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From Research to Writing: The Content-Skills Continuum

In reading a May 2006 op/ed in the New York Times by theorist Stanley Fish, titled “The Writing Lesson,” one is immediately aware of a potential schism in writing pedagogy centered on the split between form and content. Fish writes, and readers familiar with sentential logic would concur, a “word’s meaning is not relevant to its function.” Fish continues, in discussion with a writing student, that “we’re not interested in content…(content is always the enemy of writing instruction).” Or is it?

In the text Writing About Writing, 2nd ed. by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs (Bedford/St. Martin’s 2014), one reads that “in order to transfer knowledge, students need to explicitly create general principles based on their own experience and learning.” Students, they say, “need to be self-reflective, so that they keep track of what they are thinking and learning as they do it; and be mindful, that is, alert to their surroundings and to what they are doing rather than just doing things automatically and unconsciously” (vi). Moreover, “[a] writing course that takes language, writing, reading, and literacy as its subjects can help students achieve these goals by teaching them general principles” that are fundamentally rhetorical in nature.

As one considers the implications of John Willison and Kerry O’Regan’s paper “Commonly Known, Commonly Not Known, Totally Known: A Framework for Students Becoming Researchers” (Higher Education Research and Development 26/4, Dec. 2007: 393-409), one notes that student researching along a “continuum of knowledge production” (394) posits what the authors term a “Research Skills Development Framework,” a process-product continuum that potentially mediates a form/content binary.

Research skills are by most accounts grounded in particular disciplines as the literature on research methodologies attests. For Stanley Fish and the authors of Writing About Writing the discipline of writing and composition poses specific interest in students making effective rhetorical choices in writing, especially with respect to “language, writing, reading, and literacy.” For Fish, student writers should be aware of syntactical effectiveness prior to success in making semantic decisions. Often, it is the research paper in composition courses that brings language and literacy into focus through writing and reading. The focus on syntax and form, though, begs the question of how students solve specific problems of sentence and paragraph construction and development, as well the organization of compositions intended for rhetorical situations grounded in concrete generic conventions. The concern points to the often-mentioned academic conversation.

Anne Beaufort, in College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction (Utah State UP, 2007), suggests a conceptual model for writing instruction that acknowledges a quartet of structural functions–subject-matter knowledge, genre knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, and process knowledge–under the heading of discourse-community knowledge. In other words, Beaufort’s critically-informed notion of “discourse” as a mode of academic literacy squares the circle between form and content in writing pedagogy. Research processes (generating) join writing processes (invention), and take place in the rhetorically-informed context of genre. Ultimately, research as scaffolded by the Research Development Framework, a concept premised along a developmental continuum from closed to open possibilities for intellectual autonomy, provides a basis for coherence and organization that helps synthesize form and content. The net result being that student researchers improve writing skills along with subject-matter knowledge, and that synthesis of form and content leads to mindful intentions in writing and scholarship.




Climate change, research, and the writing process

In my composition classroom, we investigate strategies that apply rhetorical knowledge to understand, analyze, synthesize and evaluate researched-based academic discourses about the writing process, genre studies, and the themes of identity and climate change. Students study ways that content knowledge in rhetoric, genre, identity, and climate change shape writing processes and outcomes in effective composition and writing applications. We assess the roles of audiences, writing purposes, and the contexts that shape rhetorical situations by framing questions about effective communication and research into climate change.

My students investigate cultural identities associated with variant climate change discourses. They develop a profile for discourse community knowledge by associating environmentally-conscious consumerism, emerging climate-change discourses and activism, and consider the roles of media and government in shaping these discourses. Students study the conventions of informational and persuasive genres to better understand the rhetorical contexts that shape climate-change discourses.

Using the Research Skills Development Framework (Willison & O’Regan, 2007) and the Discourse Community Knowledge Framework (Beaufort, 2007), students apply, synthesize, and evaluate their research using scaffolded writing-processes including concept and mind mapping, rhetorical invention, exploring open-ended questions, problem solving, peer-reviewing, reflective writing, and finalizing research questions. Each stage involves intentional movement from bounded to autonomous research. Students recognize the differences in audience and purpose by understanding and applying the differing conventions of genres.

I set research skill outcomes to help students develop, focus, and analyze topics to generate effective writing of sentences, paragraphing, and document organization. An integrated approach to writing involves both reflexive writing processes (writing about writing) and content-based writing. By better leveraging subject-matter knowledge students overcome preconceptions about identity, climate change, and gain skill in writing as problem solving.