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Disciplinary Expertise and Writing Studies

posted: 8.1.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Last week at the Council of Writing Program Administrator Conference in Savannah, I presented on the question of expertise. In particular, I asked how we make decisions about hiring and staffing if we teach courses, both first-year composition and upper-level writing, that teach from the content/research/theory of our field. This is not a hard question for any other field: biologists teach biology, historians teach history. But our field of Rhetoric and Composition has blurry boundaries. Everyone who writes has popular understandings of writing that they may mistake for specialist knowledge. Professional writers not in our field have specialist knowledge of a particular kind, but not necessarily the sort of specialist knowledge we have generated as a discipline that studies writing. And, of course, historically, many people without disciplinary expertise in Rhetoric and Composition have been hired to teach writing courses.

For all of these reasons and many others, our field has a difficult time with questions about disciplinary expertise. What does it mean to teach from our field’s specialized disciplinary knowledge? Who is qualified to teach our disciplinary courses? Who is qualified to make policy about writing, writing instruction, and writing assessment? While these questions are uncomfortable, we have to find a way to address them if we want to have any hope of making systemic and consequential changes in the way writing is viewed, taught, engaged in, and assessed.

I’ve recently been reading Harry Collins and Robert Evans’ book, Rethinking Expertise. While not everything that they have to say is relevant to our field, they do provide some helpful food for thought in thinking through the questions I posed above. Collins and Evans outline a number of types of expertise, including the following:

  • Popular understanding :what people generally understand about a particular concept or phenomenon
  • Primary source knowledge: knowledge of the research literature from a particular field without necessarily interacting with members of the field
  • Contributory expertise: the ability to “contribute to the domain in which the expertise pertains….the ability to do things within the domain of expertise” (p. 24)
  • Interactional expertise: mastery of the language of a particular domain, including the ability to converse about the issues and ideas, but without making research contributions to the domain
  • Referred expertise: expertise from another domain that has relevance to doing work in the current domain

Collins and Evans assert repeatedly their belief that “the location of expertise is the social group” (p. 78).

Reading this list of expertise types brings up several questions for me: What kinds of expertise are needed in order to teach content-based courses? And what domains of knowledge are relevant for teaching writing courses? For example, is primary source knowledge enough to teach a writing about writing course, or does the teacher need to have more interaction with the members of the field who are creating research and forwarding the disciplinary conversations and theories? Do some courses require more contributory (research-based) expertise from the field of Rhet/Comp (for example, our Rhetoric and Civic Engagement or Introduction to Writing Studies courses), while others require more referred expertise (for example, our Professional Writing or Professional Editing courses)?

As our field moves from focusing primarily on first-year composition and sees the creation of more writing departments, more writing majors, and more upper-level classes, we will have to answer these questions and many others. The discussion we have been having about writing studies content in first-year composition and how to help faculty become prepared to teach that content is only one of many discussions about disciplinary knowledge and expertise that we will be having over the coming years.


Categories: Elizabeth Wardle
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