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Lauer and Brumberger. Workplace Writing as Multimodal Editing. CCC, June 2019. Posted 07/30/2019.

Lauer, Claire, and Eva Brumberger. “Redefining Writing for the Responsive Workplace.” College Composition and Communication 70.4 (2019): 634-63. Print.

Claire Lauer and Eva Brumberger received a grant from the Conference on College Composition and Communication to study workplace writing. They recruited nine professional writers and shadowed them in the workplace for twelve hours each for a total of more than a hundred hours (642). The study included pre- and post-observation interviews that the authors believed not only allowed them a nuanced view of the writers’ work experiences but also afforded a glimpse into features of current workplace writing that the writers themselves may not have recognized (643).

Participants included content and media strategists, technical writers and editors, communications directors, and “UX” or user-experience analysts (642).

The authors describe the current state of professional workplace writing as characterized by ongoing, often rapid and unpredictable change (638). They cite past studies that found that the ability to collaborate with team members and experts, to innovate and adapt to evolving contexts and audiences, to use a range of developing technologies across platforms, and to produce multiple genres were widely valued by employers (638-39). While “writing” continued to be a much-sought-after capability, studies of job descriptions found that new positions such as “content developer” or “social media writer” increasingly appeared. Desirable traits included time management, critical thinking, and “detail orientation” (639).

The authors argue that traditional understandings not only of “writing” but also of “editing” no longer align with what students can expect to find in the workplace. The model of writing taught in classrooms, proceeding from invention of original material through drafting and revision, they contend, is “isolated and siloed” in comparison to what will actually be required (639, 647). Lauer and Brumberger find that in the current workplace, a writer’s job shifts from classical invention and production to finding the best use of information to further an employer’s goals within time and budget limitations (644).

To describe this shift, the authors argue that “editing” can on longer be considered a “review” process separate from writing and intended to improve clarity or correctness or to ensure quality (640-41). Rather, they claim that workplace writing now is “writing-as-multimodal-editing,” in which writers “work with myriad modes of content—often encountered in medias res after the content has been originated by coworkers or consultants” (637).

Multimodal editors are responsible for modifying, adapting, designing, editing, selecting and constructing content in ways that are dispersed, nonlinear, collaborative, and responsive. (637)

To show writers “Working with Existing Content,” they depict “Tom” “extract[ing]” multiple genres from a press release received overnight (645) and “Connie” working with a video provided by a client (646). Though the writers characterized their work as “writing,” the authors contend that “writing-as-editing” more accurately captured their activities (647).

The importance of “Specific Constraints” is depicted by the need to produce video segments with a demarcated time frame and to meet exact requirements for original words in “site content” in order to improve search-engine optimization (648-49). The authors illustrate “Versioned Communication” via Tom’s need to convert press releases and technical documents to forms accessible to “your regular person” and suitable for social media, as well as for audiences in the organization’s “internal education, sales, and management teams” (649-50).

The use of press releases also serves as a demonstration of the “Hybridization of Genre Conventions” (650). Lauer and Brumberger’s observations note how such conventions may be tweaked, as when a printed manual that has been converted to a tablet app for technicians is structured with chapters to more nearly fit what the users found familiar (651). The authors also contend that genre rules may be “ignored” if necessary to meet the required purpose in the given context (653). For example, Madison, a communications director for a small nonprofit, no longer issues conventional press releases because reporters resisted such extensive documents. Instead, she communicates in smaller chunks like emails and on the phone (651-52).

Moreover, when Madison writes press-release language, she now produces it with a more informal tone that can be reused as a blog post, saving herself time and effort (652). The authors write that Madison’s decision to downplay the traditional press release illustrates the ways in which “editing” often involves choices about what “not” to write before any material is produced at all (653; emphasis original).

Participants also perform “Analytic Optimization,” which the authors describe as micro-level analysis of user responses to seemingly minor decisions via analytical software (653). Conducting “A/B testing of a live website” using two versions of a single menu falls under Ryan’s job responsibilities, while Madison assesses the “various click-through rates of email campaigns and messages,” a task that requires her to stay up-to-date with Facebook algorithms (654). The authors note that these tasks must adhere to budgetary limitations so that the writers must prioritize strategically when choosing among the many small changes that may affect audience responses. They argue that “writers (not developers) have the rhetorical training” for these decisions and can highlight the value of their rhetorical skill in their workplaces (655).

