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Composition Forum 36, Summer 2017

From the Editors

Christian Weisser, Jody Shipka, Anis Bawarshi, and Mary Jo Reiff

Special Issue #6: Public Writing in Composition

This volume marks the sixth special issue of Composition Forum. We have released approximately one special issue every two years for the past twelve years, and due to their success and the recent appointment of our Special Issues Editor, we hope to increase that frequency to one volume/theme per year. A quick recap of our special issues to date:

Composition scholars continue to cite our first special issue in Spring 2006: Volume 15, focusing on Composition and Location and guest edited by Christopher Keller. Owing to the success and reader interest in that special issue, we offered a second in Fall 2012: Volume 26, addressing Writing and Transfer, guest edited by Elizabeth Wardle. Following that, we published a third special issue in Fall 2013: Volume 28, guest edited by Alexis Hart and Roger Thompson, highlighting the subject of Veterans and Writing. Our fourth special issue, guest edited by Dylan Dryer, focused on Rhetorical Genre Studies and appeared as Volume 31 in Spring 2015. A fifth special issue, edited by Lance Langdon, focused on Emotion in Composition and was released in Summer 2016 as Volume 34. The special issues of Composition Forum are among our most frequently cited, so we are thrilled to offer this sixth entry in the series focusing on Public Writing. Guest Editor Christopher Minnix has compiled some excellent pieces on the subject of public rhetoric and social justice, and we believe this volume adds much to an important and complex conversation in writing studies, one that began many years ago. Guest Editor Minnix provides an overview of the contents of Volume 36 below.

In addition to being our sixth special themed issue of Composition Forum, Volume 36 also marks some editorial changes at the journal. Book reviews have been an essential component of Composition Forum since its very first print-based volume, published more than twenty years ago. Four people have held the position of Book Review Editor, including current Editor Christian Weisser, who served in this role in the early 2000s, and CF Advisory Board member Derek Owens, who managed the reviews section in our early transition to an online publication in the mid to late 2000s. Since Summer of 2009, Jeanne Rose has managed the reviews section of the journal, expanding it beyond print-based reviews of scholarly books to include a wide range of texts and review formats, including multimedia and “sonic” reviews. Jeanne will step down after this volume, and Sean Morey of University of Tennessee, Knoxville will take over the reviews section. We thank Jeanne for her many years of service and we look forward to seeing Sean’s contributions to this important aspect of scholarly publication. At the same time, we also welcome Tom Sura of West Virginia University, who joins Greg Giberson in managing the Program Profiles section of Composition Forum. We are certain that Greg and Tom will continue to offer our readers timely and important program profiles, which provide the theoretical backgrounds as well as the practical applications of writing programs around the world.

We continue to use our blog to disseminate news and updates about the journal more quickly, and we encourage readers to contribute other timely and pertinent thoughts and information to the blog. Add our feed to your newsreader to receive alerts about new volumes of Composition Forum and other news from the field of rhetoric and composition. Please send questions or comments about the Composition Forum website to

Introduction to this Special Volume: Guest Editor Christopher Minnix

This special issue of Composition Forum calls scholars and teachers of public writing to return to the question that Susan Wells asked in her 1996 article Rogue Cops and Health Carewhat do we want from public writing? The work of the contributors to this special issue both provides compelling answers to Wells’ perennial question and presents readers with central concepts, pedagogical approaches, curricular designs, critical questions, and theoretical insights that expand our understanding of how the “public turn” (Mathieu xv) in Composition Studies can respond to the twists and turns of public life in our current moment. Given the political tumult of the past year, the articles, program profiles, interviews, forum pieces, and review in this issue take on an even greater sense of urgency, addressing not only benefits of teaching public writing but also the risks of teaching public writing.

