Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Finding Rhetorical Agency

A funny thing happened while I was struggling to define and understand rhetorical agency and how my work connects with it...I not only learned about rhetorical agency but found it as well.

I have been struggling for months with situating my research within the bounds of technical communication and rhetoric (see The Forgotten "R") while simultaneously reading the research I needed to inform that work. What truly complicated the boundaries for me (I only just realized) is that so much of that research fell within the disciplines of psychology and education with just a smattering of composition work. I needed this work to define and ground my research -- to feed it -- but I also needed to locate my work (which is not in psychology, education, or composition) within the discipline of rhetoric.

In "How Ought We to Understand the Concept of Rhetorical Agency?", Cheryl Geisler defines rhetoric as a productive art and says that rhetorical inquiry should "make a difference in the world". She asks how we can create a better society through the pursuit of rhetoric.

This makes me happy as I feel that I have at last found a home for my work that satisfies my needs and interests. I see composition and writing studies to be focused more on academic writing or "schooled literacy" (to borrow from Rick Evans). This is an interest of mine but not the focus of my dissertation work. I also do not want to be pigeonholed as a compositionist as my research and teaching interests are much broader. I am also interested in the work of technical communication (which Grabill defines as communicative labor situated in the social institutions of public life (I really like that definition). Reading Geisler helped me understand (better) that rhetoric encompasses both this societal and educational mission governing communication as Andrea Lunsford defines rhetoric as "the art, practice, and study of [all] human communication." I believe my research has implications for composition but is more situated in the communicative labor of a social institution. Either way I'm covered if I focus on rhetorical inquiry.

Now that I have announced my intent to create a rhetorical inquiry that makes a difference in the world I must describe it more fully. I return again to the work of Albert Bandura in social cognitive theory to set the stage. I feel more comfortable with this revisit as I now understand (better) the path I must travel to return to rhetoric. Bandura posits that people can effect change in themselves and their situations. This is clearly something rhetoricians need to believe (accept, embrace) or our work would be an exercise in futility. But where does that belief take us?

One of the ways people effect change, according to Bandura, is through self-efficacy. He defines self-efficacy as a person's confidence in their ability to utilize specific skills. Bandura maintains that self-efficacy and agency are interdependent. People do not pursue activities if they doubt they can do what it takes [self-efficacy] to succeed. Why bother, right? Similarly, people do not pursue activities if they doubt they have the power [agency] to act/enact change.

Bandura says the exercise of personal agency is achieved through reflective and regulative thought, the skills at one's command, and self influence (that combination of self efficacy and agency). He points out that skill is not a fixed property (a battle we continually fight as teachers of writing) but has generative capability that must be organized and effectively orchestrated. He says there is a marked difference between possession of knowledge and skills -- and being able to use them under difficult (and different) circumstances. In essence this is the problem of transfer that has dominated so much rhetorical conversation in recent years.

I am interested in the ways that social cognitive theory (self-efficacy and personal agency) interacts (or is it intersects?) with rhetorical agency to effect transfer. I am looking at the short- and long-term impact of negotiated writing (such as that found in collaborative and libratory writing pedagogies) on rhetorical agency and writing self-efficacy.

Carmen Werder makes a call for rhetoric in general to move from individual efficacy to collective agency in "Rhetorical Agency: Seeing the Ethics of it All". For Werder rhetorical agency is about persuasion rather than exerting control over others through the use of power; negotiating with others through dialectic interplay rather than simply communicating to others.

In "Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric", Michael Leff points out that individual agency in traditional humanistic rhetoric was held entirely by the rhetor. The humanistic rhetor was active and in control, although admittedly constrained by the demands of the audience, while the audience was passive. Like Werder, Geisler describes agency in postmodern rhetoric as socially constructed.

While Geisler defines rhetorical agency as the capacity of the rhetor to act, she also points out that only a select few have enjoyed traditional rhetorical agency while linking rhetorical action and social change. She says it is important to consider in what sense can the actions of the rhetor be linked to consequences in the world. She argues that it is rhetoric's mission to educate rhetors to have agency and to intervene (as in support and encourage) in the skills of the rhetorical agents with whom we come in contact.

