More than ten years ago, the late James Berlin–a leading advocate of a cultural studies approach to composition and an outspoken opponent of expressivism–remarked to me that what we have come to know as expressivist theories in composition are only a small part of a much wider experimentation, some of which was overtly political, in the late 60s and early 70s. When I began reading Geoffrey Sirc’s English Composition as a Happening, I was hoping to learn more about that range of experiment. However, while there is much discussion of the avant garde traditions in the visual arts that produced “happenings” in the 1960s, and about work in composition that Sirc connects to these traditions, there is almost nothing about overtly political experiments in composition or about the social forces of the 1960s that informed the context in which teachers such as Ken Macrorie and William Coles developed an alternative to academic discourse. Sirc’s book is off beat, eccentric, and not all that reader-friendly to scholars who are not particularly interested in aesthetic debates in the visual arts. Nevertheless, for all its quirkiness, Sirc’s book is too interesting to ignore.
Attempting to recover some of the work in rhetoric and composition in the 1960s that paralleled avant garde movements in the visual arts, Sirc questions why these experiments were cut off in favor of what he considers a more traditional modernism that locates composition within models of academic discourse. Sirc grounds his ideas about college writing instruction in theories and practices from the arts, including the multimedia “happenings” of Robert Raucshenberg, the aesthetics of action painters such as Jackson Pollock, and the anti-modernism of Marcel Duchamp. In rethinking the teaching of college writing, Sirc rejects rhetoric, with its emphasis on the public text, in favor of composition. Here, Sirc’s paradigm is not found in textual practices, but in the composing process of Jackson Pollack. Discussing Pollack’s influence by the Mexican mural painter David Alfaro Siqueiros and his rejection of Thomas Hart Benton’s “traditional academicism” (2002, 98), Sirc notes:
one night, in 1936, he put a canvas on the floor and tried to replicate the dripped technique of the muralist. What Jackson learned in such personal study was the cynical truth of traditional composition, that it's all about teaching the correct line at the expense of the right line. Jackson became a real compositionist only when he began to follow his heart: discovering he had a voice and vision worth sharing, then realizing he had to abandon his struggle for the correct line and embark on the search for a personally useful and perfectible line to perfect his inner vision. (Sirc 2002, 99)
In Pollack, Sirc finds an aesthetic which parallels Macrorie’s attack on the dullness of academic writing, which presented a road-not-taken that Sirc believes would have been preferable to both the formulaic expressivism and the teaching of academic discourse in contemporary rhetoric and composition. Thus, Duchamp’s rejection of the academic modernism of the museum is analogous, according to Sirc, to his own rejection of the “museum” of composition’s canon. Rather than accept the conventional wisdom of composition scholars that we are in a “post-process” age, Sirc asks:
Oh, post-what-became-that-silly-CCCC process, definitely. But post-Jackson's process? Post-the scrupulous exploration of available technologies? Post-the openness to non-standard materials? Post-the intrepid faith in the personally right line over the academically correct line? Post a process (like my own, and most of my students' as well) suffused with equal parts ambition and uncertainty? (Sirc 2002, 119)
Advocating a return to a more complex theory of process, Sirc attacks the idea that composition should initiate students to academic discourse. For Sirc, composition texts such as David Bartholomae’s and Anthony Petrosky’s Ways of Reading (Boston: St. Martin’s, 1990), which invite students to imitate academic ways of writing and thinking, lead to a dead modeling of an academic canon.
Sirc’s discussion of his own writing classes, such as a basic writing class focused on hip-hop where much of the writing occurs online, is the most compelling part of the book. However much one might disagree with some of Sirc’s characterizations of the state of contemporary composition, it is hard not to sympathize with his defense of his open-ended teaching style, based as it is within a genuine concern for students–“I’m tired of seeing so many Greg Whites come and go in my courses and not have their heartfelt work achieved in some culturally meaningful way” (2002, 271-72)–and their development as writers. Unfortunately, the reader who is more concerned with student writing rather than with the visual arts must wade through too much discussion of obscure aesthetic practice before getting to Sirc’s basic writers.
In his fashioning of a persona as outsider, Sirc is too sure of himself, too dismissive of his opponents, and too narrow in his frame of reference. It is unfortunate that he does not mention contemporary critiques of academic discourse from the left. In my own experience, it is Freirean theorists such as Ira Shor who offer some of the most thorough criticism of academic discourse as a model for composition. That approach is obviously not Sirc’s, but it is unfortunate that Sirc does not take more seriously the work of the Freirean theorists, whose work is rooted, like his own, in a profound respect for students. Instead, Freireans and others within progressive composition are dismissed as part of composition’s contemporary canon. But that “canon” is more diverse than Sirc suggests. When I began this review I was also teaching Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary (NY: Macmillan, 1989), perhaps the most eloquent defense of teaching academic discourse to working-class students and others on the margin, in an advanced undergraduate course. Admittedly, Sirc does not discuss Rose’s book, but teaching it while reading Sirc illustrated to me the unfairness of Sirc’s sweeping attacks on theories of college writing as academic discourse.
My expertise on and engagement with the visual arts is limited, and I am far from the ideal reader of Composition as a Happening. However, I am uncomfortable with the ease with which Sirc finds parallels between aesthetics and student writing, as well as the extent to which he celebrates the outcast artist (Jackson Pollack) as a model without considering the way that model arises in capitalist society. As Sirc is aware, the myth of the outcast artist begins with romanticism, which arises in the early days of industrial capitalism. In addition, self-referential theories of literature, like the action painting of Pollack, gained prominence in the U.S. during the McCarthy era and the Cold War, and it is at least plausible to find some connection between the rise of self-referential aesthetic theories and the retreat from controversial content that occurred in the early years of the Cold War. However, Sirc leaves the connections among aesthetics and politics, including the relation of Macrorie and Coles to the politics of the sixties, largely unexplored. While attacking the prominence of technical and business writing in composition, Sirc spends several pages citing emails from contemporary white-collar work to point out the alienation and power-games that permeate that work, and argues that “a curriculum driven by the needs of industry is in no way empowering” (2002, 219). But he has little interest in political analysis of this alienation or its social causes. Instead, deploring the explicit discussion of ideology in composition, he suggests that “ridding our curricula of the mythology of power would leave us more time to think about fun” (222). While Sirc may be correct in suggesting that too much of the talk of the political in composition circles is superficial talk by people who have little interest in political struggle outside of the classroom, his dismissal of politics is at odds with his obvious interest in the empowerment of his students.
Despite its limitations, Composition as a Happening is valuable as an alternative perspective which asks scholars to rethink many of their cherished assumptions. In addition, Sirc’s book is an example of how work in composition can be as exciting intellectually as that in any other field of the Humanities, despite the stereotypes of those literary scholars who stopped reading work in rhetoric and comp as soon as they escaped from their apprentice years as TAs. There is an irony, however, in the book’s intellectual seriousness. Composition as a Happening, which consistenty attacks the dominance of academic discourse, is very much an academic book, one that asks the reader to confront two specialized discourses (that of the arts and of rhetoric/composition). Composition as a Happening is a book worth reading, but one that few outside of academia will read all the way through.