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Canagarajah, Suresh. A History of Orientations to Text. CE, Sept. 2019. Posted 11/24/2019.

Canagarajah, Suresh. “Weaving the Text: Changing Literacy Practices and Orientations.” College English 82.1 (2019): 7-28. Print.

In a special issue of College English, “Reorienting to the Text,” Suresh Canagarajah’s guest editor essay explores the reference to “weaving” in the etymology of “text” to trace a progression of attitudes toward texts in academic and intellectual circles since the advent of alphabetic writing. He writes that these attitudes have tended to produce binaries like “orality versus writing,” “community versus artifact,” and “mobility versus stability,” among others (8). Approaches that Canagarajah groups under “modernist literacy,” he states, valued the second binaries in this list, while later orientations shifted the focus to the initial concepts (8).

Cautioning that the history of text is not a linear path to “an enlightened conclusion” (8), Canagarajah writes that modernist literacies result from what he calls the “Great Divide” that divorced oral and written communication, privileging the written because of its supposed “transparent meanings” and permanence (7). Under the heading “Autonomous Literacies,” Canagarajah discusses various approaches to text that focus on its claim to convey stable meanings across contexts to those able to receive those meanings (9-10). He sees this approach deriving from the Enlightenment’s “orientation to reality” because such an orientation “transform[ed] experience into manageable and abstract information” (10). Similarly, colonization worked to silence disruptive local or unsanctioned communication, and the need of religion to manage ideas required official language represented as incontrovertible (10).

Canagarajah points to the New Criticism as an example of adherence to this view of text as separate from author and context (10). However, in the 1970s, he writes, an “ethnographic bent” led scholars to challenge the claim that texts could produce meaning not influenced by the social circumstances in which they functioned (11). Scholars like Shirley Brice Heath produced work that Canagarajah classifies as “Social Literacies,” which examined how the diverse contexts in which language was both constructed and interpreted was shaped by a “text’s social functions” (11). Inherent in this literacy was a recuperation of spoken communication, which was seen as “complementary” to writing (11). Meanwhile, interest in “new literacies” deriving from multimodal practices drove attention to “vernacular” literacies (12).

Canagarajah writes that this social turn retained a view of the community itself as “homogeneous,” tending to respond to a particular “bounded object” like a text in uniform ways (12). Reaction to this tendency led to attention to the effects of power, even within communities, on the dissemination and uptake of texts (12). This turn advanced “critical literacy,” which, in turn, paved the way for the “social-constructionist orientation” (12).

Social-constructionism, Canagarajah writes, may have been equally sanctioned by the sense of loss of agency and control occasioned by late capitalism. The social-constructionist move to reduce the social, the material, and the effects of power to textual representation may have produced “greater order, coherence, and control over life” (13). This “textual turn,” as Canagarajah calls it, means that the force of the text itself is replaced by the interpretations with which it is received across divergent contexts. There is no constant meaning; power resides in the reader, whose ideology, in turn, is formed not by any exterior reality but by earlier texts: “That is, our knowledge and interpretations are a chain of unending texts” (13). As a result, texts are not seen as “reflecting social practices and material life,” but rather as “constructing” them (14; emphases original). Returning to the metaphor of weaving, Canagarajah writes that in this turn, society and text became interwoven so that complex social threads could be deciphered in texts, with the result that nothing existed outside text (14).

He characterizes a new turn as a “mobility turn” engendered by the degree to which world events “bled outside the text” (14). The need to address the reception and uses of texts by widely divergent communities across multiple borders led, in his view, to a rejection of the idea of “bounded communities” and to a conception of society as composed of “liminal contact zones” (16) where people with different ideologies and needs interact. The “traveling text,” in this view, can be appropriated endlessly, with consequent ethical implications for such repurposing (15-16). “Recontextualization” captures ways in which power-relations within contact zones can be revised as texts are taken up for new uses; “entextualization” refers to the ways in which speech can become text as it is taken up and embedded across divergent spaces (17): “It is as if the textual fabric gets rewoven with new threads every time people wear it” (17).

