writing studies and professional writing

Much talk today about the CCC article by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, which builds on the growing (perhaps) argument for revising first-year composition as a writing studies course. Basically what this means is that the course would serve as an introduction to our discipline–its research, methods, questions and so on. As I’ve said before about this question, I come at it probably as about as much as an outsider as one could be while still retaining some professional and intellectual interest in the matter. I occassionally teach FYC at my college, but our Professional Writing major is largely divorced from the first-year program.

Of course, I would like to see our FYC program as introducing students into professional writing, something they might choose as a minor or (gasp!) major. One of the stumbling blocks for me has always been the difficulty of training FYC instructors to teach in this way. One possibility that was raised was that instructors might be trained through the course textbook. Hmmm… ok, I guess that would be a start, but do you want to take an Intro to Biology course that was taught be someone whose knowledge of the subject came from reading the textbook?

Essentially, if the premise is that FYC is going to become professionalized in a new way or perhaps to a greater degree, depending on how you think of it, then the instructors will also need to be professionalized. You would also need to figure out what that professionalization would be.

I don’t know what defines the discipline of rhetoric and composition or "writing studies" for that matter. When I think about the nature of my own scholarship, I would say I study the material and technical processes of new media as they intersect writing pedagogy. I also have an interest in the conversation about the changing demands of the professional workplace and broader public discourses might redefine the expectations of education, though such matters are more a context for my work than its focus. Anyway, I often discuss compositions that are not textual; I investigate networks in technical terms; I draw on theories of materiality that are not particularly common in our field. I’m far from the only person doing such things, but I wonder what capacious definition of discipline would include outliers such as myself.

Ulmer’s Internet Invention might serve as a good textbook for an "intro to my writing studies," but it certainly wouldn’t work for my colleagues at Cortland, let alone others.

Now I’m just thinking out loud, but if I were designing a writing course about writing (both the activity and the object), I might organize it around the following three themes.

  1. Writing as a socio-cultural practice: you could do this from a post-process approach but you could also think of the classic rhetorical issues of audience, purpose, genre, and so on. What activities do we refer to as writing? How do we value them? What does it mean to be a "writer"? And so on.
  2. Writing as a techno-material practice: this is obviously important to me, but I think it is central to disabusing ourselves of many of the notions of writing that are simply products of a particular, now outdated, technological context. Here one might offer some brief history of writing technologies and consider how notions of authorship shift in the context of convergent media and participatory networks.
  3. Writing as a cognitive process: while rhet/comp has a vexed history with this question, no one would deny that something is happening in the brain when writing is going on. In my view, our field only moves forward by recognizing some version of a theory of distributed cognition–that thought emerges through the interfacing of an embodied brain with a smart environment.

All of this is to disabuse students (and other faculty) of the fantasy that writing is a "process" in which one

  • magically arrives at an idea
  • fits it into a pre-existing form
  • and painstakingly proofreads for errors.

In fact, thinking on that, one might tie together these three themes with a running topic, perhaps on the question of invention. One could consider cultural values of invention (how we are told to come up with ideas), technology’s impact on creativity (the whole rip, mix, burn thing), as well as some cognitive theories.

Again, I’m just thinking off the top of my head here, but an approach like this might not be bad as an introduction to our professional writing program which takes up new media, rhetoric, and creative writing along with studying writing in various workplaces.

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