Fulkerson, “Four Philosophies of Composition”

Fulkerson, Richard. “Four Philosophies of Composition.” CCC 30.4 (Dec. 1979): 343-348. (6 pages)

Fulkerson notes that the purpose of articulating—or categorizing—four philosophies of composition is in response to a supposed “mindlessness” that teachers, administrators, etc had in curricular and pedagogical implementation of composition courses. As he notes, the issue is not so much “evil or incompetent people [who] were in charge but that educators exhibited a consistent mindlessness about relating means to desired ends” (343). Borrowing (slightly) a taxonomy from M. H Abram’s The Mirror and the Lamp (1953)—pramatic, mimetic, expressive, and objective—Fulkerson offers what he sees as the four philosophies of composition: formalist, expressive, mimetic, and rhetorical.

  1. Formalist: “good writing is ‘correct’ writing” (344). In this approach, the focus is on writing’s “internal forms.” Educators using such an approach can determine the value of student writing based on acontextual qualities of readability.
  2. Expressionism: “…keynote for expressivits is the desire to have writing contain an interesting, credible, honest, and personal voice” (345) and also personal writing. “The purpose of such writing is ‘to restore our psychological balance’ by reestablishing ‘the total psychic equilibrium’” (345). This psychic equillibrim is the goal of expressivism.
  3. Mimetic: emphasizes “logic and reason” in order to “[detect] hidden assumptions” and decide whether it “violate[s] reality as we know it” (345). A key question of mimetic composition is whether writing “contradicts what we accept to be truth” (345). Students are encouraged to have a breadth of knowledge on a topic before writing about in order to have a written text that is closer to the truth. The canon appears to be of some value under this perspective.
  4. Rhetorical: “good writing is writing adapted to achieve the desired effect on the desired audience” (346). This approach is championed by those who are reclaiming classical rhetorical theory such as Aristotle. Student writing is evaluated based on its “effect on an audience” 9346).

While he notes that certain classroom practices that may be hallmarks of a given philosophy can be deployed in any of the philosophies—for example, Peter Elbow using expressivist activities in a rhetorical classroom—he warns against the potential for inconsistency in the classroom if the educator expresses expectations within one philosophy yet evaluates writing in another. Such inconsistency is what he calls mindless, modal confusion. As he writes, “there is nothing wrong with an expressive philosophy, but there is something seriously wrong with class room methodology which implies one variety of value judgment when another will actaully be employed. That is modal confusion, mindlessness” (347)

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