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Posts Tagged ‘Discourse community’

Writing, Workshopping, Emulation

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on May 13, 2011 at 9:49 am

Allen Mendenhall

I remember trying to write a paper for my high school English class and sitting in the library for what seemed like hours, looking at my blank sheet—we didn’t use laptops in those days—and thinking, “How am I going to write six pages about this book.”

The book was Wuthering Heights, and I was, I think, sixteen.  I had written papers before, but never one this long.  I was stuck.  I had writers’ block.  All I could think about was thinking about finishing the paper as soon as possible.

Eventually, I jotted down something that led to something else that led, in turn, to something else, which became the bulk of my paper.  I don’t remember what my paper was about, or the grade I received for my efforts.  All I remember was the panicked moment in the library when that blank-white paper stared back at me and seemed to demand that I fill it with words.

I was angry because I felt helpless.  My high school “not-gonna-do-it” attitude was much like the attitudes I sense in my college students.  Frustrated, I convinced myself that I didn’t need to write about Wuthering Heights because the book was old or for girls or whatever.  The problem was, I liked the book and wanted to write about it.  I just couldn’t.

“If we are going to teach our students to need to write,” remarks James A. Reither, “we will have to know much more than we do about the kinds of contexts that conduce—sometimes even force, certainly enable—the impulse to write.”

Reither is spot on.

Today, I can hardly restrain my impulses to write.  I write all the time.  I feel that I’m always learning how to write—and to write better.

What happened between my junior year of high school and today?  I can’t reduce the explanation to a single cause.

The best answer is probably that many things happened between then and now, each of them influencing me in some way.

As Reither claims, “writing processes and written products are elements of the same social process,” by which he means the social process of immersing ourselves in discourse communities and becoming fluent in the language and cultures of our audience.  Writing is not easy.  It involves repetition, experiment, experience, and mimesis.

Reither submits that “[m]ost of us learned to do what we do on our own—perhaps in spite of the courses we took—and some students continue to do the same.”

In college, I read unassigned essays just to get a feel for how authors conveyed their thoughts and feelings, for how they punctuated their sentences and toyed with syntax.  I underlined vocabulary that I wanted to use in my own papers.  I suppose this method of learning could be called emulationRead the rest of this entry »

Discourse and Legal Writing Instructors

In Communication, Information Design, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Rhetoric & Communication on August 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm

My writing instructors in law school parroted a line that I considered both annoying and at times wrong:  “This is bad writing.”  The criteria for what constituted bad (as opposed to good) writing had to do, invariably, with rigid rules of grammar and syntax.  A sentence was “bad,” for example, if it failed to have a comma following an introductory prepositional phrase; or a sentence was good, even if it sounded awkward, so long as it did not violate any rule of basic grammar.  Such over-commitment to formalism quashed any sense of experimentation or creativity that the students might have had.  Rather than trying out new styles and syntaxes, students confined their writing to short, plain statements of fact and conclusion.  Their papers read like boring how-to manuals: monotone and tedious, never lively and engaging.  The problem, as I see it, is that legal writing instructors have little awareness of audience.  They simply have no notion of what Stanley Fish calls “interpretive communities” and so have no notion of genre (categories of discourse) or performative text (text that mimics or signals certain categories of discourse).  Legal writing instructors locate students within a field of discourse akin to technical writing, but they never explain to students why technical writing is appropriate or even desirable in a legal context.  Instead, they inform students that anything that is not technical writing is bad, and they do so without realizing that different communities may have different expectations or prefer different techniques and vocabularies.  Legal writing instructors never explain that certain modes of writing can be good in other contexts but instead treat all writing as belonging to one classificatory scheme.  They force writing into one of two categories—good or bad—without regard to the quality of writing as contextualized in other communities.  Such habits simply will not do.      Read the rest of this entry »

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