The Mysterious Incident of the Missing Title: Why Did Titular Concern Vanish from Composition Studies?


How much time, if any, do first-year writing instructors spend in class discussing the importance of titles on their students’ papers? Without looking at a mountain of lesson plans or interviewing a plethora of instructors from across the country, it is impossible to know what is and what isn’t commonly taught in first-year composition courses. Admittedly, introductory writing and research classes can vary greatly from institution to institution and even from instructor to instructor within the same department. However, judging by an examination of current First-Year Composition textbooks, Rhet/Comp scholars place little importance on discussing the effect of titles on student papers. Out of the most popular rhetoric and composition textbooks in use now, only a handful give any direction, however miniscule it is, about how and why students should compose a title to their work. When they do say anything about titles, much of the instruction focuses on issues of citation or formatting (i.e., where to put the title) instead of an explanation of titles as rhetorical tool that students should carefully consider[1].

[1]Successful College Writingis one exception as it has a slightly more extensive conversation about titles, including tips on how make the title more attention grabbing. However, it does not discuss in depth the reasoning behind why titles are crucial.

For example, the discussion of titles in the popular First-Year Composition textbook Everything’s an Argumentessentially consists of one sentence that reads, “Titles, headings, subheadings, enlarged quotations, running heads, and boxes are some common visual signals” (Lunsford et. al. 340). Apart from this article and its companion, “How to Win Papers and Influence Professors: Creating Positive First Impressions through Effective Titles,” a search of the Writing Commons archive reveals a similar treatment of titles, primarily dealing with formatting in citations or on title pages. And these are examples that explicitly address titles in some way; many composition textbooks do not mention them at all. An interesting example is The Norton Field Guide to Writing, which is organized in large part around the concept genre. As I will argue, titles can be an important part of establishing genre, and yet The Norton Field Guidedoes not discuss titles in any significant way.

If composition textbooks and resources barely mention them, we have to ask ourselves whether first-year composition instructors should pay any attention to titles. Aren’t they, like the student’s name, simply a placeholder? In an already crammed semester, should we take the time to discuss what many consider a mundane detail not tantamount to the rest of the argument?

The answer to the latter question is a resounding, “Yes.” Titles are significant, and through this article I hope to prove they are important in two key ways:

  1. They are inherently connected with genre and give the first indication of the “appropriate” way to read a text.
  2. They can be used both to create an audience and a writer.

In the end, my goal is to persuade rhetoric scholars and first-year composition instructors that we need to spend more time discussing the importance of titles with our students.

Establishing first impressions through genre

One important aspect of titles that is commonly overlooked is that students can use them to develop a tone for an essay. A well-crafted title can serve as the perimeter wall of the “genre function,” and in so doing can be a tool for not only regulating but also constituting meaning in a text.

Building off the work of scholars in linguistics, education, communication, and composition (primarily Composition scholar Carolyn Miller), Anis Bawarshi coins the term “genre function,” in his article of the same name, as an alternative to what Michel Foucault in “What is an Author” calls the “author-function.” To Foucault, the author function expresses “the space left empty by the author’s disappearance” in structuralist and poststructuralist literary theory (Bawarshi 345). The author-function doesn’t refer to the literal author of a work, but instead to the regulatory function that the author serves to delimit what is and what isn’t a work of value. In other words, “it refers to the author’s name, which in addition to being a proper name, is also a literary name, a name that exists only in relation to the work associated with it,” and therefore, bestows on a work its cultural status (336). But as Bawarshi points out, Foucault’s author-function only accounts for certain “privileged” discourses[2].

[2]Here, Bawarshi sees the author-function as referring mainly to canonical texts. For instance, a literary scholar may claim to study Hemingway or Jonson, but works outside the cannon or marginalized mediums, comic books for instance, don’t achieve value even when a prominent author in that genre is attached to the work. Also, author-function doesn’t account for the regulatory process associated with “everyday speech” that comes and goes.

What we need argues, Bawarshi, is “an overarching concept that can explain the social roles we assign to various discourses and those who enact and are enacted by them. Genre is such a concept” (337).

As far as first-year composition courses, what we can take away from Bawarshi’s argument is that high school and college students don’t have the authority to take advantage of the author function. They don’t have established names or inherent ethos. However, they could make use the genre function. Since every discourse can fit into one genre or another no matter how obscure or marginalized it may be, and since even genres exist on a hierarchical schema, the genre function works as a broader regulatory device and can in fact subsume the author-function under its purview. The entrenched hierarchies perpetuated by the author-function are surmountable because genre broadens the boundaries of our inquiry, and as a result of its more encompassing nature, the genre function allows for all discourses and all writers to be heard, whether the writer is Hemmingway or a first-year writing student (337).

However, genre’s function in a text is much more than regulating discourses within particular value categories; it gives the reader the paradigm necessary to decode the text. As Miller points out, “It is through the process of typification (genre) that we create recurrence, analogies, similarities. What recurs is not material situation but our construal of a type. Successful communication would require that the participants share common types” (157). Genres inform our understanding of a text by taking the new experience or discourse and making it “familiar through the recognition of relevant similarities” to a certain genre (156-157).

