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Monday, November 08, 2004

Online Writing Instruction in a Post-Derridean World

Although many students would prefer to think of good writing as something innate – or, better, as bad writing as something they have been inoculated against -- the reality is that writing is a skill developed over time.

Writing is not simply a series of talented moves or gestures. To write well requires one to think well. The writer must organize his or her argument and, on a more fundamental level, he or she must be able to simultaneously consider all the factors that go into constructing a good essay, report, article, or paper. Not only does the learner need to be able to analyze and organize facts and figures, he or she must also consider the purpose of the activity.

Some of the questions that should be invoked include the following: What is the ultimate aim? Who is the intended audience, and what characteristics to they have? In addition the writer must envision the writing task from the point of view of the author’s motives, the audience, and social context. Further, in a larger frame, it is important to understand what is often referred to as the “rhetorical situation,” a term first coined by Lloyd Bitzer, a professor of rhetoric whose research interests focused on strategies used in persuasive discourse and the construction of effective arguments. According to Bitzer, a rhetorical situation occurs when an author, audience, and a social context converge to create a rhetorical act, such as an act of writing or speaking.

The rhetorical situation is commonly depicted in the rhetorical triangle. The discourse that is being produced is considered the “medium,” because it is through this that the author, audience, and social context come together, each with a potentially mediating influence. In this case, “mediation” refers to the power it exerts to subtly change or overtly co-opt meaning.

Please keep in mind that the rhetorical triangle changes shape depending upon the kind of discourse being produced. For example, academic writing will be depicted in a different way than advertising.

In the 1970s and 80s, numerous articles were written about the “rhetorical situation,” and it achieved almost mythical status in terms of its efficacy to explain how the dynamics of persuasion work in the phenomenal world. The discussions were expanded with the notions of Jacques Derrida, who, with the concept of “differance,” (discussed in his 1981 essay, “Semiology and Grammatology”) interjects the interplay of psychology and social context, to demonstrate how internalized notions of authority further exert influence on how meaning(s) are generated. Foregrounding the act of interpretation, either conscious or unconscious, Derrida emphasizes that there are numerous factors that bear upon how the idea of the humanistic subject comes into being. That subject becomes deconstructed once its ontological pillars are undermined, and as Derrida points out, there are many ways to collapse those ontological moorings.

With the approach of “differance” in mind, as texts are produced and interpreted, it is useful to look at the activities that take place on the edges of the rhetorical triangle, and how relationships are forged. For example, the notion of identity is destabilized once we realize how it is not an absolute, but it protean, metamorphosing element, which changes in response to dreams or fantasies, social pressure, which can create tensions between the ideal and the real, the flawed original and its perfect simulacra. The subject, which in this case, would be writing and speech, are likewise destabilized by “differance.”

In 2004, with e-mail, the Internet, text-messaging via pdas and cell phones, the model continues to be useful. What tends to add variables are sub-categories of context and author. For example, the context may be synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of both. What this means is that the realm of academic writing has expanded and that it is more vital than ever for the writer to understand the conventions of the particular genre or occasion, and how they shape reader expectations.

Writing for college is a fairly complex task and the conventions are not always expressed as clearly as one might hope. For that reason, it is vital for a learner to have taken at least one course that focuses exclusively on academic writing. This will form the core for skills, knowledge, and analytical thinking which will be expanded and built upon as the student progresses. Although there is wide latitude in the degree of formality found in writing for college, the boundaries for a particular writing occasion can be very narrowly constrained. This can cause frustration for the learner who has not acquired the conceptual, analytical, or problem-solving skills to able to successfully negotiate the situation.

That said, there is no reason to fear academic writing. The same basic building blocks reappear in many places and are applied in many situations, with modifications made in accordance with the writing occasion.

For example, the basic building block, the paragraph, is used not only in constructing essays and research papers, but is also required in essay exams that require expository writing. The ability to shape an argument: present a clear thesis statement, with supporting evidence requires processing and understanding the system of logic that underpins the argument.

Writing for college may seem a bit daunting at first, but ultimately it is one of the most satisfying experiences one can have. Not only is it a self-esteem builder to be able to structure an argument, it is deeply affirming to be able to communicate with others who have similar goals and interests, that is to say an affinity group.

In addition to writing essays for example and communicating with other learners, it is also important to be able to successfully produce academic essays. There are a number of genres or “modes” to manage. These are either presented as stand-alone essays or they constitute components of a larger work, such as a research paper, thesis, or dissertation. The forms most frequently encountered in academic writing are the following:

Extended Definition: In addition to definitions and descriptions of the thing under consideration, this essay explores how it is that we know. Evidence is critical, as well as clear sentences. Although essays are often “stand-alones,” many times this is section of a larger paper.

Chronological Narrative: While creative non-fiction utilizes this mode in the construction of memoirs or histories, it is also important to be able to write this type of essay. These are used in histories (in history, international relations, political science, sociology), as well as in presenting biographical background and a notion of the provenance and evolution of an idea within a research paper or thesis.

Compare-Contrast Essay: While it is hard to imagine a research paper or thesis centered on comparison-contrast, the ability to write a well-formed essay is important, particularly for essay tests.

Taking a Position: One can argue that all expository writing is a variation of this, or at least incorporates some of the structure. Argumentation and persuasive writing involve careful planning, not only in gathering research, but also in bringing together evidence and constructing the logic that will help support one’s position.

Process: This is an essay which includes how to do something or tell how something happens. It is very important for individuals who will take technical writing courses.

Cause and Effect: Cause and effect essays are widely-found, and they provide an excellent opportunity to look for logical fallacies and inadequate evidence.

