Composition and Culture (Connors)

Connors, Robert J. Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997. Print.

I first read Connors in the early 00’s, and it’s vitally colored the way I teach composition (and even more so, the way I teach my Theories of Composition) ever since. This is a central history of composition as a teaching and theoretical discipline.

There’s this teensy little conclusion tucked away in the final chapter about invention and assignments, that tells us a LOT about this book that isn’t really all that explicit in the introduction:

The question of personal writing assignments forces us to take an implicit stand about what we think is important, for students and for society–and making important decisions is always uncomfortable. The continuing debate, tacit though it may be, indicates that we as a profession have not yet come to agreement about the larger purposes of writing in this culture. (327)

According to Connors, we don’t know what writing is FOR. Thus we don’t know the best way to teach it…

I can’t really say that I disagree, looking at the diverse swath of approaches in textbooks alone, not to mention the insane (inane?) variety that is First Year Composition today. There’s not “an orthodoxy” in composition these days–a few orthodoxies, most of which revolve around a set of antiquated notions of “the essay” (a genre that I can personally say is incredibly hard to break from–not only because of programmatic expectations, but also out of sheer tradition). Much of our traditional center–the center that we theoretically work against, that is–is the construction “current-traditional rhetoric.” Part of Connors’ thesis has to do with his rejection of this term as a historical reality, instead understanding it as a “popular perception,” a constructed bugbear that takes much from reality but is not the monolith other disciplinary histories set it forth as (Connors has in Berlin, among others).

Briefly, Connors offers an argument that there IS a diverse and interactive history of composition-rhetoric (a term he borrows as his centerpiece), that American college and university rhetoric teaching in the nineteenth century was shaped by a range of pressures. He asserts that the most powerful of these is the influence of women on a traditionally agonistic discipline; a whole host of changes see their roots in what kinds of people are filling student seats.Connors four major changes are: shifting the student/teacher role from adversarial to developmental, shift from oral to written rhetoric, shift from argument to multimodal approach, decline of abstract subjects and rise of personal writing.

Another often-cited force is social fiat–composition’s existence as related to “Johnny can’t read” literacy crazes. Changes in student populations (or awareness about existing populations) result in massive shakeouts in rhetorical pedagogy. The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 plays a powerful role here, and comes up often in Connors’ history. The basic 19th century pedagogical shift he describes is from teaching a primarily oral and argumentative rhetoric to teaching a nearly-completely written and personal expository rhetoric.

Rather than taxonomizing nineteenth century composition around a set of (monolithic?) perspectives on reality, Connors offers a chronological taxonomy: Early American Comp-Rhet (1800-1865), Postwar Comp-Rhet (1865-1885), Consolidation Comp-Rhet (1885-1910), and Modern Comp-Rhet (1910-1960). This taxonomy is based on the fluxes in how “centered” composition-rhetoric theory and pedagogy was, and tries to see writing textbooks and classrooms across a background of coeducation, class size, and changing university models.

The historical (and rhetorical) role of textbooks are another major feature of Connors’ argument. It’s interesting that a field so shaped by its “tools” is so often derisive of mixing writing and tools-based or pragmatic approaches. Print technology plays a central role here. The rapid changes of print and the rapid spread of literacy are a theme that underlies Connors’ narrative, but doesn’t (I think) get enough attention.

Much of what Berlin attributes to positivism, Connors attributes to gender, social forces, and workload

Also, I’ve always enjoyed Connors’ response to some of his reviewers.

A common critique of Connors’ thesis is that he seems to argue that women are not (or cannot be) agonistic, rhetorically or otherwise, and thus composition is a fallen and feminized version of a masculine theory of rhetoric. That’s not at all what he argues–rather, the agonism/irenicism idea for Connors describes a particular kind of inability–the inability of ‘gentlemen’ to be agonistic in front of or toward women in rhetorical debate. It’s not that rhetoric was “male” as theorized, it’s that it was a part of male practice in unmixed company. This is one of the prime movers in Connors’ history, and an easy one to misinterpret–I think the entire “femininization of composition” argument hinges on it. They seem to ignore the male psychology aspect of this first chapter (and yes, it’s possible that Connors overemphasizes it, but it certainly rings true against a hyberbolic backdrop of a culture that produced Fight Club.)


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