Tag: composition theory

Theory Writing/Writing Theory

Ben Poe, Writing Consultant

“The task of critical reflection is not merely to understand the various facts in their historical development (…) but also to see through the notion of fact itself, in its development and therefore in its relativity.”
― Max Horkheimer, 
Eclipse of Reason

Theory provides a critical language, argumentative framework, and stylistic approach to writing. Working in the field of critical theory—a genre of writing developed by thinkers like Frederic Jameson, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and the academics of the Frankfurt School—blends critical analysis with artistic inquiry. Critical theory combines the creative and critical by capturing abstract ideas in linguistic concepts, while also depending on intertextual reference to convey is meaning—making a unique academic form for writers. Moreover, the dialectical foundation of theory enables clearly delineated rhetorical structures that depicts the associations between seemingly separate ideas. Thus, theory’s creatively critical genre asks for a writing style that questions exactly what style is—illustrating its unique position between the margins of academic objective analysis and creative expression.

Critical theory offers a specialized language that blends objective criticism with creative intertextuality. Language is obviously an essential characteristic of writing: the unique language of theory not only conceptualizes abstract ideas that help writers articulate difficult thoughts, but the concepts of critical theory also depend on an intertextual history—intertextuality being an artistic device closely related to parody or satire that means to use a word, name, or image in an artistic creation that refers back to a previously created artistic form, generating a new meaning in the reference (like when Anthony Hopkins quotes Shakespeare in HBO’s Westworld)—of cultural criticism that pluralizes the meaning of its concepts, making theory resemble an art form like poetry that requires close attention a multitude of literary devices. Indeed, a term like “logocentrism,” a word coined by Jacques Derrida to illustrate the hierarchy of speech over writing, exemplifies a concept that contains a radically abstract idea that allows academic writers to articulate specificity in their argument. However, feminist and queer scholars developed a special interest in the term (also coined by Derrida) “phallogocentrism,” which indicates the patriarchal occupation of spoken language. By adapting “logocentrism” to a feminist and queer focused analysis, scholars have pluralized the meaning of the term by multiplying its reference points: the definition of the term “phallogocentrism” not only refers to the research of the feminist and queer thinkers who developed it, but also to Derrida’s philosophical work. The adaption of the terms illustrates the intertextual dependence of critical theory concepts, making the genre of theory a unique field of academic criticism and artistic creation. Thus, theory’s combination of objective analysis with poetic intertextuality to interrogate language and convey ideas that simple denotation cannot express illustrates a unique writing style that makes theory critical and creative. The style of theory writing transforms academic research into a version of artistic commentary that expresses profound ideas in a creative form. 

The dialectical foundation of critical theory enables abstract associations to be formulated in an understandable written organization. Dialectical argumentation has been performed for thousands of years—Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to advocate dialectical techniques in rhetorical analyses. It was Frederick Hegel and Karl Marx who developed the dialectical model to a critique of culture, then carried on by Jameson, the Frankfurt School, and Derrida as a core characteristic of their philosophies. The most basic dialectical model is the thesis, antithesis, synthesis structure, which takes one phenomenon (like the content of a story) and compares it with another seemingly different phenomenon (like the form or medium of a story) to show that the meaning of an artwork depends on a relationship between its content and form. In argumentative writing, dialectics works by comparing one claim to its opposite in order to (synthesize) illustrate the similarity between the two ideas. If someone wants to claim that wealthier individuals should pay higher taxes, a dialectical argument will point out the benefits of the claim, but also the (antithetical) claims supporting the opposing side who believes taxes should be lower. The dialectical synthesis, therefore, combines the two ideas to illustrate how the original claim supplements the arguments of the opposing side—not simply how one side is better, but how both sides combine to create a new understanding of the problem. Thus, structuring essays dialectically creates a roadmap for nuanced analysis, as well as a consciousness for how the meaning of a written work is conditioned by its presentation in a particular form. The dialectical model illustrates the creative and the critical aspects of the theory genre because it asks writers to be aware of the metaphysical aspects that inform interpretations of their work, while also acting as a structure for argumentative analysis.                                                     

Theory lives on the margins of objective analysis and creative inquiry, making it a unique style of academic writing. Critical theory twists the supposed difference between academic criticism and creative production because it is a writing style that blurs categories. Theory blends the poetic with the positional, which creates a distinctive style of academic writing that questions the separation of objective analysis and subjective understanding. Critical theory is creative because it steeps in the ambiguity of language and relies on pluralized, intertextual association to convey the meanings of its ideas. It remains critical, however, because the subject of its inquiry is cultural conditions and phenomena. Thus, theory writing embodies a unique writing practice—conveying truths in a decentered form.      

