Adventures in Interdisciplinary Composition

In part two of Richard Miller’s “This is How We Dream,” he asks, “What would it mean to build a building that united the best of the humanities and the best of the sciences?”  He even has a 3-D architectural model, one that takes out the parking lot in order to add a science wing onto his current humanities building.  I love this idea.  And not just because it gets rid of a parking lot.  Especially because I teach composition, it’s becoming easier, or maybe just more necessary (even obvious?) to see the broadening definition of what it means to compose.  With Miller’s idea for (the best of) English and (the best of) science together under one roof, it seems only necessary to adopt Brian Morrison’s definition of composing: “the thoughtful gathering, construction, or reconstruction of a literate act in any given media” (Yancey 2004, p. 315). And with this changing definition, it’s exciting to dream of the excellent interdisciplinary adventures that could ensue.

But I’m wondering if, first, it’s beneficial to imagine what a composition would begin to look like if several branches of the humanities (say, historians, linguists, and trustworthy philosophers) built a series of courses together. Or maybe it makes more sense to look at a more specific branch of humanities, like English studies. With partnerships between film & media, communication, and cultural studies alone, students could take classes that build their composition skills. That is, courses that build upon what they already know about producing, consuming, and critiquing texts–print or digital or whatever we conceive them to be. When I think about what English courses often do (gatekeep) versus what they could do, I feel a simultaneous jolt of excitement and sad resignation.  What should English do, except help students more successfully tell stories, understand  voices–their own and those of others, study the world, and critique all of these things, all with an end goal of helping students to navigate life, doing more than nudging them toward a predetermined social place. And if life is becoming more multimodal, more intertextual, then classrooms can play a crucial role in helping students to not only develop these types of digital literacy skills, but also critically engage with digital texts and cultures.

Yet, according to Yancey, “we have already committed to a theory of communication that is both/and: print and digital” (p. 307).  This simplistic acknowledgment, of course, isn’t enough, and I’m glad that Yancey questions the ready availability of technology in the composition (or any) classroom. She argues that “students will not compose and create” or, I’d like to add, make use of their ability to push the boundaries of language, persuasion, design, collaboration, and presentation, if their interaction is simply to “complete someone else’s software package” (p. 320). This seems to lead back to a question that Kory asked during one of our first classes: do students need to learn code in order to be able to truly understand and produce an online composition? (or something to that effect.)  The answer to this question may mean that the interdisciplinary work of English studies that  I envision won’t be enough. We may need to build English (or composition or humanities or…) courses with help from the best of the sciences (whatever Miller means by that). Maybe we do need to bring them over to the HUM building. Who’s good at writing grants?

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