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The Origins of Composition Studies in the American College, 1875–1925

The Origins of Composition Studies in the American College, 1875–1925: A Documentary History

John C. Brereton Editor
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  • Book Info
    The Origins of Composition Studies in the American College, 1875–1925
    Book Description:

    This volume describes the formative years of English composition courses in college through a study of the most prominent documents of the time: magazine articles, scholarly reports, early textbooks, teachers' testimonies-and some of the actual student papers that provoked discussion. Includes writings by leading scholars of the era such as Adams Sherman Hill, Gertrude Buck, William Edward Mead, Lane Cooper, William Lyon Phelps, and Fred Newton Scott.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-9056-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Education

Table of Contents

  1. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 3-25)

    The composition course as we know it today, like the university that teaches it, is a product of late-nineteenth-century America. Both began life in the 1870s, in the age of invention that saw the birth of the hydraulic elevator, the electric light, the telephone, and the phonograph, and both were shaped by the reform impulses that pervaded late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America during the Progressive Era.

    Right after the Civil War the American college (there were no universities) was an institution in danger of becoming irrelevant to a rapidly changing nation. The small number of students who attended college were drawn...

  2. 2 The First Composition Program: Harvard, 1870–1900
    (pp. 26-131)

    Harvard established the first modern composition program, and for two decades its faculty wrote extensively about the subject. This chapter contains articles and documents from the Harvard program, including large sections from the Harvard reports which are often cited in histories of composition. These reports were part of an attempt to get the secondary schools to improve their writing instruction; in effect, though, they diminished the role of first-year composition and expressed the hope of removing it entirely from the college curriculum and placing it in the schools. In order to understand the connection between the Harvard reports and the...

  3. 3 The New Writing Curriculum, 1895–1915
    (pp. 132-235)

    Harvard’s establishment of a large composition program had inaugurated the start of similar, though less ambitious, programs nationwide. Meanwhile traditional rhetoric had continued its steep decline, to be replaced by a different model of composition. But not all colleges had the resources to mount a program as powerful as Harvard’s, and in fact not all colleges wanted to. Many, no doubt influenced by the 1892 Harvard report’s conclusion that composition belonged in the secondary schools, felt they could avoid the “problem” altogether. William Morton Payne’sEnglish in American Universitiesdepicts the diversity of writing programs in 1895.

    By the turn...

  4. 4 The Attack on the Harvard Program, 1890–1917
    (pp. 236-312)

    The Harvard system alarmed many English professors at other colleges. Here was America’s oldest, most prestigious university devoting the bulk of its English faculty’s time to teaching writing at all levels, assigning endless themes, and asking students to write about what interested them. Chapter 3 demonstrated how elements of the Harvard program spread widely through American colleges and universities. Chapter 4 shows how Harvard’s program soon attracted a good number of opponents who attacked it for a variety of reasons. Some opponents were among the many literature professors who wanted to devote class time to plays and poems, not themes....

  5. 5 Textbooks for a New Discipline
    (pp. 313-436)

    The old collegiate curriculum made instructors dependent upon textbooks in ways we find hard to conceive. College catalogues often listed the books to be covered: theywerethe course. Most often, students dealt with a text by committing its main points to memory. Class sessions were mostly recitations which tested how much of the text the students had memorized or absorbed. The teacher sat in front with a class chart open and called on the students one by one to “recite,” that is, to tell what was in the text. A typical question would be, “What was Macauley’s method of...

  6. 6 Writing the Essay
    (pp. 437-544)

    In almost every account of composition studies the students are silent, a fine irony in light of the enormous amounts of discourse they have elicited as well as produced. This chapter contains two separate parts: pamphlets, exams, and textbooks that tell students how to write their compositions, and examples from the professional literature of the compositions themselves, some in the students’ own handwriting, and a few with the instructors’ markings.

    The half century this volume covers involved a dramatic shift in the kinds of prose students produced. Originally, in the college of 1860, writing most often involved planning and composing...

  7. 7 Conclusion
    (pp. 545-562)

    A fitting end to this volume is Warner Taylor’s comprehensive survey of first-year English at the end of the 1920s. Drawing upon questionnaires returned from 232 colleges and universities, Taylor compiled a detailed picture of composition as it passed its first half century.

    Taylor (1880–1958) studied at Columbia (B.A., 1903; M.A., 1905) and taught English there, 1907–11, moving to Wisconsin in 1911 and becoming professor in 1927. He published a writing text (Freshman Themes,with F. A. Manchester, 1918), a scholarly monograph (A Study of the Prose Style of Samuel Johnson,1918), and edited two essay anthologies. He...