These are not new questions
As Ed White and Ralph Voss remind us, we are not the first generation of writing teachers to ask the questions about the content of composition. And as Bonnie Kyburz points out, our current responses may well be motivated in the same ill-advised way that the earlier responses were motivated. In addition to Ed’s reminder about the 60s and the study of language as content, the use of literature has a long history as content in writing courses. What have been the various answers to this question over time? What does our scholarly literature tell us? If we were to explore CompPile, what search terms would we use? What would we find?
In debates about literary canons (80s and 90s), I remember the common statement that “the canon is what is taught,” and I wonder to what extent the content of composition fits that statement. In other words, whatever we might say in forums such as CompFAQs or WPA-L or in our journals or at our conferences, what do most students experience as the content of composition? What would they say their composition courses were “about”?
From another angle, what do the major textbooks represent as the content of composition? What are the best selling, most widely circulated composition texts? How do they shape the courses / programs?
From: Edward White
As we deal with his important question, we should build on what we learned from the “answer” that appeared in the 1960s. There was considerable consensus, as I remember it, that the content of comp should, naturally, be the dimensions of language, most particularly, the issues emerging from linguistics.
Thus students would read about how dictionaries were put together, read some Chomsky, study sophisticated grammar, and follow Toulmin as a pattern for argumentation. The content was language, though, not rhetoric, and all right-thinking comp people (remember, in the 1960s, comp was pretty much an amateur operation) were happy with this development.
But there was one problem: the students went crazy with boredom. They wanted to write about things that were important to them, like the Vietnam war, sex, personal goals, the books they were reading, and so on. I remember well the crushing realization that language issues, which interested me very much, were seen as instrument al by the students, not goals in themselves.
I hope we don’t repeat the same discovery this time around.
From: Bonnie Kyburz
I couldn’t agree with you more, Ed. While our “writing content” is fascinating to us, it’s likely that we came to this fascination via a lot of other engaging language practices (studying Lit, writing poetry, discussing fav/important films, etc.).
I worry about current conceptualizations of FYC that want to bring our scholarly discourses front and center; those who advocate it say that their students love it, but I wonder about the extent to which that view can approach anything like objectivity, given the passion behind the pedagogy. I worry about the student who wants to write about her dog and feels it’s too unimportant to examine.
From: Ralph F. Voss
Re: the thread on the “content of composition” sounds pretty familiar to us elderly who remember when it surfaced in disputes re: writing about literature in first-year composition courses.
For what it’s worth, for some time I have been convinced that purposes or motives provide the best way to organize a writing course, and there’s plenty of theory behind that notion (e.g.,Kinneavy, Britton)as well as practitioner-textbook lore (McCrimmon).
I categorize readings by what I see as their primary purpose (informational, persuasive, or expressive), use them as exemplary of those purposes, and try to let students invent their own subjects so long as their papers can be seen to fit the chosen prevailing purpose.
I’ve no research proving anything about this approach, but I like it and my students do, too. I should add that I always confer with students prior to their beginning a topic, and we have to mutually agree that the topic is workable for the purpose at hand.