Carnegie Mellon University

The Shaping of a Discipline: An Historical Study of the Authorizing Role of Professional Journals in Rhetoric and Composition, 1950-1990

Author: Maureen Goggin
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994

Toward the end of the nineteenth century a confluence of social, cultural, technological and economic forces led to the displacement of the study of rhetoric from the central position it had held in academia for nearly 2,500 years. As disciplines formed and departments were constructed during the rise of the modern university, rhetoric was transformed from a potentially rich intellectual enterprise within departments of English into a truncated and impoverished one that was largely restricted to the problems of the first-year required college composition course. With virtually no access to the kinds of professional forums in which disciplinary practices are constituted and legitimated, rhetoric languished at the margins of college English departments for nearly a century. The formation of the Conference on College Composition and Communication in 1949 marked a significant turning point for the field. The emergence of a national organization and its professional journal, College Composition and Communication, held the promise of extending the political power and intellectual reach of those working in the rhetorical trenches of English departments across the United States. This dissertation examines the role of professional journals in the post- World War II development of rhetoric and composition as an academic discipline.

Between 1950 and the mid-1960s, the journals helped to lay the groundwork for a discipline of rhetoric and composition, in the process helping to define an intellectual niche and a social network. Many practitioners began modestly, focusing largely on specific and local administrative and pedagogical issues of first-year college writing instruction. However, by the early 1960s the limitations of this mission were challenged by some in the emerging field, and a vigorous struggle for new directions took place. Beginning in the mid-1960s, those writing about rhetoric and composition began to shift their attention away from practical and pedagogical issues in writing instruction toward projects that would provide a more rigorous understanding of discursive practices and learning processes more broadly conceived. The period between 1965 and 1980 was marked by an increase in theoretical and empirical work as well as by self-conscious attention to and expansion of research methodologies. It was then that the field began to name and define specific objects of study, methods and discourses. In the decade between 1980 and 1990, changes in the editorial policies and practices in established and newly founded periodicals both reflected and contributed to a shift in rhetoric and composition, from a marginalized service-oriented enterprise to a disciplinary one.

Journals have been one of the most important vehicles for shaping the intellectual agendas and social bonds of a growing group of professionals who are identifying themselves as specialists in rhetoric and composition. Their editors have provided a forum in which particular kinds of questions could be asked, where objects of study, methods and discursive practices could take shape, and where a discipline of rhetoric and composition could be constituted. However, while it may be argued that an academic discipline, suppressed for nearly a century, has emerged for rhetoric and composition--as evidenced by a growing body of scholarship, professional organizations and periodicals, graduate programs and tenure-track positions--it is less clear that it has achieved the prestige and status for which its proponents have fought. In short, while its proponents have succeeded, by and large, in defining a scholarly and intellectual arena for a discipline, they have been less successful in securing their own institutional place in academia.