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Composition Forum 31, Spring 2015

Review of Laura Wilder’s Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies

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Mya Poe

Wilder, Laura. Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2012. 238 pp.

Learning genre, as Mikhail Bakhtin and Pavel Medvedev noted, is to learn reality: “the reality of the genre and the reality accessible to the genre are organically related” (131). To learn genre is to learn how to participate in a particular kind of reality—to learn how to embody the practices of a community through textual production. As composition researchers have revealed through the stories of Nate (Berkenkotter and Huckin), Eliza (Haas), and Tim (Beaufort), learning genre is serious business. Thus, one must wonder what it is like to learn disciplinary participation in a discipline that values complexity over simplicity and may be suspect of making genre transparent. Laura Wilder takes up this question in Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies, winner of the CCCC 2014 Research Impact Award.

Wilder writes that her aim for Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies was “to understand and clarify the ways history, hierarchy, enculturation, and even personal and cognitive development impact the situated practices of what we describe as disciplinary discourse communities” (24). Specifically, Wilder examines discourse conventions found in contemporary literary journals, how faculty’s philosophies of teaching those conventions operate in the classroom, how faculty evaluate student writing based on those values, the utility in using explicit genre instruction in the literature classroom, and how students take up and apply that knowledge.

Organizationally, the book is based on a series of dovetailed studies on the discourse conventions of literary studies—several previously published but developed as a coherent whole in this monograph. Because one of my difficulties as a reader was initially in seeing the interconnection of the various studies that inform the book, I found it useful to sketch Figure 1. This exercise was productive to understand how Wilder drew on findings from previous studies in moving forward a larger research project. Because composition studies does not have a strong tradition in multiple study monographs, it would be useful for any researcher who publishes such a book to offer such a navigational tool.

Map of book chapters and types of studies that have informed each chapter.
Figure 1. Studies Informing Wilder's Book.

In addition to sketching a figure to map the connections across studies, I found it helpful to write this review with a summative component. One of my frustrations in composition studies is that we do not discuss basic components of research studies; I want to hear, “in this study, this was done, this was how it was done, and this is what was found.” Such framing is valuable to take stock of a researcher’s work before transitioning to synthesizing or evaluating that work. Again, such a rhetorical strategy is particularly helpful when discussing Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies because of the various aims and approaches used in the book.

Wilder begins her investigation into genre conventions with a comparative study of fixed discoursal features in literary criticism publications. In ‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice (Chapter 1), Wilder draws upon Fahnestock and Secor’s seminal study The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism to investigate whether there are “features common to a discourse community of literary scholars that transcend or run through [contemporary] textual conversations of the subspecialties” (28). Specifically, Wilder is interested in knowing whether the subfields of literary studies—not English Studies subspecialties—share a common set of rhetorical topoi and whether those have changed since the Fahnestock and Secor study more than 25 years ago. Analyzing 28 articles in 12 prominent literary journals (a sampling plan for the selection of articles is not provided), Wilder finds that there are conventions that run across literary subfields, although not in the same ways or with the same frequency. In regards to changing conventions, Wilder returns to the special topoi that Fahnestock and Secor identified to find that appearance/reality, ubiquity, paradigm, and paradox are all still vital, although the topos of contemptus mundi, “an assumption of despair over the condition and course of modern society” (Fahnestock and Secor 88) is less common. Wilder identifies three additional topoi of social justice, mistaken critic, and (historical) context in her recent samples. While Wilder’s textual analysis is interesting, her employment of the topoi frame in her subsequent analysis of teaching and learning is compelling. By looking at the ways literary topoi are taken up in teaching philosophies and in teacher response to student writing, Wilder suggests that literary scholars not only possess certain epistemological positions but that they also value uptakes of those positions in student writing.

Moving from textual analysis to human subjects research, Wilder explores literary teachers’ teaching philosophies in ‘You Wouldn’t Want to Introduce That to Undergraduate Students’: Literature Professors’ Views of Disciplinarity and Student Discourse (Chapter 2). Mapping the debate about explicit instruction is not particularly straightforward in literary studies, for as Wilder points out, not everyone in the field believes that explicit instruction is valuable. Some scholars “regard any socialization of students into the discipline as perpetuating power structures that ought to be challenged” (56); others, such as postdisciplinary Foucauldian scholars, seek to promote generalized skill sets in critical thinking and reading skills and prefer to treat the literature classroom as “predisciplinary.” Wilder maps this philosophical landscape through analysis of course syllabi, sample assignments, and exams as well as interviews with 13 literature faculty—eight from a general education “Masterworks of Literature” course and five from a gateway-to-the-major writing about literature (WAL) course. Overwhelmingly, professors from the Masterworks course saw their main pedagogical goal as inculcating students’ appreciation of literature, an emotional response to literature that would become a theme throughout professors’ assessment of student writing and, ultimately for some, their rationale for rejecting explicit genre instruction. For some, explicit genre instruction was perceived as sapping the “fun” out of learning literature. On the other hand, “even for the one professor intending to provide some introduction to the discipline, disciplinary discourse practices appear to function largely implicitly in the course’s background” (60). In contrast to the Masterworks course, the faculty from the WAL course were more interested in imparting disciplinary expertise—research skills, citational practices, and explicit genre instruction—to their students. Wilder also identifies various emphases in their teaching philosophies, including literary terminology, literary theory, and civic engagement. In the end, however, Wilder claims that all of these approaches to teaching WAL were, in part, undercut by the traditional view of disciplinary rhetoric as transparent—a view that would become clearer in faculty assessment of student writing.

