A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

(Carnival.) To Trimbur: Yes.

I don't have a lot of extra time right now, but I need to at least get in a cent's worth or two on the Trimbur article, "Changing the Question: Should Writing Be Studied."

I'll start by saying that I belong to a very small minority of people who travel in rhet/comp circles whose degree is actually in writing studies--not rhetoric, not composition, not rhetoric and composition (or vice versa). My academic training lies precisely in work oriented to the activity theory-inspired questions of “what writing does and how it does it” (Bazerman and Prior).

So, given my history, it's easy for me to just answer the question of whether writing should be studied with a simple "yes." Of course it should. The trickier questions Trimbur hints at are: what kinds of writing should be studied, how, and why? It's interesting that Trimbur, in offering a framework for how we might begin answering these questions, and despite his admission to identifying with the Olson camp in the new theory wars, never ceases to frame the question in terms of the teaching of writing.

I’ll explain: Trimbur spends the bulk of his essay not answering the question of whether writing should be studied but, rather, trying to frame how we might go about answering it. Even more to the point, he tries to frame the question in such a way as to bridge the apparent divide between the pro-theory and the pro-teaching factions of the new theory wars (I’m oversimplifying here, obviously, but this is the general dynamic Trimbur addresses). Or, at least, he tries to alleviate the fears of those invested in the teaching of writing, and especially FYC, that a shift to “writing studies” would spell the end for them and the subject about which they care so much.

His final sentence captures this conciliatory spirit:

in many respects the work of theorizing and enacting the study of writing is to make transparent and teachable the social relations and bodies of knowledge that now silently underwrite the first-year course-to organize the study of writing as an intellectual resource for undergraduates.

This claim makes an interesting move, though. Trimbur wants to assuage the fears of those invested in the teaching of writing/composition that a move to “writing studies” is not exclusive of their interests, offering the assurance that the study of writing will enrich, rather than deprive, an undergraduate writing curriculum. But a writing studies orientation opens up avenues for inquiry that go way, way beyond the illumination of the “bodies of knowledge that now silently underwrite” FYC. As Trimbur himself observes, writing scholars study grocery lists. They also study baseball cards, requisition forms, funding request forms, instruction manuals, facebook pages, notes found lying on the ground, and all other manner of inscription. (This is not to say that these things cannot inform FYC, though often they show little or no interest in doing so: writing studies does not feel the pedagogical imperative with anything like the intensity composition does.)

This fact masks another slippage, one not identified by Trimbur in his article. His defense of writing studies as beneficial to undergraduate education, particularly in the final sentence, elides the difference between courses explicitly designed to develop or enhance literacies—either general or specific, depending on what side of that disciplinary fence you’re standing on—and courses designed to explore the nature of such phenomena as the acquisition of literacy, disciplinary enculturation, or the roles that writing plays in the production and maintenance of complex social systems and networks of relations. (I'm aware that the two can and usually do inform each other, but I suspect as guiding orientations they are, more often than not, distinct.)

Such lines of inquiry could no doubt lead to wonderfully rich, fascinating undergraduate educational experiences (and they have, and do). But for most defenders of the traditional FYC model, such a curriculum still threatens their very reason for being, which is to either:

a) preserve the FYC class “as a pedagogical site with the potential to influence very large numbers of students, and for its importance as a site of struggle and change within the institutional hierarchy of academia” (Roemer, Schulz, and Durst 1999: 378), or
b) maintain a devotion to what Joseph Petraglia calls “general writing skills instruction,” or
c) both.

For the record: I agree with Trimbur. I also admire his other work and consider him an influence in my own intellectual development; I just don’t necessarily think his argument in this case is as transparent is it could be.

That said, my answer to whether writing should be studied is still “yes.” We have a lot to learn from studying writing, and what we have to learn exceeds what I would consider the relatively narrow—though extremely important—bounds of figuring out how best to teach writing. Writing (both noun and participle) is one of the most fundamental and powerful productive (and destructive) forces of modern human social life: it allows us to present, represent, organize, communicate, preserve, disseminate, and transform the information (understood in its most complex sense) and decisions that are vital to the maintenance of both our most basic and our most complex social, cultural, and political organizations and institutions. It moves us, it infuriates us, it bores us, it stirs us to action. Trying to figure out the ways it does all these things is among the most important tasks institutions of higher learning can undertake.

But saying that reveals a still deeper rift in our so-called theory wars: whereas composition is, and always has been, a deeply (and primarily) ethical enterprise, writing studies is, first and foremost, a project of discovery: it’s about “understanding how texts and textual practices in some social arena reflect and create certain social relations” (Bazerman and Prior 4). That’s not to say I don’t attend to ethics in my work, or that others in writing studies don’t either (my work is in many ways all about ethics). That’s also not to say that I’m not aware of the complex problems of representation and authority that attend all projects of discovery, from the controlled experiment to the most situated ethnographic study of literate practices. What it is to say, however, is that writing studies does not take as its point of departure the edification, liberation, spiritual awakening, or (fill-in-the-blank) of first-year (or any) college students (orientations that both Susan Miller, in “Writing Studies as a Mode of Inquiry,” and Kurt Spellmeyer, in “Education for Irrelevance,” critique).

I’m ok with that. In fact, that’s how I approach my work. (Though, without getting into the whole complex problem of whether writing skills transfer from one situation to the next, I do think literacy instruction is an important part of a student’s educational experience. I also attend extensively to literacy instruction in my classes) But, in the end, I think the distinction is something that is present in but needs to be teased out of Trimbur’s text.

Other carnival (and sort-of-pre-carnival) posts (so far): here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles, and Paul Prior, eds. What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2004.

Miller, Susan. "Writing Studies as a Mode of Inquiry." Rhetoric and Composition as Intellectual Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002.

Roemer, Marjorie, Lucille M. Schulz, and Russel K. Durst. 1999. “Reframing the Great Debate on First-Year Writing.” College Composition and Communication 50: 377-92.

Spellmeyer, Kurt. “Education for Irrelevance? Or, Joining our Colleagues in Lit Crit on the Sidelines of the Information Age." Composition Studies in the New Millenium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future. Ed. Lynn Bloom, Donald Daiker, Ed White. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2003.

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At 9:16 PM, Blogger D Grant said...

Wow! Quite a post for someone who doesn't "have a lot of extra time right now"...

I like the phrase "activity-theory inspired questions of 'what writing does and how it does it'" even though my own approach ( here) moves away from activity theory.

Folks like David Russell, Marilyn Cooper, Marty Nystrand, Louise Phelps and of course Prior, Bazerman and others asked great questions. We should keep the questions coming.

At 10:46 PM, Blogger Lance said...

Actually, the post ended up taking longer than I wanted it to--long enough that I didn't want to spend more time going back and revising the original "I don't have much time" framing gesture (because it would have taken even more time.) Maybe if I had, I would also have made sure I didn't use the term "complex" five times in such a short span.

I'll look at your work; in the meantime, I agree that the people you list ask great questions. I'm trying to live up to their (ongoing) legacy.


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