Book Review: Comp Tales: An Introduction to College Composition through Its Stories

My edition of Comp Tales

Update: This post has been published in Truman State University’s Master’s level publication, The Wide Net!

Let me preface this review by saying that I am not anti-transparency. I do not think that the academy should keep secrets, that there should be inside information that the public cannot attain. My primary issue with this text is a small one: the misleading subtitle. Let me know if you think I am reading too much into this, or if  you disagree and think that Comp Tales is a good way to introduce an “outsider” to the world of composition.

In an effort to collect some of the predominant lore of the composition academy, Richard H. Haswell and Min-Zhan Lu sent out a call for tales. They asked for diverse stories dealing with any element of the field, told to anyone involved (or not) about any and all things comp-related. In their call which was sent out to instructors and institutions in the field, they asked for “the whole range of professional tales. But they must be tales that you actually tell and pass on” (227). What was received and published was a wide-range of tales both praising and admonishing the academy, some standing up for composition and some putting it down. These tales feel authentic and heartfelt, offering some insight into the range of experiences in composition instruction. What was not included, however, was the voice of the student, the administrator, professors outside of the field, or the public. This collection is told from a singular perspective and intended for the same audience that created it: composition instructors.

This simple fact is not meant to demean the collection or its merit. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting resource for members of the field. Perhaps what I find most problematic is its misleading title, or more specifically its subtitle. No one can argue with Comp Tales, because the book contains just that. I do object, however, to the implication that this book can provide a sufficient or productive introduction to the field. If I had picked this book up in an effort to familiarize myself with the study of composition, I would be horrified. I would want nothing to do with the field as a student, administrator, or instructor. It reveals the overwhelming biases, conflicts, and injustices that dominate the field. It showcases some of the worst cases of instructor laziness and negligence (see tales 14, and 42 for prime examples) and highlights the petty disagreements and institutional misgivings that go on behind the scenes (tales 81, 91, 93, and most of the Professionalism chapter contain evidence of this.) This is information that members of the field are privy to. Few composition instructors will be surprised to hear that a department formed a boys’ club (tale 93). Fewer will read tale 92 in which a GTA treats his students with condescension and cruelty and not relate it to their own similar experience. This is what makes Comp Tales enjoyable and validating for us. But it is not the face of composition that we want to show the public.

As a newcomer to the field I have been flooded with tales of all kinds. The horror stories are always more engaging and build the teller’s ethos as a tough and capable member of the department. One must successfully deal with plagiarism, ignorance, and outright insolence before being awarded with the worthy instructor badge, and most graduate students are eager to tell you about how they’ve conquered all three. This compilation of tales includes plenty of stories along these lines, but also some disturbingly self-important tales which reveal the privileged position of the academy.

The section entitled “The Public” was particularly disturbing at times, when considering that an actual member of this “public” might pick up Comp Tales. In tale 85, for example, the conference bus driver, an often criticized member of the public who comes into contact with members of the academy is the star of this comical tale because he asks the storyteller if he uses “The Palmer Method” (a common method for teaching proper handwriting) in his classroom. Readers will guffaw at this silly man for not understanding how very important composition is and how irrelevant handwriting is to today’s classroom. This tale redeems itself in its explanation, the author stating “I sometimes tell this story to colleagues to illustrate how we need to do a better job of explaining our work to the general public” (104). Tale 83 features the patented position of superiority some teachers of composition take in order to combat the ignorance the public has about their careers. The teller of the tale responds to those outsiders who assume that composition instructors have an excess of free time and a simple, easy life by asking “How easy do you think it is to teach someone else how to think, and express their thoughts in a cohesive manner on a page?” (103). This sort of response, implying that we teach our students how to think, will not sit well with the public, especially those members of our public who see academia as a liberal propaganda machine. Tales like these reinforce the negative ideas that others hold about our profession.

What all of this really comes down to is an awareness of perceived and actual audience. Even a haphazard reading of Comp Tales will lead the reader to think that this book was intended exclusively for the academic elite*. It is a private discourse, one that might better be shared as a set of pamphlets, on a blog, or in its original form, as oral stories. Of course, this book is not a top-seller. It is not prominently sold at bookstores, nor is it something that might catch the eye of a passerby. It does, however, feature a misleading title that might intrigue someone with curiosities about the field. This discrepancy should have been at the forefront of these editors minds who clearly have quite a stake in valuing and upholding the legitimacy of their oft-chastised field of composition.

*If you can call composition the elite of the academy. Many in its ranks would argue it is far from it.

One comment on “Book Review: Comp Tales: An Introduction to College Composition through Its Stories

  1. Patty says:

    You’ve revealed a big gap in the collection–that of other stakeholders in the world of composition. It would be a more interesting collection if others were involved. It would be much bigger too. Can you imagine how you’d collect and organize a bigger collection? That might be very interesting.

    Since you are a soon-to-be comp teacher did you read this as that outsider that you note–perhaps with a sense of horror? Or as the insider? Perhaps somewhere in between? Just wondering how your own subject position made a difference in your particular reading?

    Overall, this is a very well-written, carefully considered review. It’s better than the ones that were actually published!


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