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Sweeney, Meghan A. Audience Awareness as a Threshold Concept. RTE, Aug. 2018. Posted 09/18/2018.

Sweeney, Meghan A. “Audience Awareness as a Threshold Concept of Reading: An Examination of Student Learning in Biochemistry.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.1 (2018): 58-79. Print.

Meghan A. Sweeney presents a case study of a basic-writing student, “Bruce,” who grapples with a composition “threshold concept,” audience awareness. The study tracks Bruce across a three-course composition sequence in his first semester, then through his second-semester work in a research-based composition course as well as biochemistry and chemistry classes in support of his planned major, anesthesiology (64). Sweeney argues that Bruce moved from a “pre-liminal” through a “liminal” phase to end with a “post-liminal” relationship to the concept of audience awareness.

The composition sequence emphasized college reading, which Sweeney finds to be undertheorized in writing instruction (58). Sweeney explores scholarship in disciplinarity to suggest that the development of effective reading practices is important to students’ ability to move beyond the writing classroom and enter “communities of practice,” which P. Prior defines as “a continual process whereby newcomers and old-timers reproduce and produce themselves, their practices, and their communities” (59).

J. Lave and E. Wenger, studying these phenomena, see them “as a set of relations among persons, activity, and world, over time and in relation to other communities of practice” (qtd. in Sweeney 61). Lave and Wenger propose the category of “legitimate peripheral participation” to characterize how students begin their acculturation into such disciplinary sociocultural environments (61).

In studying Bruce’s progress as he approaches the community of practice he intends to enter, Sweeney also draws on the “academic literacies approach,” which emphasizes the ways in which entry into a community of practice involves changes in identity as students begin to see themselves as members of new groups (60). Among the challenges this shift entails are those of transferring practices and concepts from more general academic work to the specialized requirements of the new environment (60-61).

Sweeney’s study examines how such foundational concepts function as students carry them beyond composition. She discusses “threshold concepts” as those that are “potentially transformative” in that, once students grasp them, they begin to think in new ways characteristic of the community of practice in question (63). She gives “opportunity costs” as an example of such a concept in economics (63), advocating more attention to how students introduced to composition’s threshold concepts use these concepts as they transfer their learning into new communities (63).

At the large public research university in the western U.S. where the study was conducted, students deemed underprepared take a semester-long three-course integrated reading and writing combination including “a three-unit composition intensive,” a reading course, and an editing-for-style course (64) before moving on to a second-semester composition course. Sweeney characterizes Bruce, a first-generation Korean American student from a working-class background, as “highly motivated” (64). She quotes B. Flyvbjerg to argue that an atypical subject like Bruce may “reveal more information because they activate more actors and more basic mechanisms in the situation studied” (qtd. in Sweeney 64).

Sweeney observed both Bruce’s second-semester writing course and two sessions of his lecture-style chemistry class, taking notes on Bruce’s involvement and on the ways in which the professors presented the material relevant to their fields (65). Her data collection also included “four semi-structured” interviews in which Bruce provided insights into his reading practices and use of rhetorical concepts across the different classes (65).

Data from Bruce’s work in the first-semester composition combination leads Sweeney to argue that when he entered the sequence, he limited his reading response to summary, failing to engage with audience questions (66). She writes that as the semester progressed, he encountered discussions and readings about how writers differ depending on their situated practice and membership within a field. This exposure, Sweeney writes, triggered Bruce’s deepening attention to audience, and by the end, he

had begun to visualize other readers of his texts, to expect writers to influence others through rhetorical choices, and to expect audiences to keep an open mind while still maintaining an awareness of the choices made. (67-68)

The author describes Bruce’s progress to this point as a transition from “a pre-liminal space” in which the “troublesome” threshold concept of audience awareness posed challenges (67) to a “liminal” phase (68) in which a learner recursively “engages with [the] threshold concept but oscillates between old and emergent ideas” (62).

Sweeney contends that in his second semester, Bruce’s experiences in chemistry and biochemistry classes completed his movement into a “post-liminal” engagement with audience awareness in his new community of practice and with the identity formation involved in this engagement (68). Noting that Bruce learned quickly what information was important to the professor and adjusted his reading strategies accordingly, Sweeney records such moves as the professor’s references to “we” in lecturing, inviting students to see themselves as community members (69).

In biochemistry, Bruce worked with a lab mentor; Sweeney finds it crucial that Bruce recognized that he was not the audience for the technical papers he was asked to read. That realization pushed him to do independent research on Google and other less-advanced sources to develop his acculturation into “biochem jargon” (69).

Sweeney draws on Bruce’s final paper for the course as evidence of his post-liminal growth: she indicates that his exposure to audience awareness in his composition class meant that he “expected a critical reader” (71) and paid attention to the details that would demonstrate to the professor that he had been a strong participant in the class. At the same time, Sweeney notes, Bruce saw the details as “necessary for other scientists who might want to replicate his experiment” (72). Thus he was writing for “dual audiences” but with full awareness of his own standing as a peripheral participant (72). In Sweeney’s view, Bruce’s transformational relationship with audience was further evinced by his assertion that even experts did not read as doubters when encountering new information, and that therefore his strategy of reading new material for comprehension rather than as a critic was appropriate for his early work in science (70).