When I put forth the call for papers for this issue in the summer of 2016, the work of social movement organizations like Black Lives Matter, the political victories of upstart political parties like Podemos in Spain, and the network politics of Occupy were fresh in my mind. The work of activists, community organizers, and community members using public rhetoric to advocate for justice, rights to the city, and human rights in Ferguson and across many other communities in this country inspired me to propose this issue and call on researchers and teachers of public writing to consider how we might bring this rich body of rhetorical activity and knowledge into the classroom. I was also eager to learn how my colleagues would contextualize their current work within the past twenty years of research in public writing in Composition Studies and engage in critically questioning, rearticulating, and theorizing the field.

Looking back on the political events that have taken place since the CFP for this issue was issued, I cannot help but admit that our politics and political discourse have taken turns that I could not have imagined. We have witnessed Brexit, a sharply divided 2016 American presidential campaign and election cycle, increased incidents of hate crimes both on and off campus, the resurgence of an energized movement against higher education, and a wide range of initiatives that seek to undercut the work of public activists, advocates, and educators. In addition, we have seen the reappearance of the apparatus of the culture wars, with watch-lists of professors created and advertised across conservative social media and increased references to political indoctrination in the classroom.

At the same time, this past year has also witnessed the mobilization of public rhetoric in the service of political justice, as thousands of activists and advocates took to the streets to voice their protest to the 2016 election and the Presidential travel ban, utilized social media to create a significant public presence for dissent at town halls across the country, and developed sustained networks of social protest and forums for public discussion. In this important sense, we can find inspiration in the public rhetoric of many of our fellow citizens, even as we find reason to despair over the rhetoric of hate and anger that has become all too common in our rhetorical culture.

Our current political context leaves us with significant questions as public writing teachers. How do we teach students the value of public participation when many of their experiences as consumers of public discourse are shaped by antagonism and rhetorical violence? How do we address questions of rhetorical ethics in public discourse at a time of “alternative facts” and “fake news?” How do we speak to the efficacy of public rhetoric at a time when political problems and divisions seem so intractable, when the politics are so polarized and the people so immovable? What do we want from public writing now? To ask these questions is to ask ourselves about the type of publics, counterpublics, communities, and networks we wish to inhabit, while at the same time honestly confronting both the potentials and limitations of our pedagogies in bringing these publics into being.

Readers of this issue will find that the work of the contributors does not simply draw on the twists and turns of our national, local, and global politics as a backdrop, but as a rhetorical occasion. Borrowing Janet Atwill’s theorization of rhetoric as technê, we might say that the work in this issue reminds us that to teach public rhetoric is to teach an art of “intervention and invention” (280) in public life, an art of public agency that enables us to respond to public discourse while also engaging in the process of envisioning a better rhetorical culture. But our current political context was only one context for this issue. Another central aim of this special issue is to call on scholars of public writing to also engage, expand, question, and apply the significant work in public writing scholarship over the past thirty years.

In this editor’s introduction, I want to explore how the work in this issue engages the public turn in Composition Studies, while also pointing to its potential to engage a broader public turn in higher education and the significant challenges and backlashes that have accompanied it.

This special issue begins with interviews of two scholars whose work has provided formative theorizations of public writing and defining visions for the study of public writing, Susan Wells and Paula Mathieu. In the first interview, Susan Wells not only revisits the answers to the question she posed in her 1996 article—“what do we want from public writing?”—but also traces new questions brought about by the advance of public writing research. Drawing on her expansive work in rhetoric, her formative essay, Rogue Cops and Healthcare: What Do We Want from Public Writing, and her current work on expert and public discourse in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Wells explores the potentials and limitations of public writing pedagogy. During this conversation, she examines the tension between “publics of expertise” and “publics of engagement” and explores how tensions between public and expert discourse have continuously shaped the prospects for public rhetoric. Wells also draws on the development of public writing pedagogy since the publication of Rogue Cops, noting a shift from participatory understandings of public writing towards an understanding of what makes public writing work. Reflecting on the question of whether or not teaching public writing in our time is a “melancholy” endeavor, Wells argues that a “sovereign cure for melancholy” can be found in the practice of studying public discourse and bringing the resources of this discourse to the public writing classroom.

