GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 29, 2008

Composition Pedagogy

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:09 am

Here is a paper I presented to a crowd of four people at the College English Association Conference on Thursday in one of my academic “specialities,” Composition Pedagogy:


Composition Pedagogy and Disciplinary Inquiry:  Toward a Generalized Semiotics

Adam Katz

Quinnipiac University


            Conversations about composition pedagogy are, I would suggest, at their best when they sound as if they might, or even should, be overheard by students, the “subject” of said conversations.  In the traditional disciplines, that is, the classroom is viewed as a space where the teacher disseminates the results of already completed inquiries while (on the margins, so to speak) recruiting those who will go on to conduct future inquiries and sustain the tradition in question.  Conversations in composition, meanwhile, are meaningful to the extent that the (continually revised) vocabularies in which those conversations take place converge with those which we shape and through which we invent classroom practices in collaboration with our students.  Could we not formulate it as a rule, then, that we should strive to render whatever distinctions we sort out amongst pedagogies operational in the classroom space:  in other words, our questions would be deemed “real” insofar as they can be made visible in textual practices and assemblages of interpretive moves that students themselves can name.

            So, for example, when Nathan Crick re-frames the expressivist/constructivist debate within composition by contending that both sides of the debate “define communication as the act of representing something inside of us that wants to get out” (257), as opposed to a Deweyan pragmatism that overcomes dualisms by viewing intellectual activity as a mode of giving shape to experiences that only exist as such in that very process of “artistic expression, reflection, revision and communication” (272) itself I am happy to agree—as long, that is, as the distinction between “experience[ing] the joy of Becoming in the midst of their own writing” (273) and forms of writing that presuppose mental or physical states outside of language leaves discernable marks, that we could ask students to point out,  on a piece of writing.  In that case, the pedagogue’s question is, what kind of contrivance, or what kind of assignment aligning reader with text and an audience of collaborators within a sequence of assignments, would best serve us in eliciting various forms in which this distinction might become visible? 

            If we insist upon re-circulating all of our theoretical distinctions back into the classroom space it follows that students should be reading the very texts through which we would construct these questions ourselves.  By constructing the classroom space through the students’ readings of these texts we thereby abolish from the outset the assumption that the texts placed at the center of the class have a correct interpretation and that interpretation is possessed by the teacher and approximated more or less closely by the students.  Surely, one wouldn’t want to set up a “Deweyan” class with a pre-established code regarding what will, and what won’t, count as “Deweyan” (even less would one want to set up a Deweyan class and conceal that construction from the students’ view).  If our elemental assumptions regarding writing are to be made transparent to the students, those assumptions must be as minimal as we can make them.  Deconstructing the expressivist/constructivist debate from a pragmatist standpoint might serve to render one’s pedagogical assumptions and their formulations more minimal but on this point David Bartholomae is still more minimal than Crick when he says that in his course


The real subject is writing, as writing is defined by students in their own terms through a systematic inquiry into their behavior as writers.  Behind this pedagogy is the assumption that students must be actively writing and simultaneously engaged in a study of their own writing as evidence of a language and a style, as evidence of real and symbolic action. (158).

Students are, then, writing about their own experience as writers in the writing classroom.  The texts (and, through those texts, the theories and scholarly discussions) made available to students in the composition classroom are pretexts (albeit very carefully chosen pretexts) to produce the kind of “evidence” and hence self-reflexive inquiry Bartholomae points to here. 

            If our goal is make our constructions of this self-reflexive inquiry into one’s own practices as minimal as possible, we would have to significantly qualify the claims of “post-process” theorists that no universally valid definition or description of the writing process is possible.  Thomas Kent, in the “Introduction” to Post-Process Theory:  Beyond the Writing Process Paradigm, challenges the assumption of a generalizable “process” by presenting the following assumptions of the post-process theorists:  “(1) writing is public; (2) writing is interpretive; (3) writing is situated” (1).  Since “writers are never nowhere” (3) no collection of “codifiable shortcuts” (2) will ever exhaust all of the possible situations and ways out of and through those situations writers might devise or be compelled to improvise in sharing meanings with others.  True, but this only indicates that our construction of “process” or “experience” has not yet been sufficiently minimized.  As Kent says regarding the construction of ways of making and communicating sense in the infinitely diverse processes writers invent, “[t]his give and take, this hermeneutic dance that moves to the music of our situatedness, cannot be fully choreographed in any meaningful way, for in this dance, our ability to improvise, to react on the spot to our partners, matters most” (5).  In that case, attempts to “choreograph” must indeed be abandoned, but in the name of the construction of a classroom space that maximizes the process of writing as a “give and take” in which the norms and requirements of the class make improvisation and instantaneous reaction to the unpredictable gestures of others not only inescapable but visible as a series of moves we could identify, refine and transform into habits that would then indeed be generalizable within that “situation” and as an emergent set of habits to be deployed in hypothesizing any other “situation.”  In other words, we can make sure the class is a dance floor, with the shape and proportions best suited to surface and de-familiarize prior, ingrained “movements” and clear a space for the construction of new “steps.”

