Monthly Archives: September 2014

Rise and Fall, and Rise Again: Debating the “Social Turn” in Rhetoric and Composition Studies.

question marks

So many questions!

A major question in rhetoric and composition (hereafter rhet/comp) studies today  concerns the social turn in rhet/comp methodologies and its effectiveness as a pedagogy. The convening of the annual College Composition and Communication (CCCC) conference in 1964 raised the question of the place rhetoric held in composition instruction, pointing out that “the use of topics (“places” for discovering arguments) and status (finding the type of issue to dispute) helped students raise and investigate compelling questions” and that using rhetorical concepts such as Cicero’s Five Canons, the rhetorical situation, and kairos “encouraged the construction of a full composition curriculum with different aims of writing (Lauer 108). Over the next three decades, the “social turn” in rhet/comp recovered work in the rhetorical writings of women and minorities, previously overlooked or marginalized in rhetorical studies. Lauer describes this as a “rhizomatic spread of theory, research, and new pedagogy” which focused on sociocultural contexts in which students learned the strategies and rhetorical emphases of particular discourse communities, typically investigating their own (121). Scholars such as Lauer, Flower, Friere, Bizzell, LeFevre, hooks, and others argued for the contextual cultural, social, and political concerns of students as entry points for developing effective, empowering, and meaningful rhetorical discourse in rhetoric and composition studies.

If public discourse and civic responsibility were a major concern of colleges and universities in the late 18th and 19th centuries, as S. Michael Halloran argues, why did instruction in classical rhetorical traditions lose its importance? Halloran argues that the emergence of belles lettres as a component of rhetorical studies “distracted the gaze of rhetoricians from their central concern with public discourse,” reframing rhetoric as the art of orating the more aesthetic, or beautiful, elements of speech rather than those that addressed a civic issue (104). As well, the adoption of current-traditional models of rhetoric focused on “products rather than processes” which Halloran argues may be why the creative art of invention with emphasis on substance and content died out in favor of an emphasis on the four modes of the current-traditional model: description, narration, exposition, and argumentation (103). Sharon Crowley also observes that the rise of the current-traditional model led to more formulaic writing processes that emphasized invention and style, and she notes that this formula survived in collegiate texts up through the late eighties and can still be seen today in some writing courses (233). The historical question of why and how emphasis on the social and contextual nature of rhet/comp instruction rose and fell and rose again, has led to increased interest in the theoretical movements of rhet/comp methodologies over time, and whether the social turn has benefited the development of student writing.


Karl Marx.

Jeffrey Zorn openly condemns the practice of privileging student voice and socio-cultural contexts as “garbage,” claiming that is there is no evidence that these methods work to improve student writing (273). Although he doesn’t prove his case either[1] Zorn does seem to be leading the pack on critiquing social-construction as ineffective, or at least, not evidenced as more effective teaching pedagogy in rhet/comp courses. If improved student writing is the desired goal of a first-year composition course, and rhetorical tradition based on classical theories of invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory is a primary approach to teaching writing, then what part do student social and cultural contexts play in achieving those goals? Zorn’s argument is that we have gone too far in encouraging social/cultural studies in the writing classroom, at the expense of more tangible skills like “logic, organization, clarity, third-person exposition, Aristotelian rhetoric, Standard English, literacy itself, education itself, and writing instruction that aspires only to improved writing” (278). This sally invites the question of how rhet/comp instruction is transferred to other courses and the “real world,” as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) becomes a looming question in rhet/comp studies today. Does raising social consciousness and civic responsibility in first-year writing courses really bear out later in the students’ professional, academic, and social lives?


Betty Friedan.

Paul J. Johnson and Ethan Krase argue that, in their limited study of twelve first-year writing students, a focus on skills – “articulating and supporting claims” and properly supporting their arguments by using documented evidence – seems to be the most transferable to later courses (47). They do not analyze how topics and assignments are constructed in these student’s classes, and so maintain only that specific and direct instruction on articulating claims and providing valid evidence and support is a measurable skill that was transferred from first-year writing courses into later upper-level courses across a variety of genres. This moves us into questioning the relationship between Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and the transfer of writing ability to other courses. WAC questions seem to be appropriately placed in English Studies, since new fields in linguistics, literacy, technical communication, and other domains have integrated new genres that English Studies, and the rhet/comp field in particular, are most readily able to accommodate. In first-year writing, there is a lot of room for instructors to sample many different writing genres with their students, and as Lauer notes, rhetoric and composition scholars in the 1980’s began to argue that “teaching a rhetoric of inquiry in the disciplines helps writers ‘learn how knowledge has been constructed as well as what that knowledge is'” (123). WAC is also connected to how students transfer writing skills outside the classroom (“extracurriculum,” as termed by Anne Ruggles Gere)[2], and most particularly outside academia and in the community. Ellen Cushman notes in her article, “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” that we must encourage students to be active outside of the classroom, especially in their communities, and her own work as a doctoral student involved helping community members write resumes, fill out housing and college applications, and compose business letters (7, 13). Thus, students social contexts and using a social-constructionist pedagogy remains a major question in rhetoric and composition studies, but one I suggest is relevant to developing research in WAC and the transfer of writing skills as applied learning in the “real world.”


