Not Buying

“But the actual question of what is good writing is more problematic than ever.” (Fulkerson, 681)

Throughout reading Richard Fulkerson’s “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century”, I constantly found myself wondering both to myself and aloud, “Why doesn’t he just write about the enormous benefits of teaching composition through a procedural rhetoric pedagogy if he prefers the method so much???” Despite the diplomatic assertions towards the end of this work, Fulkerson’s personal preferences were fairly clear. In this article, Fulkerson discusses the shift in composition studies from a procedural focus to a sociocultural approach which emphasizes not just writing but critical thought on social issues. And, Fulkerson clearly does not believe this shift to be beneficial. More, he doesn’t believe this pedagogical and epistemological shift in focus in composition courses offers students the most effective means by which to enhance their writing skills nor improve their ability to navigate academic discourse.

Which, to be fair, I get. To an extent.

Fulkerson classifies composition courses that focus in sociocultural/critical/cultural studies as CCS classes. In a CCS composition class, teaching will usually be centered around having students read articles about contemporary news or a current social issue and then respond to those readings. Being able to identify and recognize one’s own bias and possible socioeconomic benefit from the issue at hand is counted as a plus–as progress. Really, because most of these articles that are chosen deal exclusively with issues of social inequality, being able to identify that in one’s writing is more than half the battle. The other half is the critical discussion which, as Fulkerson notes, is where things gets tricky and where the CCS model most reveals its faults. See, critical discussion of these kinds of articles involves a degree of interpretation–but not the students’ interpretations. No, too often, what really matters in CCS classrooms is how closely the students’ critiques of a text coincide with their Professor’s interpretation/beliefs. And, that is a problem.

When paired with this model’s distinct lack of process methodology, that problem turns this whole concept into a bit of a conundrum. (I believe it took all of Fulkerson’s generosity not to outright brand this method a mess.) Fulkerson says, “What counts as good writing in a cultural studies course? …What we come down to is that the writing in such a course will be judged by how sophisticated or insightful the teacher finds the   interpretation of the relevant artifacts to be… Thus the standard of evaluation is, I assert, actually a mimetic one–how close has the student come to giving a “defensible” (read “correct”) analysis of the materials.” (662) This criticism is something I can get behind. While I do personally believe that educators have a responsibility–maybe not purely as teachers but certainly as human beings–to teach their students about the culture that shapes themselves and all of their thinking, that does not give educators free license to morally police students and, more, to arbitrarily pass or fail students based upon how well students are able to guess their professor’s beliefs. (‘Cause let’s be real here, that’s what a lot of students are going to do–write for their professor and not for themselves, especially when there’s more incentive (i.e their grade) to do that. That’s not ideal for facilitating authenticity.)

Educators should provide guidance–not enforce beliefs with an iron first. For this reason along with the inability to establish any universal learning objectives for evaluation, I do concur with Fulkerson’s critiques of CCS models. To clarify, I don’t like what he says here but I do understand the reasoning behind his stance. I also recognize that he seemed to try to lessen the blow by introducing, as an alternative to CCS, the genre-based model for teaching composition. Here, Fulkerson helpfully points out how the genre-based model addresses all of CCS’s shortcomings. How the model provides an actual point to discussing and writing about social issues which was so lacking before. Finally, “…both requisite and disallowed moves” can be addressed and writing tailored. (677) Wouldn’t want it not to fit into its own cozy little box now would we….

Anyway, since Fulkerson flat-out didn’t seem to believe in an expressive model, let’s get right to his favourite (and seemingly WPA approved as is so helpfully pointed out got to love those appeals to authority am I right?)–the procedural rhetoric model for teaching composition. For all intents and purposes, this is the “by-the-books” model. All three of the categories–Argumentation, Genre Analysis, & Preparation for “The” Academic Discourse Community–Fulkerson separates this model into have a strong basis in traditional literature. Parameters and processes are established for different genres, axiologies are identified, and pedagogy is centered around students being able to imitate established forms. Beings able to do that is seen as progress and, overall, as success. 

My question, though, is how imitation of classical forms in the procedural rhetoric model is different from the mimicry Fulkerson decries in the CSS classroom model? 

To me, it seems like Fulkerson is arguing a technicality. At the very least, he’s being considerably less generous to the models he personally seems to take issue with. Neither the CCS nor the expressive models’ sections have any benefits discussed (though I do believe Lisa Delpit in her article “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children” (1988) provides ample evidence in favor of a CSS-like classroom set-up) even though Fulkerson is more than happy to elaborate upon the good, “selling points” of the academy-approved, tried-and-true procedural rhetoric approach. When discussing the genre-based methodology, Fulkerson says of the concept of specific parameters equating different genres, “This is reasonably well-settled ground, so there is little contemporary scholarship discussing it.” (677) While some may read that as merely a statement of fact–of course genres have well-known boundaries that create them–when read in the context in which it appears in this publication, it becomes more complimentary. At least, it’s a compliment in comparison to what Fulkerson had to say earlier on in reference to the other models–neither of which got quite as much attention or page-space in this work as the third.

Fulkerson may claim this is a discussion or a “look-see” at current theoretical trends in the field of composition studies but I think it is apparent there is an argument being made by Mr. Teaching the Argument in Writing.

Overall, I believe my own views on Fulkerson’s article are as apparent. While I agree with him on some of his critiques, I’m ultimately unimpressed with his approach to discussing them in this work. Fulkerson went hard on CCS for indoctrination and for professors of those courses forwarding their own agendas and yet here he is essentially doing the same thing. Unimpressive. Unappreciated. I’m not sure through which writing model I myself benefited most but I definitely learned how to identify and recognize when I am being sold something.

Also, it seems like Fulkerson’s favoritism here was based upon ease of assessment and evaluation. The procedural rhetoric model, because it did have readily identifiable parameters and forms, made it the most easy for educators to evaluate. Just go down a checklist or a rubric. To me, that seems to reject/challenge everything we’ve been reading thus far. And, you know how I feel about writing centered around assessment.  That may further explain my aversion to Fulkerson’s ideas as well as why I feel so alienated/attacked(?) by the argument he is making. The writing methods Fulkerson seems most interested in promoting do not promote writer authenticity. To me, the CCS and expressive models are at least attempting to tap into something genuine. They promote self-exploration and motivate students to explore their values and how their beliefs shape their identity. There’s a chance here for a voice to make itself known.

All that said, I’m incredibly curious to hear what my fellow classmates have to say about this article. I wonder how they interpreted it–similarly or differently? Can’t wait to find out!

~Till next time~



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