Globalization and the Teaching of Writing
Delivered at the Modern Language Association Meeting, December 2002
Copyright Paul Jay 

  It is hard to tell whether the January 2001 special issue of PMLA on “Globalizing Literary Studies” represents the beginning or the end of something (whether, that is, it establishes a new paradigm for literary studies or marks the eclipse of just another fad). What is clear, however, is that the articles pay scant attention to the effects globalization is beginning to have on composition studies and the teaching of writing, an enterprise that, while limited to English departments is nevertheless a key component of literary studies as a disciplinary and institutional activity. The collection deals in a range of ways with the impact of globalization on literature and literary criticism, but what about the impact of globalization on rhetoric and composition and the teaching of writing?

  In order to answer that question we need to step back for a moment and ask what impact globalization is having on the university itself. According to a range of academics, from university presidents to literary and cultural critics, that impact is beginning to seem profound. When Neil Rudenstine announced last summer that he would be stepping down as President of Harvard University, he said "he believed that the information technology revolution and [the] globalization of the economy heralded a tectonic shift in academia." The changes the university faces under the forces of information technology and globalization will be so profound, he predicted, that  "the totality of the institution will be a different configuration."[i] 

   Bill Readings develops an extended discussion of this reconfiguration in The University in Ruins (1998). Readings’ analysis of the impact globalization is having on higher education focuses on how the weakening of the nation-state relative to the power of transnational corporations has been affecting the university in general and literary studies in particular. He reminds us that the rise of the modern university is intimately connected to the evolution of the modern nation-state, that the needs of nationalism and the operations of the university have been deeply connected from the outset. In Readings’ view, the modern university, which evolved under Humboldt at the University of Berlin and was later adopted in the United States (7), always had a “national cultural mission” (3), in part because the modern idea of “culture” and the modern idea of the nation developed in close relation to one another (12). Together they produced in the U.S. and Western Europe what now looks from our own multicultural perspective like a narrow, univocal vision of national culture. 

   Of course, globalization marks a radical shift in this relationship. The new dominance of transnational corporations (which to a great degree operate beyond the sphere of nation-states) and the subordination of local and regional markets to a world market make it clear the shift from national economies to a global one is well underway. In addition, the proliferation of electronic media able to transmit information instantaneously while ignoring national boundaries has already begun to significantly weaken the regulatory power of the nation-state. Ease of travel, porous borders, mass migration and the ubiquity of diaspora communities around the world are beginning to transform and hybridize the populations of most nations, vastly complicating whatever might have been left of national identities and cultures. Under the enormous pressures of such changes, Readings writes, ”the University is becoming a different kind of institution, one that is no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state by virtue of its role as a producer, protector, and inculcator of an idea of national culture” (3). Because “the process of economic globalization brings with it the relative decline of the nation-state” the University is undergoing a fundamental reorientation away from serving the needs of the nation-state toward serving the needs of transnational capital (3).[ii]

   These changes have of course had a profound effect on the business and administrative sides of the university, where corporate values and structures have reshaped the approaches Boards of Trustees and university presidents take to both the fiscal operations and administrative structure of the university.[iii] The more the university becomes engaged with corporate interests that are transnational in scope (and the more its ties to the culture of the nation-state weaken), the more its fiscal and administrative structures have come to mimic those of transnational corporations. However, the effects of globalization Rudenstine and Readings point to are more pervasive than this, and can be tracked below the fiscal and administrative levels of the university at curricular, programmatic, and course levels as well. Readings in particular stresses how globalization has transformed the university’s educational mission in ways that have disrupted the fundamental aims of an education in the humanities.

   The modern university, Readings reminds us, grew out the Enlightenment’s commitment to the cultivation of character, aesthetic education, and the development in its students of the capacity for philosophical critique. The central roles of philosophy in this enterprise, and the later importance of a literary education as formulated by Matthew Arnold, who of course saw literature as central to his programmatic effort to provide culture to England as a bulwark against a rising working class, underscore the important cultural role the humanities played in the modern university. However, “the current crisis of the university in the West” in the age of globalization, Readings insists, “proceeds from a fundamental shift in its social role and internal systems, one which means that the centrality of the traditional humanistic disciplines to the life of the University is no longer assured” (3). 

