The Disciplinarity of Composition Studies

Comps Study Question – Composition Studies (Helen Foster)

[this was a working draft]

The historical landscape of Composition Studies is complex, multidisciplinary, and messy.  It is, to use a phrase from Janice Lauer, a “dappled discipline” (27).  While an essay of this length cannot do full justice to the multifaceted discipline that is Composition Studies, my hope is to point to important themes that have surfaced since the 1960s, and which have advanced the field to where it stands today.  My approach to this endeavor will be both chronological and multi-modal, an approach I believe will serve best in this case.  As I move through the four decades that encompass the 1960s-1990s (with some reference to Composition Studies before and after those dates), I will use four criteria set forth for disciplinarity by Janice Lauer in her foundational essay  “Composition Studies: Dappled Discipline” (1984).  The four criteria for disciplinarity set forth in the piece are (1) the domain of study (2) the modes of inquiry (3) the history/theoretical assumptions and (4) the discipline’s epistemic courts (25).  This framework, along with a chronological and multi-modal template, will serve as the canvas from which I shall display some of the dappled landscape that is Composition Studies.


The roots of Composition Studies (pre-1960s) can be said to be both vast and limited.  Vast because composition in a general sense (writing, discourse, language use, rhetoric, etc.) has been an important human activity and pedagogical fodder for centuries (especially when connected to Rhetoric); limited because Composition Studies as a field/discipline didn’t achieve cemented structure and legitimacy until the early 1960s, and many modern issues in the field were never explored before the development of the field in the 1960s.  Before then, composition studies went from being ignored by the American university system to becoming a staple course for students at Harvard University, the leader in curricular reform, in the last decade of the 1800s (Berlin 20).  From that point until the 1950s, composition studies at the university level also worked out issues of purpose.  The importance of writing studies went from being necessary to write about literature to being more utilitarian (workplace oriented) in nature.  A major growth in student populations, with a growing population of students that came from homes where English was not spoken, was also an important influence on composition studies as it forced educators and administrators to consider, and re-consider, the role of writing in high schools, in college entrance exams, and in the development of students’, and society’s, needs (33-35).  Importantly, in a general sense, the paradigm of Current-Traditionalism dominated the field of Composition Studies from the late 1800s until the 1950s.  This paradigm was mechanistic and positivistic in nature and kept writing focused on issues of grammar and superficial correctness.  This approach to writing helped keep composition studies, as a discipline, subservient to literature in English departments across the country.  Composition studies was a sort of necessary evil—a fact that would drastically change over the next forty years.


Even in the roots of Composition Studies we see Lauer’s criteria for disciplinarity enacted and complicated.  Scholars, teachers, administrators, students, and lawmakers were involved in the development of composition courses, and their place and curriculum, in the modern American university.  This complicated past, of which I only touched upon, is an important piece of the history of Composition Studies.  This history continues on its complicated path with the more formal establishment of modern Composition Studies in the 1960s.  The birth of the discipline, in the 1960s, was highly influenced by a number of multi-disciplinary forerunners.  Scholars writing before and during the 1960s, such as Booth, Ong, Polany, Burke, Festinger, Pike, Toulmin, and Perlman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, laid a multi-modal foundation for scholars in Composition Studies.  This marks an important characteristic of Compositions Studies as a field—its multi-disciplinarity.  As Lauer states, this multi-modality, which continues to be a center-piece of the discipline, “helps researchers avoid nearsightedness…cultivates a fruitful reciprocity among modes…[and] gives the discipline a hierarchical perspective through which to view problems rather than methods as ends” (25-26).  This multi-modality has thus directly, and indirectly, influenced the discipline’s domain of inquiry, modes of inquiry, history, and epistemic courts.  Linguists, sociologists, psychologists, rhetoricians, philosophers, etc., and their work, laid the foundation for the colorful landscape that is Composition Studies.

Looking directly at the 1960s, the discipline begins to flourish and cement itself in higher education and in scholarly circles.  Theorists such as Moffett, Kenneavy, Britton, Rohman, Murray, Elbow, Emig, Christensen, Corbett, and Lauer, begin to establish Composition Studies as its own discipline, not necessarily connected to literature, and complicate issues of invention, discourse, style, and voice while moving towards “process” theories of writing.  The work of these and other scholars began to establish domains of inquiry that were unique from other fields in the academy.  A few examples: Christensen wrote in 1963 in “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” that “we need a rhetoric of the sentence that will do more than combine the ideas of primer sentences [but] one that will generate ideas” (155); Rohman tackled pre-writing and the writing process in “Pre-Writing: The Stage of Discovery in the Writing Process” where the power of writing was seen as able to “renew the sense of self [and] renew [the] vision of things” (112); Moffett discusses writing’s links to the cognitive developments of the brain in Teaching the Universe of Discourse, an extremely important piece of the Cognitivist movement; and Murray and Elbow helped usher in the influential Expressivist movement which theorized (and “pedagogicized”) the need of writing courses to help students develop and emulate a strong voice and develop writing that started within the individual’s personal experiences and which stressed the student’s incisive and creative intellectual bite (Elbow 120; Murray 119).  All these helped the discipline transform into a field which began to ask questions about writing and discourse that no other field was asking (domain) and which valued individual expression over the rule-governed, task-oriented, and literature-centered discourse of current-traditionalism.  All this theory and pedagogy was advanced by the epistemic courts, which included these scholars, journals such as CCCCollege EnglishRhetoric Society Quarterly, and conferences such as CCCC, NCTE, and informal meeting of the Rhetoric Society of America (Lauer TALK AT NMSU*****).  By the end of the 1960s, Composition Studies, as a discipline, had begin to establish a unique domain of inquiry, an epistemic court made up of scholars, journals, and conferences that solidified and advanced knowledge in the field, differing modes of inquiry influenced by the multi-modality of the field’s roots, and a history.


