Rhetoric Carnival: Composition Theory, "Good Writing," and -- Impending Theory Wars?

The second Rhetoric Carnival is in full swing, and I'd like to weigh in on the article we're all reading (yes, article, it's more realistic than discussing a book, I believe), Richard Fulkerson's "Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century," from the June 2005 (56.4) issue of College Composition and Communication. The article is a comprehensive overview of some major pedagogical theories and approaches in composition studies: critical/cultural studies [CCS], expressivism, and procedural rhetoric. From the introduction:

I shall argue that the “social turn” in composition, the importation of cultural studies from the social sciences and literary theory, has made a writing teacher’s role deeply problematic. I will argue that expressivism, despite numerous poundings by the cannons of postmodernism and resulting eulogies, is, in fact, quietly expanding its region of command. Finally, I’ll argue that the rhetorical approach has now divided itself in three.

More on the argument shortly. First, I want to explain where I'm coming from: my personal history as a writing teacher, the experiences I'm bringing to my reading here.

I'm glad Collin suggested this article, because if nothing else, it's going to be a big help to me as I revise my teaching philosophy statement for the job market this fall. To be honest, it's going to be hard for me to identify my own teaching philosophy, because like most graduate students, I have been required to comply with institutional course designs to a significant extent at all three of the schools where I've taught. Starting out, I was in a program where, to use Fulkerson's abbreviation, CCS approaches were favored, at least tacitly; maybe we didn't have to do it that way, but many of us felt we did, and for my part, I didn't have any big ideas or designs of my own. CCS pedagogy, as Fulkerson describes it, involves "having students read about systemic cultural injustices inflicted by dominant societal groups and dominant discourses on those with less power, and upon the empowering possibilities of rhetoric if students are educated to 'read' carefully and 'resist' the social texts that help keep some groups subordinated" (659). We did a lot of analysis of cultural artifacts, including, yes, advertisements. Fulkerson's musing, "Whether cultural studies is as widespread in composition classrooms as in our journals is actually an open question" (659), was to me a welcome one; I know some of us at times felt a little ridiculous doing the kind of hermeneutic unveiling of the text-behind-the-text. But hey, what can I say, we were wet behind the ears, and we did the best we could at the time.

Then I taught at a school where the required textbook was The Prentice-Hall Reader, which we were expected to follow in our syllabi. The edition I used set forth a basic prose models (modes) approach, so, for what it's worth, I have some experience with that.

Now I teach in a department of Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication, and I recognized a lot of my institution's pedagogical approach in what Fulkerson describes as procedural rhetoric of the genre-based composition variety. You can see this influence in the course overview, the required textbook, and especially the course requirements. I've always taught at schools that wanted consistency across sections of first-year composition, and as a result, I don't have much experience designing courses or experimenting with approaches, although looking back on it, I recognize that I've learned a lot working with the three approaches I have used.

Still, it's extremely difficult for me to know, much less explain, what my teaching philosophy is, what I think "good writing" is, how to teach it, and what the larger goals of rhetorical pedagogy are. The one constant for me is the Classical paideia model, with its aim of making rhetors more thoughtful, socially responsible, and literate citizens, in which "literate" is taken to mean a few things. First is the ability to make meaning -- to convey a message to an audience: to have a message in mind to communicate, and to lay it out there for the audience clearly, so that a reader could, if asked to restate the message in his or her own words, do so in such a way that the writer would reply, "Yeah, that's exactly what I was trying to say." Second is the basic ability to evaluate evidence for an argument: what's credible, and what isn't? Third is the ability to engage and inhabit provisionally all points of view on an issue in the Elbow believing/doubting sense. Notice that the first one is more focused on writing, and the last two are focused more on reading, which is part of rhetoric too, a point not quite emphasized enough in the Fulkerson article. It seems Fulkerson would argue that in pedagogical approaches that emphasize reading (CCS, procedural rhetoric/genre-based), the teaching of writing is automatically compromised, that you can't have a good balance. I believe one can, and should, have a balance between form and content.

