AHSS English Education: Composition Studies Research Discussion
Arts, Humanities and Social Studies Group
Research Focus Areas  

     The following are the initial draft explorations of specific research focus areas in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Studies branch of the Ph.D. in Urban Education proposal. The various areas should be read as part of a larger interdisciplinary context that refers back to the overview statement for the AHSS Group.  

English Education  

Composition Studies Research  

     The field of Composition Studies has emerged over the past quarter century, generating new perspectives for writing classrooms, new approaches for developing student interest in writing, and new theoretical views on reading, writing, and what it means to create. This work is reminiscent of Goethe’s humanistic orientation which claims that methods of inquiry can be developed that take into account, rather than ignore or reduce, the vital relationship between human participant and natural phenomena.
     This perspective can be seen in the landmark contributions to research on composing, work by Emig, Graves, Carini, Rose, Heath, Flynn, Sommers, Perl and others. This work seeks to answer, in many different ways, a number of crucial questions: What is writing? How does it unfold? Can the processes by which individuals give shape and meaning to written texts be observed, documented and understood? Who are we or who do we become as we write? What home and classroom contexts foster the act of composing? What contexts thwart it? And to what theories about meaning and meaning-making does such understanding lead?
     Beginning in the late 1960's, these and other related questions became an important focus of attention at colleges and universities across America. It was a moment when composition researchers, writers and scholars looked beyond an examination of written texts to inquire into the nature of composing itself. The growing interest in these questions paralleled the growth of a new, young field: in the early 1970s, both studies of composing and composition studies emerged as exciting avenues for research and inquiry.
     Prior to this time, authors such as Elbow, Macrorie, Moffett and Murray had written about writing and its teaching in ways that helped scholars and teachers think about composing issues. But beginning in 1971, a steady line of new work began to appear: work that looked at individual writers and examined precisely what they did as they were engaged in the act of writing. Case studies of youngsters, high school students, college students and adult professional writers provided a close look at the processes of composing and led to extensive revisions in pedagogy.
     In the mid-eighties, as the field of composition became more sophisticated in its understanding of research, the designs and assumptions of this early work were called into questions. Reither (1985) asked: How do the social contexts which shape our lives influence what we say and write? And what is the role of "social knowing" in the processes of composing? His questions were developed further when Faigley (1986) outlined three prominent views of composing and asked: How is social knowledge constructed in history? While Reither pointed the field toward the social dimensions of composing, Faigley challenged the field to examine how even our understanding of what is social is affected by historical perspectives and political contexts.
     Suddenly, the once seemingly simple act of studying writing processes engendered a range of theoretical, methodological, political, pedagogical and practical questions. Among them: Who is the writer in the act of writing? To whom does she write? What is the basis of her knowledge? What is her relationship to the world? Can she be known separate from the contexts in which she lives? And who determines the contexts and her relation to them? Consequently, research on composing was no longer seen as a neutral activity conducted by an observer who stood aside watching and documenting a complex phenomenon, but as a philosophical and political act itself in which researchers were challenged to be aware of the stances they were taking and how they situated themselves in their studies.
     These critiques from the mid-eighties had an impact on the way writing was subsequently studied and described. As the premises of studies based on experimental designs and conducted in laboratory settings were subjected to critique, researchers began to make finer distinctions and ask different kinds of questions. Flynn argued that the construct of "writer" in composition research had been fashioned with little regard to gender and called on researchers to bring the insights gained in feminist studies, particularly those dealing with difference and dominance, more fully into the scholarship and research on composing.
     In work appearing, then, between the end of the eighties and the early nineties, it is possible to distinguish several themes. Writing is no longer viewed merely as an individual act but as a social one as well (Berlin, 1988; LeFevre, 1987, this turn to the social marking one of the most influential shifts in thinking that has occurred within this field. In the late eighties, the contexts in which writers write begin to be taken into account and studied more thoroughly (Berkenkotter et. al, 1988; Herrington, 1985; McCarthy, 1987); researchers no longer remain anonymous but begin to speak through their research, attempting to make their own biases and perspectives explicit (Perl & Wilson, 1986; Sommers, 1993); and writing, now viewed as a cultural act, is increasingly studied through ethnography, a method which while contested from within can at least arguably be said to be more suited to the study of writing cultures than the experimental methods that preceded it (Doheny-Farina, 1986; Dyson, 1988). Finally the scene of writing is now more often understood not as a room in which a writer is isolated and alone but as a room in which many voices reside: those that both shape the writer and to which he or she responds in return (Brodkey, 1987).
     In this decade, then, alongside the taxonomies and models of composing that emerged in the 80s, comes a recognition of the complex relationship between writers and the contexts that shape their lives. In this relationship, writers can be seen both as constituents of their particular cultures and capable of playing constituting roles themselves -- in other words, both creatures of varying cultures and creators of variously unique expressions and extensions of them.      Such a broadened and contextualized understanding of composing processes still leaves ample room for further inquiry. Researchers in composition have only recently begun to look carefully at the ways students, particularly working-class students or students outside the mainstream, make their way into and through the academy (Sternglass, 1997). We are just beginning to ask, what is literacy for these students? How do the literate activities required of them affect their lives outside of school? How do their teachers regard them? In what ways do their teachers respond to, intervene in, challenge and support the work of such students? In what kinds of classrooms, and laboring under what kinds of constraints, do these students find themselves? How many succeed and what does their success look like? How many fail? We have only just started to take an extended look inside the homes and classrooms of urban students and ask, how do the competing claims of different cultures and languages affect students' lives in school? And what is the impact upon them of increasingly consequential methods of assessment?     Future research in the area of composition studies, then, will entail the study of the complex routes students take in their literacy development as well as the constraints and achievements of teachers who help them along the way. Such projects might explore a number of different tensions inherent in the practices of schooling and framed by the following questions:
     How do teachers prepare students for the range and complexity of academic literacy yet also prepare them for standardized assessments?
     How do teachers address students' distinct needs as readers and as writers yet also foster an integrated view of literacy instruction?
     How can responses to student writing nurture thought and creativity yet also help students attain control over conventions?
     How can teachers acknowledge constraints in their teaching yet also sustain experimentation in the ways they go about their work?
     How can teachers appreciate differences between high school and college yet also affirm important connections and common ground?
     Research designed to answer such questions will require large investments of time and energy. It may be, in fact, that such work will most usefully be conducted by teams of researchers, since the agenda is broad, and many inter-related aspects of literate activity need to be studied together. Such an approach, however, is not as unwieldy as it may sound. It is, in fact, in keeping with the argument put forth by Damrosch in We Scholars, in which he laments the current isolated state of graduate studies and calls for interdisciplinary, collaborative methods as one way to revitalize both research and academic life. These questions embedded within the proposed Ph.D. in Urban Education are designed specifically to answer this call.       


