Drop Lit. Take Comp.
A few time-honored and well-entrenched traditions in U.S. education have made it difficult to talk or write about writing as anything other than the pursuit of "literature" and literary exegesis.
In the public schools and universities, for example, the path of "English Studies" has been for over a hundred years a dual path focused on "literature" on the one hand and "composition" on the other. A supplementary bias has the one celebrated for its cultural legitimacy (great societies yield great works) and the other dismissed as remedial skills training. One protects and hones the art of text interpretation; the other does the trench work of text production.
On the basis of these and related binaries, some have ignored the history of composition education in pursuit of a cleaner version of history focused on literary studies and the effective reading of texts. The cult of the "literary" has for generations kept "composition," and its teaching, under wraps and, quite literally, in the basement of higher education.
And this despite the fact that the "composition" program, despite its perennial ghettoization, has since its inception in the late 19th century provided the financial basis (the basement) on which literary studies enthusiasts have been able to build their puny empire. A few downy-chinned text readers can wax eloquent on Blake and Byron (or the Beats or Bernstein) precisely because English Department classrooms are jammed with tuition-paying fresh-people learning how to produce a readable essay.
With that in mind, I propose that we banish Literature entirely from English Departments. It seems only fair that Composition, having done the bulk of the work and generated most of the revenue, should earn the lion's share not only of department resources but also of the cultural capital otherwise looted for the sake of preserving delusions of literary grandeur.
Composition, with its emphasis on text production, democratic writing and reading opportunities, and spoken and written rhetoric, should assume its rightful position at the center of the "English" curriculum.
Literature can be good stuff, to be sure. But literary texts will take care of themselves, will not die away for want of the analytical skills of a few tweed-backed deconstructionists, and will certainly continue to be read and written regardless of how much stock a university curriculum board places in the perpetuation of great book traditions.
For decades, tenured Literature Professors have benefited from big salaries, light teaching loads, and small class sizes (very few undergrads actually WANT to read and write about Byron), while a pool of underpaid contingent workers (grad students and some "lecturers") have borne the weight of writing instruction without benefits, without appropriate training in some cases, and without voice in the decision-making processes of educational bureaucracies. This unequal distribution of wealth no longer makes sense and should no longer be tolerated.
Writing is not about reading and consumption but about writing and production. English Studies curricula have almost invariably taught a different lesson by prioritizing authors and their related products. Even in composition classes where literary works are introduced to "model" effective writing, to be a writer is to achieve authoring status, and where authors only exist in the bylines of these carefully framed models, the beginning writer is effectively de-line-ated in relation to embedded categories for which market-worthy "excellence" (marked by mainstream publication, mostly) is the only means of access. One can APPROACH writing, in other words, but rarely achieve it.
Where the mark of literary excellence is removed (in this case, by banishing Literature, its Authors, and its Exegesis), Composition is stripped of the implicit zero-sum game whereby a select few "get it" and most others can only look on and admire.
Where Composition instructors are held in high regard (and paid commensurately) by administrators, students, and colleagues, Composition can better perform the much-needed service of teaching writing as the art of textual production.
Literature does little more than credential Literature Professors. Composition channels the creative energies of today's beginning writers. The social economy of higher education should reflect this.