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Horner, Bruce. Rewriting Composition. CE, May 2015. Posted 05/28/15.

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Horner, Bruce. “Rewriting Composition: Moving beyond a Discourse of Need.” College English 77.5 (2015): 450-79. Print.

Bruce Horner responds to recent calls for composition to shift its focus in ways that are presented as radical departures but that Horner believes ignore composition’s history, endorsing and perpetuating reductionist dominant views of the field. Among Horner’s principal concerns is that these calls remove composition from the “material social practice” in which it is embedded (457). These calls, in his view, constitute a “discourse of need,” depicting composition as deficient, thus requiring “abandonment or supplement” (451).

Horner critiques David Smit’s The End of Composition Studies and Sidney Dobrin’s Postcomposition. Horner presents Smit as arguing that the goal of composition courses—providing “general writing skills” that will allow students to succeed in varied contexts—is unachievable because people learn to write only in the specific environments with which they engage. As a result, Horner writes, Smit recommends that composition should relinquish its focus on general writing skills and replace that focus with a writing-in-the-disciplines approach that will result in “real writing” that will be judged successful or unsuccessful by publics, editors, and employers (455-56).

Horner objects to this call because it accepts an inadequate definition of “writing” that reduces the content of composition to “a single, codified and fixed set of skills and knowledge.” This definition accords with the definition promoted by the market place, to which, in Horner’s view, Smit yields the right to define writing and to which he assigns the right to determine what good writing is (454-55). For Horner, this view leads to what Anthony Giddens has called a “normative functionalist reading of institutions and social practices: things are as they are and operate as they do because that is what their appropriate function is” (455). In such an endorsement of what is, Horner contends, students are cast as making rational, unitary choices about what kinds of writing will best serve their goals “as (simply, only) future employees” (454-55, 457). In Smit, according to Horner, this ascendancy of the free market is contrasted with the failure of the academy as an institution assumed to exist primarily to meet the market’s needs (455)

Horner argues that Dobrin’s Postcomposition similarly accepts dominant definitions of the work of composition despite the book’s claims to promote a rethinking of the field (458-59). According to Horner, Dobrin’s “debased view of the work of composition” (459) echoes dominant reductionist definitions of what writing pedagogy and practice ought to be. Dobrin sees that work as constrained by issues of “training” and “management”; unlike Smit, he rejects a doubling down on more effective pedagogy, choosing instead to call for an escape from pedagogical concerns by reframing the field as “writing studies” (459). Horner expresses dismay that Dobriin does not examine myriad previous work on what “writing studies” might entail (459); he is particularly concerned with Dobrin’s reduction of “writing” to an “abstraction” that Horner contends he does not define or recognize in its material contexts (460). Thus, in Horner’s view, Dobrin accepts capitalism’s expectations for what writing pedagogy should be and replaces this inadequate and inaccurate definition with an “idealist” alternative that is not anchored in material practice (459). Horner writes that Dobrin particularly accedes to the dominant view by accepting the technological demands of “fast capitalist ideals” (461) as the preferred focus of writing studies; Dobrin argues that composition must follows this lead, subjecting its “outmoded” past to “creative destruction,” or be left behind (Dobrin, qtd. in Horner 462). In Horner’s view, composition is seen as lacking by these writers because they allow it to be defined through the consumerist lens of the dominant culture.

Horner acknowledges that composition faces challenges like those Smit and Dobrin outline, but contrasts their handling of these challenges with the approaches of an economist team, J. K. Gibson-Graham, and a sociolinguist, Theresa Lillis. He illustrates his view of how theory might function productively in composition by discussing how these theorists do not choose to overturn their fields’ missions but rather seek to understand what prevents these fields from achieving their desired ends. Gibson-Graham rewrite capitalism to deny it the kind of power dominant views assign it; Horner compares this “hegemonic” view of capitalism to the way reductive views of composition take on hegemonic force in critiques like Smit’s and Dobrin’s. Lillis addresses the way writing is positioned in sociolinguistics by tackling a longstanding binary between speech and writing posited by the field (462-64).

To his critique of Smit’s and Dobrin’s calls for “a prospective future beyond, or following the end of, composition” (469), Horner adds responses to three efforts to supplement composition with what are presented as new or extended content: the call to reframe it as rhetoric, to expand coursework to include “multimodal” approaches, and to rename the field “writing studies” (469). Horner is concerned that these proposed responses to composition’s apparent need ignore the history in which these approaches have long been integral to composition; moreover, in his view, these proposals do not challenge the reductive views of composition that portray it as lacking: for Horner, the field must continue the difficult

efforts to retrieve what the hegemonic denies and to learn to recognize, in forms and practices we are predisposed to understand in limited ways, the accomplishment of more and other than what is claimed. (469)

Horner’s conclusion calls for a recognition of the value of what is seen by the dominant as inconsequential or useless, for example to recognize the learning that occurs even in small student gains. He endorses David Bartholomae’s exhortation to “pay attention to common things” (qtd. in Horner 472). His project resists the tendency to designate academic settings as “something from which students (and others) need protection” (472); on the contrary, he argues, the composition classroom offers a unique space where teachers and students can experiment precisely by exploring what the dominant is likely to see as beneath its notice (472-73). Rather than search for the new and the other, he contends, the field will be well served by recognizing its difference from standard academic disciplines and by re-examining constituent terms like “writing, pedagogy, theory, rhetoric, modality, and composition itself” (473; emphasis original).

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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