as I initially thought it would. Combined with Harker’s historical look at literacy and role it played in similar proposals, I found myself more responsive to the proposal. I’m not sure it would do all of the things that Crowley lists–like the erasure of intake exams or the creation of more equitable curricula and labor–and as she notes, “if you work in a corrupt system, you have to face the fact that making things better for people working
in one part of the system may make things worse for people who work in another part of it.”

But I think the “universal” nature of this requirement is worth considering, but to do so, I want to step back from the readings, focusing on the notion of “death” evoked by Lounsbury and Dostoevsky’s title, a reference to the Czarist prison he served time in. For Dostoevsky, the people “die” through their exile from society. Although many of his characters will face literal death via execution, their exclusion results in a sort of death-in-life.

In Lounsbury’s quote, I see a potential link with “dead” languages. Latin and Greek may seem more fixed than contemporary English because the speakers are all “dead”–though I think this stability is somewhat simplistic and wrong. But also, the “death” here is a similar exclusion from the influence of language. The language is both “fixed” (repaired) and “fixed” (made stable) as one “fixes” (sterilizes) the speaking public in a given context. Heteroglossia and utterance give way to print’s perceived permanence and longevity.

Thus the question of who and what get excluded from composition becomes the more salient question. Phrased another way, perhaps the difficulties of this “universal requirement” aren’t in the required part, but the universal. Needing to fit a unified goal across an institution or a set of institutions feels both impossible and oppressive. And in particularly top-down universalizing curricula goals–like in states like Colorado–I wonder how assumptions get made about students, institutional goals, and literacy.

I argue that these assumptions lead to the exclusions that “fix” language student voice, creating the gate-keeping that Harker and Crowley critique. In an ideal world, composition could be about opening gates or complicating gates, drawing from the embodied, enworlded, and contextualized “reality” of students and instructors, which remain frustratingly unfixed and non-universal.

But ever resilient and reified, myths of literacy persist and perpetuate power structures. Thus, I think the step may begin more basically by challenging these myths. Perhaps this may involve repealing the requirement, but it may also involve something more basic: checked assumptions, nomadic sensitivities, and a careful assumption to listen closely to both labor and student–not just as abstracts, but as ever-changing bodies.

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