The Legibility of Literacy in Composition's Great Debate: Revisiting "Romantics on Writing" and the History of Composition


  • Michael Harker Georgia State University



the abolution debate, literacy, literacy studies, the New Literacy Studies, freshman composition, compulsory composition, first-year writing, literacy myth, literacy crisis, Thomas Lounsbury, Oscar James Campbell


This essay revisits two proposals for the abolition of compulsory freshman English: Thomas Lounsbury’s “Compulsory Composition in Colleges” in 1911 and Oscar James Campbell’s “The Failure of Freshman English” in 1939.  It demonstrates how the New Literacy Studies provides a generative theoretical perspective from which to make more visible the assumptions, definitions, and attitudes about literacy that perpetuate the compulsory composition debate.

Author Biography

Michael Harker, Georgia State University

Michael Harker's research and teaching interests include classical rhetoric, the history and theory of composition and literacy studies, and the history of higher education.  He received his master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2005 and his doctoral degree from The Ohio State University in 2010.  His current book project is The Lure of Literacy: A Critical Reception of the Compulsory Composition Debate.  It analyzes notorious polemics in the “Great Debate” over freshman composition.  His book demonstrates how arguments on all sides of the debate depend on ambiguous and contradictory attitudes about the purposes of freshman composition as well as exaggerated expectations of what it means to possess literacy.




How to Cite

Harker, M. (2013). The Legibility of Literacy in Composition’s Great Debate: Revisiting "Romantics on Writing" and the History of Composition. Literacy in Composition Studies, 1(2), 20–41.