writing is?

lots of talk about a new article on how we teach writing in first year courses in college. seems we've been working to move beyond this sort of limited contextual space for some time in order to greater reflect and enrich our work via interdisciplinary trajectories that coalesce, it seems, sometimes, in a vibrant and diverse first year course sequence. sure, it's not always vibrant and it's especially compressed when we view it macroscopically, via generalizations, and this means that it's available for critique on the basis of these abstractions. i wish i could see the critique (and sometimes do) in terms of micro-operational potential, but what i see is the question of disciplinary authority wanting to wall it/us in. not a vapid concern, exactly, but one that nearly always (already) -- sorry John M. -- leads to confusion in/of terms, confusion that enables the phantom notion of a "more realistic" idea about writing that we can teach (this "more realistic" -- in its *alternatively universalistic* . . . "the next big thing" . . . potential -- undoing the questionable critique of the universalism that we allegedly already bring to the teaching of writing). what we can't escape is that writing (literacy) changes . . . is contextualized differently even within the same contexts. i have for years now tried to think about our work through the concept . . . metaphor . . . reality of chaos and a dynamic systems approach to writing and the teaching of writing; rhetoric via rhetorical theory/practice as a sort of strange attractor that generates the fractal reality of an unstable and indeterminate yet discernable (over time) "coherence." but that work didn't really capture imaginations and as i read it now is certainly "problematic," to say that least (although i stand by it). and it did not capture imaginations as does this recent move to greater disciplinary authority (as i'm reading it). and that's fine. i understand it, given our investments, jobs, concerns for each other, moves to resituate writing as a complex and valuable skill rather than merely a gatekeeper. i get it, but i can't exactly get with it because of what it does to my ability to think about writing in complex terms (ironically, something i think that this new article wants to be after).

so but everyone is calling this article the harbinger of "the next big thing," and i'm just not seeing it (all that white noise disabling my ability to see the seeming certainty regarding our next big and most successful disciplinary move -- the article is being discussed in terms of a "seismic shift," recalling Hairston's "Winds of Change"). so that's nice for my colleagues, but it's difficult for me to see it in these terms. probably something to do with feeling jealous and neglected (can't deny that, or that the article is doing quite a bit for the authors and their status, which is nice, but there's Fran├žois La Rochefoucauld). i hope it's more about how i see rather than jealousy or whatnot, which i must cop to. i hope it's more about how i imagine what writing is. or what it can be. or that i can only see it as potential rather than something we can name and know and own. and it seems that it's almost always trouble to talk with certain authority about what writing is. Frank D'Angelo once said to me that we have 3 trajectories determining FYC: 1.) those who claim to teach rhetoric, 2.) those who claim to teach composition, and 3.) those who claim to teach writing. the latter group, he said, is the "most dangerous." and i think it has to do with these generalizations that evolve through these discourses to the level of accepted truths; sure, you say, that's how disciplinary discourse operates, and that's fine, except that what i'm not seeing (yet) is anyone calling some of the article's major assumptions into question (i.e., a discourse of inquiry applied to this "next big thing"). i wish i could see that (i saw a hint in 2 recent WPA posts).

maybe it's that i've been vibing out on such sophisticated rhetorical work recently at PSU, that the resonance of so many localized pedagogical moves are playing back in my mind as forms of resistance to disambiguating discourses that seem to derive from thinking in terms of disciplinary authority. so, for example, i wish i could see/hear us talking about what i heard Michael Salvo discussing at PSU, a "waveform alphabet" that sees audio-text imagistically; it seems there's something there for us in terms of delivery (in a performance-culture, the space w/in which rhetorical efficacy manifests (?)). Or thinking in terms of the audio-scripted performances of analytical work regarding film and visual rhetorics that Karen Springsteen delivered so well. Or imagining the value of social networking sites that operate by visualizing the literate practices of participants as Madeleine Sorapure shared with her audience. these things feel more like something i want to invest in.

so i suppose what i'm writing about here is in many ways a path to my concerns (it is my web space, i guess), which are almost always articluated in terms of what they are not (mostly about disciplinary authority). it's fine that others are invested in these concerns . . . it's probably important that they are . . . and so i suppose i should withdraw my critique of the widely praised new article that forms the exigence for this post. but my concerns obtain, f/w/t're/w. i hope that's okay.

image (waveform frequency cartoon)


chris said…
say, what new article r u referring to?

i didn't realize that i was so far out of the loop to have missed this "next big thing."

also, if this unnamed article is presenting "new" work that you've already written about, then i think you have a right to feel slighted.

however, and i hope this doesn't come out badly, but i think that your modesty and meekness may have some hand in the neglect. i say that with love and good intentions. sometimes we have to be our own biggest cheerleader - market ourselves, promote ourselves and what we do.
how do we do this? i'm not sure. there's not a generalizable formula that i know of.

i'll admit, i (still) haven't read your article on chaos theory (the one i assume you are referring to). and i come to "kind of..." everyday to see what you're thinking about and what you're up to.

