Berlin, “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories”

Berlin, James. “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories.” College English 44.8 (Dec. 1982): 765-777. (13 pages)

Much like Fulkerson’s taxonomy of composition curricula and pedagogy, Berlin offers his own taxonomy—rooted in composition textbooks—in order for “writing teachers [to] become more aware of the full significance of their pedagogical strategies. Not doing so can have disastrous consequences, ranging from momentarily confusing students to sending them away with faulty and even harmful information” (766). On this, he and Fulkerson agree; however, Berlin’s taxonomy is more concerned with the varying ways the composing process is structured. As he writes, “the differences in these teaching approaches should instead be located in diverging definitions of the composing process itself—that is, in the way the elements that much up the process—writer, reality, audience, and language—are envisioned” (765). In his focus on composing processes, he is combating composition classrooms that espouse the teaching of writing skill; rather, “[in the teaching of writing,] we are tacitly teaching a version of reality and the student’s place and mode of operation in it” (766). Thus, he does not see the product-vs-process distinction in teaching writing as a useful distinction—instead, he is confronting the viability of classrooms espousing mechanical skill vs. the justification for particular versions of reality (777). Given this context, he offers four epistemological lenses that educators operate within:

  1. Neo-Aristotelian or Classicist: Discourse—particularly mediated by language—operates to lead audiences to truth through deductive reasoning, i.e. the system of logic Aristotle developed called syllogistic reasoning. Invention takes on a central role in this composing theory because a speaker must make appeals to audiences to be persuaded to accept the speaker’s vision of reality.
  2. Positivist or Current-Traditionalist: Unlike the first composing process, this one values the knowing of material reality through induction, particularly experimental methods. Where Aristotle would discover new truth in comparison with old or existing ideas of truth, positivists use indicators in reality itself for new truth. Significantly, there is no inventional system like Aristotle; instead, the goal of discourse is to “provide the language which corresponds either to the objects in the external world or to the ideas in his or her own mind—both essentially the same—in such a way that it reproduces the objects and the experience of them in the minds of the hearers” (770). The focus, then, is on arrangement and style.
  3. Neo-Platonist or Expressionist: Berlin makes the argument that Plato and modern Expressionists (sic) are very much aligned. At the forefront, Plato saw truth as transcendent from the physical world, thus, is not able to be communicated through language. Language’s role, then, is to “communicate the absolute, or at least to approximate the experience of [essential realities]” (772). Because truth is located internally and language is used to express, in metaphor, essential realities, there’s an emphasis on authenticity and confroting/consulting truth to discover the depths of that truth. Outlined succinctly: “this emphasis on dialectic, it should be noted, is not an attempt to adjust the message to the audience, since doing so would clearly constitute a violation of the self. Instead the wrter is trygint to use others to get rid of what is false to the self, what is insincere and untrue to the individual’s own sense of things, as evidenced by the use of language—the theory of which constitutes the final point of concurrence between modern Expressionist and Platonic rhetorics” (773).
  4. The New Rhetoricians: the central focus of new rhetoricians is meaning. In the previous three composing theories, truth exists prior to language to describe it, but here, language precedes any truth or reality. In referencing Kant: “Percepts without concepts are empty; concepts without percepts are blind” (774). So, there is still roots in material reality, but language is what gives them meaning and organizes them. Thus, “A language is, in a sense, a theory of the universe, a way of selecting and grouping experience in a fairly consistent and predictable way” (Young Becker and Pike 27; cited in Berlin 775). Audience, then, does not take a receiving role in this theory, but rather is part of the universe to shape reality.

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