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, https://www.utexas.edu/courses/cc304c3/pankration/pankratkick.jpg

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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