North, _The Making of Knowledge: Portrait of an Emerging Field_

North, Stephen. The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field.Upper Montclair, NJ: Boyton/Cook Publishers, 1987. (403 pages)


Early in the introduction of The Making of Knowledge, North outlines the distinct approach he has taken to organize the current field of composition: specifically, he is concerned with “modes of inquiry—the whole series of steps an inquirer follows in making a contribution to a field of knowledge” and how those modes of inquiry function within “methodological communities: groups of inquirers more or less united by their allegiance to one such mode, to an agreed-upon set of rules for gathering, testing, validating, accumulating and distributing what they regard as knowledge” (1). Where the modes of inquiry encompass the procedures or methods that one may carry out, the methodological community operates to give meaning to those methods through particular epistemological lenses (or values) that govern those communities. Between these two concepts—both intimately intertwined—North maps out the current landscape of composition by noting the ways in which knowledge is made as well as those communities that both give meaning to methods as well as the accompanying epistemological beliefs which, by extension, are grounded in the particular ways people make meaning within the field.

However, in both studying the landscape of the field, North is also acknowledging the paradigmatic shift composition taken toward becoming an established field. As he notes, this transition has two major “liabilities”: first, previous inquiries conducted by practitioners in years past have been largely discounted as knowledge for the field and practitioners—taking up the majority of the field—have been “effectively disenfranchised as knowledge-makers in the field,” Second, there has been a wellspring of research through various modes of inquiry that have not referred to one another and thus do not account for incompatabilities between research: “The result has been an accumulated knowledge of relatively impressive size, but one that lacks any coherence or methodological integrity. Composition’s collective fund of knowledge is a very fragile entity” (3).

composition becomes Composition

North contributes the movement for Composition to become an established field to a couple of contributing factors: first, much like descriptions offered by others like Berlin, there became a focus on the content of composition as opposed to a skills-based service to the university. North quotes from reports from 1958 Basic Issues conference: “English must be regarded as ‘a fundamental liberal discipline,’ a body of specific knowledge to be preserved and transmitted rather than a set of skills or an opportunity for guidance and individual adjustment” (10). Though in the allocation of federal funds—as outlined in the 1964 revision of the National Defense Education Act of 1958—Composition found itself receiving federal support to act in service to teach composition to undergraduate students (13). And even more, in receiving a renewed focus—or rather an elevated focus by way of federal support—there became a call to legitimize composition away from the “ghettos” of English Studies. Particularly Kitzhaber calls for “the exertion of authority of knowledge about composition: what it is, how it is made, who gets to say so and why” (15). This call is, of course, a call to have some coherence—or control—over the modes of inquiry in the field. In other words, the emergence of a “nascent academic field” is marked by, according to North, “this need to replace practice as the fied’s dominate mode of inquiry”—and specifically, the use of lore.


In the first methodological community, North focuses on practitioners or those who are the “technicians”: where others like Scholars and Researchers make knowledge; practitioners apply it. But in the application of such knowledge in classrooms settings has prompted the reproduction and circulation of how best to implement this top-down body of knowledge. North labels this body of knowledge from practitioners as lore. Although lore is often understood as abstract, it does follow some discernable logics. For one, anything can be part of lore as long as someone in this community nominates it, but there is no mechanism in place to drop anything from lore. Although there are many contradictory practices that comprise lore, the focus on individual practice explains away doubts through the varying ways one can implement such practice. In this way, individuals do not have control over their contribution because other individuals will tailor those practices in their own individual ways. “There is no master plan, no controlling theory; each Practitioner’s version of lor will have… unique experiential structure. … the individual, finally, decides what to to and whether (or how) it has worked—decides, in short, what counts as knowledge” (28).

However, Practitioners do share a common institutional experience: “for most Practitioners the [experiential structure] will be formed under conditions and circumstances that are widely shared, in the face of what are in many ways common demands” (28). North continues that this common experience is further homogenized “within buildings, then districts, then regions and so on” (29). This embodied experiential structure is thus shared through ritual (“those patterns of practice which acquire what amounts to ceremonial status, and which gets passed along mostly be xample”); writing; and talk (through the telling of stories rooted in practice).

Finally, the appeal of lore is its ability to mediate an potentially overwhellimg complex of knowledge into something manageable (33).

