CCR 611: Comp Histories/Theories

Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays

Cover of Crowley's book, Composition in the UniversityIt was useful to read Crowley after Berlin and interesting to see her whole argument in this collection of essays as opposed to the one chapter I had been assigned to read before this (“A Personal Essay on Freshman English,” which made her seem so extreme that it was difficult to even fathom her argument).

Crowley begins Composition in the University with a nice overview, acknowledging that even though composition (specifically first-year composition) is a huge enterprise within the institution, we often don’t write or talk about composition in any contexts other than complaining about students’ literacies. However, as she points out, scholars in composition studies are conducting research about writing, constructing theoretical models and new pedagogies, tracing the historical theories of language use, and diving into academic and cultural politics (2). Like Berlin and Miller, Crowley also points out that composition studies has set itself up in opposition to literary studies, acknowledging the many ways that compositionists have established themselves within their own discipline:

Their interest in pedagogy inverts the traditional academic privileging of theory over practice and research over teaching. Composition scholarship typically focuses on the processes of learning rather than on the acquisition of knowledge, and composition pedagogy focuses on change and development in students rather than on transmission of a heritage. Composition studies encourages collaboration. It emphasizes the historical, political, and social contexts and practices associated with composing rather than concentrating on texts as isolated artifacts. Composition studies also acknowledged women’s contributions to teaching and scholarship long before other disciplines began to do so. (3)

Despite all these seeming advantages to composition studies, it’s still a fairly invisible discipline, reflected in a history rife with contingent labor as early as the 1940s. Aside from the full-time faculty who teach at two-year colleges and “odd” liberal arts colleges, grad students and adjuncts are those ones who predominantly teach FYC, and they are undervalued, overworked, and underpaid (4-5).

The overview quickly unravels the controversies of composition as a discipline and as a requirement—a focus maintained throughout the entire book. We often hear that composition is that it is content-less; that is, it doesn’t stem from any particular subject matter or discipline. Because of this, Crowley argues that FYC has been “remarkably vulnerable to ideologies and practices that originate elsewhere than in its classrooms” (6). This is a critique that is frequently leveled against composition (particularly in the form of cries of indoctrination—something Crowley also cries). This mix of factors contributes to a number of rationales justifying FYC and its universal requirement:

I list these in rough historical order: it has been argued that students should be required to study composition in order to develop taste, to improve their grasp of formal and mechanical correctness, to become liberally educated, to prepare for jobs or professions, to develop their personalities, to become able citizens of a democracy, to become skilled communicators, to develop skill in textual analysis, to become critical thinkers, to establish their personal voices, to master the composing process, to master the composition of discourses used within academic disciplines, and to become oppositional critics of their culture. Most of these rationales developed because of composition’s institutional proximity to literary studies. (6)

Aside from a grasp of formal/mechanical correctness, none of these mesh with what academics in other disciplines want FYC to be: a place where students master arrangement, sentence construction, and correct grammar and usage—a place where student writing is “fixed” (7-8). One of the challenges of the desire for correctness is its lack of context. Crowley claims that if we look back to our history, we’ll find that the ancient rhetoricians really valued exigence as a motivating factor for students learning to speak and write better, so the challenge for us today is offering students the appropriate kairotic moments and contexts that will engage them in the composing process (8). But because we often fail at this, what results is a highly artificial writing situation, a simulacrum (a la Baudrillard) of the writing done beyond the classroom. An even more pointed critique, Crowley argues that FYC “is meant to shape students to behave, think, write, and speak as students rather than as the people they are, people who have differing histories and traditions and languages and ideologies” (9, emphasis added). And though blanket statements like this appear throughout the book, this one seemed particularly problematic situated within the first chapter because—although I certainly see her point in some comp theories and pedagogical practices—it seems unfair to assume that we can’t treat students as people and that all FYC must inevitably suppress students’ experiences and subjectivities.

Though Crowley also traces a history of composition, her aims are very different from Berlin’s. Crowley’s aim is not to try to articulate an “objective” history; rather, she traces composition history in order to make two three points:

One is to trace the ideologies and practices that literary studies scholars have articulated that keeps composition secured as an undervalued discipline “at the bottom of the academic pecking order” (12), influenced largely by a dedication to Arnoldian humanism—an approach that privileges reading over writing, focuses on already-completed texts, retains exclusivity, and disassociates itself philosophically from rhetoric. Toward this aim, Crowley argues, “A fundamental assumption of this book is that the humanist approach to the first-year course is not the best approach to teaching composition” (13).

