Connors, Robert. “The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse.” On Research Writing: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998. Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999.
Connors historicizes the ascent and decline of the modes of discourse as a
widely favored, pervasive scheme for organizing FY composition from the early 1800’s until the late 1960’s when
modified approaches and the process movement, bound up with phenomenological underpinnings
in many cases, threw off the charm of modal curricula. The modes of discourse commonly included Narration, Description, Exposition and Argument, although variations included Didactic in place of Expository (Newman), Pathetic (Parker) and Speculation (Quackenbos). Connors’ essay offers a fairly clear chronology of the modes, their brief reign, and the forces that brought about their gradual (and yet ongoing) unraveling: single-mode text books, especially ones centered on exposition, and what Connors calls “thesis texts”–texts purporting a central, masterful method for engaging students to write powerfully, effectively. He details the causal relationships from a classical belletristic set of modes, to Newman’s
A Practical System of Rhetoric in 1827, to Winterowd’s condemnation in 1965, “that the modal classification, ‘though interesting, isn’t awfully helpful.'”
Terms of Import
modes of discourse–variously assembled, the modes usually include Narration, Description, Exposition and Argument. They grew into a rarely questioned kind of pedagogical currency and have been used to organize a vast mass of composition courses over the last 150 years. Underling categorizations applied to paragraph composition were Contrast, Explanation, Definition, Illustration, Detail and Proofs.
belletristic modes–classical antecedents to the modes of discourse, assoc. with Hugh Blair’s
Lectures (1790-1860): epistle, romance, treatise, dialog, history, etc., and also with Reviews, Editorials, Allegories, Parables, Letters, Treatises, Essays, Biographies, and Fiction.
Kitzhaber’s “Big Four” –Barrett Wendell, John Genung, Adam Sherman Hill, and Fred Newton Scott: late nineteenth century
textbook authors who had ascribed to the modes of discourse by 1894. Wendell advanced a variation in his Unity-Mass-Coherence trinity. Wendell neither openly advocated the modes nor devised a competitive model; instead, his trinity was usually subsumed by the modes as the naturally embedded features of each mode.
Before I understood the tension between the modes and process orientations (which aren’t mutually exclusive, of course…what, separate?), I’d had a couple of experiences teaching to the modes–both were in courses I’d inherited, last minute “who’s qualified and available?” teacher grabs–the sort that all-too-often staff late-opening sections in many writing programs. Ah, the modes. Looking back: Oh! What I didn’t know. What I should’ve understood. In one case, I broke severely from the textbook by about week ten. By then it was all a mess. In the other case, we pounded ahead. We actually turned to finding modal hybridity in popular essays, opinion columns and so on–making sense of the mixed modes, the ways they stir in popular print journalism.
I don’t know if I follow Connors’ contention that their power in
rhetoric is gone (what does it mean for power to be gone?). In fairness, Connors points to the faint persistence of the modes, their vacant recurrence as minor elements in
textbook organization. But as long as textbooks and the writing programs who adopt them find arrangements to be of value, the names of the arrangements might change, but the modal quality–the empty container of a named, formulaic textual device–will persist, and we’ll continue to see fluctuations in arrangement and rebuke, arrangement and rebuke. Perhaps none will have such a magnificent hold on the field as the modes of discourse once did.
Before pulling these notes into coherent form (ha!), I looked all around for something I remember reading recently about how argument is rather more like a method
(?) than a mode. Argument, I remember the discussion suggesting, is the extra-modal mode, the one the umbrellas all discourse because all rhetoric is tensional and, thereby,
inherently argument-bound. Couldn’t find the context for the discussion. Was it a listserv? A date-buried weblog entry? The notion was useful for a couple of reasons, and I’d really like to give credit. Most of all, the idea suggests that rather than seeing the modes of
discourse as powerless, we might instead see them as a kind of shelved, archived Pandora’s box whose lid, when we lift if for a contemporary peek now and then, reveals a curious, remarkably popular phase in comp studies–one whose legacy we are still sorting out, and one whose aura is still with us (all), especially if we were ever taught to write to the modes.
I wanted to note, too, that Connors’ identification of the “thesis text” parted from the dominant modes of the ’40s in favor of the newly fashioned fourth C: communication, which “reflected the two most popular intellectual movements in composition theory at the time : the general education movement with its ‘language arts/communications’ approach, and the General Semantics movement.” He refers to Hayakawa’s
Words in Action as an influential work.
Does everyone know about the fall? Why are the modes still in use if the fall was authentic? Is it permanent? Is the fall rather more like a splash where the modes mixed in with emergent trends? Are the modes still responsible for curricular plans in ways that contemporary pedagogies have left behind (thinking narration/description in FY comp I and exposition/argument in FY comp II)?
“To explore the question of what makes a discourse classification useful or appealing to teachers, this essay will reexamine the rise, reign, and fall of the most influential classification scheme of the last hundred years: the ‘forms’ or ‘modes’ of discourse: Narration, Description, Exposition, and Argument” (110).
“Genung, of course, did not adopt Bain’s notion of the four modes absolutely, as had Bain’s earlier and less successful imitators A.D. Hepburn and David Hill. He distinguished between Argumentation, which he called ‘Invention dealing with Truths’ and Persuasion, which he called ‘Invention dealing with Practical Issues.’ These two sorts of arguments were copied and used by derivative textbook authors after Genung until about 1910, when the four standard terms swept all before them. Genung himself adopted the four terms of the standard modes in 1893 in his Outlines of Rhetoric, the follow-up to The Practical Elements” (113).
“Stripped of their theoretical validity and much of their practical usefulness, the modes cling to a shadowy half-life in the attic of composition legends” (119).
“Our discipline has been long knuckling from its eyes the sleep of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the real lesson of the modes is that we need always to be on guard against systems that seem convenient to teachers but that ignore the way writing is actually done” (120).