Sweeney’s study suggests that for students like Bruce who have been deemed underprepared, awareness of audience may drive them to accept this designation (74). She proposes that for Bruce, his struggles to enter the biochemistry community in the light of this designation may have been “generative” because they pushed him to assert agency by developing effective personal reading strategies (76). She argues that actively teaching audience awareness in early composition courses, in contrast to models that assume students will acquire disciplinary identities through “apprenticeship,” can give students a more productive understanding of how they can begin to relate to the communities of practice they hope to enter (75).


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Vetter, Matthew A. Editing Wikipedia as Pedagogy for Cultural Critique. CE, May 2018. Posted 05/22/2018.

Vetter, Matthew A. “Teaching Wikipedia: Appalachian Rhetoric and the Encyclopedic Politics of Representation.” College English 80.5 (2018): 397-422. Print.

Matthew A. Vetter writes about a study in a junior-level rhetoric and writing course in which he used Wikipedia as a focus for the course and as a primary teaching tool (399). He argues that designing a curriculum in which students actively participate in Wikipedia editing can serve dual goals of meeting general education and composition learning outcomes while also introducing students to cultural critique (400).

The course, which took place in a university in a region of Ohio that is considered part of Appalachia, used depictions of Appalachia in media and in Wikipedia to introduce issues of cultural representation while also allowing students to gain from the particular affordances Wikipedia offers (399).

Vetter notes that while Wikipedia is often excoriated by college and university instructors, scholarship in composition has credited the project with important qualities useful for teaching writing (397, 402). Scholars claim that Wikipedia provides an “authentic” writing environment that engages students with real, potentially responsive audiences in the collaborative construction of knowledge (397). Students working in this environment can “deconstruct authority in public and ‘published’ texts” and can gain firsthand experience in the process of editing and revision (397).

Vetter recounts as well critiques that challenge Wikipedia’s claim to provide “universal access and representation” (398). He cites statistics indicating that the “editorship” is “overwhelmingly make and homogenous” (398). Further, the site marginalizes certain geographic and cultural locations and issues through lack of representation and often through representation from an “outsider perspective” (398).

For Vetter, this disparity in representation affects the ways Wikipedia addresses marginalized areas of Western culture, such as Appalachia. Involving students with Wikipedia’s depiction of Appalachia, in Vetter’s view, gives them access to the ways that representation functions through media and rhetoric and allows them to see their ability to intervene through writing as a potential force for change (399).

Vetter found that a significant minority of his students considered themselves connected to Appalachia (407); 17 students participated in the study (401). The course design allowed all students to engage both with the issue of representation of Appalachia in media and with the rhetorical nature and “cultural politics” of Wikipedia as a source of information (416), with implications for how rhetoric and writing construct realities.

Students began by examining depictions of Appalachia in mainstream media, moved on to group genre analysis of Wikipedia articles, and finally chose Wikipedia pieces on Appalachia to edit, drawing on their research as well as their personal experiences as residents of an Appalachian region (400). Students also wrote two in-class “process logs,” one asking them to reflect on what they had learned about rhetorical treatment of Appalachia and one calling for consideration of how their engagement with Wikipedia had changed as a result of the course (401). Coding of the process logs allowed Vetter to detect themes shared across many responses.

Vetter explores scholarship on teaching with Wikipedia within composition studies, finding an interest in the ways using Wikipedia as a site for writing can enable a shift from consumption to production (403). He argues that Wikipedia is an example of a “[c]ommunity-based pedagog[y]” that, by offering “exposure to multiple authorities and audiences,” contributes to students’ rhetorical knowledge (403). In Vetter’s view, scholarship has tended to focus on the contribution to general learning outcomes enabled by Wikipedia-based assignments; he contends that this focus “should be expanded” to exploit what the site can teach about the rhetorical nature of representation and about the processes that result in the marginalization of “cultures and identities” (404).

The first class project, examining representations of Appalachia in mainstream sources, asked students to examine Appalachia as a “social invention” created through writing (404). This “symbolic construction” (404) of the region, Vetter argues, shifts attention from the “material realities” experienced by inhabitants (405). Study of these material realities, Vetter contends, can lead to more nuanced awareness of the diversity of the region and to a greater appreciation of a range of literacies that characterize individuals (405-06). Vetter’s course and study transcend the “denaturalization” that scholarship begins by encouraging a “method of critical praxis that contributes to the reshaping of cultural narratives” as students not only study how stereotypes are created and persist but resist these stereotypes by actively editing Wikipedia’s Appalachia sites (406).

Analysis of the first process log revealed that students recognized the effects of problematic representation of Appalachia; 88% also noted “the social-epistemic functions of rhetoric and writing” (408, 409). Their study of media depictions of the region also emphasized for students how reliance on outsiders for representation erased the realities experienced by people closer to the region (411).

Vetter notes that developers in Wikipedia are aware that work remains to be done to improve the depiction of Appalachia. Wikiprojects, “dedicated task forces” that strive to improve Wikipedia, list “more than 40 articles in need of development or major reorganization” within Wikiproject Appalachia (412). Students were able to draw on these articles and on resources and support provided in the Wikiproject’s “talk” page to meet the course requirements (412-13). Vetter discusses the need to move beyond word counts in order to assess student work, because Wikipedia encourages concision and because students must collaborate with other editors to have their work included (413).

The second process log suggested that genre analysis and exposure to Wikipedia itself had given students better understanding and familiarity with the exigencies of working in the site. Some students wrote that professors in earlier classes who had imposed “outright bans” on the use of Wikipedia for research failed to understand how a critical understanding of the site could make it a productive research source (415-16). Vetter contends that a more nuanced understanding of Wikipedia and a well-structured curriculum using the site could allow academics to encourage the kinds of improvements they believe Wikipedia needs, including an increase in the diversity of contributors (416).

Three of the 17 students reported difficulty getting their edits accepted, reporting that experienced editors served as gatekeepers on “popular” topics while more marginalized topics were hard to research because of a lack of well-documented information. Vetter contends that Wikipedia’s insistence on “published and verifiable sources” will always tend to exclude the important insights that come from the direct experience of those familiar with a region or topic (419). While the “distributed model” of “Commons-Based Peer Production” in place at Wikipedia does allow many users to “come together to collaboratively and incrementally build a global knowledge source,” this model simultaneously “deemphasize[s] and devalue[s] the place of local knowledge production” (419).

In Vetter’s view, student engagement with Wikipedia can alert them to the ways that various types of representation can misinform while empowering them to recognize their own writing and rhetoric as interventions for change.

 


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Moe, Peter Wayne. William Coles and “Themewriting” as Epideictic. CCC, Feb. 2018. Posted 03/02/2018.

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 69.3 (2018): 433-57. Print.

Peter Wayne Moe presents a reading of The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing by William E. Coles, Jr. Published in 1978, The Plural I narrates a course Coles taught in the fall of 1965-66 at the Case Institute of Technology (434). In Moe’s view, Coles’s course and his representation of it illuminate the relationship between writing pedagogy and epideictic rhetoric.

Moe notes that reviewers of Coles’s book found it counter to “the dominant traditions and pedagogies shaping composition” and thus “hard to read, hard to place, hard to value” (434). Moe hopes to “recover, and find value in” Coles’s contribution to the field (435).

Moe explores scholarly definitions and judgments of epideictic, many of which denigrate this rhetoric as superficial stylistic display that reinforces a community’s received values and therefore stifles critical inquiry (436). Moe contrasts it with “pragmatic” rhetorics that result in actions, like rhetorics of the “courtroom or senate” (435). He cites scholarship arguing that the role of the audience in the epideictic is not to act or “be persuaded; rather, the audience observes” (438). In doing so, an audience participates in epideictic as often defined: as bestowing “praise and blame” (438).

Scholars cited by Moe note that the “display” characterizing epideictic lays out “the shared values of a community”; etymologically, Moe shows, the term means “showing forth”; it is the rhetoric of “making known” (436). Moe argues that in performing these functions, epideictic becomes “the foundation from which a rhetor can praise and blame” (436). He contrasts the view that this showing forth sustains shared values with the contention that, in fact, epideictic can “reshape shared values,” and he argues that this reshaping is what Coles achieves in his use of this form in his writing classroom (437).

Moe cites Dale L. Sullivan to present education as fundamentally epideictic because it works to teach reasoning skills fitting particular contexts and “to instill in the student sentiments or emotions appropriate within the orthodoxy which the teacher represents” (Sullivan, qtd. in Moe 437). However, in Moe’s reading, Coles did not represent orthodoxy but instead pushed against it, using “little more than [the] praise and blame [of] student writing” to generate “sustained inquiry” capable of critically resisting banality and conformity (438).

Moe writes that The Plural I tracks the weekly assignments of a required first-year composition course, Humanities I (434). The chapters consist of these thirty assignments, several student papers mimeographed for discussion (ninety-four in all), and Coles’s account of each week’s classroom discussion (439). There was no textbook. According to Moe, “Coles dramatizes the classroom conversation; he does not transcribe.” Coles insisted that in these narratives nothing was made up (439).

Tracing Coles’s lessons through selected examples, Moe writes that Coles began by assigning an essay asking students to differentiate between amateurism and professionalism. The resulting essays, Coles declaimed, were “[t]riumphs of self-obliteration, . . . put-up jobs everyone of them, and as much of a bore to read as they must have been to write” (qtd. in Moe 440). In Coles’s view, these efforts represented what he called “Themewriting,” in which students displayed their understanding of what a teacher expected them to sound like (440).

Moe argues that this rhetorical choice represents students’ conception of the “shared values of this community, this classroom, and this teacher” (440), in which they draw on familiar patterns and commonplaces, believing that the community honors writing that, in Coles’s words, is “well-organized. It’s Clear, Logical, and Coherent. It’s neat” (qtd. in Moe 441). Coles asks questions that push students to challenge the voice of the Themewritten essays, ultimately creating consensus that “no one talks the way this paper sounds” (441). Moe depicts Cole creating a game of Themewriting in which students discover their ability to convert any set of terms‑for example, “man, black, and TNT” (442)— into a formulaic set of moves that are both “inevitable” and “moralistic” (443).

