D’Angelo, 1977, “Intelligible Structure”

Frank. “The Search for Intelligible Structure in the Teaching of Composition.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 51-59.

Big Idea
Look!  We, compositionists, are disciplinarily vital. We have an
epicenter, proven radials, recognizable and defensible structures holding our
work together.  D’Angelo’s essay, I’d say, is best read as a freeze frame
in composition’s becoming.  In his afterthought, he notes, "Much has
happened in the teaching of writing and literature that suggests that our
earlier emphasis on structure and sequence may have been misguided and
naive" (59). He cites a long list of folks (Leonard, V. Burke, Scully,
Stade, W. Rice) whose critiques hammered at the (perceived to be) thin, 1976
shell of the dispersed ranges of academic writing.  Toward "new unity
and order," D’Angelo diagrams the modes of discourse, partners them with
Kinneavy’s aims of discourse, and folds them together with the contention that
the field must be drawn with a sense of coherence, visible chalk

Monday Morning

D’Angelo’s essay, brief as it is, proceeds descriptively more than
critically.  It’s not an overtly political defense of the field of
composition, but by leading with the allegations that "writing is the
disgrace of American education" (Leonard) and that "many entering
students are in fact ‘functionally illiterate’" (Scully), the essay serves
up an answer as well as a call for a recentering of stray pedagogies.  In
one sense, I see D’Angelo’s Braddock as a crucial moment: it carved out a future
into which compositionists could proceed critically.  By promoting a
disciplinary structure, it also sets up a core fade to (trained) corps fade
clubhouse fade to "what you’re doing isn’t

Because I had time yesterday to take on a decent chunk of the latest CE,
I’m thinking about "Intelligible Structure" under beams of Bonnie
Kyburz’s essay on chaos theory in composition and at least one small bit of
Joseph Harris’ response to Beech and Thelin’s critique of his article on
"Revision as a Critical Practice."  First, Kyburz’s chaos theory
work probably wouldn’t have been well received thirty years ago;
"Intelligible Structure" is, in part, D’Anglo’s response to Virginia
Burke’s claim that "there is chaos today in the teaching of composition
because since the turn of the century, composition has lacked an informing discipline."
Arguing for chaos could have been like rocks to a fragile figurine–hazardous.
And I wonder: are these different brands of chaos?  In "Meaning Finds
a Way: Chaos (Theory) and Composition," Kyburz writes;

I have long been fascinated (like Taylor and Walker) by the concept of
writing as a chaotic process, and I find that this notion is encouraged by
conversations regarding "alternative discourses" and
"post-process" pedagogy.  These progressive,
"alternative" discourses–which shape-shift, form, and reform
according to rhetorical purposes, unbound by the strictures of traditionally
bland, uniform, and regulated "academic writing"–have recently
gained currency in composition studies.  Yet, as Gary Olson tells us,
there remains within the field a conservative and nostalgic presence that
denies these and other progressive discourses the sorts of disciplinary status
that can create appreciable change for the composition classroom and for our
notions of what we are about in composition studies ("Working").
Perhaps by returning in iterative fashion to the chaos metaphor–via chaos
theory–that has for so long informed ideas about writing, we may find ourselves
rethinking writing in increasingly complex and promising ways, effectively
resisting pressures to define ourselves and our students through standardized
testing and retrogressive pedagogies, among other ages practices, as the
gatekeepers and worthy practitioners of "order" (that is, Standard
Written–white, middle-class–English. (CE 66.5 505)

Retrogressive pedagogies.  Hmm.  Good stuff.  It reminds me of
Joseph Williams’ phrasal links interface shared via techrhet a few weeks
ago–loosely associated links from among the spray of web texts–discovery and
potentials in chaotic textual extension.  Wonderful.

And this clarification from Joseph Harris on his use of diverge fits
with D’Angelo, too, I think:

The verb I actually use in my essay is diverge.  I don’t see myself as
trying to head off or rebut the work of Ira Shor, James Berlin, or Patricia
Bizzell. Rather, I view us as starting out with a similar set of aims and
values, but ending up in different places, doing different kinds of
work.  Our approaches to teaching don’t conflict so much as branch away
from one another.  We need to find ways of talking about such divergences
that don’t lock us into fixed antagonisms–and especially that resist
valorizing some teachers for "empowering" students while dismissing
others as serving the "dominant ideology." (CE 66.5 557)

With this, then, I need only to note that I see D’Angelo’s essay as a
necessary, momentary assembling of the field toward "intelligible
structure" so that compositionists could, again, diverge in good
stead, loosely tied, supported, affirmed by some conceptual disciplinary
guard–a force at once beneficent and differentiating, making divergence
possible yet risky.

Detached Structures

"But one of the most important reasons for our inability to teach
composition adequately is that we have failed to identify the most significant
principles and concepts in the field which make intelligible everything we
do" (52).

"My thesis is that composition does not have an underlying structure
which gives unity and coherence to the field, that that structure can be
conceived of in terms of principles and forms (akin to those found in music or
painting, (for example), and that these principles and forms need to be taught
in an orderly sequence" (53).

"Virginia Burke emphasizes this point even more forcefully: ‘There is
chaos today in the teaching of composition because since the turn of the
century, composition has lacked an informing discipline, without which no field
can maintain its proper dimensions, the balance and proportion of its various
parts, or its very integrity. Consequently, the practice of composition has
shrunk, has lost important elements, has become a victim of all manner of
distortion’" (51).

"According to many critics, the composition curriculum was a loose
amalgam of separate skills and content which tried to pursue its various
objectives in a bewildering variety of ways" (57).