Review of Teaching Composition as a Social Process (McComiskey)

Harrison, Stanley

Teaching Composition as a Social Process by Bruce McComiskey. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2000. 180 pp. $19.95s paper, ISBN 0-87421-283-9

Getting Comfortable

Perhaps you are like Bruce McComiskey. The expressivist fervor for individuality and creativity intoxicates you but makes you uncomfortable in the classroom. Expressivist pedagogy, after all, lacks concrete strategies for helping students to solve rhetorical problems. For its part, the cognitivist promise that aspects of the writing process can be taught emboldens you but makes you uncomfortable in dealing with students and their writing. Indeed, you resist cognitivist theory because it inclines teachers to think of student writers as computers, with input, output, and (micro)processing in the middle. Then, again, the new social composition theories fill you with energy and a sense of genuine purpose but are regrettable because they make you uncomfortable with yourself as a writing teacher. Social approaches to writing instruction just seem to lack the pragmatic power that comes from teaching "the writing process" (1). Yet given the alternatives, their genuine attractions notwithstanding, your choice seems clear: embrace the recent "social turn" in composition studies, even though your classroom experience suggests that adding "the social" to "composition" is something easier said than done.

To make such a choice, of course, is a prescription for intensifying, not alleviating, anxiety. In casting about for answers to the problem of writing instruction, you have probably determined that courses focusing too much on the textual and rhetorical levels of composing are unacceptable because they either privilege grammar and style over awareness of the pressures placed on writing by specific rhetorical situations, or they highlight revision and audience awareness over the impact existing texts and social institutions have on student's writing processes. Yet, like McComiskey, you are just as uncomfortable with writing courses that focus too much on the discursive level of community and culture because such classes tend to be courses in cultural studies, neglecting the writing process altogether. Common sense tells you that writing teachers rush headlong into undesirable classroom practices when they foreground "cultural politics as material to be mastered" and assign texts that "pre-judge the ethical character of the social institutions and cultural artifacts under study even before students have had the chance to critique the institutions and artifacts for themselves" (2).

But how else can you negotiate composition's social turn except to use social theory as course content? How else can you embrace the social without also reverting to product-centered pedagogies that, on the one hand, seduce writing teachers into the "read-this-essay-and-do-what-the-author-did method of writing instruction" (1) and, on the other, require students to write in order to demonstrate how much "politics" they have learned?

McComiskey suggests that the answer to this problem is as simple as it is illusive for many writing teachers. Critical theorists, he explains, develop complex heuristics through which to approach, not learn, their subjects (2). And having "developed a complex set of topoi" for directing "attention here and there in the composing process," these theorists, as well as seasoned social-process writing teachers, treat "critical writing as rhetorical inquiry and political intervention into the cultural forces that construct our subjectivities" (2, 3). The task, then, for writing teachers wanting to teach composition as a social process is to understand and then convert critical theory into "rhetorical heuristics that guide writing processes in a variety of economic, cultural, political, and social contexts" (3). To help them succeed in this task, McComiskey offers Teaching Composition as Social Process as a field guide for compositionists who want to add a socio-political dimension to their teaching but who lack the theory and heuristically driven lesson plans that could make the transition both comfortably easy and pedagogically sound. And while it is true that McComiskey grossly oversimplifies ongoing debates within the realm of contemporary critical theory and unwittingly foreshortens the list of available classroom options for social-process teachers and students, Teaching Composition, for its clarity and practical dimension, is a welcome addition to the literature that sees post-process theory as an extension, rather than a rejection, of the "what is arguably composition studies' most valuable pedagogical strategy -- teaching the composing process" (51).

