Olson, “The Death of Composition as an Intellectual Discipline”

Olson, Gary.
"The Death of Composition as an Intellectual Discipline."
Olson 23-31.

Olson begins with a glaring critique of the perceived split between
high-theory elites
who avoid "the problems of the classroom" and
those who would see composition as centrally concerned with "self-reflection
about the teaching of writing or about one’s own (or one’s students’) writing
practices" (23). Olson was invited to address RNF and offer a justification for

"In that speech, I argued that if postmodern discourse has taught us
anything, it is that ‘rhetoric’ is at the center of all knowledge making,
even in the sciences
. As a field devoted to how discourse works,
composition, then, is perfectly situated to participate in the exciting
cross-disciplinary investigations of the interrelations between epistemology and
discourse. That is, I argued that while we all desire to learn more about the
teaching of writing or about our own writing processes, these are not the
intellectual concerns
we should have as a discipline" (24). Olson
notes anti-intellectual associations with studying the teaching of writing,
citing Phelps.

"Since that speech, I had thought that as a discipline, we had come to terms
with our intellectual diversity" (24). Olson says he was mistaken, however,
given currents against theory (and also against feminism) (25). He offers the
example of Wendy Bishop’s piece in CCC (51.1,
), "what will undoubtedly become known as ‘the new theory wars‘"
(25). Olson gives a reading of Bishop, telling that she makes claims that nobody
cares about good writing any longer (^read next to Fulkerson).

"No one seems to care about good writing and teaching, she claims; the
teacher-writer is dismissed or used for target practice" (25).
Bishop criticizes Pratt; Olson takes issue with her characterization of Pratt’s
sentence as having "no clothes, no heart" (27). In this second section, "A Place
to Stand?," Olson unravels Bishops stance, raising questions about why, in the
name of "good teaching" it is acceptable to protect students from dense
theoretical vocabulary
when, ultimately, disciplinarity depends on
specialization that includes shared terms (prewriting, freewriting,
audience invoked) (28).

In the third section, "A Sense of History," Olson refutes the attacks on
"rapid professionalism"
or "careerism" (28), noting that "most ‘scholars’
make enormous sacrifices to produce their work, gladly devoting huge
spans of time to their projects–not simply to further their careers but because
they love the subject and are devoted to the discipline itself" (28). The
fissure Bishop introduces, Olson writes, isn’t so different from its precedents:
the disagreements between cognitivists and expressivists in the

"For twenty years, composition scholarship has developed as an
interdisciplinary, ‘intellectual’ enterprise
–and we are much the richer
because of it" (30). Olson closes with an emphasis on respect for differences.

Related sources:
Bishop, Wendy. "Places to Stand: The Reflective Writer-Teacher-Writer in
Composition." CCC 51.1 (1999): 9-31.
Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. Composition as a Human Science: Contributions
to the Self-Understanding of a Discipline
. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.