Best (and Worst) Advice for New Composition Scholars

Presented by Michael Pemberton.

Michael Pemberton is a professor of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University. The research that has impacted his own the most is research that deals with writing center studies. He has worked with writing centers for nearly 20 years. He cites Mikey Harris and Christina Murphy, among others, whose work has had a tremendous impact on what he does. His dissertation work happened at a time when cognitive studies were popular, and that work had a big impact on him early on. Even though that approach has been outmoded, they were still beneficial to him.

The current trend in the field is to focus on identity studies. There are now large numbers of articles and conference panels on individual identity creation and social identity recognition and how those ideas apply to composition. He has some concern about how much longer this trend will be at forefront because there is some lapse in the communication between those in the field and those who are outside. As with many issues in scholarship, economic and funding concerns abound. The communication to the people who the purse strings must be clarified and strengthened in order for support to continue. Otherwise, composition studies run the risk of being another casualty to politics.

One area that composition studies can extend into areas of growth is in the area of civic engagement and community outreach. This topic has a wide range of audiences and interest. It also ties nicely into the discussions that are already ongoing within the field. This is a way to include a wider group of participants, thereby increasing interest in and attention to the field of composition studies.

He then offers a story to illustrate the best advice he has received. As he was working on his dissertation, he offered two directions to his dissertation advisor. One was to do a case study, investigate it in his classroom, write it up, and crank out the dissertation in order to graduate. The other was to a more theoretically-focused research study related to modeling theory and its application to the cognitive models of composition. It would be more difficult but would not produce as lengthy of a product. The advisor’s response was that these two things already have answered your question as to how to proceed. The more difficult and challenging item is good, but your excitement is the really convincing information. He said to always go with your passion. This, Pemberton says, is the best advice he has ever received, and this is what he would offer to anyone else.

That story led him to another to illustrate the worst advice he has received. He recognized that his dissertation was not lengthy enough for a book, so he condensed it down to a strong article. When he sent it to a journal, the two readers who reviewed his article gave two very different responses. The first reviewer gave him an excellent response with feedback for improvement. The second reviewer, however, responded with a single paragraph dismissing the work as another example of that “stupid cognitive stuff.” That response suggested that he was wasting his time. This was the worst advice because he would not have achieved his success had he heeded that particular response.