Discipline My Composition (Connors)

Connors, Robert J. “Composition History and Disciplinarity.” History, Reflection, and Narrative: The Professionalization of Composition, 1963-1983. Ed. Mary Rosner, Beth Boehm, & Debra Journet. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing, 1999. 3-21. Print.

Connors’ chapter is the first part of a funky little book from 1999, presenting and reflecting on a 1996 conference on rhetoric and composition; focused on r/c from 1963-1983, the “Birth of Composition” (xiii, introduction by Journet, Boehm, Rosner). Connors takes up some thoughtful questions about the nature of disciplinarity, which will tie into a) a lot of my own personal complains about composition’s navel-gazing and b) my reading of Smit’s End of Composition. His basic question takes a (historical of course) stab:

“What does it mean, what will it mean, for us to be a recognizable discipline, as opposed to the group of marginalized enthusiasts coming together for support and sympathy that we were 35 years ago?” (3-4)

He begins by giving a brief history of the disciplinizing of comp since the days of Fred Newton Scott (i.e a looong time ago)–this runs the now-familiar 20th century gamut from Scott’s early version of psychological comp studies to speech/communication to the birth of CCCC to the field’s embrace of and eventual jilting by linguistics/semantics. Then the magical sixies happen:

“The rebirth of classical rhetoric, the development of tagmemic rhetoric, the prewriting movement, sentence combining, the writing-process movement, Christensen rhetoric, and the entire new seriousness of the research strand in composition–with its new journal, Research in the Teaching of English–all date to the middle and late 1960s. Disparate as these ideas and movements look to us in retrospect, collectively they were the New Rhetoric, and they represent a huge leap forward for the discourse of the field. We were not yet a discipline, but the conditions were coming together” (8).

He closes up this part of his narrative with the explosive founding decade of the 70s, themed around what he calls “methods of tradition and methods of reproduction” (10): many journal foundings, the makings of a literature, and the third generation of “modern composition specialists” (the 1st gen: Kitzhaber, Corbett, Murray [lit background, sparetime rhetoric autodidacts]; the 2nd gen: Bartholomae, Susan Miller, Lindemann [retooled as writing specialists after lit docs]; the 3rd gen: Corbett, Lunsford, Sommers, and many, many others [first generation of fully composition-trained PhDs, “go forth and multiply”]). (9-10). This takes him to what is basically a modern scholarly discipline by the 90s. This is where things get twitchy, where the blessings become mixed (“not unmixed,” as he writes).

According to Connors, there are basically four “unexpected effects” of the shiny new research focus in composition studies. Depending on your own theoretical/empirical/practical predilections, these may or may not rate as negatives to you: (This part’s more notes than narrative. Dip and dive, reader, dip and dive.)

  • shift at 4Cs from “love-fest” to “a theoretical-camps mentality of inclusion and exclusion.” (egotism, theoretical skirmish, turf-staking, identity politics, jargon and code terms, “ideological purity tests,” intellectual cliques, growth of heirarchy in the field. (11)
  • devastatingly powerful theoretical critiques. “Within a discipline, the power to critique is also the power to destroy.” (11), that is, theoretical critiques really do bring pedagogical/theoretical programs to staggering halts, and the circles are vicious. Tagmemics dies quickly in 70s, Christensen program brutalized by linguistic and expressivist camps, expressivism then shrugged off (rendered theoretically disreputable) by cultural/ideological study, process/psychological research turned over by cultural/ideological theoretical approaches, and the encroachment of theory wars from lit/cultural studies into comp.
  • increasingly social-scientific orientation of the field (blind peer review, rise of constructivism, collaboration methods and pedagogies, critique of individualism, parenthetical citation systems win over footnoting, communitarian ideas about scholarship, less polemic and more replicable research) (not “bad” but mixed and certainly different from the individuality and unpredictability of early comp)
  • finally and most importantly to Connors here, the “erosion of a service identity” (13); “retreat from pragmatic pedagogical issues” in disciplinary literature, “theory-pride” (12), PhD in comp becomes a shield from teaching FYC. “Composition studies as a discipline has moved farther and farther from our original teaching duties and the awarenesses that went with them” (13). Along with bias against practitioner-comprehensible work in journals (“too Murrayesque” as one blind reviewer is quoted), Connors describes the marginalizing of practical presses in journal book reviews and the movement of composition publishing into specialty social science presses, which publish small runs at high prices that nobody in the ‘trenches’ can buy.

The big question for Connors becomes “Whom does the theory serve?” (15). He describes how cognitivism and social constructionism arose out of practical questions (in professional and basic writing, respectively). but “out of service to whom will grow today’s theories and tomorrow’s? What connections are we forging to our world–to students and their needs–with the work we are doing in our journals and our conferences? From what practical or service question will the new theoretical ideas of tomorrow emerge?” (15). I think we see *some* of this in New Media comp and C&C, certainly… but peek in the journals and you can see plenty to hold up a thesis that composition is still theory-driven for its own sake, and navel-gazing in an extreme.

Connors closes with two predictions, two possibilities, two directions for the discipline’s future. It can on one had be a “model discipline of the very sort blessed by the ACLS” and more interlinked with the interests and professional attitudes that we hated in literary studies in the first place. (19). Or it can take up an important service orientation, becoming a discipline that “produces scholars who embrace teaching and service as indispensable parts of the world of their research, and puts scholarly research in the service of action in colleges and universities. It exults in the complex and imperfect bungle of pedagogy and teaching issues as much as in the cool abstractions of research and theory.” (20). Part of this future? Doctoral candidates not only doing administrative and theoretical work, but spending serious time with practical ends of the discpline in writing centers and WAC, etc. Publication-tenure expectations open to other/newer forms (teaching materials, websites, textbooks, program guides), openness to interdisciplinarity, and an embrace of teaching as the fundamental function of the discipline.

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