Presenting Theory

The heuristics for social-process rhetorical inquiry that McComiskey presents and illustrates throughout Teaching Composition are valuable tools for the development of a new generation of social-(post)process compositionists. Yet before that group of writing teachers whose project is to negotiate the move from social-content to social-process pedagogies can benefit from McComiskey's heuristics, they need the support of a readily understandable, coherently articulated theory of writing. Certainly, one can fault McComiskey for reducing richly contested theoretical problems to seeming points of general consensus. He does this, for example, when he calls upon Foucault and Derrida, but not Spivak, to advance his laudable, albeit unsettled, proposition: compositionists must help students develop postmodern writing subjectivities that emerge in the aporia between identity and difference; treat identity and difference as complementary pairs, as opposed to oppositional terms; and supplant ethno-centric, autonomous, sovereign Modernist subjectivities that eliminate "the possibility for common ground, agreement, understanding, or in more extreme cases, . . . the human capacity for tolerance of difference" (70). McComiskey's failure, however, is just as certainly one of his genuine accomplishments, for as a popularizer, his responsibility is to reduce recondite subject matter to comprehensible, usable proportions. There can be little doubt that teachers searching for a way "into" social-process theory will find an accessible path in McComiskey's Teaching Composition.

For their efforts, readers of Teaching Composition will learn that writing teachers ought to "articulate the kinds of activities they want their students to perform outside the classroom," design "pedagogical techniques that develop skills in their students consistent with these future activities," theorize "the nature of the social context within which these activities will be performed," design "curricula based on the structures and processes that comprise this context," and, finally, predict "the positive and negative effects these activites in these future contexts might have on both students and society alike" (113). For those who share McComiskey's belief that students should write for the purpose of forging "postmodern communal democracies," they will see with him that, as a matter of course, students must acquire two general skills: "first, the ability to critique marginalizing representations, disadvantageous subject positions, and biased modes of legitimation; second, the ability to compose empowering representations, advantageous subject positions, and yet remain inside the scope of 'legitimate' discursive practices within any given institution" (116). And, according to McComiskey, the steps compositionists must take if their students are to achieve these ends are as logical as they are performable.

In brief, McComiskey argues that compositionists need do the following. First, they must accept that expressivists, cognitivists, and social theorists alike share a common goal, and that goal is to teach student writers to transform themselves into active writers who use the tool "writing" to compose "ideal" audiences that exist only in texts, induce cooperation from human audiences that exist as an external relationship to the text, and alter the trajectory of institutional and more general cultural contexts that construct writers and audiences "not as free individual agents writing their own destinies but rather constructed subjects embedded in multiple discourses" that pressure, limit, and, yes, give way to writing (11).

Having accepted that their common responsibility is to help students become proficient makers of textual, rhetorical, and discursive communication, compositionists can agree that theory-driven heuristic devices, not the passive learning of social theories, will best help students to become discursive agents, that is, the potential members of postmodern communal democracies. Forthwith, he suggests that writing teachers train their students in the use of a cultural studies heuristic that focuses attention on the cycle of cultural production (where language and culture are socially constructive forces), contextual distribution (where language and culture are conditioned by their appearance in institutional contexts), and critical consumption (where language and culture are negotiated and rearticulated by critical subjectivities). Students, the argument holds, who participate in the "complex intereaction among encoders, texts, and decoders . . . in the act of generating cultural meaning" will also become adept at producing linguistic interventions, or "negotiated" codes -- that is, the "metalanguages that take the place of the dominant hegemonic code when it is unable to account for situated cultural values" (25, 31).

Additionally, writing teachers should provide their students with an active understanding of the heuristics and textual strategies developed by practioners of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), a branch of Critical Linguistics that examines and develops techniques for countermanding the "political effects that such linguistic constructions as passivation, nominalization, classification, and generalization (among many others) have on the representation of subjectivities" (87). Students, McComiskey argues, can learn to enact real change in the social order by moving from critical reading to productive activity; they need only exercise the following four-fold CDA methodology: 1) analyze the "cultural and social values encoded into a target discourse," 2) identify "potential alternative cultural and social values disguised by the target discourse," 3) critique the "cultural and social values encoded into the target discourse from the perspective of potential alternative discourses," and 4) produce "new discourses that encode alternative cultural and social values for the purpose of intervening in certain institutional processes of socialization" (89).