Important journals in the field of composition theory and rhetoric:
College Composition and Communication
College English
Research in the Teaching of English
Journal of Advanced Composition
Journal of Basic Writing
Conference on English Education
The Writing Instructor
Written Communication
Rhetoric Review
Computers and Composition
Teaching in the Two-Year College.  

Important bibliographies include:
The CCCC Bibliography of Composition and Rhetoric published every year or every other year at Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP. Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg, The Bedford Bibliography for Writing Teachers Boston: Bedford. 3rd ed., 1991. 4th ed., 1996
Brueggemann, Brenda Jo, Jane A. Detweiler, and Margaret M. Strain "The Profession": Rhetoric and Composition, 1950-1992, A Selected Annotated Bibliography in "Rhetoric Society Quarterly" 23 (1993): 123-54  

Titles of important work in research, theory and pedagogy in composition studies:  

Applebee, Arthur. Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1974.
Beach, Richard and Bridwell, Lillian. New Directions in Composition Research. NY: Guilford, 1984.
Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics and Culture. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1996.
Braddock, Richard, Lloyd-Jones, Richard and Schoer, Lowell. Research in Written Composition. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1963.
Brandt, Deborah. Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers and Texts. Carbondale, IL: SUIP, 1990.
Brannon, Lil and Knoblach, C. Rhetorical Traditions and the Teaching of Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1984.
Britton, James. Language and Learning. London: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1910.
Bruner, Jerome. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990. Elbow, Peter. What is English? NY: MLA, 1990
Emig, Janet. The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1971.
Faigley, Lester. Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh: UPP, 1992.
Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World. NY: Routledge, 1990.
Kirsch, Gesa and Sullivan, Patricia. Methods and Methodology in Composition Research. Carbondale, IL: SIUP, 1992.
Kitzhaber, Alfred. Themes, Theories and Therapy: The Teaching of Writing in College. NY: McGraw Hill, 1963.
Lindemann, Erika and Tate, Gary. An Introduction to Composition Studies. NY: Oxford, 1991.
Moffett, James. Teaching the Universe of Discourse. Boston: Houghton- Mifflin, 1968.
Neal, Jasper. Plato, Derrida, and Writing. Carbondale: SUIP, 1988.
North, Stephen. The Making of Knowledge in Composition. Porstmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1987.
Perl, Sondra and Wilson, Nancy. Through Teachers' Eyes: Portraits of Writing Teachers at Work. Portland, ME: Calendar Islands, 1986/1998.
Phelps, Louise and Emig, Janet (eds.) Feminine Principles and Women's Experience in American Composition and Rhetoric. Pittsburgh: UPP, 1995.
Russell, David. Writing in the Academic Disciplines: 1970-1990: A Curricular History. Carbondale: SIUP, 1991.
Shor, Ira. Critical Teaching and Everyday Life. Chicago: UCP, 1987.
Vygotsky, Lev. Mind in Society. Cambridge: HUP, 1978.
Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language. Cambridge: MITP, 1991.