A Response to
English Composition as a Happening by Geoffrey Sirc
from Donna Reiss

Hey, Geoff, Sirc sketch

When I finished reading your ever-provocative English Composition as a Happening (Utah State University Press, 2001), I wanted to write you a response (one of those long rambling emails we usually Send only to people we know well and probably shouldn’t even to them). Anyway, here’s not a review but a response, a letter to you and anybody else who might want to read it, the way we sometimes address an email to one person but submit it to everybody on the list. First, I applaud your almost-parting words (and many of your other words, too, Geoff, but I cite this sentence because it has such a simple, culminating appeal for teaching composition):

Composition as a Happening means … a basic awareness of how to use language and information, a cool project, and a sense of poetry. (277) 

book cover

But that’s the end of your book, which actually begins with a revival of the title and mood of “English Composition as a Happening,” Charles Deemer’s 1967 article that calls for a revolution not only in the teaching of writing but throughout the first-year experience and the university. These days, Deemer expresses on his Website an appreciation for your regeneration of his mandate. In your six chapters and bonus track, you take us back to the Sixties and forward to the twenty-first century to consider how composition might become action writing, somehow analogous to the art and architecture of the 1960s and the arts that influenced and were influenced by them: performances that could not easily be contained in traditional auditoriums; action paintings and installations that would not follow the rules of art teachers and traditions.

“Process,” you wrote, “was the key Happenings trope” (70), and I like the way you write about Jackson Pollock’s process better than I’ve ever liked Pollock’s paintings. Oh, I too am mad about his method—and how wonderful it would have been to have watched him through a window or a skylight as he danced around the canvas. But the Happening was over long before we ever saw the squiggles of color hanging perpendicular to their rightful place. Pollock-Lavender Mist

Your admiration of Pollock’s process seems to warn us about the ways we confine student writers with our writing environments, not just the physical classrooms that are imposed on us as well as our students but the ways we constrain their thinking about writing and their acts of composing. Thus, you call for composition with the “primacy of Jackson darting about the floor, what such a gesture means, over the work’s institutionalization on the wall (and into academic history)” (81-82).

You present Marcel Duchamp as another model of Happenings composition, “Action Painter, concerned with the revelation contained in the act, that tension” (271). I’ve had the good fortune to see “originals” and “replicas” of readymades and the Large Glass, but it’s the Nude I still long to see in person, that Nude who shattered perceptions and showed how a still image can appear to move and thereby move us.

Duchamp-Nude

To view even a print
of a

Nude Descending a Staircase

is
to be immersed in a process.

Might an academic paper similarly contain within it all the motions that contributed to its presented (“final”) form?

Your red thread history of the convention speeches of CCCC critiqued some past presidents’ platforms and some prevailing attitudes at each stage. Clearly, Composition isn’t what it was or might have been in the Sixties, but then, neither are we. And yet, don’t we all weave and warp together other people’s theories and practices, constructing the readymades and collages that inform our own pedagogy which isn’t Lutz or Macrorie or Elbow or Bartholomae but is always becoming…ours. Perhaps our pedagogy like our own composing resembles Duchamp’s Green Box, “a collection of interesting, powerful statements” (270).

I wonder, Geoff, if you meant to be hyperbolic when you claimed that students want to write about punk or rap:

But not every student is caught up in working on a Large Glass [Duchamp]….That is probably not an itch of theirs. But rap music most definitely is. (271)

Perhaps we can extend our understanding of that itch without presuming to know what thoughts follow our students throughout the days like a catchy jingle for a product they’d never buy. Maybe rap but maybe not. Many of my students are parents themselves who want to write about the educational issues many of us write about: high-stakes testing, rigid competencies, diminishing funding for all levels of education and the increasing cost of our public colleges. Some students are firefighters, novice computer specialists, or practicing nurses back for a higher degree. Some are athletes planning to teach so they can coach if they don’t make the pros. Some students in my classes at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach want to write about surfing in summer and skiing in winter; others, connected with one of our military bases, want to write about the war. These students might or might not be interested in rap music, but if they are not, rap isn’t what’s Happening for them. What makes them itch is how they’ll support a family on the wages available to service professions, how they can justify their humanitarian impulses toward the community with their responsibility to their family, how they can balance studying with their jobs or their sororities or their clubbing.

