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Empirical research into legal comm’n & professional status of LRW faculty

20 Jul

I was delighted to finagle an invitation to speak on a panel at the Legal Writing Institute in Portland on July 12, during the meeting of the LWI Professional Status Committee. The committee met in a plenary session with a larger audience and conducted its business, and then we panelists were asked to comment in short form (two minutes each) on an angle or issue relating to the professional status of legal research and writing faculty. (For readers outside the legal academy, teachers of communication in that field face status challenges similar to those faced by teachers of writing in the broader academy 25 or even 40 years ago.)

Kirsten Davis at Stetson Law (also on the panel) has talked about posting our comments, and I think that’s a grand idea. The others on the panel were Ken ChestekMary Beth Beazley, and Ruth Anne Robbins.

My comments (as I prepared them, possibly slightly different than those I delivered):

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts today! I received my PhD training as an empirical researcher in rhetoric and composition. Though I’m teaching rhetoric and technical communication outside the legal academy in a tenure-track position at Georgia Tech, I did previously teach legal writing for eight years at University of Minnesota.

I want to share two thoughts–one a recommendation and one a caution–about the role of research for legal communication faculty.

My first thought is that legal communication faculty should engage in empirical research into legal communication. Here, I’m speaking of the professional communication practices of lawyers, judges, and others outside the classroom. Your should engage in this research for at least two reasons.

First, quality teaching in any field is motivated by systematic empirical and theoretical consideration of what is being taught. We cannot rely only on our own practical experiences, though they are very valuable. Our individual experience is limited in scope, and our years in the classroom can insulate us from knowledge of new developments. We must systematically examine what is being done in the field in order to prepare our students for it.

Second, the professionalization of legal communication faculty demands that they make the subject of their instruction the object of their research. The professionalization of writing professors in English (and other) departments and the broader academy accompanied the focus those professors put on research into writing: moving away from the old model where writing teachers published articles and books on Shakespeare and the Romantics, for example–literary research–toward a model where writing teachers publish research on writing processes, contexts, and products.

But my second thought is a caution about my first. In these other departments, the focus on research that examines communication outside the classroom (and the ‘professionalization’ of those researchers) has resulted in a devaluing of classroom and pedagogy research. I have been warned by mentors not to do classroom research, that it will harm my job prospects and tenure and promotion case. I’m continuing to do that kind of research anyway, but it’s less of a focus for me.

So, even if you take my recommendation to research outside the classroom, I hope you resist the temptation to devalue pedagogical research.


(I elaborated on some of this in my presentation on qualitative research the next day)

Readings for 8011 for November 29

29 Nov

This week we’ll have a visit from Drs. Tom Reynolds and Patrick Bruch to talk about research in pedagogy. We had several readings to prepare for this discussion. Here they are:

Herndl, C. G. (2004). Teaching discourse and reproducing culture: a critique of research and pedagogy in professional and non-academic writing. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition., pp. 220-231). Oxford University Press, USA.

Young, I. (1990). Introduction. Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Connors, R. J., & Lunsford, A. A. (1993). Teachers’ Rhetorical Comments on Student Papers. College Composition and Communication, 44(2), 200-223.

Reynolds, T. J., & Bruch, P. L. (2002). Curriculum and affect: a participatory developmental writing approach. Journal of Developmental Education, 26(2), 12-20.

The Herndl and Young pieces are conceptual ones. Young’s is an intro to her book on justice. Herndl’s, written about the same time (early ‘90s, the cite above is to an anthology), makes an argument for research into the cultural and ideological issues in technical communication.

Iris Young’s intro chapter makes the argument that discussions of justice need to move away from questions of “distributive justice” (who gets what) to discussing questions of “social domination and oppression,” which impact folks who exhibit differences particularly. She claims that she is not offering a theory of justice, that to do so she would have to decontextualize justice (3-5). She presents her view of critical theory (5-7), but also critiques views of some critical theorists (7-8). She outlines what she’ll do in the rest of her book. Some claims she plans to make and support:

  • Chapter 1: She argues for the move from distributive justice (the “primacy of having”) to questions of oppression and domination (the “primacy of doing”).
  • Chapter 2: She defines oppression and puts it in the context of “politics.”
  • Chapter 3: She takes up the (de)politicization of social issues. She offers Pitkin’s and Unger’s definitions of politics.
  • Chapter 4: She argues that “impartiality…denies difference.”
  • Chapter 5: She discusses “some implications of modern society’s denigration of the body.”
  • Chapter 6: She argues for “principles and practices that… identify liberation with social equality that affirms group differences….”

