ENGL 6930: Composition Theory

Fall 2011
Mondays 4:00 - 6:40   Hagg-Sauer 343  
Dr. M C Morgan • 218 755 2814
mmorgan@bemidjistate.edu • @mcmorgan • biro.erhetoric.org

Course url: http://biro.erhetoric.org/CompositionTheoryFall2011

Required texts
V. Villanueva, ed. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, 2nd ed. NCTE, 2003.
A. F. Wysocki, et al. Writing in New Media. Utah State UP, 2004.


What have you gotten yourself into? Something like this:

A 10-week consideration of

composition theory: an area of rhetoric that developed (in the US; it went a different direction in the UK, which we won’t be looking at) between 1964 and, let’s say, 2001, and flourished in the late 1990s;

a field that originated in response to Ptolemaic thinking about how writing gets written that was dominant in post-WWII teaching and is still practiced today;

a field that developed in support of composition teachers (at the time, mainly women, often spouses to literary academics), to provide theory and practice in a area that had been under-theorized and consequently practiced blindly;

drawing on empirical study (some much of it poorly done), cognitive science, social cognition, social science, classical and epistemic rhetoric, structural and transformational linguistics, anthropology, and (it’s sort of buried, but we can see it in retrospect) semiotics;

rejecting Piagtian developmental psychology, behaviorism, mechanical models of the mind, and apprehensive about formalism, expressionism, journalistic models, and Strunk and White prescriptivism;

that seems to have lost its momentum with the rise of post-structuralism and deconstruction - although whether that’s a matter of grads and post-grads moving away from the subject or just inertia, I don’t know;

that never quite got enough steam or energy behind it to grow into a proper revolution or even trigger a Copernican paradigm shift (in spite of some timid assertions) much less a quantum shift;

but that might now (2011) be seeing a revitalization, maybe even a sea-change (still no revolution) in a new sense of architectonic invention, semiotics, and multi-modal composition;

followed by a consideration of a few weeks of

composing in new media: a re-consideration of composing that is currently developing in the US, UK, and Oz, mainly in circles of technical, e-rhetorical, and digital poetic boffins;

drawing on theories of social semiotics as applied to visual design and design in general;

in which we move away from (natural) language (as we know it: spoken and written) as the sole means modes of articulation and creation of meaning to involve image, gesture, placement in space and time, et al;

and not ironically bringing both the digital and the material into consideration;

finally hopefully finally leaving prescriptivism to the Miss Fiddiches, Lynn Trusses, NPRs, and Sarah Palins of the world;

so that we can start to think of composing as an allencompassingmaterialboundmultimodalarticulationofamomentssemioticconstructionofmeaninginasociacontext;

wherein the rhetor-composer uses material and cultural semiotic resources to best articulate her meaning.


Your job


read, make notes on, develop materials for a discussion, and discuss, each week, with scholarly curiosity and creativity, the readings selected;

engage, with the same scholarly sense and sensibility (balcony view; analytical consideration and critical interpretation rather than gut reaction and evaluation), any written or multimodal projects put in front of you;

find other authoritative readings or materials connected to the week’s readings, and bring at least one additional scholarly source related to the assigned readings to the seminar table each week;

as a final, develop and engage, with the same scholarly sense and sensibility, a project of your own, based on and furthering what we have read and discussed, of which more later in the semester.

My job

Moderate. Supplement where there are gaps. Advise when asked. Ask questions about practice, significance, implications, and knowledge. Define the scholarly realm and practices. Critique. Demonstrate. Evaluate.

How to do your job

Each week, locate, read, and compose a critical summary (300 - 500 words. No slither.) on at least one scholarly article related to the material or topic we’re addressing that week. Look at Selected Readings in the text; follow endnote trails on articles, refer to my notes for the week, or do a search. Google Scholar. BSU Library. Bring copies of your crit to the seminar table each week, or distribute it to everyone by email. This will create a pretty extensive set of materials we can all draw from during the course and afterward. You're planning for the future now. If something captures your interest, read extensively. It might become your final project for this course or a master's thesis.

Each week, two of you will run the discussion. Work together or independently to cover two hours. Focus us on the assigned readings, draw on other material you have read that week, but also bring something more to the table for us to consider: a problem, an issue, an exercise, a reading, a presentation, a debate, a way of proceeding. Set things up to create discussion and generate questions. Anticipate discussion and questions.

Negotiate among yourselves who will present each week. Up to you. Not my job. Yours. You get points each time you present, so it’s in your best interest to present regularly.

If you have any materials for us to consider for the Monday session, distribute them by email in advance (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

You get points for presenting. You get points for putting your ideas forward. You get points for responding and helping to develop what is put forward. Points = grades.

Suggested Workplan

Take about 4 hours for a first-pass reading of the assigned materials for the week. Don't linger on any one of them too long. Read them all, and expect to return to them.

Go looking for scholarly readings related to those assigned for the week (library texts and journals; ILL; CCC through library online).

Return to the assigned readings, and this time focus on an area or point of interest. Spend 6 intense hours (best might be 4 contiguous and 2 to revisit) analyzing and developing materials for discussion for the week.


Lots of points = lots of opportunities to learn = high grade.

Midterm assignment = 10% of your final grade
Final project = 20% of your final grade.
Everything else (presenting, discussing, crits) = 70% of your final grade.
No midterm submitted = no grade.
No final submitted = no grade.
Late materials, midterm, or final = arbitrary grade for the materials.

revs and notes

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