Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

writing, teaching, and expertise

This post comes out of a Facebook thread I was following on scholarly authority when it comes to writing about teaching writing. In short, who gets to say what to whom? In basic rhetorical terms these matters are always situated. I.e., I get to offer my views on the English Premier league with my fellow soccer dads at our sons’ practices. I could post here about it (though I don’t) or on Facebook or Twitter (though, again, I don’t). I don’t get to write for ESPN or go on TV as a pundit. Similarly, in rhetoric and composition, we are familiar with Stephen North’s discussion of “lore:” the practical knowledge shared by instructors in a department. Social media now offers a broader distribution channel for lore. So, on your blog or Facebook or Twitter, one can discuss one’s experiences, tips, and what not with teaching writing. Those discourses do not amount to scholarship. That is, one couldn’t publish such things in a scholarly journal in rhet/comp. And if one is teaching writing outside of the rhet/comp discipline, I imagine it is even less likely that such work would be published as scholarship. However, we now also have middle-state publishing venues such as the blogs on The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. While no one would mistake such writing for traditional scholarship, the venue does lend a certain credibility. That is, if The Chronicle is putting its name to something, one imagines that there is some expertise there. Even in the case of editorials where the views are the author’s alone, one doesn’t select just anyone to write an editorial. One turns to an author with the appropriate credentials. 

The question of who gets to write about teaching writing is tied to, but different from, the question of who gets to teach it, though both questions deal on some level with qualification (one hopes). And it is toward teaching that I want to turn this post.

One of the things we recognize in composition is that there are many kinds of composing activities in the world. To begin with, for example, my ability to teach composing is limited to English. More specifically though we recognize many different genres both in the university and in the professional world (to say nothing of other cultural-rhetorical contexts). This is why we talk about teaching writing in the disciplines, because an engineering professor has more expertise in writing in her profession and discipline than I or most other rhetoricians would. The problem is that an expertise in writing in a genre is a different skill set from expertise in teaching someone to write in that genre. In theory, one could be in the field of technical communication, with a focus on engineering, and have the expertise to teach writing in that genre. Or one could go about providing the professional development that engineering professor would need to teach writing in her discipline. And I don’t mean to pick on engineers here, as one could easily say the same thing about humanities professors. Even English professors, who may have received some training in writing pedagogy and taught composition as graduate students (and may continue to do so as faculty), have trouble deploying productive writing pedagogies within their discipline.

It might be useful to think about this challenge  in terms of the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge. An academic in any given field has the expertise to write in that field. S/he has probably so thoroughly digested those genre practices that they have become invisible and natural; they are just the way one writes. With some coaxing though, s/he would be able to elucidate the features of the genre and articulate a declarative knowledge of the genre. That is, s/he could describe the genre, including a declarative knowledge of the procedures. But that’s not what the student really needs. To offer an analogy, a tennis pro can give you a detailed description of the mechanics of a good tennis serve, but that will be of limited utility to you if your desire is to serve a tennis ball better. One of the things I learned from my years as a youth soccer coach is that there are some common principles that are shared across any task of teaching procedural knowledge. Learning to play soccer is not so different from learning to write in a genre. In fact learning to play soccer has more in common with learning to write than it does with learning about soccer. In both cases, it’s fundamentally about practice. It’s less about what the teacher/coach says and more about what the student/player does. As coach, I set up an activity that is aimed at developing a particular skill (in basic terms dribbling, passing, shooting, etc.) but then I have to let them do it. And even though the structure of an activity might emphasize one skill over others, they are all generally incorporated. In soccer terms, by making the field of play wider or narrower, by moving the goals/targets, and by determining the number of players involved in a small-sided game (3v3, 4v4, etc.) one can emphasize one activity over others. There are analogies to this in writing pedagogy, activities that emphasize invention or revision or using evidence, etc. In both situations, reflection is important following the activity as is situating the emphasizes skill in a real world environment. That’s a full scrimmage or game in soccer and a formal writing assignment for the class.

Now I got my “E” coaching license (the lowest level you can get) by taking a weekend course. That’s not much, but it’s two more days of training than most university professors have received on teaching writing. Teaching is also a kind of procedural knowledge; it takes practice, but it also takes knowledge. “Know” is a part of know-how. And while I may not know much about the specific genres of many of my colleagues in other disciplines, I do know how to teach writing. Similarly, I don’t know much about the particular skills you need to play baseball (I know about the game, but I don’t have know-how), but I’d be willing to bet that the basic pedagogical principles of soccer training would apply.

Unfortunately the university doesn’t often do a good job of thinking about know-how. It only wants to think about know-that. And that is strange because writing is hardly the only kind of know-how on the campus. There are the obvious examples in the fine arts: music, dance, painting, etc. There’s creative writing of course. But there is also literary interpretation, scientific experiments, architectural design, etc. Obviously, every field has practices; every field has methods courses. Writing is a kind of meta-disciplinary method. So who does get to be the “expert” in writing? After all, the natural world gets cut up into many disciplines and on one gets to be the expert. Should we think of writing in the same way, as an object of study available to many disciplines and methods? There are plenty of humanities disciplines that study texts and maybe textual practices: historical documents and historiography; literature and literary production; philosophy and philosophical argument.

I suppose my point in this now long meandering post is that writing puts to question the conventions of disciplinary expertise that organize the university. This makes rhetoric an interesting field of study, the one that does fit because it was always outside of, and preceding/conditioning, the philosophical and natural philosophical traditions that all the other fields (except math) emerged from. Because rhetoric is grounded in a know-how that conditions all these other know-thats, it’s expertise is also different. And teaching it is even more different.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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