Stewart’s books, 1936 – I: English Composition: A Laboratory

In 1936, George R. Stewart would publish two books.  One would be the last of a type of literature required of him but which he did only reluctantly and under orders.  The other would be a breakthrough in literature; and it would change the world.  Today, I’ll describe the first book:  English Composition:  A Laboratory Course, Volumes I and II.

Stewart was still in his “eleven bad years,” under the thumb of the unsympathetic Department Head Montgomery.  Although there’s little detail about the reasons for this in the Stewart papers, some inferences can be drawn from what is there.   Stewart believed the most important role of a Department of English was the study, and creation, of literature.  Montgomery, as the University President’s company man, probably believed that the English Department’s job was to teach composition.   (This is similar to today’s conflicts between teaching critical thinking, and teaching to the test.)  Montgomery would have his pound of flesh, and thus Stewart would write books about composition.  This two-volume set is a result.  (Another was his Technique of English Verse, described in an earlier post.)

The title is interesting.  To call a composition course a lab course in those days was unusual.  But science was the great intellectual movement of the time, and Stewart had already written of the important connections between science and literature – notably in his ground-breaking article in the forerunner to Science magazine, Color in Science and Poetry.  UC Berkeley, where Stewart taught, was a pioneer in the study of experimental physics and life sciences;  a “lab course” would be likely to appeal to science students taking a basic composition course as part of their general education requirements.  As Stewart writes, in the Preface, “The teacher of the composition course is conceived as the director of a laboratory who assigns definite exercises to the class, and observes the working out of these exercises.”

The first volume presents the theories of composition.  Chapters include “The Beginning and the Ending,” “Punctuation,” “Usage,”  and so on.  But even in this somewhat formal text, Stewart inserts his pungent observations in a way that brings life to the work and encourages honest and useful prose.  Here’s one example: “…be effective even at the cost of being incorrect.  After all, grammatical correctness is only a negative virtue based upon a changing convention, but effectiveness is positive and practical….”  That sentence is one of many which probably yanked Montgomery’s chain:  It was good advice, couldn’t be argued with,  but it advised breaking the rules.

The second volume — a paperback volume, was the practice volume.  It was meant to be used — written in — and then thrown out.  As a result, it is almost impossible to find a copy today.  (One was available a few years ago from legendary (and now defunct) Serendipity Books for a couple of hundred dollars.)  My copy is a gift from Stewart Scholar Robert C. Lyon — and it is George R. Stewart’s personal copy, with his pencil markings throughout.  Thanks to Bob, I can describe the book for you.

Stewart presents exercises in topics like “Punctuation,” “Words,” “Sentence-Structure,” and so on.  Interestingly, his exercises use both student essays and milestone works of literature.  So the King James version of Ecclesiastes is here, and Bacon’s Of Studies. So are student essays on The University Library and The Advantages of Sororities.   Even though this is a somewhat technical work, Stewart still encourages critical thinking as opposed to lecturing — suggesting that student solutions to the lab problems be put on the blackboard, and discussed by the students.

The term “facilitator” became a buzzword a half-century later; but Stewart is suggesting in this book that the Professor should facilitate student thought and discussion.  As always, he was decades ahead of most people.

At the conclusion of the Volume I, Stewart makes a point which both teaches good English and contradicts the narrow minds of those who would “train” (literally “drag along behind”) rather than “educate” (literally “lead out”):  “…a mistake in usage is generally the violation of a definite convention, and thus can be precisely labeled as wrong.  The red-penciling of such mistakes becomes the occupation and the pleasure of many people who cannot recognize a badly constructed sentence but gloat over a ‘mistake of grammar’.”

It is a comment addressed to students — and the Montgomerys of the world.

Stewart had given his pound of flesh to the “compositors” in English departments.  It helped him keep his job, but did not bring him a long-overdue promotion to Associate Professor — and tenure.  He would not, in fact, get that promotion until 1937, after 14 years in the department even though his excellent teaching record, and the publication of two books should have earned a promotion much earlier.  (He did not get the promotion from Montgomery, either; it came about because a group of his colleagues went around Montgomery, to the University President.)  But in a way, Montgomery had given Stewart a great gift:  He decided to forget writing along traditional English professor lines, and instead to write for a popular audience.  “What did I have to lose?” he said, years later.

So in the same year that he wrote and published the books on composition, Stewart wrote a history —  still in print, still a page-turner — which would change our world.  And change us.

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