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.
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