ENC 4500 offers an introduction to theory in composition studies, by which we mean theories of the relationships between reading, writing, rhetoric, literacy, teaching, citizenship, community, and identity, among other things. There are many ways to organize a course such as this one, but our section of the course will focus specifically on how composition theories operate within larger narratives of higher education, institutional discourse, and educational polity—historically, and currently.
Its purpose is actually two-fold. (1) On the one hand, it encourages you to look outward by becoming more aware of how certain developments in composition studies have emerged from—or remain intrinsically tied to—contentious issues about teaching and learning in the public university, thus equipping you to participate in conversations about writing as an academic discipline and cultural phenomenon. (2) On the other hand, it encourages you to look inward by becoming a more reflective practitioner of your own writing as a kind of agency, a discipline, an attitude, and a profession—indeed, as your own situated activity in the world.
Guiding Concepts (and how they will guide us)
There are two definitions of “theory” we will rely on throughout the course to support this two-fold purpose. The first definition refers to “an effort to understand and account for something and the way it functions in the world… [to be] better equipped to understand situations and to see the possibilities for responding and taking action in those situations” (Foss, Foss and Griffin, Feminist Rhetorical Theories 2006). The second definition refers to a “framework within which one can operate, ask questions, even alter or refine principles … based on new experience, new observation” (Dobrin, Connecting Knowledges 1997).
We will also rely on a definition of “politics” that refers to the social, economic, and disciplinary conditions determining how individuals gain access to certain resources and privileges, and how they gain membership in certain communities or groups (Miller, Textual Carnivals 1991).
What We Will Read (and why)
Our course is divided into five units, each reflecting some “political” concern in composition theory. As we navigate these units, you’ll notice that we are reading three kinds of perspectives: historical, focusing on landmark moments in debates about teaching composition; theoretical, extending certain terms or concepts based on how they have evolved across time, media, and institutions; and practical, focusing on the art, craft, or practice of composition and its various relationships to writer, audience, reality, text. All three perspectives work in tandem, and you might find you enjoy one kind of reading more than the others. That is perfectly natural. We’ll apply these readings to more publicly circulating genres—such as case studies, documentaries, resolutions, and listservs—noting how their theories compel whole communities to have fervent, ongoing discussions about what composition is, has been, and should be in the future.
Click to download our course syllabus as .pdf.