Pragmatic and Semantic Structures

Pragmatic and Semantic Structures

For being a person in the field of composition, I haven’t composed much about it lately. I’ve been too consumed by research. But Akma’s comment on a previous entry forced me to think more clearly about my own pedagogical strategy. I suppose the crystalline conclusion of Levi-Strauss’s exploration of art versus myth had something to do with it too.

I suppose in some ways I am a current-traditionalist, but with a spin. Roman rhetoric is intensely structured, but these are not semantic structures. The six or seven divisions of Roman rhetoric are pragmatic—each part of an essay is designed to do work, and not designed as a device to order an oration. Current-traditional pedagogy tends to stress correctness, topic sentences, and traditional structures like “paragraphs are composed of a topic sentence and three sentences of supporting evidence.” This is a horrible misreading of classical rhetoric that only emerged in the late nineteenth century, conflating grammar with pragmatics.

In reality, what is most important in classical rhetoric is that it works. Each division is structured to accomplish a part of a task, not to provide a rote formula for composition. It is a pragmatic structure and not a semantic one. To force writing into a structure such as introduction, argument, conclusion as a rule is to impose a semantics on the essay which becomes mythic. The object or event is not discovered in a network of relations, but rather constructed from the structure itself. This makes writing a myth, rather than an art. I believe that writing should be about discovery (art) rather than construction (myth). Hence, the strange mélange you see here on my blog. I’m writing my way into something; it begins with the abstraction of other peoples thoughts (requiring topic sentences) and the gradual evolution of my own thesis. Occasionally, I write for others (such as now), but more often I write for myself. I’m trying to figure out what I think, not impress my thought into a pre-ordained structure.

In teaching research writing, I begin with a bibliographic essay—a narratio of the chain of thought that a student must later insert their critique. I require that they avoid having a thesis until they understand the evidence. Then, as a thesis emerges into an argumentative paper, they must attract the attention of an audience (exordium), provide a logically consistent argument (argumentio), anticipate counter-arguments (refutatio), and suggest a course of action based on their thesis and the evidence. Writing first works to change ourselves, then it works to change others. Discovery comes first; structure comes later.

But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

4 thoughts on “Pragmatic and Semantic Structures”

  1. I have a hard time ‘teaching’ structure, becauase for me it’s so intuitive–whatever story I’m telling, academic or personal, usually just falls into the structure it needs as I brainstorm it.
    In teaching, I try to get my students to narrow in on what stays with them after reading the works I’ve assigned, what questions they’re asking, and then we talk about why it matters to them. That personal curiousity (or discomfort) usually provides an inroad into argument, along with a ‘hook’, some personal stakes that make it matter to both reader and writer. Whether or not the personal story is actually in the essay, I want it to inform the argument all along.
    These are for shorter works in my expository writing class–when I teach research writing next semester, I’ll let you know what happens.

  2. Thanks for helping clarify your point, Jeff. Since I don’t have the luxury of teaching writing along with teaching church history and NT survey — that would thin out an already-skimpy soup — I don’t have as clear a perspective on teaching composition per se as I would like.
    Of course, there are so many things I’d like (academically) that the category is pretty much irrelevant. . .

  3. Research Writing

    “In teaching research writing, I begin with a bibliographic essay�a narratio of the chain of thought that a student must later insert their critique.

  4. Research Writing

    “In teaching research writing, I begin with a bibliographic essay – a narratio of the chain of thought that a student must later insert their critique.

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