Category Archives: All PAB Entries

This is the parent page for all of my PAB posts for ENGL 810 – Major Debates.

In Defense of the Implied Author, Intentionality: The Case of the Nonfiction Narrative

Phelan, James. “The Implied Author, Deficient Narration, and Nonfiction Narrative: Or, What’s Off-Kilter in The Year of Magical Thinking and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?” Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 119-137. Print.

Barthes contention of "the death of the author" was introduced alongside "The Intentional Fallacy" and New Criticism's concerns with "the text itself." See footnote #1.

Barthes contention of “the death of the author” was introduced alongside “The Intentional Fallacy” and New Criticism’s concerns with “the text itself.” See footnote #1.

A discussion of rhetorical narrative theory must include an examination of its place within a large body of historical and modern literary theory. In so doing, it is appropriate to recognize the curious position of rhetorical narrative theory, which historically builds upon neo-Aristotelian and the Chicago School of literary criticism, as one that seems to invite equal parts passionate advocacy and critical questioning of its legitimacy. The position and application of rhetorical narrative theory includes discussion and debates around the implied author, the function of the narrator, and calls into question issues of intertextuality and intentionality, sometimes referred to as “the Intentional Fallacy.[1]

In large part, this article addresses many of the arguments against rhetorical narrative theory, and offers mainly the hypothesis that rhet-narrative theory should exist alongside these other theories because it adds a certain value that enriches our understanding of literary texts, including nonfiction texts. Phelan specifically addresses not only arguments that favor theories such as that our readings of texts are “mediated by our interpretive frameworks” with the view that “texts have an existence independent of those frameworks” (123). In addition, Phelan addresses the value of deconstruction as a theory that essentially rules out authorial intention because “language always undoes itself,” and again insists that rhetorical theory analysis of a text allows us to understand deeper contexts like irony and cultural contexts[2] (124).

Discussion is given to the relationship between Phelan’s argument for the legitimacy in analyzing intention and the theoretical analysis of the implied author, which argues that the implied author better positions intentionality because it considers authorial choice of “technique, subject matter, narrative sequence, ethical values, and so on;” considers differences in “ideological or ethical positions in texts by the same biological author;” illuminates differences between the real author’s discussion of her own text and the implied author’s “purposeful design governing the text;” and “our sense that we know an author through reading his or her text and that the author has a life independent of the identity projected in the text” (128). This gives the implied author an agency within the text that counters theory that treats the implied author as passively produced by the text or by reader interpretation.

Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is used by Phelan as an example of the deficiency of the narrating-I, the experiencing-I, and the implied author when considering reliability.

Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is used by Phelan as an example of the deficiency of the narrating-I, the experiencing-I, and the implied author when considering reliability.

In the final pages of this article, Phelan turns his analytical eye to applying rhetorical narrative theory to nonfiction, specifically Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Phelan outlines five proposals to argue that his analyses of both texts reveal off-kilter narration between the narrating-I, the experiencing-I, and the implied author. The main theme of these five proposals build on Phelan’s argument that, rather than the unreliability of the narrator, these examples show the deficiency of some narration, most revealed in analyses of the nonfiction memoir, because of the “factual status of the narrative” (133).


[1] James Phelan describes the emergence of the “Intentional Fallacy” in 1946, forwarded by scholars on theory established by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in the essay “The Intentional Fallacy,” which deliberately marginalizes and ignores the real author’s purpose and influence on any interpretation of her text. Phelan also summarizes subsequent work which coincided and endured with the rise and fall of New Criticism, including Barthes “death of the author,” and Stanley Fish’s argument that “the interpretive strategies of interpretive communities dictate the meaning of texts, then interpretive authority rests entirely with those communities — authors are essentially irrelevant” (122).

[2] Phelan uses Jane Austen’s famous first line in Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” to illustrate how a simple deconstructive reading of this line would only cause us to question language, when intention would reveal the deliberate irony caused by “he movement of the sentence from its initial signaling of some grand wisdom (not just “A universally acknowledged truth is” but “It is a truth universally acknowledged that”) to its final delivery of a dubious proposition” (124).

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Rhetorical Narrative Theory and Short Story Theory, Together At Last?

Copland, Sarah. “To Be Continued: The Story of Short Story Theory and Other Narrative Theory.” Narrative 22.1 (Jan. 2014): 132-149. Print.

