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  • The Long and Winding Mode(s)
  • Ivan Davis (bio)

Although there is no shortage of composition texts to choose from, I've recently struggled to find a textbook that is a comfortable "fit" for me. Admittedly, I may be a hard sell. My version of freshman composition has borrowed and adapted writing assignments, activities, and materials from a number of different textbooks I've used over the years, not unlike the way I've assimilated a hodgepodge of theory and scholarship in the field—at times, perhaps even co-opting ideas from scholars who might consider themselves diametrically opposed to one another. It would seem that, perhaps like many teachers of freshman comp, I need a textbook that is amazingly adaptable—something so versatile that it could meet my needs while accounting for my eclectic approach.

But trying to reconcile my own reservations about adopting composition textbooks has forced a strange realization on me. I've come to see adaptability as the quality most responsible for my own difficulty in finding that perfect match, particularly with those textbooks marketed as "guides" to writing. They are too adaptable! In trying to do all things for the greatest number of instructors and their students, these comprehensive rhetorics invariably do little of it particularly well. The best that can be hoped for is a sort of bland, almost conventional competence.

Rise Axelrod and Charles Cooper's third edition of the Concise Guide to Writing shares this weakness of trying to be all things to all instructors, although to their credit, Axelrod and Cooper do some things rather well—as Bruce Closser points out in this roundtable, their emphasis on critical reading is well conceived and executed. But working in the "guide" genre requires that Axelrod and Cooper must cover everything. A quick survey of three comparable textbooks suggests a remarkable uniformity in approach. In all, there is considerable observance of process pedagogy with attention to prewriting, drafting, and revision; sample essays by professional (and usually student) writers to be used for assessment and modeling; specific instruction related to thesis construction and development; a recognition of audience and purpose that ranges from discussions of generalized and conventional readers to exercises eliciting peer response; instruction in critical reading; at least a minimal acknowledgment of academic discourse and its conventions; a unit [End Page 533] or chapter promoting research writing that generally includes a documentation guide; and a section devoted to editing and proofreading (if not a mini handbook on writing mechanics and usage).

But the most marked similarity is the range of writing assignments or essays in the guides. The range of genres (personal, explanatory, problem-solution, evaluation, argument, and research) is standard enough to recall the longstanding "modes of discourse"—the static forms of narration, description, exposition, and argumentation that were central to teaching and reached their height in most writing textbooks during the first half of the early twentieth century (Connors 1981: 444). Later criticized because they tended to "classify and emphasize the product of writing, having almost nothing to do with the purpose for which the writer sat down" (454), the modes became largely passé as the process movement took hold. Process theorists came to view genre-based instruction as "old fashioned, traditional, and outmoded" and "associated with an emphasis on rigidity and formalist conventions" (Clark 2003: 241).

Obviously sensitive to this formalistic danger, the current guides offer suitable explanations presumably growing out of a recent theoretical trend that conceives of genre as "typified social action" (Clark 2003: 242). For instance, The Prentice Hall Guide (Reid 2000: xx) claims that "aims and purposes, not rhetorical strategies, guide each writing assignment," while Axelrod and Cooper (v) justify their genre approach by showing "how written texts are shaped by the writing situation in which they arise." However, The Longwood Guide is the most explicit in dealing with the modes and aims issue, clarifying its position in four pages. I suspect its stance is fairly representative of the approach taken by this group of guides: "[A writer] may well use several modes to order, or structure, his essay. In a sense, when we know the writer's aim, we know what he is writing about...


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pp. 533-539
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