Harris, Dartmouth, and Composition

One of the more helpful elements in Harris’ Teaching Subject and his introduction to “updating Dartmouth” is his insistence on the perennial nature of issues he outlines and the fact that either side has much to other.

For example, he outlines the tension from the 1966 Dartmouth Summit between English as a discipline and content area (like Albert Kitzhaber’s approach) and the more lived out, experience-driven role of language that James Britton, James Moffett, and others argued for. As Harris writes in the introduction to “updating Dartmouth, “there is something to both sides of the argument. There are real things to teach students about literary genres, figures, and traditions. . . But those things become valuable only when students put them to use in their own work” (xxii).

In writing studies and composition, I think a further tension presents itself. Composition models, terms, theories, heuristics, histories, and paradigms—in short, a field of content knowledge—now comprise the field. But as Harris right points out in A Teaching Subject, many people in the field—including himself—see “teaching as an integral part of (and not just a kind of report on)” their scholarship (xv-xvi). Thus, this scholarship is always tested in light of the student and the classroom, with pedagogy acting as a desired end, not a byproduct.

To me, then, this leaves theory in an awkward position. Unlike history or biology for example, which are content-heavy fields, composition often manifests as a something-heavy field that isn’t quite a method, but that may be termed process. Somehow the theory of the field can help the “process” of the writer. And here, I think Harris’ interrogation of process illuminates considerable ambiguity. By process, do we mean the more exhaustive and expressive ideal of Jenet Emig or the more pragmatic, essayistic ideal of Flowers and Hayes? Or something else—something more socially attuned, perhaps, or liberated from a particular ideal as Harris seems to aim for? Yancey’s Teaching for transfer seems one of the most clearly elucidated and focused models, with its inclusion of reflexive writing and terminology that help students become more deliberate in their process as they respond to different situations. But, such a pragmatic, situation-driven reflection may clash with the more expressive approach of those like Britton’s “spectator” poet, playing with language and voice.

The cynical part of me does wonder how to make sense of all this. In particular, I feel drawn to the later works of Wittgenstein and his critique of philosophy. As he quips in Philosophical Investigations, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language” (109). In other words, many of our issues arise through an imprecise use of language—or more accurately, using words and language in the wrong ways. For example, one can easily answer what time it is at any given moment. But to answer what “time” itself is or to reach for an absolute beyond the scope of one’s language system, we only end up with eloquent nonsense. By clarifying our language, argues Wittgenstein, the problem itself vanishes, and the leftover arguments may be fun, but ultimately unhelpful.

In the context of composition, I see a similar confusion of language between terms like “process” or “voice,” as Harris traces. Different people use these terms in radically different ways, and each term carries the roots of its predecessors. Using voice, for example, we’re implicitly entering a plurality of already-spoken uses, whether that be the more permanent and essential self of early Elbow or the more discourse-driven self of Bartholomae or their “beyond” equivalents. As a user of such terms, I relate to what the American (post)modern poet Charles Olson wrote:

Whatever you have to say, leave
The roots on, let them

Dangle
And the dirt
Just to make clear
Where they come from.

This confusion (or richness) makes an understanding of history all the more important, as it’s the means to this “dirt.” And the genealogy of our terms impacts the sort of classroom that originates from them. To alter Newton’s famous quote about science, we aren’t just standing on the shoulders giants, we’re also teaching in their shadows. Building off the thinking and research of the field, we can craft more self-reflective, precise pedagogy, but we also must reconcile our disagreements and departures.

Here, Harris’ observations about the changing field proves particularly pointed. In Dartmouth 1966, he notes in the introduction to “updating Dartmouth,” participants were all white, mostly male, middle class, and based in a traditional English discipline. They did not consider the world English and media-rich compositions of the present day. This makes some of their musings and problems irrelevant.

Yet I agree with Harris’ statement that the 1966 Dartmouth Summit represents “a moment when many of the conflicts that drive work in English—and particularly those having to do with the relations between teaching and research—were dramatized with unusual clarity” (Teaching 4). These tensions between English content and language use (“growth”), identity and writing (“voice”), and the means to a certain product (“process”), remain fraught in the field today, made all the more dynamic with our changes.

More personally, I see my own praxis continually refined by the traditional and the immediate. And though composition for Harris may be a “teaching subject,” I consider it a learning subject as well, especially tuned toward learning from the classroom, something I feel that he would agree with. Ultimately I think this creates a certain allegiance to student needs and insights that may not be present in other disciplines. Indeed, teaching remains part of the ethos of composition, both a culture and an ethic.

[Image: “Calligraphy” by Alexandre Dulaunoy]

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