Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Foundational Knowledge/Beliefs

A recent discussion on the WPA-L Listserv about the foundational beliefs of rhetoric has led me to mull over where I fall on that spectrum.

I strongly resist teaching writing as anything that resembles a mechanical formula that involves simply inputting a few words to receive some form of output. I have (and will probably do so again when the situation warrants it) taught some useful structures to guide novice writers. This includes the five-paragraph essay and formal argument structure as well as formal research article structure. I see these formulas as useful stepping stones or frameworks to negotiate specific writing challenges for specific kinds of writers. If they are taught as tools that have benefits and drawbacks then I do not believe I am betraying my rhetorical training. I do believe quite strongly that teaching such formulas as the beginning and end of writing training is wrong and that using such formulas does not make anyone a writer. Writers can, and do, use formulas but they have other tools on their belt to wield as necessary and have the knowledge to choose the correct tool for the job. Sometimes the job calls for a simple hammer so why choose a more precision tool?

In essence, I hold these truths to be self-evident – or at least agreed upon by those who have studied and researched rhetoric and writing:

Writing is a process not a formula. Each writer undergoes multiple processes depending on the context and goal. Writer’s processes change and develop as they grow as writers. Learning to be a writer is a process as well. My job as a writing teacher is to help people become writers. This means helping them develop the confidence and agency as well as the knowledge to select the right tool for the job at hand. My current pedagogical choices focus on those areas but my classes also include teaching certain tools such as contextual and genre awareness.

Writing is contextually situated. Writing is a social activity in that it is written to make something happen whether that something is a thought or an action. Yes, writing shares information but it is more than that. It changes hearts and minds and deeds. Yes, writing can be art, but I hold that art is also meant to invoke some thought or emotion or change. However, effective writing must conform or fit comfortably within the context and meet the expectations of those expected to read it. This is deeper and more complicated than “audience awareness” and must involve not only learning about a community but investigating its boundaries and history. Genres change dependent on the context as each community adapts its own unique genres to serve its own unique purposes. This is a foundational belief of our field and essential knowledge that must be understood before one can become a writer.

It is hard to disentangle composition and rhetoric . Cutting through the Gordian Knot is an even greater challenge when you add in my other field—technical communication. I see both composition and technical communication as falling under the umbrella of rhetoric—the study of human communication—with composition falling more toward the learning to write end of the spectrum (which often falls during education) and technical communication embracing writing that works (not to be confused with writing at work) in life as well as work. I see technical communication as knowledge work that is conducted by communicators. I believe that my work in the field of technical communication can feed my work as a compositionist and vice versa.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What is Community?

I am interested in the idea of “community” from two related but different angles. Not a straight-forward social or geographical community, but a network, such as a community of practice or learning community. This idea of community as a place to grow and learn interests me as a technical communicator and as an educator.

As a technical communicator I am interested in the development of a professional learning community and organization. The project I am embarking on will involve the rhetorical analysis of a community’s documentation (annual reports in particular) to study the community’s transformation from an organization in crisis to a thriving community.

As a teacher, I am interested in the impact of a learning community on the transformation to writer (the focus of my dissertation and classroom research). I have found evidence in some populations that participation in a learning community decreases writing apprehension and increases evidence of self-regulating activity such as agency and self-efficacy. I intend to continue studying the impact of community on writing development and transformation.

The challenge is that the definition of “community” has evolved over time and it is necessary to re-evaluate what defines or makes a community. I am currently conducting a literature review to better understand how “community” is defined in the fields of technical communication and writing studies.

Zucchermaglio & Talamo (2003) argue that because writing is a social activity a writer is always a member of a community. They point out that each community develops specific communicative practices, both oral and written. These practices are affected by the development of the main dimensions that characterize a group as a community of practice: mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire.

Ornatowski and Bekins (2004) agree that “community underpins rhetorical action” but ask what is a “realistic” idea of community today. Communication and transportation innovations have challenged and changed previous notions of community sometimes beyond all recognition. The “diverse contexts” that have resulted from these changes make pinning down a definition of community difficult at best.

