Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity (a quick reading/reflection)

A great book. The first couple of chapters are maybe the most clearly explained overview historical composition theory that I’ve read.

But the primary argument for the book, I think, is that a-contextual invention heuristics for writing are problematic for several reasons. Most traditional invention heuristics rely on certain binaries for understanding communication and information: subject/object, dominant/marginal, differentials of power, etc.

Hawk, relying on ecological and complexity theory, argues for a context specific approach to developing invention heuristics. Sort of a heuristics for heuristics, but that characterization is a little tongue-in-cheek.

One of my favorite aspects of Hawk’s approach is that he resists leaving his argument as merely a theoretical rereading of composition theory and pedagogies. Instead, he offers readings of specific pedagogues in our field (Ulmer, Atwill, Hayles, Haynes, Henry, Coles) in terms of how they rely on ecological/complexity theory as a way of structuring invention heuristics.

Overall, an incredibly smart reflection on the history of comp theory, both generous and challenging. And at the same time, a prose style that is as clear as his argument is complex.

My only reservation is that some of Hawk’s suggestions will be difficult to argue for in the current political climate of public academic institutions. I’m talking about institutional impulses toward accountability, consistency, measurable progress across various times and sections of composition. These are all completely valid concerns, and most of which I’m pretty supportive. Hawk calls for heuristics emerging from localized (read: individual) instructor’s and students negotiation of their own perceptions of the intersections of various threads of material and theoretical influence in their given time and given place. And I’m just not sure how a WPA might convince a Dean or Provost that there are valid methods of evalation for these sorts of approaches.

But Hawk is a very, very smart pedagogue. And I’m guessing that the answers might still be in the book. I could certainly stand another reading (or three). And at the moment, I’ll assume that Hawk offers some content that might address these issues. I wonder, though, if this is one of those situations where questions of evaluations have to emerge from the best pedagogical approaches we can conceptualize, rather than pedagogy built toward a system of evaluation.

I suppose that one extension of this argument might lie somewhere in arguments against a contextual assessment models. And now I’m getting into territory with which I’m pretty unfamiliar. For all I know, there are already conversations taking place in assessment scholarship which address these sorts of concerns already.

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  1. Hey T,

    Bob Broad (a colleague of mine) wrote a book on Dynamic Criteria Mapping (DCM), which is basically a way to assess texts (or portfolios) based on the contexts and values in which they were created. His book on this is called What We Value (out of USU Press) and a follow-up edited collection with several smart folks using the DCM in their own programs/classes. Bob and I are using DCM to run a workshop on evaluating digital scholarship that we’re doing as part of C&W Online (4 week workshop….should be interactive and crazy!) 🙂


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