“Histories in the Spaces Left:African American Presence and Narratives of Composition Studies”–Jackie Jones Royster and Jean C. Williams

Royster and Williams begin and end this essay with the following aphorism: “History is important, not just in terms of who writes it and what gets included or excluded, but also because history, by the very nature of its inscription as history, has social, political, and cultural consequences.” Royster points out that historical accounts of compositon studies can not dismissed from inscribing such consequences. As Berlin and others have noted, histories of composition studies are never comprehensive, definitive or inclusive and are always driven by ideology, which distorts one’s interpretation. Although Royster and Williams (R and W) affirm importance of scholars locating their positions and contextualizing their work, so as to minimilize gaps in limitations in their historical narratives, R and W place heavier responsibility (perhaps) on scholars to “re-articulate those gaps and limitations” in their own narratives, a critical perspective they model in the duration of this essay (564). In particular, R and W say the following limitations should be noted: “limitations in terms of the ideological location of the scholar who has produced the narrative, where he sets his gaze, the particluar historical experiences on which he draws, and the intersecting experiences of others whom he does not ntice but who could, nevertheless, be writtten into the story” (565)

Following is a list of some gaps and limitations R and W notice in “prime” historical accounts of composition studies:

Kitzhaber, earliest written historical account of comp. studies 1850-1900: points out that one major event that affected comp studies was rise of land grant institutions, yet neglects to mention “1890 Institutions”–the second round of land grants which permitted federal funds to be used to establish seperate land grant institutions for African American states (South) (565).

Berlin and North: failed to identify politics of location. Even though this practice wasn’t common at the time, their narratives definitely represent the dominant perspective and thus normalize their mainstream historical narratives, which then systematically suppress exluded groups in a naturalized manner (565).

Susan Miller: TEXTUAL CARNIVALS–focuses on “the engendering of composition teaching and the implications of other power relationships,” but fails to “craft a space” for the voices of people of color (566).

Brereton’s THE ORIGINS OF COMPOSTION STUDIES IN THE AMERICAN COLLEGE–crafts a space for others, but does not “fill the space, substantially credit African American viewpoints of it, or permit it to enrick, refine, or redefine what he is suggesting is the ‘larger,’ publicaly documentable story” (566).

Sheryl Fontaine and Susan Hunter, editors of “Writing Ourselves into the Story: Unheard Voices from Composition Studies”–acknowledge absence of ethnic minority voices but claim they tried and had no submissions because of lack of interest or “savvy” in publication, which is evidence for their powerlessness (567). R and W point out numerous problems with this explanation and then raise questions about editors choices to solicit contributions and responsibility for ensuring inclusion of other voices (568).

R and W then point out that narratives of comp studies are not student centered. Claim instead, many narratives refer to stock student who is the struggling basic writer. Never are successful writers included. R and W claim conflation of race and basic writers has become embedded in our literature (571). Also points out problems with scholarly work that does included students:

Helmer’s “Writing Students: Compositional Testimonials and Representations of Students” for not telling specific gender or ethnic background of students and thus creates a generalized student (568).

Valerie Balester’s “Cultural Divide: A Study of African American College-Level Writers”–positions successful students who incorporate BEV in productive ways, but positions them as outsiders and “basic writers” (569)** Plus, if race admitted, class is dismissed. Balester’s work demonstrates conflation of race and basic writing (569).

Mina Shaughnessy’s ERRORS AND EXPECTATIONS: R and W claim Shaughnessy does not include race as characterization of basic writers in her work, but rather points out continued oppression of black students due to black students’ tendencies to develop negative perceptions of language (571). R and W claim this conflation is wrong because basic writers were identified long before 1960s (572).

After pointing out these gaps and limitations in scholarly historical accounts of comp studies, R and W set gaze upon 19th century to get better understanding of African American presence in acedemia and comp studies (572).

R and W focus gaze on:

1. Three major events that influence comp studies that should be taken into historical accounts:

John B. Russworm–first college graduate (1828)
Oberlin College admits Black americans, women, and others (1833)
African American Men and Women graduate from college

2. Two major historical moments that need to be acknowledged here:

Wilberforce and Lincoln University are first to admit black Americans
Second Morrill Act which led to creation of first A. Am. college and universities (574).

3. Presence of Howard University in Higher Ed.

4. Recovery of contributers to comp. studies by African American scholars and teachers:

Alain Locke–first Rhodes scholar, Harvard Phd, founder of African Union Society, pioneer in ethnic studies, author of THE NEW NEGRO, which documents cultural and social progress of A. Amer. in creative writing and literary scholarship (576).

Hallie Quinn Brown–Dean of Tuskegee Institute, Professor of Elocution, and charismatic speaker. Created pedagogical materials, which focused on “embodied rhetoric,” rhetoric located within a specific community and thus connected school and home knowledge. (577)

Hugh Gloster–PhD at NYU. Establish Association of Teachers of English in Negro Colleges, which worked to sustain agenda dedicated to encouraging publishers to include A. Amer. writers in anthologies and provide space for A. Amer scholars to flourish, but later morphed into CLA. (578)

Implications according to R and W:

1. Demonstrated how in primacy narratives, viewpoints of A. Amer are invisible, misreprented, or dealth with peripherally for referentally (579)
2. identified positive ways A. Amer. are experienced in comp studies–begin historical view of A. Amer. in higher ed in 19th century, representations of student are not associated with basic writers, and recoveries of influential scholars in comp. studies (579)

**R and W says we must avoid naturalized offical narratives–primacy narratives–that do not insist on presence of A. Americans because:

1. conflicts over agency, authenticity and interpretive authority arise (580)
2. conflicts over mainstream and alternative histories arise (581)

R and W say we must create historical narrative from non-dominant perspectives so that we have opportunity to:
1. subvert negative effects of primacy
2. develop critical view, shift locations and gazes, raise previously unasked questions, all of which lead to a fuller understanding

***At the end of their essay R and W summarize call for better actions in presenting historical accounts:

1. A systematic committment to resist the primary of “officialized” narratives.
2. A search for richer and wider interpretive frames which account for participation and achievments of many rather than few and new methodologies for seeing gaps and limitations and generating research to fill those gaps.
3. A genuine interest in #1 and #2 to help broaden range of students to perform at higher levels of achievement (582-3).

Questions that arise:

What can Roysters and Williams argument teach us about conducting researh and scholarship?

What areas for potential scholarship do they point to?

Would literacy narratives be more inclusive?

What are some of the questions that have been previously unasked in terms of the history of comp studies?

What possible methodologies might exist for seeing gaps in knowledge and generating research that can fill those gaps?


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