Paolo Friere.


Works Cited

Crowley, Sharon. “The Current-Traditional Theory of Style: An Informal History.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 16:4 (Autumn, 1986): 233-250.

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

Halloran, S. Micheal. “Rhetoric in the American College Curriculum: The Decline of Public Discourse.” PRE/TEXT, 3:3 (1982): 93-115. Print.

Johnson, J. Paul and Ethan Krase. “Articulating Claims and Presenting Evidence: A Study of Twelve Student Writers, From First-Year Composition to Writing Across the Curriculum.” The WAC Journal 23 (2012): 31048. Print.

Lauer, Janice. “Rhetoric and Composition.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComisky. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 106-152. Print.

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


[1] 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 offers no evidence that more traditional teaching practices had a greater learning outcome effect on student writing, and it begs the question that, if traditional forms were so wonderful, why they’ve been sidelined in favor of social-constructionalist approaches. Halloran does discuss this shift in his article, “Rhetoric in the American College Curriculum: The Decline of Public Discourse” (1982), but that only concerns the teaching of rhetoric for “effective communication on public problems, problems that arise in our life in political communities” (94). Johnson and Krase argue that focusing on specific writing skills does seem to produce more measurable transfer in student writing, but their sample is limited to twelve students.

[2] Gere, Anne Ruggles. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication 45.1 (1994): 75-92. Print.


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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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A (Very Brief) History of Rhetoric and Composition Studies

Bust of Aristotle.


The study of rhetoric can be traced back to Aristotle’s treatise Rhetoric, developed over several years in the 4th century BC. Wayne Booth notes that Aristotle’s inaugural work on rhetorical discourse first confirmed the multi-disciplinary application of rhetoric within education; it has “no specific territory or subject matter of its own,” but instead can be found everywhere (3). Now primarily living within the parent discipline of English Studies, rhetoric, and its marriage with composition as “the written branch of rhetoric,” is a field that has been historically fraught with a fight for legitimacy and for aligned and coherent methodologies (Lauer 20).

The core strategies of rhetorical discourse have lived through to today, despite its turbulent history throughout the ages. Critics often derided rhetoric for its emphasis on persuasion over truth, and indeed, Plato, transcribing Socrates’s attack on rhetorical oratory in Gorgias (380 BC) both somewhat defines the function of early rhetorical oratory but most pointedly condemns its moral and ethical uses in public speech. Francis Bacon defined rhetoric as “the application of reason to imagination for the better moving of the will. It is not solid reasoning of the kind science exhibits” (Booth 5). As scientific reasoning and knowledge blossomed in the Enlightenment, rhetorical studies and practice became a lesser area of study, regarded as artificial knowledge that is informed only by the work in other fields. John Locke, writing in 1690, reduced rhetoric to a deceptive art that promoted “wrong ideas,” and was performed by “perfect cheats,” whose only goal was to misdirect and misinform men (7). He allows that rhetorical arts are only effective because “men find pleasure to be deceived” (7). It is against this backdrop that we consider the standing of rhetoric and composition today in modern higher education institutions.

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

ref. Lester Faigley

Modern first-year composition courses in American higher education institutions emerged at Harvard in 1885, after a long period of neglect in American higher education[1] (Bamberg 7). Scholars Sharon Crowley, James Berlin, and others who studied its entrance into colleges across the U.S. argue that its adoption was borne more from institutional goals to increase enrollments and reach new populations of students than from meeting specific learning goals (Skinnell 95). Thomas Miller observes that institutional imperatives drove much of the adoption of more pragmatic programmatic moves that “emerge at junctures where expanding disciplinary trends connect with social and technological shifts in literacy,” and where a focus on addressing the “literacy crisis” became an institutional duty (6). Due to a perceived lack of both rigor and clear and unified methodology, English studies, and composition studies in particular, was scorned from within the academy, because of its reputation of being “un-disciplined” (McComisky 10). With a renewed focus on first-year composition in the 1960’s, rhetoric and composition studies gained some ground because of accreditation requirements and its ability to “pay the bills” (19). Beyond simply addressing larger social and institutional needs, the early sixties ushered in new areas of study for composition scholars, as they considered the wealth of pedagogical literature, but lamented rhet/comp’s dearth of theoretical studies (Faigley 527). Theory became a legitimate research area in composition studies, especially theory that moved it beyond instruction in “grammar and usage” and into sound pedagogical processes (529). These early debates about the theory and practice underpinning rhetoric and composition studies have roiled at critical points throughout time, most notably in the seventies and eighties, [2] and bring us now to considering what remains as critical questions within the discipline.

