Stephen M. The Making of Knowledge in Composition. Upper Montclair,
N.J.: Boynton/Cook, 1987.
North’s 1987 "portrait"–importantly the first theoretical monograph in the
field–sets out with a few central questions: What counts as knowledge in
Composition? How will lore and practitioner-knowledge be valued as
the field pursues professionalization and methodological legitimacy? What
is the future of Composition given its methodological pluralism and
related charges about dissolution or disunity? North describes his own method as
anthropological. He begins with a brief history of the events that
figure into the present climate for composition studies: the large number of
practitioners relative to scholars and researchers, the devaluation of
practice-as-inquiry and resultant devaluation of practitioners, and the primacy
of lore (unregulated, informal, and tacit knowledge about writing and how best
to teach it) in the field.
This is a deceptively simple portrait–both a history of modern composition
studies and a speculative (skeptical?) opening up of questions about the deep
problems facing the field with its methodological pluralism. North
presents a typology for methodological communities or clusters.
Each of the eight types is assigned a full chapter that includes a brief
bibliographic gloss (key publications, read primarily through names and
titles), a characterization of the community and a comparison of
it to its nearest neighbors, and an explanation (including a list) of the
typical procedures involved with the method. According to North,
pure (method-free) practice (and practitioners) begins to count
differently–as somewhat less than–with the 1963 CCCC and Kitzhaber’s
call for leadership and professionalization–exerting, in North’s language,
"authority over knowledge about composition" (15). The resulting methodological
communities or modes of inquiry are distinguished by (aside from method),
size in number (Practitioners are the most), relation to other modes,
and the duality of identification (many would also refer to themselves as
Rhetoricians, although North says this is not methodologically helpful)
The eight modes of inquiry (which reflect some, not all clusters (137,
- Practitioners (the founding mode; practice as inquiry) (21)
- Scholars – Historians (rules include new events or new
connections among events; two stages: empirical and interpretive;
first-generation historians focused on pedagogy; second-generation on
institutions and programs) (66)
- Scholars – Philosophers (most difficult to account for (91);
challenge to impose coherence) (91);
- Scholars – Critics or Hermeneuts (a central mode of literary
studies (116); favored by North; intermediary between historians and
- Researchers – Experimentalists (replicable results to dis/confirm
and certify (150)) (141);
- Researchers – Clinicians ("cases"; subject-oriented and fitting
with psychological studies, cognition, etc.) (197);
- Researchers – Formalists (models or simulations; focused on formal
properties of process or activity) (238);
- Researchers – Ethnographers (inscribers; Geertz-influences "thick
description"-ists; few of them in 1987 according to North) (272).
As each group becomes more formidable (in number, publication venues,
conferences, etc.), there comes an increased expectation that practitioners will
fall in. Consequently, methodological pluralism can be framed as a
contest–a "methodological struggle for power" (321)–that begins to
recruit practitioners into particular methodological communities (^Grad
programs as yet another arm of this?)
Lore (22): "the accumulated body of traditions, practices, and
beliefs in terms of which Practitioners understand how writing is done,
learned, and taught." Healthy lore depends upon longevity and breadth (35).
Three functional properties of lore:
- "once somebody says that it has worked or is working or might
work, it is part of lore" (24)
- "While anything can become part of lore, nothing can ever be dropped
from it, either" (24)
- "once a particular nomination is made the contributor gives up control
over it" (25). Share share alike: "Such tinkering with the contributions made
by other Practitioners seldom seems terribly disturbing" (25).
Key terms: modes of inquiry (1, 15), methodological communities (1),
methodological land-rush (2), practical knowledge (16), emerging science (21),
practitioners (21), lore (22), practice as inquiry (23, 33), lore and pragmatic
logic (23), lore’s experiential structure (24), expressive, poetic,
transactional writing (26), The House of Lore (27), practitioners’ tolerance and
latitude (28), textbook’s catechetical function (30), rubber triangle (53),
first- and second-order inquiry (60), rhetoric (63), praxis (65), narrative
(69), thick description (277), paradigm (318), tacit knowledge (319),
methodological pluralism (320), topoi to organize the field (338),
inter-methodological coherence (370).
"Federal interest in English per se on this scale [crisis; 1958 NDEA;
1967 NCTE NITE] was relatively short-lived, but the momentum generated by
the intense interest of these few years launched modern Composition. The
broadest effects were on English teachers’ self-perception as professionals"
"Kitzhaber’s  challenge calls, in other words, for the
exertion of authority over knowledge about composition: what it is, how
it is made, who gets to say so and why" (15).
