Before we move on to our next ruminations, I want to apologize for the delay in posting this entry, since we promised that we would strive to do two or three a week. This is the first blog directly created using Slippery Rock’s web presence, and we had a bug we had to work out regarding the “comments” capability. It’s taken care of now, and we hope readers will comment, respond, and discuss their own writing experiences—a lot.
One obvious question general readers might have about this blog and its subject matter is: Why focus on public and/or consciously persuasive writing by your graduates? Isn’t the purpose of first-year writing courses, for instance, to prepare students for their future academic writing, and to ensure that their writing features standard usage rather than embarrassing and off-putting errors? Scholars in Composition Studies know that once we begin to look closely at students’ future academic writing we realize it is so varied and bound to their disciplinary majors and minors that it is impossible to thoroughly “prepare” them in any substantive way for the writing they will do in future courses. At best, we can help students understand that their writing will always have to adjust to specific situations, genres, and conventions that may vary considerably. We can discuss the variables, but it would be impossible to anticipate the great majority of them. And that reality even applies to usage to some extent. Sure, we can work with students on becoming alert to common usage errors that may appear in their writing, and on proofreading with care. But we can’t anticipate a great many style and documentation variables that go along with writing in particular academic and professional disciplines.
Then there are all the college graduates who do writing featured in English and Communication courses—writing that explains technical material, or the writing of advertising copy, or of grant applications, or of material meant for oral delivery, or in various journalistic forms, or writing that will appear in a digital setting, and that may have visual or even aural elements. Much of the above sampling of possibilities includes writing that is consciously persuasive and often public, meaning that a readership of “strangers” is expected.
Given the challenges they face, writing teachers in higher education have, in recent years, hearkened back to an old argument for requiring students to take composition courses—that is, the need to prepare students for active citizenship in a deliberative democracy. Such citizenship demands an ability to engage in a variety of “literate practices,” involving critical thought, reading, and writing. Most of a student’s college experience will be taken up with what Thomas P. Miller of the University of Arizona has characterized as “theoretical knowledge of what can be known with certainty and a technical mastery of how to do things.” Miller contrasts that kind of education with developing “an understanding of moral action in the uncertain realm of human affairs” (77). This education spills over the carefully drawn boundaries that allow for professionalization within disciplines.
In addition, we mustn’t draw sharp lines between work and our activity as citizens. When graduates perform the kinds of writing sampled in the previous paragraph they may do it as employees, or as members of the self-employed, or as private citizens. Their employment may have grown out of a personal commitment to some line of work perceived as dedicated to the promotion of the common good. Even if the work is presented as self-interested, it may impinge upon the commonweal in ways that require communication with others in their role as citizens.
Can we ignore or diminish the importance of the kind of education that concerns Miller? If we cannot, then where can we provide this education? Political Science may introduce students to systems of government. History may help students understand the evolution of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Philosophy can help develop the mental rigor that we hope will guide “moral action.” Natural and social sciences can inform that same action. It falls to Composition to provide the sustained practice in deliberation that must take place within a democracy.
Miller, Thomas P. “Changing the Subject.” In The Realms of Rhetoric: The Prospects for
Rhetorical Education. Edited by Deepika Bahri and Joseph Petraglia. Albany, NY:
SUNY Press, 2003. 73-89.