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Writing Empires I:
Composition and the Expansion of English

2007 MLA Convention
27-30 December 2008
Chicago, Illinois


Ann Jurecic
Rutgers University

“Writing Studies” and the Future of English


Do not cite without permission of the author.

The title for this Society for Critical Exchange panel, “Writing Empires I: Composition and the Expansion of English,” is deliberately provocative, suggesting that the colony of composition can extend the reach of the English Empire. The metaphor of empire, with composition as its colony, evokes an ongoing debate about the status of composition in the academy, such as the work of Richard Miller, whose essay, “From Intellectual Wasteland to Resource-Rich Colony: Capitalizing on the Role of Writing Instruction in Higher Education,” defines composition as an overlooked institutional asset.  Certainly, the metaphor of colony is a useful way to understand the position of composition in the academy. It has low status and underpaid, overworked laborers, and yet it also has the distinction of teaching most, if not all, the students.  Although composition may seem like a colony, the size and stature of English, which often oversees composition programs, suggest that English in no way an empire. Indeed, in order to consider the topic of this panel, “composition and the expansion of English,” it is necessary to have a broader understanding of the place of English the twenty-first-century university. Looking at the big picture, the possibility of expansion and “empire” seem less urgent than the problem of survival. 

One version of the big picture is provided at the website, Maps of Science, which I encourage readers explore: The Maps of Science project seeks to represent the structure of contemporary science—the range of its disciplines, the relations between the disciplines, and the relative strength of these relations.  To create the maps—both a globe and a mercator projection—the authors, Richard Klavans and Kevin Boyack, sorted through 16,000 journals using two major scientific databases and then defined disciplines and academic areas (including the social sciences and humanities) by identifying domains that cite common texts. On the maps, disciplines are designated by circles, which are clustered into academic areas indicated by color.  Math and physics, for instance, are purple, engineering disciplines light blue, medical specialties red, the social sciences yellow, and the humanities white. The map-makers denote disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity with lines connecting scholarship that cites a common literature. These gray lines, however, indicate more than mere connection. The site’s introduction informs readers that:

Links are treated as rubber bands (attempting to bring two disciplines close to each other). The lack of a link is similar to a repulsive force (pushing two disciplines close to each other). A mathematical model, using these attractive-repulsive forces, generates the visualizations …directly from the data. 

Thus, the relations between disciplines and academic areas on this map are not arbitrary; they are generated from a large set of data about commonalities and differences between fields.

As those of us in English or composition examine these maps, we are probably tempted to think less about the connections between, say, brain research and the social sciences than about the location of our own disciplines.  Fascinating as the maps’ representation of the sciences may be, no doubt we are all at this point thinking less about those disciplines than our own.  English is somewhere in that tiny, pale cluster of the humanities, which clings tenuously to the social sciences in the far right corner of the flat map. In this model of scholarly knowledge, we appear insignificant. Trained in critique, we can easily find reasons to dismiss this as a misrepresentation. After all, these are maps of science, not knowledge in general. The relative size of the humanities and even its interdisciplinary links are distorted because the map-makers took their data from science databases.  Perhaps, however, we should set such critiques aside for a moment and attend to what this map suggests about the humanities in the twenty-first century academy. Quite clearly it shows that, in an era where the resource-rich sciences have become intricately interdisciplinary, the humanities remain isolated outside the science network. Although our research may be becoming more interdisciplinary, this map also shows that few scientists engage with the humanities in their work. We might also notice that this map provides a portrait of the relative financial strength of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities: whether we like it or not, this is a map of the modern corporate university—the Science Empire—in which the humanities appear small and marginal, almost off the map.

A different measure of the status of English is apparent in Department of Education statistics about the number of humanities B.A.’s earned annually over the past 35 years and the number of degrees in English in comparison to the number of all B.A.’s, which are represented in the graph below:  


Total Number of Humanities B.A.’s Earned Annually
Over the Past 35 Years

Jurecic clip i

Using this graph, we can turn from the big picture of the university and focus our attention more narrowly on the humanities and our own discipline. As the graph shows, while the total number of undergraduate degrees in any subject has increased since 1970 from roughly 850,000 to over 1,400,000, since the early 1990s the number of degrees in the humanities has hovered at around 250,000. Thus, between 1970 and 2004, the number of humanities degrees dipped from about 28 percent of all B.A.’s to roughly 18 percent (Condition of Education). 

 The general picture for the humanities is echoed in the particular case of English, as is evident in the following graph.
Jurecic clip ii

Although the number of English majors has remained relatively constant since the early 1990s, with roughly 50,000 majors, the percentage of English B.A.’s slipped from a high of just under 8 percent of all graduates in 1970 to 3.8 percent in 2004-2005 (Condition of Education). At my own institution, Rutgers University in New Brunswick, English degrees accounted for 6.33 percent of all undergraduate degrees in 1990, but constituted only 4.14 percent of the total in 2002. The reduction in the major is mirrored by the drop in the number of all students registered in English, which decreased by 22 percent during the same period, from over 10,000 students per year to just over 8,000 in 2002 (R. Miller, “Worlds End”).

