Mere Rhetoric

[acoustic guitar music]

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, terms, and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren.

If you're listening to this podcast, you're probably somebody who's interested in the power of language. You're probably an English major or a Rhetoric and Writing major, or you're at least taking a class in it.

But there are a lot of different disciplines that we've all interacted with. Whether it was a required biology class when you were an undergraduate, or a course in statistics you're taking right now. One of the things that's difficult to tease out in rhetoric and composition is how different disciplines create different types of writing genres and different forms of writing. This is one of the things that Susan Peck MacDonald encountered in the early 1990s. In her book Professional Academic Writing, she thinks about writing in these different disciplines as a spectrum. She sees these academic disciplines may be roughly ranged on a continuum by the degree to which their knowledge-making goals and practices are in the foreground. But even though she puts them around a continuum, she's not saying that there's anything wrong with having different types of knowledge-making goals, nor is it too, as she says, "deny that there may be other goals in the social sciences and humanities, but it serves as a focal point for exploring the differences among the disciplines."

So along the spectrum, she posits on one side, academic fields are arrayed more or less on a continuum, from the hard sciences to the soft humanities. And in this way, she realizes that a lot of the work that's been done by people in the humanities has been to what she calls "debunk" -- fields that are harder than the field that they're written in. So something about being in the humanities makes you want to prove that science isn't just objective. And she says that this debunking, quote, "suggests there is a strong tendency toward rearguard action, stemming from perceived loss of power, desire for enhanced status, and intellectual insecurity among social scientists and humanists." While that may be true, sometimes I do think we suffer from what she terms "science envy".

So I think it's fair to sort of re-approach this question of disciplinarity from what it would be like within that actual discipline. So that's just what she's done. She's compiled these three sort of representative groups: the humanities, the social sciences, and science. And she's put them along this continuum. So representing science, she has psychology, specifically infant attachment research. So this is, you know, how much babies are attached to their mothers and what impact that has and how to test that. The sort of stuff where you actually have people in white lab coats standing behind two-way mirrors, observing stuff happening. Then in the middle, she has social sciences, which in this group is history, which sometimes looks a little bit more like humanities and sometimes looks a little bit more social studies-ish. Then on the far end, she has humanities. And the group that she looks up is new historicists, which in the mid-90s were kind of a big rising star in the world of literary studies. So she puts these groups along the continuum, and then she tries to find, what are some of the representative articles of it? So she gets some journals that are representative in the field of these three different studies. And what she does is she begins to look at the writing styles, even down to the very level of sentences. She says that academic writing may be readily described as a vehicle for constructing and negotiating knowledge claims.

So she suggests that the different types of knowledge claims that these three groups are making is going to be represented in the type of sentences that they use. And so to be able to do this, she codes these sentences in seven different groups. The first group are the groups that she calls "phenomenological". These are things -- in the first place, particulars. Specific people, places, things. In the second place, she puts groups of things. So groups of people, places. In the third group, she talks about attributes of those things. So for example, Queen Elizabeth's desire is an attribute of a particular, Queen Elizabeth. And she suggests that these groups that are more phenomenological are probably going to be less based in really knowledge-dense disciplines. The next class are the epistemic classes, and these include reasons, research, -isms like Marxism or feminism, and appeals to the audience, like "we think this," "we think that". What she found is that literature leans heavily towards the phenomenal cases -- a lot of particulars and a lot of attributes. While psychology is a little bit more epistemic; reasons dominate, with a little bit of research as well, and some talk about groups. In between them, history focuses on groups, and then a little bit on attributes. So by looking at the distribution of the subjects of the sentences and these different disciplines, MacDonald has sort of teased out that the types of writing that they do, down to the very sentence level, may represent what the priorities are for the different disciplines. From this, she's sort of able to describe her theory that she articulates at the beginning of the book, that some disciplines are rural, and others are urban. I really like this metaphor, because it provides a really clear visual representation of what happens in the knowledge-making of these different groups. In the sciences, things are very dense. You have a lot of people working in a very small area. So you can imagine a skyscraper with thousands of scientists all working on one part of one gene, all the time.

Things move very quickly, you have to publish very fast off of your results, things are always changing. This is why perhaps in the sciences, they favor a style like APA that highlights the dates. On the other side of things, you have very rural disciplines. So you can think of these as homesteaders, people who don't like to be fenced in. And in fact, sometimes in the humanities, if anybody gets too close to you and starts doing the same sort of research you're doing, you purposely might change your focus and get a little bit farther out into the frontier. These groups are focusing on individuality and novelty in the ways that they approach their research. So once MacDonald has sort of taken a look at all of these different disciplines, the next step is to think about, well how do you learn to write in a discipline?

As she says, "Any suggestions about changing in academic writing involve understanding of the complexities of the different writings styles. So blanket condemnations of passive verbs for instance, or prescriptions for vividly concrete verbs, are largely ineffectual because they do not take into account either the historical situatedness, or the complex of knowledge-making goals and rhetorical situations represented in different kinds of academic writing," end quote. So if you worked in a writing center for example, it might be tempting to see a lab report and begin to criticize them for having passive verbs, when actually that's very appropriate in that kind of discipline. I think what MacDonald is suggesting here is that disciplines are unique from each other, and it might be worthwhile to sort of appreciate where they're coming from and just kind of accept it. If you're learning to write within a specific discipline, she suggests that you go through four stages. The first is nonacademic writing -- so casual personal writing.

Texts, blogs, things like that. Then in stage two, you learn what she calls generalized academic writing, concerned with stating claims, offering evidence, respecting other people's opinions, and learning to write with authority. Level two is kind of the stuff that we think of as happening in first year composition. In level three, she talks about novice approximations of particular disciplinary ways of making knowledge. So this would be like as you move into your discipline, you begin to write more and more lab reports, or you co-author on a paper -- things like that. Finally, you've reached level four, which is expert insider prose when you're really deep in the discipline. So MacDonald suggests that disciplines aren't all the same. And the types of writing that they do may reflect different priorities. Even though you may be solidly entrenched in the world of English and words, think about that next time you talk with somebody who identifies as an economist, or a psychologist, or a physicist, or a chemist. The way that you talk about academic writing may be very different from the way they do.

[shakers and acoustic guitar music]

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Susan_Peck_MacDonald.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT