Friday, January 31, 2014

Katie's crash course on composition theories (with extended discussion of those I like most)

As I've been conversing with teachers in SNL's professional development course "Teaching with Writing," I've realized that there isn't a simple, accessible resource that discusses recent theories of college-level composition and writers. I think a snapshot of these theories with an extended discussion of social epistemic composition pedagogy and post-process composition theory would be most helpful since it seems they align well with both SNL's and DePaul's mission. I offer this relatively short (and hopefully accessible) piece via this blog so that all can benefit from the conversation.

In the composition and rhetoric world, there has been a steady growth of perspectives on what, how, and why writers compose, and a focus more on writing as a process rather than only a product. There are four major theories about composition: expressive, cognitive, social epistemic, and post-process. Expressive composition theory focuses on the individuals’ writing as inspired and cultivated from within the writer. Often, expressive composition pedagogy involves journaling, free writing, and invention techniques in process. Cognitive composition theory focuses on writers’ planning, goal setting, and revision processes. This pedagogy often involves teaching prewriting, writing, and rewriting with emphasis on how the writer thinks about the development of a text. Social epistemic composition theory focuses on writing and language use as socially constructed knowledge. This pedagogy involves collaboration, peer-review, and an awareness of language use in social constructs such as "the University". Finally, post-process composition theory focuses on writing as interpretive, public, and situated. Therefore, the emphasis is on examining and critically analyzing the power structures and contexts of writing, literacy, and language use rather than on a particular writing process.

Thomas Kent, in his introduction to Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm, claims that writing is situated, interpretive, and public, and thus there is not a universal Theory of writing or Theory about writers that can be taught to students (1). In other words, Kent explains how writing involves a recursive process, but it is not the same for every individual (3). Rather, each individual has a “prior theory” (little "t" theory) or context that influences the ways he/she writes and engages in other forms of communication with people (4). Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon in their “Critical Introduction” extend Kent’s view on writing as situated, interpretive, and public but introduce the concepts of “relation, location, and position” to further elaborate Kent’s theory in ways that focus on the contexts of writers, students, and teachers and their situations with respect to the world around them (8). Examples of these three contextual concepts include constructs of power between student and teacher (relation), writers’ material place and conceptual space in institutional structures (location), and the impact and essentialization of class and race on normative beliefs about the world (position) (12-16).

Patricia Bizzell, David Bartholomae, and Kenneth Bruffee are three composition theorists who focus on principles of questioning or criticizing the dominant discourse, its inherent ideology, and the power-relations established as a result. Their pedagogical principles offer ways we can be mindful of post-process composition theory in our classrooms.

Patricia Bizzell, in “Cognition, Convention, and Certainty: What We Need to Know About Writing,” claims that expressive and cognitive theorists need to focus more on why writers set the goals they do when writing (373). Her focus on outer-directed theory answers this question—writers’ goals (and knowledge) are influenced by their surroundings (379). Although students’ main goals in composition courses are to learn the conventions and standards of academic discourse as if it were another language, she urges an “open area” or “discourse community” where discourses can collide and function as spaces for students who question those conventions (376; 386).

Bizzell’s consideration of an “open area,” where discourses collide and the dominant discourse is questioned, is a form of what Vandenberg, Hum, and Clary-Lemon would consider a conceptual location or “space.” However, I believe this conceptual space can be made material in the classroom in the ways students and teachers communicate with one another in their attention to power, whether in online discussion forums or in discussion circles. If students and teachers maintain the pedagogical principle that the classroom is an “open area” or “discourse community” with Bizzell’s theory in mind, they may begin to critically analyze their context: gender, race, class, and relationship to societal structures. As Kent would claim, students and teachers bring their own prior theory to the classroom; an “open area” in the classroom, or a forum for critical and resistant discussion, would present an opportunity for students to make their prior theory material though language—whether oral or written. Thus, in an “open area,” relation, location, and position is interpreted, made public, and situated in writing (or another form of communication).

