Writing the History of Our Discipline

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Writing the History of Our Discipline

From An Introduction to Composition Studies, ed. Gary Tate and Erika C. Lindemann (New York: Oxford UP 1991), 49- 71.

In "Writing the History of Our Discipline," published in 1991 in Gary Tate's and Erika Lindemann's An Introduction to Composition Studies, Bob describes the origins of the subfield of composition history, distinguishing it from rhetorical history and emphasizing the prominent role that Albert Kitzhaber's 1953 dissertation, "Rhetoric in American Colleges 1850-1900," played in enabling subsequent historical studies. After acknowledging the contribu­tions of later historians, including James Berlin, Donald Stewart, Sharon Crowley, and others, Bob discusses a number of issues rele­vant to those undertaking historical scholarship in composition, such as the nature and availability of sources. He closes by consid­ering recent methodological and epistemological debates that have engendered much discussion among historians of rhetoric. As we reread this section of Bob's essay, we were struck both by Bob's fairness in characterizing positions with which he disagreed and by his wit, which is displayed in comments such as the following: "Though we may wax nostalgic for the simple days when the De­cline and Fall narrative provided continuity, when textbooks clum­sily mated and bred without sociocultural influence, and when neat taxonomies made everything understandable, that is not how we think about things anymore" (217-18).
Near the end of his essay Bob observes that "The writing of the history of composition is still at a very early stage. Much re­mains to be done" (217). We agree-and we wish very much that Bob was still at his desk working away.
Composition studies is both the oldest and the newest of the humanities, and our gradual realization of this dual nature is probably the reason for the growing importance of historical study in composition. Traditionally melioristic and oriented toward a beckoning future, composi­tion scholars are realizing that the future can most fruitfully be studied with a knowledge of more than a century's experience in teaching and studying [203] writing. We may not always be able to claim that we see far because we stand on the shoulders of giants; we do, however, stand on the shoulders of thou­sands of good-willed teachers and writers surprisingly like us, who faced in 1870 or 1930 problems amazingly similar to those we confront each time we enter the classroom. Listening carefully, those of us who have begun to try to hear their voices have found much there we can learn from. Impatient dis­missal of the past was a hallmark of our field's early years, and as we mature as a discipline, we will need to draw more and more deeply on the experi­ence of the teachers who came before us. Only in such a context can we dis­cern useful from harmful paths. This essay will be about our development and current state as historians of composition teaching and composition studies.


