Phelps: Composition as a Human Science

Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. Composition as a Human Science: Contributions to the Self-Understanding of a Discipline. New York: Oxford UP. 1988. Print

Composition, Rhetoric, History, Interdisciplinary, Contextualism, Discourse

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension

Calvin Schrag, Radical Reflection and the Origin of the Human Sciences

Phelps begins by laying the cultural ground from which the discipline of rhetoric and composition emerged. Alongside other social sciences, Phelps argues a contexualist approach in composition, a third way [middle path?] between Newtonian positivism and radical postmodernism [the overly suspicious hermeneutics raced back to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud]. Phelps history of composition privileges rhetoric which , she argues, “reposition[ed] composition within the global ecology of knowledge” (45). Phelps attacks shallow considerations of process, arguing that the paradigm shift which brought it about (a focus shift from product to process), was no paradigm shift at all; rather, it was a reemphasis/polarity-shift of a problematic dualism (136). Phelps also points, notably, to “discourse” as a root metaphor for composition (50) while, later, also charging composition professionals with an imperative to “step back and from and deconstruct our sedimented conception of discourse structure in order to carry out a reconstruction. In that reconstruction, discourse is essentially dance, event, pr pattern of symbolic energies in which the discourser participates, ordered or structured with the aid of cues laid down by the writer in the text for himself and the reader” (156).

Like North’s text, Phelps sees an overemphasis on practice as problematic for composition. In the final chapter, Phelps makes this explicit: “teachers … stubbornly assert the priority of the practical and concrete over ‘theory’” (206). And, like North, Phelps sees the over-embrace of the practical as a threat to disciplinarily.

The primary distinction between the two texts (aside from their treatment of rhetoric, which I won’t find much time for here) might be described through their alternative approaches to the development of composition’s emergence. I would characterize North’s approach as having an inward-focus. North’s account primarily grapples with the emergence of Composition through modes of inquiry that insiders to Composition would recognize and identify with. Phelps’ outward focus, on the other hand, spends considerable time situating composition’s emergence alongside, and from within, broader intellectual and philosophical turns (e.g., the turn from positivist Newtonian frameworks in the sciences, the turn from the radical subjectivist counter-turn, and the contextualist ground made appealing to many of the social sciences through the work of Ricoeur, Habermas, et al.) All that is not to say that either is strictly inward- or outwardly focused: North gives some context external to the world of comp, and Phelps spends a considerable amount of time grappling with composition’s more parochial interests (the process movement and frameworks of discourse, notably).

I find Phelps’ history, and text, more satisfying overall. Her philosophical contextualization of composition seems to provide a richer, more nuanced argument for disciplinarity, which is what I take to be the central project of both texts. Phelps account is more ambitious, traversing dense philosophical thickets, visiting various social scientific realms, mining subdisciplines within psychology, and weaving each thread (to mix metaphors) back into the emergence and development of composition. I’m sympathetic to such ambitious accounts; I envision my own work as striving toward such rigorously attuned contexts. The danger of such ambition, of course, is to play fast and loose with ideas without contributory or interactional expertise. But the interdisciplinary nature of composition (Phelps likens it to medicine) seems to call for such ambition. So, here’s what I find worth discussing [in an upcoming seminar meeting] in terms of my own agenda.

1) What are the processes by which one goes through when one is working to incorporate scholarly material from other disciplines to account for a lack of expertise in selected disciplines? In other words, what is, or should be, my bullshit detector process when writing about other disciplines? How exhaustively do I check my (if I’m being cynical) cherry-picked research? Peer review from fellow compositonists isn’t very helpful when delving knee )or even ankle) deep into developmental cognitive neuroscience, is it? Is making friendly with a colleague in the Psychology Department enough? My sense is that each case is contextual, of course, but what kinds of processes exist to inform such questions?

2) What other disciplines contribute most to composition research? Phelps attends to this question in various places throughout the text, and it seems to me that bibliometric methods might provide some insight. What kind of cross-disciplinarily fertilization existed in the emergence of composition in the 50s and 60s? Can “turns” in composition be tracked and traced through reference to extra-disciplinary attention? Do connections to external disciplines/fields shift between composition’s subdisciplines? Between composition’s journals? And is it possible to anticipate “turns” by tracing extra-disciplinary connections?


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