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.

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3 thoughts on “PAB #1.1: Where Did Composition Studies Come From? (1993)

  1. Pingback: ENGL 810 – PAB #2: Stitching Together Events: Of Joints, Folds, and Assemblages (20 | Matthew Bodie

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    • Amy, thanks for the response here. In our research, I have thought deeply about the fractured nature of the rhetoric and composition field, and your comment about ESL/Developmental Composition branching off from the cognitivst view is rather interesting. It is quite like the literary canon. When does one stop adding? How much further does one expand it? You can’t throw in everything but the kitchen sink, or it ceases to be what it is. Likewise, how far do we take rhetoric and composition–and that’s why the Octalog III article is so interesting–before it ceases to be what it is. I don’t feel expert enough to fully comment there, but both inclusion and identity are important in education (and life). I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, but I do think striking a balance between accepting everyone and keeping some sort of structured identity is difficult.

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