Traditionally, writing instructors have crafted teaching philosophies that describe the values that guide their work with learners. And I have written such documents in the past.
In this space, though, I use the term “approach” instead of “philosophy.” The term calls to mind productive disagreement. Each of us is shaped by a unique set of experiences and values. Even when we move along different paths, we can still converge on shared goals.
This metaphor of movement is inspired by Felix Adler (1903) who remarked that in the matter of progress, it “is the effort that counts, not the attainment; the realm of time and space can never be the scene of complete realization” (p. 11). Elsewhere Adler (1946) noted, “moral progress…is ever achieved by beating out those questions in regard to which, at the time, right and wrong is still obscure” (p. 15).
Adler saw that ethical understanding is not governed by an unchanging code that transcends us but rather emerges through our own actions as we move toward common ground—a theme captured in the title of Howard Radest’s (1969) history of Adler’s work. By better understanding the positions of others, we come to see injustice where we had previously been unaware of it.
That common ground is never achieved once and for all. Instead, it falls to us to do the hard work of first perceiving and then moving toward that common ground despite our differences.
In sharing approaches, we can consider how by different routes we might support the common good.
Approach to Education
An essential function of education is helping us redress inevitable missteps in life. Improvement comes from engaging other voices to help us notice what we have overlooked or consider new ideas we have not yet encountered.
Continuous improvement is built into the very idea of writing education that relies on review, feedback, reflection, and revision to improve not just the writing but also the writer’s own processes.
Such improvement does not come naturally or easily. When we write, we usually don’t consciously think about how we write. Becoming a better writer means thinking about what we normally don’t think about.
A teacher can help with that process, but educators do not simply transfer knowledge into students (per Paolo Freire’s banking model critique).
Instead, teachers and students engage an interactive process wherein learner and teacher together build scaffolds through which the learner develops both greater knowledge and skills in their journey toward expert practice, such as in the cognitive models of the writing process described by Flower et al. (1986).
Successful scaffolding depends on good models and helpful feedback on how the learner interprets and applies those models.
The importance of models is the reason for one of the most common pieces of advice given to writers: read more. This reading is not (just) for information but for learning about the strategies, or moves, that writers make in order to meet the expectations of their readers.
One important move is to approach writing as a conversation. Conceiving of writing as a conversation is one of the most powerful heuristics novice writers can use as they enter a new discourse community. Melzer (2020) describes discourse communities and their role in writing instruction in more detail.
Some prominent treatments of writing as conversation include Kenneth Burke’s idea of a parlor conversation, John Swales’ gap identification move in research writing, and Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s instructional model of writing as describing a conversation.
In identifying gaps in our knowledge and attempting to fill them, as in Swales’ model, we contribute to the larger community, including the broader goals sought in our educational endeavors.
These endeavors, no matter the particular subject or discipline, are guided by overarching obligations to the common good.
Henry A. Giroux (2002) describes well the values to which education contributes and on which its ethical practice depends:
Situated within a broader context of issues concerned with social responsibility, politics, and the dignity of human life, higher education should be engaged as a site that offers students the opportunity to involve themselves in the deepest problems of society, to acquire the knowledge, skills, and ethical vocabulary necessary for modes of critical dialogue and forms of broadened civic participation….
At the very least, students need to learn how to take responsibility for their own ideas, take intellectual risks, develop a sense of respect for others different from themselves, and learn to think critically in order to function in a wider democratic culture. (p. 451)
That productive negotiation of difference, which is so hard to achieve consistently, guides my work with learners as much as it guides my own learning.
In my own professional learning, I seek to honor the growth perspective envisioned by the National Council of Teachers of English in which “teachers are recognized as learners, leaders, and knowledgeable professionals.”
Approach to Organizational Learning and Growth
Part of ongoing learning as a knowledgeable professional is supporting the health of the organizations in which we work.
The challenges that attend the productive engagement of difference in the interpersonal, civic, and educational spheres are no less present within organizations.
Communication scholar Stanley Deetz (1992) offers a detailed analysis of the “systemically distorted communication” that can emerge within organizations.
Drawing on work by planning theorist John F. Forester, Deetz notes that some distortions are to some extent inevitable. For example, in a large organization, no one member can have a complete understanding of what others do and understand in their unique roles. Other distortions, such as the exclusion of stakeholder viewpoints, can be avoided through critical analysis and ethical practice.
The field of critical management studies offers such analysis. Alvesson and Willmott (2012), for example, explore the management of meaning through a limited selection of metaphors, many of which uncritically reproduce unjust power relationships (e.g., social patterns of racism or sexism).
Another helpful approach is the work of Chris Argyris (1999) on organizational learning and the barriers to that learning, including common “defensive routines” and “undiscussable” subjects.
Drawing on the rhetorical tradition, a practice of antilogy can help avoid exclusion of viewpoints and the formation echo chambers. Classical rhetorical training invited students to come up with arguments on multiple sides of an issue—arguing in utrumque partes.
This practice helped develop a habit of mind wherein speakers could produce better arguments more efficiently, continually thinking about a wide range of viewpoints that might come up on any topic.
Such a habit of mind is also invaluable in the organizational setting where relevant viewpoints can be easily overlooked or silenced.
Other views that have inspired my approach to negotiating difference within organizations include Ira Chaleff’s (2009) The Courageous Follower and Alina Tugend’s (2011) Better by Mistake.
Both of these approaches converge on the continual improvement seen in my approach to writing education while recognizing that missteps are part of that process—missteps that can occur at any level of an organization and among any one of us regardless of depth of expertise or experience.
Adler, F. (1903). Life and destiny: Or thoughts from the ethical lectures of Felix Adler. McClure, Phillips, & Co.
Adler, F. (1946). Hopes and issues of the twentieth century. In H. L. Friess (Ed.) Our part in this world. King’s Crown Press.
Alvesson, M. & Willmott, H. (2012). Making sense of management: A critical introduction (2nd ed.). SAGE Publications.
Argyris, C. (1999). On organizational learning (2nd ed.). Blackwell Publishing.
Chaleff, I. (2009). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders (3rd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Deetz, S. (1992). Democracy in an age of corporate colonization: Developments in communication and the politics of everyday life. State University of New York Press.
Giroux, H. A. (2002). Neoliberalism, corporate culture, and the promise of higher education: The university as a democratic public sphere. Harvard Educational Review, 72(4), 425-464. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.72.4.0515nr62324n71p1
Melzer, D. (2020). Understanding discourse communities. In D. Driscoll, M. Stewar, & M. Vetter (Eds.), Writing spaces: Readings on writing, volume 3. Parlor Press. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/writingspaces3/writingspaces3.pdf
Radest, H. (1969). Toward common ground: The story of the ethical societies in the United States. Ungar.
Tugend, A. (2011). Better by mistake: The unexpected benefits of being wrong. Penguin.