Tag Archives: composition history

summary only–STephen North: Making of Knowledge in Composition

Stephen M. North The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field

At the time of writing The Making of Knowledge in Composition, Stephen North claims that the field of Composition’s lack of methodological integrity makes the field of Composition fragile, incoherent, and disordered. Knowing that methodological awareness is key to the stability of any field, North sets out in this book to delineate key modes of inquiry that operate within specific methodological communities in our field. He identifies eight key methodological communities–practitioners, historians, philosophers, critics, experimentalists, clinicians, formalists, and ethnographers—each of which he spends a chapter discussing its inceptions in the field, analyzing its underlying assumptions, common procedures, and finally the kinds of knowledge the community has contributed to the field. By providing an inside account of each methodological community, North hopes to create a whole image of the field. His purpose is not to limit the boundaries of the field but rather to create a dialogue amongst those who situate themselves within, between, and amongst the various methodological communities about where the field is and where it is going.

Chapter 4—The Philosophers:

One the most important scholarly communities that North identifies within the field of Composition is the Philosophers—those scholars that account for, critique, analyze, and ultimately perpetuate the field’s fundamental assumptions and beliefs. At the field’s inception, philosophers contemplated questions such as: “What is Composition? What does it mean to write? To learn to write? What assumptions guide our answers to such questions, and what preconditions do they rest?” (92). Dialectics among philosophers drawing on a number of disciplines soon turned to identifying the traditions and heritage of the field. Also, because the purpose of philosophical knowledge/inquiry is not instrumental, one of the main modes of inquiry in the community of philosophers is to frame problems within the field and investigate preconditions that comprise the rationales for our practices. More so, philosophers create a “cultural self-consciousness” within the field (97) as well as perpetuate ongoing and never-ending debates about tradition, heritage, etc., which, to a great extent, constitute the field’s sense of identity.

The philosopher’s mode of inquiry, which functions through dialectical reasoning, can be narrowed to four steps, according to North. The method is:
1. Identify a problem—some gap in current collective knowledge in our field, ignorance of which has deleterious effects on practice, scholarship, research or all three.
2. Identify criteria for possible solutions, offering what kind of knowledge is need to fill gap and thus make solution possible
3. Establish premises—foraging knowledge from outside field to offer new insight into problem within the field (think Lauer here).
4. Make arguments: the communal dialectic. Analyze premises on which arguments are based and then move forward from there to determine soundness of claims.
5. Draw conclusions: Dissemination to Wider Audience. Indicate implications of new arguments/claims/positions and make suggestions for further inquiry (105).

North ends this chapter by discussing a very real danger of philosophical inquiry in our field. Acknowledging that the assertions about philosophical inquiry have rhetorical power when they are used as rationales for practice and thus ultimately influences methods, North claims our field must realize that philosophical inquiry is intended to create dialogue pertaining to past and current problems in our field, not offer a guide for action. In order for methodological integrity to be sustained both within and outside the philosophical community, we must not use philosophical inquiry in ways that subvert the need for dialectics– the central mode of inquiry philosophers employ to contribute knowledge to our field.

Chapter 5—The Critics:

At the time of writing (1987), North explains that one major mode of inquiry amongst the community of critics within the field of Composition is literary studies, more specifically, textual interpretation or hermeneutics. Generally, the three major concerns of hermeneutics is to establish a canon of texts for interpretation, interpret the canon, and generate theories about what constitutes the canon, how interpretation of the canon should operate, and for what purposes (116). North claims, however, that in Composition, critics are not concerned with establishing or interpreting a specific Composition-based canon. Instead, critics focus on processes of writing. Nonetheless, those that practice Hermeneutics fall under two outposts: those who practice discourse studies as defined by Kinneavy as interpretation of texts other than literary and those who focus on students’ texts—people like North who deem the canon of composition as being comprised, more or less, of student writing. North claims not enough critics are practicing hermeneutics to actually constitute a (perhaps) legitimate community at work in Composition, but North feels that because there is a present day desire to bridge Composition and English, hermeneutics needs to be appropriated by Composition as a mode of inquiry to create specific kinds of knowledge in Composition.

Put simply, hermeneutics is “knowledge about meaning of texts, derived from the act of reading articulated as critical analysis, and refined by dialectics” (119). It is empirical in the sense that it establishes canon and sets standards for interpretive acts; yet it is also, of course, interpretive. Method of hermeneutics goes something like this: identify problem, locate relevant texts and validate their relevance, find patterns with texts, interpret patterns, offer interpretation to wider audience as arguments in communal dialectic. The conclusions drawn from hermeneutics “cannot be instrumental”….[Rather] what Hermeneutical inquiry provides is access to voices, our own and others: access to the nature of consciousness, in effect, and the way it makes world in words” (131-2).


