The university writing classroom can be a challenging space. Oftentimes our students are entering at different levels and with different awarenesses of and vocabularies for the ideas that matter in a writing classroom. Below, we’ve listed some key concepts for your writing classroom. Raise these ideas with your students. Are they aware of their rhetorical situations? How do they define argument or errors in their writing?
Writing is more complicated than a writer thinking about what to say, putting thought to page/screen, and then having someone else read it. One major reason why writing is more complicated than the description above is because of the rhetorical situation, and how the rhetorical situation presents writers with opportunities as well as constraints or limits on what they can write, to whom, and in what form. We promote a rhetorical perspective for posing and solving writing problems. We teach through the rhetorical situation, where a myriad of influences will affect our writing. What we mean (purpose/text), where and when the text is written and read (context), who means it (rhetor), and to whom we are communicating (audience) are all key factors in the rhetorical situation. It is important that writers understand the underlying players in the rhetorical situation enough that they can articulate them and respond to them in order to create texts that are appropriate to the genre and the situation. The appropriate grammar, tone, voice, and mechanics of a text will change as each of these aspects of the rhetorical situation changes and to be an effective writer, one must be able to respond accordingly to the rhetorical situation.
“The situation dictates the sorts of observations to be made; it dictates the significant physical and verbal responses; and, we must admit, it constrains the words which are uttered.’
For more on the exigency that creates a rhetorical situation, see Lloyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation.’
An audience is to whom the rhetor’s purpose is directed. Who is the text intended to effect? Our expectations and assumptions about who our audience is and how our audience will read our text influences how we write. Writing is a social activity, a conversation. Both the writer and the reader influence how a text is read and received. Because of this, we as writers must be purposeful and explicit about our assumptions regarding our audiences. Who are they? What expectations do we think they will be bringing to the text? How are we as writers responding to these expectations? These kinds of questions about audience can be very specific textual concerns, such as, what will the implications be for my audience if I use slang terms in this text? They can also be very broad discursive questions, like what kind of reaction will the readers have to the text’s underlying assumptions about race, gender, or identity.
Additionally, we as teachers must also be aware of our audience. What assumptions are underlying our lessons and our prompts? What expectations do we have of our students? How are our students receiving the texts that we produce?
“A fully elaborated view of audience, then, must balance the creativity of the writer with the different, but equally important, creativity of the reader. It must account for a wide and shifting range of roles for both addressed and invoked audiences. And, finally, it must relate the matrix created by the intricate relationship of writer and audience to all elements in the rhetorical situation.’
The rhetor is the author or authors behind a given purpose. A rhetor is always aligned in some way with given paradigms or ideologies and carries them to the rhetorical situation. Gender, race, class, and other identity markers all shape the texts we create. How do aspects of our backgrounds and identities dictate the kinds of vocabulary we use and our styles of wording? It is important to be aware of how we place ourselves and represent ourselves our writing. Can we be explicit about the assumptions and ideologies that we hold? Can we attempt to be transparent about the beliefs we hold that come to bear on our writing?
As teachers, we are also rhetors, delivering certain messages in the context of our classroom. We should be aware of ourselves as rhetors and how we portray ourselves. How does our role as university teacher affect the way that our messages and our words are perceived? Where do we stand in the classroom and how are we representing our position, our authority?
The purpose of the text is the goal. What is the text meant to convey? How do the choices that we make relate to the purpose of our writing? Often in writing and English classes, the import of purpose may be downplayed. The mechanics of writing may be emphasized over the purpose and its relation to the rhetorical situation. However, as a program, we are concerned with thinking deeply about the purpose of writing and how the text relates to a larger context. How do the choices we make on a textual level, like word choice or tone, relate to the purpose of the piece? How does the purpose of the text relate to the discourse that it is engaged in?
As teachers, we must be cognizant of the purpose behind each discussion, each class, each assignment. The content of our classrooms can shape a writer’s purposes because of the texts we choose to teach from or the questions we ask. For which purposes will you design your readings, your prompts, your activities?
