I’m going to tell you a story, or really, a paraphrase of someone else’s story. Richard Fulkerson, a compositionist and Professor Emeritus in the Texas A&M system, wrote a series of controversial articles (over a span of decades) that traced a history of formal composition study and the dominant theories within. The beginning of that history is typically traced to 1890 and Harvard’s English A, thought to be the first genuine composition class in the way we mean it. Previously, students learned to write non-literary or artistic texts through their classes in classics (which predates what we now think of the study of literature) and, especially, their classes in rhetoric, once properly understood as the study of persuasion and argument. (This focus on English A is controversial as well.) Fulkerson divides composition theory into four main schools of thought, which he terms axiologies, a term used to include opinions on both what the purpose of writing instruction is and how best to achieve that purpose through instruction.
Fulkerson’s version of our history is both taught by most every program and contested by most everybody. As you’d expect, many challenge the clean divisions of complicated pedagogies employed by disparate groups of instructors. Others disparage Fulkerson’s failure to interrogate racial and gender differences in college writing. Many argue that Fulkerson’s perspective is indicative of a common bias towards major research universities, when college writing is always going to be largely defined by what happens in noncompetitive state universities and small liberal arts colleges. I lack the disciplinary knowledge necessary to adjudicate these debates, but I’m glad that I’m aware of them. It’s my impression that this history is often taught alongside criticism, so that we can understand it as a useful starting point for discussion that nevertheless is limited and flawed. It’s in that spirit that I present this synopsis of the axiologies today: as a story that can contribute to an understanding of the consistent insights and anxieties within composition pedagogy, not as certain historical truth.
Incidentally– these are best thought of as philosophies, not eras. Writing instruction occurs in a lot of different places and in many different ways at once, and our field is constantly subject to calls to “go back to basics.”
The Formalist Axiology. In the earliest days of composition as a disciplinary entity, the dominant conception of writing instruction was that good composition is that which obeys formal rules and norms. Writing was seen as a process of fulfilling conventions. Those conventions occur on a number of levels. Formal grammatical competency is perhaps the most basic, and indeed there are always those who think that teaching writing is essentially teaching grammar. (That teaching grammar doesn’t work is a bit of a snag.) A somewhat higher level is strict genre conventions– i.e., in a business letter your salutation goes here and looks like this, in an annotated bibliography your headings should be formatted like so, etc. At the highest level in the formalist axiology is formal logic. Mercifully, formal logic has largely been removed from composition instruction, but there was a time when learning your modus ponens from your modus tollens was seen as part of the essence of being an educated writer.
The central problem is obvious: a piece of writing can be formally perfect and an utter failure. Basic grammatical/syntactic competence is important, but anyone who spends a little time with student writing knows that these don’t make for compelling arguments, effective explanations, or moving prose. Genre and conventions are important, as well, but a resume or query letter can be formatted perfectly and still guarantee rejection. Finally, formal logic has preciously little to do with day-to-day life. The kind of arguments we focus on in composition are those that deal in limited and contingent claims based on uncertain facts and principled disagreement. I’m not denigrating the study of logic, but I am saying that placing it in the foreground of writing study is a bad decision. Finally, the digital turn makes a lot of this stuff moot. Any decent word processor can set up your business letter for you and do an at least minimally credible job of checking your grammar. What it can’t do is persuade your audience and accomplish your goals for you, and these are elements of writing the formalist axiology consistently failed to teach.
The Mimetic Axiology. The mimetic axiology assumes that the process of writing, for students, is essentially a process of copying. In the broad sense, this is based on a correspondence theory of both truth and discourse, where one looks at the world with (more or less) perfect capture, and that the best writing is that which best matches that observation. The mind and the writing process are a kind of photocopier. In comes the world through the senses, out comes the writing which accurately portrays that world. This pervasive metaphor of mimicry extended into the writing process, as well: good student writing is writing that looks like previously written good writing. The way to teach students to write is to get them to write like effective writing from the past.
I don’t want to get into a discussion of epistemology here. However broad a discussion one might want to get into about positivism and a correspondence vision of truth, it was certainly true that freshman composition students didn’t enjoy an unerring view on the world. Besides, description is a small part of what we need students to accomplish in their writing– important, but small. And by acting as if persuasion is merely a matter of presenting an objective truth in the most faithful terms, the mimetic axiology left students disarmed in a world of conditional knowledge and competing, good-faith claims to the truth. (I’ll have to write about philosophy and logic’s syllogism as distinct from rhetoric’s enthymeme, sometime.) Worse yet, the mimetic school, like that of the formalists, tended to involve a lot of formal logic, up to and including the endless drawing of trees on the board that students would copy by rote, an enterprise that seems almost uniquely suited to the task of turning them off of writing as a discipline forever.