Geisler says rhetorical agency manifests itself in the ability to identify and manage, orchestrate, resources for communication. I believe this brings us back, full circle, to writing self efficacy as a tool to achieve that educational mission as Geisler outlines it. It is my job as a rhetorician and educator to facilitate the acquisition of these skills, and their orchestration, in other rhetorical agents. I can do this both in the classroom and through my research.

Geisler's goal for rhetoric is for rhetoric to contribute to the development of a society that grants agency more broadly which ties in well with the goals of my research -- just as Grabill argues research should encourage emancipation, empowerment, and social change.

Monday, March 22, 2010

My 2010 CCCC Experience -- Remixing and Rethinking in Progress (Part Two)

I started the day with G.14 "Theorizing Agency in Writing Studies" and was interested by Clayton Walker's "The Embodied Act of Writing: Toward a Theory of Affects and Agency" and its connection of agency and classroom discourse.

Then on to H.21 "Research on Learning Transfer, and How We Use That Research to Improve Classroom and Institutional Success". Was particularly interested in Anne Balay's study of transfer at her institution and her call for more longitudinal research on transfer.

That brought me to preparing for my own presentation as part of J.26 "Daring to Remix, Renegotiate, and Reassess Writing Assessment" with Rebecca Rickly, Fred Kemp, and Ronda Wery. I talked about "Negotiated Assignments and Rubrics" and am more than happy to provide notes etc. for any interested in my experience with collaboration and negotiation.

After rehashing our talk and chatting with others following our talk it was too late to attend the last session of the day. Had intended to see K.08 "Revising Genre Theory: Reporting on the Emergence of Online Health Communication Genres" to be a supportive friend.

Enjoyed a leisurely dinner with Ronda Wery and Liz Pohland and then on to celebrate Rebecca Rickly's 50th birthday party at a party hosted by Joyce Locke Carter. Very exciting combination of folks and lots of fun.

Saturday morning meant dealing with business of checking out and finding car in huge underground garage beneath Galt House then having a very productive meeting regarding Morehead Writing Project with Tom Fox.

Managed to squeeze in one last session -- O.12 "Web 2.0: Problems and Possibilities". Was interested in John Alberti's discussion of power and pedagogy as well as Annie Mendenhall and Elizabeth Brewer's discussion of interactivity and power.

Then was called away by family emergency so I couldn't attend P.10 "Creating Narratives for Technical to Professional Communication" which promised to include very interesting work by Christina Low,, and Alissa Barber Torres.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

My 2010 CCCC Experience -- Remixing and Rethinking in Progress (Part One)

I returned home from "CCCC 2010: The Remix" last night. An easy trip home with the conference so close but the recovery time will last much longer. I am still exhausted: physically, emotionally, and most definitely cognitively.

I've been following the discussion of the conference on the WPA-L and thought I'd share my reasoning for session choice. I was not a good friend. I didn't go to any sessions to support my friends and colleagues. I was strictly selfish about my session choice -- I selected sessions to attend based solely on my interests as a researcher, scholar, and teacher. I didn't really pay attention to the level of the scholar (master or initiate or somewhere in between) and simply chose sessions based on my hope that I would learn something from the presenter. Sometimes I reaped more than I expected and other times I was disappointed (although never by a whole panel). I would love a more centralized way to access papers and handouts etc. It would be even more awesome if such a mechanism included a way to share our own notes and reactions to continue the conversation long after the conference. I could see a tremendous benefit to such an experience. I definitely plan to follow up with many of these folks as the hectic (frantic?) pace of the conference just didn't leave me time for such contact.

I have pages of notes and handouts that I'm afraid will get lost in the shuffle so I want to post a quick review of what I did with notes about things that particularly interested me.

I was disappointed right out of the gate that I could not get in the door to attend session A.09 "Rethinking Transfer, Renewing Pedagogy" but I will follow up with those folks.

In my need to quickly choose a new session I simply picked the one that interested me the most that also happened to be nearby and selected A.06 "Protocol, Power, and Possibility: What the Literacies and Rhetorics of Organization Can Teach Us About Teaching Writing".

I was interested in Annette Vee's discusion of "Counter-Coding: Procedural Writing as Resistance among 'Hacker' Communities" in particular some of the things she had to say about writing resistance and power.

