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Durst, Russel K. James Britton’s Contributions. CCC, Feb. 2015. Posted 05/05/15.

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Durst, Russel K. “British Invasion: James Britton, Composition Studies, and Anti-Disciplinarity.” College Composition and Communication 66.3 (2015): 384-401. Print.

Russel K. Durst explores the contributions of James Britton to the field of composition studies during its formative years from the 1960s through the 1980s. Durst posits that although Britton’s work powerfully affected the development of the field as a scholarly discipline, Britton himself did not value the move toward disciplinarity in which he participated. According to Durst, of particular focus in Britton’s resistance to the field’s emergence were the pedagogy/theory dichotomy and the role of personal writing in students’ literacy growth.

Durst aligns Britton’s view of writing with that of “progressive educators” like John Dewey, contrasting that view with the prevailing approaches of Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget, who posited “context-independent” theories of language and cognitive growth. According to Durst, Britton emphasized the social nature of writing, drawing on wide reading and research to valorize personal, “expressivist” writing in which students used informal registers to explore personally meaningful topics. Incorporating the work of Lev Vygotsky, Britton argued for the fundamental role of the social uses of language in learning, encouraging pedagogies that allowed students to write for purposes other than evaluation (388-89).

Durst recounts Britton’s role at the 1966 Dartmouth conference, where he represented a break with traditional and classical views of writing instruction (387), and summarizes Britton’s important empirical study, The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18). The premise of Britton and his colleagues in conducting this study was that informal, personal writing to varied audiences and to “the teacher as a trusted adult” would appear frequently in the more than two thousand samples of school writing in Britain that they collected (389-90). However, although the “discourse category” terminology of “transactional,”, “expressive,” and “poetic” writing proved valuable to composition studies, Britton et al.’s research revealed very little writing other than reproducing textbook and lecture material for the teacher to evaluate (390-91). Britton argued that teachers should recognize and more extensively exploit the value of personal and social uses of writing, which he saw as the starting point for writing and learning (390). Studies in the United States based on Britton’s categories by Arthur Applebee and others showed an even greater dearth of meaningful writing in American schools (389-90).

Durst cites four areas in which Britton’s contributions furthered the growth of composition studies (391-93):

  • the use of expressivist writing and talk that continues to inform activities like group work and conferencing;
  • the development of writing across the curriculum as an area of pedagogical focus;
  • the development of “facilitative response” as elaborated by C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon to encourage a view of the teacher as a supportive learning collaborator;
  • the legitimation of collaborative research and publication that Durst speculates resulted from Britton’s location in schools of education.

In order to explore the “paradox” of the “anti-disciplinary” attitude of such a major contributor to a solidifying discipline, Durst distinguishes Britton’s sense of the expressive from the type of writing James Berlin categorized as “expressionistic.” For Durst, the focus on the personal that Berlin critiqued was individualistic, in contrast to Britton’s view of a kind of writing that engaged students’ personal interests through social activity (391). Similarly, Durst finds that Britton’s approach differs from that of “figures associated with expressionism” like Peter Elbow, Ken McCrorie, and Donald Murray (395). Britton’s concept of student-centered teaching, which rejected tradition and received knowledge, was similar to the views of these scholars and writers in that it accorded with the spirit of the 1960s: it appealed to the ethos of composition theorists who saw writing and learning as “liberating” activities and who were then breaking free from a limiting relationship with literary studies (394-95). But, Durst contends, Britton’s theories were more firmly grounded in his wide-ranging scholarly explorations, including empirical research (396). Yet Durst spots another crucial similarly between Britton and the expressionist writers. Elbow, McCrorie, and Murray, like Britton, focused on classroom practices and pedagogy in contrast to recent scholars like Sidney Dobrin, who contends that “writing theory must move beyond composition studies’ neurosis of pedagogy, must escape the shackles of classrooms, students, and management” (qtd. in Durst 397). In Durst’s view, the expressionists’ emphasis on students and classrooms makes them less than fully respected members of the current composition community. For Durst, this evidence that the field resists a focus on pedagogy affirms Britton’s sense that composition would not be well served by becoming a traditional academic discipline in which theory and scholarship took center stage (395-96).

In proposing “doubling down on pedagogy” in composition studies, Durst defines Britton as a scholar for whom writing instruction enabled broad intellectual growth and “liberation from society’s oppressive forces” (397); he sees in Britton’s example the possibility of solidly grounded scholarship specifically aimed at meeting the new challenges faced by students and teachers as diversity increases, technology expands, and the pressure to prepare students for careers escalates (398). Britton’s contributions illustrate that scholarly inquiry and a focus on student-centered pedagogy need not be competing activities; they can function jointly to enrich composition as an academic field.

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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