Changing Notions of Composition
“What will be the new configurations of mechanisms and of literacy as these older forms of perception and judgment are interpenetrated by the new electric age?” – Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, 330
“Wherever they may be institutionally situated, scholars in composition today study written discourse in a wide variety of settings, from the home, community, and public arena, to the academy and other institutions as well as professional workplaces. Thus, while rhetoric is interested in building and testing theories of persuasion primarily through the symbol system of language, composition is concerned with the way written texts come to be and the way they are used in the home, school, workplace, and public world we all inhabit.” – Andrea A. Lunsford, “Rhetoric and Composition,” 80.1
“Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups.” – National Council of Teachers of English, “The NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies“
Of all the fields within English Studies, rhetoric and composition/writing studies was arguably the first to have robust engagement with computers. For example, 1983 saw both the first issue of the academic journal Computers and Composition and the first Computers and Writing conference.
While for many students the subject of composition suggests required courses in writing in which they learn and write in academic and professional genres, as a field composition – also known as composition studies, rhetoric/composition, and writing studies – is much broader than that. As Andrea Lunsford explains in her essay “Rhetoric and Composition,” the subject of composition studies is the production of texts in informal and formal settings and how those texts are used, or, as she puts it “the way written texts come to be and the way they are used in the home, school, workplace, and public world we all inhabit” (80).
Therefore, composition is not just concerned with the use of computers in academic and scholarly writing – although this is a major concern of the field – but in how computers are used and in how they are changing the way we write in school, in the workplace, in civic life, and at home, whether we are writing for professional reasons, for serious reasons, or for fun. Broadly speaking, composition is not focused on the production of literary writing, but the lines between the literary and non-literary blur. Creative non fiction, for instance, inhabits an in-between space and is sometimes studied as literature and sometimes studied as composition. Likewise, while fan fiction is literary in the sense of being fiction, its study is more likely to happen within composition than it is within traditional literary scholarship.
While composition was one of the first, if not the first, field within English Studies to robustly engage with computers, this is not to say that computers and digital technologies have been readily accepted or have dominated composition studies. In his essay “The 1963 Composition Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Computed, or Demonstrated by Any Other Means of Technology,” Jeff Rice begins by noting that composition studies largely ignored scholars such as Marshall McLuhan who studied the connections between writing, technology, and culture. In fact, the focus of Rice’s article is to point out what composition studies missed by ignoring these ideas in their study of “the way written texts come to be and the way they are used in the home, school, workplace, and public world we all inhabit.” As Rice notes, until recently the mainstream of composition has failed to seek to answer McLuhan’s question as to what will be the effects the new electronic media environment will have – is having – on writing and literacy. (While composition studies as a whole is now taking up these question more readily, there are still plenty of people within the field who believe this question is not relevant to the study and teaching of composition.)
As we explore the changing notions of composition this week, we are in a very real sense asking the same question McLuhan asked back in 1962: “What will be the new configurations of mechanisms and of literacy as these older forms of perception and judgment are interpenetrated by the new electric age?” Each of our four readings this week, Jeff Rice’s “The 1963 Composition Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Computed, or Demonstrated by Any Other Means of Technology”; Kathleen Blake Yancey’s “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key”; Dan Anderson’s “The Low Bridge to High Benefits: Entry-level Multimedia, Literacies, and Motivation”; and Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber’s “Plagiarism, Originality, Assemblage” all serve as four distinct answers to this question, as do the two NCTE position statements included in the Resources section below.
- Reading Response post: 10:00 PM, Wed., 115 Oct.
- Community Response post: No Community Response post this week. Enjoy Fall Break!
- Participation posts (3): During the week.
- Read lecture posts for the week. The most recent lectures can always be found on the front page for the course or using the Lecture category. Short lectures will be posted throughout the week.
- Review and begin weekly Participation assignment forum posts.
- Reading Response and Community Response blog posts (Online Writing Activities).
- Graduate students: Continue working on the Annotated Bibliography assignment. Due: Dec. 2, 10:00 PM.
- Rice, Jeff . “The 1963 Composition Revolution Will Not be Televised, Computed, or Demonstrated by Any Other Means of Technology.” Composition Studies 33.1 (2005): 55-73. (pdf in Blackboard)
- Yancy. Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” CCC 52.2 (2004). 297-328. (pdf in Blackboard)
- Anderson, Dan. “The Low Bridge to High Benefits: Entry-level Multimedia, Literacies, and Motivation.” Computers and Composition 25.1 (2008): 40-60. (pdf in Blackboard)
- Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, and Stuart A. Selber. “Plagiarism, Originality, Assemblage.” Computers and Composition 24 (2007): 375-403. (pdf in Blackboad)
- “The NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies.” National Council of Teachers of English.
- “The NCTE Position Statement on Multimodal Literacies.” National Council of Teachers of English.
- Dan Anderson’s Workshops and Presentations and Teaching2
- Lunsford, Andrea A. “”Rhetoric and Composition.” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. 2nd ed. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: MLA, 1992. 77-100. ↩
- If Dan Anderson’s “Low Bridge to High Benefits” article catches your interest, I suggest you take a look at Anderson’s workshops and presentations and teaching pages. The teaching section, in particular, gives you a glimpse at students projects along the lines of what he describes in his article along with the assignment guidelines that go with them. ↩