Research in Composition has shifted over the years from a focus on materials and procedures that might improve student writing to the composing process, more specifically to examining, testing, and modifying our basic assumptions about how the writing process works. Research, as opposed to scholarship, refers to inquiry grounded in empirical phenomena are descriptive in nature. Four major modes are:
Experimentalists—those who seek generizable “laws” that account for and predict ways people write, learn to write, and teach writing.
Clinicians—those who focus on individual cases to find out how the ways people write, learn to write, and teach writing.
Formalists—those who build models or simulations in attempt to examine formal properties of object of study.
Ethnographers—observe members of communities in order to produce knowledge in the form of a narrative about what happens in those communities (137).

Chapter 6: The Experimentalists

Most often in the field of Composition, experimentalists have attempted to measure the impact of specific pedagogical practices, such as grammar instruction, methods for teaching invention, peer response, on student writing. Standardized testing and assessments in our field are often results of and examples of controlled experimental research. The goal of experimental research is certification of underlying assumptions about the most effective ways to write, learn to write, and teach writing. Second, the goal is “disconfirming” possible explanations for the ways in which we write, learn to write, and best teach writing (146). At the time of writing, North claims experimental research has not had a major influence on the field in proportion to the large amount of experimental research that is conducted (145). In order for experimental research to be most widely accepted, it should:
Be part of long and well-defined line of inquiry.
Build carefully on and contribute to work of others in the methodological community.
Associate itself with a line of inquiry within the experimental community yet have impact outside that community (145).

Experimental research is based on fundamental positivist assumptions about cause and effect, order, and the accessibility of principles of order. It is also paradigmatic—“its form corresponds to—is patterned after or, perhaps more precisely, is assumed to constitute the pattern of—that portion of the orderly and accessible world under study” (147). In other words, within a paradigm, all principles are present which are needed to account for relationships amongst all variables (147).


1. Identify problem
2. Design Experiment
3. Conduct Experiment: Collect and Analyze Data—Maximize inferential power of study.
4. Interpret Data—must satisfy positivists ambitions of paradigm without exceeding the limits of the particular design.
5. Draw Conclusions and Disseminate to Wider Audience (153).

Deciding what to research is based on pressures from within our field. One pressure concerns importance, visibility, and publish-ability of research and loyalty to experimental community. Another pressure results from economics.

Limitations or dangers of empirical studies in field of composition are obvious. Writing has so many variables and combinations of variables that validity is difficult to ascertain, authority is thus difficult to establish, and reductivism is hard to avoid…..


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Long Summary: Might contain some plagarism (hah!)

In this section of Rhetoric and Reality in which James Berlin describes the changes in the field of Composition and Rhetoric from 1940-1974, Berlin highlights the influences the general education and general semantics movements had on the rise of communication courses, the revival and renaissance of rhetoric, and the major rhetorical approaches that evolved with modern interpretations of rhetoric. With the rise of the communication course came an emphasis on: individualized instruction, integrated instruction (reading, writing, speaking, listening), practical pedagogy, and a skills centured curriculum. With integrated learning came major influences from a variety of disciplines such as psychology, linguistic, literary studies, which caused a movement toward personal and creative writing as well as a strong focus on how grammar functions. During this time (1950s), rhetoric as a historical discipline worthy of study came into fashion as the composing process became significant to scholars.

Berlin signifies 1960 – 1975 as the renaissance of rhetoric, which is marked by the professionalizatin of composition teachers, the rise in graduate programs in rhetoric, the return of rhetoric to the English department, the rise of rhetorical approaches to literary criticism, and more focus on the composing process with the rise of new rhetorics. Major influences during the renaissance as identified by Berlin are Jerome Bruner—introduced process models of composing through introduction of cognitive psychology and emphasized writing as discovery and problem solving; Albert Kitzhaber—introduced concept of New Rhetorics, emphasized writing as thought, which designated writing at heart of education, and introduced writing based on rhetorical tradition; Wayne Booth—supported Kitzhaber’s propositions by pushing for rise in rhetorical studies and its value in writing instruction; Burke—pushed for restoration of rhetoric as informing the discipline of composition. During this time, Berlin notes, scholars struggled to define scope of modern rhetorical studies and called for an interdisciplinary nature of the field.