            Minimal pedagogy, in other words, maximizes the responsibility of students to establish the criteria for all the elements of writing (coherence, interpretive rigor, structure, diction, and so on) that are normally assigned to a model academic discourse guaranteed by the teacher:  in fact, one test of a genuinely minimal classroom would be that students write papers that you, the professor, have no criteria for in advance of their construction.  In other words, we should have to learn how to read the student’s work as they are learning how to compose it.  The most basic distinction minimal pedagogy makes is between, in the words of novelist Ronald Sukenick, writing in which “thinking is simultaneous with the moment of composition” and writing which “is largely a report of thinking that’s already been done” (81-2).  The goal of minimal pedagogy is to keep drawing and redrawing this distinction by maximizing the former, minimizing the latter, and multiplying the signs distinguishing one from the other.  Minimal pedagogy certainly overlaps Crick’s proposed pragmatic pedagogy, with the proviso that the class is precisely the open-ended space of inquiry Dewey (and before him, Charles Sanders Peirce) proposes with, as I suggested earlier, the “object” of that inquiry being the student’s own evolving writing practices and self-reflexive inquiry into those practices.  The practices produced within such a classroom space are both directly experienced, in the sense that they could only have been produced in such a space (again, in ways that are visible and can be catalogued therein) and generalizable, insofar as what marks the entrance into any discipline is an acquisition of fluency in the language constitutive of that discipline:  what students do in the minimally conceived classroom is construct a conceptual vocabulary and, since they are present at its creation, they also acquire insight into the artificiality and malleability of any such vocabulary in the only way one can, by inventing and using it to address intellectual exigencies.

            Such a recasting of the terms and ends of pedagogy would then lead us to reconsider the norms of disciplinarity and the mode of inquiry in the academy at large.  Once our guiding question becomes, what makes this text, or this region or mode of semiosis distinctive then we are really asking about the “signness” of signs, the “textuality” of texts, and we are interested in constructing disciplinary events making the signifying difference visible.  This would make knowledge in the academy a trans-disciplinary project carried out through inter-disciplinary means:  trans-disciplinary in the sense that a minimally consistent object exists across all the fields of inquiry and inter-disciplinary in the sense that the “fields” are inevitably plural and a result of the ongoing composition and hybridization of various vectors of inquiry.  Defining the human as the user of signs and knowledge as the self-reflexive bootstrapping operation of using signs to represent the uses of signs and generate more signs would re-open historical, cultural, sociological and other fields of inquiry along with magnifying the channels of communication across the various, provisionally and pragmatically defined fields.  And we ourselves are all signs, as Peirce argued, representing in this case a particular disciplinary intersection and mode of visibility.

            Proposing a generalized semiotics as the object and means of knowledge making in the academy also re-opens questions regarding the essence, origins and ends of signifying activity.  One path into the re-conceptualization of disciplinary inquiry along lines I am proposing here, and, in fact, the one I would propose as most viable, would be that laid by the originary hypothesis of Eric Gans. According to Gans’ hypothesis, the origin of human language lies in an event in which (borrowing from the mimetic theory of Rene Girard) the threat of a catastrophic mimetic crisis is warded off by what Gans calls the “aborted gesture of appropriation” of the central object which has triggered the mimetic rivalry.  That the first sign—inaugurating the human—would be a sign of deferral is rich in consequences insofar as it defines representation as the deferral of violence and the human as that species which poses a greater danger to itself than is posed by any external threat.  On one level, the originary hypothesis enables us to address the formal, systemic, synchronic dimension of signification:  the formal unity of the sign, or its autonomy and separateness from the practical environment in which it must function is determined by the requirement that the sign be sustained by the equipoise (the state of arrest which transcends the imminent violence) of the members on the originary scene.  On another level, the originary hypothesis enables us to account for the endless variety and unpredictability of sign use in the myriad situations in which it takes place:  the sign (and, by “sign,” we can, with Peirce, refer to a sentence, a discourse, a discipline, a person) must defer some concretely apprehended threat of cataclysmic violence and it must provide some means of communal appropriation of the object (or world of objects) in question “fairly,” which is to say in some way that ensures the continuity and effectivity of the sign.  And, of course, we could have no way of limiting in advance all the ways in which these tasks could be accomplished, which means an irreducible margin of freedom also attaches to such an originary conception of semiosis. 

