Making Writers and Writing Visible: A Review of Writing in Knowledge Societies

by Andrea L. Williams, University of Toronto, al.williams@utoronto.ca

Writing in Knowledge Societies. Edited by Doreen Starke-Meyerring, Anthony Paré, Natasha Artemeva, Miriam Horne, and Larissa Yousoubova.  Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse (web). Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2011 (print)

Exploring the deep and complex link between writing and knowledge from a wide range of perspectives, this collection asks pressing questions like “What role (or roles) does writing play in knowledge societies, and how is writing itself a form of knowledge?” The book was developed from two CASDW conferences in 2006 and 2007 and is available for free online at the WAC Clearinghouse (wac.colostate.edu/books/winks/), which will hopefully bring it the wider audience it deserves.

Many of us must convince colleagues and administrators that the teaching and study of writing is serious intellectual work, and this collection provides strong evidence for this argument. The six sections of the book are organized as follows: (I) an introductory chapter; (II) conceptual, methodological and historical perspectives on writing; (III) writing in public and professional settings; (IV) writing in research environments; and (V and VI) writing in higher education. In chapter one, Starke-Meyerring and Paré situate the contributions to the book in the rich tradition of rhetoric as epistemic, which has roots in classical rhetoric. Of the anthology’s 27 authors and editors, seventeen are affiliated with Canadian institutions, nine with US institutions and one with City University, Hong Kong.

That many of the authors use Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) as their framework suggests the strong influence of this theoretical approach among Canadian writing scholars. Schryer’s chapter provides a thorough history of RGS and shows why it offers such a useful framework for studying writing since it attends to both texts and their social contexts, which she convincingly argues can yield thoughtful pedagogies that avoid rigid rules. The RGS orientation of many of the chapters certainly doesn’t diminish the diversity of the book, since the framework is applied in so many different ways and contexts. Examining writing by a broad range of actors and within a variety of settings, including physicists (Heather Graves), Supreme Court judges (Courant Rife), and South Korean ELL students studying at a Canadian university (Lee and Maguire), the collection brings together a range of methodologies (histories, case studies, textual and event analyses) that comprise a rich and diverse field.

In the third section on writing in public and workplace contexts, Spoel and Barriault’s case study of public communication in the Sudbury Soils Study draws on rhetoric, science communication and risk communication to challenge current and (models of public engagement that are unidirectional and hierarchical rather than dialogic (109). Wegner’s analysis of a local environmental activist group also uses a variety of theoretical lenses to show the challenges faced by groups seeking to be heard by bureaucrats and politicians and thereby contribute to community knowledge-making, without losing their activist identity.

A notable theme that emerges in this third section of the book is the often invisible nature of writing and its role in knowledge creation: despite the powerful influence writing wields in so many fields, it is seldom recognized as knowledge work or work of any kind. Courant Rife’s chapter on judicial writing illustrates “not only how law shapes writing, but also how writing shapes law” (141). She examines a judicial opinion for a landmark Supreme Court of Canada case involving a publisher suing the Law Society of Upper Canada over giving patrons access to copy machines for legal materials. Courant Rife shows how the very judicial decision that upheld consumers’ rights to use copyrighted materials borrows (like all writing) from the writing of others.  Her analysis shows legal writing, which relies heavily on precedents, some of which span national borders, to be a highly collaborative form of writing that uses “innovative forms of global remixing” (140).  Yet despite the significant impact of this and many other judicial decisions, it’s doubtful that most legal professionals consider writing as central to their work and one can’t help but wonder about the effects of this lack of consideration about writing on both legal education and practice.

In a similar manner, in chapter eight, Hart-Davidson and Grabill present three different case studies of workplace writers, none of whom see writing as central to their work: “few if any of these professionals understand their activity as writing even though they write all the time” (721). The fact that many professionals who write regularly don’t recognize or acknowledge the importance of their writing (in contrast to professional writers who define their work and their professional selves in terms of writing) contributes to the invisibility of writing in many workplaces. Hart-Davidson and Grabill argue that research about writing therefore plays a key role in “making writing visible, particularly to those doing the writing” (175).

Section four of the book examines writing in different research contexts and is of particular interest to those of us who work in WAC or WID roles. Hyland’s chapter, which presents a textual analysis of 30 research articles from a broad range of fields, highlights how rhetorical practices are inextricably linked to the different purposes of different disciplines. For example, he explores how personal credibility is more important to writers in the humanities and social sciences,  so these writers consequently use more “hedges and boosters” (204), whereas writers in the sciences are more concerned with making generalizations, so they rely more on methods, procedures, and equipment (205). Although these findings may hardly be surprising to scholars of rhetoric who have long maintained that successful writers must adapt different strategies for different audiences and occasions (or “genres” to use the term from RGS), by showing the significantly different strategies employed by writers in different disciplines, Hyland’s analysis contributes to our understanding of how writers are both enabled and constrained by disciplinary discourses and in this way provides evidence to buttress WID programs.

Paré, Starke-Meyerring, and McAlpine’s chapter on knowledge and identity work in the doctoral student-supervisor relationship explores the academic community’s knowledge-making activities, which they argue form an all too often “invisible curriculum” of practices that “are usually learned, but not taught, enacted, but not articulated” (217). Their chapter calls for greater rhetorical awareness on the part of students and faculty alike as a means of increasing student agency. Both these chapters, like the entire collection, contribute to the ongoing project of making writing and its role in knowledge creation visible. The final chapter of section four is a case study of Inkshed.Having attended Inkshed only twice over the course of many years, I wondered if Horne’s account would be of interest to someone not familiar with the community. However, Horne’s case study makes a broader (and important) point about writers’ experiences of vulnerability when addressing unfamiliar audiences, which is often the very situation student writers face. Consequently, whether or not you’ve ever attended or even heard of Inkshed, Horne’s chapter makes for compelling reading.

The final two sections of the book that address writing in higher education also speak to the theme of making writing visible knowledge work. Rogers and Walling argue that good writing instruction must help students understand the potential power and impact of writing: “Without knowledge of the ways that writing can be used to shape the world and our understanding of it . . . students will see writing as an obstacle that stands between them and their goals rather than a powerful instrument for participating in the world” (270). Picking up on the theme of invisibility, Roger Graves points out the lack of accounts from the perspective of writing program administrators at Canadian universities and describes the rhetorical challenges he has faced in his role as WPA and how he has used writing to make a case for the value of writing instruction. Procter’s chapter traces the role writing centres have played at the University of Toronto in establishing writing and writing instruction as intellectual activities, and the long and bumpy road writing instructors have travelled to earn recognition for their work and achieve professional status and job security. Graves’s and Procter’s chapters will hopefully pave the way for additional accounts and institutional histories that enrich our understanding of writing programs and writing centres, particularly in the Canadian context.

In exploring a broad range of writers, texts and contexts through a variety of theoretical lenses, this collection will appeal to diverse rhetoric and writing scholars. The book, or selections from it, would work well in graduate-level seminars as well as senior undergraduate courses. The section on writing in workplace settings would also be of interest to professional communication researchers and teachers. In short, this collection speaks to the rigour and vitality of rhetoric and writing studies, particularly in the North American context, and helps make visible the central but often invisible role of writing in knowledge creation.

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