North: The Making of Knowledge in Composition

North, Stephen M. The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field. Portsmouth, NH: Heniemann. 1987. Print.

Composition, Academic Discipline, Methodology, Composition History

North traces the emergence of the field/discipline of Composition as it emerged from the second half of the Twentieth Century. North’s taxonomic approach applies a global, tripartite classification to the field (Practitioner, Scholar, Researcher) within which he sub-classifies methodological approaches (historical, ethnography, philosophical, clinical, etc.), notably highlighting the “lore” of practitioners throughout. The text finishes with a discussion of the tensions between methodological camps.

Before encountering this text, lore was an oft-referenced term that occasionally emerged in rhet-comp readings. I do not identify strongly with North’s category of the lore-centric Practitioner, though anyone who teaches will likely find lots to nod along with as they read. I might even further classify types of lore: the public and the private. North’s definition of lore requires a “nomination” form a practitioner, but that nomination need not be public.

In seminar, we discussed the framing of Identity North seems to use throughout. In other words, rather than methods which are accessible to anyone in the field, the text seems to frame key figures as emblematic of fairly rigid categories accessible through identity. From the start, North admits the categories are much more fuzzy than his taxonomic account draws in text, but the sense of identifying with one “mode of inquiry” camp or another pervades. Our discussion centered around the affordances and constraints of privileging identity-formation via mode of inquiry, as opposed to understanding modes/methods as tools or frameworks that may be applied depending on the questions being asked. After all, the questions one asks over the course of a career may change, and the framework that drove ones previous inquiry may not be the one most appropriate for the next.

The exigence for such a text seems both internal, i.e., how do initiates and long-standing members of this thing called Composition make sense of its contours, and external. External insofar as Composition is situated institutionally alongside other fields (literature and linguistics make up what North refers to as the prenatal “tripod” before “capital-C” Composition.

The language of this post plays loosely with the terms “discipline” and “field.” North attends to the distinction briefly (fleetingly), but I think it deserves a bit more attention. My own taxonomic distinction places field as the higher-order, broader category, within which disciplines arise. So, for North’s Composition, disciplines might be associated with the modal identities that drive inquiry, or perhaps they might be associated with a focus of scholarship (i.e., ESL, WAC, Writing Center, WPA, etc.) Or, if the field aligns with institutional structures, the field might be “English” and the disciplines align toward North’s tripod or various other avenues (in my local context cultural studies and film studies, in other circumstances communications, journalism, English education, etc.)

Part of me wants to imagine a field of “Language Studies,” though the limitations are apparent. Such a field would include the literacy across languages (i.e., Spanish, French, Japanese, etc.). And even if it were to exclude non-native language literacy, “Language Studies” would seem to exclude an attention to non-linguistic symbols, i.e., visual or other affective modes of inquiry that don;t fit neatly into such a taxonomy. As for North’s taxonomy, the limitation of Composition as a field seems to be it’s elbowing of Rhetoric out of the picture. North does see Rhetoric as a subset/mode of inquiry within Composition (situated in the “Scholars” camp), but I, and others, identify within the field of Rhet-Comp. The questions raised by the distinctions are worth returning to this semester (the seminar is titled “Composition Theory”). Are Rhetoric and Composition separate fields? Are they a hybrid field? Are they disciplines within a larger field? Once a discipline is defined, what are the active sub-disciplines? Are there inactive, or dead, sub-disciplines in the field? And what sub-disciplines are emerging, or might I expect in the near or far future?

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