            Perhaps most important for our purposes here, the originary hypothesis implies a model of knowledge making that wishes to stay as close to the tacit, the everyday, the contingent and the ephemeral as to the explicit, elaborated, permanent and canonical without being obliged to privilege one over the other as a source of knowledge.  All semiosis contains both dimensions, as the disciplinary inquiry into those texts worthy of unlimited scrutiny generates tacit rules of reading and knowing which then in turn open up avenues of attention into hitherto neglected texts and regions of semiosis.  Our criterion for knowledge becomes the construction of disciplinary scenes capable of generating disciplinary events as our attending to what has so far remained tacit generates a new (to draw upon Michael Polanyi) tacit dimension that might at any time emerge as our new object of inquiry.  And this tacit dimension is of interest not merely because it reveals some new possible vocation of the sign, but because it touches, through an infinite series of intermediate steps, and articulates on new terms, the entire semiotic itinerary of the human being.

            To return to the composition classroom, if our interest is in generating such disciplinary scenes, it would seem to be economical or “minimal” to use texts that themselves simulate such scenes—in others words, experimental works that operate just below the threshold of meaning and therefore require the participation of the reader or audience to bring it into some kind of sense.  Our question in approaching such texts—poems of e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein’s How to Write, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Richard Kostelanetz’s Minimal Fictions, Paul Klee’s line drawings, the poetry of Suan Howe, to name just a few possibilities—is, again, minimal:  what contribution by the reader is necessary to “tip” such texts into meaning; this question, in turn, becomes a surrogate for the question of a generalized semiotics, what makes meaning meaningful, what makes signs signify?  If we take the inevitably plural student readings of these texts, and the self-reflexive turn on the part of students toward their own singular and overlapping processes of making sense as the “object” of the disciplinary event that is the course, then that disciplinary center will serve as a pole of attraction around which will constellate other texts and problematics which will enter into the composition of the course:  the various, more explicit, reflections upon the relation between language and knowledge, words and concepts, that comprise the major developments in post-metaphysical thinking:  from Heidegger to Polanyi, Wittgenstein to Derrida, Peirce to Rorty, Arendt to Lyotard, the mimetic theory of Girard and Gans, for starters.  We would, then, be composing our classes as signs—not around subject and topics, or skills, but around “liminal centers,” where new forms of semiosis come into being, along with the ongoing reconsideration of the conceptual means for meditating upon those forms of emergence.

            Nor would these “experimental” composition classes neglect the “basics” of grammar and syntax.  Quite to the contrary, a minimal pedagogy situated within a generalized semiosis provides a way of reintroducing such irreducible elements of writing and writing pedagogy into the substance of the class itself.  Transforming the class into a space of inquiry into the emergence of meaning applies equally to that basic element of meaning, the sentence.  Syntax becomes an object of study in at least the following ways.  The assumption, drawn from the originary hypothesis, that the ostensive sign is the primary linguistic form, with the imperative closely tied to the ostensive as a demand to make the indicated object present, enables us to sharpen our sense of the linguistic role of the declarative sentence.  If we hypothesize that the origin of the declarative lies in the need to transcend, but first of all simply distract attention away from, a dangerously impossible imperative directed, with accelerating intensity, at some member of the group, we might consider the sentence the generation of a linguistic present sustained by the attention directed to the speaker as the center of discourse (as opposed to directing attention to some central object equally present to all sign users on a given scene).  The sentence, also, simultaneous with this linguistic present generates an external reality which the speaker can now share with his listeners, a reality organized around possible centers, and that is presumed to exist even after attention to it is withdrawn (as opposed to an object of immediate consumption, manipulation or ritual worship):  the “meaning” of the sentence is that there is a reality other than that proposed by the “impossible” imperative.  The sentence, then creates the speaker or author as the guarantor of the reality generated by signification and hence of the space where the “meaning” or, simply, certification, of the use of all signs must be situated; and it establishes the permanent tension between the guarantee offered by the speaker and what we might call a “field of semblances” or never completed or known yet independent “reality”—a reality that must be spoken of to be taken to exist and which we nevertheless posit as existing beyond what we happen to say of it. (That we might say that this centering of the speaker as the anchor of discourse and reality is the condition of possibility of the metaphysical illusion of the self-presence of the subject testifies to the linguistic, philosophical and historical weight of the emergence of the declarative.)