Context is the larger discourse in which the text is situated. Context can include the time, the place, the genre, and other texts with which the work is in conversation. Context is perhaps the most difficult of the components of the rhetorical situation to pin down because it encompasses everything that comes to bear on the text. How is the text distributed? What other texts in the genre relate to it? What is the historical context that brought this text into being?
In the classroom, context is incredibly important. When our students write, they are writing in a very specific academic context. We as teachers can bring to light the assumptions, genres, and conventions that are at play in this specific context and encourage our students to be aware of and respond in kind. In pointing out this context, we also shed light on other contexts which may have different assumptions, genres, and conventions. A well-versed writer should be able to negotiate between and respond to a variety of contexts.
“But literate repertoires do not move as static, fully formed resources with writers. Instead, writers call on or create literate resources in the process of making do, asserting themselves, or communicating on the fly in specific rhetorical situations.’
For more on writer flexibility and attunement to rhetorical situations, see Rebecca Lorimer’s “Multilingual Writing as Rhetorical Attunement.’
More Important Concepts
Below are more concepts that you should be familiar with and thinking about as your design your course. Many of these terms are paired here to demonstrate the ways that they are defined in relation to or against each other. You may want to present some of these concepts to your students so that together you can explore and discuss the ways that these terms come to bear on writing, reading, and rhetoric.
For many students, the term “argument’ may connote debate, fighting, and winning. However, for our purposes, argument is defined as a process of responsible and mutual inquiry aimed at finding the best solutions to a problem or issue. In order for students to develop well-reasoned positions, they must seek out and carefully examine multiple sides of an issue, including those ideas that agree with their positions and those that differ. This inquiry process should include a complex blend of skills such as critical reading, critical thinking, reflection, analysis, and synthesis.
To assist students in understanding the social nature of argument, teachers should emphasize the importance of audience and dialogue through class discussions. In addition, they should introduce students to the concept of discourse communities and to collaborative activities, such as peer workshops. Student participation and peer workshops should be central to the course.
Each text embodies certain ideas and biases concerning how the world works or how it ought to work. Some are explicit; others are implicit. Texts and consumers of text both carry assumptions. By contrasting and exploring the self and texts through language in varying situations and contexts, we recalibrate how the world works or ought to work. To uncover assumptions and interrogate them with other assumptions is worthwhile ideological work.
Conventionally understood, choices are conscious selections from a given set of conscious options. However, in this conventional view, choices are reduced to a conscious understanding. With so much of thinking and decisions being made on an unconscious basis, its not surprise that a mistakes should occur. Our goal is to increase the quantity of deliberate choices writers make in their design, just as we also hope to reduce the amount of “mistakes’ in writers’ designs. This distinction is at once existential and pragmatic; each choice will have a consequence and, regardless of whether they are “good” (choices) or “bad” (mistakes), there are results. Understanding correlation or causation in these results allows writers to make informed decisions in their composition. There is more to be said here but keep in mind differences between choice, error, mistake, and misunderstanding when it comes to communication.
An example of an error may be the lack of an article in a student’s writing which slows down your reading; however, the fact that you notice (perhaps even marking it with a red pen) can at the same time also open up a conversation about differing language standards and styles, a conversation that may lead to this “error’ becoming a choice for the writer which deepens their and your own understanding about language and how it works and changes to suit our purposes.
Throughout this guidebook you’ll see these verbs: frame and set up. When framing is used, it means something specific in relation to rhetoric, and often encourages you to think about how you put something matters to how people understand the nature of the problem. One example of this distinction can be seen in Dan O’Neill’s Firecracker Boys, which is a nonfiction book about postwar nuclear expansion in Alaska. As UAF scientists wrote about the consequences of blowing up land in order to make a more efficient Northern Passage, they wrote that “an entire village’ would be removed. An editor later crosses out “entire village’ and replaced it with “25 households.’ These are two different frames for the same reality.