In the next interview, a wide-ranging discussion of public writing and the cultivation of hope, Paula Mathieu then explores how synthesizing contemplative practices and public writing can extend the politics of hope that she maps out in Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in Composition Studies and many other works. Drawing on the work of sociologist Ernst Bloch, Mathieu provides a vision of the public writing classroom that invests students not in simply responding to the frames of public discourse, but rather in the creation of projects that can bring a more hopeful vision of public life into being. Mathieu challenges the perception of contemplative practices as inward-looking and private, arguing that mindfulness and reflection are central components of public discourse and engagement and can expand our teaching of public writing. She illustrates how contemplative practices are not ancillary to work in public writing and community engagement but instead can grow out of, are productive of, and help sustain public engagement and collective politics. What readers will find in both of these interviews is not simply a hopeful view of teaching public writing, but instead significant arguments for understanding the work of public writing teachers as productive of political hope.

What Do We Want from Public Writing Now?

The public turn in Composition Studies has, to borrow from the title of Christian Weisser’s important book, sought to move the field “beyond academic discourse” (54) and towards an understanding of the writing classroom as a space where students’ public, as well as their academic, agency can be fostered. Throughout the development of the public turn, scholars have drawn on a range of different theoretical perspectives to understand the relationship between the classroom and the public. This work has drawn on public sphere theory to theorize the relationship of composition studies to the public sphere (Wells, Weisser), as well as to argue for different understandings of the classroom as public, such as Rosa Eberly’s vision of the classroom as a “proto-public” (Eberly 172) and Frank Farmer’s recent call for public writing scholars to draw inspiration from counter-publics (Farmer). In addition, recent work has also sought to expand our understanding of the networks and materiality of public writing by theorizing publics as rhetorical ecologies (Rice, Rivers and Weber). Throughout the public turn, scholarship on public writing assignments has played an especially important role in shaping our understanding of the relationship between writing classrooms, publics, and students’ public, rhetorical agency. In an important essay on the letter to the editor assignment, Brian Gogan has mapped out three central understandings of public writing assignments that have shaped conversations in the field: “publicity, authenticity, and agency” (536). Across the literature on public writing, we can see a range of scholars pointing beyond the walls of the classroom towards service-learning projects (Coogan, Heileker) and towards work with community literacy projects, such as community publishing (Mathieu, Parks), that can provide students with more authentic opportunities for public rhetoric and foster greater rhetorical agency. This work has challenged scholars and students to explore and participate in the rhetorical networks that shape community organizations, civic associations, and local advocacy groups. At the same time, as digital media and networks have expanded, so have opportunities for students to engage in public writing. Work in composition on youth engagement and digital media, such as Jonathan Alexander’s Digital Youth and work on multimodal public writing (Dubisar and Palmeri; Selfe and Selfe; Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel), has not only explored students’ access to platforms for rhetorical participation, but also how access to these platforms can inform public writing pedagogy and ultimately promote students’ rhetorical agency and efficacy. Scholars have also pointed to the importance of bringing a range of public genres and examples of public rhetoric into the public writing classroom (Farmer, Welch) in order to provide students with a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the publicity of public rhetoric and an advanced understanding of effective action and activism (Pough).

The articles featured in this special issue build and expand upon this work in important ways, honestly acknowledging both the risks of public writing but also developing rhetorical pedagogies that address the risks and work towards a better rhetorical culture. In this sense, these articles examine what we want from public writing, but at the same time each of these articles follows Wells’ advice in her interview to recognize what students want from public writing. They accomplish this by exploring how public writing pedagogy can draw on students’ everyday experiences of public life and texts to promote their public agency, address students’ perception of risk in public discourse and enable them to critically respond, foster students’ sense of their continued public agency, and invest students in processes of listening that enable them to critically understand the communities, publics, and rhetorical ecologies they inhabit.

