Reading Notes ~ Writing Studies


Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. “Practical Wisdom and the Geography of Knowledge in Composition.” College English 53.8 (1991): 863-885.

In Phelps’ article, she examines the tensions between composition theory and the practice of teaching. Citing Stephen North, who views it as a “philosophical dilemma,” she notes there are varied interpretations as to why and the extent of these tensions.  Her interpretation views those “teachers’ continued hostility or indifference to composition theory” as offering “a tacit critique of the utopian faith that formal knowledge can definitely guide human conduct.” She sees it as teachers “intractability” in which “practice is not applied science, and they are not technicians” (863).

She questions how the discipline has neglected to confront how to translate “formal knowledge” into “a set of practical instructions” (863). North sees a “revolution” in composition that has “discredited practice as knowledge,” with teachers as “subjugated peoples” with “practitioner status” (864).

Without seeing “practitioners as thinkers,” there will continue to be tensions with “hierarchies that prize formal knowledge over practical wisdom, knowing overacting, research over teaching or learning, writing over talk” (864).

Phelps overarching question in this article, that she continues from her earlier, “Toward a Human Science” is whether “theory” can – or should “discipline practice” (864). Looking at composition teaching as “a kind of phronesis (definition: exercise of practical intelligence to take the right action in particular cases), she argues that teachers apply theory in the same way that readers interpret a text (864). By doing this, teachers “place composition theory and the activity of teaching into a reciprocally critical relationship,” thus “disciplining each other” (865).

As a phronetic process, she defines three moments of teacher mediation between theory and practice: 1) attunement (alertness to theory); 2) critical examination of theoretical premises and inferences through experiment and analysis; and 3) practical experimentation (865). However, she acknowledges that it is necessary to see teachers also as independent “thinkers and inquirers. ” She outlines this by presenting a “mapping“ of a “geography of knowledge in composition” (865).

Revising North’s use of lore, she adds in Donald Schön’s “reflective practice” via (architectural design process) — “practical wisdom or artistry,” as well as Lawrence Stenhouse’s “concept of teaching as a form of research” to develop “a richer phenomenology of practice”:

* to distinguish and describe three types of practical knowledge in composition teaching (lore, art, and local knowledge)

* to develop a concept of (teachers’) practical inquiry that is intermediate between reflective practice and formal academic inquiry

* to differentiate knowledge in composition rhetorically, as a function of responsibility to different communities

* to chart a rough geography of knowledge in composition based on these concepts and distinctions. (865)

How is a classroom a “unit of practice”? Looking at a “teaching community collectively developing and testing a curriculum,” Phelps uses the Syracuse Writing Program as her example for the remainder of her essay (866). Noting that at the collegiate level, there is an “ethic of radical individualism in the teaching philosophy of many academic institutions that discourages classroom visits as intrusions,” this doesn’t encourage a collegial atmosphere of shared teaching communities. With a frequent imbalance of both power and knowledge, writing teachers are often “the instruments of a rigid, top-down curriculum” (866).

Phelps began directing the Syracuse Writing Program in 1986, building it on the “premise that teaching depends for its richness on a community of shared practice constituted through exchanges of talk and writing about curriculum” (866).

This exists through a number of methods including teacher talks, small groups, co-teaching, mentoring, professional development opportunities, and writing journals (866). Individual teachers come together in this teaching community and requires “practical investigations that go beyond classroom observations of one’s own teaching to specify how actions fit together on the programmatic or institutional scale” (867).

She points out through the Syracuse example, she is making statements about “theory-practice relations and scholarship in composition” — by how theories of practice can “speak deeply to teachers except in the context of participation” (867).

Complicating the Concept of Lore

This section looks at Stephen North and his concept of lore – defined as “the accumulated body of traditions, practices, and beliefs in terms of which Practitioners understand how writing is done, learned, and taught” (868). The “anything goes if it works” method – uncritical as it can’t be tested or argued. Phelps refers to this as “teacher talk” – what teachers bring to a classroom through experience and strategies. She sees North’s concept limited as it is “inadequate to handle all the distinctions needed to develop a phenomenology of critical practice” and serves “too many purposes” (868). Phelps sees North’s argument as “simultaneously over-valu[ing] what practitioners have done, or regularly do, and undervalue[ing] what they can do” (869). The example she uses is lore in medicine – where lack of knowledge dictated what people believed until science brought new knowledge – “expertise based on experience that is understood as a complementary form of knowledge. That is what lore in composition might become” (869).

Lore as Procedural Knowledge

In a public aspect, “knowledge is rhetorical” and Phelps questions how North is using “lore as a body of knowledge” – privately developed and idiosyncratic, but “communally produced and publicly shared” – she sees North as not really meaning this – as it can’t be both (869). How does lore differentiate itself from Practitioner knowledge?  — “The reason is that knowledge symbolized as lore is procedural (knowing how) rather than propositional (knowing that)” (869).

How can a practitioner learn about lore? Differences between “know about” vs “to know how to act” from experience.  Lore comes from the first—but does it produce the second (870)?