A discussion of theory seems hollow without a sense of how it’s applied, and what artifacts are chosen for application. Rhetorical narrative theory seeks to interpret texts for their aesthetic, ethical, and affective elements, especially considering the role of the implied author, author-audience communication, and the contexts that inform the writing and reading of narrative texts. Sarah Copland, as a rhetorical narrative theorist, seeks to apply rhet-narrative theory to the short story form, and questions the relationship between short story theory and other narrative theories, querying why they have mostly been distinct.

Copland contextualizes her question by merging her rhet-narrative analysis of Alice Munro’s “Passion,” with that of five short story theorist’s[1]. Her intent is to explore answers to her question of what separates short story theory from other narrative theory, with the clarification that, as a rhet-narrative theorist, her methodology is “rooted in attention to facets of narrative that are shared by narratives across genres” which means applying,

[E]ffects of focalization on relationships among the author, narrator, characters, and reader; the progression of the narrative in terms of scripts, frames, and gaps; the interactions between the frame narrative and the main narrative and between the time of the telling and the time of the told; and questions about affective responses and narrative ethics. (135)


It’s on.

Before exploring the application of short story theory, and its relationship to other narrative theory, Copland identifies the premises that others have argued prohibits other narrative theory as legitimate for short story analysis. These include the arguments that other narrative theory is “overrun with jargon;” that “[w]ork informed by other narrative is somehow different from and inferior to ‘good old-fashioned close reading;” that it “tends to overlook some of the distinctive facets of specific short stories,” and that narrative theory will monopolize and overrun short story theory that will threaten the distinctive form and analysis of short stories (133). With this definition of her methodology and an exploration of the arguments against applying other narrative theory to short stories, Copland then engages in both an explication of the five theorists analyses of “Passion,” and then highlights the following claims that unfold within their analyses that define short story theory: “that the short story may be unique on account of its high concentration of gaps, scant characterization, and lack of closure” and particularly how these claims are applied to Munro’s “Passion” (145-46).

Copland then juxtapositions her analysis of “Passion” through examining the short story theorists interpretation of the reliability of the narrator and protagonist, Grace, and assumptions made by the theorists of the narrative gaps, assumed premises of Neil’s death as a suicide through the unreliable dialogue of the cook, and the interpretive depth of the narration’s internal focalization. She argues that they overlook the reliability of Grace’s narration because they do not consider that,

[T]he story’s characterization of Grace: when it comes to reading other people, Grace has, to put it simply, too much certainty based on insufficient evidence. She tends to believe that she knows people fully, deeply, and instantaneously… .By rendering the internal focalization in a way that consistently emphasizes Grace’s absolute certainty, Munro invites us to question that certainty. (136-37)

In this view, the narration of Neil’s nihilistic character through Grace’s judgment of his character is both understood and unreliable, especially because it sets up a reading that does not question that Neil committed suicide, when the text, Copland argues, never explicitly reveals that. Instead, Copland argues that Munro as the implied author leaves that assumed certainty to be ambiguous.

Copland differentiates between her analysis of “Passion” and those of the short story theorists by its a posterei position that does not pre-suppose that certain genres must share certain elements, which Copland acknowledges are “trends in the short story, often historically rooted, that are nonetheless only trends and not universals” (146). Copland agrees to a point that these trends in short story analysis are useful, when applying rhetorical narrative theory, because it allows us to analyze a short story for its “productive uncertainty, ambiguity, and conscious gap-awareness,” which leads to “more significant interpretive, affective, and ethical challenges” (145, 146). However, she doesn’t believe that a priori conceptions of a short story’s characteristics should always inform the reading and analysis of all other short stories because they would confirm the theorist’s biases. This is the main premise of her argument that short story analysis can benefit by applying other narrative theory and methodologies in relationship with genre-specific theory.


[1] Susan Lohafer, Charles E. May, Michael Toolan, Michael Trussler, and Per Winther. Their analyses of Munro’s “Passion” also seek to demonstrate unique elements of short story theory and compare it to other narrative theory. See the May 2012 issue of Narrative.

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Hitting Us In the Feels: Affect and Fictional Narratives

Keen, Suzanne. “Introduction: Narrative and the Emotions.” Poetics Today 32:1 (Spring 2011): 1-53. Print



Me, reading “Incarnations of Burned Children,” by David Foster Wallace.

