The Situation (1)

I’m working on a couple of conference papers. Both are about what Christine Tardy describes as the “situated” nature of academic writing. A genre, she argues, can be understood by way of the rhetorical situation in which writing does something. Following Carolyn Miller (1984), she approaches genres as forms of social action in specifiable, rhetorical situations. From this she concludes that some common school writing assignments do not provide occasions to teach genre awareness. Most notably, she does not consider the five-paragraph essay to be a genre: “Referring to the five-paragraph essay as a genre is particularly problematic for students,” she argues, “because it equates a decontextualized form with genre.” Rather, says Tardy, genre should be “defined very specifically through features like dynamic, rhetorical, social, communicative, purpose-driven, and community-bound or socially-situated” (in Caplan & Johns 2019, p. 29, emphasis in original). My goal in these papers is to re-contextualize the form of the traditional school essay, recovering its central role as an academic genre.

Academia, I want to argue, is a perfectly legitimate “situation” for writing, and traditional school assignments, therefore, provide ready opportunities to cultivate genre awareness in students. They don’t need to be merely decontextualized forms. Indeed, the key move in my argument is to situate student writing in an immediately meaningful context, namely, the classroom. In this post I want to think a bit about what a class is, especially at university, and how it effectively “simulates” the situation of scholars working in their research paradigms. I use scare-quotes here because I’m not sure that simulation is the right metaphor for the relationship of students to scholars. It would be better to think of the students as “apprentices” — they are not pretending to be scholars, they are doing entirely “real” scholarship, just at a more basic level than their teachers.

To see this, consider why scholars normally write and who they are normally writing for. It is sometimes thought that they write mainly to share what they know with others, i.e., to “disseminate” what they have learned through their research. While this is certainly part of the function of academic writing, it does not, to my mind, capture the distinctly critical function of academic writing. The readers of academic writing are not presumed to simply believe what the writer tells them, as might be the case in a work of popular non-fiction. The academic reader does not, first and foremost, come to the text to learn something about the subject. Rather, the purpose of academic writing is to expose your ideas to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. That is, academics write for their peers in order to test their ideas against the ideas held by other knowledgeable people. That’s the situation scholars are in as writers.

How is this situation reproduced (also probably a better word than “simulated”) in the classroom? Well, everyone in a university classroom is, presumably, qualified to be there. They are each other’s intellectual peers. So students can simply imagine writing for an intelligent and engaged fellow student. They can imagine exposing their understanding of the course material to the criticism of this student — one who has struggled with the same materials, under the same conditions, for the same length of time (the semester, say). The traditional formal requirements (like those of the five-paragraph essay) can now be understood as conventions, to be deployed when engaging with the reader’s attention. Five paragraphs, for example, means about five minutes in which to present five claims along with the support, elaboration or defense that, precisely, the situation demands. And the situation, again, is that of having recently formed a belief about a particular set of materials among similarly qualified peers. The purpose of the writing is to contribute to a conversation that is already going on inside and outside the classroom throughout the semester.

Just as editors and reviewers of the scholarly literature ideally represent the real readers of a scholar’s paper, teachers should evaluate student writing, not according to what the teacher gets out of it, but what another student would get out of it. Does this essay provide an occasion on which a person with similar experience of the course material might offer useful, critical feedback? Could both the reader and the writer learn something from further discussion based on this text? Of course, the teacher will also evaluate the understanding of the course material that the student demonstrates. But this, too, is relative to the classroom situation. How well does does the student have to understand Elizabethan drama, or worker compensation, or cell division, to get an A in this course, at this level, in this program, at this university? When students are thinking about what to say and how to say it, they should be situating these issues in a context defined by the who and the why of the classroom. Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people.

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