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Geiger II, T J. “Relational Labor” in Composition. CS, Sept. 2015. Posted 11/23/2015.

Geiger II, T J. “An Intimate Discipline? Writing Studies, Undergraduate Majors, and Relational Labor.” Composition Studies 43.2 (2015): 92-112. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.

T J Geiger II examines undergraduate writing majors as sites in which “relational labor” forms a large part of faculty activities and shapes student perceptions. He considers the possibility that, despite the tendency to view dedicated writing majors as a step toward disciplinary status, the centrality of relational labor to writing instruction may undercut this status. Further, he addresses the concern that support for writing majors may devalue writing instruction itself (94). He focuses on “what the field learns” about these concerns when it listens to students in these programs (98).

Through surveys and interviews with undergraduate majors in “independent writing programs” at a “Private Research University” and a private “Liberal Arts College” (98), Geiger establishes “relational labor” as work done between faculty and undergraduate writing majors in which the personal connections formed contribute to the students’ representations of their learning. The students discussed and quoted consider their relationships with faculty crucial to their “personal development” (“Mark,” qtd. in Geiger 99), which Geiger characterizes in this student’s case “as synonymous with writing development” (99; emphasis original). He argues that faculty attentiveness to the affective components of writing instruction provides students with a sense of a caring audience interested not just in conveying the technical aspects of writing but also in fostering the growth of “unique” individuals through social encounters (102):

Interactions with faculty, part of the context for writing, encourage not only writing majors’ literacy acquisition, but also a sense of themselves as individuals who matter, which in turn can fuel their capacity to take rhetorical action. (99)

Geiger develops this picture of faculty engaged in relational labor against a range of scholarship that has expressed concern about “the ideological complex that figures the composition teacher as a maid/mother disciplinarian,” a characterization he attributes to Susan Miller’s 1991 critique (106). Similarly, he addresses Kelly Ritter’s critique of a “gendered ideology of ‘help'” that Ritter sees as potentially “counterproductive to the discipline of composition studies as a whole” (qtd. in Geiger 106).

Geiger detects justification for these concerns in students’ use of terms like “lovely,” “nice,” and “help” in describing their interactions with faculty (106). His question is whether accepting the role of empathetic helper or the centrality to writing instruction of affective responsiveness necessarily restricts the field’s focus to the “teaching of writing” rather than “teaching about writing” (96; emphasis original).

These concerns accord with those expressed in a larger debate about whether the field should “distance” itself from the constraints that some see as imposed by first-year writing courses, concerns that Geiger notes are themselves broached in affective terms of escape and freedom, indicating that attention to “feeling” permeates all levels of the field (96).

Among the specific concerns that Geiger explores are the ways in which intensive interpersonal investment in students and their work can intersect with professional exigencies. He notes the Modern Language Association’s 2006 report, “Still Standing;: The Associate Professor Survey,” which finds that women in the field report marginally less time spent on research and marginally more on teaching than men; these small differences seem to add up over time to a slower path to promotion for female faculty (107-08). In addition, he addresses the possibility that students who cast faculty as empathetic helpers downplay their role as experts with valuable knowledge to convey (106).

In Geiger’s view, the disciplinary promise of a focus on “teaching about writing” need not be at odds with a pedagogy that values developmental relationships between faculty and students (109). He cites student responses that express appreciation not just for the personal interaction but also for the access to professional expertise provided by faculty during the interactions: He quotes “Jeremiah,” for whom “faculty in the writing program understand themselves as not just research producers, but also as people working with their students” (qtd. in Geiger 102). Indeed, Geiger claims, “students recognize the need for informed care” (108; emphasis original). Such an understanding on the part of students, Geiger argues, demonstrates that investment in a writing major need not crowd out pedagogical value (102), while, conversely, focus on the teaching of writing through an ideology of “care” need not interfere with more intensive study of writing as disciplinary content (107).

Students interviewed do recognize the professional burdens with which faculty must contend and value the personal investment some faculty are still able to make in students’ individual projects and growth (104); Geiger advocates for ongoing consideration of how this ubiquitous and clearly valued kind of labor “is distributed within a program and a writing major” (108).

In addition, Geiger argues that developing as writers through close working relationships with faculty instills in students an understanding of writing as a rhetorical process:

situated, not context-free; social, not solely personal; collaborative, not entirely individual; and (though less often) explicitly politically implicated, not neutral. (108)

Building on the collection by Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty, Geiger urges composition professionals to attend not just to “what we are becoming” (108; emphasis original) but also to “who . . . writing majors (i.e., students) are becoming” (109; emphasis original). Attention to the students’ own perceptions, he contends, provides informative indications of these attainments (109).


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

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.