Revolution Lullabye

May 2, 2009

Crowley, Composition in the University

Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998.

Crowley forwards her abolitionist argument through this collection of essays, which gives a detailed investigation of the history of higher education, the history of the relationship between literature and composition, and the development of the first-year course in American universities. She focuses on the divide in English studies between literature and composition and maintains that as long as the first-year course exists, literature will be held superior, intellectually and institutionally, over composition. First-year composition, she argues, exploits its teachers (unfair labor practices), exploits its students (has no measurable effect), has negative curricular effects (isolated out of a curricular sequence); contributes to negative classroom climates (gatekeeping role); prevents the field from achieving full professionalization and disciplinarity; and finally, hurts the professional careers of its teachers. (241) It is an anamolous, ill-fitting course in the modern American university. Instead of the first-year course, Crowley suggests offering a vertical sequence of writing electives, informed by the discipline of comp/rhet, which will answer more truthfully students’ needs instead of imposing needs on them from above. Crowley relies primarily on textbooks used in the classroom and published articles and books in the field about composition history to make her argument.

Quotable Quotes

First-year composition must “become part of a sequenced curriculum of courses that introduce students to discipline-specific principles and practices” (9).

difference of comp vs. lit and other fields: “Composition scholarship typically focuses on the processes of learning rather than on the acquisition of knowledge, and composition pedagogy focuses on change and development in students rather than on transmission of a heritage” (3)

“Over the years, then, first-year composition has been remarkable vulnerable to ideologies and practices that originate elsewhere than in its classrooms” (6) – those outside the field in power set the agenda; political ideologies make their way in the classroom, teachers/administrators use the class as an opportunity to forward their own agenda, regardless of its connection to first-year comp

“I doubt whether it is possible to radicalize instruction in a course that is thoroughly implicated in the maintance of cultural and academic hierarchy” (235)

Notable Notes

there aren’t jobs in comp because it’s thought of as “an exciting new field in which new academic priorities are being set” – there are jobs because of the universal requirement. That’s problematic. (3)

no motivated writing tasks in first-year composition; it exists outside of all other vertical curriculums and sequences in the university, isolated

comp’s relationship with pragmatism (Peirce, William James, Dewey, Emerson) v. literature’s relationship with humanism. This leads to the question whether literature should be taught in composition classrooms (a huge difference in ideology…product v. a process; reading over writing, suspicion of rhetoric, elite v. democratic education) – look at the College English Tate-Lindemann exchange

history of the connection between communication and composition (founding of CCCC) and the impact of WWII and the Cold War on the purpose of composition instruction

history of the process movement, affected by research funded through federal grants on pre-writing (D Gordon Rohman and Albert O. Wleche Project English study.) There was a real attempt to understand how students and writers discover, invent, and think. This led to research in developmental psychology and on the creative processes of artists and scientists. Writing to discover was seen as the first way to see this (thus the emphasis on personal expressive writing). Then, the influence of Emig, who actually looked at her and her students’ writing processes. Also, turn to classical rhetoric for invention heuristics. Cannot underestimate the impact of student war protests in 1960s and 1970s to redistribute power and authority. Crowley’s essay is “Around 1971: The Emergence of Process Pedagogy” – two moves: attention to student’s whole composing process (students as writers) and a student-centered classroom. Process and current-traditional pedagogy are complementary.

the curriculum of composition is debated turf; it is owned by the community (U of Texas Austin’s difference curriculum)

Nancy Fraser – needs claims, the movement from thin needs (mythology) to thick needs (ideology.) The claim is that students need first-year composition. Who really needs it? The university only requires a course if they think the students won’t elect to take it (258)

April 25, 2009

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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