Different ways of tracing this history: Mailloux (professional organizations); Parker (published scholarship and departments, English and American higher education history); McComiskey (department foundation and separation and impact of larger sociopolitical movements); Nystrand (academic movements inside and outside English departments, published studies, conventions)
Zebroski, James T. “Hidden by History: English Education and the Origins of Composition and Rhetoric.”
The author notes that in the many histories of the development of the field of composition and rhetoric, the place and contribution of English education has been left out, claiming that in the 1970s (the crucial time for the foundation of the field of comp/rhet), the people doing the most research and writing on composition were English teachers, especially freshman English teachers. He argues that this history has disappeared due to the stigma attached to the scholarship in composition and English education of the 1960s and 1970s, which was focused primarily on the writing habits of working class students and the pedagogical implications of the social issues of the time. He also argues that it was these working class students, who presented challenges to the traditional ways of teaching reading and writing, that allowed for the government funding in the 1970s and 1980s that shaped the new discipline of composition and rhetoric. His paper narrows in on a five-year period (1968-1972) in order to uncover the hidden, complex histories of the formation of the field of composition and rhetoric, including the rise of student authorship, the emphasis on adult (over student) composition and knowledge, the meaning of the Dartmouth Conference retroactively to the field of composition and rhetoric, the importance of federal funding prior to the Reagan years, and the effect of federal assistance programs like Upward Bound on the discipline.
Parker, William Riley. “Where Do English Departments Come From?” College English 28 (1967), 339-350.
Parker’s history of the development of English as a discipline uses as evidence the histories of English and American universities and colleges like Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford, including the establishment of chairs, the appointment of professors in English literature and language, and the production of literary criticism and other scholarship. He notes that the study of English in colleges and universities is only 100 years old (1967 publication date) and departments of English are even younger. They were formed by the joining of rhetoric/oratory and philology. Even though it was in the 19th century that departments emerged (due to the German university system, which favored specialization and majors), the serious study and criticism of English literature and language dated back hundreds of years to the Renaissance. Harvard did not have a professor of English until 1876 and Cambridge didn’t have one until 1911. The chair of rhetoric at Oxford was established in 1759 for Hugh Blair; Harvard established the Boylston chair of rhetoric for John Quincy Adams in 1806. The author points to the booming population of universities in the mid-19th century and the construction of new, not religiously affiliated colleges and universities as the reason for the adoption of English literature and language as a respected area of study, as a sort of backlash to the elitism inherent in older institutions that privileged the teaching of the classics. English was a field for the middle class. At the turn of the twentieth century, starting with Johns Hopkins, there was the creation of graduate programs; many of these programs in English were combined physically and ideologically with German, as the German model of higher education was the new standard and philology, the focus of the early 20th century English departments, came from the German scientific tradition. English departments became the home of the teachers of the required freshman course – a necessary course in the pragmatically-framed new universities; composition allowed literature to survive at an institutional level at a time when other humanities-based fields, like classics, were cut. For really, why is it any more valuable to know English literature than it is to know Greek? In the 1880s and 1890s, there was a reform movement in higher education that led to the restructuring of universities to allow for greater specializaiton; the author argues that because English literature was adopted as an accepted field of study in the mid-19th century, it was allowed to take over rhetoric as the home for composition, something that was not accomplished in English universities. Departments became very important in this era of specialization because there was no longer any centralized curriculum, and college officials were forced to judge which departments were sustainable and necessary and which ones weren’t, and awarded new faculty lines to the ones they deemed essential. This caused a large amount of territorialism between related departments. It was in this desparate fight for funding and recognition that English literature departments grabbed on to other related fields in order to increase the size of their departments: linguistics, rhteoric, and later journalism, technical writing, creative writing, drama, and theater. Parker claims that the association in the Scottish chairs of rhetoric with belles letters allowed for the adoption of rhetoric by English departments in the late 19th century.
“I stress these dates in order to remind you that the teaching of English is a Johnny-come-lately – a fact that has some relevance to any answer given the question “Why can’t Johnny read?” Our research and criticism are old; our jobs are new” (342).
