PAB #2.2 “Transfer” from The End of Composition Studies

Smit, David W.  “Transfer.”  The End Of Composition Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. 119-134.  eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Smit’s book offers a look at several big questions within composition studies, and one that looms large and has received a great deal of attention in recent years is the question of transfer; that is, the ability for students to take what they have learned from one setting and apply it to another.

Smit is author of the book The End of Composition Studies and faculty at KSU.

Smit is author of the book The End of Composition Studies and faculty at KSU. Source: KSU

Smit proclaims that it is “radical” for composition studies to claim that they can effect transfer, and he goes on to proclaim boldly that in order to for instructors to promote transfer from one class or context to another, then they “are going to have to find the means to institutionalize instruction in the similarities between the way writing is done in a variety of contexts.”  In this chapter, Smit introduces one classic problem with transfer in writing instruction by borrowing from Russell’s analogy of the ball that essentially says that it is wrong-headed to think that if an individual learns how to kick a soccer ball, then s/he would know how to throw a football, too, despite both being balls and the central object of a sport. Likewise, just because students are provided general writing instruction, that does not mean they will be able to perform competent writing in all situations and contexts. Or to make it even more concrete, Smit’s example is that “[w]e cannot assume writers know how to put together an effective proposal to a city council just because they can write effective proposals to change an English department’s curriculum” (121).


Learning to kick a soccer ball is not the same as learning to throw a football, although both are balls. Likewise, general writing instruction does not necessarily transfer from one context to another. Source: Michael Pardo (Public Domain)

As a possible solution to the problem of transfer, Smit applies James Voss’ work, which “distinguishes between weak  and strong  problem-solving strategies” (122).  A weak problem-solving strategy is exemplified in a scenario where an instructor asks his novice students to write a series of essays all related to a job, from job satisfaction to a letter of recommendation. While performing many different types of writing, this, Smit says, still is a weak problem-solving strategy because they are too based on genre or context. Smit inquires about what will happen to the novice student when asked to write a research paper for history when previously exposed only to this vast-and-varied, context-based type of writing.  Smit concludes that such design doesn’t bode well; rather, he believes, even though some ideas of organization, process, style, and conventions might transfer, “[t]he novice writer’s problem is knowing under what circumstances these strategies may be strong, under what circumstances they can be applied directly with some degree of appropriateness” (124).

To prove his point, Smit provides an extensive discussion on case studies that study transfer among four university courses in business, history, psychology, and biology, wherein students were asked to write a variety of papers, evaluating or solving a problem.  The findings from the study show that students used similar ways–formulating theses and sub-points–to complete their assignments across the courses; and in the big picture, the studies’ authors found examples of “students transferring knowledge from one class to another and that in their writing for a particular class students often relied on examples of thinking and writing that they had learned elsewhere” (128-9). However, Smit also mentions the large number of examples containing difficulties in transfer that the study also cites.

Sadly, Smit’s view is rather pessimistic or skeptical about transfer, based on these studies. He writes, “[W]e cannot assume that writers will transfer the kinds of knowledge and skills they have learned previously to new writing tasks. Such transfer is unpredictable and depends to a great degree on the student’s background and experience, over which the instructor has little control” (130). Despite such warnings, Smit still gives these words of advice regarding instruction in the composition classroom: “[W]e must find ways to help novices see the similarities between what they already know and what they might apply from that previously learned knowledge to other writing tasks” (134). Seemingly, such advice means instructors should be more intentional not only about teaching particular genres or contexts but also making sure to teach students in what other ways they might apply the task.

After reading Smit, I began to think about my own course design and recent installment of a writing-in-the-disciplines approach to my first-year writing course.  In this course, students learn both genre and context, and that, of course, makes me pensive based on Smit’s findings here, but I do believe my course design might offer some redeeming qualities when it comes to transfer, for I attempted to create assignments, with the help of faculty in other disciplines, that they might actually do in other courses. I hope this method proves positive for transfer as my students move through their academic career.  Still, with such incertitude regarding this topic, and such institutional service often expected of composition studies, it is no wonder that transfer continues to be a major question in the field and the subject of journals, books, and courses.  I look forward to pondering this major question more in the future.

