The Academic Situation (a defense)

Even academics have fallen into the habit of using the word “academic” as a pejorative. It can be found in the slogan “I love learning but I hate school” (see Susan Blum’s detailed study of this sentiment) and in the view that school assignments don’t have a “real” or “authentic” audience. Both of these ideas have become central to the reception of John Warner’s new book about how we teach writing, the second most recently in a review by Cate Denial. She puts the point in a familiar way:

As I read the section on grading and learning, something Jesse Stommel once said about providing “real” or authentic audiences for student work make greater sense to me.  Students, John argues, need intrinsic – rather than external – motivation to do well, and one way to do that is to make the stakes real; to have a real audience in mind for an essay, for example, rather than an artificially convened audience of ‘the professor.’  Jesse’s said this before, too, and it finally clicked for me that I can have my students write for a friend, or a newspaper, or . . . anything, really, that constitutes an actual audience and not the artificial one that’s me.

This idea that students are doing something more “real” when they are writing for a friend or for a newspaper than they are when they are writing for a class is worth thinking seriously about. It’s not always wrong, but I think it needlessly underestimates the “reality”, if you will, that is available in the traditional classroom. As Denial points out, the problem is easily solved even within the classroom, so in a sense it is surprising that the issue persists, but I actually think her solution is a bit too easy. After all, does asking a student to imagine a friend or a newspaper reader make that reader “real”? Doesn’t the fact that this remains a school assignment take the authenticity out of it? Would her students be writing to their friends or for the local newspapers about this subject if she hadn’t asked them to?

Those are of course mainly rhetorical questions. It’s possible that an assignment could be designed to make the letter to the friend more authentic, but I don’t think most students would do anything other than dutifully try to imagine it — often along lines they imagine the teacher is proposing.  Indeed, the utility of the exercise would depend greatly on the caliber of the student’s friends, and some might go ahead and imagine friends with greater interest in the subject, perhaps even friends with greater intelligence, in order to earn the grade they desire. In other words, I would question the assumption that this sort of task would make the audience more real. Nor is it entirely clear how this might render “the stakes” more real. Are we seriously going to ask students to stake their friendships and future careers in journalism on a college assignment? Something seems off about this.

But the deeper problem is the presumption that the classroom doesn’t provide the students with an authentic writing environment. After all, it very definitely provides them with a room full of peers, and what is academic writing other than writing for one’s peers? The classroom, I want to argue, is an authentically academic environment and this can be used to situate writing assignments rhetorically.

Denial is right to eschew herself as the ideal audience for student writing. Students who are writing for their teachers and examiners are imagining readers who are much smarter than they are, and not, at least not usually, and not really, interested in their ideas. (Students who do imagine that their teachers might be moved by their words are often — though of course not always — kidding themselves.) But the classroom is full of nearly ideal readers of their texts; all the students have to do is imagine explaining what they have learned in class to each other. They should do so in the spirit of exposing their thinking to the criticism of their peers, of revealing their ideas to people who are qualified to tell them they are wrong. These are people who have read the same readings, attended the same lectures and participated in the same class discussions. They are comrades in the struggle to learn the same material. Academic writing, as I never grow tired of emphasizing, is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. The students are themselves the knowledgeable people they are trying talk to. They are (roughly) as knowledgeable about the subjects they are studying as each other.

In his interviews about his book, and in my discussions with him on Twitter, Warner often invokes “the rhetorical situation” (consisting of purpose, audience, and message) as a kind of deconstruction of the standard “school” essay. He’s especially interested in the infamous “five-paragraph essay”, which he thinks we need to “kill”. When I do finally read it, this is one of the arguments I will be looking very closely at. In my view, the academic situation is rich in opportunities to develop the students’ rhetorical sensibilities. That is, addressing oneself to an audience of knowledgeable peers leaves ample room for experimentation (What do they know? What questions might they have? Do they necessarily agree with me?); the classroom can occasion many purposes and a variety of messages. But it does, in most cases, suggest a particular form — namely, essays composed of paragraphs. Not necessarily exactly five every time, but certainly a definite number of claims to be supported, elaborated or defended. I know there are other situations, but this distinctly academic one seems to me, at least at university, to be worth defending. For people engaged in learning, it is altogether real.

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