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Revisions and Histories

Possibly because I research nineteenth and early twentieth-century composition, or maybe because I’ve taken multiple historic-perspective composition and/or rhetoric graduate level classes (about five), or even because James Berlin was on the reading list for my Master’s exam, I feel like I’ve read “The History of Composition in America” from various perspectives about a hundred times. Someday, when I find a piece of poster board big enough, I’m going to create (probably with markers, tissue paper, acetate, some strings, a few small motors, and glue sticks) my conception of the overlapping and diverging histories of this field, as they are all related in some ways, but disagree in others. Most historic sources agree that 1) the teaching of rhetoric as a central tenant of Western education died out as 2) composition and writing practices became more prevalent (though there are varying explanations for why this happened) then 3) current-traditional pedagogies became more prevalent at the same time as 4) literature gained primacy in the newly-formed “English departments,” so that 5) more women and junior faculty were hired to teach the (now) required and disdained course in composition which led to 6) an overworked and underpaid work force that we see until this very day.

Sharon Crowley, likewise, offers a similar history of composition in the university, though unlike other writers (e.g. Berlin) who see the link between the (much-maligned) current-traditional pedagogy and a deterministic epistemology, Crowly sees a strong alliance with this method and humanism, especially as it manifested in literary studies. For Crowley, literature and current-traditional pedagogy were not “hostile” toward one another at all, but rather contends that the current-traditional model “perfectly met the humanist requirement that students’ expression of character be put under constant surveillance so that they could be ‘improved’ by correction” (96-7). This idea of humanistic/belletristic study as inculcated in the development of “moral character” or “taste” implicates composition in a larger epistemic project of surveillance and regulation that, in Crowley’s view, is very much in alignment with both mechanistic views of correctness and humanism. In this view, composition, as well as literature, are tools of exclusion, as well as a means of distancing the focus on civic affairs, as was the case with rhetorical training. Instead, “English studies” privileges the study of literature (as it defines it) where “the object of literary study had become the student himself, or rather, his ability to improve himself” (82). In this way, current-traditional pedagogy and literary studies work together, albeit in a hierarchical relationship to one another, to distance the student from public discourse, regulate his identity and expression, and push him toward “improvement” that was congruent with humanistic aims.

Another area where Crowley disagrees with, or diverges from, many composition historical scholars is in her very clear assertion that a required freshman course in composition should be abolished. The very idea of it being required makes it suspect, a state that, from Crowley’s view, cannot be ameliorated through critical pedagogies, discourses of empowerment, or individual instructors’ notions of “helping” students by (forcibly) offering tools in composition. Because “in first-year composition instruction, students’ predisciplinary subjectivities are the very materials with which they and their teachers are expected to work,” and because “students are [paradoxically] forced to take the class in which they are to be constructed as self-directed writers,” she believes that composition as a requirement can never philosophically recover from the epistemic underpinnings at its foundation as long as students are required to take it. This view is not shared – or at least not addressed – by most of the historic scholars I have read, all of whom agree that the economic state of (most) composition teachers is abysmal. For Crowley, this would not mean an abandonment of composition or the teaching of writing, but rather the lifting of it as a requirement for all (or nearly all) college freshmen.

For Crowley, too, current-traditional methods are not “rhetoric,” but rather “a theory of graphic display” that is imposed upon writing in academic settings (97). She sees the “disciplinary yoking of the terms ‘rhetoric’ and ‘composition’” as a misnomer since, in her view, there is very little chance that rhetoric will be taught in a first-year course (Composition Is Not Rhetoric 1). As someone who discusses rhetoric in every single first-year class that I teach or have ever taught, I am not sure that I agree with this view. Though I understand her reasons for concern that the “intellectual sophistication that immerses students and teachers in political and social critique, as a full-blown course in rhetoric would do, is dangerous for contingently-employed teachers,” I do not think that this takes into account entire departments that support the teaching of rhetoric as a part of their curriculum, nor the fact that many “contingently-employed teachers” are not supervised very closely (Comp Not Rhet 3). In fact, it may be that these same instructors have the most to gain (though admittedly potentially the most to lose) by closely and openly scrutinizing and calling these practices into question. While I, too, would like to see current-traditional methods go the way of the dodo and VHS tapes, I am not yet ready to give up on rhetoric as a viable alternative method, especially given that there are some high schools, even, which have begun to teach rhetoric to their students. If anything, there is a greater prevalence of rhetoric in writing instruction than at any other time in the past hundred years, thus I am not ready to agree that “composition is not rhetoric.” Perhaps composition was not rhetoric, or composition is not always rhetoric, but I, for one, will not put these concepts into mutually exclusive categories, nor change my assertion that I teach both composition and rhetoric.

Works Cited:

Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemic Essays. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P. 1998.

—–. “Composition Is Not Rhetoric.”


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