Monday, January 30, 2006

The End of Composition Studies; The Start of...

In some ways, it's like the Blockbuster video ad campaign from a year ago--The End of Late Fees; The Start of More. The title of David Smit's The End of Composition Studies invokes an endism that one might take to suggest to the demise of the discipline of writing studies. In Advanced Philosophy and Theory of Composition, we're looking at the first half of Smit's book for tomorrow afternoon (also looking at two chapters from Cosgrove and Barta-Smith's In Search of Eloquence, which, fingers crossed, will arrive in the mail later this afternoon). Smit's forthright early on about playing double entendre with "end," both as a variation of "teleology" or "aim" and also as "termination" or "cessation." I've been reading with a stronger sense of the first connotation (teleology/aim) because 1.) people still write and 2.) writing is sufficiently complex to warrant the continuation of its study, define it however you will. And actually, that's one of Smit's chief complaints. He finds that those who would self-identify with the field of rhetcomp have yet to agree on what writing even is, much less how to best to teach it given the institutional constraints of fifteen weeks (more or less in some places, but the bugbear of layering writing rhythms with institutional timeframes is what I'm thinking about) and wildly divergent positions on what ought to constitute writing practices and curriculum in the first place.

Like Fulkerson, whose "Composition at the End of the Twenty-First Century" appeared in CCC last summer making similar claims about the field's disunity and failures to achieve sustained agreement on what is good writing, Smit's project, or at least the half I've read of it, is troubling because he's right on several counts. We lack shared definitions, insights into how people learn to write (in any way that can be recast as curriculum), sufficiently complex models for how people compose, nuance in what we mean by "social," and, most importantly for Smit, we lack evidence of transfer, "the degree to which our ability to use a word, an introduction, or a problem-solving strategy in one context will carry over into another context" (121). I won't go into full-blown chapter summaries here, but basically each chapter in the first half of the book, "Conceptual Limits," calls out just that--fuzziness or ambiguity in the presumed givens of composition: how students come to be rhetorically mature, what we mean by discourse communities (and how to tell what distinguishes one such community from another, specifically), what is the relationship of writing activity to thinking (especially "critical thinking," which he deals with at length), and so on. The second half of the book promises to deliver a curriculum (much like other "Comp Liquidation...But Wait!" projects), so it's clear that Smit hasn't completely given over to despair. We'll get to those sections next week.

Two thoughts I'll take into class tomorrow: For all of the discussion of not agreeing on what writing is (or isn't...Is not! Is so!), Smit doesn't mention technologies, discourses of interface, networks or digitality. Provided that Yancey's address from '04, "Made Not Only In Words: Composition in a New Key," is explicit about the role of technologies (throughout all of time) as co-constitutive of writing, I'm concerned at this absence. It's not, as you might think, that I would prefer a technojubilee somewhere in there, but there are moments when I find that Smit, despite his early claims about widespread divisiveness on what writing is, has closed on a particular, none-too-expansive notion of what writing activity is (especially in institutional contexts; none of this extracurricular business here).

Secondly, in his chapter on transfer, Smit uses an analogy from D. Russell on ball games (120). But I'm not sure the comparison is adequate, or, to put it another way, I don't have the impression that Smit really wants to go the distance with the correspondence between writing instruction and learning to play games with balls. Raising a skeptical series of questions about transfer, Smit reasons that, following the ball game analogy, skillful performance in one ball game would, in turn, lead to skillful performance in others. Rather than "rhetorical maturity," I think this comparison works better with notions of "rhetorical agility," a phrase that played over and over in CCR601 last year. Agility in one ball game (or genre) stands to transfer to other ball games, except that the system of the sport (roles, rules, etc.) doesn't make the staging of transfer a priority. You wouldn't know from playing basketball with me that I never started shutting off passing lanes effectively with my feet (and often kicking the ball) until I started coaching Ph.'s soccer team when he was seven. Right, I was done playing for high stakes by then, but the point I'm trying to get at is that some kind of transfer is, at the very least, notable enough to report. And perhaps this isn't enough proof to say, finally and for good, that transfer happens.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at January 30, 2006 3:30 PM to Reading Notes