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The Power of Transparency over Rhetorical Systems

posted: 5.10.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Somewhere in the past of this blog, I’ve probably made a glancing reference to Clive Thompson’s concept of radical transparency, the tendency of modern America to confessional disclosure or exposure of information that by tradition has been kept secret. In this post I want to think at greater length about the role of radical transparency in writing instruction and, more particularly, its role in writing about writing.

I frequently write about WAW’s suitability for addressing misconceptions of writing and, especially, the double standards frequently imposed on student writers by teachers and administrators who make requirements for students’ writing that they would never follow in their own. For example, the research that WAW students do on writing process can expose ways that students’ writing is held to higher standards of proofreading than their teachers’ professional writing is (a point explored well in Joseph Williams’ classic “Phenomenology of Error” article, which we also reprint in Writing about Writing). Another kind of transparency happens in WAW classes when students explore their own writing environments, discovering, for example, what the architecture students on their campus write, versus the engineering students, law students, veterinary students, etc.

Here I want to think about a third kind of transparency, what I’ll call systems transparency. First, though, I need to do some thinking about rhetoric. We know that writers are usually at their strongest when they can clearly anticipate how readers will use their texts; that’s why writers who get to see readers try to use their writing revise it better than those who don’t. This is essentially another way of saying that writers who better understand their rhetorical situations, including who their readers are and how they’ll use the texts, have a greater chance of creating better writing for those situations.

Well, how do writers come to understand their rhetorical situations?

One way is through this radical systems transparency: have the people in power in the situation (or the people in charge of it) take as much “hiddenness” out of the rhetorical system in question as possible. Which, when you think about it, is a kind of power-sharing. And if the rhetorical system in question is an institution of higher education, then its writing teachers may be uniquely positioned, particularly in a writing-about-writing course, to demystify the institution for students.

An example I often use is a general-education course appeal. Suppose a student wants to substitute a course for a required gen-ed course, and this substitution requires a written appeal to a review committee. What does the student know about where their writing actually goes? What happens to it? Who reads it?  From what stance, in what mood? Why is a written appeal required to begin with? What values does that reflect? What values are faculty members who sit on a gen-ed appeals committee likely to share to begin with? All of which is to say, there’s a rhetorical system that a newcomer with a limited angle of vision can’t be expected to understand well, but needs to understand well in order to write effectively in it.

In a way, this is the premise underlying disciplinary writing instruction as well, and why such instruction  is vastly superior to general writing skills instruction. But there’s something even more at work here: in sharing knowledgeable perspectives about the workings of a rhetorical system, we go some way toward equalizing the power imbalance that “the system” gains by keeping itself opaque to its subjects.

In my last class meeting of the semester in my Intro to Writing Studies class, as we reflected on particularly effective learning moments in the class, what my students said they most appreciated were the days when we talked about how the school works. Its politics, its systems, its reasons and values. In other words, its rhetoric. One of the particular pleasures of teaching writing-about-writing is such truth-telling.


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