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Bailey & Bizzaro. Research in Creative Writing. August RTE. Posted 08/25/2017.

Bailey, Christine, and Patrick Bizzaro. “Research in Creative Writing: Theory into Practice.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.1 (2017): 77-97. Print.

Christine Bailey and Patrick Bizzaro discuss the disciplinarity of creative writing and its place in relation to the discipline of composition. They work to establish an aesthetic means of interpreting and representing data about creative writing in the belief that in order to emerge as a discipline its own right, creative writing must arrive at a set of shared values and understandings as to how research is conducted.

Bailey and Bizzaro’s concerns derive from their belief that creative writing must either establish itself as a discipline or it will be incorporated into composition studies (81). They contend that creative writing studies, like other emerging disciplines, must account for, in the words of Timothy J. San Pedro, “hierarchies of power” within institutions (qtd. in Bailey and Bizzaro 78) such that extant disciplines control or oppress less powerful disciplines, much as “teaching practices and the texts used in schools” oppress marginal student groups (78). A decision to use the methodologies of the “dominant knowledges” thus accedes to “imperial legacies” (San Pedro, qtd. in Bailey and Bizzaro 78).

Bailey and Bizzaro report that discussion of creative writing by compositionists such as Douglas Hesse and Wendy Bishop has tended to address how creative writing can be appropriately positioned as part of composition (79). Drawing on Bishop, the authors ascribe anxiety within some English departments over the role of creative writing to “genre-fear,” that is, “the belief that two disciplines cannot simultaneously occupy the same genre” (79).

They recount Bishop’s attempt to resolve the tension between creative writing studies and composition by including both under what she called a de facto “ready-made synthesis” that she characterized as the “study of writers writing” (qtd. in Bailey and Bizzaro 80). In the authors’ view, this attempt fails because the two fields differ substantially: “what one values as the basis for making knowledge differs from what the other values” (80).

The authors see creative writing studies itself as partially responsible for the difficulties the field has faced in establishing itself as a discipline (79, 80-81). They draw on Stephen Toulmin’s approach to disciplinarity: “a discipline exists ‘where men’s [sic] shared commitment to a sufficiently agreed set of ideals leads to the development of an isolable and self-defining repertory of procedures” (qtd. In Bailey and Bizzaro 80). The authors elaborate to contend that in a discipline, practitioners develop shared views as to what counts as knowledge and similarly shared views about the most appropriate means of gathering and reporting that knowledge (80).

Creative writing studies, they contend, has not yet acted on these criteria (81). Rather, they state, creative writers seem to eschew empirical research in favor of “craft interviews” consisting of “writers’ self-reports”; meanwhile, compositionists have undertaken to fill the gap by applying research methodologies appropriate to composition but not to creative writing (81). The authors’ purpose, in this article, is to model a research methodology that they consider more in keeping with the effort to define and apply the specific values accruing to creative writing.

The methodology they advance involves gathering, interpreting, and representing aesthetic works via an aesthetic form, in this case, the novel. Students in nine sections of first-year-writing classes in spring and fall 2013 responded to a “creative-narrative” prompt: “How did you come to this place in your life? Tell me your story” (84). Students were asked to respond with “a creative piece such as a poem, screenplay, or graphic novel” (84). All students were invited to participate with the understanding that their work would be confidential and might be represented in published research that might take on an alternative form such as a novel; the work of students who signed consent forms was duplicated and analyzed (84-85).

Data ultimately consisted of 57 artifacts, 55 of which were poems (85). Coding drew on the work of scholars like K. M. Powell, Elspeth Probyn, and Roz Ivanič to examine students’ constructions of self through the creative-narrative process, and on that of James E. Seitz to consider how students’ use of metaphor created meaning (85, 86). Further coding was based on Kara P. Alexander’s 2011 study of literacy narratives (86).

