Sirc — Resisting Entropy

Sirc, Geoffrey. “Review Essay: Resisting Entropy.” College Composition and Communication. 63.3 (2012): 507-519. Print.


“If you’re not going to teach a course exclusive of outside reading, why not use the most interesting reading there is?” (510)

“Part of refiguring English studies means rethinking composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness; it means our subfield’s reimagining literature as a cultural value and practice. Refiguring how it fits in a first-year course centered around writing.” (510)

“Official composition has persisted as a bland, sanitized pedagogy, teaching clear, correct, citation-based essay form to students, using a literarily thin corpus of nonfiction reading as prompts. This is so limited, it’s unbearable.” (511)

“Our most egregious crime is the insistence on dumbing down the complicated process of composition as a scrupulously teachable method, reducing the roles of chance and the imagination in the production of textual knowledge.” (512)

“Screw teachability.” (513)

“My students are, by definition, still learning the craft; one learns, in large part, from those who have mastered it.” (516)

“Let’s please end the sham of this all-too-common editorial board/peer review practice …. Outside feedback never really enters into what I’m doing.” (518)


I have not read any of the texts Sirc reviews in his review essay, so I will try to refrain from commenting on his examination of these. Instead, I’ll reflect on what some of the quotes listed above mean to me as a first-year GA and newcomer to the field.

I’m largely in agreement with Sirc about using masterful writers to help teach writing. This is done, of course, as Sirc notes, in other domains like vocal technique and, I might add, culinary arts or, to bring it closer to home, journalism and oratory. What might get lost here is what Sirc seems to be vehemently reacting against: what is the most interesting reading to him (Henry James) or to Cleanth Brooks (Wordsworth) might not be first on the list of every composition classroom’s students.

And when Sirc scolds Miller for “half-truths” (509)—well, couldn’t Miller’s examinations here alternately be seen as an honest recognition of complexity and tension within the discipline(s)? And couldn’t Sirc be accused of a similar two-step by, on the one hand looking to so-called masters as singular models worthy of emulation and on the other hand “feature [student] work” for discussion and effect in the composition classroom?

I’m new to the field, but I have sensed that “sniffy” posture Sirc mentions that some comp/rhet folks have when discussing their role in English Departments next to Literarus rex. I’m not a huge proponent of spending energy on disciplinary politicking, but, at the same time, it does seem problematic to turn a blind eye or refuse to engage in what seems like a legitimate beef. A recent flare-up of these issues can be witnessed in this post (and the comments) by Steven Krause in response to Michael Bérubé.

Where I most agree with Sirc is in his lamenting of the sterile content we/I often try to engage students with. While knowing how to write essays seems to me to be important in terms of a broadly defined academic discourse community, I do agree that there’s much value in moving beyond rubrics that, for the most part, my students can’t seem to make concrete, let alone use as guides to become better writers.

As for doing away with peer review, well, yes, I agree, when it’s bad it’s useless and even counter-productive. But I don’t think it has to be. As Sirc mentions earlier in the essay, having an “unswerving faith in what’s valuable and teaching it the best you can,” (510) is great advice. After reading this review essay, I definitely have a sense of what Sirc values and what he doesn’t.


2 thoughts on “Sirc — Resisting Entropy

  1. Great phrase – “disciplinary potlicking.” That’s one to hold onto.

    There’s a way of reading Sirc in “Resisting Entropy” as one who is frustrated with how little things seem to have changed in college composition over his career. Of course, how we read that degree of change matters greatly, too. Sirc reads it through the four titles he reviews; two reflect the change he wants to see, and two don’t. This gets me thinking about the appearances of entropy that are really slower rates of change than we desire, than we’d hoped for.

    Sirc’s sniffiness quotation is the one that keeps coming up in all of the entries across the carnival. The band kept playing a common note! More than the problem with composition’s sniffy attitude toward literary studies, however, is the problem of sniffiness in general. This happens all the time, but very little good comes from it–as far as I can tell. The bigger issue, it seems to me, is that disciplinary silos too easily keep us comfortably out of conversation with one another. Up-close conversations across differences don’t allow for both civil discourse and sniffiness, except, that is, when folks are passive-aggressive, acting one way to keep polite company while at the same time harboring contempt, judgment, ill will. So, yeah, sniffiness can be an issue, but there’s nothing special about it, from my experience, as it tracks from composition toward literary studies. I’d just rather see less academic sniffiness in general.

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