Rhetoric in Writing Beyond the University Research
by Paula Rosinski
At the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication, I heard a few speakers wonder if the research on knowledge generalization and transfer had given enough attention to the role rhetoric might play in such learning situations. This seems like a timely question to consider as Elon opens up the call for applications for a new CEL research seminar on Writing Beyond the University, so in this blog I consider some of the roles rhetorical factors have played in the knowledge generalization research thus far, and what roles we might want/expect rhetoric to play when researching writing beyond the university in the future.
The scholarship on knowledge generalization/writing transfer has focused a fair amount on context, with some earlier studies examining how students make the transition from novice writers in academia to expert writers in the workplace (Anson and Forsberg; Beaufort; Blakeslee; Freedman and Adam). Other recent research has examined knowledge generalization/writing transfer within the university, from first-year writing to upper-level courses, from general education to disciplinary classes, from disciplinary classes to senior seminars or capstones (Yancey, Robertson, Taczak). Bard and Dilger (2017) and Brent (2012) have examined how the workplace writing students do during internships or co-ops and in service-learning, project-based, and community-engaged projects influence their academic in-school writing. Writing beyond the university research could build on and extend such research on context by considering questions such as:
- What are the similarities/differences between different writing beyond the university contexts?
- Do writers compose differently, and draw on different university writing experiences/classes, depending upon the beyond the university context in which they’re writing?
- How do different contexts for writing beyond the university contexts impact writers’ responses to writing situations?
- In what ways do academic writing contexts support/limit writers to write successfully in different writing beyond the university contexts?
The audience to whom one writes can be drastically different for students writing in academic contexts compared to students or graduates writing for contexts beyond the university. Writing within the university still often means writing for an academic audience of a professor or an instructor who is required to read student texts and give them a grade. There are of course a range of pedagogies that facilitate students writing for alternative audiences, on a continuum ranging roughly from, on one end, “imagined audiences,” to on the other end, writing for “real” audiences through service-learning, client-based projects, co-ops, or internships. Other research indicates that the audiences to whom students write when composing self-sponsored texts does positively impact their rhetorical sensitivity to audience concerns, which may in turn impact students’ attention to audience in academic contexts (Rosinski; Roozen). Research into the self-sponsored writing of students and highly-engaged pedagogies such as client-based projects and internships are relevant to studies of writing beyond the university because they involve students writing for alternative audiences beyond the professor/instructor. These are solid starting points for asking some new audience-related questions when studying writing beyond the university, such as:
- How can we, as researchers, identify and study audiences beyond the university?
- What are some ways we might categorize/characterize audiences within different writing beyond the university contexts?
- What are some ways that writers beyond the university analyze and respond to audiences, and which, if any, strategies that they learned in academic do they draw upon?
- How can we, as researchers, effectively and efficiently collaborate with employee contacts/practitioners of our alumni (Bacon)?
- What are practitioner/coordinator preferences for interacting with students in internships or co-ops (Jennings)?
Writer/the Writing Subject
Writing studies has attended to the student subject carefully in the past, as with Lester Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality and Susan Miller’s Rescuing the Subject. The research on writing transfer has also tackled this topic from a variety of perspectives, most notably in the form of student dispositions and habits of mind (Yancey, Robertson, Taczak; Driscoll; Bard and Dilger) and cognitive/affective issues (Bacon). In “Attending to the Subject in Writing Transfer and Adaptation,” Stuart Blythe gets at the importance of complicating our study of writing subjects when he says that “If it is true that some social theories may incline researchers toward glass-half empty studies because they treat the subject as a black box, and if it is true that learners are capable of more than such theories have assumed, then future research into transfer and adaptability in writing—studies informed by social theories of activity or genre—must pay more attention to ways that subjects adapt from one situation to another.” For writing beyond the university the issue of the writing subject deserves more attention and raises questions such as:
- How might the research on dispositions and habits of mind be extended or complicated, or social theories of activity or genre (ala Blythe), help us better understand or track the writing adaptability of graduates when writing beyond the university?
- When writing for real-world situations, are there features of the individual writing subject which come into play which haven’t yet been considered?
- What is the relationship or connection between identity and agency in real-world writing situations beyond the university?