PAB #2.1 Process within Composition Studies

Olson, Gary.  “Toward a Post-Process Composition: Abandoning the Rhetoric of Assertion.”  Thomas Kent, ed. Post-process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. 7-15. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Now president of a liberal arts college in New York, Gary Olson’s work as a scholar of rhetoric and writing studies is well known. He has written or edited more than two dozen books and published over 50 articles.

Olson opens this chapter by describing the history of the process movement within teaching composition. He says, [W]riting is an ‘activity,’ an act that itself is composed of a variety of activities” (7).  He reels off what seem to be platitudes — or probably more to his point, Theories — about process within writing, ranging from discovery and invention to revision and peer review. He argues that, from a post-modern standpoint, process is limiting, not because authors (i.e., students) avoid writing in a manner that one might consider process (e.g., prewriting, drafting, and re-visioning), but because teachers of writing laud process as a system for all, creating a “Theory of Writing” that defies the anti-foundationalist approach that claims that local knowledge is all one can know.

As Olson states, “This [Theory of Writing] is what Thomas Kent and other post-process theorists mean when they complain that process scholars — despite whatever other ideological allegiances may inform their work — are attempting to systematize something that simply is not susceptible to systematization” (8).

Analyzing these arguments, then, Olson posits that process-oriented writing has historically forced writers to compose under a model that presupposes a “rhetoric of assertion,” and accordingly, he calls for readers to question this “time-honored value in composition” for its entrenchment in Western culture’s epistemology of writing.  Instead, Olson argues for a more dialogic, sophistic, exploratory form of writing.

Olson continues by examining the rhetoric of assertion from the standpoints of three post-modern theorists: Harding, Haraway, and Lyotard. Sandra Harding provides a feminist viewpoint, scrutinizing the masculine-centered nature of the rhetoric of science and its supposedly objective structure (which is not reality), calling for an “inclusiveness of alternative positionings” (10).


Olson references the works of Haraway, Lyotard, and Harding in discussing the rhetoric of assertion

Following Harding, Olson moves to Donna Haraway, popular for her theories on cyborg writing, who holds to the conception that writing is “authoritative, assertive, [and] phallogocentric . . . “ (12).  Haraway does not believe that writing cannot have authority, but she believes writing “must reveal how authority is implicated in discourse”  (12).  Olson posits that authority stems from the rhetoric of assertion.

Addressing the final theorist in his chapter, Olson discusses Jean-François Lyotard’s conception of writing, which “is in contradistinction to the traditional notion of writing as an activity whose objective is to ‘master’ a subject, to possess it, to pin it down through a discourse of assertion” (13).  Instead, Lyotard suggests an openness in writing.

Overall, Olson appeals for us to “move away from a discourse of mastery and assertion toward a more dialogic, dynamic, open-ended, receptive, nonassertive stance” (14). Additionally, he concludes that such theorizing about writing is much better than holding to a process-oriented system of writing, which looks to nail down and systematize the way one composes.


Olson’s chapter, here, addresses a major point of inquiry and debate within composition studies: process. Moreover, it serves as a good follow up — and a counterpoint of sorts — to one of our course readings by Fulkerson (2005), which identifies the writing process as so important that it tops the list of major bibliographies in composition in both 1980 and 2001. Just to quickly bring readers up to speed on Fulkerson’s view on process — at least as detailed in his 2005 article —  he concludes with Berlin, “Everyone teaches the process of writing, but everyone does not teach the same [italics original] process” (669). This conclusion only comes, however, as he picks apart Thomas Kent’s work on post-process theory, which is the same text from which Olson’s chapter, here, comes.  Fulkerson clearly does not see the value of post-process theory. As he remarks, “[T]here is no agreed-upon meaning for it; it may just be the latest way of showing yourself to be au courant” (669-70).

