Monday, January 31, 2011

Standards and Expectations from Engaged Writers, Dynamic Disciplines

In a book that was published in 2006 titled Engaged Writers, Dynamic Disciplines: Research on the Academic Writing Life, Chris Thaiss and Terry Myers Zawacki present, as the back cover relates, the conclusions of a "four-year, crossdisciplinary study of faculty and students from a wide range of majors" that "demonstrate[s] that academic disciplines are dynamic spaces that accommodate a variety of alternative styles and visions."

While Thaiss and Myers Zawacki offer a detailed portrait of the ways writing takes place in diverse majors, they begin their book with three core principles that might help students understand where professors are coming from. In this post I thought I'd present the three principles for reflection and discussion.

Thaiss and Myers Zawacki claim that "regardless of differences among disciplines and individual teachers" (5) professors expect:
  1. "Clear evidence in writing that the writer(s) have been persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in study" (5).
  2. "The dominance of reason over emotions or sensual perception" (5).
  3. "An imagined reader who is coolly rational, reading for information, and intending to formulate a reasoned response" (7).
The first principle relates to how college classes depend on strong reading and careful thinking. As the authors relate, "academics are invariably harsh toward any student or scholar who hasn't done the background reading, who isn't prepared to talk formally or off the cuff about the subject of the writing, and whose writing doesn't show careful attention to the objects of study and reflective thought about them" (5).

In other words, students or scholars need to show that they know the conversations going on in that discipline or subject, and they need take time to distill what it means to them through discussion, writing papers, WebCT posts, etc.

What the second principle connects to, for me at least, is that while students may have strong opinions, they also must support those ideas with evidence, reasoning, examples, and details that make sense to a wider audience. While the authors' own study details a Professor of Nursing who promotes the use of emotions and experiences as a means to understand the challenges of the profession, even then a writer is expected to be "a careful, fair student and analyst of competing positions" (6), which also connects to how the authors detail principle 3 in terms that "all academic writing is 'argumentative' in its perception of a reader who may object or disagree" since "the writer's effort to anticipate and allay these potential objections is also part of a broadly 'argumentative' ethos" (7).

So with all that information related above, what do you think based on your own careful reading and critical thinking? [see principle 1]

Do these principles seem true to you based on your experience as a student and/or a professor?


  1. I assign lots of writing--formal (review essays, research papers) and informal (short "responses" and close readings of selected passages in assigned reading)--and the adjectives in #1 certainly seem to me to describe the characteristics of a student writer who is going to produce something worthwhile: "persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in study" (5). Writers who are unfocused, uninterested in anything they don't already believe, and inattentive get what they paid for.

    I'm a little surprised at the emphasis on the "dominance of reason over emotions or sensual perception," but as long as this "coolly rational" reader/writer takes emotions and the senses into account, s/he should be able to formulate a "reasoned response" that other readers will be able to work with.

  2. Yeh, I don't know whether principle two is a good one or not. I guess I'll side with it being a positive since folks should be expected to provide a reasoned response, something more than, "That's just how I feel." Of course, there are reasons why people feel the ways they do.

    Because of research done about the productive use of emotions (Laura Micciche's book Doing Emotion, Nia Klein's recent MA thesis in Comp/Rhet at EIU, the use of therapeutic writing, etc.), I don't think emotions should be seen as always clouding reasoning. Sure, they can, but emotions can lead us to reason, especially if you think of emotions being tied to assumptions, worldviews, and beliefs, which is really how we should interpret pathos (appeal to emotions) in the Aristotelian scheme of things in my opinion.

  3. As a student, your question prompted me to review a piece of writing I submitted last week as an assignment in a graduate level Shakespeare seminar, and to recall something our professor said during class about a recent trend within English studies, “New Historicism.” He told us that historians are annoyed when scholars from other disciplines appear to believe they can glance at a couple of newspaper articles, juxtapose what they glean there with a piece of literature, and presume that what results is akin to historical study.

    In the short essay alluded to above, I draw connections between (a) three contemporary critical examinations of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus that range in their approaches across discussions of trauma theory, pornography, and the definition of “gratuitous” violence; (b) a scholarly analysis of the rhetorical maneuvers designed by the Bush administration for the preparation of American citizens’ acceptance of the transformation of post 9/11 terror suspects and Gitmo/Abu Ghraib detainees into bodily entities outside the protection of the Geneva Convention; and (c) photographs that document some of the results of the process referred to in (b).

    As I reviewed what I had written, I tried to be critical of the moves I made in terms of the criteria you draw attention to in your post.

    How did I do on the Thaiss and Myers Zawacki scale? [copied here from your post]

    1. "Clear evidence in writing that the writer(s) have been persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in study."
    2. "The dominance of reason over emotions or sensual perception."
    3. "An imagined reader who is coolly rational, reading for information, and intending to formulate a reasoned response."

    1. I wonder if perhaps my piece is inspired and motivated by a style of writing more polemical than one that befits scholarly study. Persistent: yes. Open- minded: possibly. Disciplined: cross-wise.

    2. Though the workings of reason are evident in my discourse, it does rely thematically upon a discussion of sensual imagery and emotion.

    3. I do anticipate and address some criticism of my approach to the material I present, though how effectively I do so is an open question.