In this introduction to a special two-part Spring 2011 edition of Poetics Today, Suzanne Keen provides a very comprehensive survey of the study of literature and emotion, and how and why we would study literature for its affective effect on readers. This is a huge article and undertaking, but well done in terms of giving the reader an understanding of the criticisms against gauging emotional effect, and arguing for the legitimacy of studying the emotional effect of narrative. Essentially the argument is made that “the feelings generated by the deeds of writers prompt recognition and change in the recipients who experience them” (5).

What makes literature rhetorical? Keen argues that,

[N]arratives have the potential to transmit not just shared values but also disciplinary models of social control (including hierarchies, norms, and discriminating standards) on the societies that share them has been a commonplace of contemporary theory since at least Foucault. (12)

This “affective turn” in studying literature is the premise that “modes of narrative [evoke] emotional responses” (7, 14) and,

“What happens when we scrutinize narrative and the emotions in light of ancient and modern rhetoric, the age-old poetics of impact, empirical evidence of literary response, current cognitive, developmental, and social psychology, or recent neuroscience? (10)

#can'tholdthesefeelings .gif

Me, reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

While I cannot condense this entire survey of methodologies and approaches to considering the affective nature of narrative, I will instead provide some analysis of the section that considers how the Chicago School of literary criticism/neo-Aristotelian theory figure into studying the affective nature of fictional literature, and particularly how applying rhetorical methodologies can assist scholars in teasing out what elements of fictional narrative illustrates effective communication with the reader. Keen only devotes a small area to considering rhetorical critical theory, but does note that “[Wayne C.] Booth reintroduces the concerns of rhetoric into narrative studies, showing the way to both rhetorical narratologists…as an aspect of response and an elicitor of ethical engagement” (35-6). This particular theory intends to suss out the relationship between the author and the reader, and in doing, consider how the narrative structure, language, genre expectations, and more will affect the audience’s “intellect, psyche, emotions, and values” (36). As part of the larger two-part special topics edition of Poetics Today devoted to the topic of narratives and emotion, this introduction provides a grounding in considering specific texts through these lenses, such as “origin stories of Genesis to shared cultural narratives, from canonical novels to private letters to film comedies and jokes” (40). When considering whether issues around periodicity or specialization are limiting scholars in their scope of understanding genres of literature, this approach is more concerned with multi-textual examinations that consider emotion and affect from the Romantics to the Victorians, from the postmodernists to the contemporary.


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Aristotle, Redux: Defending and Expanding Neo-Aristotelian Critical Theory

Shen, Dan. “Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Narrative Study: Need for Integrating Style, Context, and Intertext. Style 45:4 (Winter 2011): 576-597. Print.


Author-Audience Communication is a central component of neo-Aristotelian critical theory.

Author-Audience Communication is a central component of neo-Aristotelian critical theory.

Second generation neo-Aristotelian critical theory arose in the early sixties as an extension of the Chicago School of Criticism, led by prominent scholar Wayne C. Booth in his seminal work, The Rhetoric of Fiction (U. of Chicago Press, 1961, 1983). Booth’s work extended first generation work by Robert S. Crane, which offered literary scholars a critical lens that considered the poetics of a text (how it functioned as a narrative structure within its genre, marginalizing language or “the text itself”) to the rhetorical nature of narrative fiction, with its “implied author” and author-audience communication.

Shen distinguishes the three generations of Chicago School, briefly outlining the Aristotelian premise of the first-generation and then focusing his argument on the second and third generation of neo-Aristotelian critics. His work here is mostly a defense and a definition of what Neo-Aristotelian criticism is, differentiating between rhetorical criticism’s focus on the “narratological distinction between story and discourse” (577), which distinguishes between “what” is written (structure) and “how” an author conveys the story (verbal) (578). This is essentially an argument about the function of character, event, discourse, and style, and how these choices create a norm for the “implied author;” that is, the “second self” of the writer that is revealed by an analysis of the narrator-author within the text (583). This gives us an opportunity to study the rhetorical relationship between the audience and the author, which further reveals the cognitive and affective elements of a text. The author-audience communication “investigates the communication between the implied author and her ideal, hypothetical addressee” (579). Indeed, much of third-generation rhetorical critics are using Booth as their central unifying force to argue for an how this approach enables scholars to understand how texts act upon the reader and what “means the author uses to persuade a reader” (583). This is important because it moves us beyond New Criticism’s focus on language out of context, but invites in those contexts by allowing a “communication between the author and the reader” as well as an investigation into how “flesh-and-blood readers’ different experiences, knowledge, and sociohistorical positioning lead to divergent readings” (583, 584). As an approach to analyze texts for their rhetorical impact on readers as well as how texts fit contextually within a genre, neo-Aristotelian criticism would seem to bridge many of the theoretical divides confronting literary studies.