In her article, Durable Effects: Public Writing and the Children’s Peace Statue Project, Risa Applegarth significantly expands our understanding of public writing projects by adding the concept of “durability” to public writing projects and rhetorical ecologies (Rice, Rivers and Weber). Applegarth develops her understanding of the “durable effects” of public writing by employing a posthumanist, new materialist reading of the relationship between materiality, efficacy, and agency. She argues for the need to consider “the networks of sustained effort among numerous dispersed participants” necessary to create “materially oriented public writing projects” like the Children’s Peace Statue in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Through a case study that examines years of student participation in this project, public resistance to the project, and retrospectives of student participants, Applegarth challenges us to consider how these projects create “durable effects,” experiences with literacy that go far beyond the completion of a project.

Lauren Obermark also explores how collective public writing projects can function as significant public responses to what seem at times like unfathomably difficult political exigencies. In her article, Public Rhetoric in the Shadow of Ferguson: Co-Creating Rhetorical Theory in the Community and the Classroom, Obermark draws on the political and pedagogical exigencies of teaching on a campus next to Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Michael Brown and the community’s work for justice. Obermark argues for the central role of “rhetorical listening” (Ratcliffe) and the construction of archives of public discourse in the public writing classroom. She develops this argument by presenting a fascinating case study of her collaborative archival work with her students, who worked with her to collect narratives of a range of different people in Ferguson, from people on the city council, to local poets, to students. Obermark convincingly illustrates how listening and archiving collaboratively with students provides a collective, inclusive opportunity for “building rhetorical theory alongside public rhetors in local communities.”

The next two articles in this special issue challenge us to expand our understanding of multimodal public rhetoric by critically bridging the everyday multimodal composing practices of students to practices of public, rhetorical action and by equipping students with rhetorical tactics to recognize and confront online harassment, a significant risk for students who take their arguments public. Sarah Warren-Riley and Elise Verzosa Hurley’s Multimodal Pedagogical Approaches to Public Writing: Digital Media Advocacy and Mundane Texts provides a compelling argument for recognizing how the “mundane” multimodal texts students encounter and compose are embedded with advocacy practices that public writing teachers can draw upon to sponsor students’ rhetorical agency and understanding of public discourse. Warren-Riley and Verzosa Hurley’s argument not only expands our understanding of the resources students bring to multimodal public writing, but also develops critical connections between work on multimodality and a range of scholarship on civic media and digital citizenship.

Leigh Gruwell’s Writing Against Harassment: Public Writing Pedagogy and Online Hate develops a highly important pedagogical response to online harassment, a form of rhetorical violence that has, unfortunately, become all too common in online publics. Drawing on the rhetorical violence visited upon Anita Sarkeesian during Gamergate, Gruwell works to “reconcile the increasingly urgent calls for students to compose in public spaces online with the reality of potential harassment.” Gruwell looks to the defining influence of public sphere theory on public writing pedagogy, focusing specifically on the continuous influence of Habermas’s theoretical vision of the public sphere in work on public writing and rhetoric, despite the development of significant critiques. Gruwell argues that this understanding of the public sphere does not provide the tools necessary to respond to online harassment because it ignores the way in which participation in the public sphere “often hinges on gender, sexuality, class, and racial identities” and as a result “leaves rhetoricians unprepared to address instances of exclusion such as online harassment.” In response, Gruwell outlines a public writing pedagogy grounded in an understanding of rhetorical ecologies, arguing that an ecological understanding of public rhetoric can equip public writing teachers and students to recognize the power relations that structure online publics and develop tactics for productively responding to online harassment.

