Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

Asking "what makes writing 'good'?" is the wrong question

For my Teaching Practicum I've had my TAs reading the first chapter of Geoff Sirc's Composition as a Happening. On the back of the book, Victor Vitanza half-jokingly refers to Sirc as "the most dangerous man in writing instruction." Why is that? Sirc's book starts out by calling into question the disciplinary turn rhetoric and composition took in the late seventies and early eighties, and which is now in full force. We are a discipline with methods that range from the social scientific to cultural studies, but what seems missing, particularly from Sirc's perspective, is the experimental, the artistic, the poetic… some sense of writing as a living, breathing thing. We've doused that enthusiasm in an anti-romantic gesture toward methodological certainty and ideological critique.

Though much of our theory is postmodern, the project of composition has become a staunchly Modern one. To produce writing/writers that exhibit rational control, clarity, purpose, organization, a logical understanding of, and appeal to, audience: such writing serves practical and rational needs in future classes, in the workplace, and perhaps in an imagined, Habermasian public sphere. In this context we ask "What makes writing good?" We identify textual characteristics and features of writing process, and then we seek to replicate them. No doubt we come up with different answers to these questions. In a cultural studies classroom the answer might have to do with demonstrating an understanding of a particular critical method and applying it to an object of critique. In a more genre-oriented classroom, the answer might have to do with replicating distinctive features of the various genres assigned. In a more traditional composition classroom it might have to do with replicating the stylistic and organizational features of a humanistic essay.

But why should a composition class take as its objective producing good writing or good writers? Can we even say that these two goals (good writing and good writers) are equivalent? Not necessarily, I would say. And, of course, such objectives always beg the questions good for what? Good for whom? Instead, Sirc quotes Donald Judd who suggests that "a work only needs to be interesting," and I would add that it first needs to be interesting to the author.

In our composition program, we ask the students to write at least one assignment in a non-essay genre. To some, genres other than the essay evoke workplace writing and the notion that composition becomes a site for job skills training. I don't see it that way. To the contrary, I see the "essay" as the workplace genre of the classroom. Nothing trains students for the dull mechanical activity of memo writing quite like assigning essays. Students approach essays the same way office workers approach memos. And often instructors read student essays with the same verve one might apply to reading another office memo, and who could blame them? It's a vicious cycle. The point of the non-essay genre assignment is not to teach students to write "good" magazine articles or proposals or editorial letters or whatever.  If there's anything that we should be able to learn from activity systems or actor-network theories it's that one can't really write in a genre without being part of the requisite system/network. No, the goal is simply to break up the deadly circuit among student-instructor-essay-classroom and say let's writing something different for a different reason. 

Part of the problem with trying to make writing "good" in a Modern, rational fashion is that it quickly becomes making writing good enough. In such a context, one might apply a rational analysis of cost and benefit. Students and instructors insist on models and building rubrics so that they can undertake such analyses and make rational decisions. While I don't have anything against making rational decisions, here the target is misplaced because the goal isn't (or shouldn't be) about composing a "good" or "good enough" essay. The goal is for students to understand writing and their own writing practices in a way that will support their moving down a path of developing a lasting writing practice…. if they choose to do so. In the end it's always about the choices that are made (by students or however you want to locate that agency), choices that are mostly made after the course is completed. And focusing on good writing, in my view, skews one's understanding of those choices in an unproductive way.


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