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Kraemer, Don J. Ethics, Morality, and Justice. CCC, June 2017. Posted 07/16/2017.

Kraemer, Don J. “The Good, the Right, and the Decent: Ethical Dispositions, the Moral Viewpoint, and Just Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 68.4 (2017): 603-28. Print.

Don J. Kraemer argues that scholars in composition studies conflate the terms “ethical” and “moral.” He contends that distinguishing between these concepts through examining the ethical-moral interface as ‘a topic” (607; emphasis original) can provide a heuristic opportunity that can enhance compositionists’ efforts to work with diverse student views and values.

A starting point for Kraemer is Joseph Harris’s 2015 article, “Reasoning at the Point of a Gun,” in which Harris records discussion with grad students about a first-year student writing in opposition to gun control (603-04). Kraemer reports that Harris’s concerns included both urging the student “to inhabit, at least for a moment, a point of view you disagree with” and, at the same time, “find[ing] a way to help him develop the argument he wants to make” (qtd. in Kraemer 605, 604).

Kraemer presents these goals as representing the confrontation between the moral and the ethical. He also quotes Patricia Bizzell’s 2009 “Composition Studies Saves the World!”, maintaining that her reference to her “personal morality” (qtd. in Kraemer 605) actually describes “an ethics” (604-05).

To explore the distinctions between these concepts, Kraemer draws on a “kantian” approach in which, “ethically, we evaluate our actions in terms of the good, morally in terms of the right or obligatory” (606; emphasis original). He argues that we all belong to varied communities that may or may not share the same range of values or goods, that values can conflict even for individuals, and that these conflicts become “moral conflicts” in that we use moral reasoning to assess and judge them (605-06).

A further distinction Kraemer invokes to illuminate the moral-ethical interface is the difference between “what one is to be” and “what one is to do” (James Porter, qtd. in Kraemer 606-07). Kraemer categorizes questions about the kind of person an individual would like to be as ethical in that they deal with individual aspirations and values, the individual’s “good,” while questions about actions are questions about “what is the right thing to do,” that is, “the right thing for one, for anyone to do” (607) and therefore moral; emphasis original). For Kraemer, what individuals aspire to may or may not accord with the universal right thing supplied by morality (607).

Kraemer argues that when morality and ethics confront each other, as they must, we use morality to assess and reason about our ethical choices. In this process, the ethical good, which may accrue to groups and communities as well as individuals and which may be specific to particular circumstances, is not overridden by the moral, universal judgment but is taken into account. When, in Kant’s words, “human morality” and “human happiness” come together in “union and harmony,” the result is the “highest possible good in the world” (qtd. in Kraemer 607). “This,” Kraemer writes, “is the just” (607).

An important component of the just in Kraemer’s formulation is that it takes into account what doing the right thing will cost the individual actor or the community in which a particular version of the good is invoked. The heuristic value of the moral-ethical distinction, in this view, is that it sustains the “inventive tension” (615) between what we owe others (the moral) and what we see as important to achieve, to succeed at (the ethical) (611).

This view of ethics provides Kraemer with the argument that an ethically directed writer might value the rewards, both tangible and psychic, of doing a particular kind of writing well, even if that kind of writing does not commit the individual to making the highest use of his time by acting specifically to benefit others (610, 619); in fact, an individual’s practice of the good as she sees it in her writing may “may add to a reader’s labors, if not also offend that person, or worse” (615). Yet morality does not disappear; it involves the question “as to who benefits and who bears the cost” of an individual or group’s ethical choices (611). When these two kinds of stances “face each other,” we approach “the just” (611).

Kraemer develops his argument through a reading of John Duffy’s “Ethical Dispositions: A Discourse for Rhetoric and Composition.” Bringing this text into conversation with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, Kraemer traces what he sees as Duffy’s movement between the ethical and the moral, arguing that keeping these terms separate allows a more fruitful understanding of the dilemma faced by writing teachers as they work to support students’ individual goals while also fostering a set of dispositions claimed by rhetoric and composition as foundational to the field’s mission.

For example, Kraemer examines Duffy’s statement that asking students to respond to counterarguments in their texts fosters “the dispositions of tolerance, generosity, and self-awareness” (qtd.. in Kraemer 616). For Kraemer, this exhortation to students “seems unnecessarily unilateral” (616). If listening to others respectfully signals care for their ends and “that person’s life as an end in itself,” then we are obligated to “inquir[e] how his ends, taken as policy, would affect us—as well as any of the people we have the luck (good or bad) not to be” (617). In other words, this obligation requires us to expend the same rigor in examining our own position as that of others.

Kraemer provides an example of how such discussions in Duffy might more usefully reflect this interplay between morality and ethics:

It has indeed been the moral side of the discussion that has been voiced. . . . Giving voice to ethical virtue can take as little as adding, to the sentence that follows, “and to themselves”: “To teach these particular practices is therefore to teach students to read, speak and write in ways that express their commitments to other human beings [and to themselves] (Duffy 224; bracketed material added). (618)

Kraemer addresses the problem of morality when it is imagined as and critiqued as a rigid universal code. He agrees with Duffy that a moral code adopted from the perspective of one group to the exclusion of others fails as a source of reasoning about the just. However, he contends that “writing pedagogy will be better informed . . . if morality is not dispensed with as a preexisting standard only” (612). Dismissing its attention to what might constitute the good for everyone and embracing only values attached to specific local contexts diminishes the power morality has to call ethics to account.

