what is the topic of composition?

Here is the familiar double-bind of composition pedagogy. A composition course is, of course, intended to teach students about the writing process, which includes learning rhetorical principles and reading rhetorically (i.e with an eye toward the rhetorical/compositional strategies at work in a text). At the same time, the students' compositions must be about something. As such, composition courses often imagine themselves as having secondary subject matter (topics). As writing is rarely a favored topic of students or composition instructors (who generally are not rhetoricians either), that purportedly secondary material can come to dominant the time and focus of a composition class. Traditionally that material has been literature. You can still google composition syllabi and find many with schedules that indicate weekly readings of literary texts interspersed with a few writing assignments. Perhaps more common today are courses that make use of the many composition readers produced by textbook companies (or that have some DIY version of the same). Such courses may focus on a single theme (e.g. media images) or cover a variety of such themes. I have taught many such courses, typically around science and technology themes. My early teaching career parallelled the rise of cultural studies in composition, a shift that clearly subordinated the teaching of process to the teaching of critical-rhetorical methods. However, in more recent years I know that I have (and I believe the discipline has) come out of that view to focus once again on writing and composition practices rather than critical reading (though such matters will always need to be balanced). There are disciplinary-historical reasons for these shifts that I won't go into here except to say that I see these shifts as matching the maturation of rhet/comp doctoral programs.

So what do we do today?

For example, the second course in our sequence is focused primarily on writing a research paper. Obviously the research paper must have a topic. One option would be to allow students to research and write on a topic of their own choosing and thus focus the course entirely on the subject of rhetoric and library research practices. The other option is to offer some topic area for research, which requires introducing the topic with readings and discussion to some extent. But then one must ask "how does one define that topic?" and "to what extent should it become a focus of the course?" It is obvious and commonsensical that, as an instructor, one would begin answering the first question with identifying topics in which one has interest and expertise. (It doesn't make sense to try to teach something you know nothing about.) Given the way universities judge expertise, the obvious choice would be related to one's own research. In our program this would mean almost exclusively literary topics. But then, one also has to consider the interests and expertise of the students who will be writing the papers. Very few of them will have literary interests or experience. To ask students to write about literature would require teaching them some literary interpretive methods. Suddenly the topic also becomes the methodology and the possibility for addressing the actual goals of the course greatly diminish, which is what we see in the traditional, literature-oriented composition courses. However, what we should realize from our foray into considering literature as a topic is that it is not unique in causing these problems. All subjects/topics can introduce their own disciplinary methods and genres. In introducing literature into a course, you are introducing primary research material. Any such primary material whether it is an archeological artifact, a historical document, a group of students in a classroom, or a chemical substance points to a disciplinary method of analysis that is beyond the scope of the composition classroom. And as Warlde and Downs have argued, since disciplinary writing practices are really part of systems that include those primary materials, research methods, and the various object-networks that support that work, one can't really do that kind of writing either.

As such, the answer becomes fairly obvious. The topics in a composition course are its primary source material. They are akin to the dissected frog, or perhaps more closely, the dissected poem. One learns rhetorical-interpretive methods, and one learns about the rhetorical practices of a particular profession, genre, or issue, not unlike the way one learns literary interpretive methods and about the literary-cultural practices of a particular author, genre, or historical period in a literary studies class. The important difference is that literary analysis does not have as an objective identifying practices for the purpose of adopting them. For the most part, literary scholars do not aspire to write literature. On the other hand, rhetoricians are clearly practicing rhetorical arts. For this reason, in addition to this "rhetorical analysis," a composition course also teaches "compositional analysis." This is the analysis of compositional practices: the study of how texts are composed.  It's very difficult to do this with published material (short of doing extensive archival research beyond the scope of a composition course), but it is certainly possible to do this with one's own writing practices and those of one's classmates. One can learn about compositional practices in general (e.g. what successful writers say they do; what our research suggests is often effective), but one can also learn methods for analyzing one's own practices, which then opens opportuntities for intervening in that practice. In this way a composition class more closely resembles a class in the arts than the humanities: creative writing, painting, photography, etc.  

Now let me return to my original question. The topic of a course might therefore be like the poem in a literature course or the frog in a biology course. There is a reason to pick a poem rather than a novel or a frog rather than a fish. You study poems to learn about the anatomy of poetry and frogs to study the anatomy of amphibians; either way one learns some introductory principles of dissection. For the purposes of rhetorical analysis, one could identify important public-civic discourses to become acquainted with: scientific, political, economic, media/entertainment, news, educational, legal, technological, etc. So you pick an area and conduct rhetorical analysis within it. The rhetorical analysis of scientific discourse (e.g. climate change) no more aspires to teach one to be a climatologist than a poetry course aspires to teach people to be poets (or a biology class aspires to teach people to be frogs for that matter): it aspires to teach how one conducts rhetorical analysis and to teach something about what the rhetorical analysis of scientific analysis shows us (just as a poetry course aspires to teach us to study poems and to teach us what the literary study of poetry shows us).

