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Patricia Bizzell’s ‘Cognition, Convention and Certainty: What We Need to Know about Writing’

Bizzell begins by telling us that what we’re calling a “writing problem,? is really a “thinking problem,? and so we must realize that we can’t hope to bury ethical and political questions under neutral pedagogical technique. She revisits this issue of “certainty? at the end of her article.

The bulk of her article describes two theoretical camps in composition studies: “inner-directed? theorists, who are interested in how language-learning occurs and hope to describe universal function, and “outer-directed? theorists, who are focused on how language and language use are shaped by discourse communities.

Bizzell argues that both inner- and outer-directed theories must inform one another.

She demonstrates, in particular, how “outer-directed? theory could improve our understanding of Flower and Hayes’ inner-directed research. Their research, she says, is strong enough in explaining the how of writers’ decisions, but it doesn’t touch upon the why. This, she says, is the fundamental problem of the inner school when used alone—it conflates the rules that describe writing (how) with the rules that produce it (why). She shows how outer-directed ideas—like discourse communities—can help deal with the weaknesses in Flower and Hayes’ work.

Further, Bizzell speaks against the inner-directed school’s “quest for certainty.? (Here we finally have the “certainty? mentioned in the title.) She understands the appeal of certainty—many comp teachers want a universal modal that’s “ideology neutral? and works for all students. Then, if students fail, it’s their own fault. But, Bizzell says, these universal structures don’t exist because of the very nature of language, which is constantly in a state of flux, of negotiation and renegotiation within and between various discourse communities.

She ends by insisting on the need for discourse analysis in the comp classroom, and that comp instructors will and should continue to have a difficult job in navigating what, for some students, will be a different linguistic world from the one in which they were raised.


Interesting additional thing, Patricia Bizzell's statement on the possibilities of social change in the classroom, here.


As I think about how this article might relate (or not) to my own teaching (the applying theory to practice idea), I'm struck by a couple of Bizzell's statements. First, she writes that "inner-directed research might come up with an heuristic that is useful in Basic Writing classes. But if we use it there, we should not imagine that the heuristic allows us to forget who the students are in [BW] classes are - in short, why these ...students are having educational difficulties" (385). As a teacher of Basic Writing (whatever that label implies -- sometimes I'm not exactly sure myself), I don't know that I really understand what she means there, and how it applies to her claims as outlined in Marcia's summary. Perhaps what I'm asking is, what is the "discourse community" for "basic" writers? Further, a bit earlier Bizzell maintains that "to help poor writers...we need to explain that their writing takes place within a community, and to explain what the community's conventions are" (380). I can see how this might make sense in a WAC situation -- in a particular discipline the conventions would seem to be apparent, as is the need to understand and use them effectively. In the context of a Basic Writing classroom in General College, however, my question again is "what community"? How does one (me) take the many communities of which my students are members into account, and how does that affect how and what I teach?

Maybe she's couching her language too much. I think, when she says "Basic Writers," she's talking about many different discourse communities. It could include kids from inner-city Black and Hispanic schools, and the dominant discourse there...or Hmong students' discourse community, etc.

I think something she doesn't address, but probably believes, is the overlappingness of discourse communities, how we belong to many of them and use them for different things.

Part of the idea, probably, is that middle-class White students are steeped in the dominant discourse community all their lives. But for other students, the dominant discourse community is more peripheral.

Anyhow, that's how I interpreted it.

I like what Bizzell has to say in the last two pages of this piece (p. 106 in our course packet) - and I think it relates to Gary's question, which is one I asked myself as I was reading!

Maybe Marcia has already answered it, but at the risk of being repetitive, here's my take on it. For writers in GC, like the student writers that I am working with in freshman comp, I think discourse community is a very broad term. But I think there are still conventions that the students can learn and that, if followed, can make increase the chances that people (mostly instructors) reading their work will take it - and them - more seriously. Those conventions include accurate grammar, etc. - like the use of the semi-colon we discussed last week, as well as proper register and professional format.

I can't decide whether or not I like the analogy Bizzell uses in paragraph 2 on page 106 - that of the student from outside the mainstream academic discourse community as a "traveler to an unfamiliar country." The analogy is helpful, I think, but I'm not sure how realistic or ideal it is to ask students to "go native" and yet remember where they've come from. That seems to be the most practical approach I've seen to date, though, and for lack of a better one, it's what I use with my students (trying to explain to them, that is, that the way we write in American higher education may not be the best way to write, and that it is certainly not the only way - but that, to succeed here, it is the way they should strive to write).