Richard Parent's "Hacking the Classroom: Teaching and Learning (as) Playfulness" was also really interesting to me in regard to pedagogy and teaching.

I next planned to attend B.33 "The Remix in the Classroom: Innovations and Implications of Multimodal Composing" but instead got side-tracked by meeting up with some of my fellow TTU TCR Ph.D. students (Sue Henson and Janie Santoy) and then my fellow panelists (Fred Kemp and Ronda Wery).

Then I was off to C.33 "Rethinking and Renewing Academic Literacy: Issues of Transfer" which was a great session just full of information that I can use for my scholarly work and teaching. Just love when that happens. Kathleen Rowlands presented some interesting work to aid in transfer from high school to college that should be interesting in my writing project work. Irene Clark's talk about genre awareness was very noteworthy. Chris Thaiss discussed transfer and presented many intriguing ideas.

With my mind whirling from all the information I'd received so far and knowing I had two more events to go I decided to take a break with friend, colleague and fellow TTU TCR Ph.D. student Lora Arduser.

Refreshed and renewed I was off to E.25 "Using Quantitative Analysis to Extend the Gains from Authentic Assessment of Writing" and was very impressed with the presenters and the audience (got some great tips for stats support). Keith Rhodes told us we must learn to do our own numbers because numbers have power and Carol Rutz gave great insight into the impact of faculty development on student writing that I found particularly interesting for my writing project work.

Then my final event of the day was the Special Interest Group TSIG.10 "The Subject is Writing: First-Year Composition as an Introduction to Writing Studies" which was chaired by David Slomp and Kathleen Blake Yancey and of course brought us Elizabeth Wardle. Great contacts and ideas. Still fascinated by this project.

There were more events that night but by this point my brain was past capacity and my body was exhausted so I enjoyed a quiet dinner with Lora Arduser and Lisa Meloncon before collapsing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Personal Agency

I have spent much time of late thinking about personal agency. It appears to be one of the common threads intersecting different projects for different areas of my professional life.

According to social cognitive theory, we are driven not just by inner forces nor controlled by the environment and social forces but also have the power, the personal agency, to choose our actions. This power to originate actions for specific purposes is the key feature of personal agency, according to Albert Bandura. Bandura is one of the most eminent psychologists of our time and the most cited one living -- and he is the father of social cognitive theory.

Bandura tells us personal agency is when we deliberately choose an action, monitor the results and adjust accordingly. This agentic capability means we influence events around us and contribute to the shape of our lives. There is variation in our individual levels of personal agency and this has a direct impact on our ability to exert influence on our lives. Low level agents think about their actions in terms of details and the methods necessary -- essentially focusing at a low level on the actions to be performed. In contrast, high level agents are able to look at the big picture and determine what the actions mean beyond the immediate result and what effect it will have. No surprise then that high level agency is more impactful.

We develop personal agency across many action domains by experimentation, observation, and adaption of these experiences. This development process begins in infancy and continues throughout our lives but clearly for some people it does not progress beyond low level agency. Personal agency can be promoted if others provide scaffolding for the agent, essentially offering a series of experiences that gradually increase in challenge, and/or provide support. These types of experiences are natural progressions for many life experiences in school, sports, and life skills, for example.

So what differentiates those high level agents from the low level agents? Was there a failure in their early support system? Did they need more or different support than they received? Either or both may be a cause, but Bandura tells us that there is a great deal of research that supports the fact that experiences where we have a lack of control can undermine our level of personal agency.

Fascinating stuff, eh? But it is more than theory. This theory is well supported by decades of research and personal agency impacts real-life issues such as our academic success, professional achievement, and social engagement. As a writing teacher I am especially interested in social cognitive theory and the issue of personal agency. Certainly both have implications for the teaching of writing. I think increasing our (my?) understanding of how personal agency is developed and fostered could be key to helping my students move from struggling to skilled writers. Certainly the implications go beyond first-year writing classes when we study the differences between low and high level agents.

Extensive research has been done on the writing processes of struggling writers and I can quickly see the parallels between those processes and Bandura's description of low level agents. Understanding why those struggling writers have remained low level agents is just as important as understanding the actions we can initiate to help them make the move to high level agency.