Participants also undertook “Image Considerations,” for example, deciding about the rhetorical effects of using emojis and animations to convey tone, capture attention, and follow changing communication conventions even in official texts (655-57). The need for this rhetorical awareness, in the authors’ view, should encourage writing programs to introduce students to “the rhetoric of a range of modes” (657).

Among suggestions for preparing students for these tasks are methods of acquiring content for manipulation from businesses and organizations and the creation of “sprint assignments” that help students recognize the importance of working within time and length constraints (657-58). Assignments that focus on “repurpos[ing] content” for a variety of contexts, genres, and audiences can encourage an awareness of the rhetorical possibilities and decisions inherent in the original text (659). The authors contend that this focus on multimodal editing privileges revision in ways that more traditional composition instruction may not (658).

The authors write that students learn the rhetorical skills required by workplace writing in composition classrooms, but could also benefit from recognizing the value of multimodal editing skills they already practice on their own. They could be better encouraged to see their knowledge and learning as assets in future professional writing contexts (660).

We need to rethink our notions of authorship, reconsider our assumptions about the traditional writing/editing process, and modify the ways in which we prepare our students for this kind of professional work. (657)


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Witte, Alison. CMSs as Genres. C&C, Sept. 2018. Posted 11/20/2018.

Witte, Alison. “‘Why Won’t Moodle. . . ?’: Using Genre Studies to Understand Students’ Approaches to Interacting with User Interfaces.” Computers and Composition 49 (2018): 48-60. Web. 9 Nov. 2018.

Alison Witte addresses the difficulties her first-year students faced when they encountered the Course Management System (CMS) in use at her institution. She surveyed students in first-year courses over six semesters to discover the factors that may have caused these problems (50). Witte found that examining the CMS interface as a genre provided insights into how students interacted with the program.

The author notes that the use of a CMS has “become a normalized part of many educational institutions’ landscapes” (48). The program’s power to shape interactions between students, instructors, and the institution, she writes, can generate “tensions” (48). She describes Moodle, the CMS in place for her university, comparing its “static” features with the more interactive and responsive features of social media sites; she notes in particular the “teacher-driven design” that permits the instructor to determine what sections to create and to provide the content (49). Witte quotes a faculty mentor who supports the university’s commitment to Moodle because the students are familiar with it from high school and “like it,” even though, according to Witte, there is only “anecdotal” evidence behind this claim (49).

In Witte’s view, if students are indeed comfortable in electronic environments, they should not exhibit the level of difficulty she observes (49). Her survey investigates which kinds of interfaces students have experienced and how these experiences might influence their reactions to Moodle (50).

Drawing on genre theory, Witte proposes, highlights the ways an interface cues users to control what behaviors and actions are acceptable, requiring users to determine the “appropriate response” in the rhetorical situation established by the interface (52). Citing Carolyn Miller, Witte considers genre “a way of understanding how a text responds to a particular recurring situation” (50). Just as Microsoft Word’s presentation of a blank page cues an essaylike response rather than a social-media post, the CMS signals certain kinds of “typified” actions (51).

Arguing that writing studies has not explored electronic interfaces through this theoretical lens, Witte contends that interfaces have generally been seen as tools to produce other things rather than as “text[s] with both expectations and formal conventions” of their own (50). Instructors, she proposes, are like other users of electronic environments in that their use of these familiar programs becomes “unconscious or invisible” because they are so accustomed to the process (51). Her study foregrounds the need for teachers to be more alert to the ways that their use of a CMS acts as a genre students must interpret and positions them in certain ways in the classroom environment (50). Teachers’ understanding of this interaction, she maintains, can help students use a CMS more effectively.

