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Composing Legacies

Testimonial Rhetoric in Nineteenth-Century Composition


Christopher Carter and Russel K. Durst

In 2015, Professor Emerita Lucille M. Schultz donated to the University of Cincinnati her set of composition materials gathered from fifteen libraries and collections around the country. With 350 entries ranging from 1785 to 1916, the collection includes picture books for early primary schools, grammar textbooks, student writing, and advanced rhetoric textbooks for undergraduates. The documents afford a thrilling glimpse into nineteenth-century ways of thinking and teaching, highlighting practices we would today identify as prewriting, collaborative invention, freewriting, and object-oriented pedagogy. Composing Legacies relates these pedagogies to expressions of social class, nationalism, and public engagement that run throughout the Victorian era and the Gilded Age. Early chapters show how writing and grammar handbooks aimed to reproduce social hierarchies; later ones show how textbook authors aimed to mitigate lecture-style pedagogy with attention to student backgrounds, personal interests, economic aspirations, and presumed audiences. Often, those authors demonstrated a pronounced interest in national unity, but not without exception. Little-known Confederate textbooks took the ideology of unity to be a form of Northern aggression, promoting the maintenance of state and local traditions through their classroom exercises and sample passages. Composition scholars who see the nineteenth-century as a period of skills-and-drills teaching, devoid of explicit political concern, will find surprises in the archival texts’ testimonies about national crises and civic participation. Those scholars will also find that the “social turn” in writing and rhetoric, however recent as a historical framework, has been underway for more than two hundred years.
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Chapter Two Testimony of the Tongue: Grammar, Aspirational Pedagogy, and the Cult of Correctness in Long-Nineteenth-Century Composition (Russel K. Durst)


russel k. durst

A great deal of the history of composition in America seems to be a clumsy shuffle-dance of grammar with rhetoric, with first one and then another leading. It will not end soon, for the wish for certainty and algorithmic closure represented by the one struggles always with the desire for originality and creativity represented by the other. So long as language is part science, part art, and part magic, the grammarians and the rhetoricians will be struggling with each other to lead the dance.

—Robert J. Connors, “Grammar in American College Composition: An Historical Overview” (1986, 136)

This quotation from a now thirty-five-year-old essay feels as dated as the nineteenth century texts its author was surveying. Grammarians are seldom seen in current rhetoric and composition circles, let alone struggling to lead the field. A glance at recent journal articles, book publication lists, conference programs, and even course syllabi shows a lack of circulation of grammar-related ideas and texts. To take but one prominent example, not a single article in the field’s leading journal, College Composition and Communication has focused primarily on grammar since an error analysis essay in the June, 2008 issue. “Mistakes are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study,” (the title comes from a Nikki Giovanni poem), by Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford, analyzed college students’ ←49 | 50→ written errors and their teachers’ marking practices. The absence of grammar studies in CCC now approaches a decade and a...

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