“The regius professorship at Edinburgh and the Boylston professorship at Harvard were harbingers of things to come, but were not, essentially, first steps in the deveolpment of an academic discipline that could demand, and get, equal recognition with the classical langauges. For such a revolutionary change in established patterns of education some other factors were necessary – among them, a new, scientific linguistics, a new and rigorous methodology adaptable to literary studies, and a new concept of liberal education. These three factors were all to emerge during the last three quarters of the nineteenth century, but their impacts and results were to be different in the United States from what they were in England” (344).
Why did the classical curriculum fail? The “impact of science, the American spirit of utilitarianism or pragmatism, and the exciting, new dream of democratic, popular education, an assumed corollary of which was the free elective system [German university model]. A fourth factor may be described as a widespread mood of questioning and experimentation in education, a practical, revisionary spirit that challenged all traditions and accepted practices” (347).
“It was the teaching of freshman composition that quickly entrenched English departments in the college and university structure – so much so that no one seemed to mind when professors of English, once freed from this slave labor, became as remote from everyday affairs as the classicists had ever been” (347).
“English departments became the catchall for the work of teachers of extremely diverse interests and training, untied rhetorically but nto actually by their common use of the mother tongue. Disintegration was therefore inevitable” (348).
“Thanks first to its academic origins, and then to the spirit of competition and agressiveness engendered by departmentalization, ‘English’ has never really defined itself as a discipline” (348).
“The ancient subject of rhetoric, which at first showed signs of adapting itself to changing times while preserving both its integrity and its vitality, in the nineteenth century lost both integrity and independent vitality by dispersing itself to academic thinness. It permitted oratory to become identified with elocution, and, as for written composition, it allowed this to become chiefly identified with that dismal, unflowering desert, freshman theme-writing. It was little wonder that speech and composition were readily accepted by administrators as appendices of English literature, especially when various events conspiried to tie the knot so tightly” (349).
Nystrand, Martin. “Where Did Composition Studies Come From?” Written Communication 10:3 (July 1993) 267-285.
The author argues against the popular notion that attributes the rise of composition as a discipline to the literacy crisis, open-admissions policies, and social movements of the 1970s, claiming instead that the field was shaped and formed by larger intellectual forces that affected other disciplines (esp. linguistics and literature), including debates over ways of knowing (epistemologies), ways of conducting research (methodologies), and ways of understanding how language works and functions. The first academic “era” to affect the formation of composition was, according to the author, formalism and New Criticism, which emphasized close, objective readings of texts – solving the texts as if they were math problems. Students were encouraged to imitate the model texts they were given and compose straightforward, concise texts that often took the form of 5-paragraph themes that emphasized the objectivity of the content, not the individuality of the student writer. The formalism movement came under attack in the 1960s by scholars who believed that writing should be thought of a cognitive process, not just a finished product. These scholars wanted more research done on the act of writing and how both the student’s history and background and the relationship between reading and writing affected the composition of texts. They stressed the importance of the situation – how the task and the environment affects the outcome of the assignment; in essence, they argued it was impossible to assess or understand a text without considering its rhetorical situation. The banner of the constructivists was taken up at the 1966 Dartmouth conference, where English and American writing teachers met and many reformers (Dixon, Moffett, Britton) claimed that composition should be centered around the student, not the reproduction of texts. They said that writing was a cognitive process – people write for something and for someone. This budding interest in structuralism led to many empirical studies in the field of composition, including Emig’s The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders, in which she showed that school assignments often curtailed students’ own individual writing purposes and that the composing process is organic and circular, not prescriptive. The process of composing is essential to making meaning. Nystrand claims that this shift in focus from the text to the act of writing owes a lot to the field of cognitive psychology and linguistics (scholars Chomsky, Miller, Bruner), who were all working in Cambridge. The new linguistics proposed by Chomsky argued that language could not be understood only by breaking down formal language structures but rather by transformational, generative grammar – the individual, abstract, deep, and biologocial development of a person’s language system. This was a change from formalism to constructivism. The embrace of constructivism opened up doors for scholars in English to take more seriously study in composition and reader-response criticism.
The four elements of formalism on pg. 278 – “1. Langauge is composed of objective elements organized into fixed systems. 2. The meaning of texts is encoded in ‘autonomous’ texts themselves and is explicit to the extent that writers spell things out. 3. Written texts are more explicit than oral utterances. 4. Texts are properly interpreted only when readers avoid inferences about the writer or the content in which the text was written” (278).
Constructivist view of language: “Language orders and gives shape and thus meaning to experience” (285).