The pedagogical choices we make have strong implications for effective changes in our students from low to high level agency. We know the lack of control undermines personal agency. We know giving the opportunity to choose actions, monitor results, and make adjustments accordingly contributes to personal agency. Furthermore, we know the progression from low to high level agent requires scaffolding and support as well as guidance and feedback.

I'm already thinking about how this will change my own practice as a teacher. It certainly makes clearer to me some of the problems with transfer. Once you have reached high level agency then it is easy to transfer skills from one writing context to another. You are skilled at reaching into your bag of tricks, selecting the most appropriate tools for the task at hand, monitoring the success of those tools, and then making adjustments as necessary. The problem, I think, is that low level agents (the majority of my students I suspect) not only have a more limited set of tricks and tools but are much less successful at monitoring and adjusting as necessary and do not put all the available tricks and tools to appropriate use.

I definitely see a connection here between helping increase personal agency and effecting transfer -- and Bandura has helped me understand more clearly how agency can be fostered. The question is to what extent.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Forgotten "R"

Preparing for your doctoral qualifying exam is more than a bit like scrapbooking. I think this might be true anyway since my scrapbooks are all hideously in need of updating. Doctoral studies have a way of doing that to you. I have spent a great deal of time lately sifting and sorting through books, articles, and notes -- and taken many walks down memory lane in the process. This "scrapbooking" process has also allowed me to take a step back and look at all this academic clutter to see it as a whole and to see patterns I had either missed the first time around or forgotten about while in the midst of gathering new information. Some of those discoveries will provide fodder (hopefully) for my qualifying exam and my dissertation, but one discovery is much more foundational -- my identity as a rhetorician.

I once embraced and celebrated this identity but somewhere during the process of my coursework I was seduced by the idea of technical communication. Further complicating matters was my marriage to composition as a general education writing teacher. My professional identity has always been connected to writing (as a professional writer and editor as well as published novelist before becoming a teacher of writing). This identity became even more intertwined when I took on the role of a National Writing Project site director. The National Writing Project focuses on improving the teaching of writing and one of the main methods for achieving this goal is to help teachers become writers themselves. I love this work but do not want to be defined by it either.

All these titles and roles became perplexing to me. Just what was my primary identity? What was my primary role? While the siren song of technical communication was alluring and interesting and full of wonderful challenges I knew that was not the right fit for me -- too much of my work was tied up in the teaching of writing. Maybe someday I would be able to devote myself entirely to that work, and I certainly had many projects I wanted to explore, but not in my current professional position. Certainly composition fit much of work but that description was too confining, too restricting, it chaffed and had to be discarded. I contemplated the term writing studies long and hard as that seemed to encompass all that I was while also offering the ability to embrace all I wanted to be as well. And yet...some nagging notion remained that something still was not right.

Fortunately for me, my weekend reading included Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. This was fortunate because it reminded me that I was a rhetorician -- and that the study of rhetoric covers quite comfortably all the areas of communication that interest me so much as a professional, as a teacher, and as a researcher. Rhetoric includes technical communication, composition, and writing. I didn't need to shop for a new identity -- I just needed to be reminded of one I had tucked into the back of my closet and forgotten. Amazingly, while I have grown and changed since I packed that identity away it still fits well and looks marvelous on me, if I do say so myself.

Booth defines rhetoric as all forms of communication. He shares a number of other popular definitions of rhetoric. A few of my favorites include:

Lloyd Bitzer, 1968 -- "Rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action."

Jacques Derrida, 1990 -- "We should not neglect rhetoric's importance, as if it were simply a formal superstructure or technique exterior to the essential activity. Rhetoric is something decisive in society...[T]here are no politics, there is no society, without rhetoric, without the force of rhetoric."

Andrea Lunsford, 1995 -- "Rhetoric is the art, practice, and study of [all] human communication."

Marc Fumaroli, 1999 -- "Rhetoric appears as the connective tissue peculiar to civil society and to its proper finalities, happiness and politic peace hic et nunc."

If a rhetorician is a student of communication, as Booth tells us, then I am indeed a rhetorician. I am not just a communicator or teacher of communication -- but a student of communication. I believe those studies will help me become a better communicator and teacher of communication, but those are not the only reasons I study. I study because I find communication fascinating in all its awe-inspiring power.