Witte notes two common models of CMS use. In many cases, the system attempts to “replicate” a classroom environment, allowing students to complete familiar academic tasks such as taking quizzes and completing assignments. A second model treats the CMS as a “repository” where students go to procure whatever they need for the class. These models share a “top-down” quality in that the teacher decides on the categories and sections and provides the material (52-53). The models limit students to responding in ways determined by the instructor and indicated by the conventions incorporated into the interface (53).

For Witte, a “guiding assumption” in the study was “that people learn unfamiliar genres by determining how they are like and unlike genres they know and by observing how the unfamiliar genre is used in context” (50). Hence, her survey asks the 68 participating students which interfaces they normally interact with (54). It also asks multiple-choice and open-ended questions about students’ experiences with Moodle, including ease of use and kinds of use across classes. Finally, students were asked what they liked about the CMS and what improvements they might suggest (54).

The majority of the participants were in their first college semesters. Witte proposes that while these students might be among the most likely to report problems with the CMS, surveying this particular population yielded good information on how best to help students navigate their early exposure to such platforms (54).

Data revealed that students used a variety of social media, Word tools for producing documents, and “Miscellaneous Web-based Interfaces” like iTunes, E-bay, or YouTube (54). They most commonly relied on the CMS to “complete course work and to find the information necessary” to do so (55). All of the students used Moodle in some of their classes. Grounded-theory coding of the open-ended responses produced four categories of “likes” that focused on availability of materials and information and ease of completing tasks. Students’ suggestions for improvement addressed usability issues, “Mobile Device Compatibility,” and inconsistency in the ways teachers used the CMS (54).

Analysis of her data suggests to Witte that students receive conflicting genre cues about the function of the CMS, sometimes assuming it is more like social media sites than it is in practice and in fact asking for more interactivity with their mobile devices and other media choices (56). They may see certain cues as inviting informal, interactive responses while other require a more “school/professional response” in which they become “passive consumer[s] of information” (56). In Witte’s view, instructors do not always articulate clearly exactly what role the CMS should play in their individual courses; moreover, students may approach the CMS with a different idea about its purposes than the instructor intends (57).

Seeing a CMS as a genre, Witte contends, helps instructors think about their use of the program in terms of audience, redirecting the focus from “its technological affordances to what it does or how it is used in particular context for particular people” (57). She urges instructors to plan CMS structure in accordance with course design, for example, arranging a course built around weekly schedules by weeks and courses meant to provide materials without regard to due date by topic. The survey reveals that students may need specific direction about the type of response indicated by CMS features, like text boxes or discussion forums (57). Instructors are urged to clarify their own purposes and expectations for how students use the resource and to communicate these explicitly (57-58).

Witte also argues that casting a CMS as a genre provides an opportunity to introduce students to genre theory and to understand through a concrete example how audience and purpose relate to the conventions of a particular form. In this view, students can explore how to use their exposure to other genres to situate new genres like a CMS in their contexts when they encounter them (58); they may then carry the experience of navigating a CMS into their interactions with other texts they may be called on to respond to or produce.


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Sills, Ellery. Creating “Outcomes 3.0.” CCC, Sept. 2018. Posted 10/24/2018.

Sills, Ellery. “Making Composing Policy Audible: A Genealogy of the WPA Outcomes Statement 3.0.” College Composition and Communication 70.1 (2018): 57-81. Print.

Ellery Sills provides a “genealogy” of the deliberations involved in the development of “Outcomes 3.0,” the third revision of the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ Outcome Statement for First-Year Composition (58). His starting point is “Revising FYC Outcomes for a Multimodal, Digitally Composed World,” a 2014 article by six of the ten composition faculty who served on the task force to develop Outcomes (OS) 3.0 (57).

Sills considers the 2014 article a “perfectly respectable history” of the document (58), but argues that such histories do not capture the “multivocality” of any policymaking process (59). He draws on Chris Gallagher to contend that official documents like the three Outcomes Statements present a finished product that erases debates and disagreements that go into policy recommendations (59). Sills cites Michel Foucault’s view that, in contrast, a genealogy replaces “the monotonous finality” (qtd. in Sills 59) of a history by “excavat[ing] the ambiguities” that characterized the deliberative process (59).