As anyone in composition studies knows, what faculty say they value in writing and what they actually do value when assessing writing can be quite different. In ‘This is How We Do Things’: Professors’ Expectations for Student Writing (Chapter 3), Wilder takes up this question. As Wilder reasons, “Because tacit disciplinary values may be unlikely to emerge in scholars’ discussions of teaching in the abstract,” it is important to “examine [literary scholars’] actual evaluation practices” (78-79). To investigate the link between philosophy and evaluation, Wilder asked five faculty to evaluate 145 papers written from 16 different WAL sections (we hear more from these faculty in the following chapter.) Wilder interviewed four of the faculty about their responses on six key papers—those with either highly reliable ratings or those with highly divergent ratings. Wilder found that “there was remarkable consistency in the reasons all four professors said guided their ranking decisions” (80). Here again, we see not only that disciplinary experts share certain values but also that they use that knowledge in their assessment processes. Literature faculty consistently returned to the topoi that Wilder described in Chapter 1 and married those criteria with general criteria about thesis statements, evidence, and sophistication—so much for pre/post-disciplinary distinctions leading to radically different assessment values.

Upon finishing this chapter, I wondered about the conflicting messages we send to students through our writing assessment practices and how poorly we describe disciplinary values when we assess writing. Wilder’s linking of teaching philosophy to evaluation is the strongest part of her book because it is here that we see the various uptakes of disciplinary values in assessment of student writing. From my point of view, one of the interesting findings is not just that faculty value certain disciplinary topoi or that they like papers that look more “professional” in the ways they use literary theory: it’s that faculty members modulate their responses to student writing precisely because they view students as novices. For instance, a student who attempts to employ a Marxist frame is rewarded for the attempt even though he has an egregious misunderstanding of Marxist theory; his attempt is described as a “learning paper” (100). In the end, Wilder argues that students’ attempts to model disciplinary discourse is more important to literature faculty than the correctness of students’ interpretations.

In ‘Some Tools to Take With Them:’ Making Disciplinary Conventions Explicit (Chapter 4), Wilders moves us from response on student writing to classroom instruction. To investigate the role of explicit instruction in learning literary genres, Wilder enlisted the four faculty who evaluated student writing in Chapter 3 to teach an experimental WAL course that incorporated explicit instruction and rich, guided practice in the contemporary topoi of literary analysis (again, see Chapter 1 for those topoi). Wilder and co-researcher Joanna Wolfe then compared the writing of 68 students in the experimental WAL sections with the final papers of 77 students in the control WAL sections. They found that a one-semester intervention using explicit instruction and guided practice in literary special topoi “led to noticeable gains when compared to students who experienced traditional pedagogies that keep these topoi tacit” (117). Those noticeable gains included (1) more use of the topoi than students in the control sections and (2) higher evaluative scores by literature faculty, especially for students who used four or more of the special topoi. In other words, students who received explicit instruction on literary topoi in literary scholarship could identify those topoi more readily in their writing performances. Teachers gave their papers higher scores.

I found Chapter 4 to be the most problematic chapter in Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies as Wilder takes up the topic of genre without engaging contemporary genre theory or activity theory. Here, Wilder seems more interested in addressing criticisms of explicit genre instruction and advanced instruction in “rhetorical procedural knowledge” (144) than she is in advancing genre theory. That’s a pity because the question is not whether to teach genre explicitly but to understand when and where to teach explicit genre instruction in relation to disciplinary activity. Few in composition studies would find the explicit “moves” approach used in English for Specific Purposes, for example, solely satisfying for teaching college-level writing. Instead, most teachers in the field might find more in common with the approach advanced by Devitt, Reiff, and Bawarshi in Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres, an approach best-captured by Devitt in her article Teaching Critical Genre Awareness:

