Teaching Subject, A: Composition Since 1966

ISBN: 0135158001
ISBN 13: 9780135158005
By: Joseph Harris

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Academic Assignments Composition Criticism Currently Reading Grad School Non Fiction Rhetoric To Read Writing

Reader's Thoughts


One of the more interesting things about this book was to read all the theoretical underpinnings for the composition courses I took as an undergraduate. So that’s why they had us do those things! Boy, was I clueless. I also was not aware that composition was such a hotbed of ideology. Another fascinating feature of this book is the sections that Harris titles “Interchapters.” In these sections he provides a teaching example using samples from student writings interwoven with the story of the teaching methods used, his point being to show how the student grew in response to the teaching methods. These are—for me anyway—the most engaging sections of the book, and a great relief from the heavy theoretical and ideological discussions in the rest of the chapters. The book did provide me with a keener sense of the problematic nature of teaching composition, that composition is not simply grammar and rhetoric.


I fear that Harris’ ideal of the city as the model of community, with many different groups all living and working together—like the university that includes janitors and academic vice-presidents, students and adjuncts and archival preservationists—may be fading. Cites are becoming choices. Austin is a Texas choice and Hyde Park even more so. In the D.C. area, there’s an almost palpable different between Maryland and Virginia residents. With our computer-assisted occupational mobility, potential residents can scope out the yoga studios and Whole Foods offerings in a town (or the gun ranges and American flags in the yards) and decide whether the space is “right for them.” I don’t mean to belabor the locality point, but I think it’s emblematic of the way that our society specialized in and out of work. We used to all watch the Big Three news channels: now we watch the news that agrees with us. Less and less are there community forums for students to address. Instead, should be teach them to capitulate with whatever status quo they adore, or do we insist that they compete to win over the haters? Harris’ “specific and material” view of community “allows for consensus and conflict” (106) because “they are simply thrown together” (107). I think more and more, people are choosing not to deal with conflict—they’d rather just pick up and move.


In A Teaching Subject (1997), Joseph Harris outlines a history of the field of composition studies, but most importantly, I believe, critiques and questions the term community. Following Raymond Williams, he explains that the term has no opposite and so may become an "empty and sentimental word," but more importantly, it tends to create what it supposes to describe and becomes hard to resist (99). Harris believes it is important to understand that one does not simply move from one community to another, but is always "caught instead in an always changing mix of dominant, residual, and emerging discourses" (103). He views it as more helpful to understand our job as not helping students move from one community to another, but to constantly complicate and add on to their discourses (103). He prefers the term public to community because "it refers not a group of people (like community) but to a kind of space and process, a point of contact that needs both to be created and continuously maintained," and always us to think about discourse across differences (109).

Adam Sprague

I honestly don't remember much of this, and there is a really great reason for that.


At times, Harris's argument is difficult to comprehend, but he provides practical teaching strategies and his chapter on community is particularly interesting.


I like how Harris intersperses the longer chapters with "interchapters" that give longish examples of student writing.

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