For Sills, Outcomes 3.0 shares with previous versions of the Outcomes Statement the risk that it will be seen as “hegemonic” and that its status as an official document will constrain teachers and programs from using it to experiment and innovate (75-76). He argues that sharing the various contentions that arose as the document was developed can enhance its ability to function as, in the words of Susan Leigh Star, a document of “cooperation without consensus” (qtd. in Sills 73) that does not preclude interpretations that may not align with a perceived status quo (76). Rather, in Sill’s view, revealing the different voices involved in its production permits Outcomes 3.0 to be understood as a “boundary object,” that is, an object that is

strictly defined within a particular community of practice, but loosely defined across different communities of practice. . . . [and that] allows certain terms and concepts . . . to encompass many different things. (74)

He believes that “[k]eeping policy deliberations audible” (76) will encourage instructors and programs to interpret the document’s positions flexibly as they come to see how many different approaches were brought to bear in generating the final text.

Sills invited all ten task members to participate in “discourse-based” interviews. Five agreed: Dylan Dryer, Susanmarie Harrington, Bump Halbritter, Beth Brunk-Chavez, and Kathleen Blake Yancey (60-61). Discussion focused on deliberations around the terms “composing, technology, and genre” (61; emphasis original).

Sills’s discussion of the deliberations around “composing” focus on the shift from “writing” as a key term to a less restrictive term that could encompass many different ways in which people communicate today (61). Sills indicates that the original Outcomes Statement (1.0) of 2000 made digital practices a “residual category” in comparison to traditional print-based works, while the 3.0 task force worked toward a document that endorsed both print and multimodal practices without privileging either (63).

Ideally, in the interviewees’ views, curricula in keeping with Outcomes 3.0 recognizes composing’s “complexity,” regardless of the technologies involved (65). At the same time, in Sills’s analysis, the multiplicity of practices incorporated under composing found common ground in the view, in Dryer’s words, that “we teach writing, we’re bunch of writers” (qtd. in Sills 65).

Sills states that the “ambiguity” of terms like “composing” served not only to open the door to many forms of communicative practice but also to respond to the “kairotic” demands of a document like Outcomes. 3.0. Interviewees worried that naming specific composing practices would result in guidelines that quickly fell out of date as composing options evolved (64).

According to Sills, interviews about the deliberations over genre revealed more varied attitudes than those about composing (66). In general, the responses Sills records suggest a movement away from seeing genre as fixed “static form[s]” (67) calling for a particular format toward recognizing genres as fluid, flexible, and responsive to rhetorical situations. Sills quotes Dryer’s claim that the new document depicts “students and readers and writers” as “much more agentive”; “genres change and . . . readers and writers participate in that change” (qtd. in Sills 67). Halbritter emphasizes a shift from “knowledge about” forms to a process of “experiential learning” as central to the new statement’s approach (68). For Harrington, the presentation of genre in the new document reflects attention to “habits of mind” such as rhetorical awareness and “taking responsibility for making choices” (qtd. in Sills 69).

Brunk-Chavez’s interview addresses the degree to which, in the earlier statements, technology was handled as a distinct element when genre was still equated primarily with textual forms. In the new document, whatever technology is being used is seen as integral to the genre being produced (69). Moreover, she notes that OS 3.0’s handling of genre opens it to types of writing done across disciplines (70).

She joins Yancy, however, in noting the need for the document to reflect “the consensus of the field” (72). While there was some question as to whether genre as a literary or rhetorical term should even be included in the original OS, Yancy argues that the term’s “time has come” (71). Yet the interviews capture a sense that not every practitioner in composition shares a common understanding of the term and that the document should still be applicable, for example, to instructors for whom “genre” still equates with modes (71).

In addressing this variation in the term’s function in practice, Sills notes Yancey’s desire for OS 3.0 to be a “bridging document” that does not “move too far ahead of where the discipline is,” linking scholarly exploration of genre with the many ways practitioners understand and use the term (72).

