Carnegie Mellon University

Between Classical Art and Modern Discipline: Tensions in Composition Studies' Encounters with Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology

Author: Jay Gordon
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2001

In this study I examine the published discussions surrounding Robert Zoellner's behaviorist writing pedagogy and Flower and Hayes' cognitive-processes research program. In their time, these discussions helped the field of composition studies to define itself through intense dialogue over the relevance of psychological concepts and methods for the study and teaching of written composition. However, at least three important problems concerning the relationship between psychology and composition studies have yet to be addressed adequately. First, the discussions of Zoellner's and Flower and Hayes' projects themselves have not been analyzed closely, leaving their implications for contemporary rhetoric unclear ' though they are widely considered to be historically significant, their dynamics as disciplinary discourse have not been clarified. In addition, the appropriation of behavioral and cognitive psychology for the teaching of writing has not been examined from a more general perspective on the theory/practice relationship; that is, composition studies have not directly explored what it means to say that one's pedagogy "applies" a particular psychological concept or method. Finally, the modern treatments of psychology's role in composition studies, as exemplified in the work of Zoellner and Flower and Hayes, have yet to be interpreted in light of classical rhetoric's views on the relationship between psychological knowledge and rhetorical practice. Some intriguing questions for contemporary rhetoricians emerge, though, when the modern and classical views are compared.

The aim of this study, therefore, is to address these three problems as follows: In chapter one, I provide a historical context for examining the encounters between composition studies and modern psychology, focusing on problems associated with the practices of cross-disciplinary borrowing and empirical research in rhetoric and composition. Then I examine in detail the published debates over Zoellner's "Talk-Write" pedagogy and Flower and Hayes' "cognitive processes" project, in chapters two and three respectively, focusing on the interplay between the overt claims of the various arguments presented and the disciplinary assumptions that drive them. In chapter four, I address the problem of characterizing the relationship between theoretical arguments and pedagogical practice, using the discussions in chapters two and three as reference points. Finally, in chapter five, I discuss how the discourse on Zoellner's and Flower and Hayes' projects may be situated in a productive relationship with the classical rhetorical tradition.