That preface aside, please allow me to reflect directly on Olson’s work on the rhetoric of assertion.  In this chapter, Olson does a fine job of problematizing process-oriented writing.  However, in typical post-modern fashion, the solutions are relatively abstract or thin.  While Olson asserts (ironic, no?) that writing should be dialogic, dynamic, and open-ended, he does not demonstrate what that type of writing looks like. He mentions in his notes work by Winterowd on exploratory writing, but his article also says that such a genre of writing still is expected to make a point or points (9), which he equates with the rhetoric of assertion.

So, I’m not fully sure what type of writing would fit the post-process mold Olson describes in his text (and to to even talk about a mold seems counter to his main point anyway); however, knowing Olson’s work rather intimately — I had the pleasure of having a course with him during my master’s  — I do recall one interesting trait in his own writing, particularly when he was editor of JAC, that we might consider as a good means for practicing an open, dialogic way of writing: the interview. Yes, Olson, as far as academics go, heavily uses the genre of interviews, more than I’ve seen with any other scholar, especially within rhetoric and composition studies.  On his own site, Olson actually refers to these types of back and forth conversations as interview essays, and while certainly this genre can have an agenda of sorts what with one having the ability to ask leading questions of the other, interviews do allow for a more transparent, natural form of writing, where diversions and interruptions can even be annotated, giving in to the openness that Lyotard recommends and the disabuse of authority that Haraway suggests.

Of course, while scholars and teachers of composition might be able to make a case for interviews as a genre to be embraced more largely — after all, they are largely underutilized in the first-year composition classroom — they have a rather long and difficult path in educating the academy.  Moreover, so much of writing and meaning-making in academics is done in isolation, despite the social constructionist view (which I don’t deny, but social impact in writing is often indirect), that creating these conversations would either require a stilted measure of invention, where writers recreate an interview based on readings they’ve made, or greater latitude in assignment distribution, where students are encouraged to engage and report these types of back-and-forths.

Obviously, I know that I am only discussing one possible genre of writing that might live up to Olson’s standard of non-assertive writing, but it seems the most viable. Other genres that might be considered are those teaching tools that Fulkerson (2005) labels under expressivistic axiologies:  reflective essays, journal writing, and dialogic collaborative conversations (see pg. 667).  Those, too, may be viable alternatives to the overly assertive essays to which we have grown accustomed for the past two millennia, but the danger, of course, in the expressivistic way of writing is that the text re-centers back on the writer, which if not careful, then leads to a self-absorbed nature that can over-assert itself in a wholly different fashion.

Olson’s points are certainly well taken about trying not to create a one-size-fits-all system of writing, and instead, placing greater intention on a more inclusive, open form of writing; however, the reality of the matter is that writing without some process will merely be viewed as inaccessible and inconvenient, especially in the academy, and assertion will likely never fully fade from existence. So, to paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli, we can prepare for the worst but still hope for the best.

Works Cited

Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication 56.4 (2005): 654-87. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.



Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication 56.4 (2005): 654-87. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

Although now ten years old, Fulkerson’s account of the field of composition is important here because he offers a look back not only at composition at the turn of the twenty-first century, but he also offers a comparative analysis based on his previous reflections of the field in the 1980s, and he attempts to offer some broad categorizations that prove helpful to understanding schools of thought within the field.   In this work, he argues that scholarship has “three alternative axiologies (theories of value): the newest one, ‘the social or ‘social construction’ view, which values critical cultural analysis; an expressive one; and a multifaceted rhetorical one” (655).

A notable item comparing twenty years within the discipline appears in the chart titled “Two Views of the Composition Landscape.”

Twenty years pass and process is still forefront in composition studies.

