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Composition Forum 32, Fall 2015

Review of Paul Lynch’s After Pedagogy: The Experience of Teaching

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Pegeen Reichert Powell

Lynch, Paul. After Pedagogy: The Experience of Teaching. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2013. Print. 169 pp.

In After Pedagogy: The Experience of Teaching, Paul Lynch takes on the disciplinary skepticism that dominates discussions of postpedagogy and postprocess. The project he sets for himself is daunting for a couple of reasons. First, the scholars and arguments that he addresses are complicated and persuasive. Moreover, the label of post-anything has become somewhat vacuous, because it signifies both the end of something and everything that comes afterward, so that attempting to articulate a response seems futile. In his discussion of the After of his title, he admits that it is “ridiculous to talk about being ‘postpostpedagogical’” (7). Nevertheless, despite these challenges, his project is accessible and hopeful, without being the least bit simplistic or naïve.

Lynch describes the current impasse between composition studies’ pedagogical mission and the view that pedagogy isn’t viable in a postprocess era. The common critique of the process approach, that it devolved into a set of one-size-fits-all instructions ignoring the contingencies of rhetorical practice, has induced the belief that all pedagogies must inevitably fall into the same trap. To advance or adopt a single pedagogy is to deny the very nature of writing and teaching as context-specific, and yet to thoroughly embrace the contingent nature of writing and teaching means proceeding with no plan, no predetermined set of principles. A field that so earnestly self-identifies with teaching is confronted with the conviction that teaching may be impossible.

In order to move beyond this impasse, Lynch draws on a wide array of resources, including casuistry, the ancient and often-maligned method of case-based reasoning; John Dewey’s complex arguments about experience; and philosopher Charles Taylor’s notion of “inspired adhoccery.” These resources allow him to reframe pedagogy as what happens after we teach, rather than as what we do before we walk into the classroom. We typically understand pedagogy as taking theoretical principles and applying them to the classroom (hence the inevitable question at the conference presentation: “this theory is all well and good, but what should I do in the classroom on Monday morning?”). Lynch argues that pedagogy is more productively understood as a reflection on the experiences of the classroom, in the context of previous classroom experiences and in light of the principles and theories that have arisen from those experiences. Instead of the Monday morning question, Lynch says, we should be asking the Tuesday morning question. Pedagogy thus can also account for the surprising moments and student writing that don’t quite fit with what we thought we knew.

Chapters One and Two of After Pedagogy describe the field’s loss of confidence in pedagogy. While our current stage of skepticism—identified as postprocess, postpedagogy, or most ominously, postcomposition—is relatively recent, Lynch reminds us that even Quintillian harbored doubts about the teaching enterprise, because, in Quintillian’s words, “most rules are liable to be altered by the nature of the case” (qtd. in Lynch 2). To dismiss theoretical principles’ applicability to individual classrooms or writing situations, however, results in the rambling, unsteady House of Lore, built entirely by practitioners. The paradox of Lore is that as soon as an instructor borrows from another’s Lore, the very thing that made that particular practice effective, the situatedness of the original event, is gone; we are in the realm of the abstract. And yet, to thoroughly embrace the uncertainty and the specificity of writing and teaching, he argues, could easily “regress to a despairing adhocism” (21). Lynch’s response to this despair in Chapter One is Taylor’s “inspired adhoccery,” which means, in Stanley Fish’s words, “regarding each situation-of-crisis as an opportunity for improvisation and not as an occasion for the application of rules and principles” (qtd. in Lynch 23).

Chapter Two surveys the scholarship identified with postprocess and postpedagogy, a survey that is thorough, respectful, and touched with brief moments of humor that reflect Lynch’s accessible, hopeful style. Lynch explains that postpedagogy, aligned with the third sophistic school, emerged from postprocess theory. To review postprocess, he focuses on Thomas Kent’s work, which draws on Jean-Francois Lyotard’s understanding of paralogy. In Kent’s work, paralogy is about what happens every time we use language and “the unpredictable, elusive, and tenuous decisions or strategies we employ” (qtd. in Lynch 33). It is this contingency that is lost in process pedagogy, which codifies language use. Postprocess, then, is not just a reaction to a previous disciplinary paradigm, although it is that, but also an assertion about the fundamental nature of writing. The implications of this assertion for teaching and for the discipline itself can be far-reaching. For Kent, the implication is that writing cannot be taught. He and others argue that this entails a dramatic shift in how we, as a field, understand our purpose and purview. For example, Amy E. Robillard characterizes the implication as a “shifting disciplinary focus from writing as verb— as represented most clearly by the pedagogical imperative—to writing as noun— and object of study in its own right” (254).

Lynch follows his discussion of postprocess theory with a discussion of the third sophistic school. These two bodies of scholarship are very much related, and in fact overlap in places, but because they do provide slightly different perspectives on the issues at hand, Lynch treats them separately. The third sophistic school understands that fundamental nature of writing through the notion of paralogic invention, which produces “utterances not yet made or even imagined” (38). These unimagined utterances are manifested in Victor Vitanza’s “illegitimate couplings”; Diane Davis’s disruptive laughter and the “excess” and “overflow” on the student’s page; and Thomas Rickerts’s jouissance. These are not phenomena that one can plan or orchestrate—that is the point. Therefore, to value or applaud the unexpected and uncontainable in student writing does not necessarily indicate a role for the one applauding. Or, in Lynch’s words, “this rhetoric of comedy leaves us with a question: should teachers be in on the joke or play the straight man?” (45). How does one create a pedagogy that aims to foster resistance to itself (a dilemma for critical pedagogues as well as postpedagogues)?

