Historical Notes (Parker, Kitzhaber, Brereton, Horner)

A summary in which I use the word “protean.”

Parker, William Riley. “Where Do English Departments Come From?” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 3-16. Print.

Or: An examination that only reminds us that we have failed to (as he calls in closing) “strike while the irony is hot.” (16)

Parker (writing in 1967) examines the long, protean history of “English” beyond standard generalized claims about roots in rhetoric and philology. He describes English as a catch-all discipline without a definition (13), one for which disintegration is inevitable. Parker attributes our contemporary disciplinary nature to a series of historical factors: a very short gestation time in the modernizing academy system of the 19th century, a history of “uncertain sufficient substance” in a historically classical university system, a tradition of clerically trained premodern “English” professors without special disciplinary training, the rise of specialization and departments at the end of the 19th century, and an aggressive expansionism into linguistics, rhetoric, composition and all sorts of writing, drama, and world/comparative lits (etc.). Though English scholarship may be rooted by a four-century tradition of thinking and criticism, English teachers have only been around for a little over a century (and a half, now), and often have graduate training that had little-to-nothing to do with what they’re expected to teach. The fact that English teaching is a “Johnny-come-lately,” something “fumbling and faddish and lacking well-defined goals,” is relevant to any answer to the “Johnny can’t read” claim. Because English is often divorced from its mother and father (Rhetoric and Linguistics) while still claiming them under its administrative umbrella, we fall to a ludicrous irony:

“It strikes me as ironic and more than slightly ridiculous that we increasingly want “English” to mean the close reading of words while we steadily increase our ignorance of the nature and history of language in general and the English language in particular. Study of literature without more than casual or amateurish knowledge of language is destined, in my considered judgment, to share the fate of elocution.” (15)

(Not to mention the irony of teaching world/comparative lits in a monolingual vaccuum!) The problem this awkward professional history presents (Parker notes that “we are not now mature enough as a profession,” p15) has mostly to do with the potential for future change. English won’t ride out change if it’s unable to frame and see its own history and see “how raw and how new some of our problems really are” (3).

Commentary and things to remember. Parker is a Lit Enthusiast Extraordinaire. He’s more than slightly dismissive to rhetoric, sloughing it off as ‘just oratory’ from the start and glossing over a rich tradition of written rhetoric, finally letting oratory bear its own blame for falling even further into elocution. Rhetoric is kid stuff, something grad students have to deal with in freshman writing, and something that any idiot knows can’t be taught because freshman composition has failed and failed and failed again to do its job. And he gives even less heart to linguistics. He’s happy to see rhetoric off in speech departments, it seems, and is quite happy to be some kind of purist. Though he’s worried that by not having a definition, they might be taken over by hostiles outside. It seems Parker sees the writing on the wall, a little bit. Bears comparing his history to others, of course (as this space is meant to do.


Kitzhaber, Albert, R. “The Present State of Freshman Composition.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 257-270. Print.

Kitzhaber’s goal: “the high schools should know what kind of academic preparation the colleges recommend.” (257). Today we’d call that “vertical alignment.” His analysis has behind it the spectre of the crisis narrative of “the missile age” (257). In this (1963) analysis, Kitzhaber puts freshman English courses under the glass as part of the Dartmouth study. His conclusion, that “Freshman English in the nation’s colleges and universities is now so confused, so clearly in need of radical and sweeping reforms, that college English departments can continue to ignore the situation only a ttheir increasing peril” (270), serves to remind me at my most skeptical that English is always already and forever in need of reform. We’ve never done it right, and apparently never will… Like Parker, Kitzhaber paints a protean picture. Composition doesn’t know what it really is…

In his (huge) study, Kitzhaber identifies three major weaknesses of FYC across the board: “Confusion in purpose, content, and organization; inexpert teaching; poor textbooks” (258). (Jeez. Little changed, no?) “…ironically, most of the confusion in freshman English stems from differing notions of how writing ought to be taught. The most diverse content may be dumped into the course on the grounds that ti will help the student learn to write better” (259).


Brereton, John C. “from The Origins of Composition Studies in The American College, 1875-1925: A Documentary History.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 98-107. Print.

Originally published in 1995, Brereton frames and provides primary texts, foundational to understanding the development and context of composition early on.. In this selection from “The New Writing Curriculum, 1895-1915” the authors include E. E. Hale, Jr., J. F. Genung, and F. N. Scott. (Need to read the entire text.) The selections are MLA reports from 1901-1903, “the last time for over half a century that composition became a topic for the major professional organization in language and literature” (98). According to Brereton, these reflect a “glaring lack of consensus” about how composition should be taught or structured. Work in writing occurred in certain prominent programs (Harvard Columbia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Vassar, Cornell), but was mostly textbook and collaborative rather than scholarly monograph publication and tended to be small explosions of interest and “concentrations of talent” (99). Composition programs produced textbooks and articles, but not a disciplinary field.

This selection points out some “transitional figures” (riding out transformations between composition and literature and all the other curious mixtures of the 19th century faculty member).

  • Hale: older methods vs newer methods, strictly rhetorical and construcitve and practice-based.
  • Genung: integrated English studies, required freshman comp (despite odius bugbear status), problem of English-as-mother-tongue, the “laboratory work” classroom
  • Scott: faculty/staffing issues, composition work intended to be practical, though not enough attention can be given to students due to teaching force size,
    • goals not literary, but to get students to “think straight-forwardly about subjects in which they are genuinely interested” and then “to express themselves clearly and connectedly” (106) The rest may (or may not) come later.
    • three essentials in his own work: “first, continuity and regularity of written exercises; second, much writing, much criticism, and much consultation, third, adaptation of method to the needs of the individual student” (106).
    • 107. Scott needs a computer.


A summary in which I use the word “moribund.”

Horner, Winifred Bryan. “The Roots of Modern Writing Instruction: Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 33-52. Print.

Today–largely due to Horner and other important historical work of the 1990s–the influence of Bain, Blair, Campbell, and Whateley on composition-rhetoric instruction in American universities is undoubted. Horner(originally published 1990) concerns herself with the cultural peculiarities that led to a different program for writing instruction in 18th and 19th century Britain than that practiced here, despite having some of the same roots and spirit. Why didn’t composition develop in Britain? What did writing instruction look like then and there?  Horner argues the major influences of nationalism, religion, and morality (or the freedom from religious conformity at Scottish and Dissenting schools), the lingustic situation of a growing literate society, and the impact of industrialization and an upwardly-mobile (and thus needing to use “good English”) society. The latter half of her essay focuses especially on the pedagogical influence of the Scottish rhetoric and writing tradition. Lots of very forward-looking stuff that came out in a university system that didn’t see the need to mark off writing instruction in one place in particular. Horner gives a positive view of the Scots, allowing for their flaws (especially amusing are some of her anecdotes about the lecture/dictation system), and connecting writing instruction to a set of democratic goals in an 18th century Scottish version of basic writing. All of this is consistently juxtaposed with a similar tradition in the “Dissenting academies” and contrasted with the aristocratic, conservative, exceedingly decadent and academically moribund Oxbridge culture.


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