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Writing Empires I:
Composition and the Expansion of English

2007 MLA Convention
27-30 December 2008
Chicago, Illinois


Jessica Yood
Lehman College, The City University of New York

The Post-Paradigm Academy?

Do not cite without permission of the author.

For far too long the academy in general and English studies in particular have been charmed, obsessed, and, now, paralyzed by the lure of the paradigm. Since Thomas Kuhn coined the term in 1962, scholars in English have defined the field’s health according to some paradigm fitness test.

A paradigm, Kuhn wrote in his famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is “some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation, and criticism” (16-17).   In this theory of change, knowledge is made or paradigms “shift” according to revolutionary cycles—one group of ideas holds fast until another supplants it. 

For a while, English benefited from this approach to change.  Paradigms ushered in much of the theoretical turns that defined the 1970’s and 1980’s, helped distinguish cultural studies from those turns, and formed the vocabulary of early manifestos arguing for the modern discipline of composition.1

But as it turns out, scholars of writing, culture, rhetoric, and literature are not the kind of revolutionaries that Kuhn was talking about.  We don’t ebb and flow as much as expand and revise. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but English professors don’t like to throw things out.  In 1993, Gerald Graff published a book-length study of our profession in which he dubbed English as a discipline of expansion, not revolutionary transformation (6-7).      

In the hey-day of the culture wars, this seemed a problem.  We were supposed to know who had the best theory, the best reading that went against the toughest grain.  But today, in this moment of great complexity and contradiction—higher education is expanding but the humanities are not, writing is growing but public universities are under fire, more literature is being written then ever but English departments are shrinking—we can see our pack-ratness as potential. 

That is, if we can harness it.  We have at our fingertips all of the possible tools to deal with the many questions, local and global, that face the challenges of writing, reading, and community-building today.  We need a way to name that work for ourselves and for the academy at-large.

This is an essay about breaking the paradigm cycle and why it matters that we do so.  First, it matters because paradigms insist on revolutions; they ignore the small evolutionary developments that are renewing our fields as we speak.  And it matters because paradigms keep the many strands of our discipline in separate corners of the academic map as each tries to avoid landing on the wrong end of the dramatic, (but mythical) rises and falls of our field (Scholes).

I want to suggest that we find our way out of the paradigm model by naming the epistemology and the politics that ground our innovative work. How we describe what we are doing has everything to do with where we will end up going: if we will keep expanding until we pop, or if we integrate our programs and cultures into a dynamic whole that can reshape how disciplines function in the academy.

More than ever, it feels like English is, in Kurt Spellmeyer’s meditative word, “attuned”—present to the interconnections between our fields and the changing public (424).  Yet alongside this attunement has been attainment, of writing houses, departments, majors, WAC programs and WID professorships. 

This is not the work of paradigms.  Rather, it is the work of programs: places in the academy that seek to match intellectual pursuit with what Michael Berube called, nearly twenty years ago, “public access.”

But we cannot only build.  We need to reflect, to find a way to describe where we are and where we are going. 

I think we can find that way in a word compositionists used nearly twenty-five years ago, a word that captured the messy possibilities of writing.  That word is “process.”

English resists any term that has even a faint odor of “master narrative.” In literary studies, years of deconstructing hegemonic ideologies and dichotomies trained scholars to flee from any over-arching descriptive term.  In composition, “process” has become synonymous with those naïve, non-theorized early days of the field, when teachers of writing cared only about the writing process (prewriting, drafting, revising)—a process that ignored the complex realities of rhetorical situations.

But this is not the process I want to return to.  And we should admit, too, that we resist big theories not solely for some postmodern position-ality.  Disdain for disciplinary labels also lets each of our individual fields to stake their small piece of territory on the increasingly shrinking disciplinary map. 

But that map is changing, and growing in some places.  There is room for rethinking our position on disciplines and theory. 

Paradigms and the Exemplary
English’s rejection of a theory of change has allowed us to stick with “the paradigm”—which, as this short critique will reveal, keeps us contained in some version of disciplinarity that ignores how programs move policy and epistemology. 