The title of Scott Sundvall and Katherine Fredlund’s article The Writing on the Wall: Activist Rhetorics, Public Writing, and Responsible Pedagogy comes from a student project that featured a video of students spray-painting a hashtag for their public project on a public wall. Through a critical discussion of this example and multiple examples across two public writing courses, Sundvall and Fredlund confront the ethical, political, and legal risks of activist pedagogy in the public writing classroom and challenge readers to critically reflect upon the relationship of these risks to their own activist commitments. Through their case studies, Sundvall and Fredlund map out a responsive activist pedagogy rooted in students’ choice and agency, one that also resists the urge to “tie courses into neat bows.” Rather, they acknowledge the “messy,” risky practices of teaching public writing, practices which are not only reflective of public life but necessary to foster students’ civic agency.

The two program profiles featured in this issue expand our understanding of the relationship between publics, genre, and culture. Christopher Basgier extends Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi’s call in their recent Genre and the Performance of Publics to deploy the rich resources of Rhetorical Genre Studies to explore “how publics and the performances of public life are textually embodied and mediated through genre networks” (5). Basgier’s profile of the development of an FYC public writing course at the University of North Dakota looks at the challenges of teaching public writing when opportunities for working with community partners are difficult to come by. Basgier argues for the value of simulations within the context of a proto-public public writing classroom. The course profiled presents a sequence of simulated public genres that can “cultivate a powerful awareness of public genres as social actions that [students] can carry with them into future public writing situations.”

Margaret Willard-Traub’s program profile illustrates the importance of recognizing how the public turn is shaped by globalization and transnational networks and the role writing programs can play in fostering students’ ability to communicate across national borders. Her profile recounts how she developed a cross-cultural writing program for FYC during her tenure as WPA at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, focusing specifically on a section of cross-cultural writing that partnered her students with professional writing students in France. Through the process of exploring public writing projects together through online dialogue, students were challenged to understand transnational public discourse not as a neat dialogue but as a process of developing a critical rhetorical awareness of the relationship between language and cultural identity and as a set of rhetorical tactics for dialogue and collaboration.

In addition to the articles and program profiles, Londie Martin’s review of Shari Stenberg’s Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions for a Neoliberal Age engages Stenberg’s argument for challenging the neo-liberal discourses and interests that shape K-12 and higher education with feminist praxis. Drawing on José Esteban Muñoz’s understanding of “queer world-making,” Martin argues for the importance of Stenberg’s repurposing of Composition Studies for resisting the increasing reach of neoliberalism into education. Martin’s review will leave readers pondering how public writing might be repurposed to resist the neoliberal discourses that would strip public and civic agency out of education.

Special Section: Forum on Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives

This special issue also features a forum on the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) as a repository for public discourse. Research on the literacy narrative has explored the genre’s potential as a public genre (Alexander, Danielewicz, Soliday) and its role in bringing public writing to the basic writing classroom (Minnix). This forum brings together five scholars who have written extensive and formative scholarship on the literacy narrative and asks them to delve into the vast archive of the DALN and explore its relationship to public discourse. While each of these pieces was written independently, they each explore a common theme mapped out in the first piece by the current directors of the DALN, Michael Harker and Ben McCorkle—an understanding of the DALN as a “public utility,” a public initiative for collecting and sponsoring public discourse. Harker and McCorkle argue the DALN continues to serve the public in important ways by “preserving and sharing stories” of literacy, but also take us behind the scenes of the redesign of the DALN in order to show us how the redesign of the DALN embodies its role as a public utility.

Morris Young then explores the DALN as a public forum for recording “the experiences of people who engage critically with questions of language, literacy, and culture.” Young draws on the vision of the Asian American literacy narratives as a site of critical engagement and negotiation that he maps out in Minor Re/Visions: Asian American Literacy Narratives as a Rhetoric of Citizenship to read Asian American literacy narratives in the DALN. For Young, the DALN functions not only as an archive but also as a place where contributors can compose and reflect upon their transnational literacy across a range of different modalities. Young’s piece not only draws our attention to the number of Asian American literacy narratives in the DALN but also to the role that the DALN can play as a transnational space of cultural negotiation and engagement.

