Reaching the point of diminishing return with my writing, I picked up the July ’14 issue of College English and headed outside. By my computer I have several back issues of NCTE journals I need to make my way through—in addition to Barry Kroll’s recent book on bodily argumentation and Kathi Yancey et al’s recent book on transfer.
Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes were the editors of this special issue of CE focused on reimagining the social turn, and I had already made my way through the guest-editor’s introduction and the opening article by Laura Micciche titled “Writing Material.” So I turned my attention to Steve Parks’s piece titled “Sinners Welcome: The Limits of Rhetorical Agency.”
Outside the temperature was dropping. Students were huddled into their coats. The leaves were changing colors and falling—almost at once, it seemed.
I had my sandwich, office keys, bottle of water, phone, and pen.
I turned to page 506 and began reading.
I was lost after the first, brief paragraph.
I finished the piece, skimming here and there but trying to find a foothold in Parks’s argument, trying to locate admirable sections of prose or turns-of-phrase which I could incorporate into my own writing. Like most (any?) writer, I read with an eye toward what I can steal. I read with an eye toward what I can incorporate into my large research/teaching/reading interests.
Micciche’s essay provided rich fodder for helping me think through my work, though I don’t see myself directly quoting her ideas. The theory and how she thought through the distributed and ecological view of writing is helpful for me as I continue conceptualizing sport’s literacy as streams of literate activity.
But Parks? Sigh. I didn’t get it.
So what does one do when reading and stumbling through a text from one’s own discipline? What do I do when I can’t make sense of someone’s argument in my field. I got a flippin’ PhD in this area, and I am still approaching texts in my area that throw me for a lose.
As I was running last night, I was thinking back to my reading experience with Parks. Parks’s is all about the political, about activism and community engagement. He talks about neoliberalism, antifoundationalist pragmatism; he cites Cornel West. I don’t know this stuff and hate to admit that I would fumble through an answer to “What is neoliberalism?”
Do I need to call up University of Oklahoma and turn over my doctorate?
Maybe. But what I kept returning to during my four-mile run was how my struggle with understanding Parks says more about how deep and dynamic my field is than it does say about my level of intelligence.
During his keynote address at Watson Conference 2014, Jeff Grabill said we are not a discipline (we don’t even know what the hell to call ourselves), instead we are a collection of fields. This lack of a collective identity can be maddening and dangerous, especially as we seek continued legitimacy and try to leverage a collective voice on community and political issues of literary, of writing, or rhetoric.
But on the other hand, we are fluid enough to move from talking about Cornel West to talking about paragraphing; to citing a book the octopus (like Micciche does) to citing work by Max DePree and his linkage of jazz and leadership (as Beth Boquet and Michele Eodice do in a piece on writing centers. Ours is a field that includes a scholastically diverse group of scholars and teachers dedicated to language, language use, and meaning-making writ large.
Our area of focus is vast and ever-changing as writing is reconceptualized and gains new affordances through technological developments.
While I have just a slice of a clue about what Parks was getting at (and I even have read the Linda Flower book that forms a large impetus for his argument!), I find myself glad to be a part of a field that leaves me scratching my head more than leaving with final and finished answers.
How dreary would that be?