Tuesday, July 17, 2012

On disciplinarity and randomness

Today, I want to write about some readings but before that, the story of how these readings ended up being read by me is quite interesting so I want to share the story with you.
Some time ago, two of my friends from my program at Purdue were roommates. One of them, let's call her L, graduated and I replaced her as a roommate. Since L was going to live abroad, she was getting rid of some of her stuff. One of those things was a course pack for introduction to composition studies course. L had dropped the class after buying the course pack, so it was unread save the first couple of articles. To cut the long story short she wanted to get rid of the course pack and I kept it. In other words, the course pack came with the apartment as a bonus.
When I was in West Lafayette, I didn't have time to read it, though I began reading it several times it just sat on my bookshelf for a year. Then it was my turn to leave West Lafayette, I had to get rid of my stuff too, an experience that I can only describe by an exclamation, "Ouch!" (I guess it's karma you take for free and give back for free :-). As I was wondering how to fit so many years in two suitcases, a Turkish friend of mine from the English department, let's call him M, kindly offered his luggage for my books. Needless to say, I was delighted. Since I think of my books as my friends, it would really break my heart to leave them behind, in addition to leaving my human friends behind (Hmm, I hope I don't offend them by mentioning them as an afterthought to my books). Anyway, I gave M my books and said "It would be great if you can take this course pack with you too, but it's okay if you don't have enough room." Well, the course pack was quite huge so I didn't want to push my luck too much. Anyway, M and I came to Turkey at different times. We could not meet for some reason so he left my books with a common friend from Purdue, let's call him G. G came to visit my husband and me and brought my books with him. Guess what, the course pack was with my other books. YAY! Thank you M and G!
So you see this course pack was meant to find me. If you think about all the things that could have gone wrong, all the coincidences it took, this course pack being here with me now is nothing short of a miracle :-) So this is the peculiar story of a course pack finding me. A loyal and determined friend, indeed. And today I was procrastinating and wanted to read something that was not related to my dissertation. So, I read the first three articles of the course pack.
Today, I read Lauer's, Phelps's, and Slevin's articles on composition studies, which are about disciplinarity, a topic I find quite fascinating, be it about sciences or SLW or SLA studies or any other field for that matter. In the articles/chapters, the authors mention several features of a discipline such as research methods, history, genealogy, "epistemic courts," etc. as well as markers of a discipline like graduate programs, journals, conferences, and so on. All in all, I think I agree with Lauer in that "We recognize a discipline not by each of these features taken singly but rather by their presence as a cluster" (p. 20). Funny, how familiar this sounds. I'm pretty sure I had written something similar somewhere using the word constellation instead of cluster long before reading this article. It feels great when someone else expresses the same thing that is in your mind. That serendipity, that cerebral connection gives me a primal pleasure impossible to describe. That pleasure is followed by a panic attack caused by plagiarism anxiety. No no it's just a coincidence and besides it was just a response paper I had written for my conversation analysis class. Phew! Take deep breaths. Everything is okay. Oh boy, I think this is going to be one of those stream of consciousness type of blog entries. My apologies, I cannot seem to help it. 
Coming back to disciplinarity, when I was writing my Master's thesis and thinking about Second Language Acquisition Studies and what it had been, what it was, and what it would or could be, a little "should be" creeping in now and then in spite of myself, I remember contemplating the idea of investigating and tracing the angels and demons of a field as an alternative way of approaching the question of 'what is a discipline?' if for nothing else, just for the fun of it (I know I know I have an 'interesting' understanding of fun). You must admit though, it is much more entertaining than the etymology of the word discipline, which, I admit, IS interesting in its own way. The idea of angels and demons of a discipline makes me laugh since I cannot help but imagine the scholars who inspired or annoyed many in their fields with their angel or bat wings (it must be my anime fan self talking), needless to say the type of wings these people have depends on your vantage point (for example, who were the "villains" in Firth and Wagner vs. mainstream SLA researchers debate; who were the victims?) and sometimes the time of evaluation (think about Stephen Krashen here). I guess not much can escape the space-time continuum. Joking aside though, oftentimes I think perhaps the very presence of questions about who we are as a discipline is exactly what makes a field a field. That very self awareness, which I think as a qualitative jump based on experience and interaction, marks the beginning of something, though I'm not sure what it is. Oh no, I must be careful here. The next thing you know, I will repeat Descartes and say that famous phrase. Seriously, what got into me :-) I thought I was an anti-Cartesian. And what am I'm trying to get at? Let's recap then. (1) Life is full of impossibilities coming true (yes, even in science. Check this out for examples) (2) Just read stuff from other disciplines, it's stimulating.
PS. Aside from the content of the articles, I really enjoyed the language these composition scholars use. I never see such rich and artistic use of language in SLW or SLA sources :-( What a shame! I don't know about you, but when I see a phrase or a sentence that gives me a literary taste in a scholarly article, it kind of tickles my mind, figuratively speaking of course, and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  Maybe I'm a little weird but I love those encounters.
Let me give you some examples from the articles I read today so that you can test if you feel the same way or not.
"They found theories in these fields that opened paths into the unmapped domain to which their dissonance had led them." To me, this sentence is a movie in a sentence. Or try this.
"The generativity of this period created a brief euphoria, in which claims for a unified theory seemed intoxicatingly persuasive, as both the instrument for seeking disciplinary status and the likely outcome of this struggle." I seriously find it difficult to concentrate on what this sentence says because the words and phrases are so beautiful to me. I hear their music instead of their message. Come on, admit it "intoxicatingly persuasive" tickles you too. On second thought maybe there are some advantages to dry language in scholarly articles; you understand the message easier, that is, if you don't fall a sleep :-) But again those articles don't inspire either. Commanding inspiration should definitely be a criterion for scholarly publication. Dear Editor, Concerning the article you sent me. Clarity, not bad; organization good; command of literature, excellent; research design, very good; findings, significant; probability of precipitation, eh, I mean probability of inspiration excellent. Thus I recommend its acceptance after minor revisions.

Note to self: Make sure to use the the word "intoxicatingly" in your dissertation, just for the fun of it (well, because it makes me imagine intoxicated scholars, an entertaining image however you look at it).

Lauer, J. M. (1984). Composition studies: A dappled discipline. Rhetoric Review 3(1), 20-28.
Phelps, L. W. (1996). Composition studies. In T. Enos (Ed.). Encyclopedia of rhetoric and composition (pp. 123-134). New York: Garland.
Slevin, J. F. (2001). Introducing English : Essays in the intellectual work of composition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 

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