A Teaching Subject: Composition since 1966

A Teaching Subject: Composition since 1966

A Teaching Subject: Composition since 1966

A Teaching Subject: Composition since 1966


In this classic text, Joseph Harris traces the evolution of college writing instruction since the Dartmouth Seminar of 1966. A Teaching Subject offers a brilliant interpretive history of the first decades during which writing studies came to be imagined as a discipline separable from its partners in English studies. Postscripts to each chapter in this new edition bring the history of composition up to the present.

Reviewing the development of the field through five key ideas, Harris unfolds a set of issues and tensions that continue to shape the teaching of writing today. Ultimately, he builds a case, now deeply influential in its own right, that composition defines itself through its interest and investment in the literacy work that students and teachers do together. Unique among English studies fields, composition is, Harris contends, a teaching subject.


My aim in writing A Teaching Subject was to offer a brief and inexpensive history of our field. I succeeded in making it brief. But over the years, the price of what was, after all, only a slim volume grew higher and higher until the book finally faded out of print. Even still, several colleagues have told me they would like to be able to use A Teaching Subject in their work with beginning teachers of writing. I hope this new and more affordable version will make that possible.

In returning to this book, I was struck by how accurately its title— A Teaching Subject: Composition Since 1966—describes both its strengths and limits. I have always thought of myself, first and last, as a teacher of writing. And so I wrote A Teaching Subject out of a desire to understand how my work with student writers had come to be shaped by a particular set of problems, concepts, and keywords. This is not a book about the emergence of a new field of study, but one that tries to understand why we teach writing in the ways we do. I think that focus on teaching gives the book its coherence and drive. But I am less content with my subtitle: Composition Since 1966. For composition is a term in an in-house debate in English departments—one side of a seemingly interminable squabble between teachers of writing and professors of literature. In framing my book as being about composition, then, I ended up narrowing my focus to how first-year writing gets taught in English departments.

Or, not exactly. For it’s hard not to notice how many of the key figures in this book actually studied or worked outside of English departments: James Britton, Janet Emig, James Moffett, Sondra Perl, Mary Louise Pratt, Mike Rose, Nancy Sommers. None of these people earned a PhD in English. Even the hero of many writing teachers working in English departments, Mina Shaughnessy, spent most of her career as a university administrator—and none of it as a professor of literature. Now it’s clear that most first-year writing programs continue to be located in English departments and that much good work in our field is done by scholar-teachers in English. But it takes a kind of willed forgetting to imagine work in writing as simply a subfield of English studies.

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