Learning Advanced Writing/Rhetoric

The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 7, 2008, provided a valuable reminder of the academic rigor and complexity of teaching and learning university-level written communication.

Mark Richardson articulates some important myth-breaking findings since 1960 from the field of rhetoric and composition**

** what is “Rhetoric and Composition?”
Scholars, see The Case for Rhetoric and Composition
as an Emerging Field [2004]

  • Students who do one kind of writing well will not automatically do other kinds of writing well.
  • The conventions of thought and expression in disciplines differ, enough so that what one learns in order to write in one discipline might have to be unlearned to write in another.
  • Writing is not the expression of thought; it is thought itself. Papers are not containers for ideas, containers that need only to be well formed for those ideas to emerge clearly. Papers are the working out of ideas. The thought and the container take shape simultaneously (and develop slowly, with revision).
  • German politician, Werner Dollinger, writing.  From Wikimedia, copyright share-alike

    Rhetor image #1: German politician, Werner Dollinger, writing. From Wikimedia, copyright share-alike

  • When students are faced with an unfamiliar writing challenge, their apparent ability to write will falter across a broad range of “skills.” For example, a student who handles grammatical usage, mechanics, organization, and tone competently in an explanation of the effects of global warming on coral reefs might look like a much weaker writer when she tries her hand at a chemistry-lab report for the first time.
  • Teaching students grammar and mechanics through drills often does not work.
  • Patterns of language usage, tangled up in complex issues like personal and group identities, are not easy to change.
  • Rhetorical considerations like ethos, purpose, audience, and occasion are crucial to even such seemingly small considerations as word choice and word order.
  • Writing involves abilities we develop over our lifetimes. Some students are more advanced in them when they come to college than are others. Those who are less advanced will not develop to a level comparable to the more-prepared students in one year or even in two, although they may reach adequate levels of ability over time.

see the full article at http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i11/11a04701.htm

These points reinforce an argument I continually make about expertise and rigor in the teaching of advanced scholarly writing as well as scholarly inquiry.

Inquiry (Research) and Expression (Rhetoric) are unified.

We often forget how deeply linked expression is to inquiry, and how sophisticated and intertwined both of them are. The art and skill of research goes hand in hand with the art of rhetoric, and yet we often presume that correct and eloquently reasoned expression will follow magically or could be separated from the latter.

We all know that research methodologies and theories in history and film studies differs from research in science or engineering, but we often forget that rhetoric differs across these fields to the same degree, and indeed research cannot fully be understood or expressed without an understanding of the disciplinary rhetorical cultures.

We as teachers of specialized forms of scholarly & public expression within any content course (from the first-year level to the PhD level and as supervisors of graduate theses) can benefit from some specialized knowledge of rhetorical communication if we wish to guide our students beyond mere competence and into excellence.

How do we navigate the differences and help our students become more adept?

There is no short cut. It is only a wide and deep emphasis on our specific and continually shifting rhetorical contexts (purpose, audience, culture) that enables us to select and deselect components of our message (our claims, evidence and argument strategies), meso-level strategies (genre, arrangement) and micro-level strategies (style, tone, word choice) to achieve the larger aims of communication with grace and power.

Gandhi.  From Wikimedia, share-alike

Rhetor image #2: Gandhi. From Wikimedia, share-alike


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