The origins of a building lie in its foundation. Everything rests on that beginning.

Disciplinary Origins




For most academic disciplines, the field practice existed long before it became a field of study. In other words, people did a thing long before they sat in an ivory tower to study that thing. For instance, people experimented with chemistry long before chemistry departments were staffed at academic institutions. These chemistry departments, then, would train students in the field so they could understand advanced chemistry in careers after graduation. The origins of writing studies are quite different. Writing studies holds the unusual distinction of being the only academic discipline that was created before the field itself existed. Writing classes existed before it was possible to have a degree in the field. One could study composition long before one could become a compositionist. It’s as though we studied a thing before anyone was an expert in that thing.

Who, then, is qualified to teach a composition course? That simple question can to this day go without an answer as different institutions hold different expectations for their writing programs and the faculty who teach in them. Some schools have separate writing or composition departments. Many, like Kean, simply have English departments that incorporate (often contentiously) both writing and literary studies. Is a Shakespeare scholar the best-qualified person to teach college students writing skills? Again, the question is deceptive.

What to Teach

Whether a hypothetical Shakespeare scholar is best-suited to teach writing cannot really be addressed unless we first agree on what writing we should teach. Do we mean business, professional, or technical writing? Blogging or journalistic writing? Creative, novel-focused writing? Or academic, scholarly writing? Each of those options requires its own set of skills, follows its own set of expectations, and achieves its own set of goals. What, then, should a general writing course teach? David R. Russell vividly illustrates the dilemma behind that question when he compares “general writing studies instruction” in English departments to the absurd prospect of physical-education departments offering generalized ball-handling classes designed to prepare students equally well for soccer, water polo, and tennis. The prospect of such a ball-handling class sounds patently absurd. Yet we insist on teaching generic word-handling classes as though that idea makes more sense.

More traditionalist educators might argue for the importance of instruction in rhetoric. Indeed, the origins of oral argument and written persuasion are undoubtedly aligned. Many instructors of the classics assert the primary importance of Plato’s Phaedrus and Aristotle’s Rhetoric. These two texts shaped Western thought and scholarship. Indeed, as Foss et al state, Rhetoric “often is considered the foundation of the discipline of communication.” Focusing on these ancient texts may indeed help students become conscientious, deliberative thinkers. But how helpful are they with modern means of communication and the types of writing expected of most graduates?

The Practical “Devolution”

Addressing typical, real-world writing of college graduates sounds far less grandiose a goal than teaching students to become great orators or rhetoricians—“leaders of men” as suggested in the mid-1800s (see Brereton, 1994, for examples). Expanding access to postsecondary education thanks to the G.I. Bill, land-grant institutions, and community colleges has led to colleges that serve members of common, rather than prominent, society. Thus, the goals of writing instruction have shifted accordingly to suit. Robert J. Connors expresses his disapproval when discussing the importance of textbooks in writing classes: “The field as it has existed for most of the last century was developed and passed along through the forms and genres of textbooks that rhetorical instruction spun off as it devolved after 1860 from a theoretical to a practical pedagogy.”

Connors also notes the shift in pedagogical strategy: “teachers were coming to depend less on straight lecturing and more on the use of reading, recitation, and perhaps even discussion.” The process of teaching writing, it seems, changed along with changes in the student population. With more students to teach, more teachers to train, and no better understanding of how to do either of those things, writing instruction relied heavily on pre-packaged textbooks. With these books, poorly trained teachers can go through the motions of writing instruction and measure student progress. The books often focus on what became “the fundamentals”. But, as noted above, fundamental writing skills may be as nonexistent as fundamental ball-handling skills.

Algorithms as Solution?

The AI bot ChatGPT has been in the news recently. It’s an advanced language-processing system that appears to understand content and style. ChatGPT is capable of creating text that at first seems suitable for nearly any situation. A closer inspection, though, shows that while the bot gives the appearance of comprehension, the text it generates often rings hollow or sounds purposeless. ChatGPT detractors assert that a chat bot cannot create real, meaningful text. Bots merely repeat concepts they’ve seen before, rather than inventing new ideas of their own. Algorithms, in short, produce predictable but vapid material.

It therefore may seem surprising that the late 1800s started a push toward “correctness” and algorithmic writing (and instruction). Those principles persist to this day, particularly in the form of instructors who take points off for grammar mistakes. Further, platforms like Grammarly profit off peoples’ concerns that their writing isn’t “correct” enough. But is writing actually about correctness? ChatGPT writes correctly—it builds proper sentences, good organization, even consistent style. But is it good? Is it effective writing? More importantly, does teaching rule-based writing encourage students to write well? Or are we training students to become chatbots themselves?

The Origins of Our Problems

It seems like the challenges we will address in this class are somewhat self-imposed. Writing instruction has a reputation for being ineffective and inconsistent. Students in writing classes rarely know what they’re getting into before the class begins. Instructors loathe the laborious, thankless effort that comes with grading so many papers. And faculty in other disciplines remain unsatisfied with student preparation. Why, after so many decades, can writing studies not get its act together and fix things, once and for all?

If you can answer that question, you’ll pass the class—and probably have a job waiting for you at the end. We’ll spend 15 weeks learning why it’s such a challenge.


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