should we teach composition in composition?

I know it sounds like an obvious (dare I say "rhetorical") question. And I've been away from this blog for quite a while with moving to my new digs in Buffalo (where I am now sitting in an essentially empty office, aside from WWII surplus furniture), so maybe it seems like I've lost it. But I assure you that isn't the case, or at least if it is that I am unaware.

My last piece here responded to Michael Prince's Op-Ed in the Chronicle. Since then CHE has offered a more (rhet/comp) disciplinary perspective from Mark Richardson (subscription required) and Stanley Fish has written on his NYT blog on the subject of general education but with some particular things to say about first-year writing. Richardson argues that "first-year composition should be an introduction to the discipline of
rhetoric and composition (just as Psychology 101 is an introduction),
generating knowledge that students can learn and on which they can be
tested and evaluated through their writing." This position is certainly at odds with Prince and Fish's arguments, both of whom seem ultimately to argue for a "back to basics" approach. Their main complaint about what they perceive as the r/c model of composition is that it seems to focus on a "politicized," cultural studies analysis of popular culture rather than whatever it "should" be.

Even with rhet/comp there seems to be some disagreement with Richardson's position, and even among those who might agree with Richardson, there are certainly differences of opinion over what an introduction to our field might include.

What I always say about this debate is the following. We have to remember that the vast majority of instructors in FYC courses have minimal knowledge of the field of rhet/comp. At best, I think you could say that the average rhet/comp instructor has taken one course in rhet/comp pedagogy at some point in his/her life. As such, it would be unfair to look into the typical FYC classroom, take note of the pedagogy, and associate that with the field. It would be more fair to say that the typical FYC instructor is either an adjunct with an MA in English (most likely in literature or creative writing) or a graduate student (again, most likely in literature). So I think it would be reasonable to say that whatever is going on pedagogically in their classrooms, good or bad, is largely a reflection of what they have learned about teaching writing from their experiences as students.

So teaching composition (as in the discipline of composition studies) in the composition classroom might actually be a novel thing at most institutions. Why would we want to do that? Well, you'd have to start with a couple of premises.

  1. Composition studies produces knowledge about how people learn to write.
  2. Teaching students what we know about how people write and learn to write will help them in reaching their goal of becoming better writers themselves.

I suppose either/both of these premises could be questioned. And certainly there are disagreements among compositionists about this knowledge and how to teach it best to students. But I would suppose that if one wholly disagreed with these statements then one wouldn't be in the field and perhaps would have a reason for saying composition shouldn't be the subject of composition. But let's face it, whoever takes on the job of teaching writing is going to need to study the task and will produce research about it. So the creation of a discourse and disciplinary practices is inevitable, at least if this business is conducted in an academic context.

My point is that as long as you have composition, something like composition studies is fairly likely to emerge. Of course the entirety of composition studies doesn't fit in a single course. And not all of the field's research would be appropriate for an introductory course (as might be said of an introduction to any discipline). Furthermore, no single course can prepare students specifically for the wide variety of particular writing tasks they might face later in college or elsewhere in their lives. Equally, no course in any field can ensure the performance of students in later courses. E.g., performance in an American history course will not ensure knowledge of history three years later.

However a course in composition, about composition, should give students the opportunity to understand, in an introductory way, rhetorical-analytical methods that offer some insight into writing/discourse practices (which would assist them in figuring out the particular discursive requirements of genres they encounter later… or at least help them realize such requirements might exist). Such a course might also give students means to understand their own writing practices and provide them with means to experiment with and develop their writing practice to suit their needs.


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