MAXWELL:  There’s gold in those misplaced modifiers

3/1/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


My tenure as a composition teacher at Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois-Chicago during the 1970s was the worst time of my 18-year teaching career.

Some years were bad because I was a disdained member of the academic proletariat, “instructors” doomed to grading stacks of essays, ferreting out comma splices, misplaced modifiers, split infinitives and other errors common to undergraduate writing. Moreover, we were condemned to endless individual conferences in which we chastised, coaxed and babysat our charges.

In the rarefied air up the hall, however, sat the intellectual elite, the literature scholars _ the Shakespeareans, Chaucerians, Miltonians and Spenserians and, of course, the semanticists, deconstructionists and other theorists.

These elitists rarely had real contact with their composition counterparts. C.P. Snow himself would have had trouble imagining two cultures more divergent.

Since I have been away from the classroom, the enmity between these groups has abated on many campuses.

On others, though, the schism remains. “There’s a tendency to see the relationship between composition and literature as a bad family dynamic,” Eileen Schell, an assistant professor of writing and English at Syracuse University, said in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Composition faculty are like the wives. They stay home, teach the undergraduates, raise the children, while the literature faculty reap the rewards in the public sphere.”

For utilitarian reasons and because the study of rhetoric and composition has developed into a bona fide discipline during the last 30 years, composition faculty members on increasing numbers of campuses are seen as professionals and scholars.

David Bartholomae, chairman of the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh, argues that wrongheaded snobbery about the subject matter and the workload has been, and remains, the main source of bad blood.

“From the point of view of a dean or a taxpayer or a state legislator, one of the most important people in the English department is the director of composition,” Bartholomae said in the Chronicle. “And yet that person does not travel in the same circles as the person who does theory or film or literature. . . . As a (composition) professor, you’re not identified with something of great value, like Shakespeare or the English novel. You’re identified with the minds and words of 18-year-olds.”

Indeed, the teaching of writing skills in lower-level courses has been viewed not as scholarship but as remediation and service, creating a system that shunts junior faculty, adjuncts and teaching assistants into work that senior faculty tend to avoid. At many universities, this practice is seen as abuse.

A scathing report released in December by the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Professional Employment found, for example, that full-time, non-tenure track professors, adjuncts and teaching assistants taught 96 percent of the freshman composition courses in doctorate-granting English departments, compared to 64 percent in departments granting no degree higher than the master’s and 50 percent in those awarding only the bachelor’s.

Despite these findings, many department heads and writing faculty argue that old feuds are fading and conditions are rapidly improving. Ira Clark, chairman of the Department of English at the University of Florida, said that the division between literature and composition is isolated. It is not a departmental problem.

Furthermore, graduate students teach virtually all first-year courses. The department does not employ part-time faculty. And unlike many of his peers, Clark does not treat freshman composition as scut work delegated to inferior professors. He sees such instruction as legitimate apprenticeship for teaching assistants entering the field.

At the University in South Florida in Tampa, Gary Olson, coordinator of the Graduate Program of Rhetoric and Composition, said that, in general, his campus does not have a composition and literature war like the one I experienced in the 1970s. Individual literature professors may scorn writing faculty, but such feelings are not departmental, he said.

USF’s writing program, considered one of the top five nationwide, is interdisciplinary and much of its research focuses on how language, thought and composing interrelate. Such scholarly theorizing is integral to the program’s mission.

Again, practical forces are helping to make rhetoric and composition respectable. Few universities, including the most prestigious, now require literature courses. But all of them require two or more writing courses. A further irony is that graduates with degrees in composition, once relegated to the academic plantation, are finding full-time professorships while many with doctorates in literature are driving taxis, flipping Big Macs and the like.

Today, at budget time, few English departments brag about their must-take colloquies on Elvis or The Simpsons, for example. Why? Because instead of expecting students to deconstruct Moby Dick, most professors, in all departments, want students to write clearly.

For that reason, Comp 101 _ with its dangling modifiers, mixed constructions, subject and verb disagreements, spelling errors _ is the permanent cash cow.