Fulkerson, “Composition Theory in the Eighties: Axiological Consensus and Paradigmatic Diversity”

Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition Theory in the Eighties: Axiological Consensus and Paradigmatic Diversity.” CCC 41.4 (Dec. 1990): 409-429. (21 pages)

Fulkerson offers a follow-up to his 1979 article where he discussed four philosophical views of the teaching of composition: formalist, expressionist, mimetic, and rhetorical. See previous notes for more detail. Here, Fulkerson complicates his original taxonomy by more fully defining what might be meant to have a full theory of composition—in short, Fulkerson previously concerned himself with only the ends of composition and is now contending with the often-conflicting means to get to the same ends. There are four elements of a full theory of composition: axiological component, procedural component, pedagogical component, and epistemological component. T

The axiological component corresponds directly to his previous article’s banner of “philosophy.” It is in this element that would describe what is meant by good writing: “what we want student writers to achieve as a result of effective teaching” (411). Axiology is a value theory that includes both ethical and aesthetic components. The procedural component is focused on “describing the means by which writers can reach the ends specified by the axiology”; a pedagogical component is also concerned with ends, but specifically in the context of curricular designs and classroom procedures; finally, an epistemological component where particular assumptions about “what counts as knowledge” is taken up (411).

Fulkerson further argues, unlike his 1979 piece, that there is a general and significant consensus that the rhetorical axiology is dominant in the field; however, as Fulkerson notes (a common theme throughout): “we are closer to agreeing on where we want to go, but not on how to get there (411). A rhetorical axiology, broadly, finds good writing to be that which effectively communicates to particular audiences. Fulkerson goes further with defining the implications of the rhetorical axiology’s relationship with audience—in particular, he sees a concept of audience as linked to other highly social concepts of writing such as discourse community. As he writes, “good audience analysis thus involves directly the presumption of writing as a social act in a discourse community” (417).

However, where there is general consensus on the rhetorical axiology’s role in composition, the other three elements of a full theory exist largely independent of one another. In other words, as Fulkerson writes, “no automatic one-to-one connection exists between entries in each list” (emphasis his 418). In other words, there can be axiology that is different from both procedure, epistemology, and pedagogy (though some combos are better than others). Succinctly, Fulkerson writes, “In short, the connection between ends and means in the composition room is not simple and holistic. A full composition theory is less a package deal than an oriental restaurant menu: with some constraints, you can frequently choose one from column A, one from column B, one from column C. Shared axiology requires neither shared pedagogy nor shared epistemology” (420).

Berlin: Fulkerson also takes issue with Berlin, particularly in “Rhetoric and Ideology.” In particular, Fulkerson sees that the goal of Berlin’s (via Shor) social-epistemic rhetoric is “to externalize false consciousness”; however, “one would expect the goal of a writing course to at least refer to writing” (421). Furthermore, Fulkerson sees Berlin commit the common misconception of theory that Fulkerson himself is outlining in this particular piece: Berlin “presumes that axiology, process theory, pedagogy, and epistemology exist holistically, that if you commit to one, you commit to a package” (422).


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