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Preston, Jacqueline. Composition as “Assemblage.” CCC, Sep. 2015. Posted 11/03/2015.

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Preston, Jacqueline. “Project(ing) Literacy: Writing to Assemble in a Postcomposition FYW Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 67.1 (2015): 35-63. Print.

Jacqueline Preston advocates for a project-based model for composition, particularly in basic-writing classes. Such a model, she argues, benefits students in several important ways. It refuses the longstanding deficit approach that, according to Victor Villanueva, defines students who fall into the basic-writing population in terms of “illness” (qtd. in Preston 35); it allows students to draw on their histories, interests, and multiple “acquired literacies” (42) to produce writing that is rich in “complexity,” “relevancy,” and “contingency” (39); and it encourages students to view writing as an “assemblage” of many overlapping components, including personal histories; cultural, social, and political interactions; prior reading and writing; and many kinds of “rhetorical negotiation” (54).

Preston contends that composition still embraces a deficit model that sees its purpose as preparing underprepared students for future academic work. Such an approach, working with a narrow understanding of literacy, focuses on writing as a “technology of representation” (Raúl Sánchez, qtd. in Preston 38, 61n7), devoted to proficient communication that primarily serves as a “conduit” for information (43). This view requires that students’ lived literacies be dismissed as deficiencies and that composition itself be limited to fulfilling a service role within the limits of the university (36, 38).

In contrast, Preston presents a view of writing aligned with postcompositionist approaches that advocate seeing writing more expansively as the actual moment of “culture making itself” (40). She urges composition studies to embrace Kenneth Burke’s concept of “dialectical space” as the realm of the “both/and” in which “merger and division” bring together disparate assemblages to transform them into something transcendent.

Seeing writing through this lens, she argues, allows an awareness of writing as a process of “becoming,” a concept from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in which each act of assembly transforms previous knowledge and creates new realities (39-40). Drawing on Sidney Dobrin’s book Postcomposition, she argues that the view of composition engendered by the project model she describes enables engaging “the possibles” that “emerge on the edge of chaos” but that “strive toward becoming actuals” if embraced in a dialectical spirit (Dobrin, qtd. in Preston 54).

Preston presents the project-based model, which she traces to John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick, as a pedagogical method that can introduce students to this view of literacy. Her article is based on a twelve-month grounded-theory study examining the experiences of ten students and seven faculty (37, 61n11). In Preston’s program, basic writing is the purview of eight tenured and tenure-line faculty in “an independent basic writing unit” in which “constructivist approaches” have long been in place (41). Preston presents examples of student work in the course, focusing especially on a particular student who had entered college uncertain of his readiness but who successfully developed a fundraising and social-media plan to encourage the installation of bike racks in the city.

Her account of this student’s work contrasts his experience with the expectations he would have been asked to meet in a traditional argument curriculum (50-51). She recounts that his original proposal to “do a presentation to the Downtown Alliance . . . as a citizen” (student, qtd. in Preston 40) evolved as he learned more about previous work done on his idea and drew on his prior involvement in the bicycling community, including expertise and literacies he had developed through that background. In a more traditional approach, she argues, he would have gathered evidence and counterarguments but would never have had

a chance to come face-to-face with the inherent complexities of his writing project and to see “good writing” as a multifarious and contingent response to constantly shifting rhetorical, social, and political realities. (51)

Adoption of a project-based model, Preston writes, raises questions about the nature of “good writing” and “effective pedagogy.” The model, she states, does not completely dismiss the conventions and genre requirements common to more traditional curricula. As students compose many different kinds of texts, from a “well-researched proposal to a sponsor” to emails, interview questions, brochures, and video presentations, they not only incorporate conventions but, because of their investment in their projects, become “eager to know more about the conventions of particular genres and how best to use outside resources to appeal to specific audiences” (52). The model stresses the degree to which all writing is a situated assemblage of many different contingent components always open to revision rather than a representation of a stable truth (51).

Effective pedagogy, in this model, becomes pedagogy that resists practices that limit access; builds on and furthers students’ histories, literacies, goals, and interests; provides students with a richer sense of the possibilities writing offers; and “produc[es} writing that has consequence” (53). Important, in Preston’s view, is the model’s capacity for allowing students to “transfer from” their own experiences the material to support critical inquiry rather than insisting that the sole purpose of first-year writing is to enable students defined as underprepared to “transfer to,” that is, to tailor their work to narrow views of literacy as circumscribed by traditional notions of proficient college work (62n12; 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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