Harris & His Sources
In “Process,” a chapter in Joseph Harris’ A Teaching Subject, the author borrows from, details, clarifies, and adds upon multiple sources from many influential contemporary composition scholars who have written about and studied a writer’s writing process. He introduces us to a number of forefront voices on the subject, and by the very nature of the amount of scholars and researchers cited, they come laden with contradictory opinions and differences in approach to how a writing process ought to be observed, studied, recorded, and used to which ends. After carefully re-reading the chapter, I found that the three most prominent authors/works cited were Sondra Perl’s “The Composing Process of Unskilled College Writers,” Janet Emig’s “The Composing Process of Twelfth Graders,” and Linda Flower’s Problem Solving Strategies for Writing. By using these three works as framework for his arguments, Harris exposes us to his source authors’ similarities and differences in argument, their own individual contributions to studying process, and his opinion on the effectiveness of their research. My interest in calculating the effectiveness and influence in this assignment is seeing how the three most commonly cited authors are presented, and how they function in Harris’ overarching argument with each other. In order to fully explain the use of each individual source, Harris’ opinion on each, and how each source works in relation with the others, I have arranged this blog entry thusly: brief background on the author, summary of the source, how Harris uses this source, Harris’ opinion, and finally, a brief compare/contrast to the other two main sources. Before I set about with the main sources, I will first provide a explanatory summary of Harris’ opinions and arguments regarding writing process, process research, and the various authors he chose to cite. Below, I have provided a bibliographic compilation spreadsheet of all the works cited in Harris’ “Process”:
Harris’ Sources – Sheet1
JOSEPH HARRIS- “Process”
Joseph Harris is an English professor at Duke University whose most recent book, A Teaching Subject, is the primary literary work used in this class. As previously mentioned, “Process” is a chapter from this book; it’s feisty and cutting critiques of many prominent process scholars proves that he finds process theory to be, overall, a fairly unworthy study. He generally says nothing that indicates his opinion on the study as a whole, but his critical words of the scholars he mentions show his true sentiment. For example, when mentioning Donald Murray’s “process, not product” slogan (which is arguably the heart of all process research), he states that he believes this mantra to be contradictory, claiming to allow the student to use their own unique writing voices, but really confining them to a cookie-cutter form of “academic” writing. (Harris, 78) In a rare instance in which he mentions the field of study wholly, he cites the historical progression of composition teaching becoming “more disciplined… less about teaching than about research or theory.” (Harris, 74)
SONDRA PERL– “The Composing Process of Twelfth Graders”
Sondra Perl, an English professor at City University in New York, is a very accomplished and published composition researcher, with particular research interest in composition theory, rhetoric, and many other disciplines. The work that Harris cited in A Teaching Subject is an article called “The Composing Process of Unskilled College Writers,” published in 1979 in a scholarly composition journal called Research in the Teaching of English. In it, she aims to observe and analyze the writing process of five “unskilled” writers (“unskilled” here meaning that the participants, of their own will, submitted a writing sample to Perl and failed a test based on a set of criteria already established by the researchers). Of these five writers, she details in particular the writings of Tony, one of the research subjects, that she found interesting because his writing process was more recursive and edit-intensive than any other participant. Finally, she summarizes the findings of the study, contextualizing them accordingly with the study’s original goals and the contemporary pedagogical context. The attention to detail in the study in observing the writer’s every move, word, and thought over time was impressive. For giving the cited authors a lot of grief over choosing research and theory over fieldwork and observances, he seems to not give Perl her fair due.
However, that is not Harris’ main argument for Perl. His main argument here is that, in teaching writers that she deems as being “unskilled” to rethink their writing process, she’s doing exactly what he believes Murray’s “process, not product” mantra implied: she’s changing what could have been a truly unique writing style into something conformist and confining. These writers, “unskilled” as Perl finds them to be, are in a unique position: they came to Perl, essentially, as blank slates. Perl takes note of their writing process, and then shares her findings. Most of them regard error, amount of time taken revising, or the grammatical rules they ignored or confused. From these conclusions, Harris concludes that Perl, like Emig and Flower, is much too concerned with sculpting the academically perfect writer out of these basic writers.
