Using Rhetorical Media to Meet Outcomes

and Satisfy Stakeholders


Section 1:  Rhetorical Knowledge.

The WPA Outcomes Statement outlines the “rhetorical knowledge” that students should develop through first-year composition.  By listing “rhetorical knowledge” first in the set of outcomes expected from first-year composition, a perspective in the writing/composing versus rhetoric/composing debate is automatically implied.  However, the WPA’s description of this outcome provides additional defense for adopting the rhetoric/composing perspective over the writing/composing one.

The document states the need for students to have knowledge of how to focus on a purpose that will allow them to respond to the needs created by different audiences and rhetorical situations.  It also requires that students learn to understand the conventions, including voice, tone and level of formality, appropriate to specific rhetorical situations and to be capable of writing in a number of different genres. In addition to being able to write in these genres, students should understand how genre shapes their reading and writing (Harrington et al, 2001, p. 324). 

The emphasis upon different audiences, multiple genres and a variety of rhetorical purposes echos what Selfe (2009) claims, which is that “as teachers of rhetoric and composition, our responsibility is to teach students effective, rhetorically based strategies for taking advantage of all available means of communicating effectively and productively as literate citizens” (p. 644).  This statement relates to the reason that Selfe (2010) gives for taking the rhetoric/composing approach to the curriculum.  She says in her response to Hesse, “Here, I’ll throw down publicly as an adherent of rhetoric/composing as the more capacious choice; to me, it suggests an openness to multiple modalities of rhetorical expression” (Selfe, 2010, p. 606).

If instructors privilege writing in their classrooms, then they will only help prepare students for the rhetorical situations that call for writing papers.  However, in this increasingly digital age (this very web-text is, perhaps, evidence for this point), communicators are tasked with communicating in diverse modalities.  How will students trained only in writing prepare for these other occasions?   Who will prepare them, if not their composition professors?

Professors might hope that students will transfer the skills necessary for writing a paper to other rhetorical situations beyond written prose, but the research on students’ ability to transfer skills between educational contexts is grim.  Nelms and Dively (2007) explain that professors often become frustrated with students’ ability to “apply knowledge across different educational contexts” (p. 223).   It seems that students struggle to understand how the strategies they learned for writing a paper in one class would apply to papers outside that class. 

As a result of their study into transfer from first-year composition courses, Nelms and Dively (2007) recommend the following as a means to help increase the transfer of knowledge beyond the classroom walls:

  1. (1)developing more discipline- and/or workplace-specific assignments for first-year composition in order to lessen the distance between FYC and future writing contexts, rendering learning experiences more like possible future applications;

  2. (2)developing ways of motivating students to write generally but also to see applications of these processes beyond the composition course; and

  3. (3)including more metacognitive reflection on writing processes, on rhetoric, and on applications of writing strategies. Thus, composition course curricula also need reexamination and revision with an eye toward finding ways of enhancing transfer (p. 644).

These recommendations suggest that to help students transfer skills from their courses to the broad range of communication means that will be available to them, faculty should emphasize rhetoric and reflection along with realistic genres. The authors reveal that the writing process and strategies for writing alone will not help students transfer their stills beyond our classroom.  Instead, they advocate for ensuring that rhetoric is included with the course's attention to writing.

In addition, since the world outside of composition courses will likely demand more from students than written prose, it seems that assignments should be closer not only to students disciplines and workplaces, but also to the digital spaces they’ll communicate within.  This sentiment echos the stance by the New London Group (1996) regarding the need for a pedagogy of “multiliteracies,” which they maintain will allow students to access the power of language in multiple facets of their lives and to engage critically with that language, so that they can use it to be successful in their future careers (p. 60-64). 

If transfer within one modality is difficult, it is likely that students would truly be hard pressed to make connections between the rhetorical choices they make in writing and those they must make in visual or multimedia communication.  Therefore, it seems that students would be best served through occasions to produce texts in multiple modalities.  Overall, it seems a rhetoric/composing curriculum that advocates for the composition in multiple modalities is best suited to fulfilling the demands created by the rhetorical knowledge aspect of the WPA outcomes statement.

Film Project Units Emphasizing This Outcome:

        Unit 1

        Unit 2

        Unit 3

        Unit 4

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