From the Social Turn to the Sentence: Durst and Fish on Teaching College Composition

by Kristi Warren

As rhetoric and composition continues to develop into a distinct field of study in post-secondary education, articles such as Russel K. Durst’s “Writing at the Post-Secondary Level” and Stanley Fish’s “What Should Colleges Teach?” reveal the contrasting viewpoints on the subject.  Included as a chapter in Peter Smagorinsky’s Research on Composition, Durst’s article offers a comprehensive look at how scholarship, methodology, and pedagogy of rhetoric and composition have expanded to include a “social epistemic” approach.  Written as a three part editorial for the New York Times, Fish’s article attacks the core ideology of Durst’s findings and advocates the return of composition classes that are not structured around controversial current issues but emphasize the craft of writing. While Durst deems the integration of social discourse an effective tool for teaching composition, Fish provides compelling evidence for the removal of any focus that could interfere with teaching the basic skills of writing.

A Professor of English with numerous essays published in journals and edited collections, Russel Durst has also authored books about teaching college composition.  He wrote “Writing at the Postsecondary Level” as a “discussion of 20 years of research on writing” (78), emphasizing the shifts in both theory and practice from 1980 to 2003.  The first article in Fish’s 2009 editorial series was written in response to a newly released report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) which challenged educators of postsecondary core composition classes to “be devoted to grammar, style, clarity, and argument.”  Agreeing with ACTA’s position and asserting that most college composition courses are so crowded with “hot button issues” that they omit basic writing skills, Fish draws from his experience as English professor, composition teacher, Dean of a liberal arts college, and author of Save the World on Your Own Time to relay his convictions about form-based composition instruction.

Essential to the disparity between the views of Durst and Fish is what Durst calls the “social turn” in the teaching of composition. According to Durst, the social turn involves “organizing courses around (and publishing works on) topics of political and cultural import and linking their courses with service and community work” (98).  “Writing at the Postsecondary Level” gives wide-ranging examples of the various political, cultural, racial, socio-economic, and gender-related topics professors may explore to encourage “oppositional thinking” in their students (84).  Fish disagrees with this deviation from a “form-based composition” and advocates a focus on methods of writing instead of content or creativity. Fish contends that social elements are not important to the craft of writing and says that the students’ “right to their own pattern and varieties of language” should be subservient to the process of writing.

Ironically, there are some things on which Durst and Fish agree. Durst outlines the significance of writing instructors, giving important information concerning the frequent marginalization of composition faculty.  Fish also shares this awareness, recalling his astonishment upon realizing years ago that the English graduate students who he found could not effectively formulate sentences were the ones teaching a large share of the freshman composition courses.  Moreover, Durst and Fish both discuss collaboration in the composition classroom even though they emphasize different aspects.   Durst expounds on the variation of results found in research done on collaboration since the 1980s, some of which touts the benefits of collaborative writing and peer review, and some of which warn against the “dangers of consensus” (92). Fish illustrates collaborative sentence building exercises which promote participation and build student confidence in basic grammar skills.

Another common element found in the articles concerns sample techniques for the composition classroom. Durst’s classroom examples range from ideas to engage students as “moral agents” (90) to expanding their capacity for ideals through “reflective instrumentalism” (85).  However, given that Durst’s article outlines two decades of change in the teaching and theory of college rhetoric and composition, he provides more overview of classroom principles than specific instructions or advice.  Fish, on the other hand, gives examples of detailed classroom assignments designed to promote methodology and strong sentence writing.

For example, students are given a mixture of words and asked to put them together to make a cohesive sentence.  Fish begins with extremely easy words and works his way to more complex combinations as the students gain confidence.  He claims this exercise solidifies the process for sentence building because he incorporates student analysis of how they fit the words together. Another assignment Fish mentions concerns having students replace the nonsense words in the first stanza of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” with familiar words, then analyze how they determined which type of word would make sense in that particular slot. According to Fish, instead of being “bored” with forms of writing, students are “amazed, delighted, and fascinated by the new analytic skills they are able to exercise.”

One clear difference between the articles is Durst’s conclusion that the conversation about teaching and change in the field of composition and rhetoric has been virtually exhausted.  Publishing his findings in 2003, Durst could not have foreseen how Facebook, iPhones, Google, or YouTube would alter the discussion of the “social turn.”  Modern-day students have access to exponentially more information than learners in 2003, and Durst’s push for teachers to expose students to new and oppositional ideas with “the rhetorician” as the “agent of social change” (85) seems somewhat outdated.  Students have easy access to vast amounts of knowledge via the internet, and the popularity of texting, computers, and other writing-based technology highlight the need for students to have a firm grasp on the basics of written communication. Fish contends that, while some scholars deride standard language instruction and attention to a method-based approach as “an instrument of power and a device for protecting the status quo,” students must be taught the correct usage of language as we know it “rather than the world as it might be in some utopian imagination.”  Fish’s realistic, commonsense approach contrasts sharply to the mild antiquation and protracted academic format of Durst’s article and underscores how the intended audience of each piece affects its style.

Written in three installments and including responses to “posts” by online readers of the New York Times, Fish’s article appears somewhat more convoluted than Durst’s highly organized and scholarly treatise. However, Fish’s relaxed tone and willingness to address specific criticisms from parents, teachers, and anonymous readers made me eager to familiarize myself with the ongoing conversation of effective composition pedagogy in higher education.  Durst, on the other hand, ends his article with the rather dull and seemingly erroneous assertion that the dialogue about how best to teach postsecondary composition is winding to a close.  Although Durst’s detailed progression of pedagogical theories regarding college writing was interesting, the idea that “composition specialists have largely accepted the social turn in the field” left me wondering if taking up a cause and becoming an “agent of social justice” would be the only means by which I could effectively teach students to write (98).  It is perhaps Durst’s emphasis away from the discipline of writing that made some of Fish’s simplistic, yet somewhat radical ideas about writing pedagogy more appealing, or at least, thought-provoking.

Ultimately, both Durst and Fish make strong conclusions concerning educational theories and methods, and since I will begin teaching freshman composition in the fall, I am anxious to try out elements from each of the articles in the classroom. While not planning to crusade into the classroom with a particular social agenda, I am considering Durst’s comments about student collaboration, breaking assignments up into steps, and the use of portfolios.  Moreover, Durst’s exposition on the development of rhetoric and composition in the past three decades not only acquaints me with the primary scholarship but also enlightens me about the emerging importance of the field.  However, Fish’s clarion call for composition courses to focus on writing, particularly the skill of composing correct and effective sentences, challenges me to examine whether my ideas of a literature-driven writing course are realistic – or even right.  Whereas Durst seems to equate any focus on compositional standards as giving into the socio-political status quo and Fish adamantly defends strict adherence to the tenets of grammar with no societal considerations, their conflicting views reveal the need for continued research of how to successfully teach the subject of writing.