We need at the beginning to understand that "history of composition" is not a sui generis subfieid of composition studies, pike composition studies itself, history of composition is a branch of the larger field of rhetorical studies, which has existed for over 2000 years. Though composition emerged from rhetoric, there is no sense in which we can really say that "rhetoric" ended and "composition" began on any certain date. As James J. Murphy's recent collection A Short History of Writing Instruction has shown, instruction in the composition of discourse has always been a part of rhetorical pedagogy. The special field of written rhetoric, which came to be called "composition," grew during the nineteenth century out of the older and more accepted practice and teaching of oral rhetoric, which we can trace in considerable detail all the way back to 500 B.C. The history of composition in rhetorical scholarship has, however, been problematical until recently.
Rhetorical history as a scholarly field has existed for nearly as long as rhetoric itself; rhetoricians have always seemed to feel it important to honor or argue with their forebears. All rhetorical writings contain elements of his tory, and rhetorical history has thus been remarkably well preserved and documented. Even so, to someone reading the standard modern histories of rhetoric or anthologies of important works, there is a sense of inexplicable hiatus after the eighteenth century. A standard rhetorical history text like Golden, Berquist, and Coleman's The Rhetoric of Western Thought gives a good example. In that book, the history of oral discourse begins with Corax and Gorgias in ancient Greece, proceeds through Hellenic and Roman rhetoric and into patristic and medieval works. With the Renaissance we read of a great burst of neoclassical and Ramist activity, all well documented, and then the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries see a tremendous empiricist revolu­tion in rhetoric, culminating between 1776 and 1828 in the ground-breaking works of George Campbell, Hugh Blair, and Richard Whately.
And then, after Whately in 1828, rhetoric as described in these books falls off the edge of the earth. The traditional rhetorical histories end abruptly with Whately, and the rest of the nineteenth century is an echoing tomb. The [204] story picks up again in the 1920s with I.A. Richards and Kenneth Burke and from there we hum along merrily through modern to contemporary oral rhetoric, now usually called speech communications. What we see in these books is an intentional excision of a hundred years of rhetorical history, a wiping out of most of the nineteenth century as if it had never existed.
This historical void, which for most of the twentieth century left written rhetoric without m history, is the unfortunate result of the rise of departmentalization in American universities. In early American colleges, oral rhetoric and writing were usually taught by the same generalist professor. There were no academic departments. After the Civil War, however, when scholars began traveling to Germany and bringing back the ideas that would create modern American higher education, the organization of the university into departments of scholars studying phenomena seemed natural. Modern English departments appeared teaching philology, literature, and composition. The older field of oral rhetoric, however, having no Germanic scholarly pedigree, never found a comfortable home in English.1 In 1914, rhetoric teachers, discouraged by their inferior status in English, left the National Council of' to form the National Association of Academic Teachers o(F\x6licSpeaking, which became the Speech Communi­cation Association-and to form their own separate Departments of Speech, It was in these Speech departments that most of the serious scholarship in rhetorical history has been done in this century.
Speech department scholars defined themselves (naturally, and often polemically) by their interest in oral discourse, and thus we shouldn’t be surprised to see a clouding or submergence of the history of written rhetoric in their work. Speech department historians begat histories of an oral rhetoric that seemed to close down or disappear as soon as rhetorical work shifted primarily to written composition in the early nineteenth century. They begin coverage again with the rise of Speech departments as scholarly institutions, creating a new college-based discipline and theory of speech communication, Like literature, composition was seen as an "English concern," and was thus no part of rhetorical history. So high and frowning were departmental walls that it seemed not to matter that most nineteenth-century composition text­books had "rhetoric" in their titles somewhere, or that their authors clearly saw themselves within the rhetorical tradition. For Speech scholars, rhetoric was oral discourse or it did not exist.
But what of English departments? With composition being taught to great numbers in English, with so many renowned scholars in English from Francis James Child onward, why was no history of composition-rhetoric written? The answer is, sadly, obvious to anyone conversant with the history of English departments.2 English departments have always been two-tier de­partments, with the teaching and theorizing about literature given more status and better conditions than the teaching of composition. There was little interest in theorizing about composition or analyzing its history among the burgeoning group of literary scholars, philologists, and critics that con­trolled English departments after 1895. As the MLA was coalescing and [205] scholars were working to create the organization and bibliographical tools that would result in the modern field of literature, composition teaching in­creasingly went on in a sort of twilit underground, taught by unwilling grad­uate student conscripts and badly paid non-tenured instructors. In short, there simply never evolved a discipline of composition studies comparable to literary studies in English. Composition teaching was done, but no degree specialties in composition existed, and no real scholarship surrounded it ex­cept for a few articles in education journals and in College. English. From 1885 until after World War II, composition existed without as a practice without a coherent theory or a developed history.
The status of composition didn’t change until after 1950. The modern field of composition studies grows out of a great change wrought in the American professoriat, especially in English, after World War II. Before that time, college had tended to be for an elite social class and the professors there had been an elect group. After the war, however, the GI Bill made education loans easy for servicemen to get, and a great rush of veterans into col­leges and universities resulted. Colleges groaned at the seams; many grew precipitously to serve all their new students. And from this mass of GI Bill Stu­dents came a generation of graduate students and young faculty members who changed the face of English. These younger men, who were from all American social classes, brought fresh ideas with them, many of which de­mocratized the staid old English field. In literature they championed Ameri­can literature and the New Criticism; their teaching changed textual analyses from something only a trained philologist could do to something any earnest student was capable of. In composition their populist influence was even more powerful. Young professors had always been forced to teach composition, and most of them had gritted their teeth, served their time, and escaped to litera­ture as soon as possible. A notable group within this post-World War II gener­ation, however, determined to study composition, analyze it, and try to do it as best it could be done.
