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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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: http://wpacouncil.org/archives/21n1/21n1bamberg.pdf

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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