As I’ve begun to browse over Fulkerson’s “Four Philosophies,” which I first read as an undergraduate several years ago, I’ve started to remember how influential this particular piece was to the field in terms of the disciplinary questions it raised. Seminal publications by Murray, Bartholomae, Miller, Matsuda, Lunsford & Straub, and others all reflect upon the classifications set out by Fulkerson, as well as the influence these classifications had in the re-aligning of the modern Language Arts programs of American academies. More than anything, I’m also beginning to recall how powerful James Berlin’s response to this specific work was in his “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories” in the December, 1982 issue of College English.
In Berlin’s introduction to his re-imagining of Fulkerson’s essential four philosophies, he writes:
A number of articles [Fn1.: “I have in mind Richard Fulkerson”] attempting to make sense of the various approaches to teaching composition have recently appeared. While all are worth considering, some promote a common assumption that I am convinced is erroneous. Since all pedagogical approaches, it is argued, share a concern for the elements of the composing process–that is, for writer, reality, reader, and language–their only area of disagreement must involve the element or elements that ought to be given the most attention […] Differences, then, are mere cavils about which of these features to emphasize in the classroom (765).
I can’t help but keep this particular criticism at the forefront of my analysis as I re-read Fulkerson, and despite my cult-like worship of James Berlin as the One True God of New Rhetoric, I simply can’t agree with his assessment–especially when he name drops “Four Philosophies” in his footnotes as the primary text he is responding to. I also can’t help but note that his own approaches similarly remix the basic elements of writer, reality, reader, and language to the same ends as Fulkerson himself.
I believe that it is helpful in defense of Fulkerson to dissolve his essay into the most basic forms of his argument and categorization, and then note where sections of his text reflect specifically on the inability of the instructor to meaningfully impose a will of emphasis in preference to one philosophy or another.
- Fulkerson opens his essay by first acknowledging, as Berlin later would for Fulkerson himself, that his classification is derived quite significantly from the work of Charles Silberman in his Crisis in the Classroom. Silberman’s claim, as interpreted by Fulkerson, is that the problem of the modern classroom is that “educators exhibited a consistent mindlessness about relating means to desired ends” (343). I’ll return to my problems with this analysis of Silberman’s thesis later on, but for the sake of this summary analysis it should be noted that Fulkerson’s essay is heavily responsive in nature, and that he carefully situates his categorization at the intersection of the current composition field in 1979 and the historical compositional concerns of a decade earlier (and even before that).
- Beginning in the second full paragraph of pg. 344, Fulkerson begins describing the philosophy and pedagogy of adherents to his formalist ideology of compositional instruction–a school of thought he roundly and clearly rejects, as does Berlin in turn, for being non-productive and largely abandoned by the field in general.
- Following this section, he likewise notes those scholars and teachers he considers adherents of expressionism beginning with the last paragraph of pg. 344, and notes their widespread acceptance in the current academy and their focus on writers’ exploration of the self and the celebration of “personal voice” as paramount to the instructional experience.
- Halfway into pg. 345, he similarly notes that mimetic philosophy–which seeks “a clear connection between good writing and good thinking”–has a time-honored status among rhetoricians and compositionalists due to its frequent emphasis on texts and material analysis. As an interesting side note, his section on “propaganda analysis” deftly ties mimetic composition to the waning cultural poetics of the 50’s, the cultural materialist movements of the 60’s, and the nascent theories of New Historicism beginning to take the forms that would catapult them to popularity in the academies of the early 1980’s. In a text that provides no other concrete assignment types more specific than “journaling,” his focus specifically on the political/cultural materials of government propaganda is especially noteworthy in that it may signal a strategic move to locate some more “appealing” philosophies as extra-disciplinary, external to the expertise of the traditional composition instructor, and even dated (see references to Jungian dream analysis in his section on expressionist journaling, for instance).
- In his final section on specific philosophies, Fulkerson introduces rhetorical philosophy and classifies Peter Elbow as Rhetorician in light (in part) of a claim in Writing Without Teachersthat “theories of free writing, collaborative criticism, and audience adaptation are really classical theories masquerading as modern theories“ [emphasis added] (346).
- What remains, then, is several more paragraphs of analysis of the challenges and dangers of synthesis of these forms and philosophies, which Fulkerson has taken care to hedge as being either dated, overly-specific, or non-productive. However, the bulk of his analysis of the challenge of selecting a philosophy is not the act of synthesis itself, but rather the tendency of instructors to apply different philosophies to pedagogical process and the evaluation of product.
When Berlin criticizes Fulkerson for “cavils” of “emphasis in the classroom,” I feel he misses the mark twice–once in the fact that Fulkerson takes no particular position on the superiority of a specific philosophy, though he demonstrates presumed deficiencies of each, and once more in his interpretation of apprehensions about students being punished for evaluative metrics at odds with their assigned writing as being an issue of petty objection on Fulkerson’s part. This is certainly no unfair assessment (see Zirinsky, 1978). Fulkerson’s methods of categorization may be suspect at times, and his methods for de-legitimizing certain philosophies may be in ways covert and even underhanded, but his disdain for a form of composition that was punitive of product while ostensibly celebrating process is clearly legitimate, even today, and reflects similar concerns by Donald Murray and others several years earlier.
In the end, my deep love for the categorizations and philosophies demarcated by Berlin stand, but I believe his argument would have been strengthened, not weakened, by supplementing rather than disassembling Fulkerson’s own disciplinary analysis. Assessment and evaluation have always been a heath in which the evolving field of Rhet/Comp has found uneven footing at best, and has found itself repeatedly mired at worst. Recognizing Fulkerson’s analysis as an assessment of the fairness of mercurial multi-philosophical synthesis to students instead of as a declaration of definite disciplinary categorization reveals a remarkably sympathetic and impassioned call for re-evaluation and reconsideration of the importance of one’s own personal desire to implement philosophy in the face of students’ needs for consistent instruction and productive process.