Youtubin Your Way Through Literary Theory

Edward English, Assistant Director to the Writing Center

Years back, I began my freshman year at The University of Oklahoma knowing I would be an English major. Edward English Why not? English classes were my favorite in high school. I did well analyzing literature, waxing philosophy during class discussions, writing compelling essays about how Rasknolnikov’s struggles to combat guilt were not too unlike my own teenage worries that I wouldn’t find a prom date.

But as I began my college-level courses, something emerged in my English classes which I felt ill-equipped for—literary theory. Literary theory was, and still is, difficult for me for a number of reasons. While a single piece of literature may have little to no variance in its written composition, the theoretical framework(s) we use to extrapolate meaning from that same text can be seemingly infinite. So where do you begin? And which theoretical lenses are worth valuing and why?

What’s more, the philosophers/theorists canonized in contemporary literary criticism frequently appeared to me little more than a random amalgamation of scholars from various fields at numerous historical periods used to propagate particular political interests. Not to mention that many of these writings are incredibly dense and difficult for a beginner to absorb. I can recall making my way through the deconstructionists and thinking I might as well be reading a foreign language.

In time though, my disposition towards literary theory has shifted dramatically. As a current graduate student in English here at the UofL, it now feels like half of my life revolves around geeking out with my friends and colleagues about various theoretical takes on a piece of writing. There is one resource, however, that I wish would have had in my undergrad (had it been available): the YouTube channel The School of Life.

With relatively short videos (5-10 minutes), this channel entertainingly distills the main ideas of various literary theorists, as well as explicating the life and writings of specific famous writers. Watching these videos can be helpful on several levels. Maybe you’ve read through some literary theory but want to know how well you understood a given theory. Perhaps you’d like to prime yourself beforehand with an overview before you jump into the denser theory itself. Or, could be you just want to watch an engaging, and often silly, video that will expand your mind on how you can read a text. Either way, check them out! They are well worth your time.

Some of the major literary movements, theorists, and authors available on The School of Life:

Jacques Derrida
Michel Foucault
Karl Marx
Friedrich Nietzsche
Jane Austen
Leo Tolstoy
Virginia Woolf 
Marcel Proust
George Orwell

You Can’t Teach That: Facilitating Discussion on Tutor-Writer Rapport?

DSCN3709Amy Nichols, Assistant Director

As one of the assistant directors at the writing center, I have the opportunity to teach two lessons in Bronwyn’s “Writing Center Theory and Practice” course, where our graduate consultants receive training during the fall semester. Recently, I facilitated one of our class discussions around “Student-tutor relations in the Writing Center.” Writing center sessions can include wildly varying levels of language and disciplinary expertise between both tutors and writers, making relationship-building critical to successful communication. In addition, rapport is also a crucial (and under-discussed) part of being a successful student, employee, or person generally.

Building individual relationships, particularly in professional settings, is a complex and deeply contextualized activity, and most of what I know about it is instinctive, built on trial and error over time. Because of this, I had a difficult time planning our lesson. For our discussion, I ended up choosing two recent articles from the journal Language and Education: Cynthia Lee’s (2015) “More than Just Language Advising: Rapport in University English Writing Consultations and Implications for Tutor Training” and Innhwa Park’s (2014) “Stepwise Advice Negotiation in Writing Center Peer Tutoring.” Lee’s focus on individual elements that go into building a relationship and Park’s discussion on how to deal with minor disagreements helped us find a way in to this difficult-to-teach subject.

Lee’s framework pulled from discourse and rapport scholarship to detail descriptions of the kinds of behaviors that we often take for granted: greetings, small talk, qualifiers/mitigation devices, open-ended questions, first-person plural pronoun use, and praises/related forms of encouragement (436). Saying hello and chatting about unrelated matters tend to be givens in social interaction, but they can also help ease the tension when two people don’t know one another well. Qualifiers such as “maybe” or “perhaps” and open-ended questions such as “Can you tell me more about your goals for this project/assignment?” help build understanding and ease discussions around disagreements. First-person plural pronouns like “we” and “us” are helpful in creating a more team-oriented work environment during sessions, while encouragement and praise help build confidence.

