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Moe, Peter Wayne. The Importance of Ordinary Sentences. Comp Studies, Fall 2018. Posted 03/21/2019.

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 79-95. Web. 14 Mar. 2019.

Peter Wayne Moe investigates the rhetorical work of “ordinary sentences” like those in his “collection” from first-year writing students (81). He shares with Jennifor Sinor a definition of “ordinary writing as a text that is not literary, is not noticed, and one that should have been discarded but that instead somehow remains” (qtd. in Moe 92n4). Student writing, Moe contends, meets this definition (92).

Moe builds his argument around the concept of writing as an act of “inhabitation.” He notes that this concept is embedded in “elocution,” the Latin roots of which mean “out of” a “place” (80). Similarly, the Latin sources of “composition” are “to place” and “together” (81). He draws on a number of writers, including both scholars and fiction writers, to demonstrate that the possibility that a writer can “inhabit” his or her prose is widely accepted (79-81). In this view, “location” moves “beyond physical places to include the rhetorical situation, the ways language locates a writer in relation to other people, other ideas, other discourses” (81).

In this sense, Moe argues, ethos becomes a function of the nature of a writer’s location. He cites Kathleen Blake Yancey’s sense that who a writer is will be enabled and constrained by the people and circumstances around her, often in ways that are hard to recognize (80). Moreover, Moe evokes the participation of the reader, who also does the work of “locat[ing] the writer” based on interrelationships between a text and larger contexts that the writer may not control (82).

Moe cautions that his project of developing “a theory of the inhabited sentence” in this larger sense of “inhabitation” is not meant to provide models for imitation because the meaning of individual sentences emerges from the circumstances surrounding them, and therefore the work of any one sentence is “not reliably repeatable or transferrable from one piece of writing to another” (82). He also distinguishes his analysis from the moves of location via metatext highlighted by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say/I Say. In Moe’s approach, writers are seen to make communicative moves without “heavy-handed metatext” that can be “overbearing” or even “violent” (82). In contrast, Moe argues, sentences in his collection allow readers to construct connections in which they, along with the writers, inhabit meaning (82).

Finally, Moe argues for the value of studying ordinary sentences like those students produce, in contrast to the practice in many textbooks of “[p]lucking ideal sentences by masters,” a practice that Moe maintains delivers the message that ordinary writing, especially that by students, is not “real” writing (83). In addition, in Moe’s view, making extraordinary sentences the basis for writing instruction neglects the need for students and writers to see how their choices in “worker sentences” serve to establish their relationships with others and with issues (91). Students who struggle to note counterarguments or cite sources, he contends, are actually grappling with the problem of locating themselves in and alongside texts (91).

Moe’s collection addresses moves that he feels are both mundane, performed by all writers at some point, and yet important. As one example among eight, he contends that the choice of whether “I” or another writer discussed in the text is chosen as the subject of sentences can map a writer’s changing location with regard to that other writer (84). In another example, he argues that a parenthetical aside “allows the student to speak back to herself, to question what she’s already said” (87). In yet another case, he shows how removing the locative adverbial components leaves a sentence “decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (88).

For Moe, acknowledging the “rhetorical density of ordinary sentences,” especially through the lens of inhabitation, underscores the degree to which any sentence occupies space, “among other sentences, other clauses, other phrases” (91). This understanding, he argues, is “more important than being able to identify President Lincoln’s use of epistrophe in ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’” (92). Helping students see how their easily overlooked choices locate them among others, in this view, should be the primary academic task (91).


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Lancaster, Zak. Discourse Templates in They Say/I Say. CCC, Feb. 2016. Posted 03/13/2106.

 

Lancaster, Zak. “Do Academics Really Write This Way? A Corpus Investigation of Moves and Templates in They Say/I Say.College Composition and Communication 67.3 (2016): 437-64. Print.

Zak Lancaster analyzes three corpora of academic writing to assess the usefulness of “templates” provided for student use in the textbook They Say/I Say (TSIS), by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Lancaster ultimately concludes that the most cogent critique of TSIS is not that it encourages students to use “formulaic” constructions but rather that the book does not supply students with the templates that academics actually use and hence, in fact, is not “formulaic” in ways that would most effectively shape students’ understanding of academic discourse (450).

Lancaster focuses on the book’s provision of specific sets of word strings to help students structure their arguments, in particular, first, phrases that acknowledge counter-arguments and second, those that concede to alternative points of view while, in Graff and Birkenstein’s words, “still standing your ground” (qtd. in Lancaster 440). Lancaster recounts that the use of formulas to guide students in incorporating others’ viewpoints has provoked debate, with some analysts endorsing the effort to supply students with explicit language for “moves” in the academic conversations they are expected to enter, and others characterizing the provision of such specific language as a “decontextualized” approach guilty of “reducing argumentation down to a two-part dialogue” (438).

For Lancaster, this debate, though meaningful, begs the basic question of whether the templates provided by TSIS actually “capture the tacitly valued discursive strategies used in academic discourses” (439). Lancaster finds this question important because linguistic analysis indicates that variations in wording shape “different roles for the reader . . . and different authorial personae, or stances,” conveying different values and encouraging different approaches to argumentation (440).