Janice Lauer poses several concerns troubling modern day rhet/comp studies, pointing out that primary and secondary audiences serve two different functions within the field. She notes that the primary audience is scholars forwarding new theories and who have a rhetorical purpose; they are the “epistemic field of experts” (24). However, the secondary audience of writing instructors, who do not necessarily contribute new theory or research in the field, problematize current debates because “very little consensus can be attributed to” new claims in the field (24). This means that instructors are unified in teaching rhet/com, nor knowledgeable about the same composition theories, thus, are not acting as an epistemic body of experts who can determine value. Lauer further notes that there can be validation of discourse theory when new knowledge is widely adopted in the classroom, while other scholarly theories, however critical to the field, may disappear without much notice if they never influence instructional methods (24). This exchange between theorists and instructors is both beneficial to composition studies as we agree to processes and ideas that have merit, as well as potentially detrimental because some theory becomes gospel in writing instruction, despite the fallibility of its effect or truth.

Pull out quote - practice as lore. What’s compelling today about the continuing debate in rhetoric and composition, as well as English Studies as its parent discipline, is that, over time, little seems to have been resolved, but more conflict has arisen. These debates happen in the theoretical space, and thus, what gets adopted would be what gets more broad attention and becomes “lore,”[3] (Lauer 24, 26). It is unclear from the scholarship whether classroom instructors, many of them not elbow deep in research in the field, have access to emerging theories and experimental processes other than what is passed down as lore. Bamberg, studying the historical arguments against first-year composition,[4] presents the debate as having moved from external criticisms to internal issues, such as what gets taught (content) and how knowledge is transferred. More positively, studying the debates in composition as well as in English studies has brought about a new disciplinary focus, one that is based on historical analysis and comparative discourse that informs research and instruction today (Mclemee). And unlike English Studies, which continues to contest its position as an ever-alienated collection of language and communication fields, over time composition studies has enjoyed a more positive sense of community and aligned pedagogical goals (Lauer 27).

Works Cited:

Bamberg, Betty. “Alternative Models of First-Year Composition: Possibilities and Problems.” Writing Program Administrators, 21:1 (Fall 1997):

7-18. Print.

Booth, Wayne C. “How Many ‘Rhetorics’?” The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

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

Lauer, Janice M. “Composition Studies: Dappled Discipline.” Rhetoric Review, 3.1 (1984): 20-29. Print.

McComiskey, Bruce, Ed. “Introduction.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. Print.

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

Miller, Thomas P. “Introduction.” The Evolution of College English: Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns, Pittsburgh: U. of

Pittsburgh Press, 2010. Print.

Skinnell, Ryan. “Harvard, Again: Considering Articulation and Accreditation in Rhetoric and Composition’s History.” Rhetoric Review, 33.2 (2014): 95-112. Print.


[1] There is growing debate about whether rhetoric truly suffered at the hands of the Romantics. See Christopher Diller’s article “The Art of Rhetoric: Aesthetics and Rhetoric in the American Renaissance, or Ryan Skinnell’s “Harvard, Again: Considering Articulation and Accreditation in Rhetoric and Composition’s History.”

[2] See Lester Faigley’s article “Competing Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal,” as well as Richard Fulkerson’s “Composition at the Turn of the Century,” for two comprehensive analyses of the theoretical debates in composition studies during the seventies and eighties.

[3] Mclemee defines “lore” as “a body of methods and rules of thumb passed down by generations of writing instructors.” See also Louise Wetherbee Phelps’s article “Practical Wisdom and the Geography of Knowledge in Composition,” (College English 53:8, Dec. 1991) and her discussion of practical wisdom and community sharing in composition studies.

[4] She references Sharon Crowley’s call to eliminate first-year composition in her 1991 Pretext article, as well as many responses to Crowley. Bamberg also cites Robert J. Connors as quoted by Charles Schuster as calling first-year composition the “Third World of English Studies” (8).


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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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Some fun

While I work on getting my pages and posts set up and formatted, please enjoy these animated .gif’s.

It turns out:


You have to:


Click on the images to roll the gifs (the next one contains language):


I don’t know why; they should just run (is it me?):


Anyway, you will have noticed, I am a dedicated Doctor Who fan:


And, Kermit the Frog. So:


I imagine your response:


Of course, that one works.

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September 4, 2014 · 1:57 pm