Shen is able to give both a historical perspective as well as a current definition of this field of literary criticism, and offers as objects of study a critical approach that goes beyond “the text itself,” in that it argues for a more holistic look at the production and effect of fictional narratives. He draws not only upon the seminal work of R.S. Crane and Booth (first and second generation Chicago School critics), but synthesizes the current third generation work of scholars such as James Phelan. Shen spends a good amount of time with real examples of how this theory is applied to texts, such as Katherine Mansfield’s “Revelations” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (581-582). His argument here is to question the exclusion of the “real author,” because generally, no biographical data on the real author is used in rhetorical criticism, only the implied author. Instead, he argues that understanding the biography of the real author, such as knowing Kate Chopin’s biographical background when writing “Desiree’s Baby,” helps readers and scholars to understand the racial implication and the “mythologization of Southern racist culture” in this story[1], which, without that knowledge, would be obscured. Despite this argument, Shen emphatically goes on to assert the primacy of the text in any rhetorical analysis.

Finally, Shen discusses genre, noting Aristotle’s emphasis on genre and Booth’s argument that even the “least conventional story” will bring with a set of generic expectations on the part of the scholar/reader (588). This, Shen argues, “intertextual comparison” allows scholars to deepen their rhetorical analysis of texts even further, by comparing the “structure-style features between the text under investigation and other related texts” (588). Once again, this is to further understand the norms of the implied author, especially as we trace authorial movements between texts.


[1] Shen also discusses how using the real author’s biographical data can help us understand narratological events and characters such as the narrator in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In this example, he notes that analysis of this short story often tries to explain why the narrator “continuously insists on his sanity, a textual phenomenon that has received various interpretations but none appear convincing” (586). Shen observes that at this time there was a contemporary legal defense beginning to take hold in the United States: the “insanity defense.” This lends an even higher ironic element to the story that may not have been understood without this background knowledge (587).

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Taking Rhetoric to the Streets

Cushman, Ellen. “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” College Composition and Communication 47:1 (Feb. 1996): pp. 7-28. Print.

As a counter-counterargument to Zorn’s piece (see PAB Post #3, above), Ellen Cushman takes us to the streets to where civic participation happens, beckoning us down for the ivory tower in order to bridge the distance between “critical theorists [who believe] that the primary means of affecting social change is to translate activism into liberatory classroom pedagogies” and instead “empower people in our communities, establish networks of reciprocity with them, and create solidarity with them” (7). She recognizes the “deeply rooted sociological distances” between the work of the academy, especially because of our focus on professionalization and specialization, and our local communities, which she speculates is why “academics have so easily turned away from the democratic project that education serves to ensure – civic participation by well-rounded individuals (8, 9). As a counter-counterpoint, her work recognizes the dissonance between course work and theoretical social engagement but also offers a means to blend civic participation and real world applicability with the goals of rhetoric and composition studies.

Cushman’s piece is useful because, unlike Zorn, she reminds us that these discussions of what is good writing, what is good reading, what is literacy, or rhetoric, or social action, take place in the privileged domain of the academy, where accessibility to resources and prestige is taken for granted. On the street level, teaching students to write letters for housing, resumes for jobs, fill out forms and understand systems has more immediate value to the community, and is proof of where civic participation is really located. Cushman argues that the daily interactions of people within their community have economic and political effects and that,

Often this type of social change would be overlooked or underestimated with the emancipatory theories we currently use. Those who choose to say resistance only counts when it takes the form of overt and collective political action might describe use as using nothing more than coping devices with this literacy.” (14)

Cushman is describing service-learning as an activist action that is observable and individualized with genuine empowerment effects. She uses the term “reciprocity” to provide a framework for working directly in a community, and as a moderating force.[1]

However, Cushman frames what she received from the community members she worked with – single mothers, low-income families with the “Black (their term) neighborhood in upstate New York” – as the gift of learning from them and getting to use their name and data for her dissertation work (7, 17). This is a fragile claim, as it’s unclear that the people discussed were aware of this reciprocal gift and viewed themselves as anything other than test subjects. In fact, what I know of service-learning pedagogy and research is that there is often a fear of paternalism, or a sort of condescending charity.[2]


How are we defining rhetoric? What counts as rhetorical?