Lancaster cites research showing that what some linguists call “lexical bundles” are indeed common in academic writing across disciplines. “[H]ighly functional” phrases such as “it should be noted that,” or “the extent to which” are used more often by expert writers than by students (441). Lancaster’s example of “hedging formulas” such as “in some cases” or “appears to be” introduces his claim that such formulas have an “interpersonal function” in concert with their “ideational meanings” (442), supplying the same information but creating different valences in the reader/writer relationship.

Research on student texts, Lancaster reports, shows that students often succumb to what some scholars call “myside bias,” struggling to include counterarguments (443). In Lancaster’s view, evidence that students who are able to overcome this bias produce more complex, “mature” arguments (444) justifies strategies like those in TSIS to open students to a more dialogic approach to argument, which they may tend to see as a matter of “winning” rather than negotiating meaning (444). Lancaster claims, however, that TSIS could provide “more systematic attention to the details of language” to offer more substantive guidance in the ways these details affect interpersonal meanings (444).

Lancaster examines three corpora: one of expert academic writing drawing from “almost 100 peer-reviewed journals across disciplines”; one of “829 high-graded papers” by advanced undergraduates and “early graduate students across sixteen fields”; and one of “19,456 directed self-placement (DSP) essays” from the University of Michigan and Wake Forest University (444-45). Lancaster examined each body of writing using “concordancing software” to search for the exact phrases proposed by TSIS, to find other phrases serving the same functions, and to examine the precise contexts for each formula to make sure that it functioned like those featured in TSIS (445). The tables presenting the findings are based on “the normalized frequency” of occurrences rather than the raw numbers (446).

Analysis of the ways in which the writers in the corpora “entertain objections” revealed “six recurring options” that Lancaster ranks as moving from “direct” moves such as “Naming the reader” and “Naming your naysayers” (a characterization quoted from TSIS) through less direct moves that he denotes as “Unattributed” like “One might argue” or a passive-voice construction, to indirect phrases like nominalizations (“Another explanation”) or what linguist Geoff Thompson calls the “Hypothetical-Real” formula: phrases like “At first glance” or “It may appear that” that suggest that the writer will delve beneath the surface to present unrecognized truths (447-48).

Analysis indicates that first-year writers did consider alternative views at frequencies comparable to those in the more advanced work. In general, indirect phrases were much more commonly used than direct ones in all corpora; Graff and Birkenstein’s “Naming your naysayers” was the least frequently used option (448-49). Though they did “name the readers” more than the first-year writers, advanced writers preferred indirect approaches at higher levels than less advanced writers (450).

Lancaster posits that the use of more indirect choices by more advanced writers, counter to the guidance in TSIS, suggests that writers resist claiming to know what readers think, a form of “interpersonal tact” (448). Importantly for Lancaster, the specific phrasings offered in TSIS “do not appear in any of the corpora” (450). Similar but subtly different phrasings perform these functions (450-51).

Lancaster’s discussion of concession notes that while TSIS describes this move in terms of “‘overcoming’ objections” (qtd. in Lancaster 452), for linguists, such interactions create “solidarity with interlocutors by affirming and validating their views” (452). Lancaster draws on the work of James R. Martin and Peter R. White to base his analysis on the concept of “concede + counter,” in which a concession move is signaled with “high-certainty adverbials” like “undoubtedly” or “to be sure,” while the counter follows through the use of words like “yet,” or “at the same time.” Lancaster notes that in advanced samples, the opening concession phrase may not even appear (452), with the result that the move may be inconsistently tagged by the software (453).

Findings indicate more explicit use of concession by the less experienced writers (452). Lancaster proposes that this difference may result from the placement-essay writers’ sense that they were expected to “strike an adversarial stance” requiring more “direct language”; conversely, the software may not have picked up more subtle moves by more advanced writers (453). First-year samples were much more likely to include the kinds of wordings TSIS recommends, such as “It is true that. . . .” (454). However, none of the writers at any level used “personalized and overt signals” like “I concede that” or “Proponents of X are right” (454).

In investigating the “counter,” Lancaster discovered that the direct phrases encouraged by TSIS, such as “I still VERB that,” were not favored by any group; shorter, less direct wordings predominated. In fact, “On the other hand,” recommended by TSIS, tended to indicate a contrast between two positions rather than a “counter” following a concession (454).

Lancaster extracts three conclusions: all groups opted most often for indirect means of considering objections; writers consistently chose to “eagerly” endorse shared viewpoints when conceding; and less experienced writers used more direct concessions like those suggested by TSIS (455).

Differences in genre and context, Lancaster notes, may affect the validity of his findings. However, he sees “interpersonal tact” as “an implicit guiding principle” that is “pervasive” in academic writing (456-57). He notes that TSIS formulas do use hedges, but posits that the authors may not “see” these interpersonal markers because the hedging phrases have become naturalized (457).

In Lancaster’s view, TSIS often echoes a common perception of argument as a form of combat; he argues that the best academic writing more fully resembles a conversational exchange, and suggests that attention to the specific details of academic language provided by “systematic analysis” (459) such as corpora research can refocus instruction on how academics do incorporate interpersonal meanings into their discourse and how students can best use these moves when they wish to enter academic conversations (458-59).