At the same time that this GI Bill generation of teachers was beginning to emerge from graduate schools, the general education movement was sweep­ing America. Based on the idea that too narrow a subject specialization was not useful in life, the General Education movement sought to bring separated disciplines together. In the language arts this General Education movement was called the "communications" movement. The subjects it meant to con­flate were reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and the departments that it got talking to one another, after thirty-five years of frigid silence, were Speech and English.
It is here, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, that we can see the emergence of the new field of composition studies, as opposed to composition teaching­. The post-World War II generation of active young teachers in English, brought together for the first time with colleagues from the older tradition represented by speech, began to forge during these years a new scholarly field. Its nature was represented by the name they gave the organiza­tion they founded in 1949: The Conference on College Composition and [206] Communication. Immediately they established a journal: College Composition and Communication. At the beginning of the CCCC's existence, the writing ap­pearing in the journal was nearly always concerned with actual issues in the contemporary teaching of writing. But by the late 1950s, writers on composi­tion issues were beginning to reach out toward collateral fields, looking at the theory behind the practice, beginning to investigate rhetoric and linguis­tics in a serious way. Composition studies was coming into its own as a disci­pline. And it was here, in this rapidly changing decade, that the first great re­search into the history of composition teaching was done: Albert Kitzhaber's 1953 dissertation, Rhetoric in American Colleges, 1850-1900.
Albert Raymond Kitzhaber was born in 1915 and took his MA in 1941. He served in the European Theatre in World War 11, returning to work toward his Ph.D. at the University of Washington, and between 1950 and 1953 he re­searched and wrote his dissertation. Rhetoric in American Colleges 1850-1900 was written under the direction of Porter G. Perrin, who had himself written a dissertation in 1936 on eighteenth-century American rhetoric. (Perrin, who is now almost forgotten, was one of the great figures of composition teaching in America between 1925 and 1960.) Under Perrin's careful scholarly guidance, Kitzhaber assembled an imposing mass of research materials in nineteenth­-century rhetoric and composition, read through and mastered all of it, and then in his writing analyzed and discussed those lost, pivotal fifty years, 1850 to 1900, in a style marked by understated elegance and brilliant synthesis.
Kitzhaber's tone was never one of disinterested scholarship; he looked about him at the serious problems besetting the teaching of writing and sought to trace them to their sources in the theory and practice of post-Civil War rhetoric teachers. "The years from 1850 to 1900 cannot in any sense be called a great period in the history of rhetoric," wrote Kitzhaber. "Composi­tion teaching became, in a very real sense, drudgery of the worst sort, unen­livened by any genuine belief in its value, shackled by an unrealistic theory of writing, and so debased in esteem that men of ability were unwilling to identify themselves with it permanently" (351). He satin his task as providing the necessary information to change the conditions he saw around him: "If a teacher is to have any perspective on his subject, he must know the tradition that lies behind it, know the place of himself and his times in the tradition, and, through this knowledge, be able to put a proper value on new develop­ments in his subject as they appear" (352).
Rhetoric in American Colleges can be coruscating; it is often bitterly critical. With Kitzbaber comes the tendency, seen in much of the later historical work that used his dissertation as a basis, to create heroes and villains out of figures in the history of composition. Kitzhaber's heroes--Fred Newton Scott, Gertrude Buck, John Genung--became the heroes of such second-generation historians as Donald Stewart and James Berlin; his villains--primarily Adams S. Hill and the "Harvard crowd"--became our villains. And for all [207] later historians of composition, Kitzhaber became "the lion in the road": we could not go around him without dealing with his work. That work--its amazing assembly of sources without any previous bibliographic help, its in­formed analysis of destructive ideas and methods in composition teaching, its attractive division of our forebears into competing camps, and its narra­tive of the tragic victory of the mechanistic, form-obsessed "bad guys" who created our own troubled period--influenced in ways great and small every­thing that followed it in composition history.
It's not hyperbolic to state that with Kitzhaber's dissertation the history of composition studies gained its first really respectable work--and then ended for a quarter-century. Rhetoric in American Colleges 1850-1900 was never published.3 It remained an underground classic available only from University Microfilms, passed around in samizdat Xerox copies by the small group of people interested in composition history. Kitzhaber went on to a distinguished career at Dartmouth and the University of Oregon, where he continued to work in composition studies and to fight for defensible teaching methods that eschewed both useless traditions and the trendy pedagogical fads of the 1950s and 1960s. And the history of composition in American colleges remained a field little examined. There were, of course, educational histories that touched on composition in college, and a few biographies of figures like Harvard's Barrett Wendell who had also made literary contribu­tions. By and large, however, Kitzhaber's ground-breaking dissertation was not followed up-even by him-during the 1950s and 1960s.
During these years, of course, the general field of composition studies was building itself. Like Whitman's spider, it threw out thread after thread to other disciplines, hoping that some would catch. The primary work during these years was recuperation of the rhetorical tradition, from classical rhetoric onward, and what Janice Lauer calls "analogical-theoretical re­search," which makes claims for composition studies on the basis of its simi­larities to other more developed fields, of which the favorites were linguistics and psychology. The technologies of empirical research in composition were re-examined and tuned up, and an improved experimental tradition began. But as the field was creating itself, historical research was a very minor part of it.
Not until composition studies had evolved to the point where it was granting its own specialized doctoral degrees, in the 1970s, do we see the real begin­nings of a scholarly tradition in composition history. Before that point, though certain related historical studies had been done in education depart­ments4 and in speech departments,5 only Kitzhaber had explored college-­level composition history in any detail. Slowly, however, the flowering schol­arship turned toward historical issues.
Like much feminist historical work, early composition history was polemical history. Wallace Douglas bitingly reinterpreted Harvard's place in [208] the teaching of writing in his "Rhetoric for the Meritocracy” essay of l976.6 Again like feminist scholarship, composition history began to search for marginalized forebears, and the greatest of these, Fred Newton Scott of Michi­gan, was re-introduced to composition studies by Donald Stewart in a series of articles beginning in 1978. In l980 James Berlin weighed in with articles in Freshman English News and College English that helped define the forces that had opposed Fred Scott. Borrowing a term from Richard Young (who had borrowed it from Daniel Fogarty's Roots for a New Rhetoric), Berlin called the congeries of teaching methods and theories that had evolved through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “current traditional rhetoric.” It was a term of opprobrium, and it stuck.
