Writing Studies

More recently, since about the 1970s, a new academic field has emerged to focus specifically on writing theory, research, and pedagogy. Perhaps because this is such a new field, its founders have yet to settle on a common term to call the field. In the discussion below, we review some of the names bestowed on this emerging academic discipline, and we clarify why we have chosen the moniker Writing Studies at Writing Commons.

Here, by academic field we mean that in higher education a community of scholars has developed methodologies for investigating and testing communicative practices. Working with established methods (e.g., surveys, case studies, ethnographic studies) and epistemologies (e.g. positivism or phenomenology), researchers have collaborated to develop and test knowledge claims related to writing pedagogy and research.

Traditionally, disciplinary fields are defined by the name experts ascribe to their graduate-level degree programs. For instance, if you get an MA or a PhD in Chemistry, the name of your Ph.D. is Doctorate of Chemistry. However, this is not the case when it comes to a specialization in writing theory, research, or pedagogy. The database of Ph.D. and MA granting institutions, maintained by the Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition, demonstrates disciplinary experts do not agree on a common term for the field.  Here are some of the more popular titles for MA and Ph.D. programs:

  • Rhetoric and Composition
  • Composition Studies;  
  • Writing Studies;
  • Rhetoric & Culture; 
  • Texts & Technology; 
  • Writing History and Theory; and 
  • Poetics, Rhetorics, Technologies.

Changes in writing technologies and subsequent changes in composing and genre may partially explain the difficulties in coming up with a name for the academic discipline. In her 2004 Chair’s Address to the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Kathleen Yancey traces challenges to naming the field to tectonic changes in literacy practices:

Literacy today is in the midst of a tectonic change.  Even inside of school, never before have writing and composing generated such diversity in definition. (Yancey 2004)  

Kathleen Yancey, 2004 Chairs Address, Conference on College Composition and Communication

Over the years, writers have moved from writing on stone or bark or papus or paper or computer screens. Typewriters are deeply buried in the modern trash dump. Now, we wear our computers as watches, glasses, or phones. If a good thought comes to us when biking or swimming or whatever else, we take a quick moment to dedicate a comment to our watch or phones. And, along with changes in our tools, our conception of literacy is quickly evolving. Now, are you literate if you cannot handle collaboration, social tagging, and multimodal compositions? At what point, one cannot but wonder, will the machines write first drafts for us.

As a consequence of a renaissance in communication technologies (e.g., the internet, Twitter, blogging), new disciplines are emerging with interests in Writing Studies, including Writing Analytics, Corpus Linguistics, and New Media.

Given the dramatic changes in literacy practices, it is perhaps not surprising that the name of the discipline remains in question. How can you name a discipline when its core keeps changing?

Writing Studies vs. Composition Studies

Here at Writing Commons, we are aware that not everyone agrees Writing Studies is the best moniker for this new, interdisciplinary academic discipline. We recognize there are excellent reasons for calling the field Composition Studies or Rhetoric and Composition. That said, below we summarize our rationale for going with Writing Studies.

The Case for Composition Studies

A quick review of the names of degree programs suggests the most common title is Rhetoric and Composition. And that moniker seems reinforced by the name of the organization that tracks these programs: Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition.

Naming the discipline first after Rhetoric makes good sense. Rhetoricians hold the First Mover Advantage. The early works of Socrates, Aristotle, Isocrates, Cicero, Quintilian form the foundation of the discipline. With this view in mind, Rhetoricians could argue Compositionists and other subdisciplines with skin in the game could have a place at the table, but that the table was set by the classical rhetoricians. It was this theoretical tradition, after all, that led Sherman Hill, president of Harvard, in 1869 to establish a dedicated course for the “study of the English language” (as qtd. in Miller, 2006).

Even so, no one seems terribly excited about the moniker Rhetoric and Composition. As of 5/19, no one has thought Rhetoric & Composition sufficiently important enough to warrant a Wikipedia page:

And the title Rhetoric and Composition doesn’t show a lot of traction in Google’s NGrams of Books Published between 1800 and 2000.

After Rhetoric and Composition, Ph.Ds. in the discipline are often called Composition Studies. The primary journal in the field is called College Composition and Communication. And, the academic conference in the field is called The Conference on College Composition and Communication.