In the section in which Berlin describes the Major Rhetorical Approaches to the field between 1960 and 1975, Berlin classifies three movements: objective rhetoric, subjective rhetoric, transactional rhetoric. The major figures to influence what Berlin calls objective rhetoric are Bloom and Bloom and Zoellner. Bloom and Bloom based pedagogy on positive reinforcement, which only could be done if composing process was made visible to both student and teacher, and rubrics were established. Zoellner argued teachers must pay attention to the scribal act and called for instruction to be visible. Subjective Rhetoric was defined by expressionistic writing and instruction, which was based on belief that reality is a personal, private construct. Writing came to be seen as discovery of self. Interpretations varied from extreme notions of writing as therapy to writing as art which reaveals the self. Major figures here, Murray, Macorie, Gibson, Coles, and Elbow, thought writing can’t be taught, only learned. They pushed for learning environments that allowed students opportunities to arrive at their own visions of reality. Elbow, especially influential here, claimed the personal is political—enabling individuals to arrive at self understanding (of own perceptions, feelings, and thoughts) and self expression, both of which lead to better social order.

Transactional Rhetoric, identified by recognition of writing as act of interaction of material reality writer, audience, and language, can be divided into three rhetorics: classical, cognitive, epistemic. Classical rhetoric had strong commitment to rationality, but Corbett had major influence with his insistence on emotional and ethical appeals as well as holistic grading. Rhetoric of Cognitive Psychology was greatly influenced by Janet Emig—demonstrated ways students perform cognitively when writing in attempt to understand role of reality, audience, purpose, and language in rhetorical act—and Janice Lauer—encourage scholars to “break out of the ghetto” and look to other disciplines to inform our pedagogy and find possible valuable heuristics. The epistemic perspective views rhetoric as a philosophical subject that perceives knowledge (meaning) is a rhetorical (linguistic) social and historical construct. Since knowledge is dialectical, language forms through interaction and thus constructs ourselves, audience, and realities. Ohmann here played major influence by differentiating between old and modern rhetoric in explaining how old focused on persuasion, new on pursuit through communication, inquiry, self expression, and self-discovery which takes place in specific communities. Burke again was influential with his notion of identification—writer tries to establish identification with audience by understanding author’s perspective and trying to get audience to understand writer’s perspective. Young and Becker were influential with claim that goal of rhetoric is enlightened cooperation while Brufee introduced value of collaborative learning. Ann Berthoff developed idea of students as active agents and claimed function of language is to “give form to feeling, cogency to argument, and shape to memory.”

Despite these progressive pedagogies and theories, composition began to fade from universities because of financial strains, but when “Why Johnny Can’t Write” was published in Newsweek in 1975, a literacy crisis was identified and composition gained stability. Since

Favorite quotes:

“A language is a theory of the universe, a way of selecting and grouping experience in a fairly consistent and predictable way.”

Thoughts: I always say that I can speak from my own experience and this quote really sums that up for me. Languages, both verbal and non-verbal, are means to develop, articulate, question our realities.

“Human Differences are the raw materials of writing—differences in experiences, and the ways of segmenting them, differences in values, purposes, and goals. They are our reason to communicate. Through communication we create community, the basic value underlying rhetoric. To do so, we must overcome barriers to communication that are, paradoxically, motive for communication”
–Young, Becker, Pike Rhetoric: Discovery and Change

Thoughts: This quote will go on my course syallbus from now on. I think the purpose of communication gets forgotten when students write even though communication is the most obvious reason as to why we write. I have been working with my students to come to new understandings of why they write and this quote along with Burke’s notion of identification offer an enlightened purpose for them. I wonder how their writing would be different if the wrote with intention to identify the different way in which they see and understand the world so that their audience can understand their perspectives as well as better understand their own.

Favorite term:

Burke’s indentification

Sentences that raised skepticism:

Ohmann says rhetoric shifts emphasis toward cooperation, mutuality, and social harmony. Ideally yes, but in reality, probably not.

Corbett claims closed-fist rhetoric is irrational and coercive. Always??

Things of interest I didn’t know:

“Why Johnny Can’t Write” was so influential in comp history.

Articles in 60s and 70s about teaching to certain populations of students

Questions to Ponder:

How is field today a combination of overlapping theories and practices developed since 1900?

Has any one major movement really not influenced contemporary pedagogy in some way?

What new major rhetorical approaches have been developed since then?

When did media literacy come on the scene?

How would Berlin label 1985 – 2000 and 2000 until present?

Interesting that the word literacy is only found on three pages in entire book?

What does Berlin’s classification say about the way we conceive our field?

What role does Classical Rhetoric still play in first year comp courses?

What ideoligy drives Berlin’s historical account?

What social, cultural, historical events were left out?

What schools were excluded? Why?

What gaps exist in his historical account? What limitations exist in his narrative?


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