This analysis was combined with the results of a demographic survey to generate six groups revolving around “[c]ommon threads” in the data (86); “personas” revealed through the coded characteristics divided students into those who, for example, “had a solid identity in religion”; “were spiritually lost”; were “uncertain of identity [and] desiring change”; were “reclusive” with “strong family ties”; were interested in themes of “redemption or reformation”; or “had lived in multiple cultures” (86). This list, the authors state, corresponds to “a standard analysis” that they contrast with their alternative creative presentation (86).

In their methodology, Bailey and Bizzaro translate the “composites” identified by the descriptors into six characters for a young-adult novel Bailey developed (88). Drawing on specific poems by students who fell into each composite as well as on shared traits that emerged from analysis of identity markers and imagery in the poems, the authors strove to balance the identities revealed through the composites with the individuality of the different students. They explore how the characters of “Liz” and “Emmy” are derived from the “data” provided by the poems (89-90), and offer an excerpt of the resulting novel (90-92).

They present examples of other scholars who have “used aesthetic expressions in the development of research methods” (88). Such methods include ethnography, a form of research that the authors consider “ultimately a means of interpretive writing” (93). Thus, in their view, creating a novel from the data presented in poems is a process of interpreting those data, and the novel is similar to the kind of “storytell[ing]” (93) in which ethnography gathers data, then uses it to represent, interpret, and preserve individuals and their larger cultures (92-93).

They continue to contend that embracing research methods that value aesthetic response is essential if creative writing is to establish itself as a discipline (93). These methodologies, they argue, can encourage teachers to both value aesthetic elements of student work and to use their own aesthetic responses to enhance teaching, particularly as these methods of gathering and representing data result in “aesthetic objects” that are “evocative, engage readers’ imaginations, and resonate with the world we share not only with our students but also with our colleagues in creative writing” (94). They argue that “when the ‘literariness’ of data reports [becomes] a consideration in the presentation of research,” composition and creative writing will have achieved “an equitable relationship in writing studies” (95).


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Hall, H. Bernard. Hip-hop Based Education. RTE, Feb. 2017. Posted 03/10/2017.

Hall, H. Bernard. “Deeper than Rap: Expanding Conceptions of Hip-hop Culture and Pedagogy in the English Language Arts Classroom.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.3 (2017): 341-50. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.

H. Bernard Hall writes about the status of “hip-hop based education” (HHBE) (342) in English Language Arts classrooms. He advocates research in and teacher-education on the ways that HHBE can be effectively integrated into literacy education.

Hall presents conversations he has had at conferences and with colleagues about how best to include hip-hop in a curriculum, particularly one that is expected to accord with the Common Core State Standards (341-42). He reports that teachers seem interested in the potential of hip-hop as a means of “teach[ing] critical media literacy and foster[ing] critical consciousness, especially as they intersect around racial identity politics” (344). Some teachers need guidance in best practices for using hip-hop to engage students already involved in hip-hop culture when such a curriculum is explicitly prohibited by an administration (342).

Hall’s review of the past three decades of interest in hip-hop as a pedagogical intervention suggests that “teachers no longer need to be sold on why they should be using hip-hop in the classroom; they want to know how to use hip-hop in the classroom” (342; emphasis original).

Central to this concern is a question as to where hip-hop “[f]it[s] within the Common Core.” Hall answers, “It fits where you make space for it” (343; emphasis original). He argues that such efforts are aided by “the vagueness of the Common Core” and “the versatility of hip-hop texts” which allow “additive and transformative approaches” that can both exploit the strength of hip-hop as a pedagogical vehicle and meet the skills-based outcomes teachers must produce (343). Important to this process, Hall argues, is the power of hip-hop to undermine the Common Core’s “false binary of literary and informational texts” (343). In imparting knowledge through narrative, hip-hop becomes, in Hall’s view, “literary nonfiction” that moves beyond “just poetry” (343). Hip-hop’s aesthetic conveys argument and critique about important issues in students’ cultural experiences.

