Public writing and rhetoric: A new place for composition

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Due to a number of internal and external forces, the field of composition has begun to embrace courses, pedagogies, and theories that engage in discourse with and about the public-and rightly so. (For a fuller explication of the recent move in rhetoric and composition toward public writing, see Weisser; Dobrin and Weisser.) A focus on public writing-which might loosely be defined as written discourse that attempts to engage an audience of local, regional, or national groups or individuals in order to bring about progressive societal change-offers much more than the relatively "arhetorical" approaches to writing instruction that ask students to write to no one for no particular purpose. (For practical purposes, I offer this definition, which is limiting yet necessary for the task at hand. The distinction between "public" and "private" that seems implicit here is itself problematic and worthy of more attention than space permits.) Instead, courses focusing on public writing have the potential to give student writing real significance; they allow students to produce meaningful discourse that has the potential to change their lives and the lives of others. In this respect, students see public writing as more "real" than, for example, an essay about what they did last summer or an analysis of a particular piece of literature. Public writing can help students to see the value of adopting a particular rhetorical stance, since public writing is often directed toward a particular audience that might be influenced by a student's writing. Students often come away from a course or assignment that focuses on public writing with a better understanding of the importance of shaping the style, form, and tone of their written work in ways that might be most persuasive and convincing. In addition, public writing more easily allows students to see that language is a powerful tool for swaying opinions and actions. When a student's writing generates further public discussion or leads to some political or social change, he or she comes to see how discourse is deeply implicated in the structures of power in a society. It is easy to understand, then, why Gary A. Olson suggests that "public writing is clearly emerging as a powerful expression of some of the field's most cherished values" (ix). This is not to say, though, that public-writing assignments are a panacea for national or even local ills. Helping students find avenues and situations for public discourse demands an enormous amount of time, and even when they are found, public discursive spheres are often difficult to enter. Public forums usually work on a different schedule than that of a university course, and grading students for their "participation" in such forums creates new problems for both student and instructor. Even when students successfully enter and participate in public discourse, there is no guarantee that their opinions will be listened to and acted upon. In fact, the odds are against them. So, many writing instructors see the value of courses and assignments that focus on public writing and rhetoric, but they just as wisely anticipate the pedagogical difficulties and risks associated with them. As a result, some advocates of public writing rely upon established, conventional pedagogical assignments for addressing the public, such as letters to the editor of the local newspaper on a current topic. The occasional student letter that is published in the local newspaper is very often a rewarding experience for that student and may encourage him or her to write and speak in other public forums and situations. Now and then, these letters compel others to write in response, and once in a while (though rarely), student letters elicit response and discussion in other public forums. However, while these assignments have some potential merit, they are more often than not an exercise in frustration and discouragement for most student authors. Letters to the editor are usually one-way assignments; students put effort into writing them but get little response. As a result, these types of assignments are often counterproductive. Perhaps more significantly, such exercises do little to cultivate the students' facility with public writing. In many instances, the students' letters are very often generated just to fulfill the assignment. I don't wish to imply that the newspaper editorial column should be overlooked as an appropriate forum for student-generated discourse. Occasionally, students may come across a public issue that they are genuinely interested in, but more often than not, the issues students write about in their letters have little bearing on their lives outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, students often come to feel that participating in public discourse, if letters to the editor are indeed public discourse, has little effect on what happens in their world. They surmise that the public sphere is a realm where nothing actually gets accomplished-at least not by them. If we wish to create assignments, courses, and pedagogies that enable students to interact more effectively with other groups and individuals in public arenas, we could begin by considering where and to whom meaningful and productive public writing might be delivered. Luckily, when it comes to thinking about the location for public discourse-the public sphere-we need not reinvent the wheel; a number of social and cultural theorists have already written extensively and usefully about this notion from a variety of perspectives. By drawing principally upon the work of Jürgen Habermas-and perhaps more fruitfully upon critiques of his work as offered by Nancy Fraser, Oscar Negt, and Alexander Kluge-it is possible to develop a richer, more nuanced conceptualization of the public sphere than that which seems to underlie some traditional public-writing assignments. There are many parallels between the conversations of the public sphere in social and cultural theory and the more recent conversations in composition regarding public writing, and these similarities have allowed me to dispel several of my own initial misconceptions about the locations of public discourse. While it is impossible to fully address all of these parallels in this chapter, it may be useful to examine just a few of them to extend our current understanding of where and how public writing exists.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Private, The Public, and The Published
Subtitle of host publicationReconciling Private Lives and Public Rhetoric
PublisherUtah State University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)0874215773, 9780874215779
StatePublished - Dec 1 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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