The Winds Are Still Blowing (Hairston)

In which I use both the word “vitalist” and the word “foundationalist.” And also “cusp.”

Hairston, Maxine. “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 439-450. Print.

Standing at the cusp of the process movement, Hairston summarizes Thomas Kuhn’s major thoughtpiece: the paradigm shift, which occurs “only when the number of unsolved problems in a discipline reaches crisis proportions and some major figures in the field begin to focus on those unsolved problems” (440). I must admit–from my reading of composition over the last ten or so years, it seems that the discipline has perpetually been in shift mode, re-re-rebuilding in the face of “breakdowns in intellectual systems” since well before the 1960s (439). Expressivists, cognitivists and the process movement, the new rhetoric, computers and composition, post-process, new media comp, and all things in-between. I hate quoting a radio country song, but it does seem that theoretically speaking, “The only thayng / that stays thuh same is / ev’rything changes, ev’rythang cha-anges.” Composition either suffers from or is continually refreshed by–I haven’t figured out which–the literacy crisis discourse that has been so familiar to us ever since universities started opening their doors to anyone other than the cultural elite.

So, back to Hairston.

“The Winds of Change” is a primer in early process-pedagogy epistemology. First, she sets up the common features of current-traditional rhetoric (which she refers to as “the conventional paradigm” or “the traditional paradigm”) and describing the underlying vitalist attitude that feeds its foundationalist prescriptivism and penchant for orderly correctness: “the assumption that no one can really teach anyone else how to write because writing is a mysterious creative activity that cannot be categorized or analyzed” (441). Like most writers critical of the current-traditional system, she describes the teaching population issues involved (writing teachers are very rarely professional writing teachers; writing teachers don’t research or publish or know the scholarship in composition; and so forth). Programs that define writing courses as “skills” or “service” courses tacitly deny writing as an intellectual, theorizable activity, and teachers in them usually use methods that “research has largely discredited” (442). Again, depending on who you ask, this sounds like something ripped right from the pages of a current Chronicle or CCCs.

Among contributors to the new process paradigm: Chomsky’s transformational grammar, Christensen’s (now nearly forgotten) generative rhetoric of the sentence and paragraph, the tagmemicists, contemporary movements in psychology, and the Dartmouth study–all of which serve as foundation for the process movement’s anti-prescriptionism. Social (“concrete and external forces” (444)) pressures such as changing student populations, more social demand for college degrees as “credentials for economic citizenship” (444), and increasing disenchantment among teachers are also evidence of the shift for Hairston. She points finally to Shaughnessy and her contemporaries as responsible for the critical process insight: to teach students to write we need to understand them; “we have to do the hard thing, examine the intangible process, rather than the easy thing, evaluate the tangible product” (446).

After summarizing the current state of process research (i.e Flower & Hayes, Sommers, Perl, Faigley, and the rest) Hairston closes by describing a set of new paradigm prescriptions features and strategies:

  • “writing teachers should write in order to understand the writing process first-hand” (447)
  • “audience and intention should affect every stage of the creative process” (447)
  • writing is an act of discovery and proceeds by intuition
  • the writing process is non-linear
  • there are “profound differences” between skilled and unskilled writers (448)

(Hairston mentions the conservative textbook problem multiple times)


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