Coles’s project, Moe contends, is to push students to think about what they are doing with language when they act on these assumptions about “what makes good writing” by undermining their confidence in these apparently sacrosanct shared values (443). Among Coles’s stated intentions is the development of a “common vocabulary” (qtd. in Moe 443) that will provide new ways to characterize writing (443). Developing this vocabulary, Moe argues, “serves an epideictic function, uniting the class in their practice of praise and blame” (443).

As part of this vocabulary production, Coles encourages the adoption of metaphors like “sky-writing” or “mayonnaise” to capture the characteristics the class assigned to Themewriting (444). Among these metaphors are the names such as Steve, or Suzie, a “character who ‘isn’t a character at all’ because she is composed solely of clichés” (Coles, qtd. in Moe 445). Coles finds, however, that students fall back too glibly on these critical terms, using them to avoid grappling with stylistic nuances that suggest deeper struggles with language (446).

As the class nears its end, Moe contends that students discover that “avoiding the rhetoric of cant” is nearly impossible, and that articulating “‘another way of talking’” has been the difficult goal of Coles’s method (Coles, qtd. in Moe 447). Their loss of confidence in Themewriting and the challenges of finding a new understanding of what language can do upset students and left them feeling as if, in Coles’s words, “‘readiness with’ a certain kind of language is the same thing as a ‘loss of words’” (qtd. in Moe 448). However, Moe points out that students begin to notice how they manipulate language to create “a stylistic self” (449):

The “self construable from the way words fall on a page” is integral to Coles’s teaching. He clarifies that such a self is “not a mock or false self. . . .” The assignment sequence in The Plural I seeks to bring students to an awareness of how language constitutes this stylistic self and how one might use language in light of that awareness. (439)

Moe argues that writing teachers read student work as epideictic, reading it against the shared values of a community, not so much to be persuaded by arguments as to respond to the writer’s display of his or her use of language to create a particular stylistic self. He states that “persuasion, if it does occur, is a product of display—how well the student shows forth the various conventions of the discourses he or she hopes to enter” (451). This display is the ground on which persuasion “and other rhetorical acts” can take place (451). He argues that the value in Coles’s pedagogy is that he impels students to understand more precisely what they are doing when they partake in this display. Once they have recognized the shared values of the community, they become capable of “resisting them, rewriting them even, through praise and blame” (452).


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Carter and Gallegos. Assessing Celebrations of Student Writing. CS, Spring 2017. Posted 09/03/2017.

Carter, Genesea M., and Erin Penner Gallegos. “Moving Beyond the Hype: What Does the Celebration of Student Writing Do for Students?” Composition Studies 45.1 (2017): 74-98. Web. 29 Aug. 2017.

Genesea M. Carter and Erin Penner Gallegos present research on “celebrations of student writing (CSWs)” (74), arguing that while extant accounts of these events portray them as positive and effective additions to writing programs, very little research has addressed students’ own sense of the value of the CSW experience. To fill this gap, Carter and Gallegos interviewed 23 students during a CSW at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and gathered data from an anonymous online survey (84).

As defined by Carter and Gallegos, a CSW asks students to represent the writing from their coursework in a public forum through posters and art installations (77). Noting that the nature of a CSW is contingent on the particular institution at which it takes place (75, 91), the authors provide specific demographic data about UNM, where their research was conducted. The university is both a “federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI)” and “a Carnegie-designated very high research university” (75), thus incorporating research-level expectations with a population of “historically marginalized,” “financially very needy” students with “lower educational attainment” (76). Carter and Gallegos report on UNM’s relatively low graduation rates as compared to similar universities and the “particular challenges” faced by this academic community (76).

Among these challenges, in the authors’ view, was a “negative framing of the student population from the university community and city residents” (76). Exposure in 2009 via a meeting with Linda Adler-Kassner to the CSW model in place at Eastern Michigan University led graduate students Carter and Gallegos to develop a similar program at UNM (76-77). Carter and Gallegos were intrigued by the promise of programs like the one at EMU to present a new, positive narrative about students and their abilities to the local academic and civic communities.

They recount the history of the UNM CSW as a project primarily initiated by graduate students that continues to derive from graduate-student interests and participation while also being broadly adopted by the larger university and in fact the larger community (78, 92). In their view, the CSW differs from other institutional showcases of student writing such as an undergraduate research day and a volume of essays selected by judges in that it offers a venue for “students who lack confidence in their abilities or who do not already feel that they belong to the university community” (78). They argue that changing the narrative about student writing requires a space for recognizing the strengths of such historically undervalued students.

Examining CSWs from a range of institutions in order to discover what the organizers believe these events achieve, the authors found “a few commonalities” (79). Organizers underscored their belief that the audience engagement offered by a CSW enforced the nature of writing as “social, situational, and public,” a “transactional” experience rather than the “one-dimensional” model common in academic settings (80). Further, CSWs are seen to endorse student contributions to research across the university community and to inspire recognition of the multiple literacies that students bring to their academic careers (81). The authors’ review also reveals organizers’ beliefs that such events will broaden students’ understanding of the writing process by foregrounding how writing evolves through revision into different modes (81).

