Revolution Lullabye

April 25, 2009

Hawk, A Counter-History of Composition

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodoligies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2007.

Hawk argues that in modern composition, vitalism (equated with romanticism) is seen in opposition to rhetoric, especially in terms of how composition scholars and teacher talk about and teach invention. He centers on 1980 as a pivotal year, analyzing three articles published that year (Richard Young, James Berlin, and Paul Kameen) to show how they positioned the field to take an oppositional approach to vitalism. He argues that vitalism is a powerful, important philosophy with roots in Aristotle and developed in science and philosophy over centuries. It is at the root of complexity theory, which is an increasingly relevant and important theory today, as digital technologies are rapidly changing the cultural context, showing the inadequacy of methods and techniques rooted only in mind-driven logic. He argues for vitalism to take a central role in reconfiguring composition and rhetoric scholarship and pedagogy, because only through vitalism is the body and experience brought together in concert with the mind. Vitalism also prevents teachers from having a set agenda, a set desire for their students to fulfill, placing instead the onus on the students to develop and find their own relations and metaphors, drawing on all possible means and resources in our complex, dynamic, and ever-changing ecology.

Quotable Quotes

“Composition theorists should be striving to develop methods for situating bodies within ecological contexts in ways that reveal the potential for invention, especially the invention of new techniques, that in turn reveal new models for action within those specific rhetorical ecologies” (206).

“An ethical goal for pedagogy, then, would be to design occassions in which students are more likely to create compositions rather than decompositions. A pedagogical act would be evaluated based upon the relationships it fosters and the relationships it serves – on its ability to increase rather than decrease a student’s agency, power, or capacity to produce new productive relations” (256).

“To desire an outcome for them [students] is to commit a certain violence to them” (257).

“Heuristics do not function in a vacuum; they function within complex and specific rhetorical situations. Importantly, the body is the critical, epistemological link between situation and invention. It is the interface.” (120)

Notable Notes

a counterhistory (drawing on Feyerabend) – “a counter-history is an additive paratactic aggregate rather than a recuperative manuever” (123)

distinguishes between 3 forms of vitalism: oppositional (electronmagnetic forces); investigative (scales of influence and organization); complex (events, cooperation)

dissoi logoi – new ways to group texts and to read them

Young – concerned with disciplinarity, so rejects vitalism

Berlin – concerned with his own political Marxist agenda and can’t see anything else, and so rejects vitalism

all the work in comp/rhet on vitalism seems to stem from one dissertation, Hal Rivers Weidner “Three Models of Rhetoric: Traditional, Mechanical, and Vital” (2)

vitalism became the scapegoat term

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Varnum, Fencing with Words

Varnum, Robin. Fencing with Words: A History of Writing Instruction at Amherst College during the Era of Theodore Baird, 1938-1966. Urbana: NCTE, 1996.

Varnum presents a counternarrative to the mainstream history of 20th century composition instruction through her archival investigation of the Amherst freshman writing program directed by Theodore Baird from 1938 to 1966. Her history, unlike other histories written in the field, has three distinct differences: first, she spends much time looking at how outside social and political forces (institutional, national, and global) affected the pedagogy in Amherst’s writing courses; second, she depends on the archives of the program (assignments, student papers, memos, reports, as well as interviews) instead of textbooks and journals to sketch a picture of what was happening in the classrooms; and third, she brings to light a much-misunderstood era of American composition, one that is usually conflated and simplified to be “current-traditional.” Baird’s first-year writing courses were designed by the entire team of teachers (everyone used the same collaboratively-written assignment sequence), and student writing, not textbooks, were the centerpiece of the course. Baird believed that writing was a process of self-discovery, a process through which unexpressible (and unknown) truths could be expressed. Varnum’s history does not sugarcoat or reify Baird’s administration or pedagogy, pointing out that his high-priest attitude was decidedly masculine and top-down, perceived by some students and fellow faculty to be a bully who ran a “boot camp” course.

Quotable Quotes

“The tendancy among composition historians has been to look at practice in the classroom, or at the materials and ideas presented there, without acknowledging the larger forces that created the classroom itself” (7).

Notable Notes

great model for dissertation

Baird’s constant metaphor of running orders through chaos (taken from The Education of Henry Adams and science, philosophy, Burke, Richards┬áthat he read)

the Amherst course was taken by all freshman at the same time with the same assignments so that each assignment was a campus-wide event.

focused on conflict, constant questioning and revision

saw student writer as individual who possessed his own voice, the goal was to free that voice and the imagination; break them of writing what he dubbed “the Perfect Theme” (41) influenced heavily by The Education of Henry Adams

Baird’s ideal was to create a community of teachers

all the work that went into teaching and planning the course (assignments were re-invented each year) took away the time the instructors and professors could do their own research

how do policies and politics outside the classroom affect what is being taught?

impact of WWII, GI Bill, co-education, change in American university system, Civil Rights, move towards general education requirements

Varnum interviews professors who taught with Baird, 7 alumni of the program, looks at student papers, essay contest winners, uses letters she writes to Baird and recieves from him, assignment sequences (in appendix)

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