The move from private to public discourse, a move often associated with the literacy narrative assignment, does not come without its own set of risks, however. Kara Poe Alexander explores the risk of student resistance to submitting literacy narratives to the DALN in Rendering Private Writing Public in the DALN. Alexander frames her argument for the importance of the DALN by telling the story of working with a student who chose not to upload her literacy narrative. Through an analysis of this experience, Alexander develops a significant set of arguments for students’ public participation in the DALN. She argues that through contributing to the DALN students’ can perceive their rhetorical agency more fully by understanding how their literacy narratives can challenge the well-worn assumptions and myths of literacy that pervade public discourse. At the same time, Alexander argues for students’ agency in choosing to go public on the DALN and for the importance of pursuing the goals of public writing via other assignments should a student refuse.

This special section concludes with Mary Soliday’s exploration of the numerous literacy narratives in the DALN that reflect upon the role of specific texts in shaping contributors’ literacy. Soliday argues that while these narratives of “textual encounters” recount experiences with a range of different genres and modalities, a significant amount of literacy narratives in the DALN explore the importance of literary texts in shaping contributors’ literacy. Analyzing numerous literacy narratives in the DALN, Soliday illustrates how textual encounters with literary texts are utilized by composers to “memorialize their connections to others but also to acknowledge the complexity of past literate selves.” One of the public functions of the DALN is therefore to serve as a space of the textual encounter, a place where the often private experience of engaging with the literary text can be productive of public literacy and agency.

Taken together, each of these pieces reveals that the space between literacy experiences often conceived of as “private” and the space of public engagement is always already porous and liminal. Such work should encourage scholars of public writing to consider the literacy narrative not as a precursor to public writing but as public writing in its own right.

Public Writing at a Time of Political Backlash

The richness and complexity of the work in this issue contributes significantly to our understanding of public writing in Composition Studies and also to our understanding of how this work can address current public discourse. I would like to add to this conversation by suggesting that as we continue to chart the futures of public writing pedagogy, we must also recognize that our curricular arguments and research are not confined simply to our campuses or our field. Conflicts between our visions of public life, public rhetoric, and democracy and those of our students and the public have always been part of teaching public rhetoric. Our pedagogical condition still reflects James Berlin’s statement that “a way of teaching is never innocent” (492). More recently, David Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony Michel remind us that “there is no neutral way to teach rhetoric that does not touch the subjectivities of those involved. The question is what kind of subjectivities do we want to encourage?” (118) But the question of what kinds of subjectivities we want to encourage is, fundamentally, a political question, one that makes the terrain of public writing necessarily agonistic. At the same time, as political contexts shift and new regimes come into power, the process of envisioning these subjectivities in our classrooms takes on different and sometimes greater risks. This relationship between contexts of political power and pedagogy can be easily observed in our current moment, one that underscores not only the importance of public writing pedagogy but also the risks to public writing teachers.

A few key examples can help illustrate the stakes attached to teaching public writing. First, many readers will be familiar with the annual survey “The American Freshman,” produced each year by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. The 2016 report, published in April of 2017, celebrated 50 years of the survey but noted that “the fall 2016 entering cohort of first-time, full-time college students, has the distinction of being the most polarized cohort in the 51-year history of the Freshman Survey … Fewer students than ever before (42.3%) categorize their political views as ‘middle of the road,’ reflecting a general political polarization within this demographic” (4, emphasis in original). In addition to the possibility of growing political polarization among students, a recent Pew Research Center study also notes the growing suspicion that many conservatives hold towards higher education. According to the report, “a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years” (1). What is important to note about each report is how these statistical shifts have occurred within the span of a year, a point that must make us pause and consider how broader political contexts and political campaigns affect visions of the public, democracy, and public education. While teaching public writing has never been a neutral or conflict-free endeavor, the polarized state of our political discourse underlines the importance of recognizing how our public writing pedagogies are perceived by our students and the broader public.

