I’m reading through Jeff Rice’s “English <A>” for the fourth time right now. This is as much a “stream of consciousness blog” as anything else. I find “English <A> to be both compelling and challenging; this quote captures both of those states: “My interest in exploring <A> as a keyword is in making it travel in all directions at once” (53).
That quote is followed by a “connection” Rice makes between new media and the history of writing, or more specifically, the origins of composition studies in the American university system at Harvard in the late nineteenth century.
The university writing paradigm, Rice says, was print-oriented. I wonder: could it have been oriented in any other way? I suppose rhetoric might be oriented in different ways in the late nineteenth century (oral or written), but I’m struggling to think the origins of university writing programs could have been oriented any other way. Perhaps I’m missing something obvious.
Be that as it may, Rice explains how English A, with its print-based paradigm, entails linear, alphabetic and hierarchical structuring. Harvard’s choice of English A was rooted in a desire for assessment of “basic” writing skills—correctness, the ability to follow convention, knowledge of canonical masters, even handwriting.
Rice sees English A as linear, hierarchical and rooted in individualism. English A is like the alphabetical “A”— distinct from other letters and situated in a linear series; English A is its own distinct course and, like contemporary first-year writing programs, individual student marshal skills they have honed to compose individual essays for exams, entrance letters, theses, etc. Rice says English A also “situated writing in terms of categorization, definition, and separation” (56).
Rice also sees English A as layers of individuation: “the single author the student studies works independently (and is read as a single body of information)” (57). Further, Rice seems to see English A as symptomatic of the Academy: “The ideology of keeping informational bodies separate in education extends from the 1870s to the twenty-first century” (58). I wonder who has articulated other ideologies. James Berlin wrote about ideology in the writing class, drawing distinctions between cognitivist, expressionistic and social epistemic approaches (“Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class” 487). In that piece, Berlin describes the entailments and tacit beliefs different approaches to writing instruction might have. I see clearly alternative ideological claims. With Rice, it’s not so clear to me (and perhaps this is outside the scope of his examination here) what different ideologies exist, and what their attributes may be, in terms of how education structures itself.
Anyway, I’m also intrigued by Rice’s idea of <A> as more than a linking tool. He describes it in structural terms, as a “backbone,” and although he doesn’t belabor that metaphor, I like what it entails in terms of <A> being the foundation for a complex electronic nervous system that operates in multiple directions at once, connecting disparate entities through a centralized, node-bearing structure. Pushing that imagery has actually helped a bit as I wrap my brain around <A>’s non-linearity.