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Michelle Sidler-Doug Downs

John Walter-Doug Downs | ContentofComposition.HomePage

From: Michelle Ann Sidler

I very much enjoyed reading . . . this ongoing discussion of content in composition and am pleased that this thread has not died out before I had a chance to respond. Like many others, I find the content vs. composing dichotomy a bit reductionist and confusing, and even more so given my recent teaching experiences.

About five years ago, with a nearly pure background in the humanities (I even took the “Physics for Liberal Arts Majors” course in undergrad), I decided to research and teach biotechnology in the context of composition studies. In a nutshell, I learned the basics of biotechnology and genetics along with my students. I told them that I was interested in how biotechnology, especially texts written about it, impacted our daily lives, and I believed they could help me learn more about the field. So, they researched biotechnology-related topics along with me, and we all learned about the social-economic-personal-political implications of topics such as stem cell research, genetically-linked breast cancer, DNA in forensics, cloning, and genetically-modified chickens (no, I’m not kidding). We all came to understand the multiple contexts in which science impacts our lives and the research/publishing sites of that science.

More than the “content,” though, we talked about the ways in which any “Joe Schmo” could become versed (certainly not as much as a scientist, but more than most average citizens) in any topic— by both researching and writing about that topic. We also talked about where and how texts related to that topic were distributed and accessed, and how that access leads to genetic literacy.

To make a long story short, the “skills” of composition— and its literate and rhetorical concepts— can be taught with just about any content, if understood as an enterprise in texuality and literacy. Moreoever, we don’t necessarily need to be full-blown experts in a given disciplinary field: part of the challenge is letting students educate us while we use the flexible rhetoricity of our training and teaching to guide the process.

I’m not comfortable with too much prescription about the “core concepts” of composition studies. Without the flexibility of our “core-less” field, I might not have felt the freedom to pursue this pedagogy.

From: Doug Downs

With respect, Michelle, I would think that situations like the ones you describe here make all the *more* clear what a “core” of the field might be, and extracting them from such situations can be an act of *de*scribing, rather than *pre*scribing, that core. As has been repeated in this thread, the knowledge, methods, sensibilities, values, premises, and behaviors that let us investigate “how writing got that way” are what you seem to be describing here, and they are the things Writing Studies (or, Rhet/Comp, if you will, though that says more about subject areas than activities) knows that other fields don’t.

When I’ve taught writing in the disciplines of civil engineering and political science, it’s always tag-team with a real engineer and political scientist, because my Writing Studies perspective can tell students how writing in their field might, could, or should be, but only the people in the field can say how things *are* in that field. (And when there are differences between those accounts, that is much more interesting to *me*, in Writing Studies, than to the people in the other field, because it’s *my* field’s predictive theory that is either working or not.) What I know, and the engineers and poli-scientists don’t — that is, usually not in any formal, conscious, systematic, *controllable* way — is categories and questions to ask about writing. (Rhetoric, of course, is one set of such categories and questions. On a larger scale, the WPA Outcomes Statement, as others here have noted, gathers up a very nice set of such categories.)

When the senior engineering students had to learn to produce outstanding collaborative writing (with, say, 30 people contributing to one feasibility report or proposal or set of engineering documents or specs), only the engineers could throw down actual reports and documents as samples and say, “These were successful.” But only I (by which I mean, a representative of our field) was versed in looking at the documents, extracting a set of underlying principles for what was making successful collaborative writing, and feeding that back to the engineering students as (because they like these sorts of things) a checklist of concrete elements and features that they could use to edit their writing for a more unified sound, look, and feel. That’s an example of core knowledge in Writing Studies, which we should not only teach (as we already do) but *claim*.

What Michelle describes about biotechnology is almost right down the line with James Gee’s definition of a Discourse. I’m curious about what a definition of Writing Studies as a Discourse would look like, and why, if our goal is to produce rhetorically aware and critically thinking *writers*, we would shy away from sharing that Discourse *as* a Discourse in our FYC courses. That’s not to say that one has to be in the discourse to be a good writer, obviously, but to say that if we’re trying to teach about “how writing gets that way,” it’s a pretty useful perspective that might be taught *as* a perspective.

John Walter-Doug Downs | ContentofComposition.HomePage

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