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Composition Forum 46, Spring 2021

Review of Hannah Rule’s Situating Writing Processes

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Jeremy Levine

Rule, Hannah J. Situating Writing Processes. WAC Clearinghouse, 2019. 171pp.

In his 2015 book Transiciones, Todd Ruecker offers maps of capital: a series of diagrams that articulate the forms of economic, aspirational, familial, social, and navigational capital that support Latinx students in the transition from high school to college. I remember reading that book for the first time and showing up to teach the following day, armed with a brainstorming activity, feeling inadequate. What could my lists and diagrams for mapping a research question do in the face of the many complicated maps of capital that my students would bring (or not bring) to the exercise?

This sense that the standard tenets of process pedagogy—brainstorms, outlines, revisions in tidy steps—cannot address the complexities and contingencies of writing is, of course, not a new critique. The way most people tell the story, the post-process movement advocated a rejection of teaching process on these very grounds. The trouble is that avoiding a conversation about how this capital affects process does not serve my teaching any better than decontextualized brainstorming activities do. Hannah Rule’s recent book Situating Writing Processes hopes to establish why this dichotomy between oversimplified process and no process at all is a false choice. By showing that the original post-process critiques were more nuanced than a simple rejection of process, she effectively argues for lifting the moratorium on discussing process by theoretically reacquainting it with the sociomaterial turn.

Situating Writing Processes is a theoretical work that posits writing—the verb—as always enmeshed in a particular moment and place. Physical and material factors that are always unique to a given situation construct our writing processes, which means that writers are usually in a state of unfamiliarity. As a result, writers must invent situation-relevant writing strategies with every project and every writing session, and so no strategy will work every time. Rejecting a ritualized series of steps to comprise the writing process, Rule argues that process pedagogy must transform into “teaching process as a habit of locating the physical dynamics of students’ own and others’ specific writing acts,” (5) and tracing these dynamics to social factors—audiences, genres, forms of power—that have been the subject of scholarship on writing products, but not so much process. This intervention can allow for a critical process pedagogy, which draws explicit attention to the different ways that systems of power construct writing processes, and can turn attention away from a single, teacher-directed vision of what process should be.

After situating four exigencies for studying situated writing processes in the introduction (the disembodied perspective of process theory, the need to revisit the role of process in pedagogy, a desire to connect postprocess theory to pedagogy, and critiques of general skills writing instructions that necessarily implicate process), Rule begins her inquiry by establishing the role of physicality and materiality in early process scholarship. In the second chapter, she explores how postprocess scholarship could lead to “productive disorientation and a constructive rebuilding of teaching with process,” rather than being taken up as an invocation to avoid process pedagogy. Next, she puts forward some fundamental tenets for understanding writing processes as situated. Chapter four discusses how this view of process leads to a process pedagogy that rejects students as users of pre-made strategies and instead inquirers into the contingencies that construct their own processes. Finally, she offers improvisation as lens for considering how the trend toward teaching for transfer in first-year composition can be brooked with the unpredictability of writing processes.

Situating Writing Process’ first chapter is dedicated to a reassessment of foundational process work. Rule argues through careful re-readings of Janet Emig and Sondra Perl’s work that research on writing processes has always involved the physicality and materiality of writing, an assessment that runs counter to postprocess appraisals of process work that labelled the latter school as purely cognitive and asocial. She complements this argument with sustained interest in embodied practice, a stepping stone in Haas’ argument about technology’s position as a cultural site. Embodied practice can articulate how sociocultural structures come to bear on individual writers as they compose, perhaps through the same gestures and silences that Emig and Perl had recorded through their own studies.

The formulation of process that Rule pulls out of Haas’ work—that it always involves both individual choices and the social, political, physical, material universe around the writer—develops in the second chapter. Arguing that composition’s interest in the social has focused largely on zoomed-out perspectives that miss the individual writer for the sake of avoiding an overly cognitive or decontextualized view, Rule again turns to close reading of foundational scholarship. This time, her focus is the early postprocess work of Patricia Bizzell and Marilyn Cooper, who she reads as advocating not for a divorce from process, but an always-sliding focus that can approach both the micro and macro scales that affect a given writer. This argument allows Rule to reject the fissure between the individual and the social that dominant narratives about postproceess thinking have established, and situate processes in sociomateriality. This means that, under post-process, writing process are not eliminated as a valid site of inquiry; they are simply made “much, much bigger” (59, emphasis original), and research should toggle between and within these granular, writer-focused perspectives and the broader social world that constructs them.

