Friday, April 10, 2015

Rhetoric and Composition

A few weeks ago, Freddie deBoer wrote a great post about the state of research in rhetoric and composition. There's a lot to think about in that post, and it actually offers a corrective to some of the things I normally tell my authors as though they are demonstrated "facts". For example, it looks like I need to reconsider my uncritical invocation of Arum of Roksa. Or maybe I just need to follow my gut and never invoke empirical evidence. Maybe I think it is obvious that writing makes you smarter and group work makes you stupid. That's already too glib, and I promise I will say something more serious about this in a few weeks, when I've had a chance to think some more about Freddie's argument, which is an important one. In this post I want to define "rhetoric and composition" for my own purposes. Though I wasn't as intentional about it as I should have been, it looks like that has become my field. I want to think that through a little.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Composition is the art of putting words together. Rhetoric-and-composition is about putting words together persuasively. The focus of my work is academic, or scholarly, or scientific writing, which I define broadly as the art of writing down what you know. Again, using these terms very loosely, "writing down what you know" can be understood as "putting words together to persuade the reader that something is true", and I would then clarify "persuade" here, again for academic purposes, as "providing a justification". Now, if you've succeeded in persuading someone that something is true, you've "gotten them to believe" it. So, basically, we're talking about writing that is concerned with the articulation of "justified, true beliefs". As I've said before, this is not the only kind of writing, nor the only kind of writing students should learn to do at university, nor even the only kind of writing that makes up a scholarly work. But it is central, or at least very important, to the academic enterprise. And, for whatever reason, it's what I've become a coach of.

There is, as far as I can tell, a misconception out there that writing "representational" prose is somehow easy or straightforward. That there's "nothing to it" that might be taught in a composition classroom. Related to this, there is the idea that classical, "scientific" prose doesn't require stylistic mastery—that its style is, ultimately, no style at all. I think this forgets how difficult it is to accurately depict reality on a page, whether in writing or, to take a more obvious case, in drawing. Think about how difficult it is to draw a picture of even a relatively simple object—an apple, for example. The choice of style—realism vs. impressionism, say—does not get you around the difficulty of capturing how the thing looks. It's just that you've given a different sense to what you mean by "looks" (or perhaps decided that the problem is actually to capture how it "feels to see it".) Once you have decided what you are trying to do, what aspect of the thing you are trying to represent, you are going to have to work at getting it right. The same is true of writing, in whatever style.

In the weeks to come, I want to get into this problem of how to get better at accomplishing something on the page. For the most part, I will concentrate on the representation of facts, on the composition of true descriptions of the world. That is, I will focus on the problem of "scientific" writing, broadly understood. But I will also now and then consider the problem of "political" writing: the composition of just prescriptions for history. After all, sometimes our research has very practical implications. I will even consider the problem of philosophical and poetical composition—the presentation of concepts and the presentation of emotions in writing. Success in all these domains is a real accomplishment and requires a confident, developed style. It's about being able to occasion and exploit a "writing moment".

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