I do like the way she emphasizes community - though that emphasis might ring hollow to students who don't feel that they are truly a part of the academic community, or that they are very different from those who have shaped its conventions. I guess one of our ongoing challenges as teachers of writing is helping our students become a part of that community and giving them real hope that they might one day shape the conventions themselves - and giving them the tools that they'll need to do so.

Just to follow up on Heather's thought, I also like Bizzell's idea of "community," especially since I invariably start the semester with my "we are a community of writers" speech and my exhortation that you (students) will learn more from each other than you do from me. Unfortunately that sometimes comes up against their need for more "concreteness" -- you're the teacher, so why don't you just teach me the rules so I can pass this class and any future classes where writing may be involved. That in a way makes me think of some of the other readings analyzing the content v. thinking debate -- even in a "stand alone" writing course students sometimes want "deliverables" that they can use to survive, and though they'd never say so they feel that all the talk about process and critical thinking is a waste of time. Perhaps the goal is to help them see that critical thinking is related to writing and vice versa and is just as important a "deliverable" as knowing MLA or how to use the semicolon. Or maybe it's just me and I haven't figured out a way to be super writing teacher and do it all (and effectively).

I also have mixed feelings about Bizell's analogy of asking students to "travel to an unfamiliar country without going native."

To extend the analogy, a fundamental part of foreign travel is coming to speak the language, and through that, better understanding the culture. I don't know if that aspect of travel would qualify as "going native," but I am sure that drive-by tourism won't cut it.

For example, if my psychology students are uncomfortable with the need for empirical evidence, or they do not believe a focused research question is important (i.e. if they believe that faith/trust or unguided exploration are just as good), I would say that they have chosen the wrong field of study. These values are essential to not just APA-style writing, but to the discipline of psychology as a whole.

I do like Bizzell’s idea of different academic communities. Have you ever tried to read a medical history? If you are not familiar with its goals, issues, terms, arguments, and dialect, you probably cannot understand this particular text.
Flower and Hayes argue that students can think and use language in complex ways if they can use discourse conventions and match the expectations of academic community.
According to them (Bizzell, p.370) the role of the writer in the academic community is:
• Making an argument
• Doing intellectual work of significance to the community
• Persuading readers that you are a worthy coworker (Bizzel, )
That already looks hard enough to teach and I agree with Bizzell that it doesn’t explain the “how? of writing instruction.
To embrace a different language’s variety means to fight with your own identity. Probably learning the variety of one specific academic community (as Bizzell and Fish define it) implies leaving behind other kind of native-argumentative thinking. Because of my experience in sociolinguistic, I believe that discard the own native-self creates a strong source of anxiety.
On the other hand, I’m a current student of ESL 3302 Writing for Academic Purposes. Even though I am a Spanish writer, I have to learn how to write properly; not only English, but one particular academic-community style (that is probably a “poetic revenge? in the desires of my Venezuelan students).
Very soon into this semester, I realized that I couldn’t understand a lot of acronyms as: GC, BW, even SUVs (I already know this last one is not an academic word, but… it was one example in my writing exercises!!!)
I began to think that a writer’s problem is also a “readers’ problem, in the sense of “interact with the material world according to the conventions of a particular discourse community? (Bizzell, 381)
That’s why I really embrace Heather’s hope about give us, the learners, real faith that we might one day shape the conventions ourselves and the needed tools to do so.

It’s one thing to agree that we should make the conventions of our academic discourse community more visible to students, and quite another to know how to do so (even to fully articulate those conventions for ourselves). The task grows more daunting considering the necessity of addressing social and political factors—why, for instance, AAVE is marginalized and condemned despite the fact that in linguistic terms, it’s as rule-governed and legitimate as any other dialect.

One way to approach this is as an investigation, with instructor and students as co-investigators into conventions and their development. Students could bring in examples of assignments and writings from their varied courses, and analyze them in small groups (with guidance). Students could also investigate conventions in other communities that are important to them, and bring in examples of writing that is familiar to them. The class might ultimately generate a list of criteria that seem to govern conventions across communities (author’s self-positioning, for instance)—a bridging that Bizzell advocates. The analysis of conventions would be accompanied by readings and other activities to offer glimmerings of why some conventions are privileged over others.

But these assignments (very initially formulated, of course) would need to be useful to students. Having them focus on discourses that are relevant to their lives (their majors, their current work or future professions, the communities with which they identify) is one step. Bizzell observes, “Students often complain that they have nothing to say, whereas ‘real-world’ writers almost never do, precisely because real-world writers are writing for discourse communities in which they know their work can matter, whereas students can see little purpose for their own attempts (‘essais’) other than to get a grade? (102). Learning about discourse communities involves a discussion of values, and thus why particular kinds of writing are valued, and perhaps why a student’s writing in response to a particular assignment (or the writing a student does as part of developing her own project) is valuable. In conjunction with exploring conventions, we should ask students to articulate the value and meaning in their own writing—what they were trying to do in this writing, toward what purpose—and relate this evaluation to (or locate it within) a specific discourse community.