Apropos of the “‘perfect’ justice” that may result from too rigid an application of the universal, Kraemer turns to Aristotle’s idea of “decency,” which “corrects” laws that fail to establish the just universality they intend (620). Decency derives from the “practical wisdom” in play when morality “judg[es] in situations with that situation’s particulars in mind” (620).

Applied to the writing classroom, such decency, in Kraemer’s view, honors both individual decisions about “what a course well taught might mean” and claims about what such a course “might do for all students” (621). The tension between these goals is where Kraemer argues that we approach justice, a willingness, despite our individual ethics, to “try to establish terms with one another that everyone can agree are reasonable and fair” (621).


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Takayoshi, Pamela. “Short-Form” Writing Processes. C&C, July 2015. Posted 08/05/15.

Takayoshi, Pamela. “Short-Form Writing: Studying Process in the Context of Contemporary Composing Technologies.” Computers and Composition 37 (2015): 1-13. Web. 30 July 2015.

Pamela Takayoshi argues for increased attention to the writing processes involved in composing the “short-form” texts that are increasingly common rhetorical products as technology impacts literacy.

Takayoshi contends that there has been too little consideration of these forms of writing in composition studies (3). She argues that this lack of attention arises from several factors. First, the products of this kind of writing are often seen as “trivial,” not deserving full examination (2). Second, since the 1980s, in Takayoshi’s view, composition has veered away from focus on the actual processes of writers that occupied scholars trying to understand its cognitive dimensions; instead, the field has taken a “social turn” in which scholarship has highlighted the relationship of writing to larger cultural forces, replacing close examination of actual writers with theoretical considerations (3). Third, this shift to theory has paralleled a “dearth” of “empirical, data-based” research (3-4); Takayoshi urges more of what Richard Haswell has called “replicable, aggregable, data-based (RAD) scholarship,” conducted “in situ,” to shed light on how rapid, ongoing changes in technology have affected writers’ practices (4).

In short, Takayoshi contends, scholars of writing do not know “what writers do” (2) in the kinds of writing that James Porter has labeled “internetworked” (2; emphasis original). This kind of writing, which Takayoshi sees as encompassing almost every writing task undertaken today,

involves writing for and on the Internet. . . . [I]nternetworked writing also refers to more than simply POSTING text: It includes reading, browsing, and collecting electronic text, as RESEARCH activities that are also types of WRITING activities. (Porter, qtd. in Takayoshi 2; emphasis original).

Takayoshi argues that attention to writers’ practices in communicating in this expanding milieu can shed light on how technology is driving change in literate practices (2). This knowledge is particularly important because students are often so deeply engaged in these forms of writing, and only focused study of their processes can provide literacy scholars with the insights needed to understand how these ubiquitous writing practices, responding to rapid change in composing media and contexts, intersect with previous research in composition studies (2, 11). Scholars of computers and composition, she posits, are especially well-positioned to investigate these issues (4).

The two case studies she presents in this article are part of a larger study of eight writers posting to Facebook (5). The writers created a “30-minute screencast think-aloud video” that allowed the research team to understand the thinking processes involved as well as how the messages were constructed step by step (5). Takayoshi notes the importance of studying the writers’ practices rather than the specific technologies: the technologies themselves change rapidly, but “the impulse to make meaning and communicate using symbol systems , , , seems to only get stronger” (5).

Takayoshi reports on “Dan” recording a status update that described a dream he had had and on “Sherry” engaging in a number of activities, including a chat, commenting on friends’ posts, and emailing a professor. Dan’s project involved compressing his long, elaborate dream into a few lines, while Sherry’s multiple projects involved revising for audience and genre. In the article, these tasks are translated into tables that simultaneously reveal both the “textual product” and the “composing process” (6-8). Watching the messages emerge as the writers plan, correct, delete, and add, Takayoshi comes to several conclusions about short-form composing, in particular that the process is much more complex and varied, calling on a much broader range of rhetorical responses, than would seem likely from the short, apparently simple communications that result (6):

  • Writers “micro-process[ed]” their texts as they wrote, evincing a clear awareness of even small features such as typos or punctuation (8), their corrections or revisions occurring without visible “hesitation” (9);
  • This micro-processing, unlike the revision processes usually recommended to students in composition classes, occurred concurrently with composing; it was not deferred until a draft had been completed (8);
  • The writers constantly made judgments about audience, genre, and appropriateness, incorporating this awareness into their micro-processing (7-9);
  • The processes revealed constant “self-evaluation” and reflection (7);
  • Both writers experienced ongoing competition for their attention, which they managed via “horizontal” and “vertical” composition dimensions. moving back and forth across texts and tasks, while “stack[ing]” tasks in order to “call one specific task to the foreground” (9-10);
  • Planning, composing, and revision of one text often takes place in the “background” while the writer is working on another (10);
  • Construction of a socially meaningful ethos underlines many rhetorical choices in these highly interactive genres (11).

Takayoshi suggests that studies uncovering this complexity contribute to a reinvigorated sense of how form impacts content (11). Such studies can bring a needed dimension to the study of literacy as social practice by providing fine-grained information about how social interaction is negotiated in the kinds of writing that increasingly occupies all writers. They can reveal the kinds of rhetorical practices that students bring to the “more elaborated, institutionally-sanctioned writing” of the composition classroom (11).