Definition and Examples of Composition-Rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Roman civilization, early Christian civilization, relief from front piece of sarcophagus portraying teacher of rhetoric with pupil
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Composition-rhetoric is the theory and practice of teaching writing, especially as it is carried out in composition courses in colleges and universities in the U.S. Also known as composition studies and composition and rhetoric.

The term composition-rhetoric emphasizes the function of rhetoric (with its 2,500-year tradition) as an underlying theory of composition ("a relatively new invention," as Steven Lynn points out in "Rhetoric and Composition," 2010).

In the United States, the academic discipline of composition-rhetoric has evolved rapidly over the past 50 years.

Examples and Observations

  • "When we discuss rhetoric and composition, we are really talking about a much more complex set of interactions than the phrase implies. Our scholarly literature is rife with examples of rhetoric for composition, composition reacting to rhetoric, and rhetoric in composition. Of these, rhetoric in composition provides the most opportunities for integration of rhetorical theories and the teaching of composition. However, we seem easily sidetracked by the vagueness of and, the seeming simplicity of for." (Jillian Kathryn Skeffington, "Looking for Rhetoric in Composition: A Study in Disciplinary Identity." PhD dissertation, University of Arizona, 2009)
  • "When conjoined with 'composition,' 'rhetoric' is generally understood as the broader field of subject matter. But many who locate themselves in composition studies . . . identify their intellectual projects with a variety of broader knowledge enterprises besides or instead of rhetoric. These include, for instance, literacy, linguistics, or discourse studies; cultural studies; English; English education; and communication. . . . College composition itself (originally 'freshman English'), once isomorphic with the whole field, is now only one focus within rhetoric and composition, which has become progressively more intertwined with multiple, parallel, or transdisciplinary studies of discourse." ("Composition Studies." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication From Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos. Taylor & Francis, 1996)

Background of Composition-Rhetoric

  • "As a body of information, written rhetoric was brought into being between 1800 and 1910.
  • "Since, therefore, the methods and theories associated with teaching writing in America after 1800 are neither changeless, nor unified, nor seriously 'current' in today's scholarly field, nor strongly related to traditional rhetoric, I propose in this book to eschew the term 'current-traditional rhetoric' and to refer instead to older and newer forms of composition-rhetoric. History enthusiasts will recognize that I have appropriated the term from the title of a forward-looking but not very successful textbook produced in 1897 by Fred Newton Scott and Joseph V. Denney. Like Scott and Denney, I use the term to identify specifically that form of rhetorical theory and practice devoted to written discourse. Writing, of course, had always been a small but necessary part of the older rhetorical tradition, but composition-rhetoric after 1800 was the first rhetoric to place writing centrally in rhetorical work." (Robert J. Connors, Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)

The Development of Composition-Rhetoric Studies: 1945-2000

  • "Sometime between [the end of World War II] and 1990, a host of graduate programs, scholarly journals, and professional organizations dedicated to composition-rhetoric studies emerged in North American higher education. Despite the continued complaints raised against it, the freshman course itself persisted and grew during this period; but now undergirding it was a bona fide academic discipline, increasingly autonomous from other fields and capable of not only supervising, growing, and questioning that course but of sponsoring full and independent curricula at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, rich and seemingly limitless research projects, and dedicated academic careers of every rank and tenure. By the end of this period, 'comp-rhet' boasted book series, endowed chairs, grant programs, research centers, and radically enhanced intellectual and professional self-confidence. . . .
    "[B]y the early 1990s, there were more than 1,200 comp-rhet doctoral students in the United States, studying in seventy-two different graduate programs, together granting more than a hundred PhDs a year (Connors, 'Composition History' 418). . . .
    "By the end of the twentieth century, in other words, using the doctorate as the key marker of academic status, a discipline had been born." (David Fleming, "Rhetoric Revival or Process Revolution?" Renewing Rhetoric's Relation to Composition: Essays in Honor of Theresa Jarnagin Enos, ed. by Shane Borrowman, Stuart C. Brown, and Thomas P. Miller. Routledge, 2009)
  • "[A]ll areas of the humanities except one have undergone drastic reductions. That one field is composition-rhetoric studies, which . . . continues to flourish among the second series of downsizings, the 1990s version. Why is composition-rhetoric exempt? One of the various answers is that we have enacted the New Paradigm for our 30 years of growth as a discipline. In short, the public, which as a whole understands but cannot articulate that language study is vitally important, supports massive support of the teaching of writing and the research that accompanies and drives it. . . .
    "Although we are immersed in university cultures that regard research as the peak, teaching as the valley, and service as the underground (so that it is invisible), composition-rhetoric scholar-teachers embrace pedagogy, work hard at it, share current research with students, and generally possess an identity (or what Diotima or Aspasia might call an ethos) in which pedagogy is definitive." (Kathleen E. Welch, "Technology/Writing/Identity in Composition and Rhetoric Studies: Working in the Indicative Mood." Living Rhetoric and Composition: Stories of the Discipline, ed. by Duane H. Roen, Stuart C. Brown, and Theresa Enos. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Composition-Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Examples of Composition-Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Composition-Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).