Thursday, April 7, 2011

Writing as an academic and intellectual discipline

Dr. Richard Wentz once said the following about famed Naturalist, Loren Eisley: "For Loren Eiseley, writing itself becomes a form of contemplation. Contemplation is a kind of human activity in which the mind, spirit and body are directed in solitude toward some other. Scholars and critics have not yet taken the full measure of contemplation as an art that is related to the purpose of all scholarly activity – to see things as they really are... Using narrative, parable and exposition, Eiseley has the uncanny ability to make us feel that we are accompanying him on a journey into the very heart of the universe."

This, I would argue, lends to the concept that writing is not merely a tool or an activity, but scholarship in action.  It is a discipline in and of itself.  True, writing is an essential component of many academic fields, ranging from political science to history, from business to psychology.  Given that writing stretches across the curriculum, it is tempting to classify it as just another tool to be used in academic discourse.  Like others in the field of English, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies, I believe that writing is much more than that.  
Consider for a moment what writing entails.  A writer, meaning anyone who writes as spurred on by their own particular exigency, is engaged in the act of taking the thoughts in their head and transferring them to visible representation while tempering them into a form that can be easily understood by one or more readers.  Through this, the writer has much to consider.  Who is my audience?  What form will be most accepted by that discourse community?  What are the rules to adhere to when writing for this community?  Most of all, how do I connect my separate and distinct ideas so that they best communicate what I am thinking?  Whether consciously or subconsciously, all of these matters percolate within a writer's head during the composition process.  
Something unique is happening at this point.  Something that stands apart from any one particular field of academics.  This is a cognitive process unlike any other.  It is, indeed, the very act of contemplation.
In Rhetoric and Composition as Intellectual Work (ed. Olson, 2002), Charles Bazerman recommends "three syntheses" in the study and teaching of composition and rhetoric: historical, theoretical, and practical (pp. 36-38).  The historical synthesis is an understanding of where composition has been and a view of the world "in relation to the emergent infrastructure of written communication." (36)  The theoretical, as I understand it, encompasses a great deal in terms of a developing understand of the how and the why of writing.  Aspects of the theoretical synthesis include but are not limited to genre theory, process theory, activity theory, rhetorical theory, and the theory of literacy.  The practical is just that: how does the individual...whether writer or student of writing...take these syntheses and apply them to their composition task at hand, whatever that might be?  In other words, that age old question from students young and old alike: "what's in it for me?"
I am very much a supporter of Brazerman's "three syntheses" model and I fully advocate for the stand alone study of Rhetoric and Composition Theory.  I am not the first to suggest this nor will I be the last, but I wish to strategically place myself within that discipline.  The questions of why we write and how we should teach it are ever present in my mind.