These two portraits of institutional territory—the map of the Science Empire and the stark numbers concerning majors and enrollments—reinforce my earlier claim that we should reframe the question with which we began. Instead of asking how or whether composition can extend the reach of English, the more fundamental question how either of our fields can remain viable and visible in the twenty-first-century university.

Regarding viability, the history of English over the past 35 or so years is quite instructive: departments of English have long maintained a foundation in textual criticism and shunned the taint of utility.  As a consequence, many departments have produced and then separated from academic programs in communication, journalism, creative writing, and now, in some places, composition and rhetoric. In a recent CCC article, “What are English Majors For?”, which offers a valuable overview of recent institutional history, Thomas P. Miller and Brian Jackson note that, despite a range of pressures, among them decreased enrollments and shrinking budgets, English has largely kept at bay what they call the “more writerly stance on literacy” that these now-separate disciplines represent (694).  In the context of this observation, it is worth noting that in the fifteen years between 1990 and 2005, when English enrollments remained steady even as the number of college students increased, those of communication, journalism, and related programs rose by over 40 percent (Conditions of Education). Thus, as we ask how to improve the viability of English, perhaps we should also consider whether—intellectually and pragmatically—the “writerly stance” can be truly integrated into the major.

The current tides are pushing against such integration. Not only does the late-twentieth-century history of English suggest that “interpretive” and “writerly” stances cannot easily be housed within the same discipline, there is much current conversation in composition is about developing its own writing major. Numerous composition programs are seeking to expand well beyond first-year writing, developing vertical writing curricula that instruct students throughout their careers as college writers. In addition to supporting writing in the disciplines initiatives, they seek to offer a range of advanced composition courses as well as business, technical, and scientific writing courses. Thus, the recent conversation in composition is not at all about expanding English, but rather about developing a major that could be offered by an independent writing department or as an option in English that is distinct from the traditional literary studies track. 

The greatest impetus for such a new major is the radical way new media technologies have transformed composing, and the understanding within composition that students must become literate in new media (as must their professors). In her presidential address to the Conference of College Composition and Communication in 2004, Kathleen Blake Yancey drew a parallel between the changes in writing literacy generated by new media technologies and the development of a new reading public in the nineteenth century, brought about by new printing technologies and affordable paper (299).  While literacies are always evolving, she points out that in recent years new media has had an unprecedented effect on writing. Yancey’s comments are worth quoting at length:  “Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside. Never before have the technologies of writing contributed so quickly to the creation of new genres” (298). Yancey continues,

Today we are witnessing a parallel creation, that of a writing public made plural, and as in the case of the development of a reading public, it’s taking place largely outside of school—and this in an age of universal education. Moreover, unlike what happens in our classes, no one is forcing this public to write. (300)

In addition, she notes that, “like the members of the newly developed reading public, the members of the writing public have learned—in this case, to write, to think together, to organize, and to act within these forums—largely without instruction and, more to the point here, largely without our instruction” (301).

One argument of Yancey’s address is that the academy is in danger of losing touch with the ways in which writing has developed in our students’ lives.  While some of us are content simply to know how to use email, our students may be avid bloggers, Facebook artists, interactive website designers, digital filmmakers, or even wiki vandals, and they are more likely than we are to understand the jargon of texting and the social benefits of twittering (or microblogging). Another argument Yancy makes (one that has been made by Cynthia Selfe and others), is that writing instruction must evolve in order to reflect changes in the technologies of writing, a transformation that will fundamentally alter conventional definitions of composition. In Yancey’s view, the shifts in literacy and education engendered by technology constitute structural changes that require a new major in which students create and study texts in print and on screen (320).

In her concluding remarks about the major, she also states that it could be housed in any institutional site: an “English department, writing studies department, [or] rhetorical studies program” (321).  But how many English departments would be amenable to sponsoring a second major?  While I appreciate Yancey’s openness to a range of institutional sites—her acknowledgment that secession from English is not the only option—I have difficulty imagining such a major ever being accepted at my own institution. At Rutgers, a large, public, research university, the Writing Program is housed in the English Department. At the moment, this is a functional relationship based, in part, on mutual dependence. English needs the “resource-rich colony” of composition: nearly 10,000 undergraduates pass through the Writing Program each year. In turn, the three tenure stream faculty in composition need the institutional status that comes from being members of a large and influential department. To propose a new major in this context would be disruptive and divisive. And, if the goal is to provide training in new media composing and to offer students the option of a writerly, as well as interpretive, stance in relation the study of human expression, it might also be unnecessary.
Current efforts at Rutgers to build a writing track within the major provide one example of how to address the three interconnected problems I have introduced: the relative invisibility of English and the humanities in the contemporary university; the viability of English in an era of proportionally declining enrollments and majors; and the radical transformation of literacy by new media technologies. Rutgers took its first steps toward the development of a stronger focus on writing years ago when the Writing Program expanded beyond first-year expository writing, offering a range of business and technical writing courses, including web authoring, and courses on research in the disciplines. Although these courses broadened the reach of the Writing Program, because they were housed within composition, they remained invisible to most of the English faculty.  A profound change occurred last spring, however, when Rutgers alumnus, Thomas J. Russell, provided the generous gift that allowed for the creation of a new Writers House within the department. The vision for Writers House belongs to two faculty members, Carolyn Williams, its Executive director and a scholar of Victorian literature, and Richard E. Miller, the department Chair and a scholar in Writing Studies. Working together, they designed an educational program and a physical space dedicated to fostering creative expression in all the media of the twenty-first century. Writers House now provides a home for courses in fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, as well as multimedia composition, new media for writers, digital storytelling, and documentary filmmaking.