An important thread is the power of CSWs to enhance students’ “sense of belonging, both to an intellectual and a campus community” (82). Awareness that their voices are valued, according to the authors’ research, is an important factor in student persistence among marginalized populations (81). Organizers see CSWs as encouraging students to see themselves as “authors within a larger community discourse” (83).

Carter and Gallegos note a critique by Mark Mullen, who argues that CSWs can actually exploit student voices in that they may actually be a “celebration of the teaching of writing, a reassertion of agency by practitioners who are routinely denigrated” (qtd. in Carter and Gallegos 84). The authors find from their literature review that, indeed, few promotions of CSWs in the literature include student voices (84). They contend that their examination of student perceptions of the CSW process can further understanding of the degree to which these events meet their intended outcomes (84).

Their findings support the expectation that students will find the CSW valuable, but discovered several ways in which the hopes of supporters and the responses of students are “misaligned” (90). While the CSW did contribute to students’ sense of writing as a social process, students expressed most satisfaction in being able to interact with their peers, sharing knowledge and experiencing writing in a new venue as fun (86). Few students understood how CSW connected to the goals of their writing coursework, such as providing a deeper understanding of rhetorical situation and audience (87). While students appreciated the chance to “express” their views, the authors write that students “did not seem to relate expression to being heard or valued by the academic community” or to “an extension of agency” (88).

For the CSW to more clearly meet its potential, the authors recommend that planners at all levels focus on building metacognitive awareness of the pedagogical value of such events through classroom activities (89). Writing programs involved in CSWs, according to the authors, can develop specific outcomes beyond those for the class as a whole that define what supporters and participants hope the event will achieve (89-90). Students themselves should be involved in planning the event as well as determining its value (90), with the goal of “emphasizing to their student participants that the CSW is not just another fun activity but an opportunity to share their literacies and voices with their classmates and community” (90).

A more detailed history of the development of the UNM event illustrates how the CSW became increasingly incorporated into other university programs and how it ultimately drew participation from local artists and performers (92-93). The authors applaud this “institutionalizing” of the event because such broad interest and sponsorship mean that the CSW can continue to grow and spread knowledge of student voices to other disciplines and across the community (93).

They see “downsides” in this expansion in that the influence of different sponsors from year to year and attachment to initiatives outside of writing tends to separate the CSW from the writing courses it originated to serve. Writing programs in venues like UNM may find it harder to develop appropriate outcomes and assess results, making sure that the CSW remains a meaningful part of a writing program’s mission (93). The authors recommend that programs hoping that a CSW will enhance actual writing instruction should commit adequate resources and attention to the ongoing events. The authors write that, “imperatively,” student input must be part of the process in order to prevent such events from “becom[ing] merely another vehicle for asserting the value of the teaching of writing” (94; emphasis original).


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Duffy, John. Virtue Ethics in Writing Classrooms. Jan. CE. Posted 02/20/2017.

Duffy, John. “The Good Writer: Virtue Ethics and the Teaching of Writing.” College English 79.3 (2017): 229-50. Print.

John Duffy argues that compositionists should embrace a form of the moral philosophy called virtue ethics as a basis for the teaching of writing.

He proposes that the ethical is as much a dimension of good writing as the “rhetorical, the linguistic, or the aesthetic” (229). Ethical decisions, he writes, are inherent in building a relationship with an audience, a major task undertaken by all writers . When a writing teacher encourages students to evaluate sources for their reliability or to examine counterarguments, Duffy contends, he or she is actually asking students to make ethical choices (230). Each choice is a partial answer to the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?”, which to Duffy is primarily an ethical question. Learning to make such choices, he argues, is how a student becomes a “good writer” (230).

Traditionally, Duffy writes, ethical systems were seen as either deontological—governed by a priori rules and principles—or consequentialist, dependent on the outcomes of actions (230). More recently, scholars have turned to “postmodern ethics” as an alternative. Duffy contends that “none of these frameworks . . . provides an adequate account of how writers define themselves ethically” (230).

The contrasting system of virtue ethics, he argues, is “both old and new,” dating at least to Aristotle and expounded explicitly in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (230). Duffy quotes a definition by Rosalind Hursthouse: “a virtuous person is a morally good, excellent, or admirable person who acts and reacts well, rightly, as she should—she gets things right” (231). This concept, Duffy believes, can be translated into “rhetorical virtues,” or “discursive practices” that become “rationales for making ethical decisions in the writing class” (231).

According to Duffy, scholars who have turned to the virtue ethics as alternatives to deontology and consequentialism have noted that the traditional moral theories have become “unintelligible” or “incoherent” for a number of reasons, for example their grounding in pronouncements of God or their tendency to cobble together disparate theories with “incommensurable moral claims” (232). A neo-Aristotelian ethics, in contrast, focuses on a larger sense of how to live, with a supreme happiness, eudaimonia, as a culmination in that it is not a context-specific happiness such as one might experience after an instant of good fortune but rather a sense of “living well throughout the course of a lifetime” (233).

For Aristotle, Duffy maintains, achieving such a practice of happiness depends on fulfilling a telos—a purpose or “function”—with the “distinctively human function” being “rationality, the ability of humans to exercise reason” (234), in particular using “phronesis, or practical wisdom” to arrive at “the right course of action in a specific set of circumstances” (234).

