Composition Theory

Course Description

ENGL5054: Composition Theory (3 credits)
Study of history and theory of teaching composition at the university-level. Introduction to research methods in Composition Studies. Detailed consideration of the episemological and cultural implications of writing instruction. Prerequisite: Graduate Standing required.

Expanded Description

Generations of writing teacher-scholars in classrooms and in communities have sought to enact the liberatory, democratizing priorities of practical, supportive, and engaging literacy education as a common good sponsored within and sustained in part by U.S. colleges and universities. With this as our opening premise, in ENGL5054 (Fall 2022), we will learn about and trace relationships among several watershed moments and significant progenitors for critical pedagogy. Generative questions for the course include the following: Over the past forty years, how has critical pedagogy (and its offshoots) intersected with the discipline of Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies? How fully have the goals and priorities of critical pedagogy (and its offshoots) been realized within university writing programs? What have been the most successful applications of critical pedagogy? What are some of its documented complications or setbacks? Readings will include selections from bell hooks, John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Carmen Kynard, Henry Giroux, Ira Shor, Pat Bizzell, Kristopher Lotier, Maha Bali, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Sherri Craig, Hephzibah Roskelly, Sophia Greco, and Russel Durst. Projects include a collaborative timeline, a composition theory genealogy trace, a series of short-form dialogic accounts, and a course reflection.

Course Goals for ENGL5054

Course goals for ENGL5054 include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Advance an applied knowledge of the evolving, interdependent relationships among selected histories, theories, critiques, pedagogies, and practices in Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies. [Disciplinary Inquiry and Knowledge-Making]
  2. Practice identifying in the work of others and composing for yourself a theoretical genealogy with real potential for scholarly development (related to outreach/engagement, presentation, publication, and/or research design appropriate for graduate-level study). [Tracing Composition's Theoretical Genealogies and Chronologies]
  3. Compose a series of research-related texts as a distributed, recursive process that adapts to rhetorical contingencies, that responds to distinct audiences and genres, and that requires planning, circulation, and revision. [Graduate-level Writing as a Distributed, Rhetorical Process]
  4. Gain fluency with an expanded practical vocabulary for composition theory, history, and pedagogy, particularly in the context of critical and liberatory pedagogies. [Collating and Coalescing Terms]
  5. Additional goals will be established together as the semester gets underway. [Shared, Emergent Goals TBD]

Course Texts and Materials

Experience & Education

Dewey, John. Experience & Education. New York: Touchstone, 1997 (1938). ISBN-10: 0-684-83828-1. (required)

Teaching to Transgress

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994. ISBN-10: 0-415-90808-6. (required; provided)

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1999 (1970). ISBN-10: 0-8264-0611-4. (required)

Vernacular Insurrections

Kynard, Carmen. Vernacular Insurrections. Albany, NY: SUNY P, (2013). ISBN 978-1-4384-4636-3. (required)

Additional readings are provided as PDFs organized and stored in Canvas. You should download PDFs for reading on the screen or, if you prefer, for printing and reading. The course schedule/calendar includes in parentheses after each assigned reading a time estimate meant to assist you with calibrating your time spent reading for the course. Plan to spend as much as 30 USD on printing and photocopying over the course of the semester, if you prefer printed copies of the PDFs.


Grading will adhere to a grading contract, which you will find in your Google Folder for the class. The menu of graded items is as follows:
90s (weekly writing): 30
Composition Theory Genealogy Trace: 30
Collaborative Timeline: 30
Reflection: 10

With the goal of ensuring transparency and clear communication, alongside the grading contract, projects will be reviewed and commented upon in a manner intended to be open, encouraging and constructive, and inquiry-oriented. A record of graded items will be continuously updated on the labor-based contract in your Google Folder. I will provide responses to your work following deadlines and at any other time you request input from me.

Additional ungraded, or credit/no credit items include the following:
September conference to discuss your work
Notes/annotation snapshot
In-class writing, activities, and heuristics

Turning in Work

Shared Folder in Google Drive
All work will be turned in via designated folders in Google Drive. You will receive an email message from me early in the semester that shares with you access to a folder for your work. When you submit work, double-check to make sure the file format is Google Docs (that is, please do not submit PDFs, unconverted Word docs, or Pages files, or any other file formats unless the instructions call for it). Feedback, responses, and reader notes will be returned in this same location. For some projects this semester, we will also be posting work semi-publicly to a blog and to a collaborative timeline. Specific instructions for these assignments are posted on the projects page.