Twenty years pass and process is still forefront in composition studies. Source: Fulkerson  656

This chart illuminates the differences between two edited monographs published twenty-one years apart.   Donovan and McClelland’s 1980 text, Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition, appears in the first column, and Tate, Rupiper, and Schick’s 2001 text, A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, appears in the second column.  Fulkerson mentions how process—and not product—within composition studies was “a relatively new idea in 1980” (656) and although not fleshed out as fully with “prose models” (657), the 2001 text still leads off with process as well.   Fulkerson contends that [a]ll composition perspectives assume some view of the writing process; that is, any concept of composing and/or teaching composition must presuppose an answer to ‘How are texts produced?’” (658).  As Fulkerson suggests here, the process of text production remains a major question within the field, and regarding such inquiry, this article discusses process within the three perspectives—critical/cultural studies, expressivist composition, and procedural rhetoric—within writing studies scholarship.

On those three perspectives, Fulkerson elaborates throughout his article while touching on other important areas of classifying and thinking about composition (e.g., evaluative theory and epistemology) to which I will save treatment for another time. Rather, the question of process is so central to composition that it could and has taken up tomes, but Fulkerson’s synthesis and comparisons are advantageous, so with that in mind, I turn here to his look at process within critical/cultural studies.  Regarding this perspective, Fulkerson says, “[T]here is no agreed-on view of writing as a process.”  Instead, those focusing on teaching critical/cultural studies, constructed mostly on “interpretation” (660), may include “heuristic questions”; encourage multiple drafts and peer reviews;  assign reflective portfolio; and restrict “prewriting/invention to ‘reading’ and to class or small-group discussion” (661).  Fulkerson is somewhat harsh with this perspective and concludes that this type of process, especially with such restrictions, might be “[j]ust what one might expect in a course in a different department” (661). This barb precedes his discussion from various scholars on how critical/cultural studies may not necessarily be an appropriate field of inquiry for composition studies, as it does not necessarily improve writing.

Moving deeper into his essay, Fulkerson discusses the process of contemporary expressivist composition.  He quotes Burnham, and from him, I will also borrow here to provide the goals associated with the process behind an expressivist pedagogy. They include “freewriting, journal keeping, reflective writing, and small group dialogic collaborative response to foster a writer’s aesthetic, cognitive, and moral development” (qtd. in Fulkerson 667).  While following Burnham’s definition, Fulkerson comments on how the goal is not to improve written communication, but later in his discussion of process and post-process, he avows that “[t]hose who are committed to an expressive axiology nowadays do generally teach an extended writing process, a process of invention and discovery.” Likewise, he admits that those committed to critical/cultural studies do the same (669).

Speaking of the post-process perspective, which is a detour in his article, Fulkerson’s treatment of this axiology is enlightening, for he explains that post process doesn’t mean that instructors don’t teach process; rather, he says that one meaning of post-process is that “we no longer do research in to writing processes,” which he doesn’t necessarily see as progress but does deem as accurate (670). Moreover, Fulkerson quotes from Kent who wishes to replace formulaic writing with “hermeneutic guesswork” (670), and finally concerning post-process, Fulkerson says this school of thought tends to rail against a “romanticized view of the isolated writer seeking inspiration and striving to make personal meaning alone . . . “ (670).  Fulkerson repudiates Kent’s and the romanticized views of process.

Getting back on track with the three perspectives he set out to discuss, Fulkerson moves to procedural rhetoric. In this perspective, he defines the writing process as “a complex extended set of (teachable) activities in which a wide variety of invention procedures may be valuable [along with] an equal variety of drafting and revision activities” (671).  This section also includes a lengthy and interesting discussion on argumentation, which is at the heart of most rhetoric, and how it undergirds almost all of composition, including critical/cultural studies and, to some degree, expressivist composition.

