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The Contributions of Ann Berthoff

The Awakened Imagination: The Contributions of Ann E. Berthoff in Composition Pedagogy

Berthoff was part of a paradigm shift in composition theory that began in the 1980’s with her work on the

relationship between meaning and writing within the process approach. Her initial scholarly publications in the 1970’s focused on her examination of Marvell’s poetry, examining the philosophical and imaginative qualities of his works. From this she developed an appreciation for seeing the dialectical relationships between reading and writing about literature. Berthoff disagreed with the abandoning of a close reading of texts as positivists of her time incorrectly stressed the unlocking of meaning in the language of the text that was simply waiting to be unleashed and which failed to address the full range of discourse, specifically the writing process. According to Berthoff, the dominant model of English studies that examined how texts affect readers or how social contexts determined these works didn’t account for how writers actually produced their texts when responding to what they read. Composing shouldn’t seek to simply reveal that students know what they know but that they should discover how they know it.

Instead, Berthoff began to examine the process of constructing text, specifically how novice writers

struggle with the forming of their ideas since these students were less likely to have the confidence to get around their so-called “writer’s block” but to be more focused on “getting it right” according to the rules prescribed to them by misguided “gangster theories” that dominated English classrooms before the 1970’s (Mysterious Barricades 15). Teaching writing is not simply grammar and usage instruction for recognizing and avoiding fragments, run-ons, and misplaced modifiers. Neither is it instructing students on how to follow rules and formulas to generate a five-paragraph essay.

As a result, Berthoff’s avoidance of the positivist philosophy favors epistemic rhetoric, emphasizing the acquiring

of knowledge and forming of knowledge through the “making of meaning”. She is assigned a leading role in connecting semiotics with composition studies garnered from her studies of the philosopher C. S. Peirce, making her connection between pragmatic semiotics and composition studies when she says, “[e]verything we deal with in composition theory is fundamentally and unavoidably philosophical” (“The Intelligent Eye and the Thinking Hand” 191). She goes to great lengths to assert that we must “reclaim the imagination” from the positivists who seek to blur linguistic functions and brain functions and how philosophy can help us better understand the thought-making process. Berthoff was one of the first to assert that composing is not an ancillary act of the thought process but that is part of the natural process of perception and conception. The making of meaning within the composing process does not occur in a linear fashion that pursues a goal to produce a product, so often encouraged in conventional forms of the causal analysis, the comparison or contrast, the argumentation, or the book report. As an alternative, Berthoff proposes that the shaping, naming, recapitulating, and interpreting of concepts are the multiple dimensions of composing (Forming/Thinking/Writing 111–112).

Berthoff stands alone as the compositionist who theorizes that “forming” exists alongside thinking and writing. She

embraced I. A. Richards’ examination of writing as a process of meaning making, or an “audit of meaning” (How to Read a Page 240). Students could learn to compose within the more natural activity of observing their observations and interpreting their interpretations since students “learn to write by learning the uses of chaos . . . [by] rediscovering the power of language to generate the sources of meaning” (Making of Meaning 70). It is paramount to teach students how to be come conscious of the power of language as it liberates the imagination. She believes that the chaos that exists in the writing process is often ignored or targeted for extermination with an emphasis on getting through the stages of writing without looking back at unsuccessful attempts to make sense of or renegotiate ideas. She asserts that much can come from this chaos where there are meaningful moments of tension in the composing process that propels writing forward into more controlled language through a self-reflexive negotiation of meaning. The thinking and writing about confusion is necessary, not something to be ignored or hidden along the way. These confusions have the potential, when reflected on in a dialectical relationship with the text, to help students learn how they come to know what they know. Students dialoguing with themselves as they make their way through the composing process results in genuine constructions of meaning when they learn to tolerate confusion and to understand that meanings are not static concepts but fluid associations. By observing their own perceptions and by naming them, students create meanings which they experience as active.

In this way, Berthoff has expanded on the work of Louise Rosenblatt’s ideas of active reading through

Berthoff’s own meaning-making emphasis in the “dialectical notebook” or “double-entry notebook” in which students write about what they read then revisit their writing to assess critically their own earlier observations. Students become critical thinkers and meaning makers of their inner thoughts and voices as they learn to notice and confront uncertainties in both the reading and writing processes. Her legacy lives on in the classrooms that embrace the celebration of the power and usefulness of the students’ own critical narrative reflections within the composition process.

Works Consulted

“Dialectical Notebooks and the Audit of Meaning.” The Journal Book. Ed. Toby Fulwiler. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1987. 11–18.

The Resolved Soul: A Study of Marvell’s Major Poems. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

The Sense of Learning. Upper Montclair: Boynton Cook, 1990.

Works Cited

Forming/Thinking/Writing: The Composing Imagination. Rochelle Park: Hayden Book, 1978.
“The Intelligent Eye and the Thinking Hand.” Landmark Essays in Writing Process: Volume 7. Ed. Sondra Perl. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995.107–112.
The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Richards, I. A. How to Read a Page: A Course in Effective Reading, with an Introduction to a Hundred Great Words. New York: W.W. Norton, 1942.
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Page last modified on December 01, 2008, at 01:32 PM