Kuhn’s project was to find “the structure of scientific theories, the status of theoretical entities, or the conditions under which scientists may properly claim to have produced sound knowledge” (90).   “Sound” knowledge and the status of “structures” are notions with universal appeal for academics.  The idea that groups of people, rather than laboratory experiments, could generate change was inviting and radical. 

And yet who those groups of people were and what they could do was limited. What determined “soundess” were the “exemplars” of science—the problem-solvers who gained consensus in a field.  Teaching or writing programs enact a paradigm—they don’t create it.  Those who are left out the “exemplars” are, well, most of us. 

In his book debating and critiquing the considerable influence of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Steve Fuller, a pioneer thinker in Science Technology Studies (STS), puts the problems of paradigms this way, “Kuhn simply repeats the popular historiography of science as the succession of trailblazers at the research frontiers, except that the heroic genius is replaced by the self-perpetuating cult” (9).  Paradigms provide an outlet for a few researchers and scholars and an “activity,” or performance for the public to enact that paradigm (8). Fuller concludes that the overall effect of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has not been salutary.  Rather, its effect has been “to dull the critical sensibility of the academy” (7).2

Social theorist John Zammitto details the hierarchical nature of paradigms this way: the “emergence of normal science is both constraining and enabling, and it is enabling through constraint” (56).  Paradigms propel increased specialization and “rules” that govern that specialization. Zammitto goes on to explain that once the paradigm had shifted, how that paradigm would fit into the public was a task for “writer of textbooks” (56), an activity for the classroom.  Paradigms are tools for solidifying ideas, not for generating connections.        

Generating connections is what we are trying to do here. My colleagues on this panel offer insightful ways to reconceive English and higher education through the work of writing. WAC and other interdisciplinary, cross disciplinary, or super disciplinary programs, are performing what it is to be a post-paradigmatic academy—networked, local, politically linked in, ecological in the cognitive and political sense of the word and world. 

Fuller’s alternative to paradigms is “movement.” Mine is “process,” which brings writing to the core of our theorizing. Writing and movements are processes—self-referential and reflexive.  They recognize how knowledge in disciplines gets made and changed not only by people creating ideas but by the interaction between ideas and a public and by the interaction between a community’s thinking about knowledge and their actualizing it in the form of politics and programs. 

Now is the moment, especially here at the MLA, to insist that what we have in common is a process-oriented view of the academy today, a theory of change that is also an act of constant composing.

Process in Composition: Transformation Beyond and Through Writing
In 1982, when the modern discipline of composition was coming into its own, Maxine Hairston suggested “process” as the term to bring together work in writing, teaching, and rhetoric.  In her CCC essay called “The Wings of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing” Hairston detailed process as the messy, recursive “processes by which individuals give shape and meaning to written text” (Perl, “Writing Process” 1). The writing-process movement would focus on “strategies” for composing, would be “holistic,” “recursive” “expressive,” “expository” (Hairston 124). There were many more features; Hairston listed twelve.  However, “process” is most famous (or infamous) for not one of these features but all of them, as they were put together in the revolutionary “writing-process-paradigm.”  

Hairston argued that composition was only in the “first stage” of the paradigm shift.  It couldn’t be a field unless the philosophy of process met the students in the classrooms and generated programs in the profession.

What’s powerful in that concept is not merely the idea that intellectual shifts are built on pedagogical change, but that they are based on knowing and teaching the kind of student and pedagogies least likely to be considered by Kuhn as an “exemplar”: the open-admissions student in a basic writing program at an urban, public institution.  Hairston cited nearly a page from Errors and Expectations where Mina Shaugnessy describes the group of open-admissions students at CUNY whose writing “met no traditional standards” (Hairston 83).  She supposed that the work of these students and their teachers could serve as an “important stimuli in spurring the profession’s search for a new paradigm” (121). 

This was radical in 1982—to suggest that writing classrooms were the sites of novel disciplinary work.  But it is radical today, too, because it reveals how the multifaceted work of writing programs and interdisciplinary scholars can come together to make knowledge, and to make theories of knowledge.   Kuhn emphasized paradigms as a synthesis of forces, one generation of specialists replacing the ideas of the next.  But Hairston defined paradigms as a three-part event: a community of research specialists, a community of public activists, and a community of teachers would constitute the process paradigm. 

