Comp Theory Week 3 pt. 1

Return of the son of boring schoolwork

Notes on:

“Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories” by James A. Berlin

From: Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader NCTE 1997

This thick overview of the philosophical underpinnings of composition theory is best expressed through tables and diagrams. It was a very useful article, but it left out the major classical opposition:

Philosophy [truth is absolute] vs. Rhetoric [truth is situational]

The assumptions of process theory are taken for granted: Writing is a recursive activity involving discrete stages. However, Berlin introduces a concept from Chomsky’s linguistics: There are deep structures that underlie pedagogy. I would argue that this notion of “deep structure” should also apply to the stages of writing; they don’t deserve to be taken for granted. But I digress; Berlin breaks down pedagogy into four groups, with differing attributes.

TheoryClassicist PositivistExpressionist New Rhetoric
PhilosopherAristotleLockePlato Postmodern
Truth?Outside, deductiveOutside, inductiveInside, personal Situational
Emphasis Invention Arrangement analogyLanguage creates the only truth

The best part of the article is the conclusion: “Everyone teaches the process of writing, but not everyone teaches the same process” However, there is a big smell of social-determinism in the heralding of the New Rhetoric approach. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the assumption that a person must be able to “recognize and justify” the version of the process being taught means that a teacher must be able to justify their view of reality, and thus sell it to their students complete with “all its significance.” I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

Asking a student to confront the problem of language is one thing, asking them to buy into the world shattering views of post-modernism is quite another. I’d rather present all the available philosophies and allow them to make up their own minds. Isn’t that what teaching is about?