The Scholars

This methodological community encompasses those “trained in the traditions and methods of Western humanist thought” (59). Knowledge is made through modes of inquiry rooted in this kind of tradition and methods, particularly the dialectic “seeking of knowledge via the deliberate confrontation of opposing points of view” (60). North outlines three distinct modes of inquiry from this wider community:

  1. Historical (the Historians): “those who work to provide a coherent past for the field.” Texts are used to construct a coherent narrative, one with a “chrono-logic”, not simply a catalogue of events, but how events build upon one another. Contributions take the form of new events, rooted in textual evidence or new alternate connections between events: “variant interpretations of the significance of some one vent within the narrative” (70). This latter point emerges through a scholarly dialectic. A historical inquiry takes both an empirical stage comprising the identifying, searching, assembling, and validating relevant texts and an interpretive stage that incudes the seeking/explaining of patterns as well as disseminating to an audience.
  2. Philosophical (the Philosophers): “The impulse from which it springs—the impulse to account for, to frame, critique and analyze the field’s fundamental assumptions and beliefs” (90). Their set of questions move beyond “what do we do” towards other questions like “What is Composition? What does it mean to write? To learn to write? What assumptions guide our answers to such questions, and upon what preconditions do they rest” (92). The focus is on establishing an informing discipline “without which no field can maintain its proper dimensions, the balance and proportion of its various parts or its very integrity” (Virginia Burke 1965 cited North 93). As Emig writes, a requirement for disciplinarity is an intellectual tradition and intellectual ancestors (95)—the philosophers see this as grounding.
  3. Hermeneutical (the Critics): “deals with the interpretation of texts… Just which texts are to be interpreted, for what purposes, and by what means…” (60). And later, “it has three major concerns (a) establishing a body of texts, usually called a canon, for interpretation; (b) the interpretation of those texts; and (c) generating theories about (a) and (b)—that is, about what constitutes a canon, how interpretation should proceed and to what end” (116).


The Researchers

Unlike the scholars community, researchers adopt a mode of inquiry rooted in more scientific knowledge. Summarized into four distinct modes of inquiry:

  1. Experimental (the Experimentalists): “those who seek to discover generalizable ‘laws’ which can account for—and ideally predict—the ways in which people do, teach, and learn writing.” (137).
  2. Clinical (the Clinicians): “the focus is on individual ‘cases’ mostly commonly, the ways in which a particular subject does, learns, or teachers writing” (137).
  3. Formal (the Formalists): “build models or simulations by means of which they attempt to examine the formal properties of the phenomena under study” (137).
  4. Ethnography (the Ethnographers): “their peculiar concern is with people as members of communities, and their mode of inquiry equips them to produce knowledge in the form of narrative accounts of what happens in those communities” (137).

Dynamics of Inquiry

Here, North begins to take up those who have borrowed Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift theory as a way to explain the kind of revolutionary changes Composition has experienced. Defined, paradigm is “a system of widely shared values, beliefs, and methods that determines the nature and conduct of the discipline” (317-8). Referencing Young’s discussion of paradigm shift, North discusses how a paradigm is widely agreed upon by participants of a discipline and much research “is directed primarily toward its articulatipn an application”; however, when new kinds of “problems” arise that the current paradigm cannot account for or explain, “a new paradigm emerges from the inquiries and controversieis of the cirsi state and with it another period of relative stability” (Young 35 cited in North 319). But in order to accept a Kuhnian paradigm-like strucutrue in Composition, one must accept some assumptions—some assumptions that are still contentious within the field. For example, one would have to accept that “Composition is and has been a ‘discpline,’ bound together by this ‘shared system of beliefs, values and methods’”; however, as North has demonstrated, there exists a wide methodological pluralism within the field. Rather, North writes that the revolution might be best understood as an internal power struggle among methodological communities to “assert its dominance over the others” (321).

As North continues, the community that has suffered the most—or rather has been most scrutinized—within the most recent crisis in the Practitioners. For example, those like Braddock in journals like Research in the Teaching of English don’t even see practice as knowledge-making at all (325). North then sees two models on how to educate (or convert/correct) practitioners: In a conservative model, scholars and researchers control the knowledge-making enterprise of the field; however, a liberal model recognizes the ways in which lore pervades Practitioner culture: knowledge from researchers and scholars are imported without regard to context into classroom. However, a liberal model attempts to include and socialize practitioners and participating members in the wider field. Distilled, North writes:

“For practitioners, the implications are either the conservative or the liberal perspective are about equally demanding, not to say threatening. If they follow the conservative pattern, they (a) admit, in effect, to a second-class professional status as knowledge-users, no knowledge-makers; and (b) they become the recipients of an increasingly large, seldom very well sorted flow of information. Even if, as it increasingly unlikely they are able to keep up with that new knowledge, there is no guarantee that it will be clear what they are to do with it” (335).


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