English Composition as a Happening

Having read English Composition as a Happening in its entirety, it was very refreshing (not to mention edifying) reading Sirc’s sixth and final full chapter, “English Composition as a Happening II,” a clear and succinct encapsulation of his ideals and own teaching practices to help make sense of such a complex issue. As opposed to being compared to “wreckage that needed salvaging” in his introduction, here Sirc views modern English composition as a “chronicle of loss” that needs retelling and remembrance (Sirc 5, 263). Whether good or bad, post-Happening higher education—and English composition specifically—is undeniably and institutionally structured and formatted to create similar experiences for each and every student. But unlike other areas of higher education, English composition is fortunately unique in that the vast subject matter is incredibly flexible, and frequently overlaps with other academic disciplines, allowing for more instructional play, as called for by Sirc. And yet, institutional uniformity continues to be an issue of contention. In this sense, the chronicle of loss that Sirc sought to document is one predating ultra-professionalization and structure, and has only continued to grow despite his efforts.

This idyllic academic alternative that Sirc beautifully details, however inviting, does invite criticism and critique. High among such issues is the question of instructional responsibility. While acknowledging the problem of professionalization for students, Sirc does not resolve the issue of who (if anyone) should be tasked with the more menial and rote instruction of field-specific writing, and who (again, if anyone) is at fault for those students left behind. While I was initially swept up in the optimism and excitement of teaching as I always thought it should or could be, part of me acknowledges that without structured composition classes, the divide between traditionally successful and unsuccessful students (and future citizens) would only widen. While Sirc’s academic views are exciting and have great potential, they are not shared by the rest of the world, in which success in measured more unimaginatively.

While Sirc is preaching platitudes of “our most valuable natural resource-exuberance,” writers like Tony and the “White Shoes” writer face real-world anxiety to “get it right” and succeed in this post-happenings world and find commercial success and happiness (196). As a student and academic professional, I often grapple with these methods in the hope that all instructors share a common goal with Sirc and me: to create a classroom environment that “no one wants to leave,” but at the same time, to arm students with the tools necessary to be successful citizens, humanists, and professionals. Along these same lines, I look forward to asking Sirc how he balances teaching his own classes as happenings–a resolutely academically lax method of instruction–while publishing a purely academic (almost incestually so) text, however alternative.

To be sure, the chapter in which Sirc discussed his own writing classes in detail was the most compelling section of the text. It is difficult not to agree with Sirc’s passion and pride in his students and their individual textual explorations. But first seen in this chapter, and again in his sixth chapter, I take real issue with Sirc’s authorial persona as a better-informed, and somewhat overly confident outsider in academic and educational theory. Considering the vast army of fellow Happenings artists he calls upon for inspiration, I am surprised and confused as to why he didn’t pick more contemporary authors, musicians, and artists alongside those that modeled Happenings along the English Composition timeline from the sixties onward. Surely, more modern examples would better engage new students, instructors, and administrators.

Further, his apolitical tone leaves something lacking in the text, and I am excited to hear Sirc’s response to why he didn’t address recent political moves to change education as it is structured both publically and privately, considering the relatively recent publication of the text. To that end, apart from a short stop in his brisk pace to discuss racial tensions in the early Happenings-era, Sirc did little to discuss the state of more administrative academic politics that were also taking place at that time.

For me, Sirc’s omissions and dismissals of political influence in English composition, although it does make more room for his larger argument, also negates his insistence on empowering and representing all of his students in the real world. I feel that these omissions, while they might not weaken his argument per se, do little to bolster it for his intended audience: traditional scholars like Bartholomae and new instructors such as myself that are open to changes in compositional instruction. While I was hoping these would be addressed in his final chapter or post-script, neither were found.

Despite these omissions, Sirc’s English Composition as a Happening is both well-reasoned and romantically passionate while offering a practiced alternative for instructors. And as an initial text for this class, I feel like this alternative perspective in a primarily one-sided discussion does some much-needed work in inspiring and encouraging for early-career educators who are stuck navigating the frustrations and failures of freshman composition classes.

English Composition as a Happening

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