The Expressivist Axiology. The expressivist axiology holds that writing is an inherently personal activity and that the best writing is thus that which is most true to the writer. Writing is all about expressing one’s “true self,” style is indistinguishable from personal voice, and a writing teacher’s judgement (and grading) should be based on how authentically the writing represents the writer. Given that expressivism’s heyday was the late 60’s and early 70’s, it’s tempting to wrap the axiology into a narrative of the self-esteem movement, I’m OK, You’re OK, and similar cultural developments.
So what’s the problem with an expressivist axiology? Students become good at producing writing that reflects who they are… and not much else. Composition is not creative writing; while aesthetics and beauty matter in composition, they are not our primary motive. Student writers who are so self-focused have a hard time communicating with others, let along convincing others. (As Fulkerson points out, there was actually an Expressivist composition textbook published called It’s Mine and I’ll Write It That Way.) And while the purpose of composition isn’t and can’t be purely vocational, writing skills that were so intently self-directed were poorly suited to application in the working world. Worst of all, this focus on the self made improvement difficult; if you didn’t have the necessary skills, where could you find them, if the only place you were conditioned to look was deeper within?
The Rhetorical Axiology. The dominant axiology in our field today, and with good reason. The rhetorical axiology asks students to look outward at their audience, context, and purpose, and let those determine what constitutes best practice. Properly understood, “rhetoric” refers to the available means of persuasion in a given context, the art of convincing. Unlike the formalist axiology, which is obsessed with minutiae, the rhetorical axiology places importance on the big picture, on a piece of writing’s intent and on its effects. Unlike the mimetic axiology, which makes success in writing something objective and exterior to the writer, the rhetorical axiology determines success subjectively, based on the writer’s purpose and constrained by his or her circumstances. Unlike the expressivist axiology, where writing is internal to the point of solipsism, the rhetorical axiology conditions student writers to constantly look out at the world around them, and in particular at their audience, in order to better position their texts for success.
The rhetorical axiology is inextricable with the disciplinary identity of rhetoric and composition. As the conventional story goes, in the early 1970’s a disparate group of English professors was dissatisfied with the current state of writing instruction, which was exacerbated by the lack of institutional respect for that instruction. To restore the importance of the kind of teaching done in the composition classroom, they needed theoretical justifications for their work that both contributed to the practical benefit of students and also demonstrated the scholarly value of our concerns. This theoretical background was found in rhetoric; several thousand years of the study of effective argument was waiting for whoever was willing to look beyond the contemporary misunderstanding of what rhetoric was. The rhetorical axiology draws upon the rich history of rhetoric as a noble subject of inquiry– and in doing so, perhaps, will help rehabilitate the term in the eyes of a public that still largely defines it as synonymous with duplicity.
Today, we continue to believe that the best education for young writers starts by asking them to assess all that is around them– all the available means of persuasion, and all the ways in which those means are constrained. To a greater and greater degree, this means dealing with digital writing and genres. (Indeed, many of us feel almost at the point of exhaustion with the digital focus, though of course we recognize the great necessity for this kind of expression.) Part of this turn means expanding our teaching beyond the production of what we conventionally think of as writing, and many instructors now include multimedia projects such as podcasts, websites, and video in their classes. This, too, has prompted something of a backlash; I for one hope only that we always remember that our first business is text and prose. And our focus on the limited and conditional has met with political resistance. We insist that local concerns must guide the evaluation and assessment of student writing, as paying attention to the local is the only reliable way to determine if a piece of writing is achieving its intended effects. This commitment, sadly, has placed us at odds with a current educational-political paradigm that insists on universal standards and the placelessness that they engender.
Where we’ll go next, I can’t say. My own research interests are not all within the current trends of the field. My interest in quantitative research, for example, is deeply unpopular in the field as it exists today; I’ve tried to write about that in this space several times, but I struggle to find the words. But whatever the trends and developments, I am eager to see what the future holds. It’s an exciting field, and considerations of histories such as this one, however flawed, remind me of how lucky and privileged I am to take part in it.