There are many well-founded critiques of Hairston and process theory.3 And, as is probably clear by now, I find the term paradigm to be wrong for composition and for English.  But her use of process as a theory of change sets in motion the idea that we can build theory out of practice.  And here is where we, in our newly renovated houses of writing, can take this task up once again.

In the examples of my colleagues we see how WAC extends not only disciplinary notions but also systemic beliefs about community, ecology, “the public.”  My institution, the City University of New York, the largest urban public university is a case in point for this, but there are many. At CUNY, WAC has been the catalyst for reorganizing general education on the seventeen campuses.  This has not been done at CUNY since the university first became an open-admissions institution in 1970 (see and

Revamping general education had been an interdisciplinary project that resists totalization but insists on cooperation between faculty, students, the public, and ideas of the university.  The initial work of this project emerged from the WAC/WID program, which is steeped in the political contradictions and theoretical accumulations of our time.  Created in 1999, after the controversial end of remediation, the WAC/WID program negotiates cross-disciplinary pedagogies with ESL pedagogy and basic writing strategies developed nearly thirty-years ago, at the start of open admissions.  The reality of any literacy program at CUNY is the changing population of students at the institution, half of whom are immigrants and working full-time.  They are the source of our challenges and our discoveries in WAC and enact a theory of globalization put forth by Stephen Greenblatt in the PMLA, a theory that finds language “the slipperiest of human creations…it cannot ultimately be predicted or controlled” (62).  

What is happening at my institution and all over the nation is what Hairston would call a recursive process—a “movement” back and forth between ideologies that are fixed in the moment and those we reach toward.  We are engaged in a negotiation between globalization and empire building, program planning and epistemological uncertainty that is at the core of teaching and learning.

In 1987 Gerald Graff wrote that the most serious conflicts of our discipline have been “masked by their failure to find visible institutional expression” (1987 14).  I think we’ve found visibility now, through our teaching, our programs, and, perhaps, a unified philosophy of change. This is process as novel products—real and visionary at the same time.


Works Cited

Berube, Michael. Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics.  New York: Verso, 1994.

Fuller, Steve. Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times.  Chicago: Chicago UP, 2000.

Graff, Gerald.  Professing Literature.  Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1987.

Graff, Gerald.  Beyond the Culture Wars. New York: WW. Norton & Company, 1993.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Racial Memory and Literary History.” PMLA 1116.1 (Jan 2001):

Hairston, Maxine.  “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the
Teaching of Writing.” Perl. 113-126.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Studies: two paradigms" in Media, Culture and Society 2, 1980,

Kent, Thomas.  Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing Process Paradigm.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999.

Kuhn, Thomas.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed).  Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1970.

Perl, Sondra.  Landmark Essays on Writing Process.  Davis, CA: Hermagoras P, 1994.

Perl, Sondra. “Writing Process: A Shining Moment.”  Introduction.  Landmark Essays on
Writing Process. xi-1.

Scholes, Robert. The Rise and Fall of English.  New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1998.

Spellmeyer, Kurt.  “After Theory: From Textuality to Attunement with the World.” College English 58.8 (December 1996): 424-36.

Zammito, John H. A Nice Derangment of Epistemes. Chicago: University of Chicago P,

1. In literary studies David Bleich’s essay on subjective criticism was groundbreaking in its use of paradigms (“The Subjective Paradigm in Science, Pyschology, and Criticism.”  New Literary History 17.2: (1976): 313-24).  Stuart Hall’s essay, “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms” in Media, Culture and Society 2 (1980): 57-72) is a good example of the use of the term in defining the field of cultural studies.  The edited collection Composition in the Twenty-First Century: Crisis and Change (Eds. Lynn Z. Bloom, Donald A. Daiker and Edward M. While, Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004) contains many essays discussing the role of paradigms in writing studies.

2. For an interesting discussion on Fuller and paradigm theory see Sharlet (

3. The edited collection by Thomas Kent categories the critiques of process as part of a “post-process paradigm”—again, relying on the paradigm theory of change.



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