File Naming
Please adhere to the file naming conventions shown in the instructions provided in Canvas and your Google Folder.

Late Work
Unless otherwise specified or arranged in advance, all work must be submitted before the start of class on the due date to be considered on time and therefore eligible for full credit.

Course Policies

Attendance and Participation

ENGL5054 is a graduate-level seminar. Absences or lack of preparation for class will affect your colleagues' work as well as your own. The work you do in and in preparation for each class is as important as the polished assignment you turn in for a project. In addition, our syllabus and schedule are only a projection and may be subject to occasional changes and revisions as it seems appropriate, necessary, or just interesting. That is another reason why your attendance and engagement are valued so highly.

If you must miss a class, you are still responsible for all work assigned, including turning work in by stated deadlines. Class time cannot be reconstructed or made up, and your performance, your work, and your course grade will be impacted by absences.

We will meet this semester in Shanks 380. I encourage you to bring a laptop with you, if possible, for active note-keeping and for some in-class activities. As a rule of thumb, I ask that your in-class uses of mobile devices (e.g., cell phones) and laptop computers be focused on class-related activities. Obviously, you should silence your phones before coming to class. As long as everyone is respectfully attentive when someone is speaking, in-class technology use will not be a problem. In-class attentiveness, engagement, and preparedness (i.e., having read and prepared for each class) are a basic expectation.

Computer and Internet Usage

We may be interacting with online resources and other sites on the internet during the course. Please let me know if you have any concerns about fluency with using a browser such as Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. When using a computer, save your work frequently, always make backup copies, and plan your projects with extra time allowed for unexpected challenges.

Communication with Peers; Communication with the Instructor

While you can expect a considerable amount of leadership and direction to come from me, you should also make arrangements early in the semester to communicate with your peers. In other words, you are strongly encouraged to identify one or two (perhaps more) peers in the class with whom you can discuss how the class is going, consider readings and assignments, work through questions brought up in the class, and approach when you find something unclear. In short, my hope is that we all will prefer climate in which dialogue and interaction circulates between the instructor and students and also between and among students when questions come up. Finally, you should always be proactive about asking questions when you have them, either by raising questions during class or contacting me or one of your peers privately.


To communicate by email we will usually use our accounts, accessible via I encourage you to check your email at least once daily. You may call and leave a phone message, but you will at times find it more effective to use email to contact me about your work in the course. You can also set up an appointment to meet with me on campus, or to ask a question. With rare exceptions, I will respond to email inquiries within 48 hours.

Graduate Honor System

Students enrolled in this course are responsible for abiding by the Graduate Honor Code. A student who has doubts about how the Honor Code applies to any assignment is responsible for obtaining specific guidance from the course instructor before submitting the assignment for evaluation. Ignorance of the rules does not exclude any member of the University community from the requirements and expectations of the Honor Code.

Plagiarism occurs when a writer passes off another's words or ideas without acknowledging their source, whether intentionally or not. For example, turning in another's work as your own is plagiarism. If you plagiarize in this class, you will likely fail the assignment on which you are working and your case may be passed to the university for additional disciplinary action. Because of the design and nature of this course, it will take as much (or more) work for you to plagiarize in it than it will to actually complete the work of the class.

For additional information about the Graduate Honor Code, please visit:

Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD)

Virginia Tech welcomes students with disabilities into the University’s educational programs. The University promotes efforts to provide equal access and a culture of inclusion without altering the essential elements of coursework. If you anticipate or experience academic barriers that may be due to disability, including but not limited to ADHD, chronic or temporary medical conditions, deaf or hard of hearing, learning disability, mental health, or vision impairment, please contact the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) office (540-231-3788,, or visit If you have an SSD accommodation letter, please meet with me privately during office hours as early in the semester as possible to deliver your letter and discuss your accommodations. You must give me reasonable notice to implement your accommodations, which is generally 5 business days and 10 business days for final exams.

Writing Center

The Writing Center (Newman Library 2nd floor, Learning Commons;, (540) 231-5436) offers free one-to-one consulting for both undergraduate and graduate students. Consulting formats include in-person, online-synchronous, and online-asynchronous. Students should bring a draft of what they’re working on and their assignment.

Contact Information

Derek N. Mueller
Professor of Rhetoric and Writing
Director of the University Writing Program
Department of English
Virginia Tech
Office: 315 Shanks Hall
Fall 2022 Office Hours: T, 1-3:30
Phone: +1-734-985-0485