When researching writing transfer within the university, the texts that students produce are often, though not always, common academic fare: research papers, analyses, reflections. The research on writing transfer occurring in internships and co-ops usually studies the genres of writing students do in a few individual companies or organizations, so larger wide-scale research into the kinds of writing alumni typically do in different professional or civic contexts beyond the university could be helpful (two in-process projects along this line include the “Lifespan Writing” collaboration and the Elon Writing Excellence Initiative Alumni survey of over 1,000 graduates). A few foundational questions about the genres alumni produce in different professional and civic contexts seems central, such as:
- What types of genres/texts are graduates most often producing in different writing beyond the university contexts?
- How are these genres/texts similar to or different from the academic texts students most frequently write?
- What do these genres/texts look like when they are considered to be successful and effective?
Some writing studies scholars may not be surprised to learn that initial results emerging from Elon’s survey of alumni indicate that the kinds of writing they most often do beyond the university are much more concise, brief, and visually-oriented than the traditional academic writing asked of them within the university setting. This raises the potential research question of whether or not, or the extent to which, universities might alter the genres/texts they teach to more closely match those written by their alumnus beyond the university.
While I’ve artificially isolated different features of the rhetorical situation here for discussion, any multi-institutional longitudinal study will likely involve studying several features at once. And while the questions raised here are only meant to generate thinking and lead to additional, more sophisticated questions, they do point out that the role of rhetoric in studying writing beyond the university is worthy of attention.
- Anson, Chris, & Lee Forsberg. (1990). Moving beyond the academic community: Transitional stages in professional writing. Written Communication. 7 (2), pp. 200-231.
- Bacon, Nora. (1999). The trouble with transfer: Lessons from a study of community service writing. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. pp. 53-62.
- Bard, Neil, & Bradley Dilger. (2017). How students perceive transitions: Dispositions and transfer in internships. College Composition and Communication. 68(4), pp. 684-712.
- Beaufort, Anne. (1999). Writing in the real world: Making the transition from school to work. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Blakeslee, Ann. (2001). Bridging the workplace and the academy: Teaching professional genres through classroom-workplace collaborations. Technical Communication Quarterly. 10(2), pp. 169-192.
- Blythe, Stuart. Attending to the subject in writing transfer and adaptation. In Chris Anson & Jessie L. Moore (Eds.), Critical transitions: Writing and the question of transfer (pp. 49-67). Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/ansonmoore/
- Brent, Doug. (2012). Crossing boundaries: Co-op students relearning to write. College Composition and Communication. 63(4), pp. 558–592.
- Driscoll, Dana, and Jennifer Wells. (2012). Beyond knowledge and skills: Writing transfer and the role of student dispositions. Composition Forum. 26.
- Faigley, Lester. (1993). Fragments of rationality. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
- Freedman A., & C. Adam (1996). Learning to write professionally: “Situated learning” and the transition from university to professional discourse. Journal of Business and Technical Communication. 10(4), pp. 395-427.
- Jennings, Ann. (2012). Technical communication practitioner-student interaction: An opportunity for students to learn from the practitioners’ world of work. Technical Communication. 59(4), pp. 324-333.
- Lifespan Writing. Web. 24 Aug, 2018. <https://www.lifespanwriting.org>.
- Miller, Susan. (1989). Rescuing the subject: A critical introduction to rhetoric and the writer. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Roozen, Kevin. (2009). From journals to journalism: Tracing trajectories of literate development. College Composition and Communication. 60(3), pp. 541-572.
- Rosinski, Paula. (2016). Students’ perceptions of the transfer of rhetorical knowledge between digital self-sponsored & academic writing: The importance of authentic writing contexts & reflection. In Chris Anson & Jessie L. Moore (Eds.), Critical transitions: Writing and the question of transfer (pp. 247-271). Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/ansonmoore/
- Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Liane Robertson, & Kara Taczak. (2014). Writing across contexts: Transfer, composition and sites of writing. Logan: Utah State UP.
Paula Rosinski is director of Writing Across the University in the Center for Writing Excellence and professor of English: Professional Writing & Rhetoric at Elon University. She is co-leading the 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency.