Theory and Composition

Writing occupies a singularly difficult position. At its core, writing is communication. It moves information between people—moves it more reliably than speech because it freezes words and transmits them as the author wrote them. Writing should therefore be a tool of immense practical possibility. But writing also lives somewhere between thought and interpretation. While the tool itself, the alphabet and grammar, may be neutral (debatable), writing does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. A text carries with it its entire history and context, as well as the contexts and histories of both the author and reader(s), a lesson Patricia Laurence makes clear: “All words are not equal: some are the fashionable pebbles of a day; others, rocks formed deep in the substrata of culture and history” (105).

Teaching writing, then, involves more than just the “neutral” system for writing. Most critics assume that the writing taught in schools is the form accepted by mainstream culture. They also assume that the people learning to write are from a different culture than the teachers, one that is entirely their own and that is distinct from the mainstream. Given these conditions, Pierre Bordieu reminds us that “the school and other social institutions legitimate and reinforce through specifics sets of practices and discourses class-based systems of behavior and disposition that reproduce the existing dominant society” (quoted in Giroux 54). By teaching writing, the “gatekeepers” to mainstream culture (Lu 891), ask/force their students to join/assimilate with the dominant culture.

John Rouse and Gerald Graff are proponents of this cultural assimilation theory, though neither critic calls himself a believer in its righteousness. Rouse thinks children acquire social identities when they learn the language of the culture they live in, a lesson that promotes the hegemony of the ruling class (1-2). To learn writing, students must give up their cultural backgrounds and conform blindly to the powers that be. Graff sees the same process in a less sinister light. Conforming is “part of an attempt to prepare these young people to get a decent job and thus have a chance at a decent life in American society” (Graff 852). Graff says that Rouse’s culturally-aware, student-centered pedagogy denies students the opportunity to learn the analytical language that can be a powerful tool for starting social change (Lu 899).

Theories like these, according to Bruce Horner, routinely linked writing students with activism and composition studies with minority concerns (202). Horner writes that in order to combat this image, compositionists began producing success stories, usually in the form of before-and-after portraits. Instead of activists, “the students were portrayed as well-adjusted and well-placed citizens” (Horner 206). This practices accomplished two things. Firstly, it certified the open-admission students as “nonthreatening” “outsiders” who wanted nothing more than to join the mainstream (Horner 208). And secondly, it ensured that the entire Basic Writing movement became lost in its own discourse.

In proclaiming their successes, the compositionists tended to make light of or ignore their real-world constraints, like budgets, class sizes, and salaries (Horner 215), entrenching the notion that composition is a field always already struggling to survive (217). “As a consequence,” Horner writes, any practical examinations of how a composition program was faring came across less as demands for improvement and more as pleas for sympathy (218). Composition had “naturalized” its position as a struggling field.

“Conflict and Struggle” became not a reality that needed to be addressed but rather a theoretical stance. The problem lies with theory and with the nature of writing itself. Theory takes over where reading ends. Rather than examining a text directly, theories abstract and generalize those texts, using those texts as tools for describing a larger condition. The text is absent from theory because the text is so widely conceived that it loses its meaning as a coherent unit while theory itself loses its literary grounding. This parallels writing, where the gap between author and the reader is always there—the absence is always present, in Derridean-speak.

This metanarrative serves to show that when written subjects like composition are released into the realm of theory, it becomes incredibly hard to separate practical concerns from theoretical concerns. In fact, once we have taken but one step down the road to theory, it is impossible to go back—the Paradise is lost, so to speak. Since we cannot return to the innocence of composition studies without theory, we must be aware of how that theory informs not only what we do in the classroom but also what we write, lest we become even more entangled in our own discourse.

Works Cited

  • Giroux, Henry. “Critical Theory & Educational Practice.” The Critical Pedagogy Reader. Eds. Antonia Darder, Marta Baltodano and Rodolfo D. Torres. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 1983 (2003). 27-56.
  • Graff, Gerald. “The Politics of Composition: A Reply to John Rouse.” College English 41.8 (1980): 851-56.
  • Horner, Bruce. “Discoursing Basic Writing.” College Composition and Communication 47.2 (1996): 199-222.
  • Laurence, Patricia. “A Comment on the Symposium on Basic Writing.” College English 57.1 (1995): 104-5.
  • Lu, Min-Zhan. “Conflict and Struggle: The Enemies or Preconditions of Basic Writing?” College English 54.8 (1992): 887-913.
  • Rouse, John. “The Politics of Composition.” College English 41.1 (1979): 1-12.
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