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English 891PC, Spring 2019

Writing in Colleges and Universities: Histories of Composition-Rhetoric in the U.S.

University of Massachusetts Amherst



Given that it is so focused on understanding the role and practice of writing in the present and helping prepare student writers for the future, it may seem surprising that the discipline of composition-rhetoric is so self-conscious about its own past. But the evidence is unmistakable: scholarly articles and monographs about the history of the field proliferate in our journals and book series, and historical methodologies are increasingly deployed to examine “comp-rhet” itself. The results of this historical self-consciousness have been impressive: “Without quite setting out to do so,” John Brereton once wrote, “historians of composition have created the single most impressive body of knowledge about any discipline in higher education.”

This course is a graduate-level introduction to that body of knowledge: a broad survey of histories of composition with a focus on postsecondary writing instruction in U.S. colleges and universities from the mid nineteenth century to the present. We’ll examine received narratives about the field’s past but also more recent work expanding and critiquing those narratives, including research that looks at writing instruction outside colleges and universities and beyond the United States. A central topic will be the story of first year composition in U.S. higher education, but we’ll look as well at histories of writing centers, writing across the curriculum programs, professional and technical writing, and other projects. The course is also meant to be an introduction to historical research methodologies: you will not only study a broad range of others’ historical research, you’ll design and conduct a substantial historical project of your own.

The course will proceed roughly chronologically, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present; but, as the semester progresses, it will also increasingly make room for methodological inquiry and the development of your own research project.

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Work in the course will include the following components:

Reading and response. Expectations for reading – both close and wide – will be high. I will provide guidance, but most of the responsibility here will be yours. To prepare and enrich our discussions, I ask that you submit to Moodle no later than 18 hours before the class meeting (i.e., by 7:00 pm the night before) a response to the relevant text, of 300-500 words or so (about 1 page SS), that engages the text in some way: summarizes one or more key points, connects the text to something you’ve read or experienced elsewhere, analyzes how a particular argument or narrative works, locates a problem in the text, asks a question perhaps to be pursued later in more depth, or makes some other kind of intervention not listed here. Please do not write more than 500 words and do not treat this as a formal paper – it’s meant to prepare discussion and jump-start our engagement with the texts. Before class, I ask that you also respond on Moodle to at least one classmate, taking care to spread responses around as fairly as possible.

Summary and discussion. Once during the semester, you will be responsible for preparing a summary, with questions, thoughts, and/or comments, and leading discussion on one part of the reading for that week (typically, a chapter or two). This should last about 30-60 minutes, including discussion. Your summary plus comments may include handouts or a PowerPoint presentation. You should meet with me about this assignment beforehand so we can coordinate class planning to some degree. You'll sign up for your summary/discussion at our first meeting.

Research and writing. Finally, you will turn in at the end of the semester a substantial paper, about 15-20 pages long (typed, DS, including works cited), reporting original historical research of your own on some issue relevant to this course. The project will be worked through in several stages.

  1. a problem-posing paper. 1 p (SS), due week 10. In this initial stage of the project, you will identify a historical problem or question you are curious about, interested in, or committed to and give some sense of why you’re drawn to it. The problem or question can – and most likely will – change, in some cases dramatically, over the course of your project.

  2. a modest literature review. 2 pp (SS), due week 11. Prepare an annotated bibliography of 3-5 sources that you're finding helpful regarding your problem or question; preface the bibliography with your current research question or problem. As above, your sources will likely change over the course of the project, so this should be treated as a preliminary bibliography.

  3. a project proposal with oral presentation. 1-2 pp (SS), due week 12. Having identified a problem or question and done some initial reading and thinking about it, now propose a research project you would like to pursue for the remainder of the semester. What is your research question now? How do you propose to go about answering it? What do you hope to accomplish, and why is that important? In addition to the paper, prepare a 5-10 minute informal oral presentation to share with the rest of us.

  4. oral progress report. 15 minute presentation (about 7-8 pp DS if read) + 15 minute Q & A., scheduled for either week 14 (half the class) or 15 (the other half). Having shared your question and methods with us, tell us what you’ve learned in the meantime, how the project has changed, what you still need to do.

  5. final paper. 15-20 pp (typed, DS, including works cited), due by end of the day (5:00 pm) on May 9, delivered in hard copy to my mailbox in South College.

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3.  TEXTS.

Most of the readings in the course will come from the following texts, listed here alphabetically, all available for purchase or rent through eCampus FAST Adoption Tool (except for Shepley) and as free e-books through UMass Libraries (except for Donahue & Moon and Howell & Prevenier).

A list of supplementary texts is available here. I'll have more to say about our readings on the first day of the semester.

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day topics and assignments
1 T Jan 22 Introduction to course and one another
2 T Jan 29 Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History (available as an e-book). Optional: read Halloran (1982)
3 T Feb 05 Robert J. Connors, Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy (available as an e-book). Optional: read Mountford (1999)
4 T Feb 12 David Gold, Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947 (available as an e-book). Optional: read Royster & Williams (1999); Enoch (2008)
5 T Feb 19 No class (Univ. on Monday schedule)
Patricia Donahue and Gretchen Flesher Moon, eds, Local Histories: Reading the Archives of Composition
6 T Feb 26 Nathan Shepley, Placing the History of College Writing: Stories from the Incomplete Archive (available as an e-book)
7 T Mar 05 David Fleming, From Form to Meaning: Freshman Composition and the Long Sixties, 1957-1974 (available as an e-book). Optional: read Moran (1994)
8 T Mar 12
Spring Recess     back to top
9 T Mar 19 On writing centers and writing across the curriculum: read Russell (1990); Boquet (1999); Lerner (2007); Lerner (2010). On writing outside the academy: read Solberg (2014); Litterer (2018)
10 T Mar 26 On writing instruction outside the US: read You (2010). On archival research: read Biesecker (2006); Gaillet (2012); Solberg (2012); Parks (2017). On politics and historiography: read Skinnell (2015)
DUE: problem-posing paper
11 T Apr 02 Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods
DUE: literature review
12 T Apr 09 DUE: project proposals + brief oral presentations
13 T Apr 16 Nancy Welch and Tony Scott, eds. Composition in the Age of Austerity  (available as an e-book)
14 T Apr 23 DUE: oral progress reports
15 T Apr 30 DUE: oral progress reports
16 Th May 9 Final projects due in my mailbox by 5:00 pm

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