Review: McComiskey, Bruce. (2000). Teaching Composition as a Social Process. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

– Reviewed by Jonathan Alexander, September 25, 2000
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Since the early 1990s, the "social turn" in composition studies has produced a growing body of provocative scholarship that seeks to unpack the connections between discourse and politics, language and power, representation and social agency. In books as varied as Left Margins, Reclaiming Pedagogy, Composition and Resistance, Social Issues in the English Classroom, Pedagogy in the Age of Politics, and Miss Grundy Doesn't Teach Here Anymore, compositionists have theorized how the writing classroom can become a site of both emergent political awareness and critique. With this in mind, however, Bruce McComiskey claims in Teaching Composition as a Social Process that many of the theories put forth in the above-mentioned books advocate for courses that are admittedly content-rich-but often at the expense of examining and integrating the writing process into the political critique.

As McComiskey puts it, these books encourage the examination of "writing and texts as social and cultural phenomena, yet the pedagogies contained in these collections tend to focus more on the content rather than the language of reading and writing assignments" (86). Acknowledging the post-process critique that the writing-process movement may have (momentarily, at least) blinded students (and teachers) to examining the social and political content of their writing and composition processes, McComiskey nonetheless asserts the usefulness of process pedagogies, and he maintains throughout Teaching Composition as a Social Process that both process pedagogies and the critique offered by the "social turn" in composition studies can be linked to mutual benefit. In the process (as it were), he convincingly proposes in this slim, generally readable volume the development and deployment of what he calls "social-process" pedagogies in the writing classroom.

McComiskey primarily connects writing-process pedagogies with political critique by emphasizing the ways in which both writing and the creation of social values are themselves processes. As such, "social-process pedagogy" is invested in having students analyze the processes through which "culture" is produced, disseminated, and consumed. McComiskey explains:

Social-process rhetorical inquiry… is a method of invention that usually manifests itself in composition classes as a set of heuristic questions based on the cycle of cultural production, contextual distribution, and critical consumption. While composition studies, I believe, has extensively explored the cognitive and social processes by which discourse is produced, the processes of distribution and consumption (and the entire cyclical process of production, distribution, and consumption) have been largely neglected. The integration of these rhetorical processes is the very function of social-process rhetorical inquiry. (54)

Although his language is heady, McComiskey rightly sees, I think, a connection between the cycle of production ("cultural production, contextual distribution, and critical consumption") and a writing process involving production of texts, critical examination of writerly and readerly contexts, and a developing intertextual sensitivity to how texts can be combined, recombined, revised, and read against one another and individually. In other words, the dissemination, reception, and revision of "texts" and "values" offer intriguing parallels that can be profitably examined in the composition classroom.

Moving from theory to practice, McComiskey offers multiple examples of his social-process pedagogy, and, indeed, one of the many strengths of this book lies in McComiskey's analysis of social-process pedagogy in action. For instance, in one set of exercises, McComiskey describes how students analyze college viewbooks for the ways in which they construct ideal students with the "right" values; then students are invited to critique the distribution of such books and their own consumption of them. Ultimately, McComiskey has students create their own viewbooks in response to the critiques they have undertaken. Frequently, such analysis of circulating discourses (such as viewbooks) results in the production of letters aimed at intervening in the dissemination of representations and values that students find exclusionary or politically troubling. For example, in another set of carefully designed exercises, McComiskey describes how students examine the "culture of school[ing]" to excavate and explore both formal and hidden curricula, as well as the cultural values implicit in contemporary educational practices. After such examinations, students write letters to instructors, advising them about various classroom practices; of course, to be effective, such letters must engage the discourses that circulate in the academic world, and McComiskey discusses how instructing students in navigating these discourses can strengthen their sense of agency in affecting change. Thus, McComiskey attempts to lead students through a writing process that moves from invention to intervention; as such, students develop critical thinking and reading skills to understand how texts (and values) are constructed, understand how context and audience shape the reception of texts (and values), and think critically about how they can shape their own writing to contribute to and intervene in the discourses shaping values (and texts).

