To the Editor:
Apparently Joseph Epstein [“Professing English,” August] would solve the problem of college students’ inept writing by turning composition courses into literary-studies courses emphasizing our heritage of “experience, ideas, and the creative strength of language.” Standards of writing are to be invoked from classic texts. Their usage, prose rhythms, and principles of argument are to be studied to give students “an opening into all the possibilities of human expression that the last twenty years in English studies have done so much to destroy.”
If Mr. Epstein had examined as many freshman-composition anthologies as I have in the last ten years, he would surely see that his proposed method for teaching writing—in essence, the study and imitation of time-tested models—has been extensively practiced. It still has many proponents among composition teachers all over the country. I gather that Mr. Epstein’s proposed literary studies, however, would go beyond mere slavish imitation of models to become a soaking up of the expressive modes and techniques of great writers, so that after this osmotic process the student would have internalized a rich fund of words, phrases, allusions, syntactic gambits, and rhetorical strategies to draw from in new creative ways. Certainly such a process occurs with many writers, and has value. Mr. Epstein himself is perhaps a notable example.
But literary study, even if explicitly directed to rhetorical techniques, cannot be substituted for the guided learning and practice of the separate art and discipline of rhetoric. Composing something in writing is an individual creative process that cannot be fully recreated or learned from the study of someone else’s finished work. It must be learned by slow, intensive, directed practice of an ordered series of steps: invention of one’s own material, invention of an audience, development of a thesis, division and arrangement of parts, and stylistic experiment and revision. If students are taken thoroughly through these steps . . . in composition courses, they are going to have to do most of their literary study in literature and humanities courses. I am heartily in favor of their having as many of these as possible, and do not doubt that from them students may absorb rhetorical reinforcement. But literary studies alone cannot, and obviously have not, done the job.
Mr. Epstein is right in pointing to the tendency in most universities and colleges to relegate composition teaching to “grub work” for “underlings.” But these “underlings” are candidates for Ph.D.’s in literature and should therefore have some expertise in the literary-study approach that Mr. Epstein recommends. The problem is actually that most of them know no other approach and thus use that one, with generally unsatisfactory results. . . .
Fortunately, the trend is beginning to be reversed. Publications and conferences of the National Council of Teachers of English have been highlighting rhetorical theory and research for the last ten years or so. A few universities have developed rhetoric programs for English majors—Northern Illinois University, Wayne State, and the University of Virginia, for example. The University of Southern California has a complete independent doctoral program in rhetoric, including courses from related disciplines such as speech, linguistics, and psychology as well as a solid foundation in literary studies. . . .
Expanding this revitalized discipline of rhetoric and requiring it as a background for composition teachers is a fundamental step toward producing better writers. The 19th-century teachers referred to by Mr. Epstein who applied rhetoric to the study of composition were on the right track. Our 20th-century preoccupation with peripheral matters such as grammatical correctness and free expression shunted us off the track. We are now getting back with a new, growing body of rhetorical theory and research to help us guide students into successful written composing. . . .
Department of English
To the Editor:
I believe Joseph Epstein when he says that the teaching of college English is corrupt, not because it is at the service of the “elite in America,” but precisely because English departments do not take an elitist view. Mr. Epstein implies that . . . literary culture is being systematically destroyed, . . . but he does not adequately treat the causes of this. . .
University budgets, in real dollars, are either shrinking or barely being maintained; the student population is not growing much; very little hiring is taking place. Therefore administrators are looking very closely at faculty “productivity.” One measure of such productivity is “contact hours” with students. This leads to competition among various university departments for enrollment, and hence to an increase in “relevant” and entertaining courses. It is a matter of economic necessity: if departments do not bring in students, by hook or by crook, not only will no new people be hired, but some will be fired. The increasing proportion of tenured faculty in universities is another factor in the plight of the universities. Aside from bringing about under- and unemployment for many, it also means stagnation. . . .
Freshman composition courses, one would think, should be the salvation of English departments. The old boys may shun it, but there are probably plenty of young Ph.D.’s looking for jobs who would gladly. do it. But, as Mr. Epstein notes, required freshman composition, along with course requirements in general, is being abandoned. And when it cannot be abandoned, it is taught by graduate students at universities with Ph.D. programs, and by adjunct faculty at others. They are cheaper. And of course, young Ph.D.’s do not get hired, while departments hasten their own corruption by accepting students they suspect of being unqualified, simply because they need them to teach introductory courses.
Thus, Richard Ohmann, whose book Mr. Epstein discusses, is inadvertently correct in noting that the educational system is responsive to the needs of the economic system. If it were not, then more students might learn to read and write.
Rita B. Messing