Hampton & Wellman (2003) note that the idea of “community” has both persevered and changed over time and is rarely based on local neighboring, densely-knit solidarities, organized groups, or public spaces. They observe that communities consist of far-flung kinship, workplace, friendship, interest groups, and neighborhood ties that concatenate to form networks providing sociability, aid, support, and social control. Communities are usually not groups, but social networks that are sparsely-knit, loosely-bounded and far-flung.

Network Weaving (2011) defines a “community” as a network of people who share things in common. Others are more specific about those “things” the members of a community share. For example, Grossman et al (2001) and Rovai (2002) define a community as a group of people who share social interdependence, participation in discussion and decision making, and practices that both define the community and are nurtured by it. Grossman and Rovai also agree that the most essential elements of community include a sense of connection and trust, task-driven interactivity, shared interests, meaningful relationships, and overlapping histories among members.

Ornatowski and Bekins (2004) point out that the concept of “community” is typically used as a “god-term” in the sense coined by Kenneth Burke: reified, ubiquitous, always positive, and ultimately unexamined. They question the idea of “shared beliefs and values” that is often noted as a characteristic of (or as the very foundation of) community when any conceptualization of community today must grapple with…the context of diversity and value pluralism. They call for research and theory concerning the complex relationships between rhetorical actions and their impact on communities.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reflections on the dissertation process

I just completed the final draft of my dissertation and as a teacher who promotes reflection, I should practice what I preach for my own benefit and hopefully others as well. While I will never write another dissertation, it is likely that long-term research projects and writing books based on those projects is in my academic future. I know that a dissertation is not a book and vice versa but enough parallels exist that I should record the lessons I learned from this experience.

Writing a dissertation is exciting and exhilarating and fun – at times. There are also times when it is hard physical and mental labor that leaves you drained and twitchy. Writing a dissertation is a mixture of discovery and drudgery. Even though I received a great deal of advice, I was still unprepared for the process. I don’t know that you can ever be truly prepared. You can receive training and preparation and advice, but in the end you need to get your head in a certain place and no one can control that except you. But enough of the zen and more of the practical.

If I had to sum up the most important lesson that I wish I understood going in one word that would be: recursive. I was told repeatedly that a dissertation is a recursive document but until I understood that writing the dissertation is also recursive I still struggled. It is not a linear experience but rather a tightening spiral with your final dissertation message as the epicenter. I am sure that if I had realized this sooner in my process then the writing and revision of my dissertation would have been much less painful. Think of preparing your reading list and preproposal and taking your qualifying exams as a large loop that then gradually loops inward as you plan your research and craft your proposal. The collection and analysis of your data creates another inward loop until finally you reach the central point, lesson, or finding of your work – your take-away message. After you have worked through your results and analysis and worked out that take-away it is much easier to go back and work through the other chapters. Maybe doing so would save you some of the wheel-spinning and revision that I had to do by thinking too linear.

A more practical (rather than conceptual) piece of advice that I cannot stress enough (and a primary reason I was able to get through this process in a timely fashion) is that timing is everything. Give yourself time. Dissertation writing, in my experience, requires large chunks of prime time, but of course, mileage may vary according to the driver. I needed large chunks of time to read-think-process-write. During course work I frequently had large projects/papers but nothing on this scale and I learned early on that the work habits and practices that moved me through course work would not work for dissertation work. Writing a dissertation is different from writing a paper or article. In my opinion it is better to carve out one or two large time blocks a week than five smaller time blocks a week because I found that in small time block it took me too long to get to the place I needed to get (by reading, thinking etc.) to be productive. Mileage may vary for those who have chunks of time during the day to productively think (runners, for example, or commuters) without distraction, but as family and work demands fill all my waking hours the only time I could really focus was during the dedicated blocks of dissertation time. I aimed for three or four large time blocks a week. Sometimes I got them and some weeks I couldn’t. Fortunately, my family was supportive of this endeavor and I was able to adjust my work schedule to accommodate dissertation time. Finally, as I mentioned early on you should strive for locating those chunks of time for your prime time. When are you most alert, focused, and at your best (mentally and physically)? For me this is morning. As I teach primarily online (at least that is what I requested during this process) I was able to perform most of my teaching functions in the afternoon and evening and could then dedicate my mornings to dissertation work.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences to see if their recommendations and advice compare or differ.