Sills considers challenges that the OS 3.0 must address if it is to serve the diverse and evolving needs of the field. Responding to concerns of scholars like Jeff Rice that the document imposes an ultimately conservative “ideology of generality” that amounts to a “rejection of the unusual” (qtd. in Sills 75), Sills acknowledges that the authority of the statement may prevent “subordinate communities of practice” like contingent faculty from “messing around with” its recommendations. But he contends that the task force’s determination to produce flexible guidelines and to foster ongoing revision can encourage “healthy resistance” to possible hegemony (76).

He further recommends specific efforts to expand participation, such as creating a Special Interest Group or a “standing institutional body” like an Outcomes Collective with rotating membership from which future task forces can be recruited on a regular timetable. Such ongoing input, he contends, can both invite diversity as teachers join the conversation more widely and assure the kairotic validity of future statements in the changing field (77-78).


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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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Mays, Chris. Fact and Fabrication in Creative Nonfiction. Mar. 2018. Posted 04/04/2018.

Mays, Chris. ‘“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction.” College English 80.4 (2018): 319-41. Print.

Chris Mays explores the creation of meaning in writing through an examination of the relationship between “fact” and “fabrication” in the genre of creative nonfiction (321). He links this analysis to a 1985 article by Jim W. Corder arguing that adherence to the “narrative” each of us creates to structure our lives makes it difficult to “accommodate . . . differences” we encounter with others’ narratives (319). Mays finds an illustration of this difficulty in debates over factual accuracy in creative nonfiction.

Mays argues that writing in general excels in giving an impression of representing facts in “straightforward” ways, often appearing most praiseworthy “when a writer ‘just tells it like it is’ . . . or writes in ‘plain language’” (320). Any “simplicity” thus created, Mays contends, masks writing’s “own incredible complexity” (320). Ultimately, in Mays’s view, the power of writing to make the meaning it creates appear straightforward and uncontestable, while hiding the process through which that meaning was produced, leads to the kind of insularity Corder describes (321, 337).

Mays approaches the issue of meaning in writing through genre theory. He reports scholarship on genre that depicts genre as a categorization that “organizes writing into recognizable forms” (326); quoting Carolyn R. Miller, he portrays genre as the “form” of writing that “shapes the response of the reader or listener to substance by providing instruction . . . about how to perceive and interpret” (qtd. in Mays 324). Genres, he writes, tend to look “stable” but are actually in constant flux, with the result that readers respond to representations of facts differently when they encounter them in different genres, which themselves are responsive to different contexts (325):

[F]acts emerge out of genres, and how the boundary lines of fact and fiction are drawn is dependent on the genres in which one is observing the facts. (325)

For Mays, looking at creative nonfiction as a contextualized, fluid genre illuminates how genre assumptions affect attitudes toward facticity particularly because the history of this genre reveals ongoing tensions over the degree to which authors of creative nonfiction deal with “facts” versus “subjective experience” (321). Mays finds that, even though writers in the genre acknowledge the subjectivity introduced by literary techniques, definitions of creative nonfiction emphasize its allegiance to facts (321, 324). He argues that the tension inherent in the genre is especially useful in revealing how concerns about the facticity of writing “shift the focus away from the complex mechanism by which all facts are created and maintained” (326), thus illustrating an important feature of writing itself.

To explore these issues, Mays dissects controversy over the use of facts in the satire of David Sedaris. He analyzes the critique of Alex Heard, who condemns Sedaris’s use of elaboration and apparent invention as violations of what Heard sees as a sacrosanct obligation of writers of creative nonfiction: not to “make things up” (qtd. in Mays 329). Other respondents defended Sedaris as engaged in telling stories in which fabrications lead to “composite truths” valuable in themselves (328, 335). Mays’s interest revolves around the degree to which the criteria applied to Sedaris are “extremely passionate” (328) and “rigid” (327). He argues that the negative critics of Sedaris create inviolate genres that they believe are stable and judge the handling of facts by these rules (330). “Observers” of the creative-nonfiction genre, he writes,

often just do not perceive that there are different ways of drawing genre boundaries and intensely defend the singularity of their views. (328)

For Mays, this reaction to fact within the genre, which he depicts as widespread (321), sheds light on the tendency to forget that writing as writing is always, in Kenneth Burke’s terms, both a “selectio[n]” and a “deflection of reality” (qtd. in Mays 338; emendation in Mays). Mays contends that writing disguises the process of selection that generates a multiplicity of “facts” (329).