Canagarajah next examines a “material turn” that heralds enhanced awareness of the ways that context and physical objects have agency and impact the production of texts (18). In this view, texts are one object among many that construct meaning. Ancillary to this approach is the “recuperat[ion]” of “the agency of the textual artifact” itself as an object acting on contexts it encounters (17). Scholarship noted “performative” aspects of text/materiality interactions, with the activities involved in meaning making replacing the product as central to production and use (18-19). This emphasis, in Canagarajah’s view, underlines the “unpredictability” and expansiveness of texts in the world and reveals the ways in which experiences with texts are “mulitisensory,” with aspects that are “affective, aesthetic, imaginative, and social” (20).

Canagarajah notes the role of technology as a material actor, using the hashtag as an example of the kind of entextualization that emerges as meaning builds and shifts from activities within a “whole network working together” (21): rather than crediting a single author, such entextualization sees meaning as “coconstructed in the doing” (21). For participants, creating text becomes an “everyday practice” (22).

Such approaches to textuality, Canagarajah argues, call into view prior literacies that practiced texts as embodied and social and that were erased by Western culture (22). He uses his own Tamil heritage to explore how a single text, preserved orally, drew its significance from performance in varied settings across time: “The transcribed version was not the full ‘text’”; rather, the emotional experience engendered by encountering the text in specific material, social, and affective moments gave the text its meaning (23).

After summarizing the contents of the special issue, Canagarajah contends that movement from autonomous literacy to the fluidity and expansiveness of the material turn does not guarantee “more inclusive and democratic literacies” (26). The resources that permit coproduction of meaning, in his view, also serve interests that may wish to hide their own agendas. As a counter to this danger, Canagarajah argues that “critical intervention” remains possible because “[n]o one can control the weaving of the text” (26).


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Sumpter, Matthew. Linked Creative Writing-Composition Courses. CE, Mar. 2016. Posted 05/01/2016.

Sumpter, Matthew. “Shared Frequency: Expressivism, Social Constructionism, and the Linked Creative Writing-Composition Class.” College English 78.4 (2016): 340-61. Print.

Matthew Sumpter advocates for “tandem” creative-writing and composition courses as first-year curricula. To support this claim, he examines the status of both composition and creative writing in the academy through the “dual metrics” of expressivism and social constructionism (341).

Sumpter characterizes the two types of writing classes as separate enterprises, describing creative writing as “an almost anti-academic endeavor” (Tim Mayers, qtd. in Sumpter 340), exhibiting a “lack of reflectiveness about what, how, and why one teaches creative writing” (340). He portrays composition, in contrast, as highly theorized and “characterized by a greater dedication to informed pedagogy” (340). He contends that both areas would benefit from increased communication: creative writing could draw on composition’s stronger critical and theoretical grounding while composition would be able to offer students more “tools with which to manipulate language’s rhythm, pace, sound, and appearance” (340).

He locates the roots of expressivism and social constructivism respectively in the work of Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae. In Sumpter’s view, Elbow’s project involved placing students and their lives and thoughts at the center of the classroom experience in order to give them a sense of themselves as writers (342), while Bartholomae saw such emphasis on students’ individual expression as a “sleight of hand” that elides the power of the teacher and the degree to which all writing is a product of culture, history, and textual interaction (qtd. in Sumpter 342). For Sumpter, Bartholomae’s approach, which he sees as common in the composition classroom, generates a teacher-centered pedagogy (342-43).

Sumpter points to ways in which current uses of these two approaches merge to create “a more flexible version of each philosophy” (341). By incorporating and valuing diverse student voices, expressivism gains a critical, socially aware component, while social constructionists exploit the de-emphasis on the genius of the individual author to welcome voices that are often marginalized and to increase student confidence in themselves as writers (344). Yet, Sumpter argues, attention to the differences in these two philosophies enables the implications of each to be explored more fully (344).