With these understandings in mind—process theory has always included reference to physicality and materiality, and that the social turn does not necessarily foreclose process—Rule spends chapter three articulating some key facets of a situated understanding of process. First, she depicts process as activity, which helps us recognize that process is always happening, even when a writer is not doing something that is traditionally considered “process,” like brainstorming or revising. This always-process is situated and unique to that moment and context, not a recitation of pre-built strategies. Second, envisioning process as physical allows us to see the historical and cultural forces that put different bodies in front of different writing tasks, which can lead us to understand the many contingencies that act upon process. Finally, reading process as an emplaced physical activity draws from new materialist work, which sees agency in writing processes as constructed by circumstances, with agency distributed among writing task, circumstance, and the writer. Together, these three dimensions of process create a challenge to the “postcard” version of process, in which a writer sits neatly at a desk and composes uninterrupted, that serves as a false ideal for many writers and teachers.

The fourth chapter takes a pedagogical focus, addressing the question that nags at the reader through the first three chapters: yes, process is always built by its situation, but how exactly does one teach that? Rule’s answer is to pivot away from teaching students to be replicators of acontextual strategies but to instead to see themselves as process researchers who investigate their own writing processes and physically locate their own writing. She uses examples of student writing and illustration of processes to show how students build knowledge about the contingencies of process by exploring the differences in their own processes.

The fifth chapter offers a frame of improv comedy to focus the reader on one of the monograph’s major concepts: that processes can only be constructed in the moment, just as an improv actor can only build a scene once they have their suggestion from the audience. When one extends that observation, it becomes clear that the teaching of writing is also always embedded in this process moment, and cannot occur in isolation. The student-teacher relationship, just like a writing process, is also mediated by the physical material, and historical forces that act on a writing process. Writing teachers, when teaching process as situated, must then also account for how their own teaching is part of these structures. This means that a pedagogy like teaching for transfer ought to rely not on creating linear through-lines from one writing situation to the next, but instead reveling in the uncertainty that comes with moving from one writing process to the next. Becoming comfortable with that improvisation and uncertainty should then be a key objective of writing instruction.

Situating Writing Processes is an apt title. A Comprehensive Theory Of Writing Processes would not characterize what this volume sets out to do—the word “situating” emphasizes that the scope of the book is to theoretically place writing processes in these many different contexts, so that future work can “[perceive] the larger situated forces at work” (70) in writing processes. Outside of its implications for theory-building around process, this approach to writing as always constructed by physical and material reality has important implications for writing teachers, researchers, and the educational community at large. It encourages writing teachers to take up Rule’s approach to teaching process as something to investigate and always treat as contingent, rather than presenting students with pre-set stages that may not correlate with how they (or their teacher) encounters writing. For those of us who do teach with a process pedagogy that involves these discrete phases of writing and find them useful for scaffolding assignments, situated process demonstrates the urgency to investigate with our students how that scaffolding is only one part of what makes a writing process what it is, and that it structures our writing in the classroom in a way that it is not structured elsewhere.

This concept of situated processes encourages researchers of writing to examine how the critical approaches we have taken to writing as a noun (such as our field-wide recognition that writing is structured by historical, political, and social relationships) can be extended to writing as a process. For example, New Literacy Studies’ conception of literacy practices as emerging through unequal power relations can be supplemented by a perspective of literacy that is not only interested in the moves and conditions of writing, but also in what a given writer encounters while writing as a result of those unequal power relations, enlivening our understanding of how these processes fit into the lives of writers. In the long term, the theory of situated writing processes can also be a useful pillar in composition’s inquiry into the relationship between high-stakes testing and writing pedagogy. If tests remain influential in determining writing curricula (Poe) and create a hyper-compressed writing process with timed essays for audiences who never respond (Khost), then students may focus on learning pre-built strategies for these important exams. Situated Writing Processes urges us to consider how students reconcile those pre-built strategies with the demands of new writing situations, as well as how we can teach around that disjuncture and advocate for new modes of assessment.

For such arguments to be persuasive, future research ought to conceptualize how to render these situational process to qualitative studies of writers-in-process. The variability in writing processes resists a clearly-cut model with discrete phases, and so such studies should perhaps begin with descriptive cases of writers, through which we can put language to what we see unfold. This is not to say that a replicable or even coherent model will evolve, but rather that an understanding of what it means to research a situated process will help concretize and refine the concept. The case in Situating Writing Processes is theoretically convincing and thought-provoking, but its abstractions leave questions about how one uses this understanding of writing to interpret how such circumstances converge upon an actual writer. Future work, if applying Rule’s understanding of process as always-contingent rigorously, should reveal many interesting contradictions and conditions around writing that can demonstrate in stark terms how different perspectives on writing can co-habitate in process.

Works Cited

Khost, Peter H. ‘Alas, Not Yours to Have’: Problems with Audience in High-Stakes Writing Tests and the Promise of Felt Sense. The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, vol 21, no. 1, 2016, pp. 47-68.

Poe, Mya. Genre, Testing, and the Constructed Realities of Student Achievement. College Composition and Communication, vol 60, no. 1, 2008, pp. 141-152.

Ruecker, Todd. Transiciones: Pathways of Latinas and Latinos Writing in High School and College. Utah State University Press, 2015.

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