Noting that “[t]eacher effectiveness and student achievement . . . are located in why and how we teach more than in what we teach,” Hall asks teachers to articulate the “big idea driving [their] curricular intervention” (343-44; emphasis original). He gives examples of the ways such big ideas emerge from diverse applications of HHBE (344). To understand how hip-hop can best be used, he urges more ethnographic research into such applications “by real teachers in their specific contexts” (344).

Arguing that analyzing hip-hop as a text is not sufficient to release its potential as a source of “ideas, epistemologies, and dilemmas that can inform teaching and learning” (Petchauer, qtd. in Hall 345), Hall examines two aesthetic dimensions of the form. In its improvisational nature, freestyling is related blues and jazz; Hall contends that allowing students to move outside the restrictions of more conventional writing formats and use freestyling to “write without premeditation or fear of reprisal” (345) can provide new avenues for the prewriting and invention that lead to more successful academic work.

Similarly, ciphering, or an active participatory exchange that moves beyond “the mere arrangement of desks in a circle” to cast students as “feelers” and “righters” (346) can make use of hip-hop’s emphasis on the realities and environments in which Americans actually live (348). Hall gives examples of teachers who have accepted the call inherent in HHBE to become “cultural workers” in the manner of Henry Giroux (345-46). Effective methodologies for incorporating hip-hop can exploit the form’s focus on the lives of “black and brown students” and their relations to cultural oppression even through the study of traditional texts (346).

Hall takes issue with the position that only practitioners deemed sufficiently authentic can make use of HHBE. He writes that efforts to “’keep it [HHBE] real,’ in effect, stifle the potential of HHBE to interrupt the white privilege that dominates teacher education” (347). Development of HHBE must “work toward narrowing the chasm that exists between the black men who tend to dominate HHBE research and the white women interested in practicing HHBE” (346).

Moreover, Hall writes, scholarship on and practice of HHBE should be willing to determine, through “experimental studies,” in what ways incorporating hip-hop into ELA curricula helps students achieve outcomes like those promoted by the Common Core (347). He juxtaposes worries that working with the Common Core framework will necessarily constitute “sell[ing] out” with his admonition that scholars

must be careful not to essentialize the collectiveness of hip-hop understandings, experiences, and ways of knowing, nor to romanticize the agentive and/or reproductive aspects of hip-hop culture and pedagogy. (348)

He calls for “more models” that will underscore the role of hip-hop as a “microcosm of the nation’s challenges to manifest its rhetoric of multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion” (348). Efforts to locate HHBE firmly in the mainstream of ELA education, he contends, are important because the exclusion of hip-hop from teachers’ options would palpably demonstrate that “black lives don’t matter” (348; emphasis original).


Skains, R. Lyle. Multimodal Creative Writing. C&C, March 2017. Posted 02/05/2017.

Skains, R. Lyle. “The Adaptive Process of Multimodal Composition: How Developing Tacit Knowledge of Digital Tools Affects Creative Writing.” Computers and Composition 43 (2017): 106-17. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.

R. Lyle Skains describes a “practice-based research” project conducted over a three-and-a-half year period in which she analyzed her development as a writer of digital fiction. In this project, Færwhile, Skains progresses through drafts of several stories, beginning with a traditional “analogue” story and culminating in stories in which she has internalized the knowledge needed to create successful digital compositions.

Skains argues that such research is needed because composition pedagogy does not fully account for the “fundamental, cognitive differences between writing for the page and writing for digital media” (106). While students may engage with digital media as readers, she contends, they have little practice in actually exploiting the possibilities of digital media as writers (115). She emphasizes the need for explicit knowledge of the demands of a new medium to become internalized as tacit knowledge; students come to multimodal assignments with tacit knowledge of print from their long experience with it, but may not yet have gained the kind of tacit knowledge of digital media that will allow them to become fully accomplished multimodal writers (107).

