We talk a lot about speech on this podcast, and even legal rhetoric, but we don’t often give as much attention to the composition side of rhetoric. But in reality, writing and composition is much more central to most people’s lives than public speaking.
There are plenty of people who have to give presentations for their jobs. Or have to speak for some kind of occasion. Because giving a toast at a wedding or a eulogy is definitely public speaking. But actually, way more people have to write, and they have to do it more frequently. In the most basic sense, people text all the time. But even more formally, people send emails at work. People write memos and prepare reports. People write copy and craft their brand using writing. Some people create ads using written communication skills. Writing is a part of everyday life. Everyone, throughout the day, creates a message designed for a particular audience with a specific goal in mind.
And that’s just basic composition. When I taught freshman comp, we actually read a novel as well, because we wanted our students to understand that the arts are rhetorical. Words of all manner, be they artistic, a basic essay, an email from your boss, or a text to your grandmother share some characteristics – they are chosen words, designed for a specific audience, sending a particular message.
So crafting AND understanding the written word is a skill, because the written word is complex. That’s why you work on that skill from elementary school all the way through college. Because it is so important and complicated.
And those comp instructors are on the front lines of some tough battles. So many students get to their classes saying, “I hate writing.” And some of them have reason to. Did you ever have to write lines as a disciplinary action? What did that teach you? That writing is punishment. That’s what writing instructors are up against by the time kids hit their senior year in high school or their freshman year in college. They have learned that writing is something to be dreaded. They’ve very likely had teachers who have told them they need to elaborate on things and made them do re-visions on papers without ever telling them what that means. So many students get to their senior year in high school and their idea of revising is just fixing some comma errors or worse, even more of an indictment of how we teach writing, they write a paper, and then instead of revising that first draft, they use it as their final paper and write a worse paper and claim that was their rough draft. It’s hard to teach people how to be better writers when they come with these attitudes in place.
There are also ideological challenges composition instructors have to deal with. The people who have issues with college and college professors often really butt heads with composition professors. Because a comp instructor is there to help you craft a good argument. They are there to help you be as persuasive as possible. They insist on consistent, valid, and logical arguments. A comp professor requires sound research from legitimate sources. The people who rail against higher education are often the ones who see such requirements as some kind of bias. A comp instructor teaches basic reasoning and logic. A person who sees basic reasoning and logic as an attack on them will claim over and over again that that instructor is an enemy. Logic is, by its very nature, objective. But people who see it as subjective, because they reject it, will fight those comp instructors tooth and nail. And it can make for combative and tense classrooms, and many comp instructors are not tenure track, so they might worry about their job stability if students become too problematic and complain too loudly. A comp instructor may feel like they have to balance teaching pedagogically correct material with making students happy. And that’s a terrible position to put any instructor in. But comp professors find themselves in that position all the time. Because their jobs are precarious, because they are either adjuncts, lecturers, or grad students, and students don’t like the material, either because of ideological reasons or because they just don’t like the writing component.
These college composition classes pre-date speech classes, as well. By the 1840s in America rhetoric had been split into two separate spheres – writing and speaking. The very term “rhetoric” became a bit passe and the term “English,” which was more encompassing, took hold. Some of this was because of new media and new technology. Print culture was emerging. Civic debates were still important, but now people shared and read letters, essays, poetry, and editorials. Textbooks could no longer cover both speech and composition, and there was quickly a split between the two. After the 1840s you can composition books and elocutionary manuals. And there was a shift from focusing on speaking, to focusing on writing.
Universities reorganized to reflect these shifts. English departments encouraged instructors to focus on humanistic criticism of written texts. By the 1870s there was an increasing number of college students and subdivision of fields which encouraged universities to re-organize into specialized subject-matter areas. English focused on composition, the history and structure of the English language (called philology or linguistics), and the history and criticism of literature. Civic-focused oratory increasingly became an afterthought. It was seen as less lofty and was a bit inelegant in comparison to the study of composition and literature.
By the 1860s instruction in theme writing was a major component in these composition classes, which centered on rules for correctly using language rather than rhetorical invention. This mechanical approach was part of the scientific view that finding and developing ideas belonged to other scholarly specialties as opposed to rhetoric. There had been a centuries long debate as to where ideas come from – from rhetoric or from other fields. And this form of writing definitely showed that the prominent minds of the day didn’t believe in rhetorical invention. Ideas came from science – rhetoric was just a matter of rules to follow, with maybe a little bit of style, though that should generally be as sterile as possible if you’re sharing scientific ideas. Along with this approach was the idea that the audience should not be treated as a deliberating public but as a collection of individuals whose single minds reflected the capacities of thinking, wanting, and feeling. People were psychological rather than social beings. Also, writing should be organized around a particular genre instead of adapting to an audience – so students were taught to adapt to form instead of to their readers.
Between the 1870s and the 1930s English comp books became pretty standardized. They included grammar, word choice, style, and sentence and paragraph construction. They included both poetry and prose. They laid out how a writer should approach each of the four purposes of a writer: to convey information, to tell a story, to explain something, and to influence an opinion.
Since the early 1900s rhetoric and composition has gone through a number of theoretical metamorphoses. It is hardly a static field. The way the class has been taught, at least in college classes, is an ever-changing beast. But even in K-12 the approaches to writing are varied and evolving. And also controversial. There was a time when the dividing line in English teachers was their feelings on the New Jersey writing project. It made enemies of friends and colleagues.