You are right, Geoff, that given a chance, they’ll write their energetic emails and IMs as well as their more restrained academic papers about those issues. But, they might be silenced by a writing class where they must listen to and write about rap or R.E.M. or Johnny Cash or whatever art moves us and that we think does or should move them. Oh, they would write. After all, they want to pass and perhaps they even hope to write meaningful prose or poetry and who knows, rap music may come to speak to them by the end of the semester. But the choice would have been not theirs but ours.

Although the pictures in the middle of your book offer glimpses of Happenings to remind us that the props—chicken wire, birds, bedsprings—belie the spontaneity of the occasions, your verbal representations convey a dynamism that recaptures their iconoclastic spirit and invites us to enliven our classes with that energy. By the way, Geoff, for a year at the end of the Sixties, I lived in a hotbed of Happenings, London, where alternative art was everywhere. We went to now-forgotten performances in long-gone or differently used venues. When the Living Theater came to town, the troupe marched into the audience and screamed at us, more in-your-face than my young face wanted. My shoulders still tense at the memory.

Most important for thinking about the future of composition in the context of a Happenings culture and beyond, you’ve invoked the joy of reading student writing that attracts so many teachers to journals and freewrites and especially to “networked” classes.

And I think that is ultimately what electronic discourse, by capturing students’ passionate derives, does to a classroom: it carnivalizes it. (222-223)
Expanded beyond the classroom by the Internet, electronic environments may indeed offer the most hopeful and possible approaches to your concept of action writing: students can write all the time and to each other and to many others using email, IM, chat, MOOs, listservs, and Web discussion boards. These media are connecting more teachers with their students’ informal writing in the ways you describe:
But I love it when I get those dashed-off but deeply affecting whirls of rhapsodic prose from students. And it often happens when students get a chance—usually in informal settings like emails or in-class writes, using their own familiar materials—to make a statement. (112)

So I’ve been thinking, Geoff, about how your enthusiasm for action writing can influence our composition classes. We can (and often do) demonstrate that we value the process illuminated by students’ notes and drawings scrawled on napkins or sticky notes or edges of papers as well as the instant messages, emails, and discussion board postings. Students can present all these compositions materially in their class portfolios where we might credit them as “journal entries” or “drafts” or “works in progress” like an artist’s sketchbook or a geologist’s field log.

Students now can publish for all the world or communicate to a select few their words, sounds, pictures, videos, and samplings in an electronic portfolio, multimedia Website, Weblog, CD, or box of green or gold. Electronic media offer opportunities for students to compose spontaneously or reflectively, to write pretty much what they want how they want and may well encourage the action writing you advocate, not only to “make writing visible” (as David Russell says about Writing Across the Curriculum), but also to make thinking and learning visible to themselves and each other as well as to us. And speaking of Writing Across the Curriculum, your return at the end of English Composition as a Happening to Deemer’s call for change in the structure of the university invokes Writing in the Disciplines:

I really don’t think it’s up to me to teach students how to process that “serious writing…the long and complicated texts” (Ways of Reading iii) of the academy; if certain disciplines feel the need to use those texts, they’re free to teach students their intricacies. (277)

And here I must say, Geoff, that I was disturbed not by your critiques of compositionists but by your sometimes acerbic tone in particular toward Bartholomae, whose Ways of Reading you acknowledged on page 267 as one among many first-year composition textbooks that repress and oppress undergraduate writers.

But I wonder if it would be such a stretch to consider that not only jazz, punk, and rap but also some long and complicated readings can engage students intellectually and imaginatively, motivating them to compose in response to other texts as complex, mysterious, and touching as action painting or gangsta rap? Perhaps you even hope for us to challenge your claim “that there can be no question of the negotiation or reconciliation between electronic and academic discourse; there will always remain this simple opposition: online chats as glitzy funhouse in the arid Mojave of university writing” (223). I like to think that our students can reconcile these discourses with an academic paper or a digital portfolio that does reflect “Composition as a Happening … a basic awareness of how to use language and information, a cool project, and a sense of poetry” (277).

You’ve shown us in English Composition as a Happening and elsewhere a Happenings attitude toward composition in writing as in art, architecture, and music by mixing rock and rap, juxtaposing a jazz riff, splashing in some hardware store paint and street treasure. Your embrace of Happenings as an analog or allegory for composition classes fascinates us, Geoff, and compels us to reconsider the theories that inform our practice and to imagine ways the creative process of composing might make a difference to a student, a class, and an academic culture.

So thanx & C U L8R, Geoff,

Donna

Donna Reiss September 2003