by Linda Adler-Kassner
Modes-based assignments (e.g., narration, description, exposition and argument) have their origins in classical rhetoric. Robert Connors sketches the history of the modal approach, arguing that Alexander Bain’s 1866 text, English Composition and Rhetoric, made the approach truly popular among instructors. Publication of that text coincided with a shift in rhetorical study from, as Wayne Booth puts it, “the discovery of solid argument” to “a useful appendage to what hard thinking could yield” (6). In other words, this approach separated the work of thinking from the work of representing thought. Thus, 19th century rhetorician George Campbell contended that “Rhetoric is that art of talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. All the ends of speaking are reducible to four; every speech being intended to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions, and to influence the will” (6).
While scholars like Booth and others have reclaimed the concept of rhetoric, some first-year writing classes still bear the traces 19th century progenitor (see Connors, “Rise” and Crowley, Methodical Memory, for thorough discussions of the persistence of modes-based and current-traditional approaches in composition). The number of modes available for writers seem to have increased significantly. Contemporary texts include description, narration, comparison/contrast, process, classification and division, definition, persuasion and argument, reflection, and others.
Critics of modes-based assignments advance two primary arguments. First, with their inherent emphasis on the kind of writing a writer produces, modes privilege form (mode) over content. Second, by isolating different kinds of writing into rather arbitrarily defined categories (modes), these assignments suggest to writers that writing can be easily delineated into different types, and writing tasks will require writers to draw on these discretely labeled types. In fact, writing is a much less tidy process that involves developing ideas, analyzing audience expectations, and blending a variety of ‘modes’ in a single document (such as “description” and “argumentation”). As Albert Kitzhaber notes, [Modes] represent an unrealistic view of the writng process, a view that assumes writing is done by formula and in a social vacuum” (qtd in Connors, 454).
The curriculum in many classes and programs reflect other conceptualizations of writing and thinking than those reflected in modes-based classes, and thus use alternatives to modes-based assignments. These classes and/or programs most often blend tenets from several conceptions of language and development. These approaches can be positioned along a spectrum that stretches between personal and social conceptions, and often blend elements from each. “Personal” conceptions are those that privilege the development of the writer’s “genuine” self/voice as the primary goal of composition work ; “social” conceptions are those that privilege the writer’s ability to develop discursive practices necessary to fit into discourse communities as the primary goal of that work (for more these conceptions see Berlin; Connors; see Skorczewski for a discussion of the problems of applying them to specific programs). Assignments that are entirely “personal,” therefore, might solely focus on the writer’s exploration of her ideas and her consciousness; those that are entirely “social” might solely focus on an analysis of the expectations of an audience or community and a consideration of how to meet them. However, it is a rare class/program that does not blend these approaches (Skorczewski). Thus, for example, classes/assignments might ask students to begin an assignment (or a sequence of assignments) by reflecting on their own identity as a writer and/or individual within a specific context (an assignment that might lean more toward ‘personal’ conceptions of writing), but move toward an analysis of the contextual (e.g., social, economic, cultural) influences that contributed to the formulation of that identity, or ask the writer to consider their position as an individual within broader conventions of writing in a location (such as a writing class, a college major, or a college/university).
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