Beginning with Stewart and Berlin, the scholarly study of the history of composition took off. Slowly at fist, then with more speed, scholars began to examine the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for materials useful to current analytical needs. In 1981 Andrea Lunsford published an essay on rhetoric in nineteenth-century Scots universities, Leo Rockas published an essay on John Genung of Amherst College, and Robert Connors published a piece on the modes of discourse, which woo the CCCC's Richard Braddock Award the following year. This organizational imprimatur for historical scholarship seemed to give impetus to a whole new generation of scholars, and from 1983 through the present, historical scholarship in composition has been increasingly accepted as an essential branch of the field.
Most contemporary scholars writing on composition history were trained at the doctoral level in both literature and rhetoric, so a historical per­spective and access to historiographic methods are not strange to them, Lunsford, Connors, Katherine Adams, Sharon Crowley, William F. Woods, John Brereton, David Russell, Nan Johnson, David Jolliffe, Anne Ruggles Gere, and others have all applied traditional historical methodologies to the primary and, increasingly, to the secondary sources they use and generate. Like all historians, members of this group bring varied perspectives and in­tentions to the scholarship they do. Some historical scholars specialize in de­lineating large movements and trends in composition history, while others tend toward smaller-scale works or straight biography of important figures they have researched. Some prefer an attempt at neutral presentation of their findings, while others are openly polemical, operating from a declared Marx­ist or vitalist or social-constructionist point of view. In a fairly short period of time, composition history has come to be a microcosm of the larger field of historical scholarship.
Most of the work done thus far in composition history has been in the form of journal articles and book chapters. We seem as yet not to have com­pleted the base-level scholarship necessary to producing in-depth studies of book length. As Donald Stewart put it in 1983, "My best guess is that a truly definitive work on this period cannot be written before 1990."7 The only longer works done since Kitzhaber have both been by James Berlin: his two monographs Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges in 1984 and Rhetoric and Reality in 1987. These books remain the most widely [209] read introductions to composition history used today, and scholars seeking more specific secondary works have to look without much bibliographic as­sistance through almost every journal in composition studies today; articles on history have appeared in College English, College Composition and Communi­cation, Freshman English News, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Rhetoric Review, En­glish Journal, Written Communication, Pre/Text, and Rhetorica. The work done over the past fifteen years has deepened and extended the original territory mapped out by Kitzhaber in 1953, but composition history is still in a very early stage of development. We have a few exemplars, but no masterworks as yet. Small pieces have been admirably accounted for, but the entire picture still remains to be pieced together.
Like historians in any field, historians of composition studies face certain practical and methodological problems. Primary among them are problems of sources. Like conscientious practitioners in many historical fields, compo­sition historians at best seek always to work from primary sources. (Though there is a body of secondary sources building up, it is not yet so large or canonical as to be necessary except for background consultation.) And it is in the search for primary sources that the historian most often finds frustration.
Most of our problems with sources are traceable to the marginalized status of composition up until a decade or so ago. When any field of activity is primarily staffed by part-timers and non-tenured teachers with a high turnover rate, we cannot expect many depositories of professional papers to exist. When the primary pedagogical tools and means for training new teach­ers are "non-scholarly" textbooks, library holdings of them will almost cer­tainly be incomplete. When no Ph.D.s are being granted in a field, we cannot be surprised that the journals for that field are not being stocked by the col­lege library And when a field is tacitly felt by those controlling the depart­ment in which it resides to be either unworthy or actually nonexistent as scholarly activity, we cannot expect that many people will take care to gather together and preserve the physical evidences of it.
Unlike much of previous rhetorical history, written rhetoric is defined by the paper trail it left. But that trail can sometimes be very cold. Certain sources, like the very popular textbooks of the 1890s, are relatively easy to find, while others, such as pedagogical materials and student papers, are quite rare. It is hard, in fact, to imagine any recent historical artifacts more ephemeral than the pedagogical documents that have actually shaped the teaching of writing at specific schools. Syllabi, teachers' notes, correction cards, course descriptions, class exercises, and handouts from the writing courses of the last 100 years do exist, but in minute quantities and only at a few schools. They were simply not saved at most places. Before the advent of easy duplicating technology in the 1940s, copies of typed documents could be made only in limited numbers using the painful and messy carbon paper method, and before typewriting became common in offices around 1900, [210] there was no way of duplicating documents except to set them in type and print them. Thus we have almost no nineteenth-century pedagogical materi­als that were not printed in some form.
Another important source of information on composition history is, of course, students' papers. Unfortunately, our problem in finding pedagogical ephemera is matched by the problem we have in locating students' papers. Especially in the freshman composition course, it seems, neither students nor their teachers were as likely to keep and save papers as they might be in other, later courses. Except at Harvard, which has extensive archives in both ephemera and papers, no large collection of nineteenth-century composition essays is known currently to exist. There are some isolated papers in college archives here and there, but thus far we have no comprehensive record of what exists and where. So outside of Harvard's courses (which were impor­tant models, of course, but not necessarily representative), we have only an impressionistic idea of exactly what student essays were like.
Most of the primary sources accessible to the average historical researcher in composition studies are, then, printed sources of different kinds. Of these, the most often used sources have been textbooks and journals. Since Kitzhaber, who derived the great majority of his information from and based his analyses of rhetorical trends on textbooks, their use as effective reflections of pedagogi­cal reality has been heavy. In an essay in 1982, Susan Miller was the first to critique historians' sometime overuse of texts as sources.8 Since that time his­torians have striven to search out as many other kinds of sources as they can. Textbooks remain, however, a major source of information on rhetoric and composition in the nineteenth century and a sine qua non for a serious historical investigation. Our histories would be poorer by far without them.

