Odell, 1980, “Needed Research in Discourse Theory”

Lee. “Teachers of Composition and Needed Research in Discourse Theory.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 84-92.

Big Idea
Lee Odell argues for yet-to-be-done composition research as of 1979. 
He contends that we must not only be practical and pedagogically centered, but
we must also shape discourse theory and adapt it to benefit students.  His
premise rests squarely on the basic notion that theoretical investigations in
composition must always return to practical matters, to pragmatic application in
the classroom on Monday morning.  I’m not certain how long before Odell’s
1980 piece the Monday morning question became a fixture in composition
studies.  "How will you use this to teach?" was often
bandied about by some of the practice-heavy folks in my MA program.  It’s a
line of thinking that somehow characterized the useful and worthwhile
queries as ones that can be proven to funnel toward students’ proficiencies in
writing.  Unless it shapes student writing, it’s fluff, abstraction (or
that’s the script, anyway).  Odell’s brief article starts with a push away
from Kinneavy’s Aims of Discourse; he faults the aims for their overemphasis on
product at the expense of attention to the series of choices reflected in a
student text.  Odell thinks composition folks should investigate student
choices by engaging in comparative readings of drafts, redirecting student
projects through revisions toward "different purpose[s] and appeal[s] to a
different audience," and by enlisting students to explain–even through
tape-recorded narratives(!)–their own choices while writing. Odell suggests
advantages in comparing unassigned student writing (writing done for
non-academic purposes) to assigned student writing.  How, for example, do
styles vary when the writing is subjected to the forces inherent in the
institutional arrangement?  Because we can be sure student writing
performance varies, we must acclimate our evaluation methods. Odell’s case
aspires to getting inside why students do what they do when they
write and understanding full well how our own work affects what they do.

Wondering About
This is a brief little article, under ten pages.  It reminded me about
one of the research interests of a professor in my MA program.  He
contended that one of the first orders of business in teaching composition was
to come to terms with the thing that governs students’ sense of essayism.
He supposed a kind of accumulation of essayistic force compelled many students
to write mechanically, guided by their overpowering sense of what an essay is
(often conditioned by years of Thou Shall Not’s) rather than what the specific
language in the prompt asks them to do.  In these terms, students’ choices
aren’t always affected by consciousness, choices aren’t always
easy to articulate, decisions aren’t always precise or simple.  And
I wonder if the same is true for more experienced, even professional
writers.  Must we always be able to explain choices?  Is every
articulation governed by a choice?  Is it possible for unchosen (free,
unrestrained, accidental) articulations to achieve a desired aim or must the
entire writing process be underscored by choice after choice in pursuit of an
explicit aim?

Along these lines, Odell’s essay sent me reminiscing about a hard camp-line
in my MA program.  The line basically divided those who held that, in
fairness, instructors must account for the entire semester’s plan at the outset
of the term of study.  Students should be able to look ahead;  proper
planning by the instructor ensures a more organized semester and, as a result,
the course will come off as more polished, more coherent.  Over on the
other side (Me? Oh, back then I straddled.  Good MA students
avoid the wrangling, stick to the middle.) were folks who contended that we
cannot know where what the next assignment should be until we’ve read the one
before it.  It was more in line with responsive pedagogy–the kind that
accepts that we need to improvise, bend the curricula to our students who vary
from term to term, and allow for contextual factors to steer the course rather
than proceeding from an inflexible master plan.  How does this connect with
Odell?  I think his work here supports a version of the second approach,
the loose and responsive plan.  After all, he argues that we must get to
know our students and, in doing so, realize that effective pedagogies are
fine-tuned to specific students.  

It makes sense that composition instructors should care about un-assigned
student writing.  Digital media have given us greater access to unsolicited
writing done by students; we can read weblogs and participate in chats without
getting wrapped up in institutional dynamics.  But what other sources of
un-assigned writing are there?  Where might we look harder at writing done
by students outside of academia?  Why are they writing?  How might our
writing curricula navigate the assigned-un-assigned binary for the betterment of
everyone involved (including the assessors, accreditors–who unfortunately matter)?

Notably, several of Odell’s methods for getting to know the choices students
make when writing strike me as incredibly laborious.  Tape-recording? 
Reading multiple drafts and attempting comparative readings of multiple drafts
is challenging, but listening to students’ voice-recordings explaining the
choices they’ve made in a particular essay draft seems impossible.  Could
be my own sense of appropriate pace and workload, but I can’t imagine attempting
more than two essays in a sixteen-week semester if multiple stages and careful
interrogations of choices were part of the plan.  At times, I have used MS
Word’s document comparison feature to read revised essays against their
predecessor, and although it doesn’t come with a student narrative about
specific choices, it does reveal patterns and lend insight to the scope of
changes being applied between drafts.  I can also see the use of a
discussion of choices when conferencing with students.  I’ve never tried
it, but I am curious about the experiences of folks who have used voice-clip
inserts to comment on student writing (in the mix of text-based comments,
perhaps).  And I suppose this comes close to one of the recent discussions
on the WPA list about the writing assessments used by UPhoenix where, because of
the burden of responding to student writing, human readers are teaming up with
machine readers–layering computer and teacher–toward a two-part rendering of
response to student writing.  It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I
wrote about collaborative
a few months ago, but it churns up some interesting (disturbing,
exciting) possibilities.   

"One basic assumption in current discourse theory is expressed in James
Kinneavy’s claim that purpose in discourse is all important" (85).

"A second major assumption in current discourse theory is that different
writing tasks make quite different demands on writers" (86).

"The writing of our students represents a kind of information that is
almost impossible to obtain in any context other than a course that is primarily
concerned with students’ writing" (84).

"Whereas we once could use a single, widely-agreed-upon procedure for
evaluating all the writing done in a given mode, we may now have to use a
variety of evaluation procedures, most of which we have to create for
ourselves" (88).

"When our colleagues complain to us that we’re not teaching students to
write, they often mean that they’re tired of seeing misspelled words and
sentence fragments" (89).

"If it is true that students are likely to be more successful with one
sort of writing task than with others and if it is true that we must vary our
evaluation procedures according to the specific writing task at hand, we may
have to make substantial changes in the way we assign and evaluate writing"

D’Angelo, 1977, “Intelligible Structure”

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

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
clubhouse fade to "what you’re doing isn’t

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).