This leads me into some quibbles I had with Fulkerson's representation of CCS approaches. I find some of what he said about CCS to be sensible, especially his assessment of the Berlin/Hairston debate (665-666):

The standard response [to Hairston's contention that CCS teachers were indoctrinating students] accused Hairston of ideological naivete, arguing that she assumed her own pedagogy to be ideology-free but that since all pedagogies are always already political, she must be incorrect (and thus also unenlightened). Therefore, her critique of CCS courses could be denounced as well as ignored.

Logically that argument means no pedagogy can be accused of indoctrination, because the accuser’s hands would necessarily also be unclean. In other words, there could be no grounds for distinguishing between a teacher who overtly forces students to echo his or her politics in their writing and one who tolerates alternative positions. All education becomes equally indoctrinating; I take such a position to be an obvious absurdity.

Using Toulmin's logic, one could of course be more temperate and qualify it by saying that some teachers could legitimately be accused of indoctrination, and some examine, in Fulkerson's unfortunate terms, "the holy political trinity of class, race, and gender" quite productively without quelching divergent thinking. Only a Sith thinks in absolutes. Still, I think he has a point.

Anyway, one of my contentions is with Fulkerson's "content envy" observation: "Both the lit-based course and the cultural studies course reflect, I suspect, content envy on the part of writing teachers" (663). As I said before, I think that having a balance between form and content is a Good Thing; having a nice, coherent course theme grounds the writing and gives it some context. Maybe he's not arguing against having themed writing courses, but his criticism of mimeticism in writing courses leads me to think otherwise (662):

What we come down to is that the writing in [a CCS] course will be judged by how sophisticated or insightful the teacher finds the interpretation of the relevant artifacts to be. In other words, papers are judged in the same way they would be in any department with a “content” to teach. This is just the way a history professor would judge a paper, or a chemistry prof, or a business prof. Thus the standard of evaluation used is, I assert, actually a mimetic one—how close has the student come to giving a “defensible” (read “correct”) analysis of the materials.

But for an argument to be persuasive, doesn't a writer always have to provide a "'defensible' analysis of the materials," no matter what those materials may be? Fulkerson seems to be conflating CCS with procedural rhetoric here (though he admits that the distinctions among these approaches aren't clean and neat). Besides, there are practical reasons to have a defined theme in a composition course: preventing plagiarism, for example (read that post; it's excellent).

The other minor beef I had was with Fuikerson's representation of the goals of CCS and of expressivism. He claims that, rather than having the basic goal of helping students improve their writing, CCS has as its goal "to empower or liberate students by giving them new insights into the injustices of American and transnational capitalism, politics, and complicit mass media" (661). Expressivism's goal, Fulkerson suggests, is to "foster personal development," in other words, to improve students themselves rather than help students improve their writing. I just don't think it usually works this way in practice. I think that helping students improve their writing is always there. The people I know, for example, who teach "literature-based composition courses," do not simply evaluate writing for a correct interpretation. They attend to a host of other matters related to clarity in style, coherence at the level of the essay, the paragraph, and the sentence, and felicity in language (is that current-traditional?). The goals are more complex than Fulkerson's selected quotations would lead one to believe (I realize that my disagreement could be related more to Fulkerson's sources than to his representation of them).

Final thoughts, for now: In my feminist theory courses, we sometimes talked about "post-postmodernism." Fulkerson's article made me think about the return -- if they ever really left -- of some notion of voice, of emotion and affect, and of writing about personal experience, especially in light of composition's recent focus on studies of violence, trauma, and mourning. I agree with him that expressivism, in one form or another, is widespread and will continue to be (not that that's a bad thing). Also, are theory wars really on the horizon, as Fulkerson suggests? I don't think we'll ever agree on what "good writing" is; should we? Isn't it possible to use a procedural rhetoric/discourse community approach while still respecting students' own languages? Does this approach necessarily have to be hegemonic and disrespectful? Don't all these approaches have merit? At times I felt that Fulkerson's persona in this article was that of a real crank. As I read it, I wanted to defend these pedagogies against his charges and explain the virtues of each, then I wondered if that could be the reaction he wanted. (Now I'm expecting someone to leave a comment saying, "Ummmm, I think you were reading a different article, honey.")

