“The Lure of Literacy: A Critical Reception of the Abolition Debate” uses the century-long tradition of proposals for the abolition of compulsory composition to uncover pervasive assumptions about literacy. Chapters of this project revisit touchstones in the debate to show how arguments on all sides of the issue depend on ambiguous and contradictory attitudes about literacy as well as exaggerated expectations of the consequences of possessing it. This project re-contextualizes calls to abolish compulsory composition and proposes questions that may be used to inform a new model for first-year writing, one aspiring to complicate students’ attitudes about literacy more generally. In arguing for a different model for compulsory composition programs, this dissertation offers a way out of an unproductive debate that has gripped composition for over a century.
Following a prologue that surveys relevant literature in the abolition debate, Chapter 1 demonstrates how exaggerated expectations of the powers of literacy underline calls to abolish compulsory composition. Using principal contributors of the New Literacy Studies, I reread the first printed calls to abolish compulsory composition. I show how the period of academic specialization (1865-1920) and exaggerated understandings of the ostensible powers of literacy inform these proposals, complicating attempts to bring about lasting reform in the teaching of composition. Chapter 2 supplements existing histories of the abolition debate by incorporating overlooked voices of both abolitionism and reform. I question the validity of a distinction posited by contemporary receptions of the abolition debate; namely, between “abolitionists” and “new abolitionists.” My view is that this division is only possible if we ignore persistent continuities in the debate, especially with respect to the attitudes and definitions of literacy that inform these studies.
In Chapter 3, I challenge dominant narratives of abolitionism in composition by examining proposals that seek not to abolish the requirement but to reform the course on various levels. Taken together, these essays demonstrate that like abolitionists, arguments employing the rhetoric of “cooperation,” “continuity,” and “reform,” rely on problematic attitudes about literacy. Chapter 4, focusing primarily on Sharon Crowley’s call to abolish compulsory composition(1998), is situated more specifically in the context of materialist critiques of the conditions of teaching writing. By examining the rhetoric of academic discourse surrounding Sharon Crowley’s call to abolish compulsory freshman composition, I explain how her proposal has gained notoriety in English studies. This chapter argues that her role in the abolition debate deserves greater critical attention.
My conclusion makes two moves: First, I discuss Stanley Fish’s “What Should Colleges Teach?” (2009). Fish’s article demonstrates that complaints about composition continue today. I contend that his study rehearses the same arguments and criticisms that have been levied against composition since its inception in 1874. I turn, in the second part, to a series of questions that may be used to inform a new model for first-year writing, one based on interrogating the very idea of literacy itself.