Crowley (1998): Composition in the University

Composition In The University: Historical and Polemical Essays (Pitt Comp Literacy Culture) Composition In The University: Historical and Polemical Essays by Sharon Crowley


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Crowley’s 1998 Composition in the University is Crowley’s perspective on the history of composition as a discipline and first-year requirement in North American universities. Much of her book explores how Composition has been undervalued in many ways by English departments, with teaching relegated to un-tenured faculty and graduate students, but also how the program was needed by English departments in order to become large departments where faculty to specialized in aspects of literature and teach those specialized courses (4, 11).

Crowley uses her history to claim that first-year composition should “become a part of the disciplinary practices of composition studies,” and thus part of a sequence of non-required composition courses that students would elect to take (9, 29, 241).

Crowley also chronicles the ideological shifts in the pedagogy of first-year composition, arguing that the humanist approach (which focuses on the improvement of student character through reading great works in literature) is not the best approach. Part of Crowley’s reasoning for this is that humanist literary study focuses on completed texts, while composition needs to focus on the production and development of texts, and that humanism is more metaphysical than it is rhetorical (13-14).

To briefly summarize Crowley’s history:
• The nineteenth century saw a decline in the study of rhetoric—a “focus on public, civic, discourse”—in the United States and an increased focus on “developing taste in their students” instead (34). This was due in part to the creation of the modern university, modeled after German universities. The developed requirement of freshman composition also helped to legitimize English studies (esp. since freshman composition usually focused on literature) (58-59).
• Part of the legitimizing of literature as an area of study in the late nineteenth century involved alienating students from their language, which Crowley argues was done in three steps: “The first step in the process was to define English as a language from which its native speakers were alienated. The second step was to establish an entrance examination in English that was very difficult to pass. The third step, necessitated by the large number of failures on the exam, was to install a course of study that would remediate the lack demonstrated by the exam” (60).
• Because composition was taught from a humanist/literary perspective, it was easily tied to current-traditional rhetoric, which “is not a rhetoric at all” because it is not situated, but is focused on forms or genres: “exposition, description, narrative, and argument” (94). Humanism and current-traditional rhetoric could be tied together so easily because both required “that students’ expression of character be put under the constant surveillance so that they could be ‘improved’ by correction” (97).
• During World War II, composition began to focus more on communication skills because the military was asking that soldiers be taught communication skills. Because of this, composition teachers created professional associations (CCCC) and some composition teachers turned to rhetorical theory to understand communication (instead of simply expression) (155-156). The 1940s saw an increase in progressive thought (influenced by Dewey) in composition courses, and a focus on education for the benefit of democracy. While the communication skills focus flourished in some ways, it was intellectually demanding on teachers and required administrative support (testing, labs, etc.)—along with these problems, many English departments were resistant to communication skills, and the trend largely faded out by 1960 (183).
• Starting in the 1970s, process pedagogy began to develop, which brought about three changes: 1) the professionalization of teaching FYC with research; 2) the idea that students are writers rather than people whose grammar needs policed; and 3) composition became more fun to teach (191). While there are differences between product pedagogy and process pedagogy, Crowley doubts that this shift was that big: textbooks still espoused current-traditional models, and process pedagogy did little to question modernist notions of a required course and composition’s situatedness in the university (212-213). One important effect of process pedagogy, however, is that it altered the ideology of composition programs from conservative to liberal (218)

Crowley closes her book with a few important arguments that she takes out of her history: 1) teaching is always political (Chapter 10); 2) the requirement of FYC produces student subjectivity as “docile student” (217); 3) it’s doubtful whether a required course can be turned “to radical purposes” (235); 4) composition as a requirement should be abolished (241). This last point Crowley argues because required FYC exploits part-time teachers and graduate students, as well as students; the curriculum is harmed by trying to reach every student; the classroom environment is harmed by being a requirement; and the requirement harms the discipline of composition because it becomes a gatekeeping course and sits low on the hierarchy at universities (241-243).

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