So, where does all of this comparative analysis and taxonomizing of sorts lead those who teach composition?  Do we assign ourselves to a certain box and stay in it?  Fulkerson is clear about how one perspective bleeds over into another, and I would agree with him.  I know in my own teaching, for instance, I will use critical/cultural studies approach to have students interpret the deeper meaning, say, behind an image, song, architecture, or other cultural artifact.  In such an endeavor, of course, I will use process, moving them from brainstorming to draft and revisions.  Sometimes, I skip outlining (not my favorite thing). Other times, we reflect on the process in the end.

Overall, I can’t help but think that perspective, axiology, pedagogy, etc., when executed, oftentimes becomes a hodge-podge of different theories and ideas, maybe sometimes contingent on the rhetorical situation and perhaps other times hinging on a well-thought out plan.

Paper #1: A Weasel, A Whale, and A Watershed Conference: The History of Rhetoric & Composition

Although initially separate in both their historical and pedagogical nature, rhetoric and composition found a commingling in the twentieth century, leading to the creation of a sub-discipline within English Studies that has gained strength especially over the past fifty years within the university setting.

FDR signing GI Bill - 1944

The GI Bill encouraged veterans to go to college, which in turn, led to English Studies’ focus on writing. Source: FDR Library

Whereas, over the centuries, literary studies predominated the greater part of English studies, leading to countless positions on critiquing literature, from the works of Horace to Harold Bloom, the post-World War II generation saw an emergence of American scholars “disillusioned by humanistic values ability to save the world,” who sought to educate the middle class, especially as the GI Bill offered to pay veteran men and women to attend colleges and universities (McComiskey 24).  These scholars, according to Connors in his Writing The History of Our Discipline, realized that this new class of degree-seeking individuals brought new ideas and expectations to the English classroom, resulting in professors embracing the once departmentally marginalized composition studies and unwavering in their determination to “study composition, analyze it, and try to do it as best it could be done” (qtd. in McComiskey 25).

Lauer’s narrative regarding the particulars of combining rhetoric with composition studies indicates that interest in returning rhetoric’s connection to writing in the 1960s came out of the founding of the interdisciplinary Rhetoric Society of America and the organization’s discussion about rhetoric’s connection to composition among some of its members, such as Edward Corbett, Ross Winterowd, Richard Young, Janice Lauer, and Richard Larson (McComiskey 109). Additionally, she highlights Robert Gorrell’s meeting with like-minded educators at the 1964 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) to discuss the “new interest in rhetoric and its linkage with composition” (McComiskey 108).

Bob Gorrell, Author of

University of Nevada Professor Bob Gorrell described rhetoric as both a weasel and a whale in his 1965 article. Source: University of Nevada Libraries

To demonstrate the determination of the CCCC’s group on this subject, a look at Gorrell’s account of the conference meeting, found in his 1965 article “Very Like a Whale—A Report on Rhetoric,” describes rhetoric as a “weasel” since the group meeting at the CCCC found it difficult to nail down a firm definition—it is, after all, at once both a “theory of communication” and a “body of precepts and advise” (140)—but he concludes that although full of blubber, rhetoric is solid, “very like a whale,” and  “deserves more emphasis in the training of teachers . . . [and] that graduate students should have work in rhetorical theory as well as practice in writing” (143).  Lauer expands on this “watershed event” regarding rhetoric and composition’s new found marriage, commenting on the involved scholar’s goals to reconnect rhetoric’s ancient roots to composition studies. That is, she writes, they aimed to teach students to apply ethos, pathos, topics, and status within discovering rhetorical situations; employ “informal enthymemes and examples” in lieu of syllogisms; and understand kairos (McComiskey 108).

Seemingly, after the growing initiative in the 1960s to infuse rhetoric into composition studies, scholarship burgeoned in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, giving rise to rhetoric and composition as a formal discipline within the university, including degree programs at University of Michigan and courses at Ohio State, followed by doctoral programs in the late 1970s at the University of South California, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and University of Louisville (McComiskey 110). Nystrand and colleagues detail this rise of the discipline, discussing the field’s co-opting of cognitivism and constructivism in the late 1960s through the early 1980s.  The works of Moffett, Britton, Emig, Flower, HayesFish, and Chomsky proved hallmarks for the constructivist view, which situates writing and reading as “dynamic processes of constructing meaning”; orders language and “gives shape and thus meaning to experience”; and validates “the role of mind in shaping human experience” (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 285).

