PAB & Paper #1

Finding a Disciplinary Center (PAB #1)

writing definition entry
Writing Studies, Composition Studies, or Rhetoric-Composition. We have at least one thing in common, a central focus on writing.

Writing Studies (or, popularly termed Rhetoric-Composition or maybe even Composition Studies) is the sub-discipline of English Studies that I most identify with. I contend that these terms (for the purposes of this paper) are synonymous in that they share several common conferences (Conference on College Composition and Communication, Conference for Writing Program Administrators, among many others) and common journals (Research in the Teaching of English and College Composition and Communication, among many others). While the separate names matter in that they nuance separate emphases, I’m choosing to explore their history in unison.

Like so many others, I began my English Studies journey via literature. I intended to study Early American Realism and Naturalism (Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and Frank Norton) throughout my career, but only realized in the last year of my graduate work that another possibility existed: rhetoric and composition. My graduate mentor, Dr. VandeWeghe, taught a course meant to bridge the gap between literature and composition through Rosenblatt’s notion of efferent vs. aesthetic reading and by Week 16, I’d decided to switch my academic focus. Since then, I’ve sought to understand this world I plunged into and, even 17 years later, I’m struck by how capriciously the lines around and within the discipline are drawn.

Rhetoric is the most firmly established discipline within the university (if we look deep into the looking glass, well before the modern university) that we have, in some ways, but I won’t concern myself with ancient rhetorics and the trivium in this short paper. Rather, I’d prefer to look at the palimpsest that Rhet-Comp/Writing Studies is today. Many trace the birth of modern Rhet-Comp/Writing or Composition Studies to 1963 (a major source for this date is Connors) with the revival of rhetoric as a renewed force supporting composition as a discipline (this date marks a surgence of papers delivered by Wayne Booth, Francis Christensen, Edward P.J. Corbett). That’s a good year to start with for other reasons, too, since 1963 is when the Rhetoric Society began and several new journals that glued Rhetoric-Composition together as a discipline were founded.

The premiere universities that kept this discipline afloat, even in years when the future was tenuous, include University of Michigan. Initial programs in Rhetoric-Composition were run by Fred Newton Scott who had fought over the content of Freshman English at Harvard with Adam Hunt. Harvard settled the issue and crowned literature supreme while Scott founded the first Composition department. Otherwise, because I’m not so sure that institutional support has ever been the norm for this sub-field, I’d say it’s the scholars (who were housed at particular universities) that constructed the sub-discipline for the rest of us: Janet Emig, Lisa Ede, Louise Phelps, James Berlin, Russ Winterowd, etc… Universities have been historically resistant to the sub-discipline of Writing/Composition Studies/Rhetoric-Composition. Some attribute this resistance to the high focus on pedagogy (considered lower-tiered work by many other disciplines) and the focus on FYC (First Year Composition) as an object of study (deemed the dirty work of pre-tenure or, more often, NTT faculty on at-will contracts). Even when the scholarship began to emerge, the field has been met with suspicion over its methodologies (maybe because there are so many) and its interdisciplinarity (Lauer) and possibly because of its lack of clear boundaries (McComiskey).

The exigencies, in many ways, were political (as so many are) and followed the money trails. The popular media’s perpetual creation of exigence to “do something” about illiteracy started as early as 1864 with Alford’s The Queen’s English that propelled Screenshot 2017-09-12 17.40.10growing paranoia about proper usage (this book apparently scolded American’s poor usage) and 1879 when Harvard’s Adam S. Hill, after reviewing entrance exam essays, scolded many applicants for making “blunders [in correct usage] that would disgrace a boy twelve years old” (quoted in Connors, 89). These crises help foster the first freshman English course in 1884 at Harvard.  Articles like why-johnny-cant-writeNewsweek’s “Johnny Can’t Write” helped sustained the pressure to devote some time and financial impetus on freshman writing and this pressure was exacerbated by volumes of incoming students via the GI Bill in the 40s and Open Admission policies of the late 60s— all presumably bringing students who weren’t from elite preparatory schools.