Her own project involved reading digital fiction, reading theory on narrative and genre, and then working through several stories, beginning with a “zero-state” text: “an analogue short story” she undertook before delving into digital composition (107). Subsequent stories engaged more and more fully with the possibilities of digital fiction. Skains walks through her processes as she composes these stories.

Her method is “auto-ethnomethodological”; it consists of observations of herself at work and the states of mind through which she moves from conscious explicit knowledge to a fully functional tacit knowledge of the medium (108). Following advice from Deborah Brandt, Skains draws on “observable paratexts” to her process like “notes, journal entries, and comments on revised drafts”; these allow her to reconstruct her cognitive journey. She draws as well on the 1981 Cognitive Process Model advanced by Linda Flower and John R. Hayes, which she credits with the observation that a design or intention can be realized in many different ways and the specific realization emerges from the actual process of writing (108).

She cites other theories of narrative and creative processes including Gérard Genette’s invocation of “hypertextuality (playing the text off familiarity with other texts in the genre) and architextuality (exploring generic expectations in relation to other similar texts)” (107). Flower and Hayes’s Multiple Representation Theory suggests that “the initial mental model of a text is multimodal, then subsequently translated to written language” (107). Skains relates such theories to her own processes, for example noting how her reading interacted with her own texts as well as how the stories in her project contributed to an “intratextual” effect via a shared “element of parallel mythology,” the “Trickster” figure (111). In accordance with Flower and Hayes, she relates how her analogue short story “unfolded in [her] imagination on a visual reel, which then needed translation into written language” (110).

Skains argues for the importance of long-term memory that can draw on a “knowledge base” and allow fiction writers to construct characters and worlds (109). As short-term memory of actions involved in a medium is transferred to long-term memory, tacit knowledge is developed (110).

An important finding for her project is that the linear structuring and narrative processes she found most comfortable did not lend themselves to a simple “remediation” of the typical analogue text into a digital version (112). As she worked through a succession of stories, she continued to begin with these familiar invention and composing steps; the third story in her discussion, for example, shared features with the “zero-state” story: its “traditional, linear structure and minimal level of interactivity,” even though she “remediated” it into Adobe Flash (111). However, when she struggled with a story about a character whose “interaction with her world, both real and virtual, was hyperlinked,” Skains found that the character could not evolve if she was “stuck in sequential page turns” (112). The solution was to work through the digital version first, giving over fully to the hyperlinked world invoked by the story (112). Skains found that she was still working toward a fully developed “mental model that afforded a fully multimodal composition process” (112).

The author argues that first- or second-person points of view, increased interactivity that provides readers with agency, and intra- or intertextuality are defining features of digital fiction (111). Texts that are composed an analogue narratives, she posits, lack full commitment to these elements and will not lend themselves to revision in digital form (110): “the composition process for multimodal works must necessarily be multimodal” (112).

Skains reports that the means by which she addressed the original “rhetorical problem” for her stories was affected by her deeper and deeper engagement with digital composition (114). Writers of digital texts like hers, she writes, become programmers, with the result that “the text as composed (i.e., the source code) does not resemble the text-as-read/played” (113). She cites digital writer Jenny Weight to argue that a digital-composing experience becomes an “environment” in itself rather than a “traditional narrative” (113). Inventing a set of environments for a character to traverse in the digital composition influences the “world-building” efforts of the analogue version (113).

Similarly, she cites an example of a story in which providing a narrator with multiple voices led to the creation of a website for each voice, a move that in turn led her to experiment with visual font effects in the print version (113-14). In such cases, Skains’s “mental model of the narrative” had been influenced by the digital process (114).

Skains posits that students attempting to apply their tacit knowledge of print technology as they encounter multimodal assignments face a trajectory similar to hers, and that current composition-classroom practice does not facilitate this evolution (114). The addition of digital elements, she notes, adds many new layers to the composing process, “significantly increase[ing] the creative decisions that have to be made” (115). She contends that, like her, students must learn to adjust their creative processes to conform to the media rather than expecting the media to meet their original goals (115). The tacit knowledge and expertise to make this transition, Skains maintains, is “immersion” in the digital process, moving beyond reading to doing (115). She is currently engaged in ethnographical work to develop a “pedagogical model for teaching digital writing” (115).

