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Old English Composition: Literacy and the History of English in the United States

Sevenker, Justin Ross (2016) Old English Composition: Literacy and the History of English in the United States. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation is a critical history of “the history of the English language” as a school subject in the United States. I recover the subject as a formative component of literacy instruction and the early field of composition in the nineteenth century. I also trace its development as a teacher education requirement in the twentieth century and propose an alternative, progressive approach to teaching it today. To do so, I examine numerous, underexplored instructional texts on the history of English, including over three hundred dictionary, grammar, rhetoric, and composition textbook titles published repeatedly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By charting the circulation of this material, I establish that the history of English was a pervasive component of the period’s cultures of literacy. Moreover, I show how it was used to advance theories about standardization, “Anglo-Saxon” style, and linguistic exceptionalism that linger as unexamined assumptions among beginning writers, new teachers, and even in current composition scholarship. In this way, I call into question contemporary practices that silently sustain the subject’s once raced and nationalist politics. Specifically, I argue that by underwriting composition’s tacit policy of English monolingualism, traditional histories of English have constrained how the field prepares literacy educators to work with new populations of multilingual and non-standard English users entering U.S. schools.
I propose that a more historically self-aware history of English, recentered on the availability of diverse Englishes and the multilingual reality of communication, can equip teachers with more productive, inclusive instructional practices today. I theorize my approach using the CCCC’s “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” statement as well as later scholarship on critical language awareness. Drawing on my own “History and Politics of the English Language” course at the University of Pittsburgh, I then demonstrate how the history of English can remain an active component of teacher preparation, composition studies, and English education more broadly. The version of the course I outline emphasizes historical topics that impinge on present literate concerns. Moreover, it incorporates student-directed research projects that enable new teachers to reflect on entrenched attitudes that inform their work with diverse populations of English users.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Sevenker, Justin Rossjrs173@pitt.eduJRS173
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairCarr, Stephen
Committee MemberJohnson,
Committee MemberVee,
Committee MemberKnapp,
Date: 3 October 2016
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 2 August 2016
Approval Date: 3 October 2016
Submission Date: 4 August 2016
Access Restriction: 5 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 5 years.
Number of Pages: 274
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: history of literacy, book history, history of instruction, teacher education, Students' Right to Their Own Language, language difference, mulitlingual writing, critical language awareness
Date Deposited: 03 Oct 2016 15:39
Last Modified: 03 Oct 2021 05:15


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