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

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,
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.