Kopelson’s Back to the Wall: Resisting Responsibility

My contribution to the “CCCarnival” bog party proposed by Derek Mueller at his blog: Earth Wide Moth.

After reading Karen Kopelson’s article in CCC this month, I was reminded of a line of dialog from Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter struggles to explain to Clarice Starling how a serial killer chooses his victims. Lecter asks “What is the first and principal thing he does? … He covets. … And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.”

First principles. We do what we do: Research. And why do we research? Because we have questions. And where does this curiosity come from? From the things we see every day. From our classrooms and students. Our colleagues. Ourselves.

What does this have to do with Karen Kopelson’s essay, “Sp(l)itting Images”? I invoke this commonplace to offer a more forgiving lens with which to frame what Kopelson laments as “the pattern of producing so much scholarship about ourselves” (775).

Echoing a similar conclusion from one of my favorite movie characters, the Minus Man: I’m not surprised our discipline produces so much research on teaching; I’m surprised we don’t produce more. (This is a blog; obscure pop culture references build value, right?)

In her essay, Kopelson argues that our discipline is entrapped by three persistent dilemmas: the shackles of the pedagogical imperative, the theory-vs.-practice split, and the uncomfortable tension dividing Rhet and Comp. On one side of each of these binaries, I think, is a sense of direct responsibility for the practice of teaching. On the other side of each binary, variously, is a resistance to this sense of responsibility.

I want to be clear about something. It’s not that Kopelson doesn’t like teaching, or that she doesn’t think its worthy of study. I’ve sat in on her class many times, and I can vouch that she is a great teacher. And one who seems to value, as part of her pedagogy, teaching about teaching.

But what I gather from reading this article is that she doesn’t want to feel as though she MUST connect everything she does to pedagogy, to offer practical advice, to study rhetoric only in the service of composition.

I agree with her in terms of that resistance. I DO want to connect much of my intellectual work to the classroom and my students. And like Kopelson, I DON’T want to feel like I have no choice about it. And that’s the unease that I think Kopelson so thoroughly articulates in this essay.

But to frame the chained-to-the-classroom imperative as identity anxiety (“self-scrutiny” 775) or as gluttonous navel gazing (“self-indulgence” 775) strikes me as polemical within an essay arguing for consensus.

I agree with her that we need to find a way to escape this “entrapment” (774), as she suggests, and stake out scholarly claims further into territories such as literacy studies, civic discourse, and various rhetorical activities. (My stake: digital writing technologies)

Her strategy for a more unified identity lies in deconstructing (you knew it had to be coming at some point, right?) inherent contradictions within the term “theory” itself. What I have a much harder time reckoning in her argument has to do with her own use of the term “theory.” …

(WARNING: Obligatory well-would-you-look-at-the-time moment)

This entry is getting a little long, and I’m getting ready to transition into another point about Kopelson’s article. Also, I know there are several other bloggers with responses brewing. I’ll save you the reading for now. Here’s are a few teasers for my next post about his article:

Kopelson uses the term “theory” 98 times in her article (not counting variations), and not once does she follow it with the word “of”.

Stephen North doesn’t use philosopher and theorist interchangeably; Kopelson does.

Raymond Williams, inKeywords, offers at least two distinct contemporary definitions for the word “theory.” He puts those definitions in conversation with the words “praxis” and “speculation” as distinct but related terms.

P.S.: I’ve seen some other posts go up about this article already, but haven’t read them yet. My apologies for redundancies. More soon…

This article has 10 Comments

  1. “But what I gather from reading this article is that she doesn’t want to feel as though she MUST connect everything she does to pedagogy, to offer practical advice, to study rhetoric only in the service of composition.”

    I had that same impression, and I appreciate Kopelson’s stance on this. In certain ways it returns for me to a matter of “everything” versus “anything.” Is a purely theoretical project (for a dissertation) ultimately a good choice for someone aspiring to work in rhetoric and composition? (There is no one answer, of course, but it does point out again the unevenness of advice to dissertators). And to what degree ought dissertation projects in many fields make some gesture toward application? I take her point to be that there are other ways to apply the knowledge produced by the field, and it’s time we make greater headway in getting beyond that potentially limiting site of relevance (i.e., the classroom).

  2. “But what I gather from reading this article is that she doesn’t want to feel as though she MUST connect everything she does to pedagogy, to offer practical advice, to study rhetoric only in the service of composition.”

    I had that same impression, and I appreciate Kopelson’s stance on this. In certain ways it returns for me to a matter of “everything” versus “anything.” Is a purely theoretical project (for a dissertation) ultimately a good choice for someone aspiring to work in rhetoric and composition? (There is no one answer, of course, but it does point out again the unevenness of advice to dissertators). And to what degree ought dissertation projects in many fields make some gesture toward application? I take her point to be that there are other ways to apply the knowledge produced by the field, and it’s time we make greater headway in getting beyond that potentially limiting site of relevance (i.e., the classroom).

  3. Derek,
    Thanks for the note. Your focus on the aspiring (teacher)/scholar makes me wonder if there isn’t some element of initiation going on here. Sort of dues to be paid before we’ve earned the right to make theoretical claims about rhet/comp. That old “you don’t know what you’re talking about” resistance to the new kid.

    I read on another response to this article that it might be simply instructors trying to be practical in a world where a new graduate’s research might not be so relevant to their first job search.

    Some interesting dynamics at play, nonetheless.

    I enjoy your blog immensely. Keep writing.

  4. Derek,
    Thanks for the note. Your focus on the aspiring (teacher)/scholar makes me wonder if there isn’t some element of initiation going on here. Sort of dues to be paid before we’ve earned the right to make theoretical claims about rhet/comp. That old “you don’t know what you’re talking about” resistance to the new kid.

    I read on another response to this article that it might be simply instructors trying to be practical in a world where a new graduate’s research might not be so relevant to their first job search.

    Some interesting dynamics at play, nonetheless.

    I enjoy your blog immensely. Keep writing.

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