Monday, April 13, 2015

Composition, Representation and Expression

I agree with Freddie deBoer that it would be "disciplinary suicide" for the field of rhetoric and composition to abandon "the teaching and research of prose, the arrangement of words into sentences and paragraphs expressed to serve some rhetorical purpose."

(I am still too much of an outsider to take direct issue with Adam Banks' speech to the 2015 CCCC. I don't know his rhetorical situation well enough to criticise him on his own terms. But I will say, precisely as an outsider, that his message is disconcerting. It is not my impression that the essay needs to be treated condescendingly as an "emeritus" genre, certainly not if this is interpreted, as deBoer seems plausibly to worry it might, to go for prose writing in general. As a writing coach, i.e., someone whose daily practice builds on the competences that are fostered in the composition classroom, I don't relish the prospect of facing graduate students who were taught as undergraduates that careful prose writing is either a quaint throwback to a bygone age, or, worse, somehow inimical to the realisation of their freedom.)

My concern, or the sense I most often give to the "rhetorical purpose" of scholarly writing, is perhaps narrower than deBoer's, but very similar. I am worried about the ability of academics (and therefore the students that become them) to "assert and deny facts", i.e., to write "representationally". I truly and honestly believe that it is the primary obligation of rhetoric and composition instructors to help students develop this ability—essentially the ability to compose a coherent paragraph about something they know. It is the business end of a very particular kind of freedom. Call it "academic", if you want; but we condescend to it at our peril.

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Representation and expression almost seem to differ only in their emphasis. In our prose, we represent facts and express beliefs. Perhaps we don't always have to believe what we say in order to represent a fact, and perhaps we don't always have a clear representation of the facts when we express ourselves, but there is a presumption in prose, one that guides the reader's interpretation of what we have written, that our expressions invoke a representation, that they are at least trying to bring the reader's mind into contact with the writer's world.

The world is everything that is the case; the mind is our awareness of it. Prose lets us articulate our awareness of what is the case. It lets us communicate from one mind to another what we think is going on in our world. My world is the world of the facts that I am aware of, the facts that I have appropriated for myself. In my prose I write these facts down in order to share my world with you. You may learn from me, then, what is the case, or you may have an occasion to teach me that I am wrong. When writing, I presume that my world is also yours.

We compose paragraphs to express our beliefs. The paragraph represents the fact we believe (in our minds) is the case (in the world). In the end there is only one world, which is why it is so important to compare our beliefs about it. We let the paragraph "stand in" for the fact, which may be long gone or very far away. We let our reader consider the matter carefully and compare it to his or her own representations of this or related facts. The aim is to affect the reader's beliefs, and when reading we likewise assume that the writer has a purpose. By this means we make our beliefs available to each other. We avail ourselves of each other in prose.

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