Then, in the 1980s, social constructionism influenced rhetoric and composition through the work of linguists William Labov, Dell Hymes, and John Searle.  Following suit, composition research from the likes of Shaughnessy, Bruffee, Bizzell, and Bartholomae enlightened this social constructionist epistemology within rhetoric and composition, and terms and ideas, such as writing as social act, writing across the curriculum, and discourse communities, became popular (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 285).

In the 1990s, theory in rhetoric and composition shifted from structuralism to post-structuralism. Dialogism, rooted in the work of Bakhtin, gained strong footing with scholars in the field, focusing on how “meaning of any utterance is always relative to other utterances” in a dialog of sorts (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 296).

Bakhtin's dialogism

Bakhtin’s dialogism influenced post-structuralism in rhetoric and composition. Source: Amazon

Important theorists, such as Barthes, Brodkey, Derrida, and Foucault  “come out of this wave of thought and argue that knowledge and meaning are socially constructed, context dependent, political and historical—and therefore unstable, partial and multiple” (Nystrand, Greene, and Wiemelt 300).

The post-structuralist movement, running parallel with postmodernism, also produced the theory of post-process within rhetoric and composition.   About this theory, Breuch writes that the “dominant contention of post-process scholars is that process has come to represent Theory with a capital ‘T'” (119), and, therefore, in a good postmodernist view, which denies absolutes, process in writing, then, becomes a meta-narrative of sorts.

To reflect on this theory, post-process does seems rather unmanageable, especially in relation to first-year composition in a community college setting.  Honestly, as I have examined the various schools of thought that make up the history of rhetoric and composition as an academic discipline, I cannot help but to (sadly) think that I am, in the classroom, often caught in that current-traditional model, that prescriptive mode of the five-paragraph theme, where pulling together paragraphs and catching catachresis can end up being the lesson or assessment of the day. Strangely, I am not necessarily a current traditionalist by choice, but it seems to be where the students need me to be.

Certainly, I teach that writing is messy, non-linear, and often un-formulaic, but by the same token, I often teach first-year college students the basic process of exploring the topic, pre-writing, drafting, and revising and editing.

Process still seems an important part of first-year composition.

Process still seems an important part of first-year composition. Source: Author’s

In fact, I just finished developing a Quality Matters course for first-year composition (that many faculty will be required to use), and that process is exactly how each unit is set up. Does this make me an educator that’s out of touch with the current trends in the field?  I mean; that’s not honestly how I approach writing myself, and my personal worldview has a postmodern lilt to it. So, who exactly is the audience for this post-process, post-structural, postmodern way of teaching? Is it for the bourgeois intellectuals who are post-everything? Or could it be that, ironically, even good rhetoricians do not always know their audience, or at least they do not fully state it?

All that said, I continue to ponder my pedagogy and theories of approaching rhetoric and composition, and, like Gorrell’s weasel, it sometimes eludes me. Likewise, like his whale, I find the discipline’s epistemology often solid but sometimes full of blubber.  Now, if I could just fit a wallaby in there somewhere to keep with the alliterative animal metaphors.

Works Cited

Breuch, Lee-Ann M Kastman. Post Process ‘ Pedagogy’: A Philosophical Exercise.” jac 22.1 (2002): 119-150. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

Gorell, Robert. “Very Like A Whale–A Report on Rhetoric.” College Communication and Composition 16.3 (1965): 138-43.   Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

McComiskey, Bruce. English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Urbana, Ill: National Council of Teachers of     English, 2006. Print.

Nystrand, Martin, Stuart Greene, and Jeffrey Wiemelt. “Where Did Composition Studies Come From? An Intellectual   History.”Written Communication 10.3 (1993): 267-333. ERIC. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.

