The Best Possible Means of Persuasion?

Updated: Apr 29, 2021



Post-process theorist George Pullman in his essay entitled, "Stepping Yet Again into the Same Current," sets up a rhetorical narrative on the development of process theory and its overall usefulness. In "Reinventing Writing," we assessed that while process theory as it stands is limiting, it has become a necessary means by which academic essays and literature at large is evaluated. Because of this, we aren't ready to step away from that. On the other hand, it's important to realize that process theory in itself is not free of prejudice and neither is Pullman's rhetorical narrative. In the same vein, my own interpretations for the purposes of this blog and my approach to literature is not free of prejudice because I also adhere to standards laid by the development of process theory.


I do have a primary criticism of Pullman's rhetorical narrative, that I do not believe the rest of his essay fully acknowledges. He discusses university first-year level composition courses (I'm assuming in the US) and the presence or lack of a stigma towards these courses, the professors who teach them, and the students who take them or are required to take them. That stigma is present and has always existed in some respect. Some might see it, for example, as an unnecessary remedial course that detracts from the student's educational goals depending on the structure of the course.


Pullman states, in some parts of his rhetorical narrative, how [after certain changes were made or writing composition research was released] introductory composition courses were viewed more favorably. Perhaps they were to sects of academia who followed those publications, but that doesn't necessarily mean that attitudes toward these courses changed as drastically as Pullman has framed them. There is still an existing debate over what a first year composition course should look like or if one should exist at all. The article that I have linked gives different perspectives on this discourse and further research. Overall, my criticism of Pullman's rhetorical narrative is that he downplays the intricacy of this debate and while my expectation would not be for him to cover all sides of this debate in full, the 1990s (Pullman's essay was written in 1999) was when some of the most vehement criticism over the existence of first year composition courses took place.


However, stepping back to Pullman's essay on its own, he first defines a rhetorical narrative for his own purposes, and that is "a motivated selection and sequencing of events that sacrifices one truth in order to more clearly represent another" (Pullman, 1999) comparing it to a written history which ideally wouldn't be motivated by an underlying agenda. Using this definition, it's possible to argue that we have rhetorical narratives more than we have objective accounts, and I would agree with that. A lot of what we have seen post-process theorists do thus far is reveal the highly prejudiced nature of writing standards, writing conventions, and other disciplines that can be taught [at least in part] through literature. While these prejudices are unavoidable, it's helpful to recognize them.


Pullman places the beginning of the writing-process movement to around 1885 at Harvard University, not necessarily "writing process" as we understand many beginning academic standards to look. Incoming first year students, according to Harvard, were not turning in written work to the kinds of literacy standards they were looking for, so "English A" was presented as a solution to that. English A is a system in which there are weekly themes that students were required to write to, but there wasn't a set system for feedback and revision. Apparently, for the most part, students were sometimes required to rewrite a piece, but this wasn't universal. However, to its credit, this encouraged consistent writing.


Methods by which students were able to express through writing were not taught in terms of the rhetorical tools they could employ, but as overall genres. The expectations for a well-written piece were that it was mechanically sound, that it was organized in a linear fashion, and that it was expansion on a particular opinion or a clear informative description.


While consistency is valuable to a degree, Pullman states that a reason why writing was so undervalued is that it was taught as a skill as opposed to a discipline. While applicable to multiple fields, and this was understood, the act of writing is distinct from the discipline of composition. The discipline of composition consists of such subjects as why we write a certain way, why certain tools can be useful in the act of writing, why certain writers choose certain styles with which to communicate their chosen thoughts and ideas. Even though the study of composition and communication influences so many facets of life and we have a better understanding of that, it was thought that the best way to improve one's writing was through the English A program. Students were even rejected for not coming in exhibiting certain academic standards of writing if English A didn't work.


Alternatively, there were students who could test out of what was the alternative of their First Year Composition course. The form of composition that was associated with English A was named "current traditional rhetoric" by Daniel Fogarty in 1959, but he sought to create a new way of teaching rhetoric and add new literacy skills. Because of what was happening in US political spheres in the sixties and seventies, Fogarty and some of his more politically active colleagues saw both education and literacy as inseparable from democracy itself. They saw students in First Year Composition, which was treated primarily as a remedial course, as those the education system did not adequately prepare to express themselves in necessary ways.


The result of Fogarty's efforts was "voice." Writing could be a means by which students could self-reflect. Essentially, they could find their own literacy and there were somewhat fewer standards to abide by. Many universities that followed this discourse improved their course material and were giving more feedback to their students. The benefit was that the expectations for these students were both clearer and more attainable. Some instructors implemented more options than the five-paragraph essays.


The study of composition and writers' cognition eventually became a discourse with highly active participants, publications, and conferences. While this rhetorical narrative does, as Pullman states justify the existence of composition as discursive, that doesn't necessarily means that it's universally recognized as such. It's important to recognize that five paragraph essays are still being taught and that the takeaways from scholars who've worked in composition over the years of its development as a discourse (this includes "Planning in Writing") are not always taught in academia. Changes have happened and new tools are being recognized, but in a lot of ways, composition is still a developing field.


Something important that Pullman brings to light is that elements of the writing process theory existed before it was named as such and that the context of its development through educational, social, and technological change has greater influence than it's often given credit for. To illustrate this, there is an existing study that compares writing samples and elements of planning from those who choose to use a word processor (early word processor) and those who choose to use paper. It's possible that there could be different results should that study be repeated in present day. The tradition that people write within, essentially, matters as much as research does. Otherwise, it should matter more.


The way that a lot of process theorists will, then, administer some of these tests is to extract the tools that "good" or "real" writers practice. If you are long-time readers of my blog, you might already know that I don't see this as productive, and neither does Pullman. It can help to understand what tools experienced writers use, but they may not be the tools that writers who aren't as experienced use. Different writers should ideally have different tools to suit them.


While I did criticize Pullman a little more in this particular piece, this essay does contain a great deal of helpful takeaways, particularly with regard to rhetorical narratives, histories, and the tracing of the discipline of composition. He does state that, ultimately, it is unclear what the effects of the essay (likely meaning the five paragraph essay) are on writing education. My take on that is that students learn [albeit in a limiting sense] how to write according to task and how to follow a set of expectations. As those expectations change, learning to adapt to new tasks is also necessary. The ability to set parameters with regard to expectations and adapt those parameters according to the communication task at hand is essential in all fields. My view thus far is that post-process theory can help people to better understand and apply elements of process theory and can help practicing writers view academic writing or the type of writing they are taught as a set of parameters as opposed to a standard for "good" writing.


As always, I greatly appreciate the communication I've gotten from previous articles. Thank you for all of your engagement in Purposeful Prose. If you would like to "like," comment, engage with my posts, and participate in this website's forum, you can become a member. There is no cost to this. You can always let me know what you would like me to research next!


I look forward to everyone's thoughts especially since this has opened up a great deal of questions for me!


Sources:


Baker, A. (n.d.). Baker: Abolish or Perish? University of Louisville. https://louisville.edu/journal/workplace/issue7/baker.html


Pullman, G. (1999). Stepping yet again into the same current. Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm, 16-29.


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