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John Walter-Doug Downs

Doug Downs-Kathy Fitch | ContentofComposition.HomePage | Michelle Sidler-Doug Downs

From: John Walter

Doug Downs wrote: “And then, there will be debates about *what to say* about the center of the field once it is asserted or conceded. I always like Astronomy as an example: 101 *has* to cover cosmology (the history/origins of the universe), clearly — but what estimate to put in the “age of the universe” slot? (Currently, I recall hearing, 12–15 billion years old, but that number has moved around quite a bit in the last decade, both higher and lower.) What to put in the textbook? Who gets listened to? How is the “consensus” of the field established?” (See the quote in context. Opens in new browser window.)

I seem to recall the 12–15 plus/minus a few billion years being number being pretty stable (as stable a range of 9–18 billion years can be). But the real problem here, if we want to define it as a problem, is that there’s no such thing as a stable, unified, Astronomy 101. For instance, at the University of Colorado where I did my undergrad, Introduction to Astronomy came in two flavors: -Introduction to Astronomy: The Solar System -Introduction to Astronomy: Stars and Galaxies (i.e. cosmology) Each was the introductory course to a track in Astronomy. Since my interest was in cosmology, I took multiple courses in the stars and galaxies track and never studied the solar system.

Biology at CU was the same. While my wife and I both took Introduction to Biology courses at CU, they were very different courses. My wife, who majored in EPOB (Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology), had a two-semester sequence on environmental, population, and organismic biology that didn’t touch on molecular biology. And, as a English-Biochemistry double major, my two-term Introduction to Biology sequence was Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and we didn’t study ecological and evolutionary biology. While both classes covered similar topics such as genetics and photosynthesis, the approaches were very different, with her class focusing on how these issues related to whole organisms, populations, and ecosystems and and my class focusing on how these issues related to molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.

So, yes, you’re right in that in an Introduction to Astronomy, students are going to be told that the age of the universe is somewhere around 12–15 years old, or in an Introduction to Biology, students are going to be told that living organisms consist of cells, that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and that the diversity of life is product of evolutionary forces, but these are underlying assumptions and beliefs about those disciplines, not the “content” of those disciplines.

The content of an Introduction to Composition Studies is going to depend upon what *kind* of Composition Studies one wants to be introducing in the same way that the content to CU’s different Introductions to Biology and Astronomy depended upon the *kind* of Biology and Astronomy the course was about. Both Introductions to Biology (EPOB and MCDB) and both Introductions to Astronomy (Solar System and Stars and Galaxies) were 100-level courses. They were the equivalent of the “101″ course only neither the two Biology departments nor the Physics/Astrophysics department saw the need to offer a “101″ introduction to their disciplines.

I would argue, and I point to CU’s Biologies and Physics/Astrophysics departments as two examples, that there is a difference between the “center” of a discipline (its underlying assumptions, beliefs, and core knowledge) and the categories (sub-fields, approaches, “kinds” of the discipline) that get taught or represented in an introductory course.

The “content” of Composition Studies is not the same thing as the “content” of an Introduction to Composition Studies. The discipline is itself too vast — the ways in which an Introduction to Composition Studies can be structured, not the central assumptions, beliefs, and knowledge about how writing works or how composition should be taught, though those are large topics in and of themselves).

Since I’ve been using my own undergrad experience as examples, let me also mention CU’s General Chemistry course. It was much closer to the platonic “101″ conception of a course, and the graduate students and faculty within the Chemistry department called it “the Big Lie” because it was a fiction. What was taught wasn’t Chemistry as it actually was but a watered down semblance of chemistry for freshman, the majority of whom weren’t majoring in the sciences let alone Chemistry. (Most engineers took an General Chemistry for Engineers, and most science majors took Honors General Chemistry, known in the department as “the Little Lie” because it was closer to real Chemistry.)

What I take from all this is that if disciplines like Biology, Chemistry, and Astronomy either don’t offer platonic “101″ courses or if they do they consider such courses to be “lies,” maybe, just maybe, we might be asking ourselves the wrong questions here.

I don’t think that asking what the content of an Introduction to Composition course might include is the wrong question --- that’s a good question. Instead, I think that asking to define such a course as a move to define the discipline itself is where we might be going wrong. Rather than regard the “deference to the local, the fragmented, and the refusal to cooperate or be imposed upon” as being driven by theoretical and ideological concerns, I see this as a pragmatic understating of how disciplinary itself works: they understand that the center of a discipline and how a discipline articulates itself within its local contexts are not the same thing, and, therefore, regard attempts to unify the articulation the discipline outside of those local contexts as theoretically and ideologically driven. In other words, both positions are driven by different pragmatic, theoretical, and ideological concerns.

From: Doug Downs

[Responding to Kathy Fitch and to John Walter]

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to have to argue for “stable and unified” *anything*, given that you can’t know what any single class teaches without knowing how the faculty member teaching it constructed and then implemented the syllabus, how the students factored into the course, etc. Nor does a call for conversation about a center have to equate to an attempt to create stability and unification. To *expect* the center to be shifty and unstable is merely to acknowledge that disciplines are dynamic. And John’s point is well taken that intro courses are not faithful replicates or microcosms of the entire field. As he points out, local exigencies always modulate the discipline.

What I take from his examples is not that fields don’t seek a center in their intro courses, but that they seek an even *tighter* center — hence organizing the course by theme or by subdiscipline — dictated by local contingencies. In other words, that an intro course doesn’t cover the “whole” field has less to do with coming to grips with what the field *is* than with describing it in a tight 10 or 16 weeks.

I’m not sure, though, about John’s distinction between content and values made here: “in an Introduction to Biology, students are going to be told that living organisms consist of cells, that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and that the diversity of life is product of evolutionary forces, but these are underlying assumptions and beliefs about those disciplines, not the “content” of those disciplines.” and the distinction between center and categories or kinds made here: “there is a difference between the “center” of a discipline (its underlying assumptions, beliefs, and core knowledge) and the categories (sub-fields, approaches, “kinds” of the discipline) that get taught or represented in an introductory course.”

I’m pretty sure that underlying assumptions and beliefs definitely *are* part of the content of a discipline; change either one and you change the other; and likewise, I’m pretty sure that what a field decides is its center must be derived from awareness of its methods, parts, specialities, applications, subdisciplines, and even (increasingly) its interdisciplinary attachments.

But, frankly, this is quite a bit beyond where “Writing Studies” has even gotten itself. The question is whether the field has enough of a sense of itself to even be *able* to introduce students to its methods — something I’ve no doubt the biology, astronomy, chemistry, and comm courses, no matter their thematic, had little trouble with.

In other fields, you ask *what* of the field to introduce students to, and *how* you’ll introduce students to the field’s methods, values, assumptions, content, and subdisciplines. In Writing Studies, we’re still stuck back at the question of *whether* to do so.

Doug Downs-Kathy Fitch | ContentofComposition.HomePage | Michelle Sidler-Doug Downs

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