formalism

Like Jeff I’ve been following, belatedly, this conversation over Graff and Birkenstein on WPA-L. I actually replied to an early conversation on TechRhet on the same subject. So there are two conversations here. One is potentially about Graff and Birkenstein (G&B)’s piece in the Chronicle, as well as their textbook. I’ve only read the former so that’s where I’m coming from. The second conversation is the general antipathy that exists between literary studies and rhet/comp.

Regarding the second conversation, I’ll keep it brief. In my opinion, who cares about literary studies and what they say? The only thing that ties us together is that the senior members of rhet/comp got lit studies PhD’s. But in the next 10-20 years that will end. Rhet/comp has no more in common with lit studies than it does with other humanities disciplines, maybe less than some. Just let it go folks.

The first conversation, regarding formalism, is more interesting. As I noted in my TechRhet post, this debate seems to me to be about what one means by "formalism."

I’m not exactly sure what G&B mean by it. The Chronicle piece is brief. However, I think we can agree that the adjective "formulaic" is generally not a positive attribute for a composition. Has anyone ever said, "what a great piece of writing; it was so formulaic!"? I don’t think so. In my use of formula, it’s just not a good thing for writing. For example, there’s a formula for Coke so that every bottle tastes the same. Creating a formula for writing, in my mind, means trying to make each composition the same, which would appear to be the function of the five-paragraph theme. As G&B point out, the 5P theme is a weak formula, but it’s hard to imagine any formula, which by (my) definition seeks to create replication, as producing effective writing in most rhetorical situations.

I would differentiate formulas from heuristics, tactics, strategies, etc. For example, a formula for oatmeal cookies creates the same cookies in the same proportion every time, if the formula is properly followed. An oatmeal cookie heuristic might aid me to select by some process dried fruit or nuts to put in my oatmeal, resulting in different cookies. An oatmeal cookie tactic might be to mix the dry and wet ingredients separately and then add one to the other. That’s a tactic that I might use in many other baking situations, so it wouldn’t always result in oatmeal cookies. A baking strategy might tell me when are good times for baking or how many cookies to make. Again, this might apply to other situations than just baking oatmeal cookies.

But an oatmeal cookie formula is only good for one thing. Every time it gives me two dozen oatmeal cookies. It doesn’t matter if it’s breakfast or if there are just two of us eating or I need a hundred. I’m stuck if I’m out of oatmeal.

So Jeff also has no particular fondness for formalism. He notes though that nearly every comp textbook is formalist in its approach. So why the strong response to this one? (see the second conversation noted above.)

Now, if you have some other definition of formalas that incorporates these other things then I suppose I’d have to think more about what you were saying. However I can’t help thinking that the formula represents a fundamental intellectual error as an approach for understanding composition–not just of writing/media but of all materiality. Formula comes from Latin as a diminutive of "form." "Form" articulates a particular concept of materiality in which objects are composed of essential characteristics that may be abstracted. This is certainly what a formulaic approach to composition does. It abstracts characteristics from finished compositions and theorizes that future texts may be composed by the placement of these characteristics in a new text.

However I would contend that this is a faulty notion of composition. While one can certainly apprehend abstract characteristics from a text (or any other material object), there’s no reason to believe that those characteristics informed the compositional process.

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  1. I wonder if you’re oversimplifying. The formula F=ma is used in many different contexts.
    And also, the compositional processes of experienced writers aren’t the same as the processes of learning to write.
    Learning is all about complexifying one’s ability to adapt to different contexts, which suggests that at the beginning of learning something new, a simple formula would be a useful beginning point, just as the Niels Bohr static model of the atom found in chemistry books is a beginning point for understanding interactions of electrons.
    G&B’s book is meant for FYC, not experienced writers. As such, the formulas in the book, which seem to be more generative than reductionist, may be what these students need.

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