Prior and Lunsford’s “History of Reflection, Theory, and Research on Writing” is a self-proclaimed “prolegomenon to a history of writing studies” (82). Mostly, I just like saying prolegomenon, but also this history matters because, unlike Connors’ master narrative, Prior and Lunsford claim to be more inclusive, more global and more interdisciplinary, tracing writing to antiquity (with, for example, early visual inscriptions) and across borders (noting, for example, the Hindu focus on orality over the written word or translation studies debates over reproducing certain Jewish dialects). I also appreciate the nod to my own research inquiry alluded to in their text: research is looking at writing in terms of social and personal identity-making and coming to terms with the fact “that texts and writing are fundamentally multimodal” (92).

I’m afraid the relationship of the field to the university shifts as widely as salary ranges for faculty across any given campus, though what I see is a sub-discipline fighting to make itself known as more than service to other disciplines, as bigger than grammar and sentence structures and citations. The battle rages on and the fights happen at every turn, from the Chair of the Engineering department storming in and demanding to know what we’re teaching those students who can’t seem to write a sentence in his upper-division courses to the administration who insist on quantifiable results tied to outcomes that are larger than life, much less the laments from students in an increasingly market-driven attitude toward education who wonder how they’ll ever possibly use a literature review in their job as a musician. As a scholar of Writing/Composition Studies (or Rhetoric-Composition), I’m battling nearly every day for the right to teach what I believe matters most.

Screenshot 2017-09-19 09.15.49
This KnightLab timeline developed to mark the major transitions in the field of Rhetoric-Composition, from 1910-present.

Works Cited

Connors, Robert J. “Crisis and Panacea in Composition Studies: A History.” Composition in Context: Essays in Honor of Donald C. Stewart. Eds. Ross W. Winterowd and Vincent Gillespie. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. 86-109.

Lauer, Janice. “Composition Studies: Dappled Discipline.” Rhetoric Review 3 (1), 1984, 20-29.

McComiskey, Bruce. English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). National Council of Teachers of English, 1998.

Prior, Paul A. and Lunsford, Karen J. “History of Reflection, Theory, and Research on Writing.” Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. Ed. Charles Bazerman. Routledge, 2013, 81-96.


Source 1: Connors, Robert J. “Crisis and Panacea in Composition Studies: A History.” Composition in Context: Essays in Honor of Donald C. Stewart. Eds. Ross W. Winterowd and Vincent Gillespie. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1994, 86-109.

Screenshot 2017-09-12 17.49.26
This is an image of the first page of Connors’ article.

My search through the literature begins with a source that is considered a staple of the  master narrative in Rhetoric-Composition. I’ve heard Connors references multiple times, but needed to read his words directly to better understand where the field has been. While Connor’s uses the term Composition Studies, I believe he is referring broadly to what we have come to term Writing Studies or Rhetoric-Composition (I alone assert these as as synonyms, not Connors) in his “Crisis and Panacea in Composition Studies: A History”– filled with information to help illustrate the progression– from the origin of the field, through its many iterations, to today. This progression, according to Connors, is best characterized as a series of crises and panaceas.

Connors says the history of our scholarship has two primary emphases: (1) story of crisis (cultural and professional), and (2) a series of enthusiasms and the pedagogies that grow from that enthusiasm. Thus, the title: crisis and panacea. While Connors offers many examples, a few that resonated for me include: the Henry Alford and Adam S. Hunt texts that call out rampant illiteracy as a cultural crisis and the consequent panacea of freshman English courses introduced at Harvard.

Screenshot 2017-09-12 17.40.10
Henry Alford’s reproach of literacy skills, especially in the United States.

Another example is the crisis of the 60’s when Rhetoric-Composition was at the height of its struggle to become a recognized discipline and the panaceas of professional conferences like the Dartmouth Conference of 1968 and the re-emergence of rhetoric to anchor scholarship and pedagogy of the field with the historically significant trivium.