Provided that students, on the one hand, launch interventions for the purpose of forging postmodern communal democracies, and that writing teachers, on the other, mount classroom practices that remain true to the idea that post-process "does not consitute, in practice or theory, a rejection of the process movement, but rather its extension into the social world of discouse," then, McComiskey argues, all compositionists can easily become cultural workers whose classroom labors prefigure the creation of a world worthy of our dreams and aspirations (53).

Forwarding Pedagogy

My guess is that no one, including Bruce McComiskey, will fall hook, line, and sinker for the "theory hope" that emerges in Teaching Composition. McComiskey's integration and synthesis of process and community theory make a strong case for the advancement of cultural studies in composition, but his combination of community theory and heuristically driven lesson plans only promises to make students "better able to consume and generate documents in ways that suit the social and communal functions of language" (134; emphasis added). Indeed, social-process rhetorical inquiry is, in the end, something less than the panacea that it, more often than not, appears to be.

Nonetheless, both teachers and graduate teaching assistants who wish to incorporate social-process methodologies into their existing composition curricula will be pleased to note that McComiskey's chapters present and illustrate syllabus-ready social-process heuristics for rhetorical inquiry. Given that most writing teachers have difficulty bringing the substance of new or unfamiliar theories to bear on their classroom practices, a case might be made that McComiskey does more to advance the cause of social-process rhetorical inquiry through his sharing of detailed lesson plans than his accessible renderings of the recondite theories that fuel his cultural studies approach to writing instruction. This, at least, seems a likely speculation, especially since compositionists with little or no social-process experience can add a socio-political dimension to their teaching in the time it takes to extract the heuristics and suggested applications from Teaching Composition.

Near the end of chapter one, McComiskey offers a heuristic for "analyzing the audiences of documents at the textual, rhetorical, and discursive level and then an application of this heuristic to a student's letter on the condition of the men's bathroom in his dorm" (11). Next, chapter two presents a two-part advertising analysis assignment that familiarizes students with the workings of social-process rhetorical inquiry. Chapter three "includes a complex invention heuristic that guides students through the critical process of examining the cultural production, contextual distribution, and critical consumption of discourse in a workplace of their choice" (56). Extending this focus into chapter four, McComiskey situates the problem of subjectivity self-fashioning and its impact on "post-process" composition in "contexts of rap music and work" (4). Chapter five follows suit by asking students to apply CDA to a real college or university viewbook and then construct their own alternative viewbooks in order to subvert some of the disadvantageous cultural values, social values, and ideal identities in the original viewbook. And, finally, chapter six provides a heuristic for examining the impact of postmodern culture on students' "academic" identities.

These heuristics and their related applications are, of course, not without their limitations. Because McComiskey steers clear of heuristics and assignments that might result in the production of codes that oppose, rather than negotiate a relationship with, hegemonic cultural values, he erases the very real possibility that a socially engaged writer might need to reject dominant articulations when these work to erase the writer's own subject position. Then, too, McComiskey unwittingly foreshortens students' capacity to imagine and develop a place for collaborative writing in social-process rhetorical inquiry because his assignments invariably results in the production of individually authored texts.

Still, his heuristics, like his theory, will doubtless prove adaptable. Loosely structured as they both are, the theoretic and heuristic components of McComiskey's social-process rhetorical inquiry will conform to the needs of teachers and students as they explore the idea of composition as an ongoing, critically inflected social process and the role that writing plays in the production of social change and radical democracy. Indeed, it is the combination of McComiskey's situationally responsive theory of writing and his readily adaptable heuristics and classroom applications that establishes Teaching Composition as a definite value for emerging and, to a somewhat lesser degree, seasoned compositionists.

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