Sunday, July 4, 2004

Witte, 1984, "Topical Structure and Revision"

 Witte, Stephen. "Topical Structure and Revision: An Exploratory Study." On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998. Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin's, 1999. 132-155.

Big Idea
Stephen Witte's 1983 article reports on the quantifiable patterns of topical structure in a sample of written revisions of a common text.  Through comparative readings of revised texts and a common seminal text (from which the revisers set out), Witte's study surmises that the reviser's treatment of sentence topics correlates to the writer/reviser's understanding of the text's discourse topic.  The relationship between a discourse topic and sentence topic figures significantly into Witte's work; he adopts a vocabulary of specialized terms such as "topicalization," "theme/rheme," "macroproposition," and "hypertheme" in his elaboration of methods.  According to Witte, sentence topics may or may not house discourse topics, but the writer/reviser's prior knowledge and readerly understanding of the seminal text's discourse topic guides the choices applied throughout revision.  Witte acknowledges his methods are suited to informational texts, collaboratively revised. Notably, he delivers some eighteen-plus name references in the first three or four pages of the article (a cluster of comp/rhet folks as well as several {unfamiliar-to-me} structural linguists from the Prague School).

Wondering About
With all due respect, big chunks of this essay were a muddle; lesser chunks were interesting in a structuralism-amuck, 1983-snapshot kind of way.  Witte's theoretical lead-in to the more empirical study sparked a few interesting issues.  Without explicitly discussing sentence topics in terms of links and relationships, Witte is centrally concerned with syntactic cues, their systematic connections, and the role of the writer/reviser in reshaping those cues toward a more coherent, unified discourse topic. We could bend this analysis to rhythm or pulse--the discourse topic's dependence on the coordination of smaller units.   As provocative as this is, the structuralist drawback impends: the study builds from a kind of de-natured, de-cultured "writer's hand(s)" (not unlike de Saussure's featureless talking heads).  The situation is absent: topoi sans kairos.  

The portions of the essay that scale the revisions from high-score to low-score based on the sentence topic patterns (matches, deviations, etc.) were hard to read.  It's filled with statistical references, and it's never easy to connect the high/low assessments to specific texts (only a few of which are sampled).  Witte notes that one of the setbacks in his study is the problem of "no average text."  In fact, the whole piece is responsibly self-conscious; he incorporates lots of reminders that this is "an exploratory study," and it's simply a frame for writing researchers to consider.  But how should we use this? What other applications might Witte's work hold?  I don't have a lot of ideas about this, but as I read, I started to think that much of this analysis could be applied electronically (especially the clause-length stuff).  In other words, when I want to see revision (separated from the document), I simply use Word to compare texts.  The changes are highlighted, easy to view.  I've never considered the quality of a revision in terms of altered topic patterns; instead, I simply have a glance at the depth of revision, the way the writer responded to specific in-text suggestions or questions, and any oversights, omissions, or clear decisions not to make changes.  And while I'm not in favor of computers as stand-alone readers, I continue to wonder how technologies can assist our reading by helping us see patterns in texts (not to kick out sloppily composed standardized exams).  Witte's approach, I think, could be rendered into a software application--an application that might be useful if we use it to see texts differently rather than measuring those texts as successes or failures. 

Witte's approach to measuring sophistication of revisions based on topic patterns doesn't acknowledge rhetorical strategies, deliberate re-arrangement, topical abstraction or exemplification.  All of these forces ought to figure into revision--even in classifiably informative texts, and studies of topic structure alone might not reveal such developments.  It also sets up knowledge of audience and revision in fairly narrow terms.  Revision isn't always (ever!) a sealed-off, exclusive, after-writing stage; knowledge of audience, however carefully ascertained, is imperfect, incomplete.  Similarly, while the sentence topics can be identified and tagged, discourse topics spill, morph, shift--endlessly.  By this, I mean the sentence enjoys punctuated boundaries; a discourse topic flows and is not frozen in time. 

"Although making inferences about composing processes from written products is somewhat risky, the method I have outlined and applied to controlled revisions of college writers appears to be a promising one for studying the textual causes and effects of revision.  It is a method which may allow researchers and teachers alike to study the decision-making processes writers use during revision" (153).

"Whether the findings hold for other kinds of texts collected under different circumstances and evaluated by different kinds of raters remains an open question" (153). 

"In this regard, topical structure analysis--unlike the analytic methods designed to examine the effects of the revision--enables the researcher to explore the relationship between the textual causes of revision, the text features to which the writer as reader responds, and the effects those changes have on the revised text" (153).

"Thus in revising the original text, the high-score writers chose to reduce the number of sentence topics and to develop more fully those retained, whereas the writers of the low-score texts chose to increase the number of sentence topics and to develop each of them less fully" (153). 

~muddle~ "Differences between the two sets of revisions can also be attributed to differences in the mean number of t-units per sentence topic.  The low-score revisions averaged 1.89 t-units per sentence topic, while the high-score revisions averaged 2.59, about 27% more than the low-score ones" (150). ~muddle~

"The two groups' differing constructions of the gist of the original governed their choices of sentence topics.  These different sentence topics, in turn, led to different decisions about content which could be deleted from the original" (149).

"But on what basis did the two groups decide which elements of the original text to delete? I suspect that they based such decisions on their constructions of a discourse topic or a gist for the original text, because those constructions seem to differ in important ways" (147).

"When what is said (by the principal verbs in the text) about the discourse topic is combined with the discourse topic, the product is the 'macroproposition,' 'gist,' or 'point' of the text" (140).

"As I have explained it, topical structure analysis would seem to be a useful tool for studying the textual cues which may prompt revision and for studying the effects of revision on text structure, primarily because it accounts for and illuminates the interaction of reading and writing during the revision process. Topical structure analysis should enable researchers to chart more efficiently the actual decisions writers make as they revise texts" (140).

"Such a view of the relationship of subtopics (i.e., sentence topics) to the discourse topic surmounts the problem of using the orthographic boundaries of sentences and paragraphs as the principal semantic or meaning markers in extended discourse. (Sentence boundaries can vary independently of meaning when writers choose to produce compound or compound-complex sentences, and I can find no evidence that writers segment texts into paragraphs in consistent ways.)" (137).

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