Teaching Tips: Writing that Matters in Institutions that Matter

By: Jared Grogan

Publication Note: This post was originally written in 2014, but it is being published here for the first time.

The birth of my son recently has made for an exhausting and emotional few weeks – resulting in mainly pragmatic attitude towards teaching 1020.  Focusing almost explicitly on clarity and purpose driven writing is slightly out of character for me– even though it is an attitude that (for me anyway) plays well in the classroom up to a point.  As freshmen writers and writing teachers work (hopefully) as allies in constructing various arguments for final papers in 1020 at Wayne, a common exigence we (hopefully) return to is explaining or developing our assignments so they support both our curricular goals and writing that matters to our students. This struggle is one that has very much concerned Richard Miller (2007-present) who argues that when students work to develop arguments that matter to them, they tend to venture into populist readings and public debates that can seem to stifle any sense of authorial or rhetorical agency – mainly because they often enhance familiar feelings of fragmentation between theories and practice, feelings of displacement from powerful discourses or institutions, or frustration and anxieties about complex social problems – all of which can also lead students back to simple solutions about ‘raising awareness’ or  ‘informing a public’ or to a sense that they’re once again just writing for the sake of a grade.

For Miller, writing that matters to undergraduates constructs a “sense of hope” and “generates a greater sense of connection” between students and networks of people working on articulating diverse solutions to problems (25).  What kinds of writing assignments would meet this criteria for undergraduates, and why?    While my 1020 courses maintain the core project of practical training in rhetoric, where students are introduced to the history and discipline of rhetoric as the centuries-old study of the arts of persuasion, all of our 1020 courses share a rhetorical objective to cultivate students’ ability to respond to a variety of rhetorical texts and situations while learning to creatively and effectively solve problems, strategically orient arguments to real audiences, and respond critically and constructively to each other’s work.   In the veins of both the theoretical and pragmatic aspects of teaching students to be fluent in diverse modes of rhetorical work, Miller’s arguments hinge on a commonplace that surfaces for many of us teaching 1020:  many of our students discover their writing ‘matters’ only as we gradually “expand our notion of the rhetorical project to include the ongoing work of learning to make oneself heard in a variety of  [real] contexts” (47).

Miller’s specific emphasis on writing in the context of the university is also one commonplace for many of us looking to find audiences and interventions for student writing. Based on our students’ positions in the university, Miller looks at extending rhetorical agencies through the project of institutional autobiographies as a genre which “unites the seemingly opposed worlds of the personal –where one is free, unique, and outside of history—and the institutional—where one is constrained, anonymous, and imprisoned by the accretion of past practices” (138).  For Miller “the overriding goal, though, is to locate one’s evolving narrative within a specific range of institutional contexts, shifting attention from the self to the nexus where the self and institution meet” (138).  To this end, one avenue for argumentation or productive rhetorical work at Wayne State is for students to not only learn to be responsible writers and citizens of a university, but to more seriously engage the ethical implications of being at a public urban institution with a history of individual and institutional arguments about the nature of responsibility and our collective work (Note: I’m looking forward to Mike McGuiness’ arguments on this history in his dissertation).

Thus, as we frequently encounter this potential for our students to leverage their power as students at Wayne state, I wonder if we’ve explored this context sufficiently as common ground for ourselves and for our students?  Do they know what responsibilities we share?  Do they know the vulnerability of our position as students and citizens of this public institution?  Knowing that students consistently return to writing as students of this kind in addressing complex problems, can we be more prepared to guide some of our students so they feel that we expected this, and that we support them in building rhetorical skills in problems solving our public-institutional challenges?

Jared Grogan is a Senior Lecturer in Wayne State’s English Department. He teaches technical and professional writing in the Composition Program.

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