Textbooks are important to any rhetorical historian, but they are of special interest to the composition historian because of their incredible proliferation and variety during the nineteenth century and because, unlike rhetorical treatises of earlier days, textbooks were written and sold with specifically peda­gogical intentions .9 Rhetorical treatises were meant to be read (or heard in lec­ture form, possibly). Rhetorical textbooks, on the other hand, were meant to be taught in classrooms. We can thus learn a great deal about the rapidly shifting rhetorical theory of the nineteenth century from them (much of that theory never appeared anywhere else) and we can also learn much about how authors thought that theory could be applied and learned through exercises, assign­ments, authors' introductions, and prefaces. In addition, some of the most fas­cinating information to be found in old textbooks is no part of the author's intention; student notes, inscriptions, doodles, and sotto voce complaints on pages and flyleaves also testify feelingly about how the book was used and its claims received.10 From Lindley Murray and John Walker in the 1790s through the latest process-oriented rhetoric, textbooks can help the historian get a feel for what rhetorical ars and praxis both were at any point in American history.
Journals having to do with teaching writing, both those originating in education and those from the field of English, can be very useful to the histo­rian as well. Specialized magazines about education go back surprisingly far [211] into the past (Barnard's American Journal of Education started publication in 1856; New England Journal of Education started in 1875; PMLA began in 1886; Educational Review began in 1887; School Review started in 1893; and the En­glish Journal started in 1912). The great surprise in examining journals and ar­ticles even a century old is in noting how "modern" they often sound. Nearly every historian who has looked into these journals, especially the EJ, has been astonished by how progressive many of the articles in them seem. But that astonishment should also sound a warning about the unquestioning ac­ceptance of claims made by journal articles. Unlike textbooks, which reflect for better or worse what students were actually supposed to be doing and learning in courses, journal articles often reflect mainly what authors wished or hoped students were doing or learning.
Indeed, some of the most profound insights that composition historians have come to are based on the disparity between the world of pedagogy set forth in many of the journal articles of the period 1910 to 1940 and what the textbooks show was actually being done in classrooms. Those reading the journals might get a picture of the freshman course across America in the hands of thoughtful, forward-looking teachers who welded experience with humanism and a willingness to seek out and use new methods; even the "discipline in crisis" articles (a century-old genre) give the impression that intelligence and good will shall prevail over the problems. Oral English, or a new grading scale, or using newspapers, or structural grammar, or small­ group meetings will make the course pay off. We must examine these articles carefully, however. A few classrooms might have been using small-group meetings and practicing revision as the journals suggested, but thousands of others were sweating through textbook punctuation exercises, or trying to apply Unity, Mass, and Coherence, or attempting to write Three Examples of the Paragraph of Classification. It is only by comparing, year after year, the journals' claims and statements, which were read by a few thousand teachers at most, with the content of textbooks, which were read and used by hun­dreds of thousands of students, that we begin to get an accurate picture of what composition theory and practice really were like.
Historians must be aware of other sources as well. Professional books about the teaching of writing go back to the 1890s, when the first media­-driven "literacy crisis" had produced the freshman composition course as one of its answers. That course created its own methodological problems for curriculum planners, and specialized books for teachers have existed since then. Useful as these books are, they must be examined with the same reser­vations as journal articles are; they present the world of teaching only as the author sees it, and sometimes as the author hopes it is. Biographies and memoirs of various figures can be very helpful, although few full-scale biog­raphies o£ central figures in composition history have yet been done and memoirs are about as rare. And only recently has the collection of oral histo­ries from older or retired members of the field begun to be explored.11 The gathering of these oral histories and recollections is clearly an important task for composition historians, and one we cannot put off. [212]
Locating and evaluating these sources of data have been traditional problems for composition historians. As mentioned, few schools have saved old pedagogical materials or student papers, but I have found library holdings even in the printed sources to be very unpredictable at different univer­sities. Unlike literary historians, composition historians cannot autornatically assume that their libraries will have any holdings in their field at all. Old textbooks and even the older professional books have been “de-accessioned” by policy at many libraries. Holdings in the older education journals such as Barnard's and the important Educational Review are very spotty, and even older volumes of the indispensable EJ can be hard to find. Most college li­braries get the NCTE journals College English and College Composition and Communication, but other important journals for historical work--Freshman English News, Rhetoric Review, Pre/Text, Written Communication, Rhetoric Society Quarterly--may not be on the shelves. We also face the growing tendency to put older journals on microfilm, which makes the sort of browse-reading so important to historical background tedious and unpleasant.
In addition to confronting problems with primary sources, historians must also cope with inadequate scholarly tools. There are almost none. The field of literary studies has the wonderful MLA Bibliographies as well as a host of more specialized bibliographic tools for both primary and secondary sources. Composition studies, 6ovvevur, has not yet oven seriously begun the task of choosing and editing primary sources. Right now, in fact, we do not even have a complete list of such sources; the closest things we have to useful bibliographies of primary texts are the bibliographies at the end of Kitzhaber’s and Berlin’s books. These lists, while admirable, are far from complete. And scholarly editions of primary sources promise to be long in coming. When it appears in 1.991, Andrea Lunsford's edition of Alexander Bain’s English Composition and Rhetoric of 1866 will be the first scholarly edi­tion of u textbook clearly associated with composition (which is to say, previ­ously ignored by scholarly editors from Speech). For journal articles from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there is no source approaching completeness. General bibliographic sources outside of Donald Stewart’s es­says for Winifred Horner’s two collections, Historical Rhetoric in 1980 and The Present State of Scholarship in l983, simply don't exist; each historian has to examine all the primary sources for him- or herself. For secondary work since 1975, of course, the ERIC system is helpful, but it does not cover several im­portant historical journals such RSQ and Rhetorica. The Longman Bibliography (now the CCCC Bibliography), which is issued yearly, bids fair to be our best source on secondary historical work, but it begins only in 1984, and everything before that date must be catch as catch can.
For a part of the field that has only been active for a decade or so, composi­tion history has already generated a considerable list of controversies and disputed issues. The disputes tend to fall into methodological and epistemo­logical areas, although most refuse to fit neatly into one class or another. [213]
An example of a dispute that spans categories is the issue of whether composition historians should write histories of theory or histories of practice. One strong tacit tradition in rhetorical history has been to write theoretical histories, narratives that show how one set of ideas was propounded, criticized, adopted, revised. "Influence studies" is the term often given this sort of scholarship in literature. Some of the most impressive works in rhetorical history have been written to trace and categorize these theoretical influences, most notably Wilbur Samuel Howell's two magisterial volumes on English logic and rhetoric from 1500 through l800, which cover every rhetorical treatise written during those years but make little attempt to situate rhetoric culturally.12 The other strong tradition has been to describe rhetorical praxis and education in the context of their times and cultures, paying more attention to the meaning and uses of the discipline than to the content of its theory. George Kennedy's books on classical rhetoric in Greece and Rome and Brian Vickers' recent Defense of Rhetoric exemplify this tradition.
The immense influence of Albert Kitzhaber moved composition history in both directions, but ultimately his work tended to head more toward theoreti­cal than toward cultural histories of composition. Coverage and theoretical analysis of early composition textbooks were Kitzhaber's great strength; like Porter Perrin and Glenn Hess before him, Kitzhaber worked primarily from the artifacts he had gathered and mastered, which were textbooks, and, to a lesser degree, journal articles. Since textbooks remain the largest mine of evidence concerning nineteenth-century composition theory and teaching, and since they remain more easily (although randomly) available to researchers than most other data, and since Kitzhaber had made their use respectable, the early members of the "second generation" of composition historians--primarily Stewart, Berlin, Connors, and Johnson--relied on textbooks to a great extent. As a result, the early work in composition history tends, with the exception of Wallace Douglas’s Marxist readings of Harvard records, to be about the theories found in early composition texts and about how those theories evolved.