Central to the vision of Writers House is that it should be more than a set of courses that invite students to become creative writers and readers, but that it should also an inviting physical space.  This past summer, the dingy basement of our building, Murray Hall, was transformed into three colorful seminar rooms, a student lounge, and a new media lab called the “collaboratory.” Every room is designed to be an attractive and comfortable place for writers to meet, learn, and work together. Even the main hallway is more than a passageway: on one wall, four screens display digital compositions by students and faculty. People pause and talk; texts circulate along with bodies. (I invite readers to pause at this point to watch a short documentary about Writers House:

Writers’ House has begun as an expansion of the department’s creative writing and Writing Program offerings, but we anticipate that it will grow into a program with its own residential writing faculty and a wide range of creative and professional writing courses.  I expect, as well, that the department will soon offer a writing track within the major and a certificate program for non-majors. This joint endeavor of faculty from literary and writing studies hints at the beginning of a conceptual shift  concerning the relationship of interpretive and writerly stances toward literature and literacy. In the context of this project such tensions have not disappeared, but have challenged us to question our assumptions about what the study of English and writing might become.  In this case, engaging across the divide has enabled some of us to recognize our shared interest in organizing students’ encounters with culture and creativity and in cultivating their reflection and engagement. Without displacing traditional literary studies, Writers House is redefining for all of us—professors and students alike—“what it means to be an English major and participate in the study of literature and human expression in the twenty-first century” (R. Miller, “Writers House”). 

Does Writers House represent the future of English? That would be too grand a claim. Writers House represents one response to the problems of the viability and visibility of English. This local solution, like any other local solution—whether it be a Writers House, a writing major, a literacy studies major, or a writing department—will not necessarily fit other institutions. Indeed, because times change and institutions evolve, the current conception of Writers House may well turn out to be temporary. Nevertheless, in creating a space for students’ active engagement with culture, we have also constructed institutional conditions for our own creativity and collaboration—as teachers, scholars, and writers—which I hope means that, as conditions evolve further, we will remain committed to sitting down together to cook up something new.

Works Cited

Carpini, Dominic Delli. “Re-writing the Humanities: The Writing Major’s Effect upon Undergraduate Studies in English Departments.” Composition Studies 35.1 (2007): 15-36.

The Condition of Education 2007. National Center for Education Statistics.  Institute for Education Sciences. U. S. Department of Education. Appendix 1: Supplemental Tables. 206-207. 30 Nov. 2007.

Genova, Gina L., Doug Downs, and Sandra Jamieson. “Writing Majors at a Glance (Spring 2007).”  National Council of Teachers of English. 30 Nov. 2007.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Curricular Activism: The Writing Major as Counterdiscourse.” Composition Studies 35.1 (2007): 41-52. 

Klavans, Richard and Kevin Boyack.  Maps of Science. SciTech Strategies, Inc. 30 Nov. 2007.

McLeod, Susan. “‘Breaking Our Bonds and Reaffirming Our Connections,” Twenty Years Later.” CCC 57.3 (2006): 525-534.

Miller, Richard E. “From Intellectual Wasteland to Resource-Rich Colony: Capitalizing on the Role of Writing Instruction in Higher Education.” Writing Program Administration 24.3 (2001): 25-40.

_____. “Writers House.” Documentary. Rutgers English Department.

Miller, Thomas P. and Brian Jackson.  “What Are English Majors For?” CCC 58.2 (2007): 682-708.

Selfe, Cynthia L. “Technology and Literacy: A Story about the Perils of Not Paying Attention.” CCC 50.3 (1999): 411-436.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake.  “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” CCC 56.2 (2004). 297-328.


1. See Susan McLeod, “ ‘Breaking Our Bonds and Reaffirming Our Connections,” Twenty Years Later.” See also: Dominic Delli Carpini, “Re-writing the Humanities: The Writing Major’s Effect upon Undergraduate Studies in English Departments; Rebecca Moore Howard, “Curricular Activism: The Writing Major as Counterdiscourse”; Gina L. Genova, Doug Downs, and Sandra Jamieson. “Writing Majors at a Glance (Spring 2007).”



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