I don’t know about the consultants (feel free to comment!), but it was really helpful for me to have a conversation about those elements of a writing center session that often go unrecognized and (seemingly) unnoticed, but which can make a real difference to the success or failure of a session. For example, a few of our consultants shared that small talk tends to make them uncomfortable, particularly if students responded to small talk by discussing their frustration with particular assignment or situation, while another shared that she sees such situations as an emotional opening to help writers address their concerns. Understanding a variety of approaches to such small interactions and the rationale beneath them gave me more resources for interacting with a variety of personalities.

Park’s article details the ways in which advice resistance is a negotiated construction for both the tutor and the writer. She discusses the steps that resistance, acknowledgment, and resolution move through within sessions, and I thought her work might prove a helpful springboard for discussing the ways in which we negotiate advice resistance in our own sessions. We did discuss ways that we tend to navigate through (or around) resistance during our discussion. One of our consultants commented that, while she was aware of her own intentional practices in navigating resistance, she had not thought about the fact that writers might also follow certain linguistic formulations in constructing their resistance, such as saying “Yes, but what I was really trying to do there was….”. We also discussed the ways in which people from different classes and cultures might navigate resistance more or less directly than the examples in the article, which led one of our consultants to ask a very helpful question about balancing a knowledge of intersectionality (every person is different) with strategic approaches to consulting (we have to apply concrete strategies to our work).

Ultimately, I enjoyed our discussion, but I would love to hear some comments. Consultants, how did the session go from your perspective? Colleagues (and that includes you, too, consultants), how would you/do you encourage productive discussion on building relationships/rapport during writing center sessions? Writers, what kinds of discussions have been most helpful to you in moving your writing forward?

Why Do We Write?: In Defense of The Paper

Daniel Ernst, Consultant

The paper is a collegiate common denominator. In just about every class in every discipline, writing papers is required. Therefore, it’s easy to see the paper as busywork, a pointless academic exercise often with no real world counterpart. But the paper is more than some arbitrary unit of learning by which an instructor attempts to measure a student’s intellect. If we think about what we really do when we write, we see in fact that the writing process offers a unique and effective learning arena.

This isn’t just armchair philosophizing either; writing’s unique relationship with learning has been well documented by scholars in fields from psychology to linguistics to composition theory. One composition/education theorist in particular, Janet Emig, provides a general overview of writing’s role in learning in her article “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” Emig first distinguishes writing from other forms of language usage—reading, talking, and listening. Then, she explains how writing distinctively requires the deployment of and interaction among multiple learning methods, such as analysis, synthesis, experience, and genesis.

DSCN1632Writing’s interactive and multifaceted process is what makes it so challenging, but this process also fosters a uniquely instructive learning environment and sets it apart from other forms of language usage. For example, take the idea of analysis. College students are commonly asked to analyze; the term analysis (or its sister term ‘critical thinking’) appears on almost every essay prompt or class syllabus in one form or another. This is because analysis is a powerful educational tool in which an idea’s deconstruction into its elemental building blocks helps students better understand its composition. In general, though, analysis is accomplished through class readings and discussions. So if reading, talking, and listening in class helps to take apart these big ideas, what then to do with all the disassembled pieces? This is where writing comes in.

Writing papers is your chance to take the deconstructed concepts and theories and build something new. In other words, synthesize new connections/conversations that become new ideas. Not only is this a critically important move from “destructive” to “constructive” intellectual work, but it’s also your opportunity to contribute, as many of my teachers have put it, to the scholarly conversation. The significant and sort of radical thing here is that these are your ideas and your unique contributions. And in formulating these contributions, you are forced, through the nature of writing, to confront ideas in a special way. Writing’s combination of and interaction between analysis and synthesis, mediated by the writer’s own experience and end-goals, promotes a participatory brand of learning that is unrivaled and truly indispensable. So the next time you are assigned to write a paper, try to embrace the chance to learn in a unique way and capitalize on your opportunity to participate and contribute your voice and your ideas.