Other carnival posts so far: Derek, Donna, Jeff (twice), Collin, Jenny, and Robert.

UPDATE: Two more posts from Donna.

UPDATE: A post from Amardeep.

Related links: WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition and a recent-ish Kairosnews discussion, which again saddens me that John Lovas isn't here to provide his rich, intelligent, and insightful observations with us.

Miscellany: I find it odd that Peter Elbow isn't mentioned in the article, not even in the list of works cited. Seems to me a somewhat conspicuous absence.


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I gather this Fulkerson article isn't online. Too bad; I poked around a little, and discovered a very fancy CCC website -- which hadn't been updated since 2003.

As I understand it from your summary, he believes there are now three positions possible for teaching composition in Fulkerson's thinking: 'procedural,' 'expressivist,' and 'cultural studies.' And he ties expressivism and cultural studies together, and argues that both are equally culpable as agents of unduly ideological composition teaching.

But from what I understand of expressivism, it's more correct to describe it not as postmodern, but as Romantic: the goal is to discover the writer's authentic voice. While it could easily be adapted to the ends of multiculturalism, it could also be used in quite the opposite way -- the authentic voice might be understood as being a universal speaking 'I', who is unmarked by race, gender, class, or sexuality.

It seems like Fulkerson is trying to put Cultural Studies and Expressivism together in order to put all of his enemies under one umbrella.

(A caveat: I've seen these terms discussed a little elsewhere, mainly by students and colleagues in my department who do composition & rhetoric, though I can't claim to know them very well.)

Elbow's Absence

Clancy, I absolutely agree with your contention "that helping students improve their writing is always there," but I wonder about the earlier distinction you make about improving students: doesn't most expressivist logic argue that making students into better writers will improve student writing? While expressivist methods seem to me to be open to debate and critique, I find it difficult to argue with the developmental logic that better writers will produce better writing: more than anything else, it ultimately seems to me to be a question of which-comes-first semantics. I'd be curious to hear what perspective your experience (particularly institutional, since that seems to be a significant part of the equation) might lead you to offer.

But I'm sure you knew I'd pick up on your Elbow reference :-). Fulkerson's December 1979 CCC overview article, which seems to me to attempt a disciplinary landscaping quite similar to our carnivalous Fulkerson article, notes that a 1968 College English article from Elbow argues that Elbow's "theories of free writing, collaborative criticism, and audience adaptation are really classical theories masqueradign as modern theories. That is, he said that although most teachers judge student writing either on the basis of its truth or formal correctness, his courses are built on judging student writing by its effect on audience. Aristotle in modern dress. [. . .] Elbow's techniques seem to put him with the expressivists, but at least in 1968, Elbow saw himself, accurately I think, as a rhetoricist" ("Four Philosophies of Composition").

Finally, the reference to Elbow in 1968 leads me to one more point: you quote Fulkerson's characterization of the CCS justification that "having students read about systemic cultural injustices inflicted by dominant societal groups and dominant discourses on those with less power, and upon the empowering possibilities of rhetoric if students are educated to 'read' carefully and 'resist' the social texts that help keep some groups subordinated," and I think this justification connects to Berlin's critique of Elbow's expressivist pedagogy as politically inadequate, or even -- as it spins out in our field's discourse -- somehow entirely apolitical. Obviously, the work you've done helps to continue to give the lie to the silly opposition between personal and political -- but it's also worth pointing out that Elbow's work helping Vietnam War era conscientious objectors draft their personal statements about why they could not fight was far more directly political and influential than most of composition's CCS or so-called critical pedagogy attempts at the hermeneutic unveil.


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