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Webb-Sunderhaus, Sara. “Tellability” and Identity Performance. Sept. CE, 2016. Posted 09/18/2016.

Webb-Sunderhaus, Sara. “‘Keep the Appalachian, Drop the Redneck’: Tellable Student Narratives of Appalachian Identity.” College English 79.1 (2016): 11-33. Print.

Sara Webb-Sunderhaus explores the concept of “tellability” as a means of understanding how students in composition classes perform identities. She argues that these identities often emerge from the relationship between their individual experiences and public discourses validated by the audiences they are likely to encounter.

Webb-Sunderhaus’s specific focus is the construction of identity by people who designate themselves or are designated by others as “Appalachian.” Self-identifying as an “Urban Appalachian”—that is, as an individual who has moved out of a region considered part of Appalachia to a larger city (13, 31n5), Webb-Sunderhaus conducted an ethnographic study at two anonymous institutions in Appalachia (13). She examines the classroom activity, written work, and responses to interviews of six students in writing classes at these institutions in light of the students’ connection to Appalachia.

Webb-Sunderhaus presents contested definitions of Appalachia, including those of the Appalachian Regional Council and the Central Appalachian Network, both of which use geographical measures (14). In contrast, Webb-Sunderhaus cites Benedict Anderson’s definition of Appalachia as “an imagined community” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus14), and that of Appalachian Studies scholar Allen Batteau as “a literary and a political invention rather than a geographical discovery” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus14). Webb-Sunderhaus argues that efforts to define Appalachianness may miss the diversity of individuals who identify with the region; she stresses that this identity is “a cultural identity, rooted in the place of the Appalachian mountains, but not necessarily restricted to this place alone” (16).

Tellability, a concept used by scholars in social studies and folklore, involves the relationship between a particular narrative and widespread public discourses about a given phenomenon, in this case, Appalachianness (16). These public discourses determine which narratives accord with common assumptions and widely shared impressions of the phenomenon. A narrative that is tellable fits and reinforces the extant public narratives; accounts that resist these public narratives may not earn what Michael Kearns calls “the audience’s active validation” (16) and are therefore not tellable (16-17). Tellability, Webb-Sunderhaus maintains, is a function of audience. Writers and speakers are aware of the discourses their audiences expect based on the given rhetorical constraints; what is tellable in one context may be untellable in another (22).

This process of negotiating identities through astute choices of tellable narratives, Webb-Sunderhaus writes, accords with Judith Butler’s view of identity as “a performance that is repeated” by “a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already established” (Butler, qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 17). Tellable narratives provide what Debra Journet calls “tropes of authenticity” necessary to such re-enactment (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 21).

Webb-Sunderhaus interprets her study of how tellability influences students’ rhetorical decisions as they perform identities in a classroom setting as evidence that students exhibit considerable awareness of what kinds of narratives are tellable and that in a number of cases, these decisions were based on what the students assumed the instructor expected (29). In one case, a student “fabricated” details (23) to conform to what she saw as the teacher’s belief that affinity with nature is a feature of Appalachianness; in contrast, the reality of the student’s childhood did not meet this expectation and was therefore an untellable response to an essay assignment (23-24).

Drawing on Nedra Reynolds, Webb-Sunderhaus notes a distinction between “perceived” and “conceived” spaces as components of identity. A perceived space designates physical surroundings that can be apprehended through the senses, such as the landscape of Appalachia, while a conceived space is the way an environment is represented mentally, incorporating sociocultural components, attitudes, and values (20).

Students in Webb-Sunderhaus’s study, she writes, exhibited an understanding of this distinction, noting ways in which being born in or from Appalachia often contrasted with their relationship to Appalachia as individuals. One student acknowledged being physically linked to Appalachia but rejected even some of the “positive” stereotypes she felt were culturally associated with the region (25). Another specifically disconnected her Appalachian birthplace and subsequent experiences, arguing that tellable narratives of Appalachians as tied to place did not represent her own willingness to “explore the world” (“Gladys,” qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 26).

