Kopp and Stevens

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Strategic Re-articulation and Its Exigence

Composition scholars have well documented--to the point of becoming commonplace--how difficult it is to set the agenda for discussing writing when facing external audiences who think of writing in terms of discrete, masterable skills. Around the metaphor "skill" cluster several, closely-linked premises, such as the premise that writing is remedial and peripheral to the work of the university, that writing programs can be held accountable for the persistence of formal, sentence-level errors, and that external, large-scale writing assessments can serve as a ready proxy for writing instruction.

Some premises of this sort are articulated by the teachers and students interviewed in the above video clip (See our first and second case studies for more about the initial production and circulation of the videos from which we constructed our video clips). It can be difficult to challenge these premises, but, as WPAs know, this challenge is necessary. To begin, only by engaging administrators can we forestall top-down decisions that carry material consequences such as budget cuts, reliance on underpaid and overworked contingent faculty, or large class sizes that make instructional shortcuts a practical necessity (Hesse 2002, p. 42). As Yvonne Merrill and Thomas P. Miller (2003) argue, to "develop convincing arguments for preserving ["temporary" funding and other forms of material] support for literacy work, we WPAs need to understand how our colleagues think about writing instruction" and then address our colleagues' assumptions (p. 205).

Second, challenging these premises is necessary to engage instructors with a particular writing program, especially those teaching assistants and adjuncts coming from fields that customarily overlook current teaching and research in composition and rhetoric. For instructors, the hegemony of the current writing-as-skills articulation can make it more difficult to teach consistently from the view that writing is a complex social practice; this hegemony might maintain, even unconsciously, iterations of current-traditional pedagogy that excise careful reading, critical thinking, adapting rhetorical strategies to diverse audiences and situations, reflexively entering and enacting the subject positions offered by different academic genres, and engaging in effective and substantive revision (Berlin 1987; Crowley 1990). Third, due to the hegemonic view of writing instruction, students themselves may come to each higher level of writing instruction thinking they already know how to write; they may view university-level writing instruction, for example, as an extension of secondary school; and they may resist program emphases on invention, revision, or reflective research.

Finally, even broader audiences (legislators, parents, the general public) bring their already-existing views to bear on writing program curricula and decisions in consequential ways. In an increasingly conservative political climate, writing programs that link language to critical thinking, invention, and idea development are too readily labeled political and therefore deemed inappropriate. Relatively recently in Arizona, for example, David Horowitz and Tom Ryan (2007) have called on presumed agreement that writing instruction primarily concerns grammar instruction to support (at least implicitly) legislative measures that would enable curriculum censorship, explicitly targeting University of Arizona writing courses, amongst others.

While such attitudes might not ultimately control the practices of writing programs, they can keep WPAs on the constant defensive. The "skills only"/current-traditional cluster of arguments serves as a hegemonic articulation, one that is in need of strategic re-articulation. For this perspective, we rely on Stuart Hall (1985), who defines articulation as:

a connection or link which is not necessarily given in all cases, as a law or a fact of life, but which requires particular conditions of existence to appear at all, which has to be positively sustained by specific processes, which is not "eternal" but has constantly to be renewed, which can under some circumstances disappear or be overthrown, leading to the old linkages being dissolved and new connections--re-articulation--being forged. (p. 113, note 2)

Hall's definition foregrounds how much can be tied up in the constant reproduction of specific articulations: funding, assessment processes, labor relations, public discourse, and the relationships among all these.

Yet Hall's (1985) is ultimately a hopeful definition for WPAs, as it recognizes the possibility of creating a relational ripple effect by changing any particular term of an articulation. The hegemony of a skills-based understanding of writing instruction is, as Jennifer Slack (1996) says of articulations more generally, simply "a moment of arbitrary closure" (p. 115). Slack notes that such closures often contain contradictions: a skills-only understanding of writing instruction, for example, articulates writing as both foundational and too remedial for university study; such an understanding can simultaneously support practices that institute writing as a universal requirement and justify undercutting that requirement with insufficient funding. These contradictions suggest instabilities and the possibility of a strategic re-articulation that better illustrates the complexities of writing and writing instruction.

By moving beyond "that's just the way things are," re-articulation can make visible, as valuable, the work of writing instruction, represented in disciplinary terms. As Merrill and Miller (2003) argue, by making visible the learning that writing programs produce, we may alter misperceptions that "students do not write well because composition courses do not teach the 'basics,'" or that "writing is better taught in courses with 'content'" (p. 205). If nothing else, we might reach the point articulated by the final teacher in the above clip, who experienced the opening up of new collegial conversations about what constitutes good writing.

In pursuit of this goal, we take Merrill and Miller's (2003) point about visibility to an extreme. We advocate making writing instruction visible--literally--using digital video, for doing so promises an alternative rhetorical strategy for writing programs to challenge the limiting hegemonic articulations that constrain the social complexities of writing instruction. As we argue on our next two web pages, because of its pathos and because it can be shown readily to multiple audiences, digital video is a particularly effective and efficient means to make writing program practices visible to multiple audiences--on our own terms.

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