Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Monday, October 31, 2011

Abandoning audience awareness

I spent the weekend crafting proposals for the ATTW Conference and TCQ’s special issue on Social Media – and this after spending the previous weekend crafting a proposal for Computers and Writing. While this might sound like an overly ambitious program for the spring (two conferences in addition to my already accepted panel for Cs plus a journal article) let me hasten to assure you that everything but the Cs presentation is connected to the same topic and the Cs presentation is based on my dissertation work. So yes, this is ambitious, but not entirely crazy. Of course you can talk to me after C and W to see if I still think so. That is assuming I can still speak coherently.

What also makes this less crazy is that I have spent a lot of time in recent months reading and thinking about these ideas and then discussing them with my friends Lora Arduser and Kim Elmore (who also happen to be collaborators on ATTW and (just Kim) TCQ). Kim and I have talked about this issue with Lora’s students and I have also discussed this topic with my own students. In fact, this work has inspired changes in the way I teach audience.

What I have been focused upon is the issue of community and I have approached it from a number of different angles. Back in July I wrote about “What Is Community” and then in August I wrote about “Community and Social Capital” as I tried to understand what constitutes a community and why some communities thrive and succeed and others fizzle and fail. However, that led to still more questions, such as how one joins a community which led to my September post “Community: Jumping to become a full-patch member.”

It is easy to see from these posts (and the litter of references in them) that I have been thinking about these issues a great deal in recent months. I have been thinking about them as a technical communicator and researcher, but also as a teacher and I have reached some conclusions that have dramatically changed the way that I teach and think about written communication and how it should be taught.

Scholars in composition and technical communication have long agreed that audience is a central rhetorical concern. Ede and Lunsford argued that audience plays an important role in the writing process and the creation of meaning and contended that understanding audience can “help us better understand the complex act we call composing.” Of course the problem is that understanding audience is extremely challenging for both novice and experienced writers. Ong asked: “How does the writer give body to the audience for whom he writes?” This continues to be an important question today. While Ong’s “fictional” audience and Ede and Lunsford’s “invoked” audience have informed my work, I was not satisfied. Johnson’s “involved” audience provided further inspiration and some intense conversations with my collaborators have resulted in a new assignment for my students.

I have decided not to focus on audience per se because I worry that is too limiting and one-dimensional to be useful and is, in fact, a one-way channel of communication that is, I believe, part of the problem. Porter argues against determining a “fixed meaning” of audience and I want to give my students (and myself) a much more flexible and responsive notion of audience with which to work. I don’t believe that imagining, invoking, or (even) involving the audience is enough. The writer must do more than address their audience – the writer must engage with their audience. The only way for this to truly happen is by joining the community. This does not require “full patch membership” but it does require shedding their status as an outsider.

We have laid the foundation for such work in my class this semester by studying their chosen communities as outsiders and developing the “social literacy” that Cargile Cook argues is important, but we are now embarking on a project that I hope will begin bringing them across the boundaries and into the community. This involves learning more about the “civic mechanisms” Spinuzzi claims are essential for communities. My hope is that combining this knowledge of social literacy and civic mechanisms will help my students transcend the need for audience. Stay tuned as this could all crash and burn.

In the meantime, I will continue to read and reflect. Spinuzzi’s recent blog post about “network rhetoric” and Ronfeldt’s “In Search of How Societies Work” will certainly provide fodder for my next round of reflection.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Community and Genre: Teaching Writers About Context

Two of my three primary goals as a writing teacher are to help my students develop an understanding of genre and discourse community. I continually struggle to delve deeper than simply addressing audience awareness so they can learn about discourse communities and the process of becoming a full member as well as how communities shape the genres they uses.

This semester that process, or learning experience, began with building our class community. This was important to me for reasons I outlined in a previous blog post, Creating A Classroom Community, but essentially because I believe it will improve their experience with this class and help them become better writers. The first half of the semester was focused more on working with sources and building our class community, but in the second half I am more than a bit nervous about moving the issue of discourse community front and center to our discussion and work. This nervousness is in part because I haven’t fully worked out all the details yet but it is also the result of my fear that I cannot break this complex topic down effectively for my students which might simply be my fear that I am taking on too much for a general education writing class. Stay tuned!

I began the discussion of discourse community with a journal prompt for my students. It was a rather complex prompt in that I asked them to watch a brief video about Community and Genre and then read my reflections about the process of joining a community in my blog post, Jumping to become a full-patch member. It has only been a few days and so only a handful of students have posted yet but so far those responses have been good. They seem to understand the points I’m making about community and are able to pull examples from their own experiences. The next stage will be to discuss these issues as a class. It will be interesting to see where the discussion leads.

In the meantime, they are also engaged in two writing assignments that will feed our discussion and (hopefully) their understanding of discourse community and genre. They are currently working on literature reviews of peer-reviewed journals about professional training and communication needs of their intended professions. The intent is to develop a base of knowledge about the expectations and requirements of their field. Their next assignment will be to interview two professionals in their field to help them develop a fuller picture of those expectations and requirements. Toward the end of the interview assignment we will engage in another journal post and class discussion to further deepen their understanding of discourse community as well as to engage in some more specific discussion of genre.

That is where my comfort level ends. I have three more assignments planned to wrap up the semester – an analysis, a final (which is usually some sort of reflective and/or analytical essay), and a culminating project that ties the lessons of the semester into a neat package. In the past I’ve had them analyze degree programs or a professional organization’s code of ethics or best practices but at the suggestion of a colleague I’m leaning more toward some sort of community analysis. Of course how we’ll do that I’m not yet sure. I’m also struggling with whether or not to make these projects/assignments collaborative or solo (or give students the choice). I’ve got a lot of thinking to do about this. Would love to hear about how others teach their students about discourse community and genre.