Set up, on the other hand, refers to a different kind of conscious action involved in education. Note that throughout the curricular resources in this guidebook, the verb “set up’ is used a lot. “Set up’ is one way we invoke a concept from educational learning theory, Vygotsky’s concept of scaffolding and Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Picture a building with scaffolds helping it along as it is being built–this is the image metaphor of your job as a teacher. We are carefully sequencing our assignments so that the distance between what our students can do independently and what our students can do with guided instruction helps them continually develop as writers. One example of a scaffolding sequence in the classroom is an “I do, we do, you do’ activity. In this type of sequence, the teacher demonstrates what is expected of the students. Then, the class does the activity together with the teacher leading. Then the students do the activity on their own.
In both literary and rhetorical study, genres are of current research interest. Certainly distinctions on what features of text correspond to generic categories are endlessly fascinating. A question we often hear in our graduate program is a timeless one regarding how different artists draw the line between non-fiction and fiction. Similar questions can be applied and considered in relation to other texts and their creation as well. For instance, you can think about creating your own writing prompts as learning a new genre of writing. Genres in this curriculum refer to text types that have developed a stability of features over time which reflect the purposes, audiences, and contexts of their social use. In this way, genres are commonly referred to as social responses to recurring, stable-for-now “rhetorical situations.’ Genres are constructed and helping students see this construction will also help them with reconstruction.
It is important for both teachers and students to recognize that academic writing is not one stable genre with right and wrong ways of approaching every text. The conventions for different disciplines vary, even within those disciplines. Genres are not static; they change with the needs of a rhetorical situation. Often these conventions are also not fully conscious in the teachers of the genres. Students may be asked in one course to perform a rhetorical analysis of an argument and the assumptions of what should be in that analysis will vary from discipline to discipline. Students will have to navigate these various expectations throughout their time at university and beyond. The more we can help students be cognizant of the differences between genres, the easier this navigation will be. As a teacher the more precise you are with sharing your expectations and reasoning, the more likely you are to support their success as a writer.
Literacy is not the simple decoding of symbols on a page into words. Literacy is a way of making meaning in certain contexts. Literacies are social practices that grow and change based on the particular needs of a group of people, their purposes for communicating, and the situations of their lives. Literacy is not an individual skill set that you either have or don’t have. There are degrees of fluency in each kind of literacy. For example, one can learn to become “literate’ in punk rock culture or in tourism at National Parks. Academic literacy is another type of literacy. Like all literacies, it involves more than decoding or creating alphabetic equations, complete sentences, and thesis-driven papers. In fact, academic literacy implicates everyone from the graduate teaching assistant to the developmental instructor to the chemistry lab teacher to the sociology professor: we all have a responsibility to recognize the rhetorical nature of academic language (verbal, written, behavioral, etc.), and help students use it as informed, deliberate and precise communicators.
With peer review, we are teaching writers how to be diligent, careful, and critical readers of academic texts, including the writer’s own and the writer’s peers’. We believe this awareness is essential for success at UAF and for life as a citizen. Peer review centers around the reflective process; students analyze the choices that they and their peers make in regard to their text. By asking questions, considering answers, or challenging assumptions (such as whether the questions asked are the right questions), writers at any stage in their process benefit from the awareness of the choices they are consciously or unconsciously pursuing. There are multiple ways to approach this process. Two people trading essays to comment and discuss the writing or a class discussing particular sentences as a group are two examples. When students approach their peers’ writing, and their own, with the sole intent of evaluating usage and spelling, as in the practice of “peer editing,’ the activity neglects our curricular objectives. Distinctions of choice v. error, framing v. set up, and textual assumptions are negated when the only concern is the difference between student work and its connection to an idealized, standardized English.
Prescribing a single, “correct’ method for writing is counter to our Writing Program’s goals, objectives, and outcomes. Prescribing exactly how an essay should perform and function, aside from effectively working within and against a rhetorical situation, will not lead to a student transferring knowledge about language and meaning-making to other contexts. Describing the goals of your assignment and the reasons behind it, however, is a best practice. In addition, making assignments engaging allows students to explore different paths and investigate different choices. Descriptive practices and assignments allow students to develop an internalized prescription–a realization that I do this for these reasons. These are practices that writers adopt or create for themselves where they are aware of the choices they are making.
