‘Golden Age’ Reference

Off and on for the past few weeks I have been sleuthing around for reference
to "the golden age of composition studies." The phrase appears in quotation
marks in Lee Odell’s "Afterword" to his 1986 CCCC address in Roen’s collection,
Views from the Center. But those reflective afterwords are somewhat
informal; the phrase is not attributed to any source. What to do? I Googled
around and didn’t find anything promising (how I overlooked it, I cannot be
sure, although I bet ‘the’ article threw me off), but I didn’t give up. Instead,
I emailed Professor Odell. Research in Y2K08, yeah? He got
back to me the same day and said that the phrase, he thought, was credited to
Jack Selzer.

Tonight, I located the ‘golden age’ reference in an English Journal
article by Elizabeth Blackburn-Brockman (whose mother-in-law, you might be
surprised to learn, was middle school civics teacher and high school Spanish
teacher for D. and me both; in the civics class we had to memorize all of
Michigan’s 83 counties; I will not recite them for you here). That
article: "Prewriting, Planning, and Professional Communication," 91.2 (Nov.
2001). In the article, Blackburn-Brockman mentions almost the exact
phrase, "a golden age of composition studies," and attributes it not to Selzer,
but to Bob Root. She also cites Selzer’s 1983 CCC article, "The
Composing Process of An Engineer," which offered a processual analysis of
engineer Kenneth Nelson, much in the same spirit as Emig’s The Composing
Process of Twelfth Graders
from 1971. Could this be the golden age?

The phrase from Root (whom I never met, but who taught in the English Dept.
where I took Freshman Composition in 1992 from his colleague, Phillip Dillman)
shows up in the Introduction to a collection of non-fiction he edited with
Michael Steinberg,
Those Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching: A
(1996). Is there a copy in our Bird Library at Syracuse?
No, of course not. Seems it’s one of the few books we don’t have.

I considered emailing my program’s listserv to ask whether anyone had a copy
I could borrow, but rather than bother the list with a request, I figured I
would try the library’s interlibrary loan system, ILLiad. I haven’t used
ILLiad since 2005, so, of course, I couldn’t remember my password. I tried
to reset the password, and when I did, the system sent me a blank email message.
Here’s what was in the message: . Thus, here ends the
trail for tonight. I know where the "golden age" reference comes from, and
the source, to my surprise, is not quite as middle-of-the-road as I expected it
would be. That said, I do think Root knows composition studies, or at
least certain veins of it, very well, even if I couldn’t begin to speculate how
many CCCC’s he’s attended (more and more often, I tend to think of disciplinary
centrality in terms of trips to the flagship conference, whether verifiable or
guessed at; and yes, I know this is just one of many possible metrics).

Why, after all, am I questing for the golden age reference? Well, for one
thing, my own research has lately gotten me thinking more about the implicit
disciplinary prototypes underlying suggestions of disciplinary fragmentation
(viz., Smit’s endism or Fulkerson’s "new theory wars"). And so, if there has
been a golden age of composition studies, I’m curious about it, curious as well
about the idea of disciplinary ages (and whatever it is that makes them
seem plausible).


  1. I’m interested to see what you find out. The “golden age” is always a reference to the past, right? A kind of ubi sunt homage? Do you have to be a discipline before you can have disciplinary fragmentation? I’m not sure if we’ve ever had normal science in rhet/comp. It would seem to me that rhet/comp in the 60-70s would have to be pre-disciplinary, which doesn’t mean one can’t pine for those simpler times. I’d think you’d need a critical mass of doctoral programs (or at least dissertations in the field) to have a chance of forming a modern discipline.

    Maybe the golden age is a kind of pre-disciplinary moment? E.g., what does it mean to say the 50s were the golden age of tv?

  2. I tend to think of the ‘golden age’ reference as a product of perceptions of scale. The range of activities and people involved may have made it seem 1.) active (i.e., big and booming) and 2.) close-knit. So “pre-disciplinary” does seem to apply, especially if disciplinarity depends upon dissensus, messier edges, and a greater volume of works (and acts) than any one person can reasonably apprehend.

    Golden age of TV works similarly, I guess. The number of programs wasn’t too great to have seen one or two episodes (enough, presumably, to judge). Thus, any age of abundance/excess is unlikely to be ‘golden.’ Maybe?

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