Questions/comments: Why can a theory of justice not account for contextual matters? I’d like to read Chapter 5, as I think the academic mindset also denigrates the body. (The notion that all knowledge is mediated by language denies embodied knowledge and emotional knowledge, which are rarely articulated.)

Herndl’s article also embraces critical theory. He repeats that mantra that “knowledge is socially constructed or legitimized (an important distinction) through language and rhetorical activity” (p. 221), without discussing the important distinction he pointed out. His article discusses the tension in technical communication between reproducing dominant discourse. He argues that TC research should address power and ideology issues in the contexts of TC work; he singles out McCarthy’s study of DSM-III (not the later one) for talking about how DSM III shapes psychiatric discourse without addressing the power and ideology that inform that discourse. Herndl adds his own (purely speculative) thoughts: that the DSM III is motivated by power of insurance companies and legal concerns.

Herndl acknowledges that teachers of technical writing cannot set up their resistance against students’ instrumental intentions: Students believe they want to enter the professional discourses that their courses purport to prepare them for; they do not want the teacher telling them to resist those discourses.

Question/comment: This seems to me to be the central issue. Why can’t we show them all the doors, and let them decide which to walk through?

The Reynolds/Bruch article recounts survey research they did with students in a “developmental writing program” at the University of Minnesota’s (now defunct) General College. They discuss their approach of making “literacy work” of the class, where the students write “full-length essays” but also “study the place of writing in creating academic and other kinds of knowledge” (p. 13). “[A]n integral assumption of the curriculum is that student writing is real writing, that is, it is a part of the larger society and its various social forces and opportunities” (p. 13).

They administered a survey to students, asking them what they thought the focus of their class should be and what they thought the focus of it was. The three categories were “critical thinking,” “academic writing skills,” and “writing process and problem solving.”

This study was interesting in that it married quasi-quantitative methods (there are issues with any effort to generalize these results to students outside the U of M) with critical theory; I presume the journal in question favors educational research (which is often pretty quant or qual/quant oriented).

Question: The questions on the survey instrument appear inconsistent. Why?

The Connors-Lunsford article presents the results of a review of teacher’s “rhetorical comments” on some 3,000 student papers. This descriptive study suffers from a few methodological flaws (representativeness of sample, no accounting for intercoder reliability, etc.), but it provides an interesting picture. In a way, it’s a bit like the Reynolds-Bruch study: Connors and Lunsford examine the quantitative results, describing the “central tendency” of the sample they reviewed. But they also have the coders give an impressionistic review of the papers they looked at; that results in some understanding of the “tails” of the bell curve, including some extreme examples of nice and nasty instructor comments.

Question: Has this study been reproduced? Why not do it now? It would let us see whether their results hold true now (more than 20 years later).

Note to Lee-Ann: I forgot to post this before class today. Only doing it at 5:44p.m. I would not object to being docked for points on that basis. -BNL

The Phenomenology of Error

21 Nov

I received a link from friend and colleague Trent Kays to this article:

Williams, J. M. (1981). The phenomenology of error. College Composition and Communication, 32(2), 152-168.

(I UPDATED this post 11/22 with notes from Prof. Sihler below.)

It’s a good read, and points up a key problem: Self-appointed arbiters of writing style, unofficial state grammarians, and teachers of writing often feel compelled to point out errors in the writings of others. Unfortunately, an “error” may not really be one, because most readers would not react to it that way. And the grammar police themselves commit similar or identical errors in their own writing. For example, E.B. White, the much-worshipped sage of style for high school English teachers, is notorious for violating the elements of style in the Elements of Style, though his defenders will argue it ain’t so it until they are blue in the face (or would that be “blue in the faces”?).

Three thoughts:

1. I wish Williams had expressly articulated his claim in terms of rhetoric. What is appropriate style depends on the speaker/writer, the context, and the audience. These are the components of the rhetorical situation.

2. I teach grammar “errors” as rhetorical constructs. I often comment to students: “You may not want to say this as you have, because some readers will interpret it as grammatically incorrect, even though I understood it perfectly.” I intend this to give students choices. When they know that their readers would not welcome the subjunctive, they can “break the rules” and use the indicative; confronted with readers who value the subjunctive as a signal of status, they can demonstrate their knowledge of the rule, speaking the shibboleth their readers desire to hear; when unsure about the audience, they can draft to avoid the construction altogether.