Mays further argues for the contextual nature of facts by noting that although “community influence” (330), for example that of the community of creative nonfiction writers, may affect decisions about what counts as an acceptable allegiance to facts, even writers within the community still generate bounded genres that drive their attitude toward the representation of their material. Writers in the genre may contend that Sedaris’s exploitation of subjectivity shirks what Heard calls the “ethical requirements” of fidelity to reality in order to sell more effectively (qtd. in Mays 330), yet Mays also cites memoirist William Bradley, whose criteria recognize “different kinds of truths” (331), and the controversy surrounding Mike Daisey’s depiction of working conditions at Apple facilities in China. Daisey asserted that his genre was “theater,” not “journalism,” and thus his problematic representation of the conditions he reported was justified (333-34).

Mays ties the question of how facts are made to the classroom by referencing “the oft-made demand for a focus on plain facts in first-year writing” (336). This demand, in his view, can be attributed to an ongoing hope for “perfect writing” that fully represents reality (337). For Mays, such writing can never exist because “writers will never be able to fully control or stabilize what is truth, fact, or fabrication in their writing” (336). In his view, complexity theory suggests that problems arise because one’s construction of reality precludes the ability to perceive what is left out of that construction (332). The act of writing in itself creates complexity, which imbues writing with this characteristic blindness (332, 335). Thus, a section title asserts, “All Writing is Dishonest (and Honest)” (333).

Citing Bronwyn T. Williams to note that some reliance on facts is necessary for day-to-day living (325), and recognizing the challenge of a “workable” acceptance that all facts are contextual (332), Mays agrees with Jane Bennett that “recognit[ion] that . . . other divergent configurations exist, even if we cannot perceive them,” is “an ethical necessity” (333). He concludes that Corder’s exhortation to extend our awareness beyond our own narratives inevitably encounters the degree to which the creation of those narratives generates the very conditions that make moving beyond them so difficult (337). Mays argues for intensified awareness of the partiality of any written truth and of the degree to which a rigid insistence on facts can limit our appreciation of different kinds of writing and what this diversity can achieve (338).


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Bastian, Heather. Affect and “Bringing the Funk” to First-Year Writing. CCC, Sept. 2017. Posted 10/05/2017.

Bastian, Heather. “Student Affective Responses to ‘Bringing the Funk’ in the First-Year Writing Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 69.1 (2017): 6-34. Print.

Heather Bastian reports a study of students’ affective responses to innovative assignments in a first-year writing classroom. Building on Adam Banks’s 2015 CCCC Chair’s Address, Bastian explores the challenges instructors may face when doing what Banks called “bring[ing] the funk” (qtd. in Bastian 6) by asking students to work in genres that do not conform to “academic convention” (7).

According to Bastian, the impetus for designing such units and assignments includes the need to “prepare students for uncertain futures within an increasingly technological world” (8). Bastian cites scholarship noting teachers’ inability to forecast exactly what will be demanded of students as they move into professions; this uncertainty, in this view, means that the idea of what constitutes writing must be expanded and students should develop the rhetorical flexibility to adapt to the new genres they may encounter (8).

Moreover, Bastian argues, citing Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi, that students’ dependence on familiar academic formulas means that their responses to rhetorical situations can become automatic and unthinking, with the result that they do not question the potential effects of their choices or explore other possible solutions to rhetorical problems. This automatic response limits “their meaning-making possibilities to what academic convention allows and privileges” (8-9)

Bastian contends that students not only fall back on traditional academic genres but also develop “deep attachments” to the forms they find familiar (9). The field, she states, has little data on what these attachments are like or how they guide students’ rhetorical decisions (9, 25).

