composition studies

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

composition studies
Composition studies has been described as "a field with many focuses— expository and argumentative writing, personal essay, literary nonfiction, technical and business writing, historical rhetoric, empirical research, and more" ( Academic Advancement in Composition Studies, 2013). (vgajic/Getty Images)


Composition studies is the theory and practice of writing instruction, especially as it's carried out in composition courses in colleges and universities in the United States. A person who's actively engaged in the teaching of writing is sometimes called a compositionist. Composition studies is also known as rhetoric and composition, college composition, composition, and writing studies.

"Broadly speaking," says David W. Smit, "the goal of composition studies is to promote the use of writing: to help people acquire the knowledge and skill they need to convey what they want to say when they put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard" (The End of Composition Studies, 2004).

The function of theory in composition studies, according to Raúl Sánchez, "is to provide generalized accounts of what writing is and how it works. These accounts can both guide and derive from the results of empirical research and, in the case of student writing, from classroom practice" (The Function of Theory in Composition Studies, 2005).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations:

  • "Many in composition studies agree that the founding insight of our field, the idea around which our work as we recognize it today first began, is that writing should be taught as a process, a recursive series of linked activities. This idea is now so entrenched that the pedagogic approaches it supplanted are rather difficult to imagine, but presumably the contrary emphasis on writing as a 'product' involved simply trying to mirror, somehow, certain idealized models. When the idea of teaching composition as a process took hold and became pervasive in the 1970s, it not only transformed the classroom but also the community of those who taught, for now a meaningful object of study and an endless stream of research questions could bring us together and professionalize us as academics with an identify distinct from our colleagues who focused only on literature."
    (T.R. Johnson, "Thinking About the Writing Process." Teaching Composition: Background Readings, 3rd ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)
  • "Few people outside of composition studies refer to the work of composition theorists to further their own arguments or to extend the range of knowledge in their fields. More importantly, few people outside of composition have begun asking significantly different questions of the texts they study, questions that compositionists have asked for three decades. While scholars outside of composition studies tend to ask what texts mean, researchers in composition studies tend to ask what is involved in making meaningful texts."
    (Raúl Sánchez, The Function of Theory in Composition Studies. State University of New York Press, 2005)
  • Composition Studies and Literary Studies
    "I have a vision of composition and literature passing each other on opposite escalators at Macy's. Just as composition is achieving disciplinary strength, literary studies is relinquishing whatever pretensions it had for disciplinary coherence--and sometimes seems in fact to be disintegrating as a discipline. Literary studies has become more and more a motley crew thrown together by history and change.

    "Composition, on the other hand, started out as nothing but a motley collection of people historically thrown together (mostly by teaching exigencies) who even now continue to call on an amazing array of disciplines: rhetoric (classical and modern), linguistics, literary studies, history, philosophy, psychology, education, and others. There is still no preferred methodology, paradigm, or point of view. Different members use historical investigation, quantitative research, qualitative/ethnographic research, and textual studies (hermeneutic and theoretical) of the sort traditionally practiced in English and philosophy."
    (Peter Elbow, "The Cultures of Literature and Composition." The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)
  • Compositionists and Rhetoricians
    "Compositionists tend to conceive of our discipline as a subfield of English studies with composition (i.e. writing instruction, usually in first-year college composition) as its focus. For this group, first-year composition is a site of both knowledge production and dissemination. . . . By contrast, rhetoricians tend to define the discipline in broader terms with composition as one component, a pedagogical component, of the field. . . . In short, whereas compositionists tend to equate their enterprise with the teaching of writing only, rhetoricians situate their enterprise within a much larger, and richer, framework of theories and practices that have been concerned with the reciprocal relationship between discourse and social, political, and cultural contexts."
    (Maureen Daly Goggin, "Disciplinary Instability." Qtd. in Authoring A Discipline: Scholarly Journals and the Post-World War II Emergence of Rhetoric and Composition, ed. by M.D. Goggin. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000)
  • The Present and Future of Composition Studies
    "My argument . . . is that the overlayered past and present of composition studies meet in definitely unsettling ways. . . .

    "[A]part from the friendly pre-writing aura that [the process] movement has successfully installed, the assignments of the early century continue in a field that deploys the happy inventive moment as the only sign or substance of changes in most composition teaching. . . .

    "In sum, composition in its current incarnation as a profession devoted to students about whom the institution remains tolerant but ambivalent still honors the ancient Platonism that imposes the goal of improvement on us all. We lead students to a transcendent status, or more accurately, to desire for that status: to a wish to be better, not specifically practiced and informed. In so doing, we have inadvertently assured that composition studies has disappeared."
    (Susan Miller, "Why Composition Studies Disappeared." Composition Studies in the New Millennium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future, ed. by Lynn Z. Bloom, Donald A. Daiker, and Edward M. White. Southern Illinois University Press, 2003)