5390: Article Commentary 6: You Make Me Feel Like A Natural… Writer

Petraglia, J. (1995). Writing as an Unnatural Act. in Reconcieving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Mahwah: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

Chapters in edited collections are like quasi-journal articles (even when the chapters began life as journal articles. The major difference I see is that the “knowledge wave” works somewhat differently. A collection can certainly be catching a broader disciplinary wave, but a text like this also gets the opportunity to create its own wave (perhaps more like a special issue of a journal, in some ways). This is the case with the Petraglia text: situated in the mid-90s, when change and reenvisioning instruction waves were ramping up again (these come every decade or so, at the very least), the text creates its own “General Writing Skills” critique wave that everyone in the book (including our good Dr. Kemp) is able to catch and ride for all its worth. You’re also not “alone in a crowd” as you might be in a journal, which certainly has some influences on how particularly strong certain elements of the chapter are (I think first/last paragraphs suffer from this a little bit. Someone picking up the book in the first place is–I think–probably more likely to read a chapter despite obvious strengths and weaknesses in paragraphs. At any rate; my analysis:

Petraglia quickly and clearly establishes his audience in his opening sentence: “practitioners in the writing field”–this soon becomes firmly specified as writing teachers. He has the benefit of the book’s title to help with this specificity as well. Petraglia is writing to that all-important audience of “folks in the trenches” who care about writing and teaching.

Tonally and stylistically, this piece is standard. Mixed active and passive voice, formal without being too dense, nominalizations galore but few obscure technical terms, citations in nearly every paragraph, plenty of subordinate and coordinate structures, and the like. I could see this in the pages of any number of journals. One problem is that Petraglia relies almost a bit too much on metadiscourse to make his points clear. “I begin with” and “I will argue” and “this leads me to the conclusion” are needful early in many academic pieces (especially those without abstracts), but Petraglia plies this tool a little too often, so much so that his thesis and purpose become obfuscated in multiple layers of redundant specificity.

The writer’s claim is… confusing. Petraglia’s title claims that writing is “an Unnatural Act”–he eventually skips around to the point that he means academic writing and the general writing skills approach do not really enact “natural development” of rhetorical skills. (He doesn’t question the existence of natural rhetorical skill, just that academic writing/GWSI can teach it.) His argument is evidenced through a logical construction–define writing as one kind of problem solving; define school as another kind of problem solving; show that the two kinds of problem solving are mutually reductive when put together. This is a broad claim, with plenty of hedging about the worth of cognitivism and writing instruction in schools, especially writing-in-the-disciplines style instruction. This would likely draw the attention of most people in the field, with opinions lining up on either side; it’s a worthy and important debate to enter, one that gets at the very center of the discipline’s existence. My major issue is that after his criticism of GWSI, he doesn’t offer much in its place, aside from being transparent about the artificiality of writing instruction (along with a nasty critique of techne).

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One thought on “5390: Article Commentary 6: You Make Me Feel Like A Natural… Writer

  1. Some Notes:

    a. “school writing” (what he calls GSWI) or ‘academic writing” is unnatural (he could evoke zombies, but it’s subtextual.

    b. does claim a kind of “natural writing assignment” — not sure how it’s natural, other than he makes a claim to authenticity to the “natural habitat” of the academic writer.
    i. ‘authentic academic writing contexts’
    c) Petraglia is embracing (?) the artificiality of academic/school writing; arguing to recognize what’s “natural” there and make it explicit, rather than mask a desire for academic natural in a claim for universal naturalness (okay, that makes sense.)
    basically, quit pretending, and call it what it is. (97–“relieve students of the burden of pretending…”)
    d. is Petraglia embracing the Panopticon as a natural environment?? (calls natural; more appropriately should be naturalIZED)
    i. individual models, (disciplines)
    ii. formal instruction in some things
    iii. students own teachers
    iv. ‘easily authenticated writing experiences’ — what do those look like?(97)
    e. brings it in the end back to plato and techne and rhetoric… what’s he do. “winning a victory” over techne? (GWSI as techne?)
    i. tacitly argues that techne (as tool, perhaps) is unsituated and noncomplex, arhetorical (sophistic) behavior. Shit, dude. (as opposed to rhetoric as “naturally embedded in understanding and experience” (98).

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