Connors sees the contemporary call and response (crisis and panacea) as moving further and further from pedagogical roots as he notes that the scholarly world deals more with “philosophical or interpretive  issues than with quotidian problems  of teaching writing” (102). So, composition scholars are in a great position, while composition practitioners are still plagued with all the same old problems we’ve seen all along.

Connors also seeks to examine the meliorism inherent in early scholarship in this field in order to better understand our current positions. So much of this field’s early scholarship concerns itself with the conditions provided to the scholars themselves that we find ourselves assuming (maybe erroneously) that we can improve those conditions by writing about them extensively. We’re still, in fact, highly melioristic. We believe that what we research, theorize, and teach will result in a better world (102). For many of us, the meliorism is the attraction to the profession. Without that belief that we were making progress in some small way, many might opt for alternative careers.

One key line from Connors’ piece is this: “only by understanding the future by the light of the past will we escape the bondage to temporary excitements that has made too many of our crises a e the bondage to temporary excitements that has made too many of our crises and panaceas into profitless exercises on the stage of a misunderstood present” (103). The crisis and panacea has kept us moving as a field. In looking at our field’s history this way, we are better prepared to see any new crisis/panacea in light of those that came before (103).




For more information of Connors’ scholarship and life, see Sullivan’s “In Memoriam.”

Source 2: Prior, Paul A. and Lunsford, Karen J. “History of Reflection, Theory, and Research on Writing.” Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. Ed. Charles Bazerman. Routledge, 2013, 81-96.

This image depicts the first page of Prior and Lunsford’s text.

Paul Prior and Karen Lunsford look to diversify the already-prolific histories of the field, claiming to be more inclusive, more global, and more interdisciplinary.  They see writing research as a more unified discipline, less narrow in scope, for the future. Their article “History of Reflection, Theory and Research on Writing” is a self-proclaimed “prolegomenon to a history of writing studies” (82). To account for the widespread approach taken by Prior and Lunsford, I’ve broken this entry into sections to help maintain the original organizational scheme of the article in order to capture its far-reaching scope:

Prior and Lunsford frame their history by first defining terms, naming what has motivated reflections on writing, and expanding existing frameworks for a more comprehensive history. Writing is meant to be “understood expansively, in all five of its meanings and as a multimodal phenomenon” (82). There are four reasons to account for the motivation and reflection on writing: (1) “writing involves the development of a script along with technologies and tools and distribution,” (2) the need to reproduce literate technologies and systematize discourse, (3)  achieving a mobility and a permanence that allows for continued and deeper reflection, and (4) written texts offer new means of representation, inviting reflection, but we also recognize the power of writing to “mediate knowledge communities and govern organizations and societies” (83).

Historically, it’s only in the final centuries BCE do we have evidence of how people began to understand writing and its reproduction (84). For example, Greece saw rhetoric as civic participation, taking a back seat to oral delivery and China reserved writing for civic rhetoric of the rulers and in India, there was a Hindu rejection of writing and Buddhist acceptance (writing sermons). Globalization has now spread concepts of writing across territory.

The following five themes provide a thematic organizing principle for the remainder of the article. These themes are meant to counter previous master narratives and instead provide a series of lenses through which to view the under-explored histories of the emergence of writing studies.

Theme 1: Authorship. Authorship (or authenticity) has always been a concern.

did muhammad author quran
Questions of authorship of the Qu’ran continue today.

Taking up the theme of authorship, it’s easy to find issues that cross time, cultures and disciplinary boundaries (page 85). Examples include: authorship to stabilize Islamic law, authenticity of Muhammad’s word or the authorship (occurring much later) as an issue in Europe when copyright laws asserted ownership over printed texts (circa 1800s). Many more contemporary notions of authorship have been challenged due to the collaborative nature of writing.


Theme 2: Translation Studies. Translation of a text as it travels to new places has high consequences (page 85). Examples include: arguments over which texts of Jewish heritage are worthy of translation and and which dialects to privilege. Arguments over word-for-word or segment-for-segment translations, or arguments over whether the translator should be an expert in both original and source languages. Newer academic trends (like post colonialism) assert concepts of polyvocality, subversive phrasing, subaltern voice (87).

