Problems into PROBLEMS:  Rhetoric of Motivation

Joseph Williams

In the introduction, Williams makes the point that he is interested in the “substantive problem” of rhetoric – and his definition of this substantive is a little unclear.  Later in the first section, he defines exigence as “a situation that demands a rhetorical response” (3).  Williams notes that students have difficulty writing because they don’t know how to pose problems.  Second, they don’t know how to identify problems because there are no heuristics available to them to make it clear and finally, third, we as teachers often don’t understand how an introduction shapes a reader’s response to what follows it, so it’s difficult to teach our students those skills.

Some notes on problems:

  1. They must be a ‘de-stabilizing condition’
  2. The destabilizing condition must entail consequences that are undesirable to the person who claims the problem.
  3. For a problem to matter, it must not only matter to the person asking it, but it must also matter to the community of readers who acknowledge and accept that the Cost has an impact on them.  This is how you change a problem into a PROBLEM.
  4. Articulations of problems usually take a Cost-Condition-Solution format where these parts are interchangeable.
  5. The author notes that the “privileged” order is Condition-Cost-Solution

Why Students Can’t ID PROBLEMS:

  1. There is no pragmatic, tangible consequence to the problem we ask (Hamlet v. AIDS)
  2. Education is more than knowledge acquisition
  3. Few students understand that the articulation and structure of the problem is a problem itself.
  4. We ask students to consider conceptual problems that are “pure” and hence, whose conditions and costs aren’t really “out there” in the world but “in here” in the mind.
  5. Because conceptual problems are often interpreted as failures to make meaning from problems instead of sites for research, students often give up instead of forming research questions from conceptual problems.
  6. Students usually approach topics with this developmental sequence:
    1. Self interest – S is attracted to the topic
    2. Self puzzlement – S finds something that is perplexing and must be resolved because it is there
    3. Self enlightenment – S resolves complexity and changes thinking about problem and things related to it.
    4. Community interest – student attracted to topic because he and community find interesting
    5. Community puzzlement – same as self
    6. Community enlightenment – see S but extend to community.

When writing introductions, we typically set up a stable environment contextualization (stasis) and then disrupt that environment with threats.  Stasis-Disruption-Resolution.  Also, elliptical introductions that omit underlying structures cause difficulties in our students when reading for PROBLEMS (32).  So, to get into the disciplines expectations about writing, one should adopt the Stasis-Disruption-Resolution format (see 34-7).

Williams creates a nice graphic on 45 to describe the articulation of a problem in these terms:

Practical Problem à motivated à conceptual problem à motivates à research problem à points to solution of à practical problem.

The Method or Williams “So What?” – The parts of successful student writing

  1. Find the main point
  2. Specify that contradiction, conflict or discrepancy
  3. Ask and answer “So what?”
  4. What belief does this challenge?
  5. Re-assemble

Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences – Susan Peck MacDonald


M. sets out to demonstrate through an analysis of 1) written texts, 2) knowledge-making goals and practices, 3) disciplinary communities and 4) professionalism  that the different disciplines all engage in knowledge making, but do it in different textual ways.

Useful definitions in the section on Disciplinary Communities about how and why these communities arise.  The idea of rationality, if we accept social constructionist claims is no longer an emphasis on logic and substance; rather, it shifts to process and community – or what M. says is “the process whereby a community of practitioners gives reasons for its choices, carries on negotiation and persuasion within the community, and selects some problems and solutions as superior to others on the basis of shared disciplinary understandings” (13).

M. states that there are four patterns of variation in the ways that academics approach their knowledge problems:

1.  Variations from compactness to diffuseness

A. the result of a lack in clear goals (like some hard-science fields)

B. the variation between academic fields in stated problems results in a nice human geographic metaphor for academic work:  urban fields have a small number of problems and a large number of people working on them.  Rural fields (like ours) have a huge number of problems and few people working on each.

2.  Variations in exploratory versus interpretive goals

3.  Variations from conceptually driven to text driven in relations between generalization and particular

4.  Variations in the degrees of epistemic self-consciousness that are explicit in texts

Making the Gesture:  Graduate Student Submissions and the Expectation of Journal Referees

Richard McNabb

As a definition, gesturing is “the critical tactic of ‘shifting interpretive authority out of the context of everyday human and social activity [our professional practices] and into an independent, already constituted and structured realm of subjects, works, ideas, and linguistic patterns’” (10).  In other words, it authorizes an argument and grounds that argument in a disciplines “use”.    McNabb found that graduate students often didn’t get published because they didn’t 1) gesture to an appropriate rhetorical mode, or 2) gesture to an appropriate problem presentation.

By not gesturing to the appropriate rhetorical mode (usually theory or historical), grad students often don’t get published.  This is because most reviewers in the field want the article to be grounded in the academic discourse of the academy rather than that of personal experience.

The author also found that published manuscripts almost always used epistemic introductions.  Epistemic introductions do not refer to “a writer’s attempt to generate new knowledge in the field, but rather attempt to show the knowledge-making processes of the field” (17).  McNabb also notes that the process of gesturing to an appropriate problem presentation not only includes situating the introduction in the discourse of the field, but creating a perceived need for the argument you’re about to make.

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