Webb-Sunderhaus sees in this type of resistance to common tellable narratives a form of what Ann K. Ferrell calls “stigma management” (28). Many tellable narratives of Appalachia focus on negatives like poverty, illiteracy, narrow-mindedness, and even criminality and incest (18). In Webb-Sunderhaus’s view, resistance to an Appalachian identity defined by such narratives can act as a distancing strategy when such narratives are invoked (28). At the same time, according to Webb-Sunderhaus, the student who rejected the “down-home” component of an Appalachian identity may have recognized that in the setting of a research study, her more cosmopolitan identity narrative would be tellable in a way that it might not be in other contexts (28).

Webb-Sunderhaus emphasizes the power of teachers in “inviting” and approving particular narratives (28). For example, she writes that by picking up on a student’s reluctant reference to moonshining in his family history and sharing a similar family history, she encouraged him to incorporate this component of the public discourse about Appalachia into his own identity (21). Similarly, the student who embellished her narrative was praised by the teacher for her “imagery and pastoralism” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 22); such responses, Webb-Sunderhaus contends, quoting Thomas Newkirk, reveal “the seductiveness of deeply rooted and deeply satisfying narratives that place us in familiar moral positions” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 24).

The power of this seductiveness, in Webb-Sunderhaus’s view, creates rhetorical pressure on students who are asked to perform identities in writing classrooms. While teachers hope that students will produce writing that authentically represents their views and experiences, the authenticity and “reliability” of a performance can easily be judged by its adherence to the common and therefore tellable public discourses in which the teacher may be immersed (28-29). Responding to Zan Meyer Gonçalves, Webb-Sunderhaus writes that the hope of making a classroom a place where students can “feel honest and safe” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 29) may overlook the degree to which students’ educational histories have led them to make strategic decisions (29) about how to “negotiate successfully [a] particular literacy event” (24).

In this view, the kinds of clichéd endorsements of popular discourses that teachers would like to see students overcome may be among the options the teachers are inadvertently inviting as they convey their own sense that some narratives are tellable in their classrooms while others are not (30).


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San Pedro, Timothy J. Native American Silence as Shield. RTE, Nov. 2015. Posted 01/18/2016.

San Pedro, Timothy J. “Silence as Shields: Agency and Resistances among Native American Students in the Urban Southwest.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.2 (2015): 132-53. Print.

Timothy J. San Pedro recounts insights from an ethnographic study conducted over the course of three years as a participant/observer in a class on Native American literature taught at a high school in the southwest United States (132). He draws on “field notes, artifacts [such as written and art assignments], and audio-recordings” as well as “semistructured interviews” (150n3), featuring three female students who identified as Native American (133). San Pedro shares these students’ experiences in their classrooms, especially in their history classes, as they negotiate their identities in the context of the “settler colonial discourse” they encounter in their school environments (135).

San Pedro focuses on a stereotype of Native Americans and Native American students as “‘naturally,’ ‘biologically,’ or ‘culturally’ reflective, silent, timid and/or nonresponsive” (134). He states that as he began his study, he was influenced by scholarship that posits that these features of Native American students’ classroom behavior resulted from “mismatches” between the kinds of discourse they experienced in their home communities and the discourse expectations in United States high schools (139). However, in his article, he explores how he came to see these three students’ silence as a form of resistance to the dominant narratives expounded in their classrooms and to the systemic “macroagressions” they experienced, as well as “microagressions”—exclusionary or silencing acts teachers and fellow students might not even be aware of (134, 136).

