Composition Theory – 1979-1990: Berlin to Fulkerson

Writing from 1979, James Berlin identified the following ideological divergence in contemporary composition theory, “Rhetorical theories differ from each other in the way writer, reality, audience, and language are conceived–both as separate units and in the way the units relate to each other.” (766) [1] Ten years later, Richard Fulkerson is still puzzling out the problem, though he suggests that while in 1990 theorists are “closer to agreeing on where [they] want to go,” they are not closer to agreeing on “how to get there” (411) [2]. So, the diversity of ideas are still at play particularly in terms of pedagogy — the ‘how’.

Fulkerson identifies three ongoing “axiologies” that continue to hold sway, but are in apparent decline: expressivism, formalism, and mimeticism (411-3). To some extent, I suspect that these three axiologies still hold sway in composition instruction. If we think of ‘expressivism’ as writing for understanding and discovery, then I would say it is definitely still being taught. This plays into the notion of the drafting process regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge the place of expressivism in the classroom. The same goes for ‘formalism’. Fulkerson states, “no one writing in our scholarly journals defended the most basic formalist assertion that good writing is correct writing, although we had plenty of evidence on its classroom existence.” (412) We may not be actively teaching correct form and grammar in the composition classroom, but we are definitely still grading for these issues and allowing for them to detract from a student’s grade. Whether or not this is problematic is perhaps another issue altogether. Finally, ‘mimeticism’ is a real concern for courses in the Humanities. If inaccurate information is presented in an essay, it certainly must lose some points. Or must it? If we are teaching straight composition and the logic of the essay is sound, what does it matter if the information itself is inaccurate?

Ten years earlier, Berlin identifies four groups that continued to hold sway, and which inevitably slip into the subdivisions of ‘expressivism’, ‘formalism’, and ‘mimeticism’ though he applies different names – Neo-Aristotelians, Current-Traditionalists, Neo-Platonists, and New Rhetoricians (766). While Berlin ultimately appears to favor the New Rhetoricians, he concludes, “The test of one’s competences as a composition instructor […] resides in being able to recognize and justify the version of the process being taught, complete with all its significance for the student.” (777) The various schools of thought are all valid in their own ways, but one must be able to articulate exactly what theory they are applying in the classroom and how in order to effectively guide the student towards certain objectives. Fulkerson reaches a similar conclusion, though he also suggests that one can implement aspects of multiple theories as long as one understands their purposes. However, Fulkerson warns that “different elements in a theory of composition can still be logically incompatible” (422).  Fulkerson in fact writes that Berlin tends to “oversimplify”  practical applications of theory in the classroom (422).

As we look at different theoretical approaches to teaching composition, I think we must agree with Berlin when he states “writing teachers are perforce given a responsibility that far exceeds this merely instrumental task.” (766) In other words, there is far more at play in the teaching of composition than mechanical, rote lesson plans. The practice is perhaps less ‘feminized’ than Laura Bartlett [3] would have us believe. We’re given a class, a textbook, and specific assignments to which we must teach — but as instructors, we are not given a specific theoretical approach. So, it is up to us as instructors to figure out which pedagogies are appropriate and how elements of various theories might fit together in the classroom. We must be cognizant of how we teach as much as we must understand what we teach.

1. Berlin, James A. “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories.” College English 44. 8 (1982): 765-777.

2. Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition Theory in the Eighties: Axiological Consensus and Paradigmatic Diversity.” College Composition and Communication 41. 4 (1990): 409-429.

3. Bartlett, Laura. “Feminization and Composition’s Managerial Subject.”Works and Days 41/42 (2003): 261-281.

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