Sunday, May 16, 2004

D'Angelo, 1977, "Intelligible Structure"

 D'Angelo, 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 lines.  

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 to clubhouse fade to "what you're doing isn't composition."  

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).

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