Out of the three main sources, I found this observation of Harris’ to be the least true for Perl. She is very concerned with her subjects’ “egocentricity,” or, their understanding of the fact that they are the center of their writing and that the process therefore flows from their thoughts and ideas. Moreover, an egocentric writer “often [takes] the reader’s understanding for granted.” (Perl, 332) While egocentrism can be good in the proper dose for a writer, one of her strongest concerns is that her subjects are being too egocentric, and must remember to take audience into account. This is especially true in the case of her case study subject, Tony, about whose egocentrism is, according to Perl, a place that needs improvement. “When he initiated writing,” she notes, “he immediately established distance between himself as writer and his discourse.” (Perl, 327) Truly, this egocentric confusion can be resolved with a “teacher that can resolve that process for him.” (Perl, 328) Perl’s writings are full of such slight nudges and guidances. To me, that doesn’t sound like someone who is trying to construct a cookie-cutter academic writer out of scratch. It sounds like someone who is dealing with a new writer who is struggling to get his ideas in words on paper. Still, Harris writes her off as “[paying] very little attention to what her subjects actually have to say,” having “never transformed the actual teaching of writing as dramatically as [her] advocates have claimed.” (Harris, 75) Compared to Emig and Flower, she seems lenient, compassionate, and ready to give guidance.
Perl seems to only wish to give basic writers the tools they need to succeed and grow.
JANET EMIG- “The Composing Process of Twelfth Graders”
Currently a professor of English at Rutgers University, Janet Emig’s “The Composing Process of Twelfth Graders” is the most frequently cited text in Harris’ “Process” chapter. As I read “The Composing Process” under closer inspection, I began to realize why, despite citing Emig more, Harris began the chapter with Perl. Perl perfectly sets up the framework against which a reader can compare Emig and Flower. Compared to Perl, Emig is much more of the cookie-cutter-inspired, academic-grower that Harris so deeply fears.
Emig mainly concerns herself with “reflexive” and “extensive” forms of discourse in composition, which Harris finds is just “yet another rephrasing of the distinction between literary and nonliterary discourse that has structured work in English since its very beginning.” (Harris, 79) She values the inner voice in a writer, and, as a published poet, seems to find much solace in reflexive writing, (somewhat pretentiously) referring to herself as “the investigator.” (Emig, 37-38) However, she restricts her artistic inclinations to allow her students to find their own, using an “extensive” approach to get them to find themselves. However, Emig found herself frustrated that, not only would “none of her subjects actually [choose] to write in the reflexive mode,” but also that “none of her subjects expressed much joy or satisfaction in their work for her.” (Harris, 79)
By even beginning her study with a certain set of expectations (subjects will either be reflexive or extensive, subjects will be proud of their work, etc.), Emig sets herself up for disappointment. When dealing with a particular twelfth-grade study subject, Lynn, Emig expresses frustration at the fact that she not only breezed through the process at a Mozartian speed that Emig was sure it was impossible to comprehend the reading, choosing topics that were decidedly too sentimental, and overall, not writing according to how “almighty poet” Emig finds to be the most effective approach. Here, I must agree with Harris. Emig’s narrow understanding of the writing process betrays her study as well as her students, who are learning how to write according to her dogma. Her egotistic understanding of the writing process as a laborious endeavor that can either be reflexive or intensive (and nothing else) is exactly what Harris finds wrong with the study of the writing process as a whole. Even her understanding of error is a bit warped compared to what other scholars have put forward (she believed Lynn’s writing to be not imaginative enough, not aware enough of different styles, and other nitpicky errors that ought to only be found by a writer in his or her own work). After reading “The Writing Process of Twelfth Graders, I concluded that Lynn ought to write like Lynn, Emig ought to write like Emig, and these students would be much better off under the tutelage of someone a little less concerned with rigorous, restrictive form. Perhaps they could give Perl a call?
Dr. Farnsworth’s sentiment is a comical reflection of Harris’ opinions on Emig’s research.
LINDA FLOWER- Problem Solving Strategies for Writing
Linda Flower, currently a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, may not be the author that is cited the most times in Harris’ “Process” chapter, but is certainly the one with the most works mentioned. Sometimes working together with her usual co-author, John R. Hayes, Flower, now 71 years old, has published countless works studying compositional rhetoric, seven of which are cited and referenced in Harris’ “Process.” Unlike Janet Emig, of whose works only one is featured prominently though others are mentioned, Flower’s seven mentioned works are cited with almost equal amount of relative infrequency. The most cited one, a journal entry called “Problem Solving Strategies for Writing,” was written alongside John R. Hayes for College English in 1981 (now a textbook), making it the most modern work cited in this chapter thus far, after the 1970’s heyday of process theory research that Harris mentions on page 74, giving it the advantage of being able to look back upon a huge body of work for inspiration and data. However, despite the fact that it stands on the shoulders of giants, Harris has many of the same problems with Flower’s magnum opus as he did with Janet Emig’s.