In college classes there have been a number of theories that have affected composition classes. Moderate expressivism is a theory based on the idea that language is a tool for personal as opposed social expression. It comes from process theory composition, which posits that the process of writing should be more important than the final product. In Moderate expressivism there are fewer grammatical standards and an increased focus on the writer’s process of discovery and expression. Radical expressivism evolved from moderate expressivism, and its primary difference lies in its focus on group, rather than individual, development and expression.
Cognitivism developed in the early 1970s and early 1980s and also promoted the idea of process over product but was a more scientific approach to composition studies. In cognitivism, thinking exists in the mind apart from language. Proponents of cognitivism are concerned with understanding how language—or writing—is developed from mental processes of the mind.
Unlike cognitivism, social constructionism, which evolved the 1980s, is defined by the tenet that language and the mind are inseparable, as an individual needs language in order to even think. Social constructionists argue that writing is inherently political in nature and that writers are each a part of a particular community of dialogue, with an assumed set of principles and a distinct language of its own.
Critical pedagogy, which evolved in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was the next phase of pedagogical development. It explores the way that power works in the classroom, shaped by varied socioeconomic and cultural conditions of students and teachers, resulting in alienation and miscommunication in the classroom.
The pedagogy of post-structuralism is marked by an attempt to redefine rhetoric as it relates to composition, drawing on post-modern ideology calling for new ideas in a modern world.
But you probably don’t think about post-modernity, or any of this, when you sit down to write a report for your boss. You might not think that is applicable at all.
But I would posit that it is. We are influenced by our culture and our surroundings in ways we can’t possibly articulate. Sure, we text differently than we write memos, but the fact that we live in a world dominated by text messages influences how we think about writing in general. Writing is changing because of the world that we live in. And the fact that writing classes have been changing with the world speaks to the importance and vitality of that field.
Also, writing is essential in terms of our enjoyment of life. In the 1870s there was an emphasis on the elegance of writing – the importance of literature. Students may groan today about having to read the classics but think how drab our lives would be if we didn’t have creative writers. How many of us read books to pass the time? And not even highbrow lit – but beach reads or crappy fantasy novels? And if you aren’t a reader, you probably watch TV or movies. Those narratives come from somewhere. We depend on writers to keep us engaged, to keep us entertained.
Somewhere along the lines these artists fell in love with writing. Maybe they read something they loved and decided they wanted to tell a similar story. Maybe they saw a movie and decided they wanted to do that, too. But they wanted to put words on a page to get their message out, to us. And we take that for granted all the time. Writing takes blood, sweat, and tears. It takes hours of drafting, and revising, and editing. All we see is the finished product, not the months, or even years it took to get something right. Just think about how long you spend crafting the perfect email to a boss or colleague. Think about how you fretted over a five-page paper in college. Now multiply that by hundreds of pages. Writers are working hard for us. We know they are, because we work hard on our writing. Let’s respect the craft.
So those writing teachers and writing assignments we dreaded all throughout school meant something. Starting in the lower grades they begin to teach us something about how to express ourselves through narrative. They encourage us to use details and explain ourselves. By fourth or fifth grade they are making us support our opinions with reasons. And this serves a few purposes. Certainly, they are teaching us early on how to write an argument. And that’s a real skill. It’s one that not everybody really masters. But let’s be honest – how many people grow up needing to write an argumentative essay? You’re more likely to need to be able to make an argumentative speech – to convince somebody to invest in your project or give you a raise. But that’s not to say plenty of people don’t need to be able to write persuasively. Lots of people do. But at the same time, lots of people don’t.
But that doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t need these skills.
Because when you learn how to make a good argument, you are learning what a good argument is. And that is something everybody needs to know. Because even if you don’t spend a lot of time trying to convince people, people spend a lot of time trying to convince you. From buy this product to vote for me, we are surrounded by persuasion all day, every day. Our economy runs on persuasion. Our government runs on persuasion. Our whole culture runs on persuasion. You are constantly being persuaded. So it really behooves you to be able to recognize a good argument.
So these people who spend their lives trying to teach you what a good argument is are vitally important. When I say your writing teachers are on the front lines I’m not even kidding. From grade school on up these are the people who are equipping you to be a functioning and successful human being. They are the ones giving you the tools to protect yourself in the big, bad world out there.
Your writing teacher held the keys to the kingdom. They were helping you to understand the world you lived in and how to be effective in it. And for their trouble they got a lot of people who bristled under their tutelage by announcing “I hate writing” and “This is pointless” and “I’m so bad at this” and “you just don’t like me.” But they did it. They kept going. Because that’s what teachers do.
So when you sit down to write that report or that memo, think about what you’re doing. When you take ten minutes to write that five-sentence email, remember that you’re engaging in a craft like any other. Somebody somewhere took the time to help you figure out how to do that. How to put the words together. How to appeal to your audience. How to make the message work.
Writing can be hard. It’s harder for some people than for others. But it is essential. It makes the world go ‘round. It is the glue that holds things together.
So maybe give a shoutout to that teacher who helped you figure out grammar. Or that professor who helped you finally understand what goes into a paragraph. They made a difference. They helped you out. Your life is better.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.