"It takes time to identify new modes of inquiry, to acquire
expertise in them, and then to find or create outlets in which to publish
their results. They have emerged very slowly" (21).
"These three modes [historian, philosopher, and critic] belong in the same
methodological cluster primarily because they share the humanist tradition’s
reliance on what can be broadly defined as dialectic–that is, the
seeking of knowledge via the deliberate confrontation of opposing points of
"Even more to the point, [rhetoric] is not much help methodologically.
Rhetoric can be defined as an art to be mastered; or, as for these Scholars, the
various manifestations of that art as practiced can be conceived as an object
or field of study. But there is not, in this latter sense, any
inherently Rhetorical mode of inquiry" (64).
"The resulting demographic pattern [among philosophers] is
rather like that of a marina: a small core of full-time residents;
a larger group of long-term types, who may stay as long as two or three
years, or move in and out with some regularity; and lots of one-time,
seasonal visitors who nevertheless–by sheet [?] weight of numbers–leave
their mark on the community" (92).
"I will admit to a certain bias in favor of this kind [hermeneutic-critical]
of investigation; of all my work in various modes of inquiry, I was most
interested in these case studies" (119).
"The first three of these [Experimentalists, Clinicians, and
Formalists] constitute a methodological cluster quite as neat as the
three Scholarly modes, sharing as they do the positivist tradition’s
fundamental faith in the describable orderliness of the universe:
that is, the belief that things-in-the-world, including in this case people,
operate according to determinable or ‘lawful’ patterns, general
tendencies, which exist apart from our experience of them, and which are, in
addition, accessible to the right kinds of inquiry" (137).
"After all, it [experimentation] has been the dominant mode of
formal educational research in this country over the past 75 years or so.
And while it has always had its share of vehement critics–who delight in
pointing out, for example, the origins of many of its techniques in
agricultural research, in formulations designed to deal with corn yield per
acre–it is not a dominance that will surrender easily" (141).
"The natural urge is to move toward system, toward a vision of
students not as discrete individuals, but as in some ways comparable units
acting according to articulable general principles. Experimental
knowledge responds to this urge very, very well. In it, the
institutions and guesses of lore are assumed to have been transformed into a
more powerful kind of truth, one by which the uncertainty, and so the
stress, of what otherwise seems such a chaotic world might be better brought
under control" (153).
"In terms of this study, it ["the paradigm-shift explanation for the
revolution in Composition"] might be described as a power play, an attempt by
one methodological community or cluster of communities to assert its
dominance over the others. And this is the sort of movements that has in
fact been most characteristic of the emergent field of Composition"
"Versions of the conservative model may acknowledge that teaching
writing is to some extent an art, but they are more likely to treat it
more as a kind of technology, an applied science, as well, and to
be far more attracted by the cumulative (and perhaps, by implication,
Practitioner-proof) possibilities of that scientific dimension"
"Nonetheless, my original question stands: By what sort of logic are
these studies being strung together? Witte seems to handle the results of
these methodologically diverse investigations as if they were so many
Lego blocks: standardized bits and pieces of ‘knowledge’ which,
whatever their origins, sizes, or shapes, can be coupled together to form a
paradigmatic frame within which his own exploratory Experimental study will fit"
"For both sides, it is a ‘field,’ a ‘profession,’ and a ‘discipline,’ terms
that seem to be treated interchangeably, as if in obedience to an unspoken
rule: Characterize Composition as paradigmatic or dialogical, coherent or
chaotic as you like, but it is to everyone’s advantage to treat it as
a legitimate academic discipline" (364).
"It might not be too much to claim, in fact, that for all the rhetoric about
unity in pursuit of one or another goal, Composition as a
knowledge-making society is gradually pulling itself apart" (364).
"Is there any chance, then, for an academically full-fledged, autonomous,
multi-methodological, knowledge-making Composition? Not, it would seem,
without radical change. Composition faces a peculiar methodological
paradox: its communities cannot get along well enough to live with one
another, and yet they seem unlikely to survive, as any sort of integral
whole called Composition, without one another" (369).
"Instead, I end up predicting that either (a) Composition as we know
it will essentially disappear, reverting to something much like its
pre-1963 form; or that (b) it might survive, but probably only by breaking
its institutional ties with literary studies and, hence, English
"So, sad as it may be, I would rather take my chances on a fully vital
Composition that fails than to settle for one that is never quite free to
- Related sources:
- Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic,
- Kitzhaber, Albert R. "4C, Freshman English, and the Future." CCC 14
- Winterowd, W. Ross. Rhetoric: A Synthesis. New York: Holt, 1986.