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Reflection, Rhetoric

Mediating Tensions of Voice, Audience, and Authority through Reflection

Reading Jared’s most recent post on the “Ends(s) of Reflection in an ENG 1020 Semester” led me first back through two other posts he cites early in his, both from the winter 2012 semester, and then, in an idiosyncratic set of associative steps, to revisit some of this semester’s posts and assignment sequences on the pilot 1020 wiki. (Lots of summary in this post, but I’m going somewhere with it, I promise.) As a deeply rhetorical writer and teacher, Jared is surprised to find himself thinking about the expressivist emphasis on voice, but he uses the concept to think through issues raised in earlier posts, namely the conflicts students experience in needing to assume an authority they don’t yet own (see Derek’s post on “Inventing the Reflective Assignment in ENG 3010”), and the tendency for some students to produce writing that fulfills the requirements of analysis or argument but lacks any sense of writerly passion or soul (see LaToya’s post on “Style in Rhetorical Analysis”).

Specifically, Jared outlines an approach to using reflection to address both problems. First, he considers asking students “to prove to me as an authority that they’ve found a voice and style that suits their desired argument’s purpose (as Latoya aspires for in so many words).” By asking students to reflect on their argumentative voice (particularly where it falls on a scale of agonistic rhetoric to Rogerian invitational rhetoric), his proposed assignment would guide students in considering “the social/political consequences of their style of argumentation” and the effectiveness of their attention to “the voices of discourse communities invested in the arguments.” Second, he considers asking students to examine voice as a phenomenon “that emerges in the relation of the text to the actual writer reflecting on their work.” Acknowledging the risks of reinforcing the romantic myth of a unified (rather than socially constructed) self, Jared nonetheless highlights the possibility that such an approach may help students undertake “an act of finding a personal voice that is a socially responsible politicized act.” Highlighting the likely appeal of such an approach for eighteen-year-olds, he suggests that such uses of the concept of voice might mediate between an emphasis on the inevitably rhetorical, contextual, constructed nature of “voice” (which can promote the kind of disengaged writing LaToya laments) and the need to tap into students’ passions (which can raise the risks of invoking a romantic notion of self or, for 3010 students, of appealing narrowly to students’ instrumentalist goals and thus reinforcing the inequities of the existing socio-economic system).

Jared’s provocative ideas for using reflection to approach these tensions productively made me wonder how to link his approach with one Jeff describes in his post on teaching students to work with audience in ENG 3050 (Technical Communication I: Reports). Jeff uses the potential of wikis to require students to write for—and receive feedback from—real audiences outside the classroom. (See “The Open Author and Open Audience Writing Classroom.”) Requiring students to compose their final projects for public sites like Wikipedia and wikiHow and to contribute those projects for feedback, Jeff prompts them “to explore, on their own, the particular genre conventions of Wikipedia and also experience swift and specific feedback from writers outside of their course.” Much research in composition studies argues that writing for real, rather than hypothetical, audiences is one crucial step in engaging students in developing invested, effective writing. Much of the work fueling current research on transfer argues that such work must take place as part of an apprenticeship in a particular discourse community, where learners interact with more expert members and write to achieve transactional purposes (whether civic, professional, or aesthetic) (Petraglia; Russell).

While both Petraglia and Russell argue against “General Writing Skills Instruction,” or GWSI, both also refrain from Crowley-esque renunciations of the first-year course and instead argue for alternatives that emphasize content knowledge, much of it focused on teaching students to read and recognize the rhetoricity of others’ texts. While I’m persuaded by many aspects of both arguments, I see Jeff’s assignment as making an equally crucial—if challenging—move by asking students to write for authentic audiences in a way that neither Russell nor Petraglia do. It seems to me that the assignments LaToya describes in “Piloting the New 1020, Part IV: A Focus on Detroit and the Politics of Discourse Communities,” offer another potential avenue into asking students to write for an existing discourse community, as do Thomas’, Adrienne’s, Nicole’s, and LaToya’s sequences as presented on the pilot 1020 wiki.

One of the features of these assignment sequences that stands out to me is that they often ask students not only to investigate discourse communities but to try out writing for those discourse communities and to reflect on what they’ve learned about voice, authority, and related concepts in doing this writing. All of which is prompting me to consider doing what Joe would describe as making my WAW 3010 more WAC-y (yes, it’s already very wacky, ba-dum-ba). This semester I’m using an assignment sequence that asks students to investigate writing in their profession or discipline, and I’d say that while students are often anxious about the unfamiliar and demanding tasks, they’re also very invested in interviewing and observing people in their fields, demonstrating their most engaged writing in the email requests, interview questions, and follow-up emails they’ve drafted for these real audiences. But as I’ve thought about the posts and assignment sequences I’ve described here, I find myself thinking that I need to incorporate more of this writing for an authentic audience, maybe by asking students to draft a précis of their final projects for their interviewees, with the goals of demonstrating what they’ve learned and sharing information of potential interest to people writing in their discourse communities. Adding that précis assignment might allow me to then ask students to discuss in their reflective arguments the kinds of issues Jared suggests they should consider: how they’ve navigated the personal, (for 3010, I’d add the professional), and the social through their writerly voices. Many of my students are considering questions of ethics and professional responsibility, for instance in how medical practitioners convey health information to patients and in how psychologists use observation notes to diagnose patients or make recommendations to the court in child abuse cases. Thus questions how to navigate these personal, professional, and social dimensions would be foregrounded if I asked students to compose their findings and conclusions for their discourse community contacts. That work would set them up to compare their voices in writing to their contacts with the voices used in their final projects, which target a writing studies audience. Which leads me to conclude that I should take Adrienne’s advice (conveyed via Nicole’s blog post) to revise my assignments now, rather than waiting ‘til I’m about to start a new semester of 3010). Thanks for all the thought-provoking posts and work on the pilot 1020 site!

Professor Gwen Gorzelsky is the author of The Language of Experience: Literature Practices and Social Change and is currently in her second year serving as the Department’s Director of Composition. She regularly teaches courses on writing and the teaching of writing at both the undergraduate and graduate level.



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