Much current thinking about virtue ethics, Duffy states, applies such reasoning to specific fields, such as medicine, education, or law (235). The kind of virtue that can be enacted ethically in such situations, Duffy stresses, is learned through “instruction, practice, and habit”; it is not innate (235). “Rhetorical virtues,” then, become “discursive practices of virtue,” for example, expressions of “honesty, accountability, [and] generosity” (235).

Duffy addresses three specific objections to the concept of virtue: “its associations with an exclusively Christian doctrine, with right-wing ideology and with the historical oppression of women” (235). Despite its history as a component of Christian thinking, he contends, the idea of virtue appears in other contexts such as classical Greek culture and in other religions. Moreover, important virtues such as “open-mindedness, tolerance, and humility” do not rely on a religious endorsement to be valid (236). According to Duffy, the equation of virtue ethics with “character education,” which shifts responsibility for oppression to individual deficiencies rather than to systemic causes, is a political “appropriation” of the concept; a “virtue ethics framework” can be separated from such uses and even used to counter them (236).

Finally, Duffy counters the connection of the word “virtue” to an oppressive depiction of virtuous women as those who meet gendered domestic ideals with examples of feminist scholars who have presented “feminist virtue theor[ies]” to show that “the history of a term is not necessarily predictive of its future” (237). He points to the historical trajectory of the word “rhetoric” as a parallel example of a term that has carried many meanings throughout its evolution (237).

Duffy offers practical, theoretical, and cultural reasons to incorporate the concept of virtue into writing classrooms. He argues that compositionists already teach rhetorical virtues when they teach argument, in which the making of claims, the provision of evidence, and the openness to counterarguments create contexts of mutual trust and accountability between writers and audiences (238). For Duffy, teaching writing falls under Alisdair McIntyre’s definition of “practices,” that is, “coherent and complex forms of socially cooperative human activity” (qtd. in Duffy 239); virtues arise as practitioners work toward “excellence” (239). Duffy contends that writing teachers share “a loosely defined set of practices” that have been subjected to the open critique necessary to the “ongoing project” (241) of developing an ethics (239).

Theoretically, he argues, deontology cannot supply a sound rhetorical ethics because of its dependence on received wisdom; rhetoric is most necessary, he writes, when such a priori pronouncements cannot offer a clear path (240). Consequentialism fails because ethical writing will not always achieve its goals (241). Culturally, rhetorical ethics should offer a corrective to today’s corrosive public discourse; postmodern ethics, which has guided many in composition studies, has, in Duffy’s view, offered important challenges to the oppression and injustice committed in the name of “universality” and “foundation” (243), but the “skepticism and critique” that it supports must be augmented with “the language of the virtues” which can “address the possibilities of opening dialogues, finding affinities, acknowledging interdependencies, and talking to those strangers we most fear and mistrust” (244).

The practice of rhetorical ethics, Duffy concludes, must be developed locally to serve the specific contexts students encounter; citing John Gage, he encourages classroom practice that locates students in situations in which they must “exercise practical wisdom, or phronesis” (244). Acknowledging that the kind of rhetorical ethics inherent in rational argument may not always be adequate or may fail when no common ground is possible, Duffy argues that students can learn from exemplars “[h[ow . . . a good writer [would] resist such conditions” (245). Even if other forms of communication are needed, Duffy contends, composition should honor the contribution of “rhetorical virtues” like those found in ethical argumentation to the definition of a “good writer” committed to the goal of “creating [a] better world” (246).


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Thomson-Bunn, Heather. When religion and academic norms conflict. CE, Jan. 2017. Posted 01/19/2017.

Thomson-Bunn, Heather. “Mediating Discursive Worlds: When Academic Norms and Religious Belief Conflict.” College English 79.3 (2017): 276-96. Web. 10 Jan 2017.

Heather Thomson-Bunn describes a study on the reactions of composition instructors to students who incorporate their religious views into their writing coursework. Forty lecturers or graduate student instructors at a large “Public Midwestern University” responded to a survey and seven experienced instructors also participated in interviews (278-79).

The discussion focuses on Christian students because, Thomson-Bunn hypothesizes, the Christian religion intersects with higher education in especially salient ways, with the result that it is with these students that “instructors appear to have the most frequent conflicts” (278). She defines Christians as “followers and/or worshippers of Jesus Christ, whose commitment to their faith is a significant (if not the significant) dimension of identity” (278). Thomson-Bunn refrains from modifying “Christian” with other labels because in her findings, the students themselves did not claim these labels (279).

In her literature review, Thomson-Bunn explores previous composition scholarship on religious discourse in academic settings, citing several recent volumes to contend that the topic is “an increasingly visible area of scholarship” (276). Views range from rejection of the possibility that religious discourse can find a place within academic norms to the contention that instructors should help students find appropriate ways to examine and articulate their positions (276-77).

The survey and interviews revealed ways in which instructors felt that Christian students often had difficulty with “academic norms,” in particular those associated with “critical thinking,” “audience awareness,” “appropriate use of evidence,” and “tolerance” (280).

