Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Norton Book of Composition Studies edited by Susan Miller

Miller, Susan, ed. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.

This mammoth tome purports to collect seminal work in the field of composition, but the editor should have either been more selective or provided more commentary about why these works are seminal. The resulting book does not serve as an effective introduction to the field, which is presumably its prime reason for being. Nevertheless, enough good material is collected herein to serve as a resource for instructors looking to improve the writing of their students. For example, Frank D’Angelo in “Nineteenth-Century Forms/Modes of Discourse: A Critical Inquiry” explains how the confusion between the aims and modes of discourse arose, a confusion that still plagues much of the teaching of writing. Teaching someone how to write a comparison/contrast essay isn’t very useful unless the student understands why one would employ such an approach in the first place. A comparison/contrast approach would be very useful in an argument for voting for one political candidate over another, but students are too often taught the how but not the why when taught these forms/approaches, resulting in a confusion between means and ends (this is another classic case where what is obvious to an instructor—when someone would use a comparison/contrast approach—is not obvious to the student). In another useful look at the past, Richard Young details the classical rhetoric that underlies much of contemporary composition theory in “Paradigms and Problems: Needed Research in Rhetorical Invention.” Another problem from the past that continues to devil writing instruction is the idea that all student writers need is some back to basics instruction in formal grammar and mechanics. Such an approach is usually disastrous as both Joseph M. Williams (in “The Phenomenology of Errors”) and George Hillocks, Jr. (“What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies”) explain. Indeed, Hillocks points out that focusing too much on grammar and mechanics can actually lessen the quality of student writing (537). For alternative approaches, please see the selections by John R. Hayes (“Peeking Out from under the Blinders: Some Factors We Shouldn’t Forget in Studying Writing”), Richard Haswell (“The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing, or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess”), and, especially, Russel K. Durst (“Writing at the Postsecondary Level”), who provides a useful overview of the last couple of decades of composition theory in relation to college writing. The text is available in the writing instruction mini-library in the Ursuline Studies Program office.

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