Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

composition and/of the philosophical concept

Of course we are all familiar with the story since Plato of the divide between philosophy and rhetoric. But I have to say that composition is a discipline that loves to ask philosophical questions of itself. Why does composition exist? What is its purpose? What makes for good writing/teaching/etc? To say nothing of the many ethical and political philosophical questions we ask of ourselves from adjunct hiring practices to preparing students to be good citizens.

That said, composition has never thought of its pedagogical task as philosophical in the conventional sense of making/teaching constative truth statements about writing (though our turns through cognitive and social science represent our scholarly forays into the constative). Instead, we have operated more in the area of performance and pragmatics. Unfortunately we have run afoul of the problem of the relation between the particular and the general. As we have seen in discussions not to be rehashed here, we have come to doubt the general value of the particular writing performances we have our students practice. The traditional notion of teaching students an understanding of particular writing skills that are then generalizable to future writing situations doesn't seem to hold. 

So while there's no doubt that, in composition, students can learn particular writing skills, discuss and write about important topics that interest them, and generally have a positive learning experience, the question of how this connects with future writing practices remains. Last night in my grad class, I was making the following observation. In the typical composition class, 10-20% (2-4 students) will walk in the door as demonstrably better writers than the others. At the end of the semester, they will leave the same way. I don't believe that composition classes can transform the long-term writing ability of students in any substantive or predictable way. And honestly, I think that's an unfair demand. What other course has to answer demands like that? After all, we are talking about a practice here and how our students practice writing once they leave composition cannot be our responsibility. 

Still, that observation evoked a strong reaction in the class. I know that in composition we like to tell stories of pedagogic transformation and link our teaching to narratives of citizenship and political empowerment.  But if we can set aside this predilection, can we be satisfied with the more modest goal of having students write some things and learn some things about writing that may or may not help them down the road. Do we really think that other gen ed courses offer more?

I don't.

As such, I was thinking about composition as philosophy… not in the Platonic, constative sense but in the monstrous Deleuzian sense. Deleuze and Guattari write (in What is Philosophy?) that "it does no credit to philosophy for it to present itself as a new Athens by falling back on Universals of communication that would provide rules for an imaginary mastery of the markets and the media (intersubjective idealism). Every creation is singular, and the concept as a specifically philosophical creation is always a singularity. The first principle of philosophy is that Universals explain nothing but must themselves be explained." A few pages later, they write

post-Kantians concentrated on a universal encyclopedia of the concept
that attributed concept creation to a pure subjectivity rather than
taking on the more modest task of a pedagogy of the concept, which

would have to analyze the conditions of creation as factors of always
singular moments. If the three ages of the concept are the encyclopedia,
pedagogy, and commercial professional training, only the second
can safeguard us from falling from the heights of the first into the
disaster of the third-an absolute disaster for thought whatever its
benefits might be, of course, from the viewpoint of universal capitalism.

So here is where I see composition, as a pedagogy of the concept. I'm not going to claim that what I have in mind is what they had in mind. However, I do believe composition must stand between the will for universal communication on the one hand and the concept as a PR/marketing tool on the other. When Dan Pink talks about the arriving "conceptual age" in A Whole New Mind, I fear he means the latter. I prefer, like Deleuze and Guattari, to view the concept as singular… not as a particular linked to a generality, but as a singularity.

Of course composition is decidedly not that. It is mostly a desire for constative, encyclopedic knowledge, represented by the ubiquitous handbook. When it is not, it tends to slide quickly to the other pole, where writing instruction becomes professional training. This is not to say that composition is a philosophy course, a place where the discipline or content of philosophy is taught. This is not a post about what one says or does in the classroom as a composition instructor. Sure, D/G say that "composition is the sole definition of art," but by this they mean strictly aesthetic composition, compositions of sensation. Our compositions are certainly about invention and communication but not in the aesthetic sense, rather in the singular, conceptual sense. 

Composition is not about learning particular concepts so much as inventing singular concepts that fuel thought and writing. Those concepts ultimately fold back on those basic philosophical questions I raised earlier. Not so that we can answer them finally or so that we can demonstrate value in training writers as future professionals and/or citizens. To close this off in a dense fog of theory speak, composition operates in this way because it can only be the impossible arrival of the event of writing; impossible in the sense that, in its singularity, it cannot result from thought-out possibilities but only virtual potentialities.