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February 2, 2006

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.

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