Utah State University Press
Paperback Price: $27.95
eBook Price: $21.95
Publication Date: April 2016
Publisher's information page
This review surveys the edited collection Composition in the Age of Austerity, which works at key intersections of interest to readers of Kairos: the discussion between critical and new materialisms, the debates about economics and digital humanities, and the 2016 election's significance for our future as teachers, scholars, and champions of justice. The navigation bar at the top of each page in this webtext allows for reading in any particular order. The tabs of the navigation bar reflect my own reading across the sections and chapters included in the collection, offering my thinking with and against the premises of both the included works and the volume as a whole.
This book registers emotionally. It is meant to make one angry, to be a clarion call for stronger and louder voices in literacy efforts across the country. Perhaps it will be. As higher education is transformed by financial pressures, technology, governmental policies, and voices from among commerce, technology, and politics, we need to have conversations about what those voices say and how we might respond. While the authors and editors often posit a fairly monolithic "neoliberalism" as the common enemy, the collection as a whole weaves connections across submissions so that differences arise.
This may be its strongest point: the specificity of narratives, events, contexts, and reactions to reduced funding for education in general, and literacy and humanities in particular. Such specifics are locally situated and aware of their emplacement within specific, rather than general, webs of power. Overall, it is a diverse collection that tackles concrete examples of composition both inside and outside the academy. It is good for anyone wanting to see how budget cuts and other policies have concrete impacts on prison literacy, writing programs, community literacies, basic writing, and National Writing Project sites, as well as those wanting more theoretical explanations of higher education economics, institutional politics, or composition's own complicity in adjunctification and decision making trends over the past forty years.
The collection is divided into three sections, Part One: Neoliberal Deformations, Part Two: Composition in an Austere World, and Part Three: Composition at the Crossroads. Each section serves to focus the contributions within by, respectively, defining the problem, examining the problem, and suggesting possible responses. The sections are prefaced with an eponymous introduction that begins by pointing to the rhetorical shift in educational policy expressed by President Barack Obama in a 2013 address in Syracuse, NY. In this speech, Obama moved from a metaphor of "ladders of opportunity" to "pathways" charted by "new measures of accountability" (Welch & Scott, 2016, p. 3). Welch and Scott began with this speech as a means to "respond to a felt sense of crisis among those who teach and do research in postsecondary writing education" (p. 4).
Many of the contributors are not just academic scholars, but persons who have deep experiences serving in administrative roles. This is not a collection from disgruntled faculty lacking jobs or tenure. Contributors see quite clearly the challenges facing higher education and composition. Alongside administrative voices, editors Nancy Welch and Tony Scott include a lecturer, an adjunct faculty member, and a graduate student who appears as co-author on a chapter. This supports their inclusive editorial ethos and establishes that the scope of the book and its intended audience is already concerned with the interface between composition practitioners and leaders, even as some readers might identify as both. The problems described in the collection, then, look to a wide web of pressures and causes, tracing out how institutional, extra-curricular, legislative, and economic forces shape contemporary writing and literacy instruction.
This collection has much to offer beyond the narrow moment of composition history, much of which is of great concern to readers of Kairos. Digital scholars are cognizant of the debates regarding the digital, the political, and the academy. Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia's (2016) "Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities" comes to mind as a touchstone moment against which scholars like Michelle Rosen (2016) and others (2016) defend their work. Such attacks are not new, of course. We can add other titles like Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Richard Grusin, Patrick Jagoda, and Rita Raley's (2016) "The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities" and Tony Scott and Nancy Welch's (2014) collaboration for College English, "One Train Can Hide Another: Critical Materialism for Public Composition," as texts that link digital scholarship to the forces of neoliberalism. Composition in the Age of Austerity cannot be divorced from this context.
Given this, I'm not looking to do a hatchet job. Having been through budget and program cuts at my own university, I have seen the catastrophic effects of austerity measures. While I acknowledge that the actions performed and structural inequities maintained are done in the name of budgetary woes, I am not always convinced this is the result of a coherent philosophy. I first read the book over mid- to late summer in 2016, often around teaching online a small group of teachers looking to earn the required graduate-level credits to teach dual-enrollment courses. I then left for the Black Hills, making a stop at Wounded Knee, one of the most austere places on our continent. I returned to the book and to writing/designing with Dreamweaver as classes resumed in August, as protests about the Dakota Access Pipeline increased, as Labor Day brought news of the lock-out at LIU–Brooklyn, as the presidential campaign news sunk to all-new lows, and as the election itself brought further fears and anxiety over already shrinking budgets coupled with outright animosity in the shaping of a Donald Trump administration. I could not read this book and blithely dismiss what it had to say as Iowa's legislature eviscerated collective bargaining in 2017 and one legislator proposed a partisan hiring quota at state universities.
Rather than take a sequential journey through the text in this review, I look at several key factors across its contributions. I look at the theoretical tensions evident across the chapters in Conversations and Assessments, while looking at the more pragmatic details presented in the volume in Impacts. I then summarize my insights in Statement. I use an austere design style to present this webtext, combining practices that can be considered literate (e.g., close reading) and electrate (e.g., more distant reading) in order to match both the subject matter and the diverse audience I hope is interested in reading this work.
Continue to Conversations.