[p.s. i think i'll go read it later today.]
this "new article" does not slight me in the least. my comments are trying to contextualize and reflect upon many possible reasons for my reaction to the piece because i don't think it's all bad, just problematic and not being viewed as such. it's the lead article in the current CCC.

i appreciate your good will, Chris, the cheerleader imagery (fresh from ref camp, you say?) is fun . . .

thanks for writing (and reading!).

i want you to write that book about ref work and teaching.
chris said…
oh. my bad. didn't mean to be antagonistic. guess i wasn't reading close enough. oops.

i'm still waiting on my copy of the current CCC. i'm sure once i read it i'll have an opinion to share, too.

as for the book on ref work and teaching: it's day will come. diss first, fun later! :)
Kafkaz said…
I definitely have some concerns about the Downs and Wardle article. One goes to motivation: how willing are we or should we be to embrace a "Writing Studies" approach to FYC that has, as its main thrust, the goal of legitimizing Writing Studies as a field, with sub-goals of battling "public misconceptions" about writing, persuading folks (the public? university colleagues? who?) that teaching writing requires expertise (was there every any doubt?, and that the study of writing is a "legitimate intellectual persuit."

Egads. That's a whole lot to get done, isn't it? Worse, I think, it seems like a whole lot to ask students to do *for* us, which is what this all seems to boil down to.

Then, there are all sorts of practical difficulties. Where are the texts and teaching materials that might support this approach? Probably the best introductions to "Writing Studies" are actually introductions to the teaching of writing. I could actually see FYC students reading and grasping a good deal of something like Lindemann, for instance, and maybe some of Elbow, and so forth, but how Downs and Wardle seem not to be after introducing students to theories about process or communication or audience or even discourse communities (all of which I think folks have been doing for some time, anyway) but after, in some sense, teaching them that writing as a skill can't really be taught. Heady stuff! Great for a grad seminar.

How does it become meaningful to students in FYC? How does it become useful to them?

I wonder.
my main concern, Kathy. how do FYC students get at this sort of graduate level thinking/work? i dont' mean to infantilize students, but i know my FYC students in this radically open admissions environment. i can't get beyond this basic concern, and i think you're right to point out that the article seems to want students to do an awful lot for us *and* that it assumes that we are not, have not been doing a lot of this disciplinary work already anyhow.

i, too, wonder.

thanks for writing.
Kafkaz said…
My background is in TYC teaching--my real love--so I, too, do wonder about what "Writing Studies" (assuming anyone ever managed to define that in any satisfactory fashion, which seems unlikely given that any exploration of theory would immediately unravel whatever definition anyone managed to spin) is supposed to look like, for gosh sakes, in its FYC iteration.

An entire FYC pedagogy based on the desire to legitamize the field? I dunno.

If, in a writing class, we teach about (and I think most good writing teachers do) things like audience, purpose, organization, development, review, revision, research, response, technology, authority, argument, persuasion, heuritics, phatic devices, clarity, unity, levels of formality, tone, voice and so forth, then we're already well into the land of theory, and about as far into it as it seems either necessary or useful to go in the land of first year writing. I mean, these are not at all simplistic concepts. They *are* at the heart of the study of writing.

"Writing Studies," as it plays out in this article, on the other hand, seems not at all concerned with these things, and actually rather eager to escape from them, at least as they are articulated in the WPA Outcomes statement. Why so? It can't possibly be that these things are too easy to teach, for they simply are not. They are *very* complicated, even in the early forms in which we introduce and begin to explore them in FYC.

There is world enough and time to complicate the hell out of them all in upper division courses. It is fun and exciting to do that, too. But, there's something dismissive in this notion that FYC isn't full enough, already. How does dismissing what already happens at all further goal of making it something more serious, legitimate, acceptable, or (what they seem really to be after) *valued* (and I want the economic association, there) in the academic realm?

Well, let's just drag in Derrida and Deleuze and be done with it. If we get students all confuzzled by rhizomes and the arborescent, then maybe we won't have to bother about teaching them to write.
i have talked w/ one of the co-authors about this before and arrive at a similar place, wondering, why not do these lofty things in upper division writing courses? isn't that the more appropriate place for such work . . . because, well, are first year students up for it?

as you rightly point out, "just" teaching elemental rhetorical concepts and practices *is* pretty seriously complex work. in fact, i see the WPA-generated Outcomes Statement as attempting to do what this article claims to want to do, to complicate our notions of writing beyond "mere" correctness and clarity,,beyond whatever misconceptions the authors cite; i have heard people who worked on the OS say as much about their intentions (the document itself, in its fullest form, available at the wpacouncil.org offers a detailed prologue in which this intention is articulated).

now, *how* the OS is taken up, institution by institution, may be frustrating, but dismissing it as unavailable for use in advancing serious rhetorical work seems to be a less than ideally productive move.

as you say, we end up chasing our own theories, and now we seem to be inviting students to do the same. how about writing?

thanks for doing so (writing, that is), Kathy.