Despite the fact that Harris finds Flower’s research to have gone “well beyond Emig’s observations in both its detail and its claims to generality,” Harris still believes this approach to be “prescriptive,” “formulaic,” and is very quick to mention the immediate criticism that “Problem Solving Strategies in Writing” received from such lofty names as Patricia Bizzell and David Bartholomae. In it, Flower reframes the writing process as a “cognitive process theory” that would serve as a problem-solving tactic. The technique, if properly used, would serve as a fourth form of writing discourse beyond what she finds to be the already established three (prescription, inspiration, and writer’s block) (Flower, 451). But therein, Harris believes, lies the problem. “What troubles me most about Flower and her collegues is not so much their account of the composing process,” he admonishes, “as much as their single-minded focus on technique.” (Harris, 86) After reading relevant sections from “Problem Solving Strategies in Writing,” I realized how restrictive and confining the “cognitive process theory” technique in action could truly be.
Like Emig, Flower warns her subjects against being too egocentric in their writing, straying them away from writing in their legitimate voice and towards a more formulated, prescribed style; and while “prescription” is one of the four forms of writing discourse that Flower mentions, she uses the term to mean a strictly academic form of prescription, or, as she puts it, “how the textbooks pretend people do it.” (Flower, 451) However, as Harris writes, when “their work rests on the notion that our job as teachers can be usefully defined as helping students to write ‘better’- with ‘better’ simply meaning technically more able to meet the demands put on them by one institution or another.” (Harris, 86) Here, the institution is not the “textbooks” that Flower fears, but Flower herself.
Like Emig, she believes that there is only one way to properly express one’s self through writing: by her code. She praises second drafts of her subjects’ writing that better fit a professorial or professional audience (Flower, 171), using subjective terms like “good” and “better” when referring to revised book reports done by her participants on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. This, of course, irks Harris to no end; he goes so far as to call the second drafts made by Flowers’ research subjects under her supervision a “mock Cliff’s Notes styling.” (Harris, 89)
Compared to Emig, however, I don’t think Flower is as restrictive of a teacher. However, compared to Perl, I believe her to be a bit more confining, making her the proverbial “middle ground” of Harris’ three targets. She is concerned with autonomy, a student’s personal understanding and interpretation of the reading, and, overall, seems to allow a lot more freedom to the writing process than Emig does. Though she does seem perhaps overly concerned with sounding entirely professional and academic, she only has these concerns out of the sake of the student’s success. We can tell this from the corrections made between first and second drafts of the student-created works in the study- as she puts it, they “clearly [show] what the writer learned from the novel.” (Flower, 171) When teaching basic writing, this is not a bad ideal for which to strive. Where Flower teaches professionalism and effectiveness, Emig teaches Emig-istic minutiae. Compared to Perl, however, she nudges her subjects down a certain path with a bit more force.
In teaching writing process for academic success, Flower may be restrictive, but not as restrictive as Harris seems to suggest.
“The process you teach turns out to depend on the sort of product you want,” Harris concludes on page 90, towards the end of the chapter, after discussing Perl, Emig, and Flower at great length. This conclusion he reaches invokes Donald Murray’s “mantra” that Harris briefly chastises at the beginning of the chapter: “writing is a process, not a product.” Scholars like Perl, Emig, and Flower, who have clearly internalized this message so deeply that they’ve devoted so much of their work to understanding and observing the writing process, have (perhaps unwittingly) created a product through use of process. The two, it would seem, are not mutually exclusive; they, in fact, depend on each other. The process leads to the product: in writing, and in almost everything a person does.
But when it comes to correcting this often misunderstood relationship between the effort of doing the writing and the finished product, Harris has little to say as to a solution. He vaguely mentions “[including] a sense of the ongoing conversations that texts enter into,” and “[exploring]… how writers might change not only their phrasings but also their minds when given a chance to talk about their work with other people” at the end of the chapter. (Harris, 90) All in all, my biggest criticism of Harris stems from his role of a critic. Mostly, he just offers negative feedback of the three primary cited authors, giving little in terms of constructive advice outside of vague, overarching statements like “the process you teach turns out to depend on the product you want.” This is especially confusing considering he criticized the original Donald Murray slogan as, despite having “status,” being “meaningless.” (Harris, 78) I understand that the purpose of this article was not to revolutionize the way people understand and teach the writing process, but, given that he heavily analyzes and critiques three of the most prominent voices in this field of study, he could’ve at least given his own understanding beyond simply saying “all three of these people are wrong.”
Harris: reading Perl, Emig, and Flower.
Emig, Janet. The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1971. Print.
Flower, Linda. Problem-solving Strategies for Writing. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. Print.
Harris, Joseph. A Teaching Subject. N.p.: Utah State UP, 2012. Print.
Perl, Sondra. “The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers.” Research in the Teaching of English 13.4 (1979): 317-36. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.