descriptive rhetoric

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post. It’s all the usual kinds of reasons–the end of the semester, meeting after meeting squeezed in at the end, two conference presentations coming up this month, and putting the finishing touches on my book, The Two Virtuals, coming soon from Parlor Press. Tomorrow there’s one more meeting for the composition faculty, and I’m pleased to be teaching FYC again after a hiatus.

Students will still want to be told what they need to do. They will want models to imitate and forms to adopt. And it is perhaps easy enough to provide such things and evaluate students by their ability to produce simulations of good writing.

However, descriptive rhetoric is much like descriptive grammar. One can describe the features of academic writing, just as one can describe the features of a sentence. But descriptive grammar doesn’t really explain how sentences are composed. In speaking, one does not think "OK, first I need a noun, and then I need a verb, and maybe I should add a direct object or perhaps a prepositional phrase." As we know, teaching descriptive grammar doesn’t do much to change students’ grammatical performances in their writing.

One might suspect the same conditions with descriptive rhetoric. Disciplinary outsiders often mistake writing instruction for a combination of skills and formalism. They might pressure an FYC program to be a site where students are expected to produce documents that meet certain criteria, but this product-orientation can seriously cripple writing pedagogy.

To me, composition must be about offering students an opportunity to
become writers. This means more than simply assigning writing; it means
creating favorable rhetorical conditions for writing. Those conditions begin with opportunities for students to create exigencies for writing. We all know that the pressures of the classroom and grades are not sufficient. If they were then students would already be motivated and would have been motivated in high school. But this is not the case. Students who can invent reasons to write, to be writers, will enter a space where they can begin to learn rhetoric.

The formulaic exercise of writing an academic essay, of "perfecting" drafts and focusing on correctness of all types is patently anti-rhetorical.

Cortland’s students come to us with generally negative attitudes toward writing. To them, writing is not an opportunity to communicate but rather a mechanism of judgment. And who wants to be judged? While judgment is always an element of writing, it’s usually a tertiary one. Would I write this, or anything else, if the only purpose it could achieve was to allow someone to judge me? Even if I am judged to be excellent, what good does that do me? I’m just as well off not being judged. If I couldn’t communicate with an audience, would I write this?

I don’t think of myself as an expressivist. It may sound like I’m saying students need to be free to write in/find their voice. But I don’t really ascribe to that model of composition or authorship. However, I do think that students need better reasons for writing than we generally offer them.

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