For example, sharing an essay for the purposes of a model can be taken up as a prescriptive protocol for “how to write’ for some students. Recall the five-paragraph essay. For some, it is a restrictive form that prescribes; for others it is helpful in that it is a kind of tool for organization. It all depends on how the five-paragraph form is being understood. In general, description involves an in-depth look at the features of a text and how they are functional for the text’s purposes and audiences and contexts; whereas a prescriptive orientation defines these features in terms of correctness or right and wrong.
This is about having an attitude of “should’ (prescriptive–think a prescription for a kind of behavior) v. an attitude of “could’ (descriptive–this a description of the kind of behavior you are looking for but there are multiple ways of getting there).
We can come to each activity with the same point of view. Instead of having a set expectation about how students should respond to the texts we assign or the activities we do, there is room for much more learning and discussion if we come to class ready to see what the students bring. It is important to remember that each reader is bringing her own experiences to the text, so we should not assume that our interpretation of a text is the right one.
“When we teachers enter classrooms with particular poems or stories in hand, we also enter with expectations about the kind of student responses that would be most fruitful, and these expectations have been shaped, for the most part in literature departments in American universities. We value some readings more than others — even, in our experience, those teachers who advocate a reader’s free plat. One inevitable result of this situation is that there will be moments of mismatch between what a teacher expects and what students do. What interests us about this mismatch is the possibility that our particular orientations and readings might blind us to the logic of a student’s interpretation and the ways that interpretations might be sensibly influenced by the student’s history.’
For more on teacher expectations and student interpretations, see Glynda Hull and Mike Rose’s “This Wooden Shack Place: The Logic of an Unconventional Reading.’
In recent years, there has been a change in the way that writing is understood. In the past, writing has been understood through the lens of cognitive rhetoric, which sees writing as a formula to be mastered, or expressionistic rhetoric, which understands writing as only the self-expression of the writer. More recently, many rhetoricians have come to think of writing as a social process. In this school of thought, writing is not an activity that is removed from its specific time and place and involves only the writer. Instead, texts are seen as being a product of their specific historical context, including the material and social forces that come to bear on the writing. All texts are part of a discourse, they respond to other texts and situations. Texts are not stand-alone objects that are disconnected from the world around them. In the same vein, the writer and the reader also come from a specific context, are affected by the historical, material, and social circumstances that surround them.
Because of this, we see writing as a social process and our classes should reflect this philosophy. This is part of the reason that attendance in class is required. Responding to difficult texts and problem-posing prompts challenges students to develop their ideas and share them with their instructors and classmates. In our experience, students often improve their papers immensely through a process of collaborative discussion and revision. Many times, first drafts contain the seeds of generative thoughts, but those seeds only germinate when students test their ideas in collaboration with others, get feedback on those ideas, and expand upon them in subsequent revisions.
“In studying rhetoric-the ways discourse is generated- we are studying the ways in which knowledge comes into existence.’
For more on the social nature of rhetoric, see James Berlin’s “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.’
A text can be a book, an article, a television commercial, a poster, a radio program, etc. Sometimes it is useful to consider everyday objects as texts. Texts tell viewers things about themselves and the rhetorical situation which contributed to the text’s distribution, production, reception, and circulation. Difficult texts are ones that unsettle readers because they refuse to allow them to rely on easy answers. Sometimes, they require readers to think about controversial issues and/or confront unpleasant aspects of history and culture. Always, they are texts that open up interpretive possibilities rather than foreclose them. We choose difficult texts that will be difficult for all students. In this way, students who are more comfortable with dense prose, complicated vocabulary, or academic discourse are not necessarily at an advantage when examining these texts. We choose texts that are challenging for all students.
Difficult texts often contain dense prose, lengthy paragraphs, elevated diction, and complex themes. This is not always the case, however. Sometimes, apparently simple texts contain complicated ideas that require careful analytical attention. They can appear in multifarious and multimodal forms: novels, short stories, poems, plays, songs, letters, journals, biographies, histories, paintings, sermons, cartoons, sculptures, photographs, films, maps, websites, advertisements, posters, scrapbooks, collages, personal narratives, government documents, magazine/newspaper articles, and/or museum exhibits.