Some notes on Sirc’s English Composition as a Happening

This book makes an argument for the value of aesthetics, play, fun, and unsystematic design to writing. An argument for writing as art, an argument against writing as rote skill, prefab universality, as already genred–basically, against modern Composition Studies as it is currently practiced, particularly in large gen ed programs across the U.S. (though Sirc never quite puts it this way).

Drawing from avant-garde movements, modernist painters, punk rockers, and 60s radicals, including Composition teachers, Sirc develops an unabashedly idealistic argument for making composition classrooms spaces that students don’t want to leave, “happening” spaces. His inspirations are almost exclusively male mavericks like Pollock, Duchamp, Barthes, Cage, Bartholomae, Sid Vicious, and so forth. The world where language is play, spaces are indeterminate, form is invention, and “the mainstream” opposes ART-making, love, and adventure is a world apparently populated by aloof mythic (mostly white) male figures. Big gestures (early death! blood! violence! failure! enigmatic statements!) and big cliches. Notable mention of a woman–Jane Tompkins–who tries to write against academic convention presents an opportunity to dismiss her attempt as “smug, sanctioned transgression” (10). I don’t necessarily disagree with this assessment…but STILL! Does he have to be so…so strenuously boiler-plate?

There, got that out of the way. Now I’ll show some restraint in the interest of scratching down some ideas valuable to my evolving thinking…

  • teaching as curatorial work: “we teach connoisseurship” (4); composition as “opportunity to reflect on textuality, its craft, wonder, problems” (8)
  • impoverished view of writing in the field (9), loss attached to banishment of poetics (replaced by politics), and lack of “broad definition of artistry” (117) as well as failure to address desire in composition theory (197)
  • writing as “lived genre” or “way of being” (158); Duchamp-inspired concept of writing as “whatever catches the eye” (44)
  • interesting attention to his reading process (13-14, 44, 47, 53) and to value of reading allegorically, reading divergent source material as a way to invent a new take on the field
  • what’s the emotional mood from which writing emerges? For him, disenchantment and disappointment after the promising work of 60s writing teachers who didn’t follow a professionalized script for teaching and learning; codification of writing in the face of disciplinarity has led to flight away from “expressivist or art-writing, a writing for non-academic (or non-ideological) goals” (25)
  • Bernstein on digression and teaching (89)
  • the importance of new materials to writing/creation (129)

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