Difficulties involving critical thinking, according to Thomson-Bunn’s findings, revolved around differences in the kinds of discourses religious students found meaningful and the kinds composition instructors felt were appropriate in secular writing classrooms. Citing Thomas Amorose, Thomson-Bunn notes that religious discourse “privileges received meaning over constructed or contested meaning” (278; emphasis original). Similarly, citing Douglas Downs, she explores the claim that religious discourses are “discourses of affirmation,” while those of the composition classroom are “discourses of inquiry” (280). Instructors in her sample seem to find Christian students struggling to see their views as fluid and context-based and to consider them in the light of a range of perspectives, practices that the instructors saw as central to successful academic work (281).

Thomson-Bunn suggests that teachers may not always fully articulate their definitions of critical thinking so that students understand why they are being asked to develop certain habits of thought (281). The result, she finds, can be that students feel that their teachers are rejecting them personally or their faith specifically, rather than advocating for a useful approach to academic tasks (282-83). Teachers’ attitudes, Thomson-Bunn posits, may reflect a sense that their relationship with Christian discourses is a “battle” to be won, an approach that may obscure the more productive uses of critical thinking (283).

Issues involving audience awareness emerged as instructors answered a question as to whether it was “appropriate to incorporate religious beliefs into academic writing” (283). Ninety-eight percent of the participants “answered with a version of “it depends’” (283). Instructors suggested that issues of faith were more appropriate to “personal narratives,” which they tended to contrast with other forms of writing deemed more specific to academic discourse, such as argumentative writing (283). Thomson-Bunn quotes an instructor who postulates that some religious students may not realize that the tenets of their faith are not “a fact for everyone” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 285) and thus do not recognize the need to “accommodate” an audience as diverse as that of academia (284). Thomson-Bunn offers examples of Muslim graduate students who were able to incorporate an examination of their religious beliefs into academically appropriate intellectual work (284), but suggests that many students lack the “rhetorical dexterity” such accomplishments require (286). Study participants expressed concern about how to respect students’ values while simultaneously requiring them to adhere to academic norms (285).

Instructors expressed similar concerns about how to address students’ use of personal experience and/or Biblical material as evidence in argumentative writing. Thomson-Bunn notes that personal experience has been considered legitimate argumentative evidence by many groups, such as “women, ethnic minorities, LGBT communities” (286). Instructors find premises based on Biblical infallibility problematic because such arguments may assume that “received meanings and values” should be “automatically accepted” (287) rather than subjected to critical evaluation.

Thomson-Bunn notes an instructor who bases judgments about the acceptability of evidence on its effectiveness in a “specific rhetorical context”; this move, Thomson-Bunn argues, eliminates the question of whether or not the student’s “beliefs are correct” (288). Religious students, she points out, share with all students a need for help in determining how to choose evidence for specific situations (288).

Thomson-Bunn finds that “tolerance” for diverse views has become, at least implicitly, “one of the purposes of instruction within the academy” (288). This particular academic norm is of concern in her study because the question, “What characteristics come to mind when you think of a Christian student?” (288) generated responses like “Judgmental,” “Not very open-minded,” and “Suspicious of ideas that challenge their faith” (288-89). No contrasting terms, such as “very open-minded,” emerged (289).

Thomson-Bunn reports a study participant who was taken aback by an intolerant statement from a religious student but who also worried that she responded by “shutting down the conversation” and avoiding “teaching ‘gay’ texts for two years,” responses that she deemed, in fact, emblematic of her own intolerance (289). Thomson-Bunn finds that many instructors respond to the expression of intolerance from religious students by declaring certain topics off limits in their classes (289).

Thomson-Bunn encourages “work[ing] through discursive conflict, rather than avoid[ing] it or inflam[ing] it” (290). She cites one study participant who felt that “critical responsibility [for helping students through such conflict] lies with the instructor” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 290). Following Beth Daniell, she suggests that what may look like resistance may be students’ efforts to “work through new ideas” (291).

One instructor addresses the use of the Bible as evidence by conducting a full-class discussion rather than one-on-one conversations with specific students. This tactic, according to the instructor, allows other students to make audience responses and differing interpretations of the text visible and to allow Christian students to examine audience further by re-imagining themselves as audiences for the religious texts of other faiths (292).

Another strategy involves helping students analyze texts that do meet academic norms while drawing on faith, such as the 1805 text “Red Jacket Defends Native American Religion” and “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Through such texts, students can analyze the rhetorical power of specific textual moves to alienate or appeal to diverse audiences (293).

Finally, Thomson-Bunn argues that by finding ways to respond constructively to religious values in the composition classroom, teachers can “model the very kinds of tolerance and critical thinking we want all students to exhibit” (294; emphasis original).


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VanKooten, Crystal. Meta-awareness through video composition. CE, Sept. 2016. Posted 11/03/2016.

VanKooten, Crystal. “‘The video was what did it for me’: Developing Meta-Awareness about Composition across Media.” College English 79.1 (2016): 57-80. Print.

Crystal VanKooten argues for the use of video composition assignments to develop students’ metacognitive awareness of composition. For her case study, conducted at a Midwestern public research university, VanKooten worked with students in two first-year writing courses in which the instructors agreed to assign the video project. She selected six students, three from each class; she reports on three women who “related or demonstrated movement toward meta-awareness about composition” by participating in activities and discussions connected with the assignment (64).

