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Some thoughts on Latour and first-year compositoin

by on March 31, 2013

This is a re-posting from my blog from a few years ago.

I’m teaching Reassembling the Social next week (actually just Part I; Part II is next week) and so I’m going back through the text, looking closely at the various uncertainties.


  • what are groups
  • what is action
  • what are objects
  • what is natural/what is social
  • how does one write an account of these things

I am interested to see the direction the class will go with Latour’s argument, since in many respects it runs counter to the “critical sociological” approaches that typify many literary studies uses of cultural theory (e.g. Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, etc.) to say nothing of more textually oriented, postmodern approaches. So, we’ll see.

Meanwhile I want to take up ANT in understanding something “simple” like a composition program.

After all, the faculty and students of a composition program make up a group that is continually performed through regular class meetings. The adjuncts and professors are hired, the TAs accepted into graduate programs, the students enrolled in the university. The group has a number of spokespersons, beginning with the WPA but moving right through to the instructors who operate as spokespersons for the group in each class meeting. There are any number of objects. There are the documents of the program: employee contracts and evaluations, syllabi, assignments, student work, etc. There are faculty offices, the classrooms, the chairs and desks, the computers and other A/V equipment. There’s the program’s website and each class’ CMS. And all of these stand a step away from the department, the college, the campus, other faculty, staff, and administrators, general education curriculum, tuition payments, the library, campus computer networks, and so on. “Beyond” the campus is the entire disciplinary apparatus of rhetoric and composition. Of course we know all this stuff is there, but our tendency has been to leap from the classroom to the nebulous, invisible forces of “academic discourse.”

While the students are in some senses “in” the composition program, they also constitute a significant anti-group, whose performance can be witnessed in scholarship, in email, official program documents, hallway conversation, program memos, etc. The anti-group student obviously is a formal, institutional designation, but it is more than that. Composition instructors are “not-students” (even though many of them in fact are graduate students). (Needless to say, students identify faculty as an anti-group as well.) There are then a whole series of anti-groups that cut through composition program group identification: adjuncts, grad students, tenure-line faculty, program admins, literary studies scholars, creative writers. In short, a composition program’s group cohesion is continually threatened by the likelihood of its members viewing one another as parts of anti-groups relative to other group identities they have. Of course this is always the case with group performance.

Even though composition isn’t “scientific” the question of “matters of fact” vs. “matters of concern” are integral to group functioning. Composition group behavior is replete with “factual” statements about the “nature” of student writers, as well as the nature of writing itself. In some sense, the operation of composition scholarship and professional development has been to shift matters of fact into matters of concern.

So now, I’ll circle back to the question of action. How do we explain our actions as composition faculty? The scholarship is replete with heroic pedagogy narratives and best practices. Blogs and email listservs fill out these explanations in less formal ways, as do all the traditional forms of hallway “lore.” Here is the core lesson that Latour would impart to those who might study composition. Rather than coming to the scene with readymade “social” explanations and terminologies, one must listen to the group and their own ways of explaining their actions.


  • Where do they call upon “matters of fact”?
  • Where do they refer to program requirements or other institutional documents?
  • Where do they mention class size, meeting times, classrooms, offices?
  • Where do they discuss “technology”?
  • Where do they mention workload?
  • When do they bring up anti-groups or criticize other potential agencies? (e.g. I don’t do “it” likethem or I don’t do “it” b/c of that agency.)


Of course I come to these questions not simply as a disinterested researcher but as someone invested in making changes in a particular composition program. In this context I might ask, if I change one actor in this network (e.g. the outcomes statement for the curriculum), how might it alter group formation and performance?

And how would I describe the agency involved in my decision? I am striving to make these changes because


  • research indicates these are the appropriate outcomes for a composition program
  • I have a professional/ethical obligation to design a program that meets with my best understanding of how composition should be taught
  • there are departmental/institutional expectations to do so
  • this is what one does, professionally, as a WPA
  • my professional identity and ethos is tied to the institutional shape/appearance of the program

Of course I could go into more particular depth about the agency behind each element in the outcomes statement. As we should understand from Latour, the paths for research are endless here: innumerable ant trails.

And perhaps, most importantly, at the end of the day, what we are really after here is changing student writing practices. So maybe we ought to be looking a the group performance of student writers, at their anti-groups, at their explanations of agency, at the objects in their networks, and their matters of fact.

Here’s a curious question… the putative raison d’etre for FYC is that students “need” to be “better writers.” I don’t know how we determine if this is “true” or what it means, but let me set that aside. It is not a fact; it is a matter of concern. Presumably, one could look at the WPA Outcomes Statement or a similar institutional document to get some understanding of what students lack and what the general path toward better writing might be: e.g., practicing the “writing process,” reducing grammatical errors, learning MLA style, acquiring some basic rhetorical analytical skills.

How would instructors describe the agency involved in assigning a poor grade to student writing? What causes them to give this grade? What is their interpretation of the causes of the student’s poor performance (e.g. didn’t read the assignment, wrote it the night before, etc.)?

Furthermore, what are the students’ explanations of their own agencies? How do they describe the forces that lead them to write as they do?

From the perspective of Latour, might one not view mainstream rhetoric and composition as operating out of assumptions similar to the “sociologists of the social” that Latour critiques?  That is, do we not head out with an already-established theory of the invisible forces of the “social” and “discourse” and the heavy baggage of intricate meta-language for describing groups and actions? Might one not go even further and see connections between some composition pedagogies and the assumptions of “critical sociologists” who Latour identifies for even more rigorous critique?

Fortunately we are not obligated to agree with Latour. I say “fortunately” as I’m not sure how the discipline would withstand such an encounter.

On the other hand, if we consider this a misfortune, we might continue by engaging what Latour says about writing and the demands of engaging the other four uncertainties through one’s written encounter with the groups one studies.


From → Latour

  1. jmdaven permalink

    From your analysis it would seem that Latour would inevitably view rhetoric as maintaining some of the same pre-established forces and theories that sociologists of the social do, but what would a more ANT aware rhetoric course look like? After all it seems at best a descriptive tool, with no acknowledged use. Perhaps one could approach the notions of persuasion within the framework each class provides? But this doesn’t seem like it would lead very far educationally, after all teaching the rhetoric seems like it must be a prescriptive exercise.

    • Latour does offer an ambivalent view of rhetoric. In _We Have Never Been Modern_, rhetoric and language serves to manage the boundary between nature and society. However, as we’ll see in this book, writing serves a crucial role in the work of ANT.

      As for the role of ANT in rhetoric, it offers a method for examining the networks that produce genres and compositional practices (e.g. what networks do you participate in when you write? how would an awareness of how those networks function open possibilities for you to write differently?). In this respect, teaching rhetoric isn’t really a prescriptive exercise. If you were a new employee in a corporate office, there would certainly be some prescriptions you would need to learn to write within the official genres of the workplace. However, rhetorical instruction, particularly in first-year composition, is more about introducing students to rhetorical tools that can help them understand the many different genres in which they might write.

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