Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures



First Advisor

Daniel Smith


Many scholars and teachers in rhetoric and composition studies have for some time been deeply invested in engaging questions of disciplinary identity. Posing questions about what rhetoric and composition studies is has become more than just a routine way of self-reflexively engaging the discipline. For some critics, it suggests that we are in a perpetual state of disciplinary crisis. Not content to read these phenomena as either expressions of professional anxiety or as unproductive, limiting conflicts, The Composition of Crisis diagnoses the complex of conditions that constitute crisis as central to not only rhetoric and composition studies, but also English, the humanities, and indeed the university itself, as it exists both as an idea and as a modern social institution.

Taking seriously (and working within) rhet-comp's long commitment to doing work that is socially conscious, institutionally aware, and culturally expansive, this project historicizes the idea of crisis as a constructed, transient symptom of disciplinary demarcation and boundary-setting. Through an extended engagement with these practices of identity-formation, crisis emerges in this project as a key diagnostic framework through which to examine the ways in which academic disciplines, fields, and even individuals make sense of their ever-contingent identities and their embeddedness within increasingly market-driven institutions of higher learning. It is against this backdrop of the contemporary university that I explore the rise of a politico-economic rationality most often referred to as neoliberalism, and my analyses further contribute to our understanding of the status of the university in advanced capital and its complex relations with the state. Returning to more discipline-specific sites in Chapters 2 through 5, my dissertation traces the circulation of crisis through such familiar haunts as the Dartmouth Seminar, the theory/practice split, the discourse on TA training, and the crisis in academic labor. I ultimately argue that not only is crisis a productive force, but that it is also a necessary one, because crisis is immanent to the dynamics of identity. Hence, any attempt to do away with crisis (a popular refrain in both rhet-comp and English studies), would be tantamount to saying that we should jettison (disciplinary) identity.

Engaging head-on the crisis in academic labor, this project concludes by attempting to shift the focus of the so-called pedagogical imperative in rhetoric and composition studies, suggesting that we become differently attuned to teaching and pedagogy, and, specifically, that the diverse array of challenges posed by the neoliberal university demand that we learn to understand and respond differently to the question of what it means to teach or to do writing pedagogy in the contemporary academy. With this dissertation, I hope to make a contribution to our understanding of how scholars, teachers, and academic workers perform and negotiate our often contradictory roles in the twenty-first century university.


© 2009, Paul Gregory Cook