Before the glow from another inspiring CCCC fades, I thought I’d share the discussion questions and handout from the roundtable I was fortunate enough to participate in. The session was organized around chapters in the forthcoming edited collection, Composition, Rhetoric, and Disciplinarity: Shadows of the Past, Issues of the Moment, and Prospects for the Future. I presented on my chapter with Carolyn Miller, “Classification and its Discontents: Making Peace with Blurred Boundaries, Open Categories, and Diffuse Disciplines,” though the title of my talk was “Interrogating Our Schemas for Discipline-as-Category.”
When the CFP for this collection came out, I was knee-deep in learning genre theory from Carolyn Miller and the need to categorize jumped out at me as an important piece of the disciplinarity conversation. Looking at the CFP together, we wondered—since both genres and disciplines are cultural categories—whether the conversation on disciplinarity might not benefit from category theory in the same way studies of genre have.
And so the chapter we eventually developed asks us to interrogate how we’re thinking about disciplines as categories. Our chapter argues that our schemas for categorization impact how we understand and experience disciplinarity—specifically, the potentials and constraints we see for disciplines and for ourselves.
Categories are pretty fundamental to thinking. We each—down to the 12-month-old among us learning to sign or talk—have a theory of categorization. In our chapter, we discuss two main approaches to classification.
One of these, the “container” or closed model derived from Plato, is very common and has been culturally quite persistent. In this model, categories are discrete with clear boundaries between them and with specific criteria items must meet to fit inside a category. The category is a unified space with all items related to each other in the same way. It’s also very common to see these categories as somehow “natural.” That we are discovering categories that are out there. That reveal some underlying truth about how the world works and fits together into patterns. George Lakoff (1987), in fact, in his book on human categorization, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, notes that “the idea that there is a single right taxonomy of natural things is remarkably persistent” (p. 119).
The closed model often leads to hierarchical classification systems. In terms of disciplinarity, the model provokes questions like, “Where does a discipline fit in the hierarchy?” “What criteria determine who or what is in or out?” “What do we do with work or scholars who don’t fit exactly or seem to fit criteria for multiple disciplinary boxes?”
It turns out, however, that there is more than one way to categorize. The approach we offered as preferable for thinking about disciplinarity, is the open or “family resemblance” approach derived from Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein chose the metaphor “family” to describe this approach because we intuitively understand that family members are not identical and may not all be related to the category of family in the same way. Members don’t fit a checklist of criteria and there may not even be a feature shared by all members. We also generally belong to more than one family. Yet we are perfectly capable of understanding the category as a meaningful one. We chose the term “open” because there are numerous approaches related to “family resemblance,” but the thing that these approaches have in common is that they lead to open categories.
Part of what got Wittgenstein (1953) thinking about categorization is the difficulty he had in finding a single shared feature across the category of games. Instead of a set of criteria, he concluded that, “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.”
This image of the network is, in fact, the metaphor we offered as preferable for thinking about disciplinarity. In place of metaphors like containers, boxes, or even spatial metaphors like territory or turf, metaphors that come culturally-loaded with concepts like boundaries, ownership, and policing, networks help us conceptualize how diverse, but connected, people, artifacts, practices, concepts, etc., might form a category that is open, permeable, sometimes ambiguous, but still a meaningful unit.
The question I posed for discussion was simply, “What can an open schema of categorization afford us?” For genre, this has made the concept more ambiguous, but more dynamic. It has, in part, allowed us to see genre as “stabilized-enough” and “stabilized-for now” (Schryer, 1993). A question for those grappling with disciplinarity, then, is what might it do for how we understand disciplinarity?
Talk Based On
Gwendolynne Reid and Carolyn R. Miller. “Classification and its Discontents: Making Peace with Blurred Boundaries, Open Categories, and Diffuse Disciplines.” In Composition, Rhetoric, and Disciplinarity: Shadows of the Past, Issues of the Moment, and Prospects for the Future. Eds. Rita Malenczyk, Susan Miller-Cochran, Elizabeth Wardle, and Kathleen Blake Yancey.
- Chair: Rita Malenczyk Eastern Connecticut State University -
- Speaker: Whitney Douglas Boise State University, Idaho – Conceptualizing Disciplinarity through Curriculum
- Speaker: Kristine Hansen Brigham Young University – Discipline and Profession: Can Composition and Rhetoric Be Both?
- Speaker: Jennifer Maher University of Maryland, Baltimore County – Embracing Disciplinary Magnanimity
- Speaker: Barry Maid Arizona State University, Phoenix – What Others Think Matters
- Speaker: Gwendolynne Reid North Carolina State University – Interrogating Our Schemas for Discipline-as-Category
- Speaker: Elizabeth Wardle University of Central Florida, Orlando – Understanding Disciplinarity in Terms of Our Values
- Discussion Leader: Susan Miller-Cochran University of Arizona
- Discussion Leader: Kathleen Blake Yancey Florida State University, Tallahassee