PAB #1.2: Stitching Together Events: Of Joints, Folds, and Assemblages

Hawk, Byron.  “Stitching Together Events: Of Joints, Folds, and Assemblages.”  Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric. Ed. Michelle Ballif.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.  106-127. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 7 Sept. 2015.

Hawk’s text, here, is a chapter from the book Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric. It speaks more to the nature of writing a history within rhetoric and composition than the history of the field itself. Hawk opens his chapter by speaking about traditional historiography within the field, the desire to go back to the archives and either recite from those facts found there or to build a revisionary history with regards to finding another text or another author, previously given little regard. With this in mind, and reflecting on Sande Cohen’s work History Out of Joint, Hawk arrives at the notion that “history is an assemblage of events grounded in methods of finding, selecting, evaluating, and reassembling events judged from current rhetorical needs” (107).  Or, in short, history is rhetorically situated. Hawk gives more power to this idea with the perspective of Hans Kellner, who argues that new historiographies require “’getting the story crooked,’ looking into the various strands of meaning in text in such a way as to make the categories, trends, and reliable identities of history a little less inevitable” (109).

As a whole, Hawk’s work here hinges on complexity theory and blends the arts and sciences, particularly music and biology.  He discusses Borgo’s work on insect behaviors and their connection to improvisational jazz (e.g., performance and sound), outlining “the patterns of self-organization that operate within historical events: degrees of freedom (assemblages), strange attractors (joints), feedback (folds), and bifurcations (lines of flight).”   Hawk also calls on and applies the work of Steven Johnson (i.e., Emergence), who argues that the “’great man approach’ [i.e., a single thinker whose discovery changes history] to history and the ‘paradigm shift’ model are insufficient for conceptualizing and mapping the historical emergence of ideas” (119).  Instead, Johnson uses the entomological pheromone trail as a metaphor for memory, saying “. . . plug more minds into the system and give their work a longer more durable trail—by publishing their ideas in best-selling books, or founding research centers to explore those ideas—and before long the system arrives at a phase transition . . . “ (120).

Using Johnson’s historical model and Borgo’s method, Hawk sketches out how one would create a networked historiography on communication and composition, based on complexity and improvisation.  He sections the historiography by Borgo’s categories: freedom, attractors, feedback, and bifurcation.  As a result, he concludes that this method breaks with “the simple or causal chains of narration and story” (124) often deployed when writing about history.  Instead, the method offers a “collective, improvised, material performance of history itself and of writing history” (124).

The theme of improvisation runs throughout Hawk’s work. In this video, he connects gesture ecologies to improvisational sound art and all composition.

While intricately metaphorical and intelligently playful, Hawk’s work, here, does not offer the straightforwardness of other histories regarding schools of thought within the history of composition studies—I am thinking here of Nystrand and colleagues’ article on constructivism, social constructionism, and dialogism discussed in my previous post—however, Hawk’s great contribution here is not the content regarding the history of composition studies but the form he details. This meta-communication (and metaphorical communication) regarding the networking of history and the complexifying of theory speak to the age: its connections, intersections, and divergences.  Or to put it another way, Hawk and the authors whom he references indicate how ideas overlap, ambiguities abound, and co-evolution endures. These are the crooked stories of our time; the strands we reassemble as needed; the systems that fail to be singularly categorized.  Within composition studies, many may attach themselves to more than just one history and will therefore create more complex futures and subsequently more interconnected theory and praxis (e.g., post-structuralism does not totally throw out the idea of social construction; it builds off it). These complexities–these interconnections–certainly have been with us for decades, but Hawk gives depth to them and offers a new reading and writing about historical texts and rhetorical futures. This is the power and the allure of his work.