3. I think always of my first linguistics professor, Andrew Sihler at the University of Wisconsin, who said (maybe the first day of class), “If a native speaker says it, and a native speaker understands it, it’s perfectly good English.” (See update below.) Of course, he said so in the context of descriptive linguistics, which theorizes about language as it is, not as it should be. But the prescriptivists often turn out to be just wrong, as Williams makes clear in this article.

Nice read! Thanks Trent!



After ‘quoting’ Prof. Sihler above, I thought maybe I’d see what he’s up to these days and check whether my quote was right. Of course, it’s entirely wrong. In addition to reporting that he’s retired and doing very well, Prof. S (or Uncle Andrew, as he sometimes referred to himself) wrote this:


Now, as to your question, well, I don’t think I would have said that anything immediately intelligible to a native speaker of English qualifies as “perfectly good English”. It might well be clearly English: say, Me Tarzan, you Jane is intelligible, and obviously English in the sense that the elements are all English, unlike say aham Tarzan, tvam Jane. “Headline English” is intelligible—usually—but “perfectly good English” is a bit strong. I once had a whimsical conversation with my late (and bitterly lamented) colleague Valdis Zeps, in which one morning I asked him, Where wife? He responded Wife not Madison. Wife Chicago. Proving that you can communicate just fine without the grammatical machinery of standard English, though I think few would call such utterances “perfectly good English”.

I’m not sure I’ve put your mind at ease on the matter you wrote me about. Linguists are often reproached with the charge that they (we) hold that anything anybody says is “grammatical”. That’s not the claim. The claim is that the status “standard” is established by usage. Not just an utterance here and there, but general usage. Thus, porte-cochere is commonly used in American English to mean a covered drive before a door. The term in French meant, however, a gate (porte) big enough to accommodate the passage of a carriage. As recently as the 1920’s, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary defines the expression thus, and adds that it is  “often incorrectly” used to mean a covered drive. “Often incorrectly” is incoherent: anything used “often” with a consistent function can hardly be “incorrect”. It might be non-standard (ain’t, say), and some very common expressions grate on the ears of some, like consensus of opinion or using podium to mean “lectern”.


It’s just proof that I should not rely on my memory. Of course, my quote was rather obviously wrong in the first place. You’d think I would have concluded that a smart fellow like this would not have so oversimplified the matter. Still, it was nice to have an excuse to get back into touch with him after all these years.


5531 Readings for October 6

3 Oct

I thought I’d post a couple quick notes about the readings for 5531 this week. This is briefer than posts for 8011, because they are not required for 5531…

This week, we handled the following:


Gage, J. T. (1991). On “Rhetoric” and “Composition”. In E. Lindemannn & G. Tate (Eds.), An Introduction to Composition Studies (pp. 15-32). New York: Oxford University Press.

This study tackled the meanings of “rhetoric,” “composition,” and “rhetoric and composition.”  He comes to a conclusion that seems altogether commonplace:

  • Rhetoric is “reasoning down from wholes to functional parts” (30)
  • Composition entails the process of “reasoning up from constituent parts to wholes” (30)

Nevertheless, he did “show his work” in the analysis. Maybe a good source for further discussion on this topic…


Carroll, L. A. (2002). Preface and Chapter 3. In Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press.

Carroll offers a longitudinal study of writing by undergrads at Pepperdine over their time there, based on portfolios and interviews. She states her purpose: “I want to demonstrate in this volume why a one- or two-semester, first-year course in writing cannot meet all the needs of even our more experienced writers and show how students’ complex literacy skills develop slowly, often idiosyncratically, over the course of their college years, as they choose or are coerced to take on new roles as writers.” (xi-xii)

Carroll generalizes a little from her study, but wisely restrains herself from doing much; this study is small, and Pepperdine has an unusual student population (wealthy, etc.)

Herrington and Curtis

Herrington, A. J., & Curtis, M. (2000). Chapter 2 Claiming the Essay for Himself: Nam. In Persons in Process: Four Stories of Writing and Personal Development in College (pp. 54-133). Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

This is a report of a longitudinal study of four students through a year of writing in college. Chapter 2 is regarding one student, Nam, a Vietnamese immigrant with some language challenges attending UMass Amherst for a year before heading to seminary to be a Catholic priest. He struggled with language; previous training that emphasized the five-paragraph theme; and fear that secular education would taint him.

This long, detailed account includes the full text of several of Nam’s compositions and authors’ analysis of them. Nam is a very sympathetic character, and this account is actually quite moving.

Herrington seems very reluctant to generalize – good!


Clark, J. E. (2010). The Digital Imperative: Making the Case for a 21st-Century Pedagogy. Computers and Composition, 27, 27-35.