What Cushman does not define is what role the rhetorician is playing in the model of activist learning she is presenting. Though her work is titled “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” we are not given a discussion on how rhetoric is defined, what forms it takes in the academic/community relationship, and how we might study particular rhetorical communications for what is most effective in rhetorical discourse with a community.


[1] She is particularly concerned with a mode of domination that could result from a one-directional “gift-giving” in the community. She cites Bourdieu’s definition of reciprocity in his work The Logic of Practice (1990) as a model of how reciprocity should work in a community, though notes that his work was in observing relational bonds between kin-people and tribal chiefs.

[2] This does not suggest that service-learning courses do not make a positive and welcome impact in local communities, only that the relationship must be carefully negotiated – as Cushman notes. I am still skeptical that the project that Cushman describes defines a truly reciprocal relationship. For an interesting case-study on the potential do-gooder effects of service-learning course design, please read, “The Impact of a Service-Learning Course Design on White Student’s Racial Attitudes,” (Sara Houshmand, Lisa B. Spanierman, Amanda M. Beer, V. Paul Poteat, and Laura J. Lawson, 2014).

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Out with the New, In With the Old

Zorn, Jeffrey. “English Compositionism as Fraud and Failure.” Academic Questions 26:3 (2013): pp. 270-284. Print.

5th Century Black Figure Vase, sourced via Creative Commons, Google Images,

5th Century Black Figure Vase illustrating Greek Pankration.

As a contentious juxtaposition to Janice Lauer’s essay “Rhetoric and Composition” in McComisky’s English Studies, Jeffrey Zorn attacks the notion that the “social turn” in teaching rhetoric and composition, so heralded by compositionist’s as critical to pedagogical development, as all bunk. In fact, he calls it “garbage” (273). Where is the proof, he demands, and he counterpoints the heavily cited works of not just Lauer (but most particularly her and Patricia Bizzell’s work), but also the many scholars that Lauer cites[1] and the WPA in general for its fetishizing of cultural and social pedaogogies as sound teaching theory.

Zorn argues that three things must happen in order to teach “remedial, core, advanced, or discipline-specific writing classes”:

1) dissociate composition teaching from literature teaching; 2) dissociate composition teaching from composition studies and composition theory; and 3) put writing instruction in the hands of practitioners – of whatever academic training and political leaning – whose only job is to guide student writers towards proficiency at the level traditionally associated with “higher” education.” (283, 272)

Zorn’s argument is premised on his claim that composition theorists offer no support that their methods influence student writing nor are they realized in the “real world” and he openly mocks Dale Bauer’s call for “students’ conversion to emancipatory critical action” with “Sorry, no: In any legitimate composition class, conversion is from worse to better writer…”(275). He derides the field for its attempt to “problematize” classroom content, dismissively saying, “they have problematized logic, organization, clarity, third-person exposition, Aristotelian rhetoric, Standard English, literacy itself, education itself, and writing instruction that aspires only to improved writing” (278). His suggestion here is that all the standard traditional emphases of teaching writing has been marginalized, if not extinguished, in college writing courses in favor of questioning their legitimacy alongside the greater need to create social consciousness and empowerment in our students.

As an alternate perspective to the social turn in rhetoric and composition studies that found favor in the sixties, blossomed fully in the seventies and eighties, and continue to this day to be a preferred pedagogy, it’s hard not to be considerate of Zorn’s critique of these methods. He seems to particularly dislike feminist pedaogogies because he argues, they will repel the already falling behind male student (275). However, he doesn’t prove that these pedagogies are not effective, beyond anecdotal evidence based on the belief by those outside rhetoric and composition studies that “students still don’t know how to write” when they leave our classes. In many ways, his own rhetorical thesis is unfair because it doesn’t consider that critical pedagogies and student-centered learning gives rhetoric and composition instructors entry points and topic-areas that may more fully engage students, rather than the dusty essay on arbitrary topics selected solely by the instructor. Thus, his three suggestions above are based on what he believes are logical givens, not empirical or methodological studies.

[1] Lauer inventories the work of Patricia Bizzell, Paulo Friere, Victor Vivenza, and Barbara Couture, among others, as influential theorists in student-center pedagogies that privilege social and cultural contexts as areas of writing invention.

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

Paper #1 PAB Post #1

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”

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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