Writing Studies (2)

In response to Collin’s divergence from the Trimbur article, it seems productive (to me, not necessarily to the discussion) to rationalize why I am so put-off by the closing of Changing the question: Should writing be studied?. Collin was troubled by the simplistic depiction of what the discipline consists of; I’m troubled instead by dragging the history and social network forces of any discipline into the undergraduate classroom. My reason is simple: why should they care? To be fair, this is what Trimbur says:

If anything, I think it is reasonable to say that it has been precisely the historical and theoretical construction of the first-year course, with all of its debates about literacy, rhetoric, culture, and technology, that has laid the groundwork for a curriculum devoted to the study of writing. The achievements of the first-year course have made an advanced writing curriculum thinkable precisely to the extent that our knowledges of writing are too much for a single course to contain. Quantity turns into quality, and in many respects the work of theorizing and enacting the study of writing is to make transparent and teachable the social relations and bodies of knowledge that now silently underwrite the first-year course-to organize the study of writing as an intellectual resource for undergraduates.

For the last several years, my teaching has been focused primarily on third year “Professional and Technical Writing.” Approximately two in twenty-five will go on to graduate education in some form; the majority will enter the workforce almost immediately after taking the class. It’s an exit class—the last writing class most of them will ever take. I do my best to make it good, and by good I mean germane to their ability to write effectively in real-world (not academic) contexts.

If I taught “the social relations of and bodies of knowledge,” of “writing studies,” the majority would have no interest; they would really benefit from discipline specific information on “social relations and bodies of knowledge” of their chosen fields (e.g. medical, engineering, design, finance). But should that be my job? I don’t think so, because I would be poorly equipped to do it and the diversity of students in the classroom would render such specificity impossible. Rhetoric, as an architectonic meta-discipline (in the sense that McKeon used the term) is what I use to organize the strategies I teach and the skills I attempt to build—writing studies doesn’t have the “currency” to seriously pitch it as a description of what I do.

Yes, I do gesture at the “groundwork” implied by “writing studies”—I suggest that they immediately forget the five paragraph essay; I inform them that their boss, unlike a teacher, will seldom correct their work for them or give them a grade on the final product; I suggest that they will not often be required to deliver a specific number of words. But most of all, I inform them that the traditional formulae for judging writing such as quantity, mass, and coherence will have almost no significance at all once they leave the sheltered and deceptive circus that is academic writing. This generally takes a few weeks to sink in.

To be fair, where I travel once I remove the “net” provided by academic “discipline” is the use of critical tools to find and evaluate writing deployed in real world circumstances. I tend to use mass media as an example, because it cuts across all majors. I employ critical reading, but always with an eye to constructing effective discourse.

The close of the article reads as “self interest and creeping professionalism” to me. I give precedence to being a teacher of students over a perpetuator of a discipline (in the context of a Professional and Technical Writing class). Other classes, obviously, would merit different approaches. There is no one-size-fits-all method for teaching writing, just as there is no simple version of “writing studies.”

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February 21, 2007 12:46 AM