Category Archives: ENGL810

Don’t Know Much About [Rhet-Comp] History…

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The Rhetorical Triangle: Speaker/Audience/Topic

Image of rhetorical triangle reproduced by Katherine Maloney, as seen in Roskelly & Jolliffe’s text Everyday Use: Rhetoric at Work in Reading and Writing, 2nd Edition. 2009, 16.

Faigley, Lester. “Competing Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal.” College English, 48.6 (October 1986) 527-542. Print.

Like scholars writing about a so-called crisis in English Studies, Faigley explores the contemporary conflict heating up in the field of writing and composition studies in the 1980’s. He analyzes the theories forwarded about how to align the pedagogies of rhetoric and composition studies, and bring coherence to an otherwise incoherent field that cannot decide on its own processes. His argument is that a historical understanding of the evolution of writing studies is necessary for the writing instructor and for new lines of integrative research in order to present an axiology that values process, rhetoric, expressivism, and contextual realities, and other concerns in the field. He analyzes scholars such as Peter Elbow, Stanley Fish, James Berlin, David Barthlomae, Maxine Hairston, Patricia Bizzell and Linda Flowers, among others.

"I will eviscerate you in fiction." Quote from Chaucer, from the movie "A Knight's Tale," (2001).

Chaucer, from “A Knight’s Tale.”

Faigley argues for four areas of research necessary to incorporate a “social view of writing,” that is “characterized by the traditions from which they emerge: poststructuralist theories of language, the sociology of science, ethnography, and Marxism” (535). These four points of consideration will lead to an aligned definition of the writing process and what that process entails. Up until the time of his writing, competing theories and theorist have torn asunder any common ground in writing studies, much like the larger debates that roil the field of English Studies. Faigley identifies three distinct factions in the writing process field: the expressivists, who emphasize individual (or “authentic”) voice, the cognitivists, who stress process and procedure, and what he terms the “social view,” which “contends processes of writing are social in character instead of originating within individual writers” (528).

As a microcosmic view of a sub-discipline within English Studies, writing studies also suffers its share of dissent and opposing interests and perspectives, as well as the major question of whether writing studies should have disciplinary status. While Faigley is writing in 1986, his analysis of the problems that writing studies face is comparable to McComiskey and Fulkerson’s modern day discourse on the conflict within English Studies as a discipline. Like McComiskey, Faigley argues for an integrative approach that incorporates but does not privilege one pedagogical approach over another, but instead finds areas of commonality that can resolve the disputations between theorists.

Captain Kirk and Doc McCoy share a nod.

Kirk and Doc nod. Star Trek.

Ultimately, Faigley is arguing that a “historical awareness would allow us to reinterpret and integrate each of the theoretical perspectives…” (537), and move writing studies towards theoretical synthesis, rather than competing views. He concludes that debates among scholars distract us from questioning why American universities and colleges teach writing composition, why writing courses are offered even after the “’literacy crisis’ of the seventies has abated,” and why writing courses are taught by nontenured instructors and graduate students (539). Faigley argues that answering these questions moves the discussion to the more relevant recognition that writing processes are contextual, community-based, and progressive; not just one of these things, but all at the same time.

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“Seething Hostilities”

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Mclemee, Scott. “Deconstructing Composition.” Chronicle Of Higher Education 49.28 (2003): A16. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.

Old fashioned typewriter in sepia tone.

Old-fashioned Typewriter in Sepia

Writer Scott Mclemee analyzes the “seething hostilities” still present in writing studies, more modernly called rhetoric and composition studies. Similar to Lester Faigley’s examination of the conflicting interests within the field, Mclemee quotes late researcher Robert J. Connors to describe the warring factions: “Social constructionists criticize cognitivists. Marxists deride expressivists. … Philosophers feel ignored by empiricists, experimenters resent the criticisms of rhetoricians, and teachers feel despised by everybody.”[1] Mclemee also covers the discussion of why we teach composition courses, which he observes that “People outside the field are often surprised…that there is something called ‘composition studies’… .what possible intellectual stakes could there be teaching freshman to write a coherent paragraph?” This criticism of why we teach writing is, of course, simplistic, as there are many obvious reasons why writing is critical to a liberal education, but it does raise the more important question of whether we are teaching writing, and leads us to the larger debate of how we teach writing.

Mclemee gives a brief history of the emergence of “rhet comp” in American universities, and the source of its inclusion in basic college curriculum. He moves the reader through the theoretical debates that shaped the seventies and eighties, and observes that most scholars in the field now study those debates as formative to its modern day goal: integrating cultural and critical theory studies that moves the field beyond teaching “skills” (or being considered a “service” field) and into studying “how language works.” Mclemee quotes scholar Gary Olson, and his work, Justifying Belief: Stanley Fish and the Work of Rhetoric (SUNY Press, 2002) as positioning comp studies as “‘much more than teaching students to ‘express themselves.’ It will help them ‘learn to engage in ideological critique,’ he says, ‘to effect real changes in their lives.’” However, he notes that even the move towards more theoretical analysis in the writing classroom began to suffer its own backlash, as compositionists resisted the narrowing of the field into “the old hierarchy of expertise.”

Mclemee covers a lot of ground in rooting out the core issues in writing studies, expanding and restating many issues that troubled the field in the seventies and eighties: disagreements about processes and pedagogies, conflicting theories, relegation of instruction to nontenured or graduate student instructors, and the emerging issue of rhetoric and composition as a discipline but also as a breeding ground for a new field, writing program administration, which raises its own issues of the bridge between scholarship and administration. Mclemee quotes several scholars and administrators working in the field as being ambivalent about the blurring of lines between the work of administration and the work of theory, and about what counts as intellectual work.

While that conversation raises an interesting point about composition studies and the relationship between administrative (as well as corporate) influences and the development of the scholarship of the field, Mclemee doesn’t attempt to answer the question but leaves it there for the reader to chew on. He does finish his article with the proposal that writing studies must integrate its goals and theories, and offers this view from David Fleming, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison: “‘[composition studies is an] educational discipline, but I don’t want that discipline reduced to a single 15-week course that serves as a transitional period between high school and college.’” Instead, he argues that composition studies should be concerned with “‘the integration of projects that are currently fragmented’ across many departments, subsuming the studies of ‘speaking, thinking, writing, logic, and the interpretation of cultural texts.’”

[1] See Betty Bamberg’s article on Connor’s work describing the problems and criticisms of first-year writing programs, here:

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