Thoughts on the future of composition

The act of composing is difficult. Whether one is a noble-laureate or a distracted English 15 student rushing to meet a deadline, the image of the blank Word-document is an intimidating one. But it is on this tabula rasa that writers ply their craft (with various levels of success), and rhetoricians and compositionists have been trying to understand exactly how for thousands of years. In recent decades, as the field of composition has come into its own, notable scholars have articulated some important intellectual conceptualizations to better understand how good writing happens, and developed pedagogical recommendations on how we can instruct for better writers. In the following section I will present a quick reflection on the respective essays by Sharon Crowly and Linda Flower we have read for this class, and subsequently argue they point our key exigences for our field.

Sharon Crowley’s work on invention looks at the rhetorical tradition that undergrids composition pedagogy. A scholar of both composition and classical rhetoric, Crowley (1985) strongly criticizes “current-traditional rhetoric” for outlining the concept of invention, one of the five canons of classical rhetoric, into “neat formula for roping off a topic, stating a thesis, listing and developing (usually three) supporting ideas… [which] can only be described [as] a bizarre parody of serious discourse and the process by which it is produced” (p. 344). More so – and this is Crowly, in her own words, straight ranting – pedagogy developed out of such schemas do a serious disservice to our students because “ we are teaching students a writing process… which have nothing to do with either how writing gets done or with comtemporary thinking about the relation of language to thought.”

In their essay, Linda Flower and John R. Hayes study exactly how student “writing gets done” utilizing a protocol analysis method and come up with some significant findings. Comparing the writing process of novice and expert writings they identify patterns of difference between the two groups. The three main differences are: “1. Good writers respond to all [sic] aspects of the rhetorical problem… 2. [G]ood writers create a particularly rich network of goals for affecting their reader… [and] 3. Good writers represent the problem not only in more breadth, but in depth” (Flower & Hayes, 1980 pp. 475-476). They sum up the “2 x 4” of their study concluding. “good writers are simply solving a different problem than poor writers.”

Reading the two essays and their formulation of the actual writing practices (Flower & Hayes, 1980) as opposed to the way our textbooks schematize it into distinct steps (Crowley 1985) presents me a lot to think about as an aspiring compositionist and as someone committed to the act of writing. In no uncertain terms, I was immediately taken by Flower & Hayes (1980) conceptualizations of how expert writers compose: I could identify my own writing practices in them  (I am not saying I am en expert, but that I have had significant experience writing regularly in academic and non-academic spaces). Similar to their notion that writers continuously change the rhetorical problem they are operating within, I also know my writings and arguments in them continuously change – recursively – as my composition develops; sometimes this is because of audience consideration (i.e. if it is an academic piece then I think that I need a journal publication and they won’t accept something so polemical, or if it is a piece for a paper back home I might think the point I’m articulating is controversial for the Bangladeshi English-reading public) or simply because my understanding of the topic changes.

I also agree with Crowley (1985) that it is important for composition to remain relevant as an academic field by drawing from, conversing with, and “growing out of current rhetorical theory, logic, or psychology, as did [our] earlier works (p. 343). Rather than tying ourselves irredeemably into the “oldest discipline” I believe it is more important to develop our field in conversation to “contemporary thinking about the relation of language to thought.” The fact is our role as gatekeepers to higher education access makes us deeply functional in the politics of the university, and if we are not critically aware of current developments in other disciplines in the academy we will only corner ourselves a performing the role assigned to us by the deans (to “cool out the mark” as Irving Goffman would say) rather than deploy scholarship for creating the types of critical spaces needed to acculturate and empower our students as they enter universities.

The scholars talked about here have been extremely influential in the field and the work they initiated continues to be relevant even in this era of the post social-constructivist process. Written nearly twenty-years ago the issues and exigencies outlined in both pieces are just as applicable now as they were then. Composition as a field needs to develop its pedagogy out of a critical formulation of social and academic exigence (what are the needs of our time we can respond to and who can we align with in other fields to do this work) and out of the actual writing practices of our students. Anything short of that makes us no more than functionaries, which we must resist at-all-costs (that is the path to adjunctification), and makes for ineffective pedagogues.

References:

Crowley, S. (1985). The evolution of invention in current-traditional rhetoric: 1950-1970. In Susan Miller (Ed.) Norton Book of Composition Studies (pp. 119-128). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.  

Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1980). The cognition of discovery: Defining a rhetorical problem. In Susan Miller (Ed.) Norton Book of Composition Studies (pp. 119-128). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.  

 

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