Even at their most theoretical, however, composition historians have never approached the almost complete lack of interest in culture and practice seen in some theoretical histories of rhetoric. They have remained involved. The main reason 6/r this practical and cultural focus in composition history has been the fact that most composition historians are also writing teachers. They are immediately implicated in their subject. Speech historian W. S. Howell could afford a certain distance toward his discovery that Adam Smith in 1749 approached rhetoric with more acumen than John Holmes did in 1755. The fact may have been interesting, but the work of neither of them affected Howell and his daily world of professional reality very much. From Kitzhaber on, however, composition historians have never had the luxury of scholarly distance. They exist, as composition specialists have for a century, in a world of complex social and institutional problems whose solution is writing teachers' charge, and thus even the theoretical and "textbook" his­tories of the field have always been implicitly polemical. We followed Kitzhaber not only to his sources, but also to the sometimes savage indigna­tion about current conditions that often characterized his work. [214]
So Kitzhaber's methodological legacy has been two-pronged; early com­position history had a tendency to look at the past in terms of its theory and textbooks, and it had a distinct tendency to view the past through the sometimes narrow lens of how it seemed to affect the troubled present. We found the works of our heroes-Fred Newton Scott, Gertrude Buck, Joseph Denney, Franz '1'heremin, Henry Day, C. S. Baldwin, Sterling Leonard, Porter Perrin-and celebrated them. We traced the elements in composition teach­ing that we thought were questionable back to their lairs in the works of our pantheon of villains and dupes-Samuel Newman, Richard Whately, Alexander Bain, Adams S. Hill, Barrett Wendell, John Genung, Edwin Wool­ley, John Warriner, John Hodges. This early work was clearly sided history.
The perspective on American composition taken in most of these analy­ses is easy to understand in retrospect: historians writing in a troubled pres­ent constructed a narrative of its genesis based on sources at hand. Thus the metanarrative of most work before 1984 or so might have the subtitle "De­cline and Fall." It was a tragic tale of bad theory driving out good, of the loss of the liberal tradition in rhetoric, of calculating, hegemonic Harvard taking over the rhetorical world, of a noble Fred Newton Scott fighting a hopeless rear-guard action against encroaching barbarisms like "grammar" and "workbooks." It ended with the ugly triumph of Bain s formalism over Emerson's and Theremin's idealism and with the onset of our current Iron Age, where until recently the lamp of rhetorical humanism guttered low.
This was a rattling good story, and in certain ways it is even an accurate one. But it was not the complete story, and work in composition history since 1985 has been struggling to add some depth to the all-too-simple tale of Decline and Fall. The essential problems with the old narrative are, first, that it ignores or discounts too much information we now have, and, second, that it does not look deeply enough into the social, cultural, and ideological con­texts of rhetoric and composition as they developed in their own eras. For in­stance, it was a natural and necessary step to trace paragraph theory back to Alexander Bain in 1866 and then to show how his theory is not accurate or useful according to our current knowledge. The harder task confronting his­torians now is to draw the analysis out in deeper and stronger ways. What Led Bain to this theory? How does it relate to changing ideas of English prose style? Why were teachers attracted to it? What do formal theories suggest about pedagogic attitudes?
Perhaps we see the most important sign of maturation in historical re­search in the crumbling of the simple heroes-and-villains narrative. While no one would deny Fred Scott his eminence, we no longer see his work as the touchstone of all that is True and Good. And after more than thirty years as everyone's bete noire, Harvard's A. S. Hill is being seen as the much more complex thinker and actor that he was.13 We are looking at a broader range of sources and learning that our metanarrative has been too simple. While I would hope that composition history never completely loses touch with the dissatisfaction that fueled its earliest works with fervor and gave meaning and passion to its narratives, our work is richer now. Historians' growing [215] awareness of the causal complexities and sociocultural motivations that are as important as any theoretical history to the development of our field can only make sharper our awareness of current conditions and make more real­istic our hopes for solving contemporary problems through understanding them.
Another set of current issues in the writing of composition history has to do with the development of research and with the presentation of data after they've been found. It's our version of the old Platonic/ Aristotelian debate about deduction and induction. Some historians tend to see, to research, and to present their findings within overt and carefully created frameworks of meaning, and others eschew this approach. Of contemporary historians, James Berlin is probably the best-known "framework" researcher. In each of his books, Berlin creates a taxonomic structure and follows its implications by fitting various figures and works into it; in Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges his taxonomy breaks nineteenth-century rhetoric into classical, psychological-epistemological, and romantic types, while in Rhetoric and Reality he classifies twentieth-century movements into objective, subjective, and transactional classes. Wallace Douglas' Marxist analyses, which use an existing class-structure perspective, are also examples of "framework" research.
Other historians opt for a more inductively derived historical narration, one that takes up a problem at the "beginning"-the first place their research can discover it-and follows it through to contemporary times, or that traces the work and influence of one figure. Paul Rodgers on the Bainian organic paragraph, or David Russell on writing across the curriculum, or my work on the development of handbooks are all examples of problem- or figure­-based history.
Both the overt framework histories and the problem- or figure-based works are, of course, subject to the criticism that they present narratives based on a priori viewpoints that control and constrain the research beneath them. Berlin chooses his classes, then seeks evidence that reifies them; I start with an a priori definition of handbooks and only look at books that fulfill that definition. I cannot think of any work of composition history that cannot to some degree be accused of this sort of a priori subjectivism; historians dis­agree mainly on how much of it exists. In a review of Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges, I once critiqued James Berlin for filter­ing his research effort through powerful terministic screens and for failing to take important alternate perspectives into consideration. Berlin's reply was that such screens are inevitable in any research project, and that since objec­tivity is impossible, any historical research project is automatically interpre­tive and thus radically subjective; all a historian can do is try to be aware of the terministic screens that exist for him or her.
This whole issue of how and when a researcher reaches closure--of where the data she is discovering begin to assemble themselves in her mind into a structure that will form a thesis claim and will then inevitably guide and constrain subsequent research--leads to the great historiographic [216] question of facts versus interpretations. Some of the field's major historians met in an "octolog " at the 1987 CCCC to discuss these complex issues, and in spite of some real methodological disagreements there was surprising agree­ment from most of the participants. Of the eight panelists discussing "The Politics of Historiography," seven were working historians, and one, Victor Vitanza, was a historiographic theorist. When the dust settled, it was clear that: (1) No one on the panel believed that any "objective" or definitive his­tory was possible or even desirable; all believed that multiple histories are possible and desirable; (2) The seven working historians all believed, tacitly or explicitly, that "evidence" or "data" or "sources" or "historical materials" were essential stuff of their day-to-day researches. Of the eight panelists, only Vitanza valorized language and its infinitely regressive possibilities as the central component of history. ("Is there any evidence for evidence?" he asks.)
That there was so much tacit agreement in a panel specifically convened to air disagreements is less surprising when we consider that the participants were rhetoricians as well as historians. They all expressed an essential rhetorical position: that assent could be based both on inartistic proofs-evi­dence-and on artistic proofs-the perspective, the method of presentation, the language. The working historians all accepted the concept that evidence must be searched for and weighed, that prejudices must be taken into consid­eration, and that induction and deduction were both necessary parts of his­torical research and writing.
The entire question of historiographic theory animating this 1987 octolog has been brought to the fore in the last five years largely through the efforts of Victor Vitanza, who has used his journal PrelText to advance various radical critiques of current historical works and practices. Vitanza has attracted a brilliant group of younger scholars to the journal, and one of their primary interests has been in historiographic issues. Such scholars as Susan Jarratt, John Schilb, Jan Swearingen, and James Berlin have weighed in with historio­graphic articles in Pre/Text. Although only Schilb (and, to a lesser extent, Jarratt) might be said to hold many ideas in common with Vitanza, the gen­eral effect of Vitanza's efforts has been to valorize historiographic questions. Since 1986, the theoretical and epistemological issues surrounding the writ­ing of history have been much discussed.