VanKooten observed and videoed classes in each section during the assignment, conducted student interviews at the beginning of the course, after the assignment was completed, and at the end of the course, and gathered materials, including the video drafts and final products as well as various reflective documents, such as a final reflective essay in one of the classes (64-65). She reports using a “grounded theory approach” which allowed her to “derive meaning from the data itself” (65). She particularly looked for “observable” evidence of meta-awareness that would shed light on how making videos affected students’ approaches to composition (63).

Noting that the video assignment accords with composition’s tradition of embracing new learning experiences and tools as well as the field’s interest in multimodality (59), VanKooten theorizes that the video effectively raised meta-awareness in her study in part because it presented students with “obstacles”; VanKooten cites John Dewey to contend that encountering obstacles is “educative” in that obstacles lead to “action, effort, and interest” (60). She argues that these responses to the video project enhanced meta-awareness about composition, which she defined as

a student’s ability to move consistently between enacting multimodal compositional choices and articulating how and why those choices are effective or ineffective within a rhetorical context. (58)

Making a video, she states, “highlights” and “makes more obvious” important “rhetorically layered actions” that make up the composition process (59; emphasis original). These actions are “orienting and reorienting” to new processes demanded by different media; “addressing multiple audiences and purposes”; and “examining and shifting parts of a text in order to revise the whole” (61). The video project introduced obstacles into these processes, requiring effort, which engendered “a conscious knowledge of purposes and . . . evaluation of thoughts and actions,” which in turn increased meta-awareness (62).

VanKooten cites Gregory Schraw to categorize aspects of “general metacognitive awareness” as “knowledge of cognition” and “regulation of cognition.” Knowledge may be “declarative (knowing about things),” “procedural (knowing how to do things),” and “conditional,” which means the ability to judge when declarative or procedural knowledge is appropriate (62). Regulation of cognition involves “planning, monitoring, and evaluation” (62).

Finally, effort and metacognitive awareness were supplemented by increased interest, which encouraged more engagement and reflection (62-63).

VanKooten provides examples of the actions and interview responses of the three case-study students. (Lauren and Marlee allowed Van Kooten to use their real names [79n1]). Lauren found the video assignment “fun” because of the many different activities involved (qtd. in VanKooten 66), a comment that VanKooten sees as an indicator of increased interest. Lauren’s desire to communicate her support for arts funding led her to consider broader audiences and ways to use the video components to attract these additional viewers.

In VanKooten’s analysis, this communicative effort led Lauren to consider her purpose more carefully, which in turn encouraged her to examine more closely how different elements of her video contributed to the whole. In these ways, VanKooten argues, Lauren demonstrated both declarative and conditional knowledge, making decisions about “how and why” to apply her understanding of the elements of video production (67). Such evaluative actions also demonstrate “regulation of cognition,” in VanKooten’s view.

Lauren connected the video experience with written composition by noting the importance of revision, which she equated with editing her video and deemed “essential” in both media (qtd. in VanKooten 67).

Marlee also demonstrated engagement with the video process, stating that “I didn’t want to do any of my other homework” (qtd. in VanKooten 68). In VanKooten’s analysis, Marlee also responded to the opportunity to address “actual audiences beyond the classroom” with her video on a summer-camp experience (69). Members of Marlee’s peer audience found the video effects Marlee combined “cool” (69), a reaction that VanKooten believes motivated her to work on the project but that also underscored the “unique” power of video to foreground “layered modes of expression” (69).

VanKooten finds that the sensory appeal of video that Marlee encountered both in her own work and in that of her classmates also enhanced her desire to experiment with a wide range of options and to collaborate with other video authors in class workshops (69-70). Marlee’s descriptions of her engagement further illustrated what VanKooten calls “educative play” that “digital space” facilitates, demonstrating the effects of the medium on the author’s responses (70). Like Lauren, Marlee expressed awareness of the connections between her video work and a written project, for example in her understanding of the importance of “completion” as a way of unifying the message of a project and of using transitions to link parts to the whole (70).

“Logan” had more difficulty “orient[ing]” to the video medium, partly because she had not previously used a video camera (72-73). VanKooten argues that this kind of reaction is an indication of “how video composition makes strange the traditional writing space” (73). Logan writes, “Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I had to work harder” (qtd. in VanKooten 73). In particular, according to VanKooten, Logan focused on goal setting, a strategy that she ultimately extended both to written composition and to personal needs such as planning her college career (75). VanKooten finds that, like the other students, Logan developed her ability to revise to communicate with her audience, regulating her cognition by “monitor[ing] and evaluat[ing]” her process (74).

VanKooten notes that many of the behaviors she recounts were not “observable” but rather were “self-reported during interviews” (76). Also, the evidence of transfer acquired  from the interviews could not be confirmed (77). VanKooten suggests that “[a]lternate research methods” might make student actions more visible, and encourages more self-reflective components in such assignments, including “repeatedly prompting” to raise students’ meta-awareness of their actions (77).

Although she states that a video assignment alone will not necessarily result in these benefits, VanKooten argues that writing programs should incorporate more multimodal assignments because they introduce obstacles requiring more effort and metacognitive development. She offers suggestions for instructors without access to video equipment who wish to incorporate multimodal projects in their classrooms (77).