Category Archives: PAB Entry #2

“Seething Hostilities”

Paper #1 PAB Post 2

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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