Theme 3: Orality vs. Literacy. Examples of these disciplinary roots include: Plato who reflects Socrates’ fear that writing would limit our need for memory and would somehow make us feel like we had knowledge that we hadn’t rightfully gained (i.e. we just read it, not discovered it), afraid of knowledge that does not invite dialogue.

hindu oral instruction
Image depicts a Hindu God speaking to a disciple.

Furthermore, the Hindus believe strictly in oral instruction, not written instruction, depicting another form of suspicion over that which is written.


More contemporary debates of orality vs. literacy include the “great-divide” theory which was preferred in the 60’s and 70’s to describe the phenomenon of separating oral from literate people (87), with literacy associated with advanced thinking.

Theme 4: Beyond Comparative Rhetorics.  Prior and Lunsford begin with the distinctions drawn by Aristotle on the poetic vs. the dialectic (logic) in the early years of Western rhetorical theory, but moves quickly to accounts of diverse rhetorical inquiry (e.g. the fluid, meta-discourse of the Chinese tradition alongside the writing/reading practices that have been shaped by high-stakes testing as early as 600 BCE).

china high stakes tsting
Image depicts a large room, filled with exact rows of students, diligently testing (presumably).


Theme 5: Writing, Science and Society. The examples here (e.g. science report writing and its reliance on text) are more contemporary, implicitly arguing that the focus on the value of writing and linguistics and textual analysis in disciplines beyond Comp/Rhet are relatively new.

Prior and Lunsford set out to prove that there’s great value in taking a far more global approach to historicizing this field than the traditional grand narratives account for. There’s a rich pool of research to be done across cultural boundaries and disciplinary boundaries.


2 thoughts on “PAB & Paper #1

  1. It is interesting that the development of Rhet/Comp courses is linked to literacy concerns. As a fellow of my college’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, I encounter faculty semi-regularly complaining about student writing and asking what we’re teaching them in their comp classes. These composition courses, aimed at teaching students literacy and communication, have been the anchor for English Studies in the university system these last many years. But they ARE designed often as skill-development for a student’s concurrent and future academic studies, and it is often in English’s best interests to peddle them in this way. My university is currently undergoing a gen-ed curriculum revision where faculty have been tasked with reducing the credit hour load of gen eds and creating a clearer “path” that students can follow. The English department will be losing 1-2 classes in the two gen-ed proposals that are being voted on. In one, we’ll lose one semester of comp and the required lit class will become one e-credit requirement where students choose among literature, history, humanities, or philosophy. In the other proposal, we’ll lose one semester of comp and the required lit class is required if students choose a “pathway” through humanities. The only reason we’re keeping comp is that we’ve sold it as necessary to student skills they’ll need for their major.

    Lunsford and Prior point out that the exigencies for rhet/comp’s rise has followed the money trail. I’m concerned with what will happen to English Studies as a whole, rhet/comp included, if we continue to follow the money trail.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This very debate is repeated so often at my own institution that I know it by rote. The question boils down to this: are the Core Composition courses (for us, there are two courses required in the series) designed to serve the other disciplines (presumably to foster success for students in their academic pursuits beyond their sophomore year) OR are Core Composition designed to serve a larger Liberal Arts agenda (for example, might Composition serve to foster critical civic literacies or self-discovery or serve as a heuristic for critical thinking or maybe prepare student for workplace writing genres)?

      There are market-driven reasons for a few of these. There are Liberal Arts-driven reasons for a few of these and there are academic reasons for a few of these.

      Nonetheless, we’re all caught somewhere on this spectrum right now, where teachers are left defending our practices against criticism that stems from a lacking sense of purpose. In this sense, I worry that the absence of a disciplinary center will leave many of us (especially those that are voiceless) with little means of defense against far better funded disciplinary interests that we can’t possibly meet (e.g. Engineering faculty insisting that we teach their students how to write like an Engineer).

      Thanks for your reply, Rachel!


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