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.