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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Oct 18, 2017

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and every semester, I feel like it’s New Year’s Day. “This semester,” I say, “everything’s going to be different.” I revise my classes, everything from switching two minor assignments to rehauling the entire curriculum. I try to create assignments that will catch my students’ attention, prepare them for their other classes, and, because I teach dozens of students, be interesting to grade.


But how do I know if the assignments I find interesting are effective? Or even that the students will think they are interesting? In Engaging Writers and Dynamic Disciplines, Chris Thaiss and Terry Zawacki explore how students learn to write in their majors, and how instructors write in their disciplines. These two things are not synonyms. Disciplines are dynamic, even before you account for all of the interdisciplinary work that goes on between them. Thaiss and Zawacki interviewed scholars from across a wide variety of  disciplines and found that “many of our informants describe changes in their disciplines that allow scholars to work in alternative ways--ways that might formerly have been closed to them” some of these scholars are hesitant about these new ways of writing, but many embrace them (44).


I remember the first time I wrote an article that was truly alternative. It was an article for Harlot about the biopower of zombies and I referenced everything from Foucault to World War Z to Joshua Gunn. I wrote about my personal experience dressing up like a zombie for a “capture the flag” 5k and about buying a shirt off Etsy. And the whole thing was littered with hyperlinks and quirky footnotes and a half dozen pictures, which cost the journal nothing because the whole thing was exclusively online. This was a far cry from the time I literally sent three copies of an article in a manila folder, through the mail, to England for a more traditional journal. I’m not the only one who has had such exhilarating experiences encountering disciplinary writing in new ways.


Because we remember the heady rush of talking about scholarly topics in slightly less than scholarly ways and the sheer joy of doing something new and “fun,” we might be tempted to assign these new forms of writing to our students, to show them the great diversity of our discipline. If I was able to write the first draft of “The Biopower of Zombies” in one sitting, chuckling to myself in an airport terminal in Ohio, certainly my students would also delight in such open forms of scholarship, right?


According to Thaiss and Zawacki’s research, “the undergraduate students we interviewed and surveyed from across majors showed much less desire to experiment with format and method in their disciplinary classes than to conform to their professors’ expectations” (92). It’s maybe not surprising that scholars who are already pretty familiar with their field would have an easier time adapting to the variations than students who are just learning the ropes for the first time. But not all “alternatives” are equal.


Experimenting with new ideas (eg “Is our obsession with zombies a result of increased non-state organizations?”) is different than having to learn a new format (e.g. casual academic tone with generous hyperlinks). Over all, Thais and Zawacki suggest, that students crave structure and predictability, knowing what the professor is looking for, even more than the wide-open freedom of many disciplines.  Think about it: the seasoned professor knows not just what’s appropriate in biology or economics writing, but they also know what kinds of articles can be written by post-docs and what can be written by old-timers, they know what kind of writing different journals prefer. So professors, thinking about “good writing” can actually be combining academic, disciplinary, subdisciplinary and personal writing preferences in ways that baffle students. Sometimes they over generalize and assume that one class taught them “science writing” and sometimes they over patictularize, thinking that one teacher was just “picky.” Students do the best they can with the limited expereince they have.


This is especially evident at the beginning of the semester. One of Thaiss and Zawacki’s student informants pointed out that the first couple of assignments provide a lot of experience in what the class is supposed to be (125), and getting graded feedback provides a sense of not just what that professor is looking for, but what “counts” in the field. While “the mature writer in a field has encountered a sufficient range of course environments to develop an over all sense of disciplinary goals and methods” while novices “have not yet encountered the array of exigencies and therefor genres that typify it” (109). Following Perry’s developmental stages, Thaiss and Zawacki suggest three stages in disciplinary writing:

  1. When a writer with experience in very few course” comes up with generalized ‘rules’
  2. When the writer encounters many different instructors and perceives inconsistency, which is “sometimes interpreted as teacher idiosyncrasy” (110)
  3. A writer reaches an “articulated, nuanced idea of the discipline” (110).

Over all, it’s not surprising that Thaiss and Zawacki conclude that  students need both frequent writing in a variety of teachers and courses (in order to encounter that variety of a discipline) and the change to reflect on the choices they’ve made and why to begin to process how those differences occur (121). Other prescriptions are include frequent and detailed feedback on writing, and explicitly teaching what are the “generic academic” principles of writing and what are discipline specific. None of these are radical sounding to those of us in composition, but they do remind me of all the things I need to change next semester. Next semester. Next semester everything’s going to be different.


If you ever had a book inspire a change in your teaching, feel free to drop us a line at I’d love to hear it. Until next week!