To frame the ways in which the students’ choices constituted resistance and to explore the effects of that resistance, San Pedro uses the term “critical silent literacies” (142; emphasis original). In this critical practice, the students respond to micro- and macroaggressions by withdrawing from classroom discussions. “Storying” and storytelling through relationships of communicative trust with others then allows the silenced students to make sense of their responses to these aggressions, responses that are therefore “voiced” to allow the ways they both protest and protect to emerge (143, 149).

San Pedro explores different kinds of resistance to analyze how the students’ use of silence and then of storying embodies agency. Resistance can be “damaging and self-defeating”; San Pedro notes how zero-tolerance policies can limit students’ options for productive resistance (142). Other forms of resistance can be what D. Solorzano and D. Delgado Bernal call “conformist”; this resistance allows students to “accept or reject” elements of the conflicting cultures they must negotiate (142). Other resistance can be considered “resilient” (T. Yosso, qtd. in San Pedro 142), leading to a “survival-through-resistance strategy” that G. Vizenor labels “survivance” (qtd. In San Pedro 142; emphasis original).

To illustrate that students choose silence in order to resist rather than passively bringing silence into the classroom because it typifies their home cultures, San Pedro presents several anecdotes in which the students experienced exclusion and even mockery from the dominant culture within the classroom. Each student offered active participation but felt unable to breach the systemic exclusion. “Nisha’s” teacher stopped calling on her when she questioned norms as presented in the history books (140-41); “Shila” was laughed at for not knowing Native American history that had not been taught 145-46); “Eileen” discovered that her history teacher did not know who Chief Sitting Bull was (146-47).

For San Pedro, the slowly developing trust he was able to share with the students allowed them to interpret their reactions to these experiences and to turn them into resilient forms of resistance (149). Such resilient strategies, San Pedro argues, can lead to productive change. He considers the silence of the students he studied resilient because it expanded, through shared storytelling, into an awareness of the kind of resistance they were practicing and became “agentive” (149). Such acts of agency, when voiced and shared through critical silent literacies, San Pedro contends, effect change by encouraging educators to examine more carefully how their teaching choices can subtly or explicitly exclude and silence. He invites readers to consider themselves part of the community of sharing that recognizes the agency in these students’ choices and is moved to a productive response (149).



DeStigter, Todd. Critique of Argumentative Writing as Dominant Academic Mode. RTE, August 2015. Posted 09/02/2015.

DeStigter, Todd. “On the Ascendance of Argument: A Critique of the Assumptions of Academe’s Dominant Form.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.1 (2015): 11-34. Print.

Todd DeStigter raises concerns about the predominant focus on argumentative writing in college and increasingly in high school, as the authors of the Common Core State Standards join composition scholars in declaring argumentation an essential skill.

DeStigter’s response to the emphasis on argument grew out of his experiences at a high school in a Mexican/Mexican-American area in Chicago. An English teacher/assistant principal there enlisted DeStigter’s help in an initiative to require all students to take AP English and Composition; in the teacher’s view, this curriculum revision would address the inequity faced by students who historically had not had adequate preparation for college. DeStigter’s involvement developed into “three semesters of ethnographic research,” including observations and tutoring in two AP classes (12).

DeStigter recounts that the high school’s effort to better prepare the students for college and careers reflected national trends in emphasizing argumentative writing. He quotes the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, authors of the Common Core State Standards, as they urge attention to “students’ ability to write sound arguments on substantive topics and issues” (qtd. in DeStigter 12). Research by James Warren supports DeStigter’s claim that argument is becoming “the dominant mode” in both high school and college (qtd. in DeStigter 12). DeStigter argues for a shift from asking how to teach argument more effectively to asking why argument is given such prominence and what follows from this emphasis (13).

Although agreeing that compositionists recognize the diverse forms argument can take, that argumentative writing is not per se “harmful,” and that no “either/or choice” is called for (13; emphasis original), he reports detecting three assumptions about such writing: that it “promotes clear and critical thinking,” that it develops skill in the “rational deliberation . . . essential for a democratic citizenry,” and that it provides “a form of cultural capital that facilitates [students’] upward academic and socioeconomic mobility” (13). Though noting the “irony” that he is using the conventions of argument to challenge the “overemphasis on argumentative writing” (31n3), he critiques these assumptions.