The genre awareness I argue for is a type of rhetorical awareness, and others have posited that rhetorical awareness can lead to critical awareness and to more deliberate action. . .Armed with genre awareness, I would argue, students can distance themselves from the everyday practices of the genres that surround them but also can act, can participate in those genres. Unlike scholars merely studying genre, students wishing to participate in the academy or discipline or profession cannot simply disengage but must follow that distancing with enlightened participation. (337-38)

The question about the effects of explicit genre instruction are perhaps best answered in ‘Other Professors, They Assume You Already Know This Stuff’: Student Views of Disciplinary Enculturation and Explicating Conventions (Chapter 5), which traces the longitudinal effects of the experimental WAL curriculum. As an aficionado of composition’s longitudinal research tradition, I found much to like about this chapter. (Readers might quibble with Wilder’s limited engagement with the recent transfer scholarship, but I disagree given that the book was published in 2012, a time when composition studies scholars’ [re]interest in transfer was beginning to blossom.) Wilder interviewed 12 students—seven from experimental WAL courses and five from the control WAC courses—in the year after they enrolled in the WAL course. Six of the 12 students were interviewed a second time in the senior year. In the first round of interviews, some of the students from the experimental WAL courses could draw upon the special topoi in discussing how they approached literary analysis papers and could point to them in their sample papers. Students did not perceive explicit instruction as giving them new knowledge necessarily. In contrast, students saw the special topoi either as giving them language to describe tacit knowledge or as giving them new tools for approaching literary writing. They all carried that knowledge into future literature courses. Thus, instruction in topoi gave students a way to approach literary genres that they could transfer to learning in other courses. What’s interesting here is that subsequent literature instructors did not use the special topoi, so students had to transform their new knowledge—convert rhetorical language back into generalized language for “good writing”—to successfully negotiate future literature courses. Ultimately, the students in the experimental WAL curriculum were able to make connections across literature courses through the lens of disciplinary discourse while the students in the control group tended to see varying professors’ expectations in terms of a “guessing game” (168).

Frankly, I would have been happy if Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies had continued to follow the students we met in Chapter 5 for several more years. I wanted to know more about them and how they applied what they learned about literary genres to future writing situations. Instead, Wilder returns us to literature faculty. My desire to hear more from students aside, ‘There Were Negative Results For Me’: Faculty Resistance to Explicit Instruction (Chapter 6) is an important contribution to WID scholarship. Notably, it documents the ways in which the literary community’s values of complexity oppose the values found in explicit instruction. Some faculty resisted explicit instruction because it was in opposition to their teaching philosophy; making disciplinary conventions transparent was viewed as reducing complexity in favor of rational argument. Other faculty worried, among other issues, that the explicit instruction curriculum professionalized students too quickly, took the pleasure out of learning literary analysis, or limited creativity.

In the end, I wanted Wilder to tell me what her research means for students, for my literary colleagues, for WAC/WID administrators, and for empirical writing studies researchers. What does her work tell us about the recovery of discourse community as a meaningful concept in writing studies? What about special topoi—where should we go next in our teaching and research? What do her findings suggest for genre studies? Does WID instruction need to change to better account for disciplinary values beyond those we have traditionally studied? Is there a way to offer explicit instruction in disciplinary discourse without seeming unimaginative? And, finally, what else should we know about explicit genre instruction, especially in disciplines like literature that rely so heavily on a single genre to assess students’ knowledge? Like many WID researchers, I have tended to shy away from literary studies as a site of research, but Wilder has convinced me that “Literary instruction may thus usefully complicate and expand WID researchers’ understandings of disciplinary enculturation” (4). In doing so, Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies may help us better understand the very departments in which many composition studies faculty reside.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail, and Pavel Medvedev. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics. Trans. Albert Werhle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985. Print.

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan: Utah State UP, 2007. Print.

Berkenkotter, Carol, and Thomas N. Huckin. Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/Culture/Power. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1995. Print.

Devitt, Amy. Teaching Critical Genre Awareness. Genre in a Changing World. Ed. Charles Bazerman, Adair Bonini, and Débora Figueiredo. Fort Collins: WAC Clearinghouse; West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2009. 337-51. Print.

Devitt, Amy, Mary Jo Reiff, and Anis Bawarshi. Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres. New York: Longman, 2004. Print.

Fahnestock, Jeanne, and Marie Secor. The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism. In Textual Dynamics of the Professions: Historical and Contemporary Studies of Writing in Professional Communities. Ed. Charles Bazerman and James Paradis. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991: 76-96. Print.

Haas, Christina. Learning to Read Biology: One Student’s Rhetorical Development in College. Written Communication 11.1 (1994): 43-84. Print.

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