The Linguistic Memory of Composition and the Rhetoric and Composition PhD: Forgetting (and Remembering) Language and Language Difference in Doctoral Curricula

By Kilfoil, Carrie Byars | Composition Studies, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

The Linguistic Memory of Composition and the Rhetoric and Composition PhD: Forgetting (and Remembering) Language and Language Difference in Doctoral Curricula


Kilfoil, Carrie Byars, Composition Studies


In her 2007 article "The Erasure of Language," Susan Peck MacDonald links a decline in CCCC topics and sessions focused on language since the 1950s to the more general decline of linguistics in composition research, and specifically, composition teacher education. MacDonald argues that over time, influential critiques of formal grammar instruction; reductive, binary approaches to language issues in composition; and potent "language-as-painful- remediation assumptions" (618) led to a "new generation of compositionists who lacked the background to sustain the intensive linguistic work of their predecessors, believed they should not do so, or found other rewards greater" (602). Subsequently, MacDonald argues, language-oriented composition pedagogies and scholarship, like sentence combining and bidialectal pedagogies, were largely abandoned in the late twentieth century.

However, if language was once "erased" from composition, it now appears to be in the process of reinscription. Recently, matters of language and language difference have resurfaced in disciplinary discourse, as evidenced by special issues of the field's journals as well as edited collections and themed conferences,1 and, yes, growing numbers of CCCC sessions. In "It's the Wild West Out There: A New Linguistic Frontier in U.S. College Composition," Paul Kei Matsuda attributes this renewed attention to language to efforts to address "the issue of language diversity for language minority students," "the globalization of U.S. college composition," and an "intellectual movement to see languages not as discrete entities but as situated, dynamic, and negotiated" (130). While he argues that this "linguistic turn" constitutes a "new frontier" for composition, he also cautions that it presents challenges, given the "huge void in the knowledge of language issues" (130) among the field members, which manifests in uncritical usage of terminology borrowed from linguistics in composition scholarship and narrow, perhaps ill-advised, pedagogical applications of this research. To be better positioned to address language issues in increasingly diverse, globalizing writing programs and institutions, Matsuda argues that composition needs to develop "a broader, more balanced framework for conceptualizing language" (132). Here, I believe, reconsideration of the place of linguistics in composition teacher education, and particularly, the pre-professional training that takes place in rhetoric and composition graduate programs, is key.

In this article, I analyze the erasure of linguistics, a broad field of study that addresses how language works as a formal system, a psychological process, a historical phenomenon, a cultural resource, and a social practice, from rhetoric and composition PhD programs through the 1990s and 2000s. I do so through the lens of what John Trimbur has called U.S. "linguistic memory," which has been characterized by the ritualized "forgetting" of the multiple languages spoken and written in the United States. I suggest that composition not only operates on English-only monolingual assumptions developed and advanced through U.S. linguistic memory, but that the curricular development of the field's graduate programs has re-enacted the historical process of forgetting that undergirds these assumptions to cement their dominance in the field. Since the field of linguistics once offered the primary means for compositionists to address the structural, psychological, sociohistorical, and cultural dimensions of language in student writing, its erasure from composition graduate curricula signifies a forgetting that language issues are, and always have been, central to composition's work in linguistically diverse institutions. In order to help the field remember its commitments to language in the context of a plurality of languages and language varieties spoken and written in U.S. higher education, as well as in the increasingly global contexts of writing pedagogy and scholarship, I suggest that composition graduate programs reincorporate insights from linguistics and take other steps to foreground matters of language and language difference in their curricula. …

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