In his view, the idea that reasoned argument reflects the clearest thinking derives from Descartes and Kant and their contentions that it is possible to arrive at knowable truth outside of context and contingency via evidence and logical connections. DeStigter links this belief in the efficacy of formally structured argument to lead to best decisions to the “coherence theory of truth,” which valorizes discourse that meets agreed-upon standards of self-consistency and integration, and to the “correspondence theory of truth,” in which a well-formed discursive product is assumed to mirror an autonomous entity out in the world. DeStigter argues that decisions as to what counts as reason and effective structure are themselves discursive products, Foucauldian “regimes of truth” (18) created and valorized by people “who are in a position to make and enforce such designations” (19).

He again cites Kant as a source for the view that “rational deliberation” is the ideal process to further democracy. He reviews philosophers and critics like Hannah Arendt, John Rawls, and Jurgen Habermas (22) who posit that a society in which individual interests can be bracketed and all stakeholders can participate as equals results in the “egalitarian reciprocity” necessary for democracy (Seyla Benhabib, qtd. in DeStigter 22). DeStigter responds that people do not have equal access to the public sphere and that even “overwhelming evidence” routinely surrenders to the “values and prejudices” through which people filter claims (22).

Moreover, DeStigter maintains, true change seldom follows from deliberative discussions but from activism and solidarity. He introduces the concept of “democracy’s edges proposed by Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordón (23): This concept attempts to identify those forced to the margins of the democratic process, but for DeStigter, it also refers to what kinds of action and speech get defined out of the process. He gives examples of actions that approach “a line” that, if rational deliberation is the standard, renders them “irrational, and therefore illegitimate,” like refusing to move to the back of the bus or occupying government buildings. “[M]ore agonistic or even revolutionary models” of interaction, he contends, may be necessary to bring about changes that will truly foster democracy.

Finally, he challenges the contention that learning to write arguments will promote students’ social mobility. He details two students at the high school who, although excellent argumentative writers, find college costs daunting and the job market unresponsive (25). These examples and others illustrate DeStigter’s resistance to the long-lived idea that more and better education will spur a stronger economy (25-26). While acknowledging that individual students may escape poverty through education, he argues that for most students like those he studied, “being prepared for higher education is not the same as having a realistic opportunity to attend college” (26). But even if cost were no issue, he maintains, the possibility that a college education will provide the “cultural capital” necessary for socioeconomic mobility is based on “educators’ widespread misappropriation” of the work of Pierre Bourdieu (26).

According to DeStigter, Bourdieu recognized three kinds of “capital”: cultural (knowing how to behave), social (having access to opportunities for advancement), and economic (having money) (26-27). Central to DeStigter’s critique is Bourdieu’s clear assertion that “economic capital is at the root of all other types of capital” (qtd. in DeStigter 27), and thus that possession of economic capital determines people’s ability to acquire the other kinds. In contrast to the idea that providing students with literacy will open the door to the “culture of power” (Lisa Delpit, qtd. in DeStigter 28), DeStigter cites Bourdieu’s claim that hope for a more egalitarian society depends on subverting dominant power structures rather than emulating them (28).

Accepting the view that schools can influence “systemic” economic dysfunction, DeStigter contends, feeds a tendency to “blame schools” during downturns and invites privatization (29). Further, assigning such power to education encourages the meritocratic view that economic hardship results from a lack of individual intelligence or effort in school (29).

Finally, DeStigter concludes that

the ascendance of argument limits our understandings of who we humans are and what we are capable of because it attends to only a tiny part of the communicative spectrum we occupy. . . . [W]e writing teachers must safeguard opportunities in our curricula and pedagogy to gather ourselves and our students into conversations in which we seek not just to scrutinize, critique, and refute, but to share and be receptively present with others. (30-31)