When I envisioned my teaching internship (Fall 2013 ENG 247.02), I was thinking that I would help students learn to better use (and appreciate) social media as a tool for reaching readers. Yes, I did want them to engage in genuine interactions with potential audiences beyond the classroom, but I was still looking at social media as a problem-solving tool. The problem is lack of fame – the tool should get your name into the hearts and minds of your future readers.
Except that social media doesn’t work that way. And when I’ve tried to use it that way, it didn’t work. People don’t want to be the punchline to your economic ambitions.
This clearly echoes James Berlin’s point about cognitive rhetoric – life isn’t just about problem-solving. Writing that only focuses on addressing an economic “problem” or “obstacle” won’t necessarily engage in the kinds of experimental depth we’re looking for from students.
On the other hand, we do have real problems we’re trying to solve through writing. As in, if I don’t finish this dissertation, I’ll be aout of a career. If my Writing Progam students don’t learn to use Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, then they’re grades will suffer.
So who are we kidding if we try to say that composition is about something other than problem solving? Every word we write is addressing some problem in our lives, whether its a journal entry used to sort through difficult emotions or a resume sent for a job.
The real issue, I think, comes down to control. Trying to overcome the obstacle of unemployment through writing a resume is the kind of clumsy problem-solving that we hope the composition classroom can kind of go beyond, right? I mean, critical inquiry is about something more than being able to proficiently produce a list of accomplishments, yes?
The real, issue, I think, is one of salience. Everything written – even a creative work – is meant to address some kind of problem. But who decides which problems are worthy of address and redress? Is it the workshop instructor? The New York editor? The mother who doesn’t want her child writing about such horrid things?
When Richard Vatz describes rhetorical salience, he’s talking about deciding what matters in the conversation. What counts as “real”? We can tie this to standpoint theory – those who inhabit privileged positions in society have the comfort of holding their ideologies without the material counterargument of hunger or lack of shelter or social reprobation. But for those who live on the margins – the “outsiders within” who occupy disenfranchised spaces within the society – they must perform to the ideological expectations of the privileged classes.
The problem, though, is that most people don’t see this. Mostly we assume that our beliefs are “right” and “true” rather than socially imposed. But go to an MFA workshop, and you learn real quick when it comes to which aesthetics are valued and which are not. And this raises an important question about instructor authority – to what degree can (and should) we allow (and require) our students to determine their own values? Can we require students to define their own audiences, and then determine the genre expectations of those audiences? Or are we, by doing this, simply reaffirming the power of the teacher to decide which type of writing “problem” is worth the students writer’s attention?