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ENGL 6930: Composition Theory

Fall 2011
Mondays 4:00 - 6:40   Hagg-Sauer 343  
Dr. M C Morgan • 218 755 2814 • @mcmorgan •

Course url:

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. Not suffer fools gladly. Critique. Demonstrate. Evaluate.

How to do your job

Each week, locate, read, and compose an abstract on a scholarly article related to the material or topic we’re addressing that week. Look at Selected Readings, or do a search. Bring your abstract (300 - 500 words) to the seminar table each week, or distribute it to everyone by email.

Two of you will run the discussion each week. Focus us on the assigned readings, but also bring something more to the table for us to consider: a problem, an issue, an exercise, a presentation. Set things up to create discussion and generate questions. Anticipate discussion and questions.

Distribute by email the materials that will form the basis for our consideration that week. There should be materials for us to consider. Each Sunday evening, check your email for the weekly distribution. We need a day to read and think about what you’re putting forward.

Negotiate amongst yourselves who will present what 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. You’ll have 2 - 2 1/2 hours each week.

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

Suggested Workplan

Take no more than 4-hour afternoon for a first-pass reading of the assigned materials for the week. Don't linger too much.

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

Return to the 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.
Final project = 30% of your final grade.
Everything else = 70% of your final grade.
No final submitted = no grade.

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