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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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