The second aim is to argue for pragmatism—“an action-oriented, forward-looking philosophical orientation” (16)—as a useful alternative to humanism. She argues that pragmatist curricula are more effective for students because they focus on active learning, which allows students to practice what they learn (17).

Her third aim is arguably the most controversial: the abolishment of a universal FYC requirement. And at the end of the first chapter, she writes:

I fear that [composition specialists] may have learned only too well the lessons taught them by their colleagues in literary studies—that required composition provides full-time faculty with a firm institutional base from which to operate an academic empire. Given the unethical and intellectually inappropriate practices that motivate the universal requirement, I hope that composition specialists will take a hard look at it before they repeat past practice. (18)

Chapters 2-6.

Chapters 2 through 6 all discuss the tensions between literary studies and composition, focusing on humanism. In chapter 2, “The Toad in the Garden,” Crowley focuses on the 1993 debate in College English between Tate and Lindemann about whether FYC should employ literary texts. The argument for using literary texts in FYC tried to tie literary study and comp together, affirming the universal importance of literature (rather than comp), and reinforcing the dominance of literary studies in English studies (21).

Chapter 3, “The Bourgeois Subject and the Demise of Rhetorical Education,” focuses on the increase of aesthetics and taste and the subsequent decline of rhetoric. This pedagogy of taste was designed “to help students discriminate between the tastes of the educated and uneducated classes” (36), to “discriminate the bad from the good, the beautiful from the ugly” (38-39), and was firmly grounded in a bourgeois subjectivity that privileged white, straight, Christian male values (42). Because the ideology of taste “assigns socially constructed differences to nature, thus rendering its judgments true, right, and inevitable” (43), rhetorical instruction declined because there was a growing resistance to the idea “that humans can be persuaded to action by their interactions with nature, art, language, and each other” (45).

Chapter 4, “The Invention of Freshman English,” offers interesting historical insight into the move away from classical colleges intended to train good citizens and toward the development of Freshman English and its aims of discipline and surveillance. Crowley argues that the classical college began to change after the Civil War when more people demanded the chance to study, colleges began to offer agricultural and mechanical instruction, donors funded vocational efforts, and an American interest in research emerged (54). The desire for research was influenced by German universities and challenged the American ideal of education as a way to “inculcate in students the received civic and religious wisdom of the community” (54). German ideals valued the instructor as a specialist, signaled in the pedagogical shift from recitation (students demonstrating their understanding of traditional wisdom) to lecture (professors passing on their original research) (56). This new structure also made room for elective courses and the specialization of knowledge. Introductory composition is one of the few courses that remained from the traditional curriculum, and “it still performs the sort of moral surveillance on students” that was valued in the old curriculum (57). Crowley argues—drawing on Foucault—that composition in the modern university “remained the site wherein students’ character could be subjected to the disciplining gaze of the academy” despite its different pedagogy, confinement to English departments, and decidedly detachment from rhetorical intellectual roots (59).

Foucault argues that the power of modern disciplines is invisible, but the power of those disciplines is their ability to make agents visible and then to measure those individuals against the discipline’s (invisible) standards (69). Crowley highlights this in her discussion of entrance exams as a way to measure students and make their (lack of) abilities visible. She argues, “The point of the required course is not to acquire some level of skill or knowledge that can be measured upon exit; it is instead to subject students to discipline, to force them to recognize the power of the institution to insist on conformity with its standards” (74). That is, she argues that Freshman English was (and still is) a pedagogy intended to create “docile subjects” who wouldn’t contest the universal requirement of FYC—“the discipline’s continued and repeated demonstration of their insufficient command of their native tongue” (77).

Chapter 5, “Literature and Composition: Not Separate but Certainly Unequal,” explores the devalorization of rhetoric as an elementary subject and the focus of Freshman English on current-traditional pedagogy, which “forces students to repeatedly display their use of institutionally sanctioned forms” (95). I appreciated Crowley’s argument here that current-traditionalism is not a rhetoric. Rather, she argues that it is a “theory of graphic display” that “perfectly met the humanist requirement that students’ expression of character be put under constant surveillance so that they could be “improved” by correction” (97).

The final chapter on humanism—Chapter 6, “Terms of Employment: Rhetoric Slaves and Lesser Men”—focuses on the labor issues implicated within composition. Crowley argues that “universities apparently value introductory composition so much that they insist it to be universally required, and yet they make inadequate provision for its teaching” (118). She believes this devaluing is related, in part, to its association to English departments and argues from a humanist perspective that “composition must be maintained in order to maintain the class distinction that is captured in the paired but unequal dichotomy literature-composition” (120).

