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  • Pencil TracesThe Conversations of Composition
  • Thomas L. Burkdall (bio)

“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Very few people have a favorite set of elevator shafts, but for readers and writers, I recommend those of the Tom Bradley Wing of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library. The glass elevator cars do not afford a view of a city skyline or natural wonder; they allow one instead to glimpse selections from the obsolete card catalog, now artfully lining the shafts. The artist, David Bunn, sifted through some seven million catalog cards not only to find those subjects that correspond to the books on each floor, but also to locate those of titles beginning with the word “complete” or “comprehensive.”1 Perusing these cards while stopped at any floor, one ponders the impossibility of the completion of any study and the desire for a comprehensive book in any field.

Susan Miller’s monumental collection certainly qualifies as comprehensive — and not just because her tome, like the many Norton anthologies and books, has the heft and Bible-thin pages of an authoritative collection. Indeed, it is a most extraordinary effort that firmly situates and extensively documents the major developments of composition theory and practice of the last fifty years, along with more than a passing glance at composition’s prehistory. A gathering of comp’s flowers, it recalls the Greek origins of anthology.

Both the book’s preface and introduction describe the variety and nature of this multivalent bouquet. Her preliminary material reminds me of the many reasons why I am proud to be in this discipline. While sound in its intellectual approach to theory and scholarship, the composition profession rarely strays from the practical application of this knowledge to the classroom and our students. As a relatively young field — albeit with deep historical roots — we have not felt bound by stultifying disciplinary boundaries. Having [End Page 598] primarily American beginnings, the field has generally espoused and enacted democratic values, transforming them along with, and at times in advance of, wider social change. But this is not to say that these reconsiderations have been without debate and challenge within our ranks, and Miller’s selections trace these developments in our very self-conscious and self-critical profession. Having characterized the field well and established the context of the readings, she then explains her division of them into four sections (“Historical Accounts,” “Theories of Composition,” “Revisions and Differences,” and “Worldwide Projects”), preparing her reader well for the selections that follow.

Miller has substantially fulfilled her goal of “providing a comprehensive survey of frequently read landmark texts” (xxxii). Perusing her subsection “The Emergence of a Field” whisked me back to my graduate school training, encountering the foundational work of Mina Shaughnessy, Ken Macrorie, and Janet Emig. With a smile, I recall wondering at the errors seemingly allowed to appear in Joseph Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error.” Seeing Mike Rose’s “The Language of Exclusion” reminds me of the fine introduction to the field his classes provided me; noting the inclusion of David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” brings back the number of student and faculty discussions I have held considering and debating this seminal text.

However, this collection is much more than an occasion for nostalgia or a roundup of the usual suspects. It offers the essential readings of our field but includes much more. It provides a seat at the debates of the last fifty years and creates a Burkean parlor at an all-star Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Furthermore, the collection includes more specialized essays, such as “Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog” by Carolyn Miller and Dawn Shepherd and Juan Guerra’s refinements of critical pedagogy in “Putting Literacy in Its Place: Nomadic Consciousness and the Practice of Transcultural Repositioning,” both of which appeared in collections that many of us might not have come across. Furthermore, the book shows how interdisciplinary and catholic the profession is. In how many book indices will you find Cicero directly below the poet John Ciardi? Music critic Greil Marcus beside Herbert...


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pp. 598-602
Launched on MUSE
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