Feb 18, 2016
Welcome to MR. I’m Mary Hedengren, Jacob is in the Booth and we’re supported by the Humanities Media Project and UT Austin.
Was English in an identity crisis in the 80s and 90s? Maybe. But it’s certain that it thought it was. Interdisciplinary projects such as cultural studies and the voluntary expulsion of groups like English language and composition from English departments was inspiring a lot of ink in the PMLA and other journals and conferences between such illuminaries as Gerald Graff and Stanley Fish. And when people are anxious about who they are, they often look back to how they ended up here. How did English get so weird? What is the background behind composition’s complaints against literary studies? What led to everyone in the department being in a department together?
Enter Professor James Berlin. Berlin, a compositionist who had taught at U of Cinninati and Purdue. Berlin was a disciplinary historian who wrote two important books that tried to create a historical context for the current state of composition, which we’ll talk about today.
Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges. 1900-1985. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.
Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges.
The earlier book, Writing Instruction in 19th-Century American Colleges published in 1984, traces the role of writing instruction in American political psyche.
“no rhetoric—not Plato’s or Aristotle’s or Quintilian’s or Perelman’s—is permanent.”
The next major book Berlin wrote picks up where Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges. Left off—at the dawn of the 20th century. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges. 1900-1985 traces the history of composition in the United States up to what was then the modern day. In going through this history, though, Berlin weaves three strands of compositional theory: current-traditional, expressivist and social constructionist. Berlin makes no secret about which of these strands he thinks is right. Current traditionalists are grammar-obsessed ninnies who sneer at students while pushing their glasses up their noses while expressivists are berkinstocked hippies singing kumbaya without teaching anything significant. Berlin is unapologetic about his perspective. In the introduction, he mentions the criticism the book has received as having a political project. James Berlin, much like the honey badger, don’t care. He has a strong interest in the project to "vindicate the position of writing instruction in the college curriculum" (1) and he feels social constructionism is the best way to do so.
He identifies several points that lead to writing instruction’s increased disciplinarity
First there was the Birth of CCCC when a 1948 paper by George S. Wykoff and ensuing conflict leads to John Gerber of U of Iowa proposing a conference to discuss composition. 500 attend April 1-2 1949 (105). "With the establishment of the CCCC and its journal [...] teachers of freshman composition took a giant step toward qualifying for full membership in the English department, with the attendant privileges" (106)
Then there is the Importance of pamphlet The Basic Issues in the Teaching of English published as a supplement to College English in 1959. Identify key questions for English, especially in pedagogy (such as should writing "be taught as expression or as communication") (Berlin 124).
Finally there was Braddock's 1961 Research in Written Communication and subsequent founding of Research in the Teaching of English (1967) is important because "Only a discipline confident of its value and its future could allow this kind of harsh scrutiny" (135). Lit studies "have appropriated as their domain all uses of langauge except the narrowly refertial and logical. What remains [...] is given to rhetoric, to the writing course" (30).
In the early 20th century, universities were becoming dominated by sciences and practical arts. Objective philosophies ruled. Current-traditional is the most vehement and widely accepted of the objective rhetorics, but behaviorist, semanticist and linguistic rhetorics are also put into this category (9). As Berlin puts it: "The new university invested its graduates with the authority of science and through this authority gave them an economically comfortable position in a new, prosperous middle-class culture" (36)
On the other extreme of things was expressionist writing "the teacher cannot even instruct the student in the principles of writing, since writing is inextricably intertwined with the discovery of truth. The student can discover truth, but truth cannot be taught; the student can learn to write, but writing cannot be taught. The only strategy left, then is to provide an environment in which the individual can learn what cannot be taught" (13).
Berlin describes that, "For the proponents of liberal culture, the purpose of the English teacher was to cultivate the exceptional students, the geniuses, and, at the most, to tolerate all others" (72). For expressionists "writing--all writing--is art. This means that writing can be learned by not taught" (74). How many times do we hear that? That you just need to ponder a little, get a little older and then you’ll pick up what you need to? This is still kind of the philosophy in many Eastern Hemisphere universities where writing instruction hasn’t taken off as much. And it exists here, too, even in our own departments.
The method of expressionist teaching will be familiar to those in creative writing :"Most important was that the students read all papers aloud to the entire class and were given immediate responses [...] the teacher did not lecture but acted instead as an ad-ditional respondant" (84).
For more about expressionism and what influence it had on rhetoric and composition, check out our previous podcast on expressivism.
Berlin’s last book Rhetorics, Poetics and Cultures was also a disciplinary project--reconciling composition (production) with literary studies (interpretation) by way of cultural studies--may seem a little dated to the 90s, which its heady enthrallment with cross-disciplinary cultural studies and post-modernity everywhere as specter and savior. He argues that English should reunite rhetoric and literary studies
around text interpretation and production-not one or the other exclusively. He doesn’t just argue in theory but sets out his own class as an example of how to integrate textual production and analysis with general cultural studies. He emphatically defends the use of popular culture in the classroom and meeting students with the knowledge the already have.
James Berlin died suddenly of a heart attack while he was still
in the middle of career, but his influence is found all around the
composition world. For example, the CCCC award for best
dissertation is called the James Berlin award, and I think that’s
fitting, considering how the establishment of a phd in composition
has been such a benchmark in composition’s disciplinarity. Are we
at a better place in terms of disciplinary security than we were in
the 80s and 90s? I think so. I also think that part o the reason
why is James Berlin’s impassioned disciplinary research and fervent
argumentation. If you have impassioned discipline and fervent
argumentation, feel free to email us at