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A Substantive Field

posted: 10.6.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

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One of my desert-island books is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. One of these days I’ll manage a post on Pirsig’s take on Aristotle and why we should be teaching that, rather than Aristotle itself, as the rhetoric in writing courses.

But for today, I want to focus on ZAMM’s beautiful depiction of how writing instruction has historically been relegated to the basement in the university, as “faculty wives” work, because the nature of writing instruction was essentially clerical.

Pirsig draws the scene of his main character, Phaedrus, interviewing for a fellowship with the Chairman of a University of Chicago’s philosophy program:

The Chairman said, “What is your substantive field?”

Phaedrus said, “English composition.”

The Chairman bellowed, “That is a methodological field!”

Pirsig reflects on the relative silliness of acting as if substance (say, what an atom is) and method (say, how an atom moves) are separable knowledge. Methodological, “how-to” knowledge is substantive subject-area knowledge, in the same way that form (how) is never cleanly separable from content (what) in writing.

Our world still wants to relegate writing to “mere” method, though, assuming that the activity and teaching of writing is nothing of substance. How, after all, when writing is the form that gives expression to the substance of whatever it is talking about, could writing itself also have substance? Writing, in this view, is the empty container filled up by some other substantive field, and thus writing itself appears quite insubstantial (and thus inconsequential)—especially when the teaching of it, through clerical editing, also appears quite devoid of intellect.

We have a running joke in the friendly weekly pinochle game I play with a few colleagues in my department. “Doug doesn’t actually study anything at all.” I’ve learned to suppress the grimace with my stock reply: “That’s right, rhet/comp is not a substantive field!”

Or, as expressed by the occasional graduate teaching assistant in our program’s comp theory seminar: “So, what does rhetoric actually have to do with twenty-first-century writing instruction, anyway?” (You get this question less if you teach something about rhetoric other than Aristotle, by the way.)

Or, as expressed in a hallway conversation this morning:

Lit guy: “Should I use the singular or plural verb with this compound subject?”

Rhet guy: “The plural verb is grammatically correct, but the singular verb sounds better, so I’d go with that.”

Lit guy: “But then you’d be using the wrong word—oh, but that’s not something you education and composition people care about.”

I have no substantive field, you see, no actual researched or theorized grounds for what I understand to be the nature of writing and principles of effective writing instruction; nothing to teach but formulaic how-to’s. When I listen to the world around me long enough, I can forget I actually know anything about writing.

It is a true pleasure being able to show these folks my WAW syllabus. And next semester there’s going to be another reading on it, a piece I rediscovered a few weeks ago. In 2001, in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Cheryl Geisler, Chuck Bazerman, and several other luminaries in writing research published a full-blown research agenda for writing studies based on what they called “IText”—electronic and Web writing.

If you ever wonder what of substance you (can) know about writing, just glance through that article: rhetorical, activity, and genre theories; literacy studies; what makes texts usable and effective; how texts work in the workplace; how the visual and verbal interact; how texts build credibility; information management and retrieval; intellectual property; social, organizational, and educational implications; the socionormative function of genres and shaping of life-worlds—it’s all there.

Writing: it’s a substantive field, and writing-about-writing lets me teach it as such.

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Categories: Writing about Writing
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