Discourse is as Discourse Does: An Immodest Proposal

Orality & literacy, speech & writing, Communication Studies & English (Literature & Writing): The separation of these binaries seem perfectly natural to us, but they’re really no more than disciplinary territorial claims. When Communications Studies split from the discipline of English in the mid-20th century US, it did so first under the auspices of Speech programs. This often meant Speech Pathology programs, which aligned with the early Communication Studies’ pioneers’ desire to take a more scientific (and dialectical, as opposed to Humanistic and rhetorical) approach to communication processes.

The emphasis on speech processes and presentational speaking served to make up for the hole left by the English discipline’s emphasis on writing — seen most clearly in the professionalization of the Composition programs that became the financial backbone of what would otherwise be a solely historical, interpretive, and aesthetic discipline. After nearly a century of this disciplinary separation, what we see most clearly is that neither side has done very well.

Required courses in writing and public speaking are nearly universally reviled by students. And hating something makes it very hard to learn about it or how to do it. English Composition has struggled for disciplinary and professional status in a field where the “real” value is literary and cultural analysis. Most public speaking courses are little more rote and often terrifying indoctrinational programs that serve mainly to make sure everyone knows how to properly use PowerPoint. Both of these are overwhelming taught by graduate students who much rather be doing just about anything else.

At the same time, the development and spread of the internet and the world wide web, and the ensuing explosion of digitally networked communications technologies have shaken everything up. While the textual character of early digital communication might lead us to believe that English writing programs would stake claim to these technological writing tools and processes, they were largely rejected as corruptions. Writing, after all, is a mark of civilization, and the teaching of “proper” writing practices aligns with the “proper” interpretation of “appropriate” (if not canonical) cultural texts. The free and fluid character of online discourse — with its emoticons, lols, and flagrant violations of the rules of grammar and spelling — was seen as a debasement equivalent to graffiti: a problem to be battled, not an opportunity to embraced. The conservative character of English as discipline is in part what drove the separation of Communication Studies.

The more “scientific” and technological proclivities of Communication Studies, therefore, is where the study of digital media first found a home and continues to flourish (to the point of now dominating much of this very broad field). Somewhat ironically, however, the study of digital media and communication in a discipline first articulated as the study of “speech” has historically been myopically bound to the study of text. The distribution of broadband capacity, which allows for more audio and video, has slowly begun to change this, but to a large degree the study of digital communication is still confined to the study of writing.

But what good does this separation do us? The reliance of everyday communication practices on digital technologies makes it glaringly apparent that the separation of writing and speech is completely artificial. Learning to write a “proper” essay has very little to do with anything outside of school — actually, it very little to do with anything else *in* school, either. Learning to give a PowerPoint presentation while remaining coherent doesn’t really accomplish that much either. The continued focus on these practice really serves nothing more than disciplinary reproduction and that primarily through their financial basis as required courses. (Despite what the Literature Professors say, there would be no more English departments, outside of elite private schools, without Composition programs to fund them. Without writing programs, English Literature is a form of art history.)

Similarly, Public Speaking courses have almost nothing to do with the material of Communication Studies beyond providing a financial base and, secondarily, giving grad students something to do (that, as with English writing course, tenured professors don’t want to do — because, again, it has nothing to do with their own work).

We desperately need a third way. Instruction in communication processes (both written and spoken, and both as inherently technological practices) is incredibly important. But they are not separable as production practices. Why not eliminate both “composition” and “public speaking” and instead develop integrated communication practice programs? Such an approach would be much better able to address real educational needs and would be far more relevant to students, teachers, and society than what currently have (which serves only the entrenched disciplinary structures).

The only roadblock is, in fact, the administrative structures of disciplinarity (and to a lesser degree, identity). It will be argued that this is simply too disruptive and therefore impractical. It means bringing down the entire edifice and displacing everyone involved. To point out the obvious, that’s already happening, thanks mostly to those very administrative structures themselves (but that’s another post). The only way for higher education (as opposed to vocational or technical instruction) to maintain its existence, let alone its relevance, is to serve ever-changing social needs. The anachronistic split between writing and speaking serves no one.

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