Chapters 7-9.

Maybe it’s the focus on individuals who I don’t find very interesting (eg. Foerster) or the attention to theories that I’ve read widely elsewhere (eg. process pedagogy), but I find this selection of chapters less compelling. Chapter 7, “‘You Can’t Write Nothing’: Norman Foerster and the Battle over Basic Skills.” details the University of Iowa’s 1944 approval of a new undergraduate program in general education which separated writing from literature classes and quartered it into it’s own “basic skills” class (134). Chapter 8, “Freshman English and War,” explores how universal requirements prosper during times of war. Training programs were implemented on a number of campuses during WWII, educators argued for the preservation of democracy, and even during the pressures of Vietnam composition held strong as one of the only universal requirements. Chapter 9, “Around 1971: The Emergence of Process Pedagogy,” discusses a new attention to student-centered pedagogies and how attention to process relieved some of the pressure of the universal requirement for over-worked instructors. Interestingly, Crowley’s claim that process pedagogy is just an extension of current-traditional pedagogy:

It retains the modernist composing subject of current-traditionalism—the subject who is sufficiently discrete from the composing context to stand apart from it, observing it from above and commenting upon it. Furthermore, this subject is able to inspect the contents of the mind and report them to a reader without distortion, using language that fully represents a well-formed composing intention. Nor did process pedagogy change the institutional situation of composition: the introductory courses are still required, and composition teachers are still overworked and underpaid, just as they were prior to 1971. (213)

Beginning of the End.

Chapter Ten, “The Politics of Composition,” picks up on the argument about both current-traditional and process pedagogies as flawed approaches to composition. Unlike instructors in other disciplines who impart knowledge on students, composition instructors attempt to develop student ability (215) and often—unsuccessfully, Crowley argues—attempt to intervene in the “subjectivizing function of the requirement” (217) by trying to develop pedagogies that will give students agency even though they are still subjected to the required course. The fault with both CT and process is their erasure of the political implications of pedagogy because, as Crowley notes, composition studies can never be politically neutral, and the liberal politics of process pedagogy do not appropriately account for this (218). CT pedagogy is conservative in the sense that it resists changes to its rules, preserves verbal traditions, is teacher-centered, elitist, and attempts to impose order on student discourse (218). Liberally grounded process pedagogies are not an appropriate response, however, because they construct idealized versions of students that don’t account for their material realities and deny “the fact that students’ experiences are saturated with their disparate access to cultural power” (226).

All of this builds nicely to Chapter 11, “A Personal Essay on Freshman English,” which is where I first encountered Crowley. Here she argues that Freshman English will continue in its traditional form because it assures parents their children are receiving one last dose of “correct” English and even though it hasn’t gained a lot of respect, it has gained enough power within English departments and the university to retain its status (235). Crowley offers a “modest proposal” to alter Freshman English’s institutional status: “Let’s abolish the universal requirement” (241). Her reasons for this are many: FYC exploits the labor of its teachers and its students, its curriculum is too general to do any good, the requirement makes students resentful and has negative professional affects for instructors, and its abolishment would finally get rid of the placement exam (241-44). I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the points she makes, but (ironically?) her rhetoric is so extreme that I find this argument unpalatable. She considers the opposition to her proposal but categorizes them as “good” and “bad” critiques—a defensive move that makes her de-contextualized hypothetical critiques seem even less valid.

I do, however, think the book ends in a more interesting place than that of the proposal to abolish the FYC requirement. In Chapter 12, “Composition’s Ethic of Service, the Universal Requirement, and the Discourse of Student Need,” Crowley applies Nancy Fraser’s conception of the “discourse of needs” in order to make a more nuanced argument about how we need to “consider what would be lost, and what could be gained, if we dropped the discourse of student need as our legitimating claim” (262). And this is a compelling point. Crowley explains that the needs claims with composition look like this:

students need composition in order to write better, to write error-free prose, to survive in the academy, to prosper in a job or profession, to become acquainted with the best that has been thought and said, to become critics of the society in which they live. 257

Crowley argues, though, that this focus is problematic because when we ignore power relations, we wrongfully assume that we know students’ needs,  are interpreted by the wrong people for the wrong interests, i.e., the gatekeeping needs of the academy vs. the student (258-260). At the end, then, Crowley argues for richer pedagogies that are reminiscent of the pedagogies found in ancient rhetorics, which were better contextualized—moved by civic exigence and situated in public occasions (263).



Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998. Print.


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