The OoSes of Rhetoric-Composition
As Dr. Romberger noted, Rhetoric-Composition has a habit of claiming just about any object as fair game for study. To narrow, though, I’ll zoom in on the objects of study that interest me most and discuss the implications for understanding the field more broadly. The two studies I’m going to look more closely at in this paper provide specific examples of research in the field of Rhetoric-Composition that get to the core of the field’s questions about and values that serve understanding literacy practices.
The first example takes student literacy habits in technology-based spaces as its object of study. A relatively new approach to examining student discourse is to look beyond the parameters of the classroom and into the literacy practices in extra-curricular spaces, most notably online networked spaces. Ilona’s Vandergriff’s Second-language Discourse in the Digital World: Linguistic and Social Practices in and beyond the Networked Classroom significantly contributes to the conversation common to all educators regarding technology-based approaches to literacy and second language learning. She pushes the conversation from technology-based (as in, what can this new technology do to promote language learning?) to L2 learner-based (as in, what is it that L2 learners do in these computer-mediated spaces?). Not only does Vandergriff’s research offer extensive data on the naturalistic discursive habits of L2 learners, but her research enters into the complexities of a host of assumptions that riddle those who navigate tricky L2 pedagogical territories.
Research like Vandergriff’s serves a purpose that is common in the field (though I should note Vandergriff is a linguist, not a Writing Studies scholar): a focus on research that helps instructors recognize literacy habits within particular communities and contexts and then extend that data to a discussion about supporting critical literacy habits. For Vandergriff, her deep analysis of students’ computer-mediated practices outside the classroom — in spaces like Twitter, Facebook, Blogspot, Snapchat — encourages us all to accept these complex linguistic practices as important identity-generative work that embraces the “linguistic hybridism” (p. 144) and L2 learners’ negotiation of the “rhetorical borderlands” (Mao) in which they find themselves immersed. She reflects a common value among scholars in the field of extending their research to broader theories of pedagogy and social justice.
Student discourse communities aren’t the only points of interest in practices of literacy, though. Instructor feedback has provided plenty of research material over the years regarding how those literacies are supported in classroom practices.
Nancy Sommers, for example, has done a lot of accessible work in teacher feedback discourse spaces. Because commentary on student writing takes up the majority of our time as instructors, it’s no wonder that scholars have dedicated energy to researching that commentary. In fact, because the subject is important and because Sommers is accessible to so many audience, I often use her work to begin conversations with new TAs to help reflect on feedback practices.
The purpose and the scope of written marginal commentary, despite all the research dedicated to that research, is still ambiguous. The lived pedagogical experience of written commentary has not changed much, though we certainly know more about what DOES NOT work and how the misalignment of commentary with the goals of that commentary is rampant.
Here’s how Sommers does that important work in “Responding to Student Writing.” Her work acknowledges the pedagogical practice of written feedback and addresses the significance of that disproportionate amount of time teachers spend on paper commentary. She theorizes a common pedagogical act and notes the larger purpose of such commentary: fostering a budding sense of audience or “dramatizing the presence of a reader” (148). Also, the comments provide tips that are meant to motivate action in a new direction to encourage revision (148). In many previous works, after analyzing the processes of student writers closely, Sommers notes that experienced writers (unlike novice writers) have a strong sense of ‘other’ who is experiencing the text for the first time.
Findings from Sommers’ (along with Lil Brannon and Cyril Knoblach) examination of teacher commentary are ultimately troubling in that teachers tend to appropriate student text and throw students off their intended purpose (151), often “mean-spirited” and difficult to follow (e.g. “think more about what you are thinking about,” 151). They found that most teachers’ comments are not text-specific, implying they could be copy/pasted onto any paper. With this particularly strand of inquiry, Sommers helps us see (through careful analysis of instructor texts) what we intend to achieve with commentary and that what we spend most of our professional life doing (i.e. written commentary on stacks of papers) is not working. We’re not helping students engage with the issues they are writing about and we’re certainly not helping students contemplate their own purpose (154). We read texts with a strong negative bias against students. We read to find error and we end up correcting papers and misreading their intentions. I’ll let her words sum it all up for me:
“The challenge we face as teachers is to develop comments which will provide an inherent reason for students to revise; it is a sense of revision as discovery, as a repeated process of beginning again, as starting out new, that our students have not learned. We need to show our students how to seek, in the possibility of revision, the dissonances of discovery…” (Sommers 156).
The message here is disheartening, but the research is so important to informing our professional development moving forward—something that my favorite Rhetoric-Composition research often seeks to do. This sort of research yields practical considerations to inform our practice, a common ideology among Rhetoric-Composition scholars/practitioners.
Sommers and Vandergriff highlight several primary objects of study that are common to the field: literacy habits, student discourse, instructor discourse, student writing, pedagogical materials, writing processes. But there are more objects of study (limitless, in fact) including: website design, professional documents, prior research, institutional and political discourse, etc….Any object that helps us examine language and literacies– in all their modes and environments, marked by an endless list of literacy habits– helps Rhetoric-Composition scholars ask the questions that matter to the field, most notably how people participate as literate citizens and how we can foster that successful participation.
While a focus on pedagogical considerations has played a subservient role to other forms of research (from an institutional perspective) in academia, the field seems disinterested in moving away from student-and-practice-centered objects of study, presumably because it seeks to find the space (as Dewey and many pragmatists insist be found) where theory is actionable and where it does the most good for those we set out to serve in this profession: students and fellow instructors. By examining student discourses to challenge our sometimes-narrow perspective on what counts as legitimate “learning” (as Vandergriff does) or examining the ways instructor feedback does (or does not) generate habits of writing that serve the students’ best interests, we do the work of praxis, the work that proves the field of Rhetoric-Composition is committed to seeking better ways to engage students, align our pedagogies with our beliefs and research findings– all the while keeping student learning at the center of our work.
Mao, L. “Rhetorical borderlands: Chinese American rhetoric in the making.” College Composition and Communication, 56(3), 2005, 426-463.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication, 33 (2), 1982, 148–56
Vandergriff, Ilona. Second-language discourse in the digital world: Linguistic and social practices in and beyond the networked classroom. In N. Spade, & N. Van Deusen-Scholl (Eds.), The Language Learning & Language Teaching Monograph Series, 46, 2016.