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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: B 34 Teaching Writing, Teaching Advocacy
Reviewed by: Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, slkerschbaum@wisc.edu
Posted on: April 7, 2004
Updated on: April 7, 2004

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These three presentations engaged questions of advocacy through our practices of teaching writing. The overarching theme of the talks dealt with attention to the rhetorical practices that we foreground in our teaching and classrooms.

The first presenter, Margaret Willard-Traub (“Curriculum Matters”) discussed a proposed new course in “discourse of the law” as part of a larger undergraduate program of study in writing studies at Oakland University. Her presentation dealt with addressing issues of preparing students for the writing and advocacy work they will be doing as they leave school. One audience member asked Willard-Traub to elaborate on how she saw this program affecting students’ access to language, and in her response, she described the course as preparing students for other kinds of advocacy and in other fields beyond academia.

In “Access to Language,” David Bleich raised questions about the discourses we teach in our classrooms, following Willard-Traub’s call for a new emphasis in writing classrooms. He critiqued the teaching of argument in many composition classrooms as “decontextualized” and hegemonic, and does not engage many of the other genres of discourse that we use on a more regular basis in our everyday interactions and talk. Drawing from historical evidence, he pointed out that language had to be accessible in order to be powerful. Writing, for Bleich, is a way of helping students defeat societal problems—by giving them access to discourses that will enable them to effect change in the world. The fear and intimidation of writing teachers (invoking the attempted curriculum change in the University of Texas writing program and the firing of various writing program administrators around the country) is justified if we do succeed in giving students real access to language—giving them a way to speak, a right to speak in a way that affects society.

Anne Ruggles Gere (“Sentences Matter: The Syntax of Advocacy”) moved the discussion from genres of discourse to sentences. She showed how three different American Indian women used rhetorical sentence structures to advocate for their perspectives in the face of White attempts to assimilate the Indian during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She noted that in turning to sentences, she isn’t returning to “sentence combining” but rather, using sentence-level pedagogy to help students see the relationships between syntax and advocacy. In one telling example, Zitkala-sa , prefacing a translation of American Indian folk tales, says, “I have tried to transplant the native spirit of these tales—root and all—into the English language, since America in the last few centuries has acquired a ‘second tongue.’” Gere points out how this sentence’s syntax allows Zitkala-sa to use English to undercut its colonialism, making a powerful case for the way discourse can be analyzed at the sentence-level to address issues of rhetorical presentation, advocacy, and access to language.


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