Here it is useful to emphasize again that there exists a close connection between writing and thinking. To write well requires one to be able to think flexibly and about the various aspects of the rhetorical triangle. The more cynical writer may dismiss this as a call to generate clichés, and that academic writing merely asks the student to subjugate individual difference in order to conform to a rigid pattern. This is most often presented as an objection when students are asked to submit their writing to automated grading systems such as, or when they are writing for a standardized test such as the SAT that utilizes similar artificial intelligence-fired programs.

However, instead of generating clichés, writing in a mode or genre can be profoundly stimulating, even liberating, inasmuch as it allows self-expression and the construction of possibility, new ways of looking at, perceiving, or conceptualizing the world.

Much, of course, depends on the rhetorical situation. This means considering all the factors mentioned earlier, and more. The following questions resurface, but rephrased in ways that allow conscious deconstruction of the argument, subjectivity, and relationships between the sides of the rhetorical triangle: Why did the author write the piece? What were the conditions under which it was produced? What was the context? What was the goal of the writer vis-à-vis the readers? How was language employed? How is the writing intended to function within the world? What are the assumptions and beliefs of the audience? How does the social context in which it is read and produced influence the production and interpretation of the text?

To appreciate this task, the learner must learn how to conduct what is often referred to as a “close reading” of the text. This does not mean simply capturing the denotative content of the argument, but instead, requires readers to become active interrogators, and to be able to ask questions that begin to reveal the issues surrounding the rhetorical triangle: intended audience, perceived social context, conditions under which one anticipates the text will be read.

At the same time, such questioning will also begin to allow elements to surface, even though they may begin as disguised or submerged. For example, underlying assumptions within the argument that include beliefs, ontological positions with respect to the validity of “evidence,” cultural constructions, notions about how it is that we know (tests of the “real”), and when and how something is considered to have meaning, and/or be meaningful. However abstruse or perversely recondite these concepts seem at first encounter, it is definitely worthwhile to go to the effort to understand them and their implications. Awareness, self-consciousness, an ability to construct effective questions, and highly-evolved analytical skills are as vital for learners in college courses as for instructors, guides, and general inhabitants of the planet.

Recently, literary analysis, close reading, and the writing process have begun to preoccupy themselves with understanding how it is that learners become motivated to write essays. Instead of looking only at form and engaging in a close reading of the text(s), there has been a fervent focus on “situated learning,” and “embodied experience.” First developed by J. Lave in 1998, the concept of “situated learning” suggests that “learning as it normally occurs is a function of the activity, context and culture in which it occurs (i.e. it is situated)” (Lave 192) and “contrasts with traditional classroom learning activities which involve knowledge which is often presented in an abstract form and out of context” (Lave 193).

Thus, to be most effective, it is important to structure activities so that they have a grounding in something that is perceived as ontologically tangible. That can be a person’s experience, current events, current perceptions and beliefs, or a set of activities centered on a community of practice. “Anchored instruction” occurs in a setting when an instructor deliberately “anchors” or “situates” the activity. It follows, then, that college writing learning and teaching activities should be designed around a `anchor' (or situation) which could be some sort of case-study or problem situation. In preparing for the writing activity, the readings, discussion materials, settings to analyze should allow exploration within the essay or text produced.

By establishing a point of contact, the activities are perceived as relevant to one’s life, and also useful in helping explain the world at large. The motivating aspects of this cannot be overstated. Instead of simply checking a box and satisfying a requirement, the students find that their activities help them untangle and understand their world. It invokes Kenneth Burke’s notion that literature (and by extension, writing) is “equipment for living.”

Useful Additional Readings:

Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Trans. and Introduction by Paul Patton. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. The Gulf War was presented like some star wars video game, a simulation of a war. Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist, wrote an essay that the Gulf War did not happen. Many critics miss the point and assume that he means that it did not literally happen. That was not his point. His real criticism was the way that the conflict was presented. The media was not allowed to really report the war.

Perhaps the American military learned from Vietnam. Vietnam was presented on television many times in an unedited manner to the American public. The American public turned against the war.

Thus to Baudrillard, never was there a true conflict during the Gulf War. America won before the first bullet was shot. The video presentation of the war only demonstrated the constructed nature of the war. War is hell and should never be edited. If it is allowed to be edited, the true lessons are lost. Baudrillard commented that even the idea of peace was a simulation. Saddam Hussein was allowed to stay in power. (Now we return). Having spoken to Gulf War veterans, they emphasize the true horror of that conflict. They are beginning to write about the battles that were not told. – Wayne Stein

---. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

Biesecker, Barbara A. "Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from Within the Thematic of Diffé rance." Philosophy and Rhetoric, 22.2 (1989): 110-30.

Bitzer, Lloyd. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1 (January, 1968), 1-14.

Bransford, J.D. et al. Anchored instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix & R. Sprio (Eds), Cognition, education and multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 1990.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950.

----. (1945). A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945.

----. (1941). Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1941.

Derrida, Jacques. Glas. Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. and Richard Rand. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

----. 'Freud and the Scene of Writing," Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978: 195-231.

-----. "Semiology and Grammatology," Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981: 26-33.

Kaufer, David S. "Point of View in Rhetorical Situations: Classical and Romantic Contrasts and Contemporary Implications." Quarterly Journal of Speech 65 (1979): 171-186.

K-B Journal. (Kenneth Burke Journal). Accessed November 7, 2004.

Kenneth Burke Society Homepage. Accessed November 7, 2004.

Lave, J. Cognition in Practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. Situated Learning: Legitimate Periperal Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

McLellan, H. Situated Learning Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 1995.

Miller, Arthur B. "Rhetorical Exigence." Philosophy and Rhetoric 5 (1972): 111-118.

Smith, Craig R., and Scott Lybarger. "Bitzer's Model Reconstructed. Communication Quarterly 44 (1996): 197-213.

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