Sumpter presents a history of the relationship between creative writing and composition, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when, according to D. G. Myers, there was no distinction between the two (cited in Sumpter 345). The next part of the 20th century saw a increasing emphasis on “efficiency,” which led writing classes to a focus on “practical activities” (Myers, qtd. in Sumpter 345). Creative writing, meanwhile, allied itself with New Criticism, “melding dual impulses—writing and literature, expression and ideas, art and social practice” (345). This liaison, Sumpter writes, gave way fairly quickly after World War II to a new role for universities as they tried to assert themselves as a “haven for the arts” (Myers, qtd. in Sumpter 346), leading to a rupture between creative writing and criticism (346).

Sumpter states that this rupture, establishing as it did that creative writing was “something different from an academic discipline” (Tim Mayers, qtd. in Sumpter 346; emphasis original), coincided with composition’s development as an academic field. As composition studies continued to evolve theoretically, according to Sumpter, creative writing pedagogy retreated into “lore,” disappearing from discussions of the history of writing instruction like those of Gerald Graff and James Berlin (347).

Sumpter references moves during the latter decades of the 20th century to question the divorce between the two fields, but posits the need to examine creative-writing pedagogy more carefully in order to assess such moves. He focuses in particular on criticism of the workshop model, which scholars such as Patrick Bizarro and Michael McClanahan and Kelly Ritter characterize as built around a dominating teacher who imposes conformity on student writers (348). Moreover, according to Sumpter, the pursuit of consensus in the workshop model “will reflect a dominant ideology” (348) that excludes many students’ unique or marginalized voices and experiences (349). In Sumpter’s view, theory like that informing composition studies can disrupt these negative practices (349).

Sumpter examines a number of scholarly proposals for bridging the gap between creative writing and composition. Some adjust pedagogy in small ways to integrate expressivism and social-contructionism (353-54). Others more aggressively redesign pedagogy: for example, Tim Mayers proposes a course built around “craft criticism,” which he says can meld creative writing with “sociopolitical understandings of literacy” to locate it in “a more general intellectual framework concerning literacy itself” (qtd. in Sumpter 354). Wendy Bishop’s “transactional workshop” includes “strong components of exploratory and instrumental writing” as well as self-reflection to introduce theory while retaining students as the pedagogical center (qtd. in Sumpter 355).

Other models revise workshop design: for example, Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet have students respond to each others’ work in small groups, meeting with an instructor only occasionally to diminish the dominance of the teacher (355). Sumpter discusses other models that ask composition to encourage risk-taking, originality, and experimentation (357).

Sumpter expresses concern that some models, such as Mayers’s, ultimately fail to put expressivism on equal footing with social constructionism (354) and that efforts to inject social-constructionism into creative writing courses can impose “certain pedagogical traits that just about every theorist of creative writing pedagogy wants to avoid,” such as increased teacher dominance (353). His solution is a two-course curriculum in which the two courses are taught separately, though coordinated, for example, by theme (358) and each infused with aspects of its counterpart (351, 359).

He grounds this proposal in claims that what creative writing offers is sufficiently different and valuable that it deserves its own focus and that, if simply added to composition classes, will always risk being eclipsed by the theoretical and analytical components (350-352). He addresses the institutional burden of staffing this extra course by adapting Bythe and Sweet’s model, in which most of the feedback burden is taken on by students in small groups and the instructor’s role is minimized. In such a model, he argues, current faculty and graduate instructors can take on an additional course assignments without substantially increasing work load (358-59).

The virtues of such a model, he contends, include allowing each course to focus on its own strengths while addressing its weaknesses and “formalizing” the equal value of creative writing in the academy. He believes that realizing these goals “will give students a deep, diverse exposure to the world of written discourse and their place in it” (359).