E 387R • Greatest Hits: Composition Studies
2:00 PM-3:30 PM
The 2001 MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Teaching's "Final Report" calls for: new goals for the teaching of English and foreign languages based on a revised concept of literacy--the literacy of critical thinking combined with discourse skills that result in effective communication in multiple social and technological contexts.
Critical thinking, discourse skills, effective communication--these are traditionally the bailiwick of composition instruction. Equally traditionally, such instruction is the responsibility of English Departments directly (they are English courses) or indirectly (almost all of the teaching is done by people with or pursuing graduate degrees in English). Yet, there is often a profound ambivalence about the place of such courses in English Departments. Often central to an English Department's undergraduate mission, enrollment, and, hence, funding, the teaching of composition is equally often simultaneously marginalized in terms of prestige, staffing policies, and resources, sometimes by choice, sometimes by administrative mandate.
Interestingly enough, this is not a new phenomenon. In Plato's Gorgias, the speakers argue about these people who claim to be teaching "wisdom"--as part of their instruction, they teach young men how to make effective speeches, or "rhetoric." The argument digresses into various other topics-- whether the kind of power this skill imparts is really worth having; whether effective communication is inherently pandering and therefore shameful; whether, on the other hand, the study of ideas and contemplation of beauty is feminizing and unmanly; whether this pursuit is really honorable for a young man, or if there isn't something else much more prestigious, challenging, and systematic that he might study instead; whether making speeches is simply a "knack" or a true discipline; whether education should be seen as training for economic and political power.
In other words, the initially simple question--should a young man study rhetoric with this person Gorgias--opens up a series of other questions about the content, ethics, and consequences of the teaching of communication. What do we teach when we teach writing? How do we teach it? Why should we teach it? Who should teach it? What are the consequences of various pedagogies? How do we know if we're having any effect, or what effect we're having? In this course, students will read various writers who have pursued these questions.