From Rhetoric to Composition: The Teaching of Writing in America to 1900

Wright, Elizabethada A.
Halloran, S. Michael

A Commentary on Chapter 7 from A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America

In the decade since the publication of A Short History of Writing Instruction, a considerable body of work has been published on the history of composition, adding significantly to our understanding of where, how, why, and most significantly to and by whom writing was taught in the US prior to 1900. We learned much from this scholarship as we revised our chapter. But we were pleased to note that the broad outlines of the story told in the earlier version of our chapter seem to stand up: writing was taught in the colonial and federal periods primarily as the scripting of oral performance, an emphasis that gradually shifted during the course of the 19th century to teaching writing as the creation of texts meant for silent reading. We also remain persuaded that the composition curriculum that had emerged by the latter part of the 19th century deserves more credit than many historians of rhetoric have been willing to grant.

One significant addition in this chapter is the consideration of rhetorical curriculum for people other than white men. Work by such scholars as Catherine Hobbs, Anne Ruggles Gere, Robert Connors, and Janet Carey Elred and Peter Mortenson has widened our understanding of ways in which women (often subversely) learned how to write and speak—in and out of the classroom. Similarly, Susan Kates (whose 2001 book is unfortunately not discussed in our chapter) extends our understanding of African Americans’ writing and speaking instruction. We are now inclined to ask whether the low esteem in which current-traditional rhetoric is held might be attributable in part to the growing involvement of women and non-whites in writing curricula as current-traditional rhetoric developed.

Nevertheless, we have found that with the welcome increase of scholarship on early American rhetorical and compositional curriculum, the conclusion remains strong: current-traditional rhetoricians were significant contributors to the tradition of writing instruction who deserve more sympathetic study than they have received to date.

This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.
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