For some people, Composition Studies is an umbrella term that includes the works of rhetoricians and other subdisciplines. For example, in their introduction to Exploring Composition Studies: Sites, Issues, Perspectives, Kelly Ritter and Paul Kei Matsuda, sketch a genealogy for the discipline back to

  • antiquity, particularly the work of Aristotle on Rhetorical appeals and the Rhetorical Situation;
  • the early 1890s when Harvard instituted the first undergraduate course explicitly on college writing;
  • 1911 when the National Council of Teachers of English was formed; 
  • 1950 when College Composition and Communication, an academic journal was founded.

Additionally, in its description of the discipline, the 2019 program for the Conference on College Composition and Communication defines the field very broadly:

The field of composition studies draws on research and theories from a broad range of humanistic disciplines—English studies, rhetoric, cultural studies, LGBT studies, gender studies, critical theory, education, technology studies, race studies, communication, philosophy of language, anthropology, sociology, and others—and from within composition and rhetoric studies, where a number of subfields have also developed, such as technical communication, computers and composition, writing across the curriculum, research practices, and the history of these fields. 

Conference on College Composition and Communication

However, not everyone agrees that Composition Studies necessarily welcomes all of these subfields in equal ways. For example, in Stephen North’s accounting of the creation story for Composition Studies (see The Making of Knowledge in Composition, 1987), he argues the discipline’s existence and success is founded on the impulse to erect walls and look for differences rather than commonalities.

For North, the central impetus for the creation of Composition Studies as an academic discipline was twofold: (1) the rise of science; (2) GI Bill. North argued the early pioneers, the first-generation of Compositionists, embraced the idea that the scientific method would provide new solutions for teaching and learning. Here, the Compositionists were leveraging America’s fear that it was falling behind Russia, as symbolized by Sputnik. The hope was that the scientific method would empower the Compositionists to better meet the needs of nontraditional students, some of whom lacked basic literacy skills, who were entering U.S. higher education thanks to the GI bill.

Like the California gold prospectors of 1848-1855, Composition’s early pioneers were driven by the territorial imperative–the impulse to fight when you feel your personal space is somehow threatened. To develop Ph.D. and Masters programs, secure tenure-track professorships in U.S. institutions, and win grant money, North believed Compositionists needed to distinguish themselves from earlier intellectual traditions, particularly rhetoric. To advance, they needed to brand their discipline as something entirely new. Todd Taylor beautifully summarizes the gist of this critique:

Unless composition studies is different from other disciplines, until it has a room of its own that is unlike others, it is either a subdiscipline or a nondiscipline (184).

Todd Taylor. “A Methodology of Our Own”, Edited by Lynn Bloom, Donald Daiker, Edward White, Composition Studies in the New Millennium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future (2003)

The Case for Writing Studies

As suggested by the Google Ngram Viewer below, the term Writing Studies is a fairly new. (Unfortunately, Google Books Ngram Viewer doesn’t sort past year 2000.)

While the term Writing Studies is a fairly new and while the disciplinary status of Writing Studies is still somewhat debatable, the study of writing has a distinguished heritage

Here at Writing Commons, we prefer the term Writing Studies to Rhetoric and Composition or Composition Studies. To us the term Writing Studies feels conceptually broader and more welcoming and inclusive. Rather than viewing “technical communication, computers and composition, writing across the curriculum, research practices” (see quote above) as subfields, we view composing in technical contexts or using computers to compose or writing in the disciplines or engaging in research to be at the very center of our discipline. Plus, given writing is a psychosocial process (a mediation between the mind of the writer and social interactions), we also view psychology and sociology to be at the center of the discipline. And we also think Creative Writing Studies has had and will continue to have a profound effect on the evolution of Writing Studies, including

  • 1936 when the Iowa Writers Workshop was founded.
  • The 1950s when The Paris Review Interviews began publishing interviews of creative writers.

Additional articles on Writing-studies:

  1. An Interview with Stephanie Vanderslice

    Stephanie Vanderslice's most recent book is Rethinking Creative Writing. With Dr. Kelly Ritter, she has also published Teaching Creative Writing...

  2. An Interview With Timons Esaias

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  3. An Interview with Trent Hergenrader

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  4. Digital Literacy

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  5. Interviews with Writers: Maureen Seaton

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  8. Social Media Mythbusters

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

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  10. What are New Literacies?

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  11. Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches Us about Writing

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  12. Writing a Statement of Purpose

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