In “Inventing the University,” David Bartholomae claims that good writing will “appropriate” the conventions of academic discourse and question them, while maintaining a shared goal with the reader (406). He uses students’ written products to determine their process and, as a result, their level of writing ability. As Bartholomae shows in several cases, he can identify students’ ability to “approximate discourse” through their use of examples, conclusions, “commonplaces,” and keywords (408). He recognizes a “movement toward a more specialized discourse” within one of his “good” writing examples because he sees the student taking a privileged position against a “common discourse” and questioning that code—the student is able to establish his position within and against the code (413).  In addition, Bartholomae asserts that the writer is “written by the language available to him”—knowledge is constructed when a student writes through imitation and through the context of a discourse community (415).

Like Bizzell, Bartholomae pays attention to those writers who question the conventions and inherent power of the academic or “common” discourse—he considers this a “good” form of inventing the university. He still places value on some students’ writing over others, but his recognition of students who have more power than others in the academic discourse is evidence of post-process theorizing about ideology, relations, and context. His “inventing the university” concept presents a pedagogical principle that reflects the situated, interpretive, and public writing of students. However, this situated, interpretive, and public writing is only “good” insofar as it approximates the dominant discourse. While Bartholomae encourages students to invent the university through writing, he already has a normative view of what university writing looks like. Therefore, for this principle of “inventing” to surface in a post-process pedagogy, writers’ goals would be to recognize and question the hierarchical norms of the dominant discourse while simultaneously recognizing and questioning the norms in other discourses.  

Finally, Bruffee claims that collaboration in the classroom gives students the opportunity to learn the “normal discourse” of the academy (and in other settings) together through negotiation and conversation (406). He shows that students will “negotiate social relations” and produce spoken or written contributions that follow the conventions and values of the “normal discourse” amongst a community of “knowledgeable peers” (401). He states that by learning these conventions and values in this way, knowledge is gained socially and reflected in writing—writing is “internalized social talk made public and social again” (400). However, Bruffee briefly introduces the idea of “abnormal discourse,” which is knowledge created against the authority in a discourse. It is abnormal because it rejects or criticizes the normative assumptions of the dominant discourse (407).

“Abnormal discourse” compares to Bizzell’s proposal for “open areas” in the discourse community, where convention can be questioned, and Bartholomae’s interest in writers who imitate and question convention (Bartholomae 408; Bizzell 376). Thus, Bruffee is also theorizing, though briefly, about context and power in the ways that post-process theorists do. Although Bruffee claims that abnormal discourse cannot be taught, acknowledging or providing space for “abnormal discourse” would help writers reflect on their positions and “prior theory” relative to the dominant discourse (407). In the classroom, communication that reflects “abnormal discourse” might further the deconstruction of the authoritative and power-laden ideology of the dominant.

Since I have shown how post-process and social epistemic theories overlap at specific points because of their focus on power and context of writers, writing, and readers, the social epistemic principles of open areas, inventing the university, and abnormal discourse can be considered in a “post-process pedagogy.” These principles are not content that is to be mastered, nor are they agendas that place the teacher as the authority in the classroom. Rather, they are concepts that allow for teacher and student recognition and dialogic communication.

I believe that these pedagogical principles are already occurring in classrooms, but students and teachers may not recognize them as such. On the other hand, perhaps students and teachers are still functioning in an authoritative relationship and writing is being taught as a body of knowledge and a universal process to be “funneled” into students’ minds. Thus, I offer this summary and analysis of three pedagogical principles that can function in the classroom to help students and teachers recognize their own and others’ positions, relations, and locations in language and how those relate to context and power in writing. These pedagogical principles are universalized in their attempt to recognize difference and promote dialogic communication. Yet, because I don’t prescribe an agenda that defines “good” writing or ultimate ways of learning to write that facilitate that “good” writing, I am merely suggesting the means or principles by which students’ and teachers’ begin to consider their relations, locations, and positions when using language.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.  589-619.

Bizzell, Patricia. “Cognition, Convention, and Certainty: What We Need to Know About Writing.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 365-389.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.393-414.

Kent, Thomas. Introduction. Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. 1-6.

Vandenberg, Peter, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. Critical Introduction. Relations,
Locations, Positions. Urbana: NCTE, 2006.

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