   Readings’ analysis in effect traces the long history of the “tectonic shift” to which Rudenstine alludes. He attributes this shift to two significant developments: the information technology “revolution” and the globalization of the economy. While Rudenstine tends to draw a distinction between these two developments I think it is important to note they are actually closely related. To a significant degree, globalization (at least in its most recent and rapidly accelerating phase) is a product of information technology. In both economic and cultural terms the expansion of markets and the simultaneous homogenization and hybridization of culture around the world could not have happened without the information revolution.  Another important point Rudenstine’s remarks (perhaps inadvertently) blur is the fact that globalization is not simply an “economic” phenomenon. It is also a cultural one. Not only is the global economy the greatest engine ever developed for the circulation and transformation of cultures, but it has also become increasingly impossible to separate economic from cultural forces. At this point in the history of globalization the two seem interchangeable.[iv]

      Neither Rudenstine nor Readings pays any attention to another key element of globalization affecting the university, one that has significant implications for writing instruction:  the changing nature of the student population in higher education. Globalization is having a profound impact not only on where and what we teach, but also on whom we teach. A report issued in May, 2000 by the Educational Testing Service predicts that college enrollment will grow by two million students over the next 15 years, and that 80% of those students will be of African, Hispanic and Asian descent. The proportion of white students will drop nationwide from 71 percent in 1995 to 63 percent in 2015. Whites will be in the minority in California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas. Clearly, one of our primary challenges in an age of accelerating globalization is to make the study of English and the teaching of writing interesting, relevant, and engaging for this new student body. In a statement accompanying the ETS report, Sylvia Hernandez, from the California Department of Education, observed that "colleges are unprepared to meet the demand and shifting demographics" of these new students, "both in terms of financial aid and academic programs."[v] This change presents a real challenge to those of use involved in the business of educating students in the humanities, where too many programs, curricula and courses remain out of synch with the historical and cultural experience of our increasingly international and multicultural student body. In English and composition courses we face the particular challenge of restructuring our programs and designing our writing and literature courses so they engage students who have grown up in -- and reflect -- an increasingly post-national, global culture.

   How can we equip this new, increasingly diverse student population to write and think critically in an age of rapidly increasing globalization? The challenge is crucial, for in many ways the issues they face, as individuals living in a complexly multicultural nation inextricably linked to global economic and cultural flows, will require them to communicate across borders and cultures, whether they are writing for the business and corporate worlds or in contexts related more specifically to culture, politics or the arts. Like nearly everything else, writing is rapidly becoming a global process, one in which our students’ basic communicative skills will have to be augmented by an ability to anticipate and engage a transnational audience whose cultural allegiances are multiple and increasingly unorthodox. The field of writing instruction (and here I refer to work both in rhetoric and composition and literary studies) has of course made great strides toward this goal during the last decade. Scholarship and classroom practice in both fields increasingly reflects a deep commitment to the idea that critical thinking and writing needs to engage and grapple with difference and cross-cultural experience at a variety of levels, in terms of personal identity, claims of national belonging, racial identity, and gender. This turn in composition studies is reflected in particular in the 1998 special issue of JAC devoted to “Exploring Borderlands: Postcolonial and Composition Studies.” The issue contains a range of essays which see the composition classroom as a kind of border zone where students increasingly deal with challenge of reconciling multiple identities and cultural roots, not only within themselves but in relationship to traditional concepts of culture and nation. They reflect the striking degree to which multicultural, postcolonial, and border studies have played a role in writing instruction’s engagement -- both in the classroom and in critical writing – with the challenges Sylvia Hernandez articulates.[vi]

   I want to see us build on this significant beginning by developing a more specific engagement between the teaching of writing and globalization. This means introducing a new historical terminology and critical paradigm into the mix with concepts like “multicultural,” “borderland,” “postcolonial” and “transnational,” all of which figure prominently in the JAC special issue. Economic and cultural globalization are surely connected to each of these terms and the social, cultural, and historical processes they signify, but they represent a set of forces requiring a different critical framework. While globalization is both fueled by and helps create multiculturalism and border zones, and while its history is closely connected to colonization, decolonization and the rise of postcolonialism and transnational experience, it represents something more than the sum of these parts and so requires a particular critical language and historical point of view.

