A must read, not only for everyone working in rhetoric and composition but for anyone interested in the future of U.S. higher education. This remarkable book challenges unexamined assumptions both inside and outside the field of composition studies and suggests provocative solutions to institutional problems plaguing the academic humanities. It will surely be controversial; but whether readers agree or disagree with Crowley, they will certainly learn from her detailed historical analyses and wide-ranging political critiques.
Composition in the University examines the required introductory course in composition within American colleges and universities. Crowley argues that due to its association with literary studies in English departments, composition instruction has been inappropriately influenced by humanist pedagogy and that modern humanism is not a satisfactory rationale for the study of writing. Crowley envisions possible nonhumanist rationales that could be developed for vertical curricula in writing instruction, were the universal requirement not in place. Composition in the University examines the required introductory course in composition within American colleges and universities. According to Sharon Crowley, the required composition course has never been conceived in the way that other introductory courses have been—as an introduction to the principles and practices of a field of study. Rather it has been constructed throughout much of its history as a site from which larger educational and ideological agendas could be advanced, and such agendas have not always served the interests of students or teachers, even though they are usually touted as programs of study that students “need.”
If there is a master narrative of the history of composition, it is told in the institutional attitude that has governed administration, design, and staffing of the course from its beginnings—the attitude that the universal requirement is in place in order to construct docile academic subjects. Crowley argues that due to its association with literary studies in English departments, composition instruction has been inappropriately influenced by humanist pedagogy and that modern humanism is not a satisfactory rationale for the study of writing. She examines historical attempts to reconfigure the required course in nonhumanist terms, such as the advent of communications studies during the 1940s. Crowley devotes two essays to this phenomenon, concentrating on the furor caused by the adoption of a communications program at the University of Iowa.
Composition in the University concludes with a pair of essays that argue against maintenance of the universal requirement. In the last of these, Crowley envisions possible nonhumanist rationales that could be developed for vertical curricula in writing instruction, were the universal requirement not in place.
Crowley presents her findings in a series of essays because she feels the history of the required composition course cannot easily be understood as a coherent narrative since understandings of the purpose of the required course have altered rapidly from decade to decade, sometimes in shockingly sudden and erratic fashion.
The essays in this book are informed by Crowley’s long career of teaching composition, administering a composition program, and training teachers of the required introductory course. The book also draw on experience she gained while working with committees formed by the Conference on College Composition and Communication toward implementation of the Wyoming Resolution, an attempt to better the working conditions of post-secondary teachers of writing.
Each of these essays on composition history and pedagogy in universities is a rich source of new research on actual practices in teaching literature and composition and the cultural and intellectual contexts in which their institutional cooperation has developed. But taken together, these essays also expose the devotion in composition studies to developing students' hermeneutic consciousness, not their rhetorical acumen. Crowley's astute analysis invites all in departments of English to critique—and in the coming century finally to forego—the illogic that requires writing courses that are neither teaching the production of contemporary texts nor aiming to do so.
Interesting and compelling.
With her 'modest proposal,' Crowley calls for a radical redefinition of college English. With the lifting of the first-year composition requirement, teachers will no longer be forced by supply and demand to labor under exploitative conditions. . . . Freed from the conception of composition as remedial gatekeeping, writing instruction can be destandardized, unleashing the disciplinary and professional knowledge of those who profess it. . . . Our responses to Crowley's . . . proposal will inevitably be shaped by our places in the profession. . . . Whatever your own position [Composition in the University] will teach you something useful, and perhaps discomforting.
Sharon Crowley is professor of English at Arizona State University. She is the author of Composition in the University, The Methodical Memory, and the textbook Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students.