Saturday, April 09, 2011

CCCC, Vol. 1: Emotions and Authority

This is the first of several posts I hope to write over the next few days hitting highlights of my first Conference on College Composition and Communication, which took place over the past days in Atlanta. The conference was absolutely fantastic. Not only did I get a chance to engage more fully with the professional composition and rhetoric community; I also got to hang out (on my birthday!) with incredible friends and colleagues. Best conference in a long, long time.

Here I'd like to focus on one of the most interesting sessions I attended, titled "Emotions and Authority in Academic Writing." Joseph Berenguel (Amherst)'s talk about writers' anxiety examined the ways in which students make certain rhetorical moves in order to cover up their anxiety. For instance, when they paraphrase (or patch-write, a move I'll talk about in the next post), they often do so not because they're lazy (as we many instructors assume), but rather in order to mask their anxiety over a lack of authentic understanding. After all, when the topic you're writing about eludes your understanding, it's difficult to "put it into your own words": sometimes the only recourse you have is paraphrasing.

I believe it would be interesting to undertake a similar study in mathematics: do students resort to purely formulaic or computational explanations not because they're lazy, or because this is what they think is expected (which many instructors would likely claim), but because they really don't possess an intuitive understanding of the ideas they're discussing? That is, whenever our students slip into purely formulaic language, might they likely do so because they cannot do otherwise, and they're anxious about letting their masks slip and showing that they don't possess a full understanding of the topics they're studying?

If this is the case, I believe it argues (yet more forcefully than even I have before) for writing-to-learn activities in mathematics classes. After all, low-stakes writing is exploratory, pressure-free, and safe. Many low-stakes techniques are designed to minimize the writer's anxiety while they help him sort through the pieces of whatever mental puzzle he's trying to put together.

Equally fascinating was Heather Robinson's talk about the rhetorical differences between the articles "a/an" and "the." She argued persuasively that in using the definite article "the," the writer is asserting a common ground with the reader. That is, when the writer says "The effects of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds are complex," in effect she hints to the reader that those effects are well-studied, and moreover that the reader ought to be aware of them before proceeding. It's a sort of hifalutin' version of "RTFM." As a simple example, she began her talk by indicating that she herself was "the authority," referring to the word "authority" appearing in the title of the session she was speaking in. It could be assumed that all present were familiar with that title, and therefore that her referent would be understood.

On the other hand, when the writer chooses to use the indefinite article, she inflects her writing with judgment, evaluation, discussion, or analysis. "A possible consequence of gamma ray exposure is the following..." says to the reader, "you may not know about this consequence, but I do, and I'm about to let you in on the action." When the writer uses an indefinite article, she asserts her own attitude an analyst or evaluator; when she uses a definite article, she instead assumes an authoritative role as member of a discourse community with a shared common body of knowledge.

In another post on this conference's goings-on I'll come back to say a bit about Berenguel's talk, as its whole style of delivery is remarkable for a few different reasons: it was delivered in unconventional (for his discipline) style, it was ironically anxiously delivered, and it was superbly well-organized.

1 comment:

Joseph said...

Nice of you to say so. I'm not sure if I was indeed any more nervous than usual, but I was quite aware of the difference between my style and the expected style. I tried to work it to my advantage. All that stuff is mostly in my head anyway.