Fulkerson, “Composition at the Turn of the 21st Century”

Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” CCC 56.4 (Jun. 2005): 654-687. (34 pages)

Like Fulkerson’s review of the teaching of composition in his 1979 article as well the follow-up in a review of the 1980s, here, Fulkerson looks at composition at the turn of the twenty-first century. Where in 1990, he saw the teaching of composition finding general consensus around a rhetorical axiology, the turn of the century is markedly less unified. While, echoing Berlin, Fulkerson finds all approaches to teaching composition are grounded in process, there is not a unified mean in which to get there. Again, Fulkerson turns to four central questions we must ask to understand a full theory (here, philosophy) of composition:

  1. The axiological question: in general, what makes writing ‘good’?
  2. The process question: in general, how do written texts come into existence?
  3. The pedagogical question: in general how does one teach college students effectively, especially where procedural rather than propositional knowledge is the goal? And
  4. The epistemological question: ‘how do you know that?’ which underlies answer to all others. (657-8).

With these questions, looks to three perspectives on composition: critical/cultural studies approaches, expressive approaches, and procedural rhetoric approaches.

Critical/cultural studies: Informed by postmodernisn, feminism, and British cultural studies, classes under the rubric of CCS have their axiological focus on “systemic cultural injustices inflicted by dominant societal groups and dominant discourses of t hose with less power, and upon the empowering possibilities of rhetoric if students are educated to ‘read’ carefully and ‘resist’ the social texts that help keep some groups subordinated” (659). Fulkerson takes issue (though still attempts to retain some degree of neutrality: “you cannot derive an ought from an is” 680) with the goals of such writing courses. IN particular, “ungenerously, one could argue that this odes not produce a writing course at all…. Certainly it provides students with extensive practice in writing and with getting feedback—although it isn’t clear whether the feedback is mainly about writing or mainly about culture and how to ‘read’ it. Both the lit-based course and the cultural studies course reflect, I suspect, content envy on the part of writing teachers (663). Fulkerson directs the fragmentation of the teaching of writing to such classes because in many ways, they don’t necessarily need to be housed in an English department. He aligns the pedagogical question of CCS with a more mimetic approach where students are asked to read a breadth of texts on particular topics and good writing will be judged on “how sophisticated or insightful the teacher finds the interpretation of the relevant artifacts to be” (662). This, of course, is the approach of any given course in, say, history or sociology. Under this approach, Fulkerson cautions: “So we get a ‘writing’ course in which writing is required and evaluated but not taught” (665). The inability to see or teach the content of writing has thus fragmented the discipline of writing studies.

Contemporary Expressivist Composition: much has been said about expressivist approach to composition: expressivist pedagogies places the writer at the center of the course and writing functions to provide personal development of one’s voice and self. This is outlined much like previous pieces of Fulkerson’s and others, but he does further warn against ascribing courses as expressivist by artificial assumption.

Rhetorical Approaches to Composition: as an overview, a rhetorical approach to composition is concerned with judging writing based on situation and audience, including classical rhetorical ideas like ethos, pathos, logos. Fulkerson further breaks this down into three emphases: composition as argumentation, genre-based composition, and composition as introduction to an academic discourse community.

  1. Composition as argumentation: Fulkerson notes that not much has been written explicitly in composition journals about this emphasis yet are prevalent throughout the teaching of writing. In this emphasis, educators ask students to make certain “intellectual moves” to support their ideas. He further notes that many teachers evaluate writing based on this emphasis yet do not make such evaluation clear to students.
  2. Genre-based composition: Genre, broadly defined, are “relatively stable… types of utterances” (Bakhtin) that exist in recurring situations and contexts. Like CCS, students engage in reading many different kinds of text, but unlike CCS, the goal is to “serve as discourse models from which students can generalize” as opposed to mimetic approach. Pointing to Anish Bawarshi, his class asks students to engage with genres of particular discourses (such as majors)—students, then, write about the role of genre in these discourses.
  3. Composition as introduction to an academic discourse community: Fulkerson finds exemplar of this emphasis with David Bartholomae’s “inventing the University”: beginning students…are presumed to be neither cognitively deficient nor linguistically impoverished. As outsiders, they simply lack experience with the ‘academic discourse community’ and its conventions (678). The goal of such courses is to engage with texts of such communities in order to become familiar with the expectations. Fulkerson notes some concerns including whether such approach favors particular kinds of students (like upper-middle class white students who had the resources to be already be familiar with such communities) or whether this is an “act of hegemonic imperialism to insist that students not their own language” (678). (See RTTOL).

Though Fulkerson is outlining what exists now and does not want to take a stand on what ought to be composition’s focus, he does worry that the field of composition is entering, as Gary Olsen says, “the new theory wars” (CoHE A17, cited in Fulkerson 681).


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