  In order to better understand how to rethink our approach to the teaching of writing in the variety of courses we offer in English departments (and throughout the curriculum), we need to start with a clear grasp of how writing has evolved in response to the contemporary forces of globalization. It seems to me writing can be connected to globalization in at least four ways: in relation to authors, in relation to readers, in relation to the content of  texts, and perhaps most importantly, in relation to the electronic production and dissemination of writing.

   Writers have always traveled, and they have always written about the experience of personal and cultural displacement. However, in the contemporary age of globalization, travel, migration, exile, and the appearance of multiple diasporic spheres, authors are writing much more self-consciously in a transnational context. This is the case whether we think of fiction writers, cultural critics, or business and technical writers. What we like to somewhat cumbersomely call the “subject position” of the writer has become increasingly globalized. One way, then, to think of writing in relation to globalization is to think of it as the product of writers who consciously aim to engage a global audience.  In the arena of contemporary fiction this would obviously include writers such as Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Zadie Smith, Arundhati Roy and a host of other well-known writers tied less to national fictions than global ones. But it would also include a host of lesser-known writers connected to diasporic communities around the globe, and cultural critics and business and technical writers commenting on or plugged into global economies and cultures. In our literature courses we are turning increasingly to a study of these transnational writers, asking students to think and write critically about their work in ways that engage a host of issues related to globalization. In our writing courses – introductory, business, and technical – we also find ourselves having to approach the question of authorship and audience from a new, transnational and even post-national perspective.

   The flip side of this approach, as I have just implied, would come at the concept of global writing in terms of audience. Edward Said recently addressed this phenomenon in an article on the public writer and intellectual in The Nation. I quote:

While it is important to acknowledge that the problem of audience Said discusses here is limited in some important ways to an elite group of writers and intellectuals, he is nevertheless correct in observing that not only the internet but the whole apparatus of transnational publishing and marketing is producing new, relatively globalized audiences and readers. In our increasingly postnational age, in which both trade and academic publishing have been taken over by transnational corporations, in which the internet can be used to advertise, sell, and transmit texts of all sorts around the world almost instantly, and in which authors writing from all over the world are able to tap into a global audience, writing can be said to be “global” in a way it’s never been before.[vii]

   A third way to understand the impact of globalization on writing is in terms of content and subject matter, for we are being inundated by writing about globalization and the personal, social, cultural, political and economic issues it has raised. A host of popular texts like Friedman’s -- and academic texts and anthologies produced for university study -- have exploded on the scene to report on, analyze, criticize, and theorize globalization.[viii] Writing that specifically engages issues related to globalization cuts across the spectrum of fiction, social, cultural, political and economic criticism, and business and technical writing. Global writing includes fiction by the writers I mentioned earlier, public commentary by Friedman and cultural criticism like we find in Readings’ books and in the work of critics like Edward Said, Saskia Sassen, Anthony Giddens, Arjun Appadurai and others. Most of our students will probably not grow up to be transnational writers like Rushdie, Gordimer or Zadie Smith, or academic or cultural critics like Sassen and Readings, but they may likely find themselves writing about global issues as they move into fields requiring business and technical writing skills. For students working in the beginning decades of the 21st century it will be imperative that they be able to write intelligently about issues central to globalization in one or more of these arenas.

   The fourth way to think about the impact globalization is having on writing is in relationship to new technologies of information that have radically transformed the way we write and read, but which are also beginning to transform how we teach reading and writing. We have already seen Said touch on this point. Computer technology and the Internet have created the possibility not only of writing for a global audience, but of teaching writing to a global audience. Writing for the Internet – the production of textual and graphic material written in electronic form and designed for world-wide distribution -- is probably the most obvious example of global writing, but teaching writing over the internet represents a facet of globalization we are just beginning to understand and argue about. Many universities now offer their own students online writing courses, some of which involve the teaching of writing completely outside the classroom. Connected more specifically to globalization, however, is the rise of the virtual university, institutions that only exist on the Internet and which offer writing and literature courses for a global student body. A recent trip to the University of Phoenix website (, for example, turned up seven composition courses. Another online university, Cardean University (, offers two writing courses supported by the University of Chicago (Writing Essentials and Writing for Results). Hungry Minds University ( offers twenty-nine writing, literature, and criticism and theory courses. Many of these courses, particularly the business and technical writing courses, are emphasizing the need for students to communicate with a global workforce in a global marketplace. We are witnessing in these virtual universities just the kind of “tectonic shift” Rudenstine envisioned..

