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Pedagogy 6.1 (2006) 179-188
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Learning to Write, Program Design, and the Radical Implications of Context
Pedagogy's readers are familiar with the various disciplinary tensions within composition studies: Are we humanists or social scientists (or both)? Should research be "empirical" or "situated?" Should we even continue to teach first-year composition? This last question invokes what has come to be known as the "new abolitionist" debate in composition (Connors 1995; Goggin and Miller 2000; Brooks 2002). New abolitionists like Sharon Crowley (1998) have issued a "challenge" to composition's "sacred cow, the universally required first-year composition course, because of . . . terrible employment conditions," composition's "service requirement," and how "the requirement patently misrepresents the needs of students" (Brooks 2002: 27). Echoing new abolitionists, David W. Smit argues in The End of Composition Studies that composition and English need fundamental change in the face of disciplinary and professional crises. Moreover, he implicitly challenges claims by defenders of first-year composition that the course as currently conceived can, in fact, be a productive site of instruction, change, and resistance (Roemer, Schulz, and Durst 1999: 378).
Yet The End of Composition Studies is not easily pigeonholed; Smit's is neither an abolitionist nor a revisionist argument. Rather, it is what Maureen [End Page 179] Daly Goggin and Susan Kay Miller call reconceptualist; it is an argument "that calls for rethinking/reinventing writing instruction on a systemic level" (2000: 90). Goggin and Miller advocate the term reconceptualist because it allows us to avoid "the binary of reformists versus abolitionists" (103), and few writers give us more reason to support such nuanced a term than Smit. As both a critic of current practice in composition and a proponent of systemic professional and pedagogical change, he weaves a complex, layered argument—so complex, in fact, that it does not lend itself easily to the kind of compression one normally finds in book reviews. I hope, therefore, that I may be forgiven for summarizing The End of Composition Studies in some detail before commenting on it further.
In "Conceptual Limits," the first of the book's two parts, Smit offers an extended rationale, in the form of a systematic critique of contemporary theories of writing, teaching, and learning, for his proposed overhaul of writing instruction in the university. Smit paints a portrait of writing skills and processes as radically contextual and, therefore, generalizable only in such broad terms as to be of little use in the composition classroom. That is, we cannot generalize from one writing situation to the next—at least, not without losing so much of each situation's special flavor as to render it nearly useless. (I say nearly because Smit does claim that some basic, teachable skills transfer among most, if not all, writing situations, but he cautions that these are only the tip of the literacy iceberg in terms of true writing development.) "When people write," according to Smit, "they engage in very specific kinds of thinking and behavior that are very dependent on the particular situations in which they find themselves" (18). Smit concludes in a later chapter that "writing may not be a global and unified phenomenon, that . . . what we call writing ability may be very context-specific, a matter of knowing what we need to know or be able to do in whatever situation we find ourselves" (166).
As he develops his argument, Smit systematically critiques theories of writing that treat it as a generalizable, transferable skill and discourse communities as stable, knowable linguistic entities. Such conceptualizations, he says, are precisely the problem with most current work in composition—that we too often do treat it as a "global and unified phenomenon," that we too readily posit a "single set of knowledge or skills necessary and sufficient to be a writer," and that we are too quick to "speak . . . about generic writing ability" (27). Having explicated at some length research on writing ability, syntactic fluency, and rhetorical maturity, Smit plainly...