The public perception of our pedagogy is, of course, always important, both rhetorically and politically, but it is also important to realize that public writing, civic education, and community engagement face renewed and significant threats. In addition to Turning Point USA’s dusting off of the professor watch-list from the 9/11 era, key pedagogies of public writing, including service learning and community literacy have come directly under attack by organizations such as the National Association of Scholars (NAS). Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics, a 500-page report written by David Randall for the NAS and published in January of 2017, attacks service-learning, global learning, and community-engaged pedagogy, arguing that such pedagogies, referred to in the report as “New Civics” (9), are a form of “anti-civics” (11) that seek to move students away from knowledge of their government and towards a simplistic identification with progressive politics. The report zeroes in on Rhetoric and Composition programs in several places, noting how service-learning replaces basic literacy with activist training (190) and holding up CU-Boulder’s Writing Initiative for Service and Engagement, directed by Veronica House, as an example of how composition courses are being designed to spread progressive politics (189-90). Indeed, one of the three definitions of rhetoric given in the glossary of the report defines rhetoric as a term used as a “rationale to turn classes of remedial and introductory writing instruction (rhetoric, speech communication, communication studies, and so on) into classes of progressive advocacy” (357). The NAS report illustrates the types of attacks that our public writing programs and our colleagues may be subject to in an increasingly polarizing political climate.

As research in public writing in Composition continues to develop, engaging the discourses aligned against public writing—their articulations outside and inside the classroom—is essential. Scholars in Composition Studies have argued for the importance of cultivating Composition’s own public intellectuals (Butler, Cushman), and public writing, with its explicit connection to rhetorical politics and ethics, will continue to be a pedagogy in need of intellectual defense.

Conclusion: Who Owns Public Writing?

In addition to responding to attacks on the work of public writing classrooms, public writing researchers and teachers should also continue to explore ways in which the public turn in Composition Studies can speak to the broader public and civic turn in American colleges and universities. The expansive work of organizations like the American Association of Colleges and Universities and Campus Compact illustrates a broader public turn across many of our campuses. Many US colleges and universities now have significant programs and resources for service-learning and community engagement, as well as expansive civic and global civic missions. This should challenge us to seek out areas where public writing is taking place across the disciplines while also arguing for the importance of public writing pedagogy to the broader public turn.

An important example of this shared public turn can be seen in the burgeoning work in rhetorical education that we see occurring in Communication Studies. While the term “public turn” has been most often used to refer to work associated with public writing in Composition Studies (including work in community literacy, community publishing, and service-learning), calls for turning or “returning” rhetoric to its pedagogical role of preparing students for public engagement span the history of Composition Studies and Communication Studies. Arguments for bringing the rhetorical tradition back to Composition have shaped the development of Composition Studies and Composition curricula in indelible ways and are central to the public turn. At the same time, calls for a renewed vision of rhetorical education in Communication Studies (Hauser, Mt. Oread, Rood) illustrate that ours is not the only public turn and that our own public turns sometimes overlap and sometimes conflict with others. The recent Mt. Oread Manifesto, published in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, a journal shared by rhetoricians in Communication, English, and Writing Studies programs, calls for “rhetoricians from across the disciplines to work toward an integrated vision of rhetorical education” (2). The manifesto describes this rhetorical education in terms that are immediately conversant with public writing pedagogy, including an emphasis on authentic writing assignments (3) that prepare students for meaningful participation in public life.

We can see important work that falls into the category of public writing being done across our campuses in a range of other disciplines as well, including not only humanities disciplines, such as media studies, but also in STEM disciplines, such as in public health programs. In addition, a wide range of interdisciplinary research on civic engagement and civic media reflects additional opportunities for collaboration and interdisciplinary inquiry on public writing.{1} While this interdisciplinary research points to immense opportunities for collaboration and alignment, I want to suggest that public writing researchers and teachers must also argue vocally for the importance of their work to the broader public turn in the university. In his often-cited 2005 CCCC Chair Address, Doug Hesse asks “who owns writing?”; or, rather “who owns the conditions under which writing is taught? Who owns the content and pedagogy of composition?” (337). It is important to ask Hesse’s question in the context of public writing and public rhetoric. My hope is that readers of this special issue will consider this question as they read the work of the contributors. Yet, while I hope readers will consider how the pedagogies, rhetorical knowledge, and literacies that the contributors explore cross disciplines, I also hope that they will consider what makes the work of public writing in Composition Studies distinctive. What, as Joseph Petraglia terms it, might be the “comparative advantage” (169) of our discipline?

