The WAC Clearinghouse

CCCC 2001 in Review: G.x The Future of College Composition: Impacts of Alternative Discourses on Standard English, chaired by Lynn Quitman Troyka

Patricia Bizzell presented "Alternative Discourse and Intellectual Work."

Bizzell began by mentioning Helen Fox's book on alternative discourse and offering her own email address,, for any who wanted to respond to her remarks online. Bizzell no longer believes academic discourse is the goal of writing instruction and discussed her thinking about the intellectual value of alternative discourses.

One of the ways Bizzell supported her claim was that she noted the potential advantage for students who have more than one discourse mode in their repertoire. This fine compositionist noted the need to know traditional forms of discourse but wanted to ensure that her audience would learn to value alternative discourses in pursuit of academic discourse. In a sense, she echoed Bob Dylan, who once said, "to live outside the law you must be honest." She emphasized the importance of what alternatives to academic discourse could bring to our field and cited a l997 Journal of American History article by Joel Williamson. The article was published with referees' reports and offered evidence of reviewers reacting to un-academic prose and how they were affected by Williamson's personal style in a variety of academic (and funny) ways. Bizzell described Williamson's discursive experiment as digging deep into himself to reveal the underpinnings of his work.

The presenter's analysis of the alternative discourse in Williamson's essay was colorful and clearly supported her claim for valuing alternative discourse. Williamson was a life-long history scholar--living within the "law" of academic discourse for decades before attempting to publish more personal scholarship. The honesty of his expression "outside the academic law" made real sense. If one looks at any recent collection of America's best essays, one must note the increasing use of poetry and narrative, not to mention the absence of source citation. Looking closely at academic discourse and removing some of the more limiting assumptions about it may help us infuse our field with better writing. Bizzell's scholarship at least offered a step toward our understanding and acceptance of alternative discourses. One of the best reasons to go to sessions is to see how how people in our field think. Bizzell's vision and her ability to apply reading interpretation to writing instruction is a model for us all.

Peter Elbow presented "Writing in the Vernacular." Elbow began by describing Geneva Smitherman's research on NAAP exams in l984 and l988, noting the researcher's distinctions between grammar and syntax as smaller and larger discourse modes. Smitherman found that black discourse correlated with higher scores, but not black grammar and syntax. The reseracher also saw a correlation between students who used black discourse and achieved high grades.

Elbow thinks this means that we can understand changes in the culture of literacy. He said that "things" (literacy opportunities) are more hopeful in the realm of discourse, not grammar. "How can we help people of stigmatized dialects ever feel fluent if we enforce a dialect that erases their own language and culture?" Elbow asked. He believes that "mother tongue" is a dialect with acess to unconsciousness and may be more useful for tapping thinking in writers in their early drafts. Elbow described a writing process of encouraging students to compose early drafts in their preferred dialect and using later drafts to convert the writing into academic discourse.

Elbow reduced many of our teaching challenges to getting students to write on topic, to write with interesting or good ideas, to write with correct data, to reason carefully, to use a clear sense of organization, and to make meaning clear in sentences. Elbow believes these rhetorical challenges can be achieved in mother tongue without academic discourse and correct grammar and syntax: "If we want to help all of our students, we simply have to get over this.... standard English is no one's mother tongue." Elbow was not disregarding academic discourse but suggesting that concerns for it come later in the composing process. He said he has success with his Hawaiian students when he assigns an "extra last draft" to copy edit into standard written English. Like Bizzell, Elbow encouraged discussion of his ideas and mentioned his email address:

Jacqueline Jones-Royster presented "Academic Discourses of Small Boats on a Big Sea."

Jones-Royster began by offering three fundamental assumptions for her presentation:

  1. Academic discourse is an invention
  2. Academic discourse is not now and never been an "it"- academic discourse is plurally formed, not singular
  3. Academic discourse as plurally formed should not be above or beyond the discourses that surround them

This field leader stressed the three points above as thinking that can create possibilities for shifting literacy instruction. Jones-Royster understands that discourse is not separate from participants and contexts and that discourse is really endowed with "people stuff"--values, expectations, habits, power, control, privilege, and authority. Discourse, for Jones-Royster is in the hands of people, not nature, and we teachers of composition have been "historically mandated champions of rightness and good." But she also said that we need to see more clearly what we are doing. Jones-Royster wanted us to alter assumptions about the traditionally exclusive space that academic discourse creates. She emphasized her way of seeing people as the anchor of the systems of instruction and noted that classrooms require tremendous leaps of faith when students feel like visitors or outsiders. "Learning in our socially and politically nation is, for many students, a highly contentious act," claimed Jones-Royster.

Who is bridging the gaps? she asked. Jones-Royster challenged us to search for new ways to connect with students using classroom practices that build and enhance experience and permit acceptable forms of expression. She called for a mandate that explodes the premise of the academic essay, believing that new assumptions and paradigms and fewer imperial exclusions should give rise to alternative forms of expression. Her concluding point made good use of her title--as academics, we have traveled as small boats ignoring the sea. Jones-Royster was inspiring, challenging us to experience the sea of a discourse in different ways. [WH]

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