To understand the implications of this concept, I return again to Bawarshi. He cites a useful example from Heather Dubrow in her 1984 survey of genre theory, in which she asks readers to consider the following paragraph:

The clock on the mantelpiece said ten thirty, but someone had suggested recently that the clock was wrong. As the figure of the dead woman lay on the bed in the front room, a no less silent figure glided rapidly from the house. The only sounds to be heard were the ticking of the clock and the loud wailing of an infant. (1)

Dubrow asks how we make sense of this discourse. What details should we pay attention to as significant? What state of mind should we be in as readers? According to Bawarshi, “knowing that the paragraph appears in a novel with the title Murder at Marplethorpe, readers can begin to make certain interpretive decisions as to the value and meaning of specific images, images that become symbolic when readers recognize that the novel belongs to the genre of detective fiction” (340). For instance, the rapidly fleeing figure becomes a suspect in the woman’s murder. If, contrarily, the paragraph is from The Personal History of David Marplethorpe, the specter of murder dissipates as the departing person could be seeking help while the baby, possibly Marplethorpe himself, describes his mother’s costly accident. It’s a useful example because “not only does the genre function in this case constitute how we read certain elements within the discourse, allowing us to assume certain subject positions as readers of the discourse, but it also constitutes the roles we assign to the actors and events within the discourse” (340).

What Bawarshi fails to acknowledge here is that what he is calling “genre” in this instance is, in fact, a title. The text itself doesn’t change, just the name that he assigns to the novel, which demonstrates the inescapable connection between title and genre. This isn’t to say that a title is always a clear revealer of a text’s genre[3], but in many circumstances, the title is the reader’s first indication of the “appropriate” way to read the text, as in the example of Murder at Marplethorpe. Just as first impressions can have a long-lasting effect on interpersonal relationships, the first hint at the text’s genre—what we may call the first impression for the relationship between the reader and the text—can impact the reader long after they have turned the cover. Genre not only provides but forces upon the reader certain expectations from the start. An inappropriate title can have a devastating affect on a text if the created expectations aren’t met. For instance, if in The Johnson Conspiracy there isn’t intrigue, secrecy, and a malevolent force working in the shadows, the novel, which might otherwise be an exceptional piece of writing, will disappoint much of its initial audience.

[3]I could cite any number of ambiguous titles as examples of a title’s limitations as revealer, but David Sedaris’s Naked, a collection of memoirs about various, and very loosely connected, incidents in his life is a readily available text that doesn’t expose its genre in the title. However, for every Nakedout there, I could cite a The Martian Chronicles to show that titles do have an impact.

In our composition classes, we spend countless hours working on our students’ introductions, teaching them to grab their audience’s attention and hook them into the argument so they will continue reading, but we ignore the fact that if the student’s title confuses the issue, alienates their audience, or simply bores them, even the most provocative and enthralling introductions will have a daunting, poor first impression to overcome. Some arguments won’t be able to recover. How many times have we received student papers with titles like, “Death Penalty” or “Paper #2”? These titles simply serve as placeholders and fail to establish an effective tone for the paper. If they establish any kind of first impression, it’s one of laziness or ineptitude, regardless of whether that’s a true indication of a student’s work.

Even worse can be a title that sets up an expectation and fails to deliver. Recently, my students completed an Advertising Analysis assignment, and mixed in with the numerous students with placeholder titles like, “Nike Ad Analysis,” I had one that read, “Delta: Marketing using the Cognitive Process.” The title peaked my interest because it appeared to indicate a more conscientious and academic approach to the analysis than I was seeing from many of the other first-year students. Unfortunately, the student used “cognitive process” because they thought it as a fancy way of saying “intentional,” and their paper remained broad and never addressed the advertiser’s thought process. Although the student’s paper wasn’t any worse than many of their classmates’, I felt a bit more let down by their paper after reading it, and there’s a chance I could have graded it more harshly if I hadn’t recognized that the disappointment stemmed from my heightened first impression[4].

[4]The student had a solid Intro paragraph as well, which only cemented the first impression that began to form after reading the title and eventually lead to the expectations and disappoint when the paper didn’t deliver.

On the other hand, a captivating title can create instant ethos. How many times while perusing the shelves of the local bookstore have we inspected a book and bought it based primarily on its title? More than a few. A student’s title can grab our attention in much the same way and encourage us to “buy” the argument. For example, in that same batch of advertising analysis papers, I received one with the title, “The True Meaning of Love—Getting Laid.” The analysis was of an advertisement marketing diamond rings by depicting women as more willing to engage in sex once a man had proposed to them[5], and the student made an argument about the ad’s demeaning depiction of women and skewed vision of “love.” The title works on at least two levels 1) the language and juxtaposition of “love” and “laid,” although crass, does its job of grabbing reader attention 2) more importantly, it’s a tongue-in-cheek reference (demonstrated in part by italicizing “true”) to a stereotypically male perspective on relationships, which the student argues is the way the marketers are approaching this ad. The title of this paper begins to establish credibility for the student as it criticizes the marketer’s vision in the ad through effective sarcasm, and it indicates a playful insightfulness that the student carries throughout the paper.

[5]Natan Jewelry ad.

Not all student titles will be successful, but at the very least, they should help to move the argument forward, remembering that by tapping into a genre the author can impart to their audience the tools necessary to an “appropriate” reading of the text.