The sentence, then, can be presented as a medium for translating non-normative pieces of text as well as articulations of meaning through other speech forms, whether generated by the texts used in the course or by student writing.  In other words, declarative discourse is thereby presented as a language in its own right, and therefore a site for the study of the transactions with the co-existing “dialects” of ostensives, imperatives, interrogatives, performatives, etc:  on the one hand, we have students translate anything from deliberately produced fragments to gestures, lines on a page and so on into grammatical sentences; on the other hand, we treat student error on these same terms, as an occasion for the “translation” of problematic, but not simply meaningless, pieces of text they have produced. The emergence of the sentence out of the lower linguistic forms as the transcendence of the limits and threat of violence implicit in the imperative is hence enacted and made available for study in the student’s own writing.

Our assumptions about the sentence should be kept minimal as well, though, filtering our theoretical assumptions about language and knowledge into specific tasks from which, in their fulfillment, we can then excavate a range of possible conceptual vocabularies:  we simply need to present every sentence in a piece of writing as a possible map and measure of any “sign” in the text that can be represented syntactically. Our (minimal) question is, then, what pattern or process in the work is this sentence iterating? Students are thereby situated so as to generate their own account of syntactic form through the use of sentence mimicry and the production of model sentences which are repeated with different forms throughout their papers and used to represent different fields. The deliberate construction of sentences and their deployment as models of thinking is thereby thoroughly integrated into their work:  and, since, if the class and each paper has a “topic,” it is something like “the relation between language and knowledge,” reflection upon, dissection and analysis, and evaluation of such sentences (through the use of both traditional and newly invented grammatical terms) becomes not a formalistic duty added on to their “real” writing but central to the generation of concepts and discursive patterns, and the various ways in which we might draw attention to the grammatical features of students’ work are bound up with their own emergent grammar. 

            As a result of such a pedagogy, students do not imitate the already completed and canonized work of scholars at several removes—they do the work of scholars, however clumsily and uncertainly.  They are present at the creation of the concepts they will use to conduct their inquiry, and the double bind of classical mimesis, wherein the student imitates the teacher and thereby reinforces the inaccessibility of the model embodied by that teacher (leading to the—usually, at least—symbolic slaying of the teacher/father) is replaced by a more productive double bind and paradox:  that your own sign brings into being an object that only takes on reality to the extent that others appropriate it in turn and transform it into something you can barely but still unmistakably acknowledge as your own as it returns to you through the cycle of exchange.  And I would further say that such a pedagogical practice, while certainly not participating in much of the rhetoric of “critical pedagogy” and the attendant anguish over “agency,” does position students as a kind of “cultural indicator” insofar as the world now appears to them as replete with and constituted by signs, and always in need of more signs, better situated and more convincing gestures deferring mimetic violence—or, if one likes, deferring the foreclosure of individual signifying possibilities.


Works Cited


Bartholomae, David.  “Teaching Basic Writing:  An Alternative to Basic Skills.”
 In Writing on the Margins:  Essays on Composition and Teaching.
  Bedford/St. Martins:  Boston*New York, 157-76.

Crick, Nathan.  “Composition as Experience:  John Dewey on Creative
 Expression and the Origin of ‘Mind’.”  College Composition and
 Communication, Vol. 55, No. 2 (December 2003):  254-275.

Kent, Thomas.  Post-Process Theory:  Beyond the Writing Process Paradigm.
  Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern University Press, 1999.

———-.  “Introduction,” in Kent, 1-6.

Sukenick, Ronald.  Narralogues:  Truth in Fiction.  SUNY Press:  Albany, 2000.





  1. Adam: What a brilliant paper!

    “As a result of such a pedagogy, students do not imitate the already completed and canonized work of scholars at several removes—they do the work of scholars, however clumsily and uncertainly.”

    Yes! From my role as innovative writer, and teacher trying to change the instructional paradigm to better reflect the transmutational world (esp. new technologies as they relate to learning), I see your arguments as addressing the needs not only of students but anyone needing to think more “cleanly” about the world.

    You might be interested in a presentation I gave at this year’s Associated Writing Programs Conference in New York, “Fall Into The Gap.” It’s a two-part video on my blog:

    Again, great paper!

    Debra Di Blasi

    Comment by debradiblasi — March 30, 2008 @ 6:36 am

  2. Thanks, Debra, I appreciate that. I will take a look at your presentation. I’ve looked at your blog and your work looks very interesting–I’ll stop by there at some point, looking for material to teach among other things.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by adam — April 11, 2008 @ 6:50 am

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