The proponents of "revisionist historiography," as it has come to be called, fall roughly into two camps: those who seek to promote a specific pro­gram or perspective, and those who point out the incompleteness, potential for totalization, or naivete of any specific program or perspective. Into the former camp might fall Sharon Crowley and Jan Swearingen, who have both been engaged in recovering heretofore marginalized figures in rhetorical his­tory: the sophists and women. Here, too, we find James Berlin and Wallace Douglas, who take the perspective of neo-Marxists and argue for dialectical history and class-based historical analyses. The implicit program of this group is action-based; they make the claim that traditional histories are biased, or incomplete, or controlled by sexist or racist or class purposes. [217]
The other group of revisionist historiographers are the epistemological radicals, primarily Victor Vitanza, John Schilb, and Susan Jarratt. (It is inter­esting to note that with the exception of Jarratt, who is the least radical and most obviously "political" of the group, the epistemological radicals have themselves primarily written critiques of historical writing rather than his­tory itself.) The critiques coming from this end of the table mainly descend from the interpretive issues popularly argued over in literary criticism dur­ing the past fifteen years: the undecidability of meaning in texts; the aporias that riddle every text and source; the interplay of social conditioning and un­derstanding or ordering of meaning; the hegemony of linearity and "clear­ness" as criteria for worth in historical writing; the utter lack of support for any concept of objectivity. In radically undercutting meaning systems, Vitanza is probably the most extreme; like his eidolons Deleuze and Guattari, his own prose style is deliberately playful and hallucinatory, and his suspi­cion of all proffered meaning-systems as totalizing and potentially fascistic makes him the great epistemological anarchist in the field.
Thus far the working historians have tended to react to the Vitanza posi­tion with a mixture of humor, discomfort, and distracted annoyance.14 We cannot supply proofs for proof, in Vitanza's terms, but thus far no historian has been willing to allow the theoretical uncertainty underlying his or her making of meaning to close down the enterprise. We may argue about the relative power of facts versus interpretations, but finally the community of working historians feels constrained by and dependent on both. All we can do is continue to be aware of the necessary balance between induction and deduction in any research enterprise, trying to avoid totalizing perspectives that force us to closure too early in the research process. No historian sets out deliberately to twist the truth, but Vitanza's critique remains a salutary re­minder that our natural prejudices constantly create terministic screens that control what we see-and can control what we look for as researchers.
The writing of the history of composition is still at a very early stage. Much remains to be done. We need to continue looking closely at the connec­tions between rhetoric and writing instruction--indeed, at all the issues surrounding the relation of orality and literacy. We need much more work on the period 1790 to 12150, which still remains the subject of only a few articles and dissertations. We still know very little about the teaching and learning of writing outside the United States and Canada; the other English-speaking countries are only beginning to be examined. We need to articulate our knowledge, to connect college issues with the increasingly detailed historical work being done on elementary and secondary schooling. We also must put our research ever more strongly in context by making ourselves aware of the larger issues of class, gender, race, and franchise that have always been the "silent" realities behind college education. The larger issues of literacy arid power, which have begun to appear in historical works of the last few years, will be inescapable for historians in the future. Though we may wax nos­talgic for the simple days when the Decline and Fall narrative: provided [218] continuity, when textbooks clumsily mated and bred without sociocultural influence, and when neat taxonomies made everything understandable, that is not how we think about things anymore.
Historians of composition in the future will need to be both peripatetic and widely read. The primary sources are out there, and finding them­ especially the ephemeral pedagogical materials and the almost-as-ephemeral student papers-will be a challenge. We will need to evolve serious collec­tions and depositories of composition materials.15 to addition to being scholar-gypsies, composition historians of the future will need to immerse themselves in collateral reading about their subjects and periods, as good rhetorical scholars always have. We cannot understand the teaching of writ­ing in 1870 without understanding the causes of the Civil War; we cannot un­derstand the "American English" movement of the 1940s without under­standing the McCarthy era. We are ineluctably tied to the movements of our cultures, and as rhetoricians we have to watch the signals. Only then will we write histories truly informed by all the good evidence needed to gain a hear­ing from an increasingly skeptical discourse community.
Composition history; like rhetorical history, is only one channel of the knowledge we in composition studies must seek. Yet without it, we are cut off from information of vast usefulness. We are not here alone; others have come before us, and from their situations, struggles, victories, and defeats we can build the context that will give our work as teachers and theorists back­ground, substance, and originality. Only by understanding where we came from can we ascertain where we want to go.