Distinctions of lore:

  1. shared stories, maxims, dramatizations, and other symbolic representations of communal practice (lore proper)
  2. an individual’s internalized representations of lore (its cognitive correlate)
  3. an individual’s habituated capacity, based on direct experience, for engaging in and reasoning about particular modes of activity (personals kill, know-how).


  1. exercising practical knowledge purposefully in a unique situation (practice proper). (870)

“In our framework of composition teaching, lore makes it possible to extend such a personal repertoire with exemplary themes from other practitioners’ experiences” (870). Lore becomes a storage system of “models for teachers to draw on in conceptualizing indeterminate, messy, uncertain schemes of practice and roles” (871).

The Critical Element in Practice

Phelps counters North’s argument of practitioner knowledge as a “form of inquiry” with “reflexive practice” arguing that making judgments is inherent in “practical wisdom,” but that this is a result that North does not account for.


Listing North’s three functional properties of lore, Phelps discounts his first that “anything can become a part of lore,” by noting his contradictory uncritical stance with “anything goes” –seeing that there is a “de facto evaluation in the processes” (871). While North sees practitioners as “equal partners in the knowledge-making of composition,” but rarely demonstrating actual inquiry – instead relying on practice and similar situations through “rules and routines,” Schon primary focus is “knowing-in-action” through “learnable, communal knowledge” – with examples from architecture and engineering. Schon distinguishes “reflection-in-action” from “knowing-in-action” (unreflective) as a “ladder of reflection” – “To move ‘up’ . . . is to move from an activity to reflection on that activity; to move ‘down’ is to move from reflection to an action that enacts reflection” (873).  Through Schon, Phelps notes that North’s uncritical stance on lore can be rejected by applying Schon’s analysis of reflective practice (873).


The role of theory in practical activity – “practice may be untheorized, but it is never atheoretical” (874).

Charting the Geography of Knowing: A Rhetorical Approach

What kinds of practical inquiry might emerge as “an alternative research tradition” (Goswami and Stillman)


  1. Teachers can’t do inquiry unless they are trained in a formal research method. The classroom studies they do don’t qualify as “research,” though they may serve as raw material or application for someone else’s research. Teachers can only assist academic researchers, as informants, or become researchers and scholars on the formal model (see North 331-36; Applebee).


  1. The only unique form of knowledge-making available to teachers is reflective practice, where there is no autonomous inquiry process (North’s position, hence his political dilemma and need to fudge this point by elevating reflective practice to “practitioner inquiry”).


  1. Teachers do conduct practical inquiries different from those of academic re-search, and thereby produce a different kind of knowledge. Phelps sees this as the most possible stemming from the teacher research movement.


Practical Inquiry as Counterpart to Formal Inquiry

Phelps doesn’t use inquiry as North does, reserving it for other than “practical knowing” (875). She uses projects to “demarcate the work of practical inquiry from the ongoing reflection that winds in and out of daily teaching” (877). Projects have beginnings and ends. Aristotle’s science – knowledge-making – using theoretical intelligence and human conduct (doing) and art (making) – using practical and productive intelligence (877).


Phelps looks at what “differences there may be between the logics of practical and formal inquiry in composition: the issue of method” (878).–Aristotle’s analogic relationship rhetoric as the “counterpart” or “antistrophe” of dialectic. His analysis of rhetorical reasoning as enthymeme and example) –(argument with one premise unstated).


Community and Rhetorical Differences in Knowledge-Making

Michael Polanyi’s image of conviviality (879). Community of scientists to advance and disseminate knowledge. Endorsement by the community and “heavily dependent on mutual trust and reciprocal criticism” (879).


How does this translate to composition? “curricular focus of activity in composition makes its practical knowledge and professional practices highly context-dependent, requiring constant development and adaptation to fit both the local institution and the individual student” (880). Stenhouse – curriculum as a research project – need for practical inquiry as a community. Formal inquiry is tied to the community – (880).


Dimensions of Analysis – generative power of community—as a rhetorical activity

  1. Reference to a community
  2. Fate or Destination of Knowledge
  3. Genres and Media of Communication


What do Theory and Practice Offer Each Other?

Knowledge – a social concept – links cognition with community

Reframe tensions of theory/practice into “rhetorical demands of each community”

Practitioner, researcher, or scholar can be the same people in different rhetorical situations (883).
Composition’s domain is “concerned with teaching as a discursive practice,” — “reflective assistance to learners.” Respecting the position of each without domination.


Paradox of study – “shy a truly reflective community working on a curriculum needs disciplinary theory at all. Why can’t practitioners develop the knowledge they need directly in relation to such a context, granting a critical, experimental spirit to the community?”
Without theory – run the risk of becoming a “closed system” that can stagnate into “routine, boredom, and despair” (883). “Theory galvanizes and disrupts the system, changing its very questions, undermining long-held beliefs, introducing ambiguities, revealing complexities, setting new tasks, forcing risks” (883).


What does Practice Offer Theory?

  1. Practice draws theory into the community – curriculum n—goals, techniques, evaluation.
  2. Practitioners provide theory with interpretation, criticism, testing, refinement.
  3. Practice makes theory matter.
  4. Practice humanizes theory.


John Herman Randall – praxis – practical nous / theoretical nous


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