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Rice, Jenny. Para-Expertise in Writing Classrooms. CE, Nov. 2015. Posted 12/07/2015.

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Rice, Jenny. “Para-Expertise, Tacit Knowledge, and Writing Problems.” College English 78.2 (2015): 117-38. Print.

Jenny Rice examines how views of expertise in rhetoric and composition shape writing instruction. She argues for replacing the definition of non-expertise as a lack of knowledge with expanded approaches to expertise open to what Michael Polanyi has called “tacit knowledge” (125). Rice proposes a new category of knowledge, “para-expertise,” that draws on tacit knowledge to enable students and other non-experts to do activities related to expertise.

Rice cites a number of approaches to expertise in rhet/comp’s disciplinary considerations. Among them is the idea that the field has content that only qualified individuals can impart (120). Further, she sees expectations in writing-across-the-curriculum and writing-in-the-disciplines, as well as the view that composition courses should inculcate students in “expert [reading and writing] practice[s]” (121), as indications of the rhetorical presence notions of expertise acquire in the field (120-21).

She opposes the idea of novice practice as a deficiency with other attitudes toward expertise. Within the field of composition studies, she points to the work of Linda Flower and John Hayes. These scholars, she writes, found that the expertise of good writers consisted not of specific knowledge but rather of the ability to pose more complex problems for themselves as communicators. Whereas weaker writers “often flatline around fulfilling the details of the prompt, including word count and other conventional details,” expert writers “use the writing prompt as a way to articulate and define their own understanding of the rhetorical situation to which they are responding” (121).

This discussion leads Rice to a view of expertise as meaningful problem-posing, an activity rather than a body of knowledge. In this view, students can do the work of expertise even when they have no field-specific knowledge (122). Understanding expertise in this way leads Rice to explore categories of expertise as laid out in “the interdisciplinary field of Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE)” (123). Scholars in this field distinguish between “contributory experts” who “have the ability to do things within the domain of their expertise” (Harry Collins and Robert Evans, qtd. in Rice 123; emphasis original); and “interactional experts,” who may not be able to actively produce within the field but who are “immersed in the language of that particular domain” (123). Rice provides the example of artists and art critics (123).

Rice emphasizes the importance of interactional expertise by noting that not all contributory experts communicate easily with each other and thus require interactional experts to “bridge the gulf” between discourse communities addressing a shared problem (124). She provides the example of “organic farmers and agricultural scholars” who function within separate expert domains yet need others to “translate” across these domains (124-25).

But Rice feels these definitions need to be augmented with another category to encompass people like students who lack the domain-specific knowledge to be contributory or interactional experts. She proposes the category “para-expertise,” in which para takes on its “older etymology” as “alongside (touching the side of) different forms of expertise” (119).

In Rice’s view, the tacit knowledge that fuels para-expertise, while usually discounted in formal contexts, arises from “embodied knowledge” gleaned from everyday living in what Debra Hawhee has called “rhetoric’s sensorium” (cited in Rice 126). In Rice’s words, this sensorium may be defined as “the participatory dimension of communication that falls outside of simple articulation without falling outside the realm of understanding” (126). She gives the example of not being able to articulate the cues that, when implicitly sensed, result in her clear knowledge that she is hearing her mother’s voice on the phone (125)

Rice’s extended example of the work of para-expertise revolves around students’ sense of the effects of campus architecture on their moods and function. Interviews with “hundreds of college students” at “four different university campuses” regarding their responses to “urban legends” about dorms and other buildings being like prisons lead Rice to argue that the students were displaying felt knowledge of the bodily and psychological effects of window and hallway dimensions even though they did not have the expert disciplinary language to convert their sensed awareness into technical architectural principles (127-31). In particular, Rice states, the students drew a sense of a problem to be addressed from their tacit or para knowledge and thus were embarking on “the activity of expertise” (131).

In Rice’s discussion, para-expertise can productively engage with other forms of expertise through the formation of “strategic expertise alliances” (131). By itself para-expertise cannot resolve a problem, but those whose tacit knowledge has led them to identify the problem can begin to address it via coalitions with those with the specific disciplinary tools to do so. As a classroom example, she explains that students on her campus had become concerned about intentions to outsource food options, thus endangering connections with local providers and reducing choices. Lacking the vocabulary to present their concerns to administrators, a group of students and faculty joined with local community organizations that were able to provide specific information and guidance in constructing arguments (132-33).

Rice’s own writing students, participating in this campus issue, were asked to gather oral histories from members of a nearby farmers’ market. The students, however, felt “intimidated and out of place” during their visits to the farmers’ market (136), partly because, as students from other areas, they had seldom had any reason to visit the market. Rice considers this tacit response to the market the opening of a problem to be addressed: “How can a community farmers market reach students who only temporarily reside in that community?” (136; emphasis original).

Rice writes:

[T]he solution calls for greater expertise than first-year students possess. Rather than asking students to (artificially) adopt the role of expertise and pose a solution, however, we turned to a discussion of expert alliances. Who were the “pivot points” in this problem? Who were the contributory experts, and who had the skills of interactional expertise? (136)

Ultimately, alliances resulting from this discussion led to the creation of a branch of the farmers’ market on campus (136).

Rice argues that this approach to expertise highlights its nature as a collaborative effort across different kinds of knowledge and activities (134). It de-emphasizes the “terribly discouraging” idea that “discovery” is the path to expertise and replaces that “myth” with an awareness that “invention and creation” and how “[e]xperts pose problems” are the keys to expert action (122; emphasis original). It also helps students understand the different kinds of expertise and how their own tacit knowledge can become part of effective action (135).

 

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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