Writing and Inclusivity: Why Context and Rhetoric Matter

Writing: what do you think of when you hear this word? Do you think of a reporter, typing away furiously at an old-fashioned typewriter? Do you see a 16th century Renaissance man scribbling philosophy on parchment paper? Or do you think of the panic that overcame you when you had a written exam?

Writing has come to mean different things to different people, especially in an age of constant advancement and technological changes. Because of the multiple social contexts we live in, the way we approach writing will inevitably contain meanings that resonate differently to some. This concept is beautifully explored in the book Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, a collection of narratives and essays that help identify what is true and current about writing studies. Specifically, the first threshold concept – explored by Kevin Roozen- states that “writing is a social and rhetorical activity” (17). This overarching concept is then divided up into equally important sub-concepts, three of which stood out to me as I’m beginning to consider my own form of writing pedagogy for future classes.

1. Writing Addresses, Invokes, and/or Creates Audiences

According to author Andrea Lunsford in Naming What You Know, “writing is both relational and responsive, always in some way part of an ongoing conversation with others” (20). She further explains that due to the evolving nature of digital and online literacies, the line between writer and audience has become blurred, allowing both parties to have greater agency for material that is being created and conveyed (21). It is a given fact that we are living in a digital world, one that is constantly shifting and adapting to reflect current technological advancements. The change of writing in a tech-savy era has also ultimately led to a change in dialects and linguistics, a change that needs addressing. In his book Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy, author Vershawn Ashanti Young explores the need for embracing dialects (particularly for African American Vernacular English); however, he also mentions how the digital age itself has created its own dialect. He states, “Not only does this digital dialect attest to the evolving nature of the English language but of all language” (115). If, as Lunsford pointed out, the line between writer and audience is becoming blurred due to technology, how can I as an instructor create agency for a digital age generation, one that is already filled with many cultural dialects of their own?

2. Writing is Not Natural

It's not natural. None of it.
Credit: getyarn.io

It’s not. As Samwise Gamgee eloquently states here, it is not a natural part of human experience. Author Dylan B. Dryer points out, in contrast to writing, “speech is natural in the sense that as modern homo sapiens we’ve been speaking to one another for nearly two hundred thousand years” (27). In fact, there are some societies that exist today that don’t have their own standard form of writing (Dryer 28). Young directly addresses this conundrum in Other People’s English, observing, “The ability to speak language is a basic part of being human, and all children are born with the ability to fully learn the rules of language spoken around them” (18). There is some reassurance knowing that writing isn’t just a normal thing people are born gifted in; further, knowing speech comes more naturally than writing provides the importance of why code-meshing practices are important. How we speak in today’s society on a day-to-day basis should directly relate onto the page (or webpage, in some instances).

3. Assessing Writing Shapes Context & Instruction

One of the biggest things I have learned so far in my studies of writing pedagogy is that there are many forms of assessment. According to Tony Scott and Asao B. Inoue, “In school settings, writing assessment refers to the formulation of a judgement or decision based on the reading of student writing with a particular set of expectations or values in mind” (29). However, “assessment is not neutral: it shapes the social and rhetorical contexts where writing takes place, especially in school” (Scott & Inoue 30). This means that anything, including political agendas, cultural assumptions like “Standard English”, and specific institutional goals can affect how teachers give and students take assessments. Regarding Standard English prescriptive grammar norms, Young points out that teachers, especially college professors, should promote pedagogy practices that take into account the social contexts of language and grammar. He asserts, “Code-meshing is not a ‘mechanical activity, where diverse languages are meshed indiscriminately’ but a series of choices the writer considers throughout the writing process, textualizations ‘based on rhetorical, social, and identity considerations’” (150). Young isn’t alone with his stance on writing as a social process; the Conference on College Composition & Communication even has a position statement on writing assessments as a socially and rhetorically guided practice. It is so important to acknowledge social context, especially in terms of writing and the English language.

Contextually, this is correct! Credit: tumblr.com

Mari’s Musing:

The writing we create and read is constantly shifting to reflect the social contexts and audiences that we experience on a daily basis. Knowing that writing is more than just putting words to paper, and is actually affected by outside factors we may not be able to control at any given time, helps me, as an instructor, put in perspective the stances my future students may have regarding writing. I love writing and literature and have made it my career; my students may have an opposite outlook shaped by an experience I could not control. I am looking forward to finding pedagogical practices that can serve to be inclusive to all of the students I may encounter in the future.

References:

  • Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth A. Wardle, editors. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Utah State University Press, 2016.
  • “Biography: Dr. Vershawn Ashanti Young.” Quinnipiac University WACT Conference, quwactconference.colostate.edu/vay/.
  • Cueto, Isabel. “Creating Conversation: Code Meshing as a Rhetorical Choice.” UCWbLing, 13 Mar. 2019, ucwbling.chicagolandwritingcenters.org/creating-conversation-code-meshing-as-a-rhetoricalchoice/#:~:text=Code%20meshing%20is%20the%20combining,our%20work%20as%20peer%20tutors.
  • Weimer, Maryellen. “Threshold Concepts: Portals to New Ways of Thinking.” Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 7 Nov. 2014, www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/threshold-concepts-portals-new-ways-thinking/.
  • “Writing Assessment: A Position Statement.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, Nov. 2014, cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/writingassessment.
  • Young, Vershawn Ashanti. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Parlor Press, 2018.

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