So students should be practicing rhetorical analysis in their writing, but that doesn't predetermine the genre in which they might write. Yes, one option would be some introductory version of the academic articles written by rhetoricians: an analog of the way undergrad literary essays correspond to the articles written by literary critics. But rhetorical analysis happens in many genres: blog posts, newspaper editorials, policy memos, political speeches, legal briefs, etc. Really anywhere that one makes an argument and must address the arguments of others one is engaged in some rhetorical analysis. Now one can argue that without the entire object-network that supports such genres that one cannot really write in them. This is certainly as true for undergraduate attempts to write in the genre of an academic journal article as it is for them to write a newspaper editorial. As I see it, the exercise of writing in a different genre is about putting compositional analysis to work. It asks students to think about the rhetorical and compositional features and practices of a given genre and how they intersect with their own writing situation. 

I'm not teaching one of our research-driven composition courses next semester, but if I were, I would probably take up social media as a topic. It's obviously an area in which I have expertise, but it is also an area with which my students have familiarity. Furthermore it is a subject that is addressed widely in our culture by journalists, academic researchers, businesses, educators, politicians, etc. We could study and practice the rhetorics of social media themselves. We could study the rhetoric of some of these discourses by looking at social media scholarship, business reports on social media, and current media issues. Students might write in one or more of these genres. They would also write an analysis of their own compositional practices as they intersect with social media. Their culminating assignment would require them to do independent research into a particular area of social media that cited both academic and nonacademic sources and demonstrated a rhetorical analysis of these. The piece would either take the form of a kind of policy proposal or remain, more neutrally I suppose, in the realm of rhetorical analysis, making some interpretive claim about the rhetorical practices at work. The latter would be more akin to literary analysis. 

In the end, I would have to say that part of my course's success would depend on whether or not the students learned about social media in the way that biology students learn about frogs. That is, they would need to learn the rhetorical-disciplinary features of social media as they need to learn the biological-disciplinary features of frogs. So the topic is not irrelevant. As such, not any topic will do. Here are a couple questions I would ask about any topic I might select for study in such a course:

  • Do I as the instructor have some previous knowledge/expertise with it?
  • Do I believe the typical student at my institution would have some previous experience with it?
  • Can I identify at least one, but preferably multiple, academic disciplines that study it? (n.b. if your discipline is the only one, then your topic might be too narrow)
  • Does the topic have kairos? I.e., Is it a matter of current concern in the news media? (i.e. can you find feature articles and/or editorials from the last couple years on it?)
  • Is it addressed by businesses, politicians, educators, lawyers or some other professional sector? (i.e. how do people write about this in non-academic professions?)
  • Is the issue addressed in non-professional public-civic discourses? (i.e. Do people discuss this in social media? Are there political interest groups or movements?)

You should be able to answer yes to all of these questions. It's possible to have a workable topic without all positive responses, but it probably means that there are better topics out there. The intersection of the first two answers will almost certainly give you something viable and then answering the rest of the questions will help you figure out an appropriately generic way of describing the topic (as opposed to being caught only in one's own disciplinary rhetoric).

My final piece of advice to instructors (in what has turned out to be a very long post) is that I would resist topics where I strongly believed there was only one correct position to hold. Almost tautologically a course on rhetorical analysis will address a subject on which there is disagreement and thus persuasion is called for. Obviously many strongly political issues operate this way. For example, I have certain views on social media (as this blog indicates), but it would not be a problem for me if students adopted opposing views. I would not teach the course for the purpose of persuading students to adopt my view. This is the most salient way this approach differs from the cultural studies pedagogies of the 90s, which clearly viewed themselves as a political project. Some might suggest that to make one's class a political platform is unethical. Those who might undetake such pedagogies would not view it that way; they would suggest all classes are already political whether supporting the status quo or working against it. Maybe so. My view, 20 years into the cultural studies thing, is that such pedagogies are just ineffective at their own goals but also ineffective for the purposes of teaching rhetorical and compositional analysis. If you can't study the rhetorical and compositional practices of a corporate think tank white paper without immediately judging such a thing to be inherently evil, if you can't read scientific reports without immediately jumping into some knee-jerk humanistic critique of naive realism, then you can't really do the work of the course. Pick a topic where you can be more measured. After all, most composition students will end up in business or science or engineering, and many of our own colleagues are in such fields. It's a little pathetic how we will denounce large swathes of the campus and then expect them to come to our defense now in our hour of need, but that's a different matter. I guess my final piece of advice comes down to teaching a topic that won't distract you from the primary task of teaching the disciplianry practices of rhetorical and compositional analysis.

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