Writing Instruction in the Twentieth Century: Updating James A. Berlin’s Chapter

Hobbs, Catherine L

A Commentary on Chapter 8 from A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America

The final chapter of the new A Short History of Writing Instruction builds on the chapter written by the late James A. Berlin for the first edition. Berlin began with the revolution of the 1890s that transformed Greek and Latin language and literary studies into English studies. Berlin’s conclusion, however, did not take into consideration the technological revolution taking place at the time of its publication. But I found in my revision that his concluding cultural and historical perspective makes it possible to better understand the current technological revolution. Overall, Jim’s version focuses on conflict, conflict frequently manifested on numerous fronts as different constituencies and alliances struggle over competing versions of literacy to uphold their differing visions of society. That was an easy framework to extend using composition journal articles, social and economic data, and major educational reports into the final decade of the twentieth century.

My chapter revision comprises an argument for the usefulness of Berlin's history. When Profs. James Murphy and Winifred Horner asked me to write this chapter in late 1994, they both, but especially Win, encouraged me to wipe the slate clean and start over. Jim's version was controversial—literature reviews still directly and more often now obliquely attack his historiography. Profs. Horner and Murphy no doubt sensed that this posthumous co-authorship would seem a bit odd so long after his death in February 1994 after a sudden heart attack. No doubt they also felt it would be easier for me just to start over because I had been a first-generation student of Berlin's at Purdue.

But I didn’t take up their challenge, certainly not because Berlin's was a sacred text that couldn't be touched or critiqued. Berlin believed critique was what moved the field ahead and encouraged us to have no sacred cows. We were taught to critique anyone’s work—even that of Edward P.J. Corbett, in 1989 still very much alive and working down the road at Ohio State. But Jim was not himself insensitive to critique, which I found out when I assessed his work in a paper on feminist historiography in 1989.

Essentially, I finally revised and updated Berlin's chapter for three reasons: because it was good and worth extending; because the unfurling postmodernism at the century’s end was not the time for me (or probably anyone else) to be conceiving and writing a totalizing history of the field; finally, because I believed the developing field needed such a framework as a "holding environment" in order to support and launch more fragmentary, diverse, and local projects—in a word, to grow. Jim’s taxonomic framework, synthesized from major journal articles and key conferences and reports, extended quite naturally into an age in which Berlin, Moses-like, viewed but never really entered--an information age in which the semiotic “interanimation” of media texts and graphics shape our social and economic lives. The “semiotic turn” he takes in his final paragraph is in actuality a rhetorical turn.

This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.
Publication date: 
No votes yet