   What does globalization’s transformation of writing and the teaching of writing portend for those of us working in English departments? In literature courses I think it suggests we are going to continue to move away from a national model for literary studies as we pay more attention to the global production and consumption of writing, and as we read texts by transnational writers engaging a range of issues specific to globalization. This change ought to take place across the various periods of literary history, based on the understanding that while globalization has accelerated rapidly in the last few decades it is part of a long historical process that runs back to the dawn of modernity.[ix] This shift, already under way in a variety of forms, should have an impact on the kinds of writing assignments we develop and the kinds of issues we ask our students to explore. Given the contemporary importance of globalization, courses in literary studies across the historical spectrum ought to require students to engage in their writing with issues that connect forms of cultural encounter and transnational experience in the texts they read to what is going on in their own time. In rhetoric and composition courses this will also mean increasing attention in both discussion and writing to issues related to globalization, whether economic, political, social, cultural, or religious, and developing in our students a facility for writing that engages diverse, even transnational readers. In business and technical writing courses the expansion of a world market and global economic forces present a unique challenge to students, who need training in forms of critical thinking and writing that will enable them to function as part of an increasingly transnational workforce.

   Finally, students across the curriculum would benefit from an exploration of the ethical and social justice issues that have fueled debates about globalization.  Indeed, much global writing is devoted to exploring these issues and to taking positions in these debates. It seems to me we do our students a great service if we can get them to think – and write – about global change in ways that are both informed and ethical. In my own courses on globalization and literary studies I have my students begin by reading and responding to a range of articles on globalization that run the gamut from unabashed celebrations of globalization like those we get from Thomas Friedman, to stinging critiques of globalization like those produced by Social Forum, the umbrella group largely responsible for organizing the demonstrations in Genoa last summer.[x] We begin with recent newspaper articles on the personal, social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of globalization, both pro and con, and go on to discuss a variety of social, cultural and political commentators who take a range of positions on globalization. In our study of global fiction, we cover the same range of positions, from celebrations of global hybridity like those of Salman Rushdie to stinging critiques of globalization from writers like Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) and Mohsin Hamad (Moth Smoke).. Working through these different positions helps our students become aware of the enormous social and ethical issues that attend global change. Students need to develop practical skills required for global writing, but they also need to develop a facility for using writing to think through and develop positions on issues connected to their lives as moral and ethical citizens living in an increasingly globalized world, a world in which transnational connections – especially in the wake of 9/11 -- are beginning to matter as much as local ones.





[i] (New York Times, May 23, 2000, Section A, p. 20).

[ii] While Readings’ observation here is generally correct, I think he and other critics (such as Negri and Hardt in Empire) exaggerate the extent to which the nation-state is in decline. There is ample evidence, especially in the wake of the attacks of September 11, that the nation-state has managed to accommodate itself quite well to the economic and military challenges of globalization. Globalization may in theory portend the end of the nation state, but that end seems a long way off.

[iii] For discussions of this trend reflecting a range of views see Capitalizing Knowledge : New Intersections of Industry and Academia, ed. Andrew Webster, Academic Capitalism : Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University, Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie, and The Knowledge Factory : Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning, Stanley Aronowitz.

[iv] On the relationship between economic, cultural and symbolic exchange see Waters, pp. 17-20.

[v] Source, page #.

[vi] Cite essays from bibliography.


[vii] This was dramatized in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, when commentary on the attacks – its causes and consequences – produced by a number of the writers I have mentioned in this essay were broadcast around the world on the Internet. I found myself incorporating these pieces in my seminar on globalization and literary study virtually every week.

[viii] See for example Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Arjun Appadurai, Globalization and Its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money, Saskia Sassen, The Cultures of Globalization, ed. Frederic Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, and Globalization and Culture, John Tomlinson. See also the collection of essays on women, feminism and globalization in Signs, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer 2001), ed. Amrita Basu, Inderpal Grewal, Caren Kaplan, and Liisa Malkki.

[ix] For a discussion of the historical dimensions of globalization and its import for literary study see Jay, “Beyond Discipline? Globalization and the Future of English,” PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2001), 32-47.


[ix] For background on Social Forum and its criticisms of globalization see