As an overarching philosophy, I tend to think in terms of helping students make informed choices (Pamela has used these terms as well). This includes, first, an exhortation to write consciously, to be aware of the choices you make when writing; and second, an attention to gaining the knowledge needed to make those choices, to move between discourses: chiefly a knowledge of disciplinary or community values, expectations, and conventions.

I also really like Bizzell's metaphor of the incoming college student as a traveller in a foreign land. However, this bodes very poorly for composition as it's traditionally taught in college, as a "here's how to be a writer in college" class. The reason for this is that I doubt that there is much sense we can make of a college-wide discourse community, of the university as one big discourse community. What do different disciplines in a university have in common other than the set of (according to Bizzell "unhelpful") rules like "omit needless words" or "back your claims up with evidence." The problem I've had with biology students taking literature classes isn't that they find the idea that their claims should be backed up with evidence to be shocking, it's that they don't understand what qualifies as evidence in a literature course. If making students good writers is largely a process of training them in what "discipline x" considers to be needless or what it considers to be evidence, then when should be done with traditional comp as a writing course without a discipline?

Great discussion so far—and cool extra link, Marcia! Unusually personal for Bizzell—thanks for putting that up there.

The whole inner-directed / outer-directed classification is one that I find useful---do you see a relationship between Berlin’s Neo-Platonic (inner) and New Rhetoricians (outer)? We talked specifically about these two last week and I find it interesting to think about ways of using them together rather than choosing one or the other.

Gary questions Bizzell’s comment re: using inner-directed heuristics w/Basic Writers. My assumptions is that she is saying that “even? where we might find teaching a heuristic most useful to students, we need to encourage these students to see the tool in its discourse context. Is it possible for these students, and others, Heather asks, to both dive into using the tools and language of the discourse while at the same time remembering where they come from and making conscientious choices all the time about the cognitive (and political) ramifications of writing and thinking within a new discourse. This brings us back to the idea of the semi-colon—as in, can we/students make choices about the discourse conventions we are using when they are still so unfamiliar? Do students need to become fluent in standardized academic writing before they can make this choice? Further….what about the students who don’t want to think long and hard about these choices? What about those who say, in effect, give me the stuff I need in order to be a player---and keep all your guilt-pc-stuff to yourself?

I also wonder if a schism is developing in reaction to Bizzell and perhaps the Emig and Langer, between those of us who teach disciplinary “content? courses and assign writing and those of us who teach writing as a subject. Laura is helping us to see the discourse used in psych (and in many other sciences). Does composition/ESL have a discourse? Stephen, who i currently teaching composition, wonders how he can prepare students from a variety of disciplines to anticipate what sorts of evidence their different discourses will find credible. I would argue that he will do so by emphasizing, as Bizzell suggests, the writerly choices that they will be making. They need to analyze their audience’s (reader’s) expectations as best they can. In composition we teach them to consider, in a variety of writing situations, their purpose in writing and their audience’s expectations. In Laura’s course, she provides a purpose, and helps students recognize a discourse community’s expectations.

I wanted to comment on Bizell's characterization of the concept of the inward and outward-directed theorists. It seems to me that some of the ideas of both camps will both be, and not be, true and applicable in a variety of situations and with a variety of students. A metaphore for this can be seen in the way we teach in the Spanish and Portuguese Department. In all of our Spanish classes, there is an emphasis on group work. We begin from the premise that foreign language is ultimately a social activity. This approach probably does serve the majority of our students, but there are some who are really not interested in the social aspects of the language, and would prefer to study in a more individualized fashion. By taking what is basically an outward-directed approach, we ignore some of the diversity of our student population.
A premise I work on is that any idea, including this premise, that is taken to an extreme, will probably turn out to limit the ability of the person holding the belief and not allow them to adapt in a complex and change-filled world For instance, when I read the assertion that outer-directed theorists believe that all ideas must exist in a linguistic context, I began to think of mystic literature and how many people over the millenia have written that they have had experiences that they cannot express in words.
I know that this may seem to be wandering off the topic, but we can easily apply this to a classroom. By allowing students to find their own way, at least during the process of writing, we can support that individuality. The role of the instructor would become that of a person who shows the student ways to write, but does not impose a specific methodology. The instructor would teach the ends of writing, and mentor the means.