A central part of this comparative advantage can be found in the pedagogical focus of our work. While acts of public writing take place across a range of disciplines and in a range of different courses, public writing in Composition Studies remains one of the only places in higher education where discussions of public or civic pedagogy thrive. We see a variety of calls for civic education and rhetorical education across a wide range of disciplines, but it is public writing researchers and teachers, like the contributors to this issue, that take up questions about assignments, provide studies of specific classes and programs, and puzzle over questions of transfer. In this important sense, we need not only public intellectuals to work against the backlash to public writing but also to articulate the value of our field both locally, within civic initiatives on our campuses, and also nationally within the literature and programs of the broader global turn in higher education.

One way we might pursue this work, to borrow a phrase from Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, is by engaging in the process of outwardly as well as inwardly “naming what we know” about public writing and rhetoric. As we continue to envision the role of public writing pedagogy and public writing students, we might begin to think about the threshold concepts of public writing and how they might inform curriculum building and curricular inquiry. As Adler-Kassner and Wardle define them, threshold concepts are “concepts critical for continued learning and participation in an area or within a community of practice” (2). While drawing on an expansive body of research on public writing and our own classroom practices, we might also explore interdisciplinary inquiry in political theory to understand how our own threshold concepts of public writing speak to powerful theories and ideologies of public life. What, for example, do our students need to know conceptually about democracy, political autonomy, sovereignty, transnationalism, governance, and law in order to conceive of their roles as public writers? What threshold knowledge of public genres is necessary for students to engage not only our assignments but in future public rhetoric? What do we expect to achieve in terms of transferable knowledge in and through public writing? What threshold concepts and genre knowledge might promote transfer? Exploring these questions can expand our understanding of public writing and provide pedagogical tools to foster our students’ public literacy. As Susan Wells reminds us in her interview, a “sovereign cure for melancholy” can be to look to the rhetorical practices and forms of public rhetoric we see at the grass-roots level and to “investigate, to experiment with, to modify, to figure out how to use them in a classroom, how to study them in the classroom.” As Wells puts it, “We’re not going to be happy, but we’re not going to be bored, and we’ll learn stuff.”

Acknowledgements: Throughout the editing of this special issue, I have often found myself reflecting upon the relationship between community work and the community of scholars who have supported this issue. As with community engagement and advocacy work, this issue is the result of collaboration and dedication on the part of an outstanding group of contributors and editors. I would like to thank the editors, Christian Weisser, Mary Jo Reiff, and Anis Bawarshi for their enthusiasm for this issue, for their exceptional editorial guidance, and for the many kindness they showed a first-time guest editor. I am also in indebted to Jody Shipka, special issues editor, for her insights into the development of this special issue and her constant guidance and support. The section editors of Composition Forum deserve endless praise for their work, and their insights and feedback have been simply outstanding. I want to thank interviews editor Brian Bailie for his support, feedback, and enthusiasm for the interviews in this issue, program profile editors Gregory Giberson and Tom Sura for their insightful guidance and for their review of the program profiles, and book review editor Jeanne Marie Rose for her smart insights into commissioning and responding to the book review for this issue. As this issue was brought to publication, I also learned just how much readers of Composition Forum are indebted to web editor Kevin Brock, whose editorial insight, exceptionally hard work, and endlessly impressive design skills are simply inspiring.


  1. See Jennifer S. Light and Danielle Allen’s recent collection, From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, for a useful example of the scope of this interdisciplinary work. (Return to text.)

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