Booth reminds us that for millenia the study of rhetoric was considered essential. He is concerned, frightened even, by the way we have bastardized rhetorical education today. I agree that the neglect of rhetorical education "threatens our lives" and in fact our whole world. Yes, rhetrickery has given rhetoric a bad name to most of the world -- and perhaps that may have been one of the reasons I avoided defining myself as a rhetorician -- but I believe that rhetoric has the power to change the world.

Certainly as a teacher I believe rhetoric has the power to change lives. Reading and writing well are key to our personal success in both education and professional life. No one disputes that fact but what has gone so horribly wrong with our education system today -- and hence society -- is that we divorce those "skills" from what makes them so meaningful. In order to read and write well we must learn to read and listen critically so we can then communicate effectively in response.

Booth says that the quality of our lives -- our very survival -- depends on the quality of rhetoric and I think that is certainly a field worthy of dedicating my life to studying and teaching. Now if you will excuse me...I need to go update my web site to make it clear that: Deanna Mascle is a rhetorician.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Coming Full Circle

As a writing teacher I have continually struggled with the content of my writing classes. I am a skilled and experienced writer, but what do I need to teach my students so they can become skilled writers? What experiences do I need to give my students so they can learn the skills necessary to skilled writers? I read and re-read the theory and research of my field and no where could I find a clear answer to this key question: Just what should I (we?) teach in first-year composition classes?

This issue became even more complicated when I began to think beyond the boundaries of my classroom. I could definitely create a class where students could master the assignments I set for them and experience success, but could I create a class where students could take those skills into new writing situations and experience success. Could I really fulfill the essential mission of FYC to prepare students to enter academic writing? Could I foster transfer?

I created carefully scaffolded assignment sequences based on the research and theory of my field and built in more reflection and more collaboration. I introduced my students to the concepts of discourse community and genre. I strove to make them aware of the writing that would be expected of them in other classes as well as the professional world and how they would need these ideas (discourse community, genre, collaboration, reflection) to find their way.

All these changes also marked important changes in my teaching style. I became more of a hands-off teacher and more coach or facilitator. The more I read of social cognitive theory and understood of human adaptation and change the more I realized that I could not teach transfer. I could not teach specific skills that students could immediately apply to the work in other classes. Sure sometimes we both might get lucky and it might happen but those occurrences seemed to be more by serendipity than design.

But all was not lost and there was no need to choose between the two evils of quitting my job or living a lie. I found my answer in personal agency and self efficacy.

People are agentic operators who regulate their own motivation and the activities they pursue. We make causal contributions to our own success through mechanisms of personal agency – acts we intentionally perform to achieve a desired outcome or prevent an undesired one. One of the most influential mechanisms is that of personal efficacy. If we do not believe we can produce the desired result then there is no incentive to act.

We guide our lives by our belief of personal efficacy. We analyze a situation, consider alternative courses of action, judge our ability to carry those actions out successfully and estimate the results of our actions.

I have now come to believe that the only way to effect transfer is through personal agency, personal efficacy, which makes fostering writing self-efficacy the central mission of my writing classes.

How do we foster writing self-efficacy? Well there is a lot we don’t know yet about the sources of writing self-efficacy (and that is the focus of my dissertation) but we do know that human adaptation and change are rooted in social systems. As a result it is not surprising that social forces play an important part in writing self-efficacy and are a key source of writing self-efficacy. This has meant I spend even more time in class on collaboration and building a writing community as well as making writing workshop an integral part of coursework.

Successful outcomes also play an important part in fostering writing self-efficacy. Again collaboration and writing workshop support this, but it is also important to not just build writing self-efficacy for the short-term (this class) but also the long-term, to which end I’ve focused on developing my students knowledge of writing studies (read my post about FYC as Writing Studies) so they do not simply acquire a set of tools they do not know how to adapt – transfer – to a new writing situation but hopefully learn how a discourse community works and the key role it plays in genre so they can better make the necessary moves to enter a new discourse community and understand its genres.

So now my graduate work as well as my teaching has come full circle – a fact I hadn’t realized until just this week. I’m still struggling to answer that question – what should we teach in FYC – and while I think I may have found an answer I’m not confident it is the answer. Stay tuned!