In 500 Feet, Merge Left and Take Exit… Recalculating Route by Francis Moi Moi

posted Apr 20, 2018, 10:16 AM by Writing Center

Writing [is] a series of choices writers make

based on context, audience, purpose, and genre.

--UNLV Writing Center

As writing consultants, composition instructors, and graduate students, making rhetorical choices is what we do--all day, every day. So, naturally, we are more familiar than most with the fact that a rhetorical choice is most likely to be made between the hours of 10:00 and 11:59 pm. We know; we’ve been there; we’re still there.

Thinking rhetorically isn’t the easiest way to think. In fact, the most common rhetoric is counting on us not thinking rhetorically--i.e. advertising. Thinking rhetorically is exhausting. Every choice is suspect. As writers, we have our own purpose. Our audience has their purposes. We have to be mindful of, even appeal to, our audience and their purpose(s) in addition to our own if we are to achieve it. And that is just audience and purpose, to say nothing of genre and context. The rhetorical situation is a dynamic system, hyper sensitive to initial conditions. Every choice matters. It’s paralyzing.

As graduate students of a rhetorical persuasion (sorry), we are conditioned to have something to say and are loathe to have nothing to say. In our seminars, on our conference panels, at our thesis and dissertation defenses--until we can muster something to say, we will stall with a clear, if not protracted, that’s interesting. How interesting the question or comment posed to us is depends on how long we must stall before coming up with something to say. That is really quite interesting. The closest we get to I don’t know is that hadn’t quite occurred to me. But that’s really interesting to think about. A kind of point to be made here is if we’re anything, we’re problem solvers. We’re good at filling in those rhetorical blanks, like consultant and instructor good.

Between these two roles, consultant and instructor, there is a shared purpose: “we work with writers in any discipline on any writing task… to help them develop, improve, and transfer writing skills into their personal, academic, professional, and civic lives” (UNLV Writing Center). This entails developing students’ rhetorical knowledge and critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. However, we achieve this purpose in a different manner for each role. In the consultation, we work with writers. In the classroom, we teach writers. The difference being one that can be illustrated by analogy: the former is like a road trip undertaken by a consultant and consultee using the consultee’s roadmap; the latter is like a road trip undertaken by an instructor and student using the instructor’s GPS.

We see it in the consultees’ deer-in-the-headlights look; we see it in their conspicuous monitoring of the time. We know they’ve never used a map before, and they don’t know its conventions. They don’t know how to situate themselves. They’re waiting for the GPS to chime-in: In 500 feet, merge left and take exit. Some of us, who are cool under pressure, can wait out the silence until the writer has arrived at a choice. It’s a nerve-wracking game of chicken that many of us—including myself—often lose (but not always out of impatience). Coming from a place of respect for our writers’ time, we may not allow for as much time as we should for them to arrive at solutions for themselves. Likewise, out of wanting to be helpful, we may be too quick to reveal what we think in the guise of a merciful suggestion. Nonetheless, we are being prescriptive. We have arrived at our destination without having put in the mileage (unlike this analogy). This is where we’ll retract the “playing chicken” comparison; it’s adversarial and not helpful. Instead, we might reconsider the way we arrive at the goal, which isn’t the solution itself but developing the trouble-shooting skills needed to create solutions for ourselves.

Rather than thinking of prescription as a wrong turn (or short-cut), we might treat them like a GPS would—recalculate the route. We might try to reclaim a prescriptive instance as a learning opportunity in two ways: the first, by catching ourselves and stopping in our tracks, prompting writers to finish our line of thought before we give too much away; or, the second, by slowing down and explaining how we had come to our suggestion. We can turn our quick-fix solution into a solution-finding model. We could draw from instances where we have seen the writer make a similar rhetorical choice successfully and try to parallel the logic used to make that choice to the logic we used to arrive at our suggestion. Also, we might explain how we logically approach a particular pattern of error and offer alternative solutions, thus prompting writers to make a choice between multiple right solutions and defend it as the best solution. Later, if we come to a similar situation in the text, then, having explained our thinking, consultees more often than not adopt that thinking for themselves and correct themselves in a similar fashion.

So, when our consultees are drawing blanks and we might be in a prescriptive gear, the kind of automatic willingness to provide an answer that we’ve cultivated as an instructor and graduate student, we might choose to make a legal U-turn when possible. 

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