Because of the developments of the 1960s the field of Composition Studies was clearly moving away from rule-governed, simplistic, and grammar-centered notions of writing, and moving towards a discipline that emphasized the process of writing, a focus on the individual and subjectivity, and a distinction from the domain of study of the literature branch of English departments.  The 1970s saw further advancement with the growing epistemic court which included the journals Rhetorica and Freshman English News, the Wyoming Conference and summer Rhetoric seminars at Perdue and Detroit, and newly established graduate programs at USC and Rensselaer Polytechnic (Lauer TALK AT NMSU ****).  One of the major influences on this decade was the Cognitivists who focused on psychology and cognitive models of writing development.  Two major Cognitivist scholars were Flower and Hayes who stressed the recursive process of writing and a hierarchical and cognitive approach to teaching/learning writing (366).  Their approach to writing research and composition in general was very structured and “scientific” which led to new modes of inquiry and pushed the discipline into the realm of psychological studies.  This, along with continuing inquiries into the revising process (Murray), groupwork (Bruffee), style and grammar (Ohmann), a developing sense of “rhetorical situatedness” (Bitzer; Vatz; Jameison), audience (Ong), along with influential early meta-inquiries such as Leff’s “In Search of Ariadne’s Thread: A Review of the Recent Literature on Rhetorical Theory,” advanced the domain, modes of inquiry, epistemic courts, and history of Composition Studies.


The 1980s saw Composition Studies embrace highly social paradigms and the view that rhetoric was epistemic.  More than ever before, Composition Studies was no longer a group of “isolated individuals with personal knowledge and convictions” but a discipline that now joined “scattered concerns” to “effect change” (Lauer 25).  A leading social constructionist, Kenneth Bruffee, wrote in 1986 that “a social constructionist position in any discipline assumes that entities we normally call reality, knowledge, thought, facts, texts, selves, and so on…are community-generated and community-maintained linguistic entities” (774).  In regards to rhetoric being epistemic, Barry Brummett, in “Three Meanings of Epistemic Rhetoric” points out the shifts that the discipline has experience, from being a field that has no real subject matter of its own, to one that can say something about how social reality is created and shared, to one that is at the center of all there is to know (ontological).  These important shifts solidified the multi-disciplinary and multi-modal nature of the discipline as it continually saw the implications of rhetoric and composition in all facets of life.  This was helped by the diverse scholarship in audience (Ede and Lunsford; Porter), arrangement (Witte and Faigley), literacy (Scribner), Writing Across the Curriculum (McLeod), feminist studies (Flynn), and early writings in computers and composition (Selfe; Rodriguez).  These scholars (along with a myriad of others that must be left out because of space limitations), helped advance the history of the field along with journals such as Rhetoric ReviewPRE/TEXTJAC, and Writing on the Edge, conferences such as RSA, ISHR, and conferences at Penn State and New Hampshire, graduate programs at Perdue, Carnegie-Mellon, UT-Austin, and Louisville (Lauer NMSU TALK *****), and important disciplinary meta-works such as the CCCC Bibliography, Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985, Lauer’s “Composition Studies: Dappled Discipline,” and Faigley’s “Competing Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal.”  All these advancements helped the discipline gain considerable ground and credibility in English departments and, especially in the eyes of compositionists and rhetoricians, gain equal status with all other disciplines.


In the 1990s, Composition Studies sees a further explosion in its domain, modes of inquiry, epistemic courts, and history.  The discipline, now firmly entrenched in process and social theories of discourse, diversifies immensely and shifts towards a more politicized view of the world and of the field.  Composition Studies is now seen by many as a vehicle for change in a socialized, contexualized, and politicized world where various subjectivities should be highlighted.  A major figure of this social epistemic rhetoric is James Berlin who writes in “Social-Epistemic Rhetoric, Ideology, and English Studies” that “persuasion in the play for power is at the center of this rhetoric” (83).  Effects of this paradigm on the discipline include the fact that one of its main purposes is to “prepare students for citizenship in a democratic [and politicized] society” (80).  This is a major shift from views of Composition Studies in the other eras previously discussed.  Within this diverse, subjective, and politicized atmosphere we see scholarship in the areas of “rhetorical grammar” (Micciche), rhetorical multiculturalism (Lu), ideology and discourse (Walters), ESL (Mangelsdorf; Rodby), queer theory (Gibson), “minority rhetoric” (Viallanueva; Logan), composition and technology (Scenters-Zapico), and Writing in the Disciplines (Kirscht; Levine; Reiff).  This list (which is far from extensive) shows the diverse nature of the domain of Composition Studies, which by this point has employed “case studies, ethnographies, quantitative analyses, evaluations, surveys, predictions, and true and quasi-experiments” (Lauer 22) as modes of inquiry.  With such diversity, the epistemic courts and history of Composition Studies, now with a consortium of journals, conferences, and Doctoral programs, have never been so large and complex and the discipline never so firmly established and self-reflexive.

As the new millennium unfolds we see the landscape of Composition Studies continue to unfold with continued work toward ideological evolution and attempts at outright paradigm shifting.  We see calls for a more international and multi-linguistic approach to Freshman English and writing programs (Trimbur), important distinctions being made between composition and writing and the call for “composition and rhetoric scholars to break from English departments” (Cushman 123), the call for more primary research in the field (North), a diversification of what counts as research (North), and a move towards non-academic settings and writing (Heath).  As the domain, modes of inquiry, epistemic courts, and history of the field continue to expand, advance, and diversify, we will continue to see the brave, (sort of) new discipline of Composition Studies evolve before our eyes.