Contextualist stylistics: Breaking down the binaries in sentence-level pedagogy

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The discipline of stylistics has gone through well-documented changes, from formalism through structuralism to contextualism.1 Through it all, stylisticians have consistently self-identified their methods as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Stylistics, like linguistics, is descriptive, dispassionate, objective. Most of the twentieth-century interplay of formalism and structuralism is nevertheless hierarchical in its results. Literary texts are highly valued in Western culture; they are considered better than other texts. Regardless of how dispassionate their methods of analysis, when stylisticians endeavor to identify the stylistic qualities that mark a literary text, they are inescapably identifying and justifying the stylistic qualities of what the culture has already identified as the most valuable texts. Fortunately (it might seem) for composition studies, stylistics has in recent decades moved toward contextualist instead of textualist methods. However, at the time when contextualism began to dominate scholarship in stylistics, compositionists were engaged in a full-scale retreat from sentence- level pedagogy. Compositionists today are comfortable teaching the writing process or positioning the composition classroom as a forum in which to improve society, but many are decidedly uncomfortable about teaching style. Those who do teach it tend to employ textualist methods that are now outdated in stylistics. This essay traces some of the historical reasons for composition's retreat from style and its consequent failure to take up contextualist stylistics. Equipped with this historical understanding, it may be possible for compositionists to find contextualist means of engaging sentence-level pedagogy and scholarship that advance the current tenets of the field, rather than returning it to a hegemonic current-traditionalism. With contextualist approaches, composition studies could not only recover the third canon of rhetoric but transform it, moving from hegemonic disciplining of students to pedagogical invitations for students to participate in the play of texts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRefiguring Prose Style
Subtitle of host publicationPossibilities for Writing Pedagogy
PublisherUtah State University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)0874216214, 9780874216219
StatePublished - 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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