Inventing Invention: Anticipating the Exam Question(s)

After spending all of last week (and this weekend) reading four books on the exam list I haven’t engaged much previously, I’ve completed most of the books that could be tagged as composition “histories”:

Berlin, James A. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 – 1985. Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Print.

Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Print.

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Print.

Lauer, Janice M. Invention in Rhetoric and Composition. Annotated edition. West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2004. Print.

As I mentioned before, I was trying to read across texts more than within categories, but I started with histories because (1) this would give me a fuller context of the field, and (2) these four books are actually more than histories — they’re an amalgamation of that plus theory and methodologies, and include key discussions of ancient rhetoric, technology, and above all, pedagogy. Hawk’s Counter-History, for example, uses a postmodern, historiographical methodology to revisit the concept of vitalism — an ontological philosophy that can be traced to Aristotle — in order to open up the possibilities for new pedagogies that respond  to contemporary digital technologies. Although Lauer’s Invention is primarily a straightforward history of the canon, she provides numerous sections on pedagogy, a few on technology, and throughout the book discusses various methodologies that have been used to study invention.

Pages from my Muji notebook

Before I begin to synthesize these texts more fully, I want to consider how best to do that. But first let me reassess how I’ve been reading this week, which has tested some of Adler’s methods that I blogged about two weeks ago. First, I’ve started reading each time with Adler’s inspectional method — reading reviews of the books, skimming TOCs and indexes, and in most cases, reading important chapters analytically while inspecting the others (there’s no way I could have read Hawk’s book analytically in full). As I read, I’ve been taking printed notes in one of my nifty Muji notebooks, mostly to try to internalize the info. My hope is that this blog is the final step and will do the real work in preparing for the exam — forcing me to arrange the arguments, methods, and evidence from the books on the list to make strong arguments about the field as a whole. This raises a few fundamental questions for me:

  • How many books should be discussed per post? Incorporating more books in a post (as opposed to individual summaries) would better approximate the requirements of the exam, but waiting to a week to write a post leads to fewer posts (and less writing practice overall).
  • How much summary should I work toward? In other words, what’s the goal of the post? Writing solid summaries are important (and could help me once I am actually writing the exam), but as I discovered from practice exams, I tend to dedicate too much space to it in my responses. Pushing efficient synthesis would be better practice for late July.
  • Perhaps the hardest question is this: what should I write about? In other words, how should I select topics or arguments to blog about as I synthesize? In response to this question, I’ve decided to do something Hawk advocates we teach our own students: to develop our own heuristics depending on our goals. I’m appropriating him here, but I think part of the point of the exam process is anticipating the questions. What conversations are being sustained in composition and rhetoric? What are our fundamental problems? What questions make sense across programs and subfields? What evidence is valued? What is our tradition?

In that spirit, I spent some time yesterday afternoon reading back through my print notes and coming up with some possibilities. I offer a few here; I’ll answer one of these in a subsequent post today or tomorrow. One last thought: I think this method is working well except for one notable drawback: I’m already behind schedule. According to my exam prep calendar, I was supposed to be rereading Cintron’s Angels Town today — and I’ve already skipped over Berkenkotter & Huckin’s Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication. I’ll make up this work somehow, but this already tells me the process is too slow.

  • Lauer’s history in Invention in Rhetoric and Composition ends around 2003 — just before new media and digital writing have arguably dominated the field’s conversations on invention. How can Hawk’s Counter-History be read as a continuation of some of the major strands of Lauer’s history? How could it be read as a critique of her history?
  • Berlin, Crowley, Hawk, and Lauer each frame the rhetorical situation differently. It is essential to Berlin’s three theories of rhetoric (objective, subjective, and transactional); it’s used by Lauer to trace epistemic manifestations of invention; it’s briefly taken up by Crowley to discredit the stability of the academic essay (and hence the universal requirement for FYC); and finally, it is critiqued most explicitly by Hawk as being too static. Evaluate these positions and ultimately make a case for the 21st century conception of the rhetorical situation.
  • These four books each try to come to terms with composition’s past, but do so using various historiographical methods — and for specific purposes. Make these purposes explicit and explain the extent to which their various methodologies succeed or fail to meet them.
  • Invention, according to Lauer, was largely ignored in the first half of the 20th century because current traditional pedagogies assumed it couldn’t be taught. Hawk’s book, then, could be read as a response to the way this schism affected subsequent histories of invention and, thus, precludes an understanding of its uses for the 21st century. Explain the extent to which Hawk’s critique of Berlin supports this perspective.