Naming What We Know, Classroom Edition
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Naming What We Know, Classroom Edition

Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies

Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle, Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle

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eBook - ePub

Naming What We Know, Classroom Edition

Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies

Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle, Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle

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About This Book

Naming What We Know, Classroom Edition examines the core principles of knowledge in the discipline of writing studies, using the lens of "threshold concepts"—concepts that are critical for epistemological participation in a discipline. Thisedition focuses on the working definitions of thirty-seven threshold conceptsthat run throughouttheresearch, teaching, assessment, andpublic workin writing studies. Developed fromthe highly regarded original editionin response to grassroots demand from teachers in writing programs around the United States and written by some of the field's most active researchers and teachers, the classroom edition is clear and accessible for an audience of even first-year writing students.

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Concept 1

Writing Is a Social and Rhetorical Activity

1.0

Writing Is a Social and Rhetorical Activity

KEVIN ROOZEN
It is common for us to talk about writing in terms of the particular text we are working on. Consider, for example, how often writers describe what they are doing by saying “I am writing an email” or “I’m writing a report” or “I’m writing a note.” These shorthand descriptions tend to collapse the activity of writing into the act of single writer inscribing a text. In doing so, they obscure two foundational and closely related notions of writing: writers are engaged in the work of making meaning for particular audiences and purposes, and writers are always connected to other people.
Writers are always doing the rhetorical work of addressing the needs and interests of a particular audience, even if unconsciously. The technical writers at a pharmaceutical company work to provide consumers of medications with information they need about dosages and potential side effects. The father writing a few comments on a birthday card to his daughter crafts statements intended to communicate his love for her. Sometimes, the audience for an act of writing might be the writer himself. A young man jotting in his diary, for example, might be documenting life events in order to better understand his feelings about them. A child scribbling a phrase on the palm of her hand might do so as a way of reminding herself to feed the family pets, clean her room, or finish her homework. Writing, then, is always an attempt to address the needs of an audience.
In working to accomplish their purposes and address an audience’s needs, writers draw upon many other people. No matter how isolated a writer may seem as she sits at her computer, types on the touchpad of her smartphone, or makes notes on a legal pad, she is always drawing upon the ideas and experiences of countless others. The technical writers at a pharmaceutical company draw collaboratively upon the ideas of others they work with as they read their colleagues’ earlier versions of the information that will appear on the label. They also connect themselves to others as they engage with the laws about their products written by legislatures and the decisions of lawsuits associated with medications that have been settled or may be pending. The father crafting birthday wishes to his daughter might recall and consciously or unconsciously restate comments that his own parents included on the birthday cards he received as a child. As I work to craft this explanation of writing as a social and rhetorical activity, I am implicitly and explicitly responding to and being influenced by the many people involved in this project, those with whom I have shared earlier drafts, and even those whose scholarship I have read over the past thirteen years.
Writing puts the writer in contact with other people, but the social nature of writing goes beyond the people writers draw upon and think about. It also encompasses the countless people who have shaped the genres, tools, artifacts, technologies, and places writers act with as they address the needs of their audiences. The genres of medication labels, birthday wishes, and diary entries writers use have undergone countless changes as they have been shaped by writers in various times and places. The technologies with which writers act—including computer hardware and software; the QWERTY keyboard; ballpoint pens and lead pencils; and legal pads, journals, and Post-It notes—have also been shaped by many people across time and place. All of these available means of persuasion we take up when we write have been shaped by and through the use of many others who have left their traces on and inform our uses of those tools, even if we are not aware of it.
Because it conflicts with the shorthand descriptions we use to talk and think about writing, understanding writing as a social and rhetorical activity can be troublesome in its complexity. We say “I am writing an email” or “I am writing a note,” suggesting that we are composing alone and with complete autonomy, when, in fact, writing can never be anything but a social and rhetorical act, connecting us to other people across time and space in an attempt to respond adequately to the needs of an audience.
While this concept may be troublesome, understanding it has a variety of benefits. If teachers can help students consider their potential audiences and purposes, they can better help them understand what makes a text effective or not, what it accomplishes, and what it falls short of accomplishing. Considering writing as rhetorical helps learners understand the needs of an audience, what the audience knows and does not know, why audience members might need certain kinds of information, what the audience finds persuasive (or not), and so on. Understanding the rhetorical work of writing is essential if writers are to make informed, productive decisions about which genres to employ, which languages to act with, which texts to reference, and so on. Recognizing the deeply social and rhetorical dimensions of writing can help administrators and other stakeholders make better decisions about curricula and assessment.