She sees these attachments as a manifestation of “affect”; she cites Susan McLeod’s definition of affect as “noncognitive phenomena, including emotions but also attitudes, beliefs, moods, motivations, and intuitions” (9). Bastian cites further scholarship that indicates a strong connection between affect and writing as well as emotional states and learning (9-10). In her view, affect is particularly important when teachers design innovative classroom experiences because students’ affective response to such efforts can vary greatly; prior research suggests that as many as half the students in a given situation will resist moving beyond the expected curriculum (10).

Bastian enlisted ten of twenty-two students in a first-year-writing class at a large, public midwestern university in fall 2009 (11). She used “multiple qualitative research methods” to investigate these first-semester students’ reactions to the third unit in a four-unit curriculum intended to meet the program’s goals of “promot[ing] rhetorical flexibility and awareness”; the section under study explored genre from different perspectives (11). The unit introduced “the concept of genre critique,” as defined by the course textbook, Amy J. Devitt et al.’s Scenes of Writing: “questioning and evaluating to determine the strengths and shortcomings of a genre as well as its ideological import” (12).

Bastian designed the unit to “disrupt” students’ expectation of a writing class on the reading level, in that she presented her prompt as a set of “game rules,” and also on the “composing” level, as the unit did not specify what genre the students were to critique nor the form in which they were to do so (12). Students examined a range of genres and genre critiques, “including posters, songs, blogs, . . . artwork, poems, . . . comics, speeches, creative nonfiction. . . .” (13). The class developed a list of the possible forms their critiques might take.

Bastian acted as observer, recording evidence of “the students’ lived experiences” as they negotiated the unit. She attended all class sessions, made notes of “physical reactions” and “verbal reactions” (13). Further data consisted of one-hour individual interviews and a set of twenty-five questions. For this study, she concentrated on questions that asked about students’ levels of comfort with various stages of the unit (13).

Like other researchers, Bastian found that students asked to create innovative projects began with “confusion”; her students also displayed “distrust” (14) in that they were not certain that the assignment actually allowed them to choose their genres (19). All students considered “the essay” the typical genre for writing classes; some found the familiar conventions a source of confidence and comfort, while for others the sense of routine was “boring” (student, qtd. in Bastian 15).

Bastian found that the degree to which students expressed “an aversion” to the constraints of “academic convention” affected their responses to the assignment, particularly the kinds of genres they chose and their levels of comfort with the unusual assignment.

Those who said that they wanted more freedom in classroom writing chose what the students as a whole considered “atypical” genres for their critiques, such as recipes, advertisements, or magazine covers (16-17). Students who felt safer within the conventions preferred more “typical” choices such as PowerPoint presentations and business letters (16, 22). The students who picked atypical genres claimed that they appreciated the opportunity to experience “a lot more chance to express yourself” (student, qtd. in Bastian 22), and possibly discover “hidden talents” (22).

The author found, however, that even students who wanted more freedom did not begin the unit with high levels of comfort. She found that the unusual way the assignment was presented, the “concept of critique,” and the idea that they could pick their own genres concerned even the more adventurous students (18). In Bastian’s view, the “power of academic convention” produced a forceful emotional attachment: students “distrusted the idea that both textual innovation and academic convention is both valid and viable in the classroom” (20).

Extensive exposure to critiques and peer interaction reduced discomfort for all students by the end of the unit (19), but those who felt least safe outside the typical classroom experience reported less comfort (23). One student expressed a need to feel safe, yet, after seeing his classmates’ work, chose an atypical response, encouraging Bastian to suggest that with the right support, “students can be persuaded to take risks” (23).

Bastian draws on research suggesting that what Barry Kroll calls “intelligent confusion” (qtd. in Bastian 26) and “cognitive disequilibrium” can lead to learning if supported by appropriate activities (26). The students reported gains in a number of rhetorical dimensions and specifically cited the value of having to do something that made them uncomfortable (25). Bastian argues that writing teachers should not be surprised to encounter such resistance, and can prepare for it with four steps: ‘openly acknowledge and discuss” the discomfort students might feel; model innovation; design activities that translate confusion into learning; and allow choice (27-28). She urges more empirical research on the nature of students’ affective responses to writing instruction (29).