This selection was Clayton’s pick for us to read as a class; he will lead discussion.

Clark states her purpose: ‘In our nascent digital culture, the traditional essayistic literacy that still dominates composition classes is outmoded and needs to be replaced by an intentional pedagogy of digital rhetoric which emphasizes the civic importance of education, the cultural and social imperative of “the now,” and the “cultural software” that engages students in the interactivity, collaboration, ownership, authority, and malleability of texts.’

She gives several examples of the approaches she recommends, including use of ePortfolios (29); use of multi-media to tell “digital stories” (31-32); using Second Life and the novel Jennifer Government (and associated online game Nation States) to engage students in collective effort as prompt to write about it (33-34); use of blog posts, quick arguments, low-stakes from grading standpoint but high-stakes from authorial and authority standpoint (34).

Clark tells the interesting story of a student, an illegal immigrant, whom she required to remove a story from the student’s portfolio because it could be used to deport the student. (31)

My sense is that this article is full of good ideas, but I’m a little overwhelmed. I feel as if I’m just finding my legs teaching technical writing for the first time this semester. I’m not sure whether I’m ready to use these methods, on the one hand; on the other, I buy the arguments Clark makes about the importance of these techniques. What to do, what to do?


Reflections on training I’ve had in writing

19 Sep

So, in my 5531 Composition Pedagogy class, I was given the following prompt: “[P]lease write a short version of your experiences with writing instruction in your schooling. In narrating your experiences, consider how your experiences were a product, to some degree, of what we have been reading about in Berlin [1987].”

I’ve viewed this question broadly. I’ll ID anecdotes from applicable contexts:

  • My earliest memory of being trained how to write was a sixth-grade teacher (Mr. Pethoud), who insisted that students know how to spell words well beyond the sixth-grade level and also insisted on good penmanship. The former was no big deal. The latter required that we all learn how to write cursive in a uniform fashion way. I conformed as well as I could during the class (getting my lowest grade in grade school) but promptly rebelled when I moved on to junior high. (My hand-writing now is appalling.)
  • My only memory of writing education in high school is from Marilyn Hare’s class in composition for college-bound students. We focused on very convention-bound genres: writing instructions for a common daily activity (like tying shoes or brushing teeth) for someone with no knowledge of the tools required; the five-paragraph theme; the expository ‘term paper.’
  • I took no writing classes, specifically, in college, but I had some writing-learning experiences.
  • My undergraduate thesis was the translation of a novel from Swedish to English. (I’ve looked at the results recently – I did a horrible job.) I remember sitting in my adviser’s office one day, trying to figure out how to translate the Swedish word “sköte,” which refers to the general area of the female genitals. The word appeared four times in a single paragraph; it appears in the Swedish version of the Bible; but there was no English word with the right nuance. (My adviser, a Swedish woman of perhaps 50 years of age, well-known for her thoughtful translations of poetry into English, suggested a four-letter word beginning with “c” – at the look of shock on my face, she said, “But it’s a very old word!”)
  • I continued with the translation theme in undergrad. I took a graduate seminar in translation as a complement to my thesis project. This course deeply sensitized me to the difficulties of translating nuance and subtlety. I remember particularly having to translate a section of James Joyce’s beautiful short story The Dead into my working language (Swedish). The way that Swedish works, saying where someone was born indicates whether the speaker believes the subject to be dead or alive – in this case, that would have given away an important fact about the story before Joyce intended the reader to know it.
  • In law school, I had two courses devoted to writing. The year-long sequence of first-year legal writing focused on very convention-bound genres (office memo, client predictive memo, brief in support of court motion, brief in support of appeal). It focused heavily on technical details, including grammar and especially citation. Citation in the law is done according to the “Blue Book” – which is a monstrous creation of Ivy League law students with nothing better to do. It was not until the second course, a semester-long one in persuasive legal writing, that the focus of the training turned to two issues that still interest me today (a) audience analysis and (b) argumentation theory.

I would say, generally, that the courses intended explicitly to train me in writing were heavily current-traditional in their approach. Berlin would say they were “objective” in epistemology. The courses and projects related to translation were perhaps a combination of expressive and rhetorical in their approach, exhibiting characteristics both of “subjective” and “transactional” epistemologies from Berlin’s perspective. The advanced persuasive writing course in law school was mostly current-traditional in its focus, but the attention to argumentation theory was rhetorical (though not in name) and thus probably a little “transactional” from Berlin’s perspective.


Berlin, P. J. A. (1987). Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 – 1985 (1st ed.). Southern Illinois University Press.