1.1

Writing Is a Knowledge-Making Activity

HEIDI ESTREM
Writing is often defined by what it is: a text, a product; less visible is what it can do: generate new thinking (see 1.5, “Writing Mediates Activity”). As an activity undertaken to bring new understandings, writing in this sense is not about crafting a sentence or perfecting a text but about mulling over a problem, thinking with others, and exploring new ideas or bringing disparate ideas together (see “Metaconcept: Writing Is an Activity and a Subject of Study”). Writers of all kinds—from self-identified writers to bloggers to workplace teams to academic researchers—have had the experience of coming upon new ideas as a result of writing. Individually or in a richly interactive environment, in the classroom or workplace or at home, writers use writing to generate knowledge that they didn’t have before.
Common cultural conceptions of the act of writing often emphasize magic and discovery, as though ideas are buried and the writer uncovers them, rather than recognizing that “the act of creating ideas, not finding them, is at the heart of significant writing” (Flower and Hayes 1980, 22; see also 1.9, “Writing Is a Technology through Which Writers Create and Recreate Meaning”). Understanding and identifying how writing is in itself an act of thinking can help people more intentionally recognize and engage with writing as a creative activity, inextricably linked to thought. We don’t simply think first and then write (see 1.6, “Writing Is Not Natural”). We write to think.
Texts where this kind of knowledge making takes place can be formal or informal, and they are sometimes ephemeral: journals (digital and otherwise), collaborative whiteboard diagrams, and complex doodles and marginalia, for example. These texts are generative and central to meaning making even though we often don’t identify them as such. Recognizing these kinds of texts for their productive value then broadens our understanding of literacy to include a rich range of everyday and workplace-based genres far beyond more traditionally recognized ones. Naming these as writing usefully makes visible the roles and purposes of writing (e.g., Barton and Hamilton 1998; Heath 2012).
Understanding the knowledge-making potential of writing can help people engage more purposefully with writing for varying purposes. In higher education, for example, faculty from across the curriculum now often include a wider range of writing strategies in their courses. That is, beyond teaching the more visible disciplinary conventions of writing in their fields, faculty also integrate writing assignments that highlight what is less visible but highly generative about writing in many contexts: writing’s capacity for deeper understandings and new insights (see Anson 2010 for one historical account of the shift in how faculty from across campus teach writing). Beyond the classroom, people can employ exploratory, inquiry-based writing tasks like freewriting, planning, and mapping—sometimes individual and often collaborative. These strategies can help all writers increase their comprehension of subject material while also practicing with textual conventions in new genres. Through making the knowledge-making role of writing more visible, people gain experience with understanding how these sometimes-ephemeral and often-informal aspects of writing are critical to their development and growth.

1.2

Writing Addresses, Invokes, and/or Creates Audiences

ANDREA A. LUNSFORD
Writing is both relational and responsive, always in some way part of an ongoing conversation with others. This characteristic of writing is captured in what is referred to as the classic rhetorical triangle, which has at each of its points a key element in the creation and interpretation of meaning: writer (speaker, rhetor), audience (receiver, listener, reader), and text (message), all dynamically related in a particular context. Walter Ong (1975) referred to this history in his 1975 “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” connecting the audience in oral performances with readers of written performances and exploring the ways in which the two differ. For Ong, the audience for a speech is immediately present, right in front of the speaker, while readers are absent, removed. Thus the need, he argues, for writers to fictionalize their audiences and, in turn, for audiences to fictionalize themselves—that is, to adopt the role set out for them by the writer.
Scholars in rhetoric and writing studies have extended this understanding of audience, explaining how writers can address audiences—that is, actual, intended readers or listeners—and invoke, or call up, imagined audiences as well. As I am writing this brief piece, for example, I am imagining or invoking an ...

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