In the process, McComiskey ultimately argues not just for fostering awareness of how texts, discourses, and their accompanying values are produced and circulated, but for helping students envision and create opportunities for the re-negotiation of cultural interpretations and interpretive spaces: "Not only does [social-process pedagogy] encourage students to understand writing as a process, but it also encourages students to understand culture itself as a process that is open to change through careful rhetorical intervention" (39-40). Linking this aim with process pedagogy, McComiskey asserts that

Students who engage in detailed heuristic exploration of all three moments in the cycle of cultural production, contextual distribution, and critical consumption develop the sense that culture itself is a constantly changing process and that their own writing can influence some of the changes that cultures undergo, and social-process rhetorical inquiry brings these processes of rhetorical intervention consciously to bear on students' own critical writing. (24)

Some might find his insistence that student writing become engaged in transforming the world a bit naïve, but McComiskey never overplays his political hand; he has students concentrate on local struggles as opposed to re-composing the decomposed grand narratives of earlier times. Or, as he puts it in a nicely turned sentence, "…postmodern subjectivities must not disperse into a politically impotent multiplicity of different individuals, and they must not accept centralizing authorities that coagulate differences into politically impotent universalizing identities" (73). Ultimately, I found such thinking refreshing in its willingness to push a postmodern critique into political action.

Moreover, I think his approach can be easily applied to writing assignments in other courses and across the curriculum, particularly as it encourages students to think about the multiple ways in which discourse is constructed and circulated (not just in written texts, but in visual rhetoric as well), and I can easily see how instructors in the humanities, social sciences, and even the sciences might use a social-process pedagogical approach to enliven discussion of how knowledges and values are created and disseminated.

Nonetheless, McComiskey does make a few assumptions-both politically and rhetorically-that might trouble some readers. On one hand, he assumes that inclusion is the desired (and highest ethical) goal, but I have often found that many of my more politically-aware students are not always eager to embrace inclusion per se; indeed, having grown up in a society that blithely espouses the importance of inclusion, some students want to turn a critical eye on the cliches of inclusivity and re-appreciate the importance of strategic separatism. On the other hand, and more basically, McComiskey assumes at times a political self-awareness that not all students will possess. He says,

Students who internalize social-process methods for rhetorical inquiry are not only able to expose in various texts the values and identities that are detrimental to the social health of their own communities, but they are also able to compose productive documents that either subvert those detrimental values or construct values more consistent with the needs and goals of their communities. (134)

This assumes, of course, that students both know and wish to defend the communities of which they are a part, and, as a reader and teacher, I couldn't shake the sense that more time needs to be spent on helping students critically examine the often contentious and competing communities (and identities) of which they are apart-and of which they may not have much self-consciousness or awareness. And clearly, the book's assignments seem best suited for first-year or advanced writers, leaving us to wonder how developmental writers might benefit from McComiskey's social-process pedagogy; indeed, a follow-up article on social-process in the developmental classroom would be useful.

Rhetorically, some might find McComiskey's highly detailed assignments and heuristics leading or even prescriptive; indeed, it could be useful, as McComiskey himself points out, to analyze with students the political values implicit in the assignments and writing prompts themselves. And finally, I missed discussion of how computers and information technologies might facilitate the critique and intervention that McComiskey envisions here. Granted, not every book can be all things to all people, but I think at least some critical inquiry into the use of computers in social-process pedagogies is warranted, particularly considering the ever-increasing extent to which technology is being used to teach composition.

Nonetheless, Teaching Composition as a Social Process provides an excellent intervention into the debates about process versus post-process pedagogies, the "social turn" in the composition classroom, and the teaching of writing in a postmodern world. Along the way, McComiskey offers us provocative and pedagogically engaged thinking about how our composition courses can foster both the rhetorical and critical thinking skills that may best serve our students in a world of multiple, competing, and quickly shifting processes.

Publication Information: Alexander, Jonathan. (2000). [Review of the book Teaching Composition as a Social Process]. Academic.Writing.
Publication Date: October 5, 2000

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Copyright © 2000 Jonathan Alexander. Used with permission.