A Fundamental Disconnect

“Composition studies labors in a state of intellectual double consciousness, trying to demonstrate its value by asserting its identity with literary studies.The relation, however, is not one of identity. Rather, the two are separate though related disciplines within the larger category of “English,” and each needs to be evaluated by its own standards” (Howard, 52).

In Rebecca Moore Howard’s “The Dialogic Function of Composition Pedagogy: Negotiating Between Critical Theory and Public Values”, the common but concerning disconnect between the theories forwarded in contemporary composition scholarship and the values espoused in contemporary composition pedagogy is discussed. More, Howard explores how the literary discipline’s tenets along with the public at large’s conceptions contribute to the growing divide between composition theory and practice. Essentially, in this article, Howard is making a case for why composition studies must seek to be regarded more as a discipline in and of itself with its own standards. Trying to abide by those standards forwarded and set in place by the discipline of literature is insufficient while trying to appease the general public’s demands is both unreasonable as well as “derailing”, meaning that doing so removes composition’s focus from one within genre to one outside its actual purview. While Howard does not argue for a complete abolishment of the current divide, she does advocate for a greater “meshing” of scholarship and pedagogy that she believes can occur through greater, all-around recognition of composition’s dialogic function.

In order to underline the discrepancy between composition theory and pedagogy, Howard explores how “the figures of the author and the plagiarist are described and represented” in both arenas (52). While contemporary scholarship acknowledges that, because writing is inherently dialogic and collaborative, patch-writing is integral to the writing process (for the reason it simply cannot be wholly extracted because, again, writing is always in conversation) and citations, while admirable, are integrally arbitrary, contemporary pedagogy preaches that plagiarism in all its forms is across-the- board bad and has no place in the writing process.

Basically, contemporary pedagogy does not currently/adequately address the complexities composition theory does. This fundamental disconnect, Howard attributes to composition’s conflation with literature studies and with developing normative literacy. Essentially, composition studies, to most of the broader public, has become responsible for developing standard literacy as well as for developing “standard writing practice”. This mis-attribution of responsibilities, Howard attributes to the discipline’s unique audience. Howard states, “Somehow textual studies is different from other academic disciplines, in that many inside as well as outside the discipline believe that textual studies should be accessible to a non-expert audience” (60). She further identifies that broader audience as such, “So the audience for composition studies includes compositionists (both composition teachers and composition scholars); composition students; and a larger, concerned public (both inside and outside the academy)” (60). The discipline’s disconnect between theory and practice is thus, according to Howard, a result of the discipline having to meet the concerns and demands of such a wide and varied audience which is largely composed of non-experts, necessarily skewing the discipline’s foci.

As a current graduate student in the discipline, I find this discrepancy present in my own life. When people here my major is Writing Studies, more oft than not, they focus only on the former–writing. Basically, they assume I am learning how to teach writing. In reality, though, I am learning about the theories behind writing and why we write, my research concerned with making observations about writing patterns and developing theory to explain them. Essentially, I am learning about writing instead of how-to–do it or teach it. This assumption on most people’s part about my major is indicative, to me, of the issue of audience Howard is describing: the audience is simply uninformed or uninterested in theory. It has no place in the layman’s daily life. Butwriting does.

More, through being a graduate assistant at my university’s Writing Center, I see how the lack of acknowledgement of writing and composition being dialogic impacts student learning. Student writing is more oft than not judged by its Turn It In score rather than its content and the ideas the student-writer is trying to navigate, connect, converse with, and develop. We have a presentation at the Writing Center (WC) titled “Patchwriting Vs. Paraphrasing” that we often give to classes. In the presentation, patch-writing is equated with plagiarism. No exceptions. While we do try to stress that patch-writing is often unintentional and a part of the writing process and not something to be ashamed of–it is indicative of learning–that nuance is often overshadowed by the Professor’s assertions that students who patch-write will be “caught” by Turn It In. Kind of undermines any attempt at nuance, huh? At any kind of conversation, really.

In this way, the other WC graduate assistant I present with and I are usually the only ones who even notice or understand that patch-writing is a grey area. For me, if that is the case–as it so often is, it brings into question the importance of providing presentations like these at all. More than elucidating writing and its details, I seem to be forwarding an agenda that conflicts with how/why writing really is. I’m the one who’s cutting off the conversation on writing.

Overall, I found Howard’s article to be enlightening. It provided clarity to something I have personally felt myself as a burgeoning member in the discipline. That said, I do wonder about some of Howard’s attributions. She makes the whole business seem very nefarious and intentional. Myself, I wonder if a large part of the division that exists is simply due to a lack of accessible information. Could the general public’s beliefs about what the field of composition is responsible for be swayed if they were provided with more of a foundation for the theories academics so commonly deny? In a way, I think the discipline’s problem feeds into itself by buying into the notion that theory is not compatible with current practice. If we don’t even try to redirect current belief, we certainly won’t see any changes, will we?


Howard, Rebecca Moore. “The Dialogic Function of Composition Pedagogy: Negotiating Between Critical Theory and Public Values” in “Under Construction: Working at the Intersections of Composition Theory, Research, and Practice”. All USU Press Publications, book 124, 1998. chrome-extension://bjfhmglciegochdpefhhlphglcehbmek/content/web/viewer.html?file=https%3A%2F%2Fdigitalcommons.usu.edu%2Fcgi%2Fviewcontent.cgi%3Farticle%3D1123%26context%3Dusupress_pubs.

My Hypothesis



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