Foster, “What Are We Talking About…Composition”

David. "What Are We Talking About When We Talk
About Composition?" JAC 8 (1988): 30-40.

Foster sets up a tension between scientistic and humanistic
approaches to composition by giving a reading of three seminal texts: Beach and
Bridwell’s New Directions in Composition (1984), Hillocks’s Research
on Written Composition
(1986), and North’s The Making of Knowledge in
(1987). He is foremost concerned with composition’s status as a
discipline, and he builds toward a provocative conclusion (what will we
refuse to know?
) by working through each of these books and suggesting the
implications of an approach to composition that depends too narrowly on
empirical research, on models of mind and process that do little to account for
context, and on the limits of replication as a reliability indicator in
scientific research (34). Empirical exclusivity is problematic, Foster contends,
because it renders codependent theoretical development and empirical evidence
(34). Humanistic approached to composition, on the contrary, "flouris[h]
through dialectic, in which one mode of thinking draws life [energy!] in
response to all other modes of thought, none ever permanently ‘disproved’ or
abandoned" (35).

In an affirmation of humanistic models, Foster mentions Bitzer’s triad,
recent research on audience, and Fish and Blech’s work on "interpretive
communities" (36). Furthermore, Foster notes the trap of dualistic
thinking [killer dichotomies?]: "The scientific and humanistic ways of knowing
can carry equal power for the knower, provided he or she understands the
different processes of knowledge upon which each depends. We know some
things as humanists, some things as scientists, and we can accommodate each way
of knowing into our total field of awareness–so that we can prevent
ourselves from being trapped into dualistic either-or thinking
" (37).

Foster’s final criticism of Hillocks centers on Hillocks’ conclusion that
there is relatively little research on audience. Foster contends that
Hillocks consideration of other research is heavily qualified by a narrow set of
brackets, brackets neglecting to include a number of audience studies on the
basis of methodology. This is the final argument before Foster’s
compelling conclusion: "To refuse this invitation to an intellectual pluralism,
to settle in its place for a single perspective, is to invite the punishment we
all hated in grade school: having to write the same sentence one hundred times.
In this case, it would be ‘I will not know. I will not know. I will not

"Each study also conveys a sense of the dynamic, changing nature of
‘composition,’ a feeling that it is enlarging its boundaries faster than its
can chart" (31).

"The assumption informing both books [Beach and Bridwell; Hillocks] is this:
composition is an empirically verifiable field of knowledge which,
under the right conditions, can grow through hypothesis and experiment toward a
truer picture of what teachers must know to nurture literacy
" (32).

"Applied to composition, this powerful idea [natural laws] requires us to
believe that beneath the activities collectively called ‘writing’ are inherent
laws which, when discovered, will permit us to understand, predict, and even
control such activities" (33).

"But can scientific knowledge be a real foundation for teaching
discourse?" (34).

"Indeed, we must turn to North’s thorough, deliberate anatomizing of
all the major modes of inquiry in composition to get anything like a satisfying
picture of the competing ideologies in current composition study" (35).

Related sources:
Beach, Richard, and Lillian S. Bridwell, eds. New Directions in
Composition Research: Perspectives in Writing Research. New York: Guilford,
Connors, Robert J. "Composition Studies and Science." College English 45
(1983): 1-20.
Cooper, Marilyn. "The Ecology of Writing." College English 48 (1986):
Hillocks, George, Jr. Research on Written Composition: New Directions for
Teaching. Urbana: NCRE-ERIC, 1986.
North, Stephen. The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an
Emerging Field. Upper Montclair, NY: Boynton, 1987.