2.26.2008

Undergraduate Composition Theory

I finally get to teach the course for which I was ostensibly hired: Theory and Practice of Writing. This is a required course in the Professional Writing Program but serves other students in the Major and in the Graduate Programs. I have already been tinkering with the syllabus based upon my interactions with students and faculty. As the course description indicates, it has largely been a survey through the accepted modes of composition. I want to change that. I want students to get less coherence in each major approach and more of the push and pull that often generates the interesting debates in composition.

So, I have a couple histories (Nystrand, Greene, Weimelt; Reynolds, Bizzell, Herzberg), Berlin's taxonomy, and outlines of composition's purpose (Emig, Bruffee, Ackerman, Dobrin) as opening moves and the rest mostly complicates the accepted storylines. Of course the real trick in all this is to get them to understand the reception of poststructuralism in composition -- certainly "Winds of Change" is key, but I'm wondering how much original material is needed. Do I assign "Signature Event Context"? Plus I need a full-length text and despite my own education, not to mention partiality to the text, I cannot in all good conscience assign Fragments of Rationality.

So, I'm looking for good texts that can speak to where composition is post-millenium. I'm toying with the idea of Sanchez's Function of Theory, but I'm wondering if that might be too much for undergraduates. For whatever graduate enrolls, it has a lot to offer, especially if they are thinking of becoming a TA in our program. Related to this though, from what I can find, is the overall lack of undergraduate composition theory courses. I have consulted several comp theory courses from all around, but most of them are directed toward graduate students in a comp-rhet program. I need to make this accessible to undergads as well.

Added Postscript: There are articles about developing coursework at the undergraduate level, however, and they are helpful. But, maybe part of what I am running up against are some audience constraints. Many comp theory courses I have reviewed look similar to our teaching methods course "The Teaching of Writing". This is required for teaching majors and deals specifically in the pedagogical application of theory/ies in K-12 curricula. Also, several prof writing programs seem to farm out the concentration of theory to Communications Studies courses, like here. While we are looking to do much of the same thing in regards to Electronic Media, we still have our theory course as its own requirement.

19 comments:

k8 said...

Well, I'm still fond of Textual Carnivals and I think it's still relevant. I just picked up a copy of A Counter-History of Composition, so I can't say how that would work. Probably not quite what you're going for, but I like the collection Alt/Dis.

I'm going to think about this some more. You definitely have me in reference librarian mode:-)

Anonymous said...

Yeah--Interesting. Byron's book is great, so you might consider selections from that. If your interest is mainly in addressing the place of poststructuralism in composition studies, then Vitanza's "Three Countertheses" sounds perfect. Sanchez's book is ok, but it raises more questions than it's prepared to begin answering (IMHO). Finally, don't forget about Sirc--if you want someone to help you complicate the received stories, he's gotta be near the top of the list.

In response to another of your questions, I don't think I would give Derrida to undergrads or MA students if I were teaching the class. But, then, I'm not teaching the class...

Unknown said...

Hey, Scot - glad you got the message. I was messin' with the e-mail comment feature and tried to send to lots of folks, but ended up just you (so far).

Yeah, Ive got Sanchez, Hawk, and Rice's books all on my desk right now. Suggesting Derrida -- at least the Derrida of "S, E, C" is a bit of a joke. I'm just trying to figure out how to make these ideas and "signatures" accessible to u/grads. Just as important here, I guess, is the impulse teach - or at least tell - students not to take this wholesale but to work against it. Even that working against theory is the point. Just because it is Derrida doesn't mean it's worth anything. I can, in all seriousness, tell students that writing theory is the least serious thing and that makes it quite serious!

k8 said...

Well, even if you don't have them read Derrida, they can read about Derrida. This might be a good opportunity for mini-presentations from the class about theoretical ideas.

And (here is the librarian entering the conversation) there are a lot of reference works/introductions to theory and criticism that provide decent background and explanations of these things. I would be tempted to have students by one or, if they have access to it, familiarize themselves with the John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism Online.

Since they are undergrads and MA students, this approach might work.

Unknown said...

Thanks, K8, that's a great suggestion! I had thought about digging into my Hazard Adams, but I like your idea better, plus, I think there might be some Gregory Bateson that explains the ideas well enough for Prof Writing majors and composition-minded grad students. Thus, the theory has to (rightly, I think) lead back to practice.

But this is all so interesting in that, perhaps of my own design, I am coming up against the axiom that one teaches as one was taught. My first Comp Theory course was in my first semester as a TA in a Master's level composition program. I was a TA and while we had a practicum for TAs, the theory course was strongly recommended and attended by TAs.

But, if Freshman Comp is becoming "Intro to Writing Studies," then theory needs to be integrated into an undergraduate curriculum. As an undergrad, I was lucky enough to have a teacher with whom I arranged an independent study and under whose direction I read Derrida, Deleuze, and poststructuralists in light of postmodern poetry. In this way, I came to see poststructural concerns as applicable to writing production rather than reception -- as was taught in the "Literary Criticism" course... so, maybe that's where I should look/ think next.

In any event, student-led research sounds like a winning ticket!

k8 said...

Yeah - my undergrad institution's president was fond of saying "Hanover students don't just read about Aristotle and Descartes, they read Aristotle and Descartes."

Thinking back to my MA theory courses - the comp theory course was a special topics course focusing on diversity. We read bits and pieces of Vygotsky, for example, but the focus was on issues of race, class, gender, etc. In my lit theory course, we had an interesting project in which we created criticism booklets as a group project. So, each person in the group (of four) worked on the same primary text but analyzed it using different theoretical approaches. I believe I wrote a new historicist account of Sartre's No Exit. It was like creating our very own Norton Critical Edition.

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Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..