Lynch’s project is to fill in this gap in the postprocess and postpedagogy scholarship. While some scholars (Kent, Vitanza, and Sidney Dobrin, for example) argue that this is the occasion for composition studies to move beyond teaching as its focus, Lynch rightly acknowledges that a significant percentage of our work responsibilities remain in the classroom. To this end, in Chapter Three, Lynch briefly works with the concept of techne, recovering it through the scholarship of Janet Atwill, by highlighting the role of contingency in her understanding of techne. For Lynch, “if pedagogy is a techne, experience is simultaneously its occasion and its material” (64). By experience, he specifically means John Dewey’s arguments about experience, which comprise the heart of Lynch’s project. Chapter Three is devoted to an extensive review of Dewey’s work more generally and his several arguments about experience.

Lynch exploits the fact that experience as a concept, especially in Dewey’s work, is multilayered and flexible. Experience can be primary, as data we collect moving through the world, and secondary, as the sense we make of that data, which we take forward into new experiences. Lynch says, “experience is the vehicle by which we carry learning from the present into the future” (86). Primary experience includes the contingent, and the surprising, disruptive laughter described by the third sophistic scholars. In Lynch’s view, cultivating these contingencies of the primary experience, using them as a resource, and moving forward is the ultimate challenge for pedagogy.

To address this challenge, Lynch argues for casuistry, to which he turns in Chapter Four. Typically used in moral and legal reasoning, casuistry is a method for dealing with a situation in which the general principles do not work, or when two principles conflict. According to Lynch, “[c]asuistry is for the student whom the law does not serve, the student whose work—at least at that particular moment—seems to make us choose between being attentive to her specific needs on the one hand and supporting the curriculum we have designed on the other” (115). The thoughtful attention to the specific case at hand, fostered by casuistry, allows the teacher to “intellectualize the uncertainty of teaching” (137). We understand each specific case through the lens of previous experiences. Scholarship about pedagogy would go beyond the accretion of experiences characteristic of the rambling House of Lore, but would instead begin with a particular classroom experience and put it up against previous experiences in what Lynch refers to as “[t]axonomic articulation” (134). Ultimately Lynch argues that instead of Lore, practitioners adopt experience as their keyword (128). He is only half-joking, I believe, when he argues that in his vision of our postdiscipline, we would produce “elaborate and immense volumes of pedagogical case studies” (134). The inefficiency of this approach is its virtue; it simultaneously avoids the one-size-fits-all trap characteristic of process pedagogy and, at the same time, allows the teacher to approach new situations with a breadth of relevant knowledge.

Lynch’s very valuable contribution to the field is to provide a thoughtful response to the question of how we teach writing. It is not likely that casuistry or a very complex understanding of Dewey will become mainstream ideas in composition studies, and Lynch himself acknowledges that his concepts don’t lend themselves to easy catchphrases (for example, he doesn’t anticipate House of Pedagogical Casuistry to be quite as pervasive in our disciplinary conversations as House of Lore has been [137].) In Beyond Pedagogy: Theorizing Without Teachers, a recent article that takes up many of the same issues that Lynch does, Amy D. Williams argues for “composition experience scholarship” but does not cite Dewey at all. Nevertheless, the field can definitely benefit from Lynch’s understanding of pedagogy as what happens after we teach, how we make useful sense of the experience of the contingencies of the classroom and of writing.

While much of the current scholarship about pedagogy is focused on binaries—theory vs. practice, writing-as-noun vs. writing-as-verb—it is worth considering the extent to which the how and the what of teaching writing have long been conflated in the field. This is perhaps most evident in the phrase, “teach writing as process” (process in this phrase is both how and what we teach). There is some of that conflation happening in Lynch’s work. At times it is not clear if it is writing or teaching that is context-dependent, contingent, and uncertain. In his discussion of experience, he argues that pedagogy turns the experience-as-data of the classroom into method for future classroom situations, but he also explains that “[a] Deweyan teacher helps students turn their experience-as-data into experience-as-method” (95), suggesting that “experience” is both the how and the what of teaching.

He suggests that curriculum—what we might think of as the what of teaching—is about designing the occasions for student writing (93). What I believe the field needs right now, to complement or extend Lynch’s work, is a more sustained inquiry into the what of teaching. It is possible that the crisis that Lynch devotes his book to describing and responding to has been elicited and shaped as much by the drastic and rapid changes in the technologies surrounding rhetorical practices, as it has by the codification of the process approach. In other words, perhaps we are less certain about how we teach because we don’t know what we are teaching. What are we teaching, or what counts as writing in the era of digital, multimodal writing? What are our curricular responsibilities vis-à-vis image and layout, for example? What role does the writing that our students do online and via social media play in our understanding of what we teach? Answering these questions will take the same type of nuanced, complex, and hopeful approach that Lynch takes in After Pedagogy: The Experience of Teaching.

Works Cited

Robillard, Amy E. Young Scholars Affecting Composition: A Challenge to Disciplinary Citation Practices. College English 68.3 (2006): 253-70. Web. 28 June 2015.

Williams, Amy D. Beyond Pedagogy: Theorizing Without Teachers. Composition Forum 30 (2014): n. pag. Web. 28 June 2015. <>.

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