By the way, comparatively speaking, I could not help but think about the relationship between Hawk’s metaphors of trails and networks and Phelps’ mapping metaphor used in her “Practical Wisdom and Geography of Knowledge” (1991) article. In a bit of a twist, Hawk aims to (inter)connect multiple theories to divergent histories, while Phelps aims to (inter)connect multiple histories to divergent theories. Both have this notion of practice and/or performance, however, leading us back to theory and history in a recurring loop.

PAB #1.1: Where Did Composition Studies Come From? (1993)

Nystrand, Martin, Stuart Greene, and Jeffrey Wiemelt. “Where Did Composition Studies Come From? An Intellectual History.” Written Communication 10.3 (1993): 267-333. ERIC. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.

Published in 1993, Nystrand et al. offer a lengthy (about 50 pages) yet historically synthesized article about composition studies’ rise as a recognized scholarly discipline in the 1970s, and they trace its evolving schools of thought until the early 1990s.  The authors define the field’s roots in the formalism of the mid-1940-1960s, which focused on prescriptive models, such as the five-paragraph theme of the 1950s and the works of Warriner and Strunk and White as well as the “public and objective” truth of New Criticism in literature studies (275-76).  In the formalist’s mind, texts were viewed as “autonomous units of meaning coded with their own contextually independent internal structures” (277).

The second chunk of decades the authors discuss include the late 1960s through the early 1980s, in which we not only see the rise of composition as a formal discipline, but we also observe the popularity of cognitivism and constructivism through the works of Moffett, Britton, Emig, Flower, Hayes, Fish, and Chomsky.  The constructivist view situates writing and reading as “dynamic processes of constructing meaning”; orders language and “gives shape and thus meaning to experience”; and validates “the role of mind in shaping human experience” (285).

The 1980s, according to the authors, gave rise to social constructionism and continuation of structuralism within composition studies, transforming “univocal conceptions of language and meaning into a pluralist semiotic . . . “ (286).  Ideas and terms such as writing as social act, writing across the curriculum, and discourse communities stem from social constructionism. Moreover, the work of linguists William Labov as related to Black/African-American communities’ use of non-standard English, Dell Hymes’ use of the term speech community, and Searles’ discourse analysis all influenced the swell of social constructionism.  Likewise, composition research from the likes of Shaughnessy, Bruffee, Bizzell, and Bartholomae undergird the movement. Literary theorists, such as Stanley Fish, whose work spans generations and influences various schools of thought, also contributed to social constructionism with his notion of “interpretive communities.”  Altogether, structuralism, found both in cognitivism and social constructionism, avows that “human behavior and institutions can be explained only by elucidating the mediating structure of an underlying abstract system” (292).

The final school of thought to which the authors turn is dialogism, rooted in the work of Bakhtin, which offers these words: “The utterance is a social phenomenon . . . the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addresser and addressee”  (qtd. in 294).  Dialogism counters structuralism, and the text, then, becomes a dialogue of sorts, where “meaning of any utterance is always relative to other utterances” (296).  Often referred to as poststructuralists, important theorists, such as Barthes, Brodkey, Derrida, and Foucault “ come out of this wave of thought and argue that knowledge and meaning are socially constructed, context dependent, political and historical—and therefore unstable, partial and multiple” (300).

Overall, Nystrand and his fellow authors synthesize about fifty years of intellectual history within composition studies, leading the reader to the central points of  the main schools of thought that have impacted composition studies (and still do) from the 1940s-1990s: formalism, structuralism, and dialogism.  The unique nature of this article is its ability to summarize each section with bullet points.  Additionally, it offers a useful table that provides critical contrasts among formalism, constructivism, social constructionism, and dialogism.

Comparatively speaking, this article provides a summative history of composition studies that takes into consideration work across the discipline of English Studies, including literature, writing, and linguistics, speaking more to what the subfields have in common than what they do not. McComiskey’s text on the discipline as a whole leads readers to observe more of a fractured nature of the discipline and proposes an alarmist view of sorts.  Nystrand, et al., on the other hand, speak to a more cohesive nature of English Studies, and to be frank, offer a more agreeable (and readable) tone.