In "Cognition, Convention, and Certainty: What We Need to Know About Writing," Patricia Bizzell says that we've only recently begun to see writing problems as connected to thinking problems, and so, Bizzell argues, it is imperative that we explore what writing has to do with thinking and vice versa.
Bizzell explains that composition specialists are in agreement about the following process: we have innate capacities to learn language; our social use of language leads to group conventions; these conventions will eventually bind discourse communities together. But, these specialists have different ideas about which part of that process is relevant to composition studies. Bizzell identifies two camps with opposing positions on the matter: the inner-directed theorists and the outer-directed theorists.
The inner-directed camp is interested in the innate development of language in its earliest state. They seek universal, fundamental writing processes that can be taught to all students. They see all kinds of reasoning as "isomorphic." And, they insist that students need to be developmentally able to do sophisticated thinking and writing on their own, before they move on to the problems of audience analysis.
The outer-directed camp, on the other hand, is more interested in the social processes where language learning is shaped. They argue that fundamental structures cannot be taught, and that thinking and learning never occur outside of a social context. They say our most important task as composition teachers is to make students aware that discourse communities exist and help "demystify" the conventions of these communities for them so they will be able to "persuade readers [they] are a worthy co-worker."
Bizzell claims the answer to the question of what we most need to know about writing comes from both camps. She uses the example of Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes' inner-directed model of the composing process. Though Bizzell admits it works as an effective model of what to do (it is hierarchical and recursive), it falls short in that it doesn't tell us how to do it. Bizzell proposes that it needs the help of the outer-directed theorists to fill in those holes.
In fact, she says, inner-directed theorists in general can learn much from outer-directed theorists (like Vygotski) who insist that we cannot separate planning and translating stages (as Flower and Hayes do), because they are interdependent and conditioned by social context, and from the field of sociolinguistics which claims that it's the discourse that gives meaning to the words, not vice versa. In addition, they say concepts such as fundamental revising rules are "notoriously unhelpful," because everything, this camp reminds us, is dependent upon the discourse community. For example, a passive voice in one community might be discouraged, while in another it's expected.
The problems students have with language, according to the outer-directed theorists, are really just problems with joining an unfamiliar discourse community. This is in contrast to Flower and Hayes, who, though they acknowledge the existence of discourse communities, neglect to assign the same level of significance to them; Flower and Hayes, instead, blame writing problems on the students' cognitive deficiencies. Because of this stance, Bizzell claims their theory is "insensitive to poor writers."
She also criticizes inner-directed theorists for striving to have one all-encompassing model of writing. To illustrate, she cites Collins and Genter who are going so far as to write a computer program that would enable a person to enter ideas and using set rules, the computer would actually do the composing. Bizzell proposes the inner-directed camp's "quest for certainty" stems from both a desire to frame composition theory as a more scientific, or legitimate field, and from composition instructors who are more comfortable placing blame for stubborn writing problems on students' inferiority rather than their own incompetence.
Ultimately, Bizzell argues, we must acknowledge the cultural differences in our composition classrooms. Our students are not coming from the same places; applying a one-size-fits-all teaching strategy cannot work. We must examine "where they come from, what their prospects are--in short, why...particular students are having educational difficulties." Though some instructors might fear the kind of pedagogy that admits to the existence of certain discourse communities (some which are valued in academia much more than others) could be uncomfortably political, Bizzell points out she simply wants to make students aware that the stratification of discourse communities, for right or wrong, already exists, is already politicized. Bizzell finally encourages students struggling with unfamiliar discourse conventions to see themselves as travelers in an unfamiliar country and reassures them that it is possible to learn the language of this new country while still remembering from where they have come.
Though Bizzell claims that the purpose of her critique of Flower and Hayes' work is "not to delegitimate" it, and though she says we should value the both the outer-directed and inner-directed theories, it certainly seems like she's siding pretty heavily with the outer-directed camp. Perhaps she feels Flowers and Hayes are so heavily lauded that they don't need her support here, but she certainly doesn't spend much time talking about what's right about them. I do agree with the outer-directed theorists that it's important to consider audience and teach students that there are a variety of discourse community standards, but I'm not sure that's the most important thing. Elbow would say having confidence in your own voice is the first step. I keep going back to the problem of the mechanically perfect paper that's dull and uninspired. Bizzell is also pretty critical of trying to standardize anything in writing instruction. I wonder how do-able it is to teach students how to access all these different discourse communities. Is this something Bizzell thinks can happen in a general composition course, or is she imagining teaching writing only within the context of a content-specific course? I certainly don't think that teaching all of my general composition students--no matter where they come from or where they are going--some general writing heuristics, and then stressing that they should consider them every time they write is “notoriously unhelpful.”Posted by gust0124 at February 21, 2005 12:16 PM