1. For more information on how this lack of scholarly credentials led to the de­cline of rhetoric, see my essay "The Creation of an Underclass," forthcoming in The Politics of Writing Instruction.

2. The classic essay on this question is William Riley Parker's "Where Do English Departments Come From?" College English 28 (1967): 339-51.

3. Rhetoric in American Colleges, with a new introduction by John Gage, has re­cently been reprinted (Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1991).

4. Glenn Hess' dissertation An Analysis of Early American Rhetoric and Composition 'Textbooks from 1784 to 1870 (U of Pittsburgh, 1949), Janet Emig's Qualifying Paper The Relation of Thought and Language Implicit in Some Early American Rhetoric and Composition Texts (Harvard, 1963), Gene Piche's Revision and Reform in the Secondary School Eng­lish Curriculum 1870-1900 (U of Minnesota, 1967) and Stephen Judy's The Teaching of English Composition in American Secondary Schools 1850-1893 (.Northwestern, 1967) are some of the important examples of work from Education.

5. Warren Guthrie's dissertation The Development of Rhetorical Theory in America 1635-1850 (Northwestern, 1940) is the only example I know of a historical dissertation from Speech that was not overwhelmingly concerned with oral-discourse issues.

6. This essay is found in Richard Ohmann’s English in America (New York: Oxford UP 1976), 97-132.

7. Donald Stewart, "The Nineteenth Century," in The Present State of Scholarship in Historical and Contemporary Rhetoric (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1983), p.158. From the [219] perspective of 1990, when this was being written, Stewart's assessment looks opti­mistic.

8. Miller made her charges in her essay "Is There a Text in This Class?" in Fresh­man English News 11 (1982): 29-33.

9. For more information, see my essay "Textbooks and the Evolution of the Disci­pline," College Composition and Communication 37 (.May 1986): 178-94.

10. I have before me two books that illustrate this kind of information. In an 1893 copy of Genung's Rhetorical Analysis, Nettle Lawson of Bradford Academy has painstakingly written out on the flyleaf four paragraph rules, which she no doubt was asked to consult again and again. Every chapter in the book has pencilled notes from the teacher's lectures. On the other hand, in a 1901 copy of Lockwood and Emerson's Composition and Rhetoric for Higher Schools, "Marion, Lily, and Laurerca, Members of the Spectator Club" have written "Sing me a song of the south, a song of the sunny south," "On A Beautiful Night With A Beautiful Girl," and the complete: lyrics to "When I Get You Alone Tonight." In their own ways, these inscriptions tell the story of an English class, too.

11. There are as yet few examples of these sorts of retrospective interviews. Dixie Goswami and Maureen Butler interviewed Janet Emig in 1983, and parts of those in­terviews are used in Emig's collection The Web of Meaning. Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford interviewed Edward P J. Corbett in 1987, and portions of that interview are used in the Selected Essays of Edward P. J. Corbett. R. Gerald Nelms of Ohio State is cur­rently completing a dissertation based on oral histories, but thus far few scholars have ventured out into the field with tape recorder in hand. It must be done, and soon.

12. Wilbur Samuel Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1956) and Eighteenth-Century British Logic and Rhetoric (Princeton: Prince­ton UP, 1971).

13. See, for instance, David Jolliffe's essay "The Moral Subject in College Com­position: A Conceptual Framework and the Case of Harvard, 1865-1900," in College English 51 (1989): 163-73. Thomas Newkirk is also doing fascinating research in the Harvard Archives that is showing Harvard's early pedagogy to be strikingly similar to modern "process" and "whole language" pedagogies. Newkirk began to report on this material at CCCC in 1990 with his talk "Barrett Wendell and the Birth of Freshman Composition."

14. The reaction of working historians to the Vitanza position, in fact, is reminis­cent of the reactions of Anglo-American literary critics to the early sallies of decon­struction, circa 1975-1.982, a mixture of "Very interesting ..." with "Oh, come on!" This position of "glum common sense," as it has been called, will probably have to be maintained until professional necessity rises and twitches its mantle blue, declaring the Vitanza position to be, as it has declared deconstruction to be, not wrong but merely posse.

15. As of this writing, only one such public collection exists: the Richard S. Real Collection at the University o£ New Hampshire.


Berlin, James. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1.900-1985. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

_____. Writing Instruction in. Nineteenth-Century American Colleges. Carbondale: South­ern Illinois UP, 1984.

Brereton, John, ed. "Traditions of Inquiry. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

"Historiography and the Histories of Rhetorics: Revisionary Histories." Pre/Text 8 (Spring/Summer 1987). [220]

Horner, Winifred, ed. Historical Rhetoric: An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Sources in English. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

_____. The Present State of Scholarship in Historical and Contemporary Rhetoric. Rev. ed. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1990.

Kitzhaber, Albert R. Rhetoric in American Colleges 1850-1900. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 7.990.

Murphy, James J., ed. The Rhetorical Tradition and Modern Writing. New York: MLA, 1982.

_____. A Short History of Writing Instruction from Ancient Greece to Twentieth-Century America. Davis, CA: Hermagoras,1990.

"Octalog: The Politics of Historiography." Rhetoric Review 7 (Fall 1988): 5 - 57.

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