Odell, 1980, “Needed Research in Discourse Theory”

Lee. “Teachers of Composition and Needed Research in Discourse Theory.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 84-92.

Big Idea
Lee Odell argues for yet-to-be-done composition research as of 1979. 
He contends that we must not only be practical and pedagogically centered, but
we must also shape discourse theory and adapt it to benefit students.  His
premise rests squarely on the basic notion that theoretical investigations in
composition must always return to practical matters, to pragmatic application in
the classroom on Monday morning.  I’m not certain how long before Odell’s
1980 piece the Monday morning question became a fixture in composition
studies.  "How will you use this to teach?" was often
bandied about by some of the practice-heavy folks in my MA program.  It’s a
line of thinking that somehow characterized the useful and worthwhile
queries as ones that can be proven to funnel toward students’ proficiencies in
writing.  Unless it shapes student writing, it’s fluff, abstraction (or
that’s the script, anyway).  Odell’s brief article starts with a push away
from Kinneavy’s Aims of Discourse; he faults the aims for their overemphasis on
product at the expense of attention to the series of choices reflected in a
student text.  Odell thinks composition folks should investigate student
choices by engaging in comparative readings of drafts, redirecting student
projects through revisions toward "different purpose[s] and appeal[s] to a
different audience," and by enlisting students to explain–even through
tape-recorded narratives(!)–their own choices while writing. Odell suggests
advantages in comparing unassigned student writing (writing done for
non-academic purposes) to assigned student writing.  How, for example, do
styles vary when the writing is subjected to the forces inherent in the
institutional arrangement?  Because we can be sure student writing
performance varies, we must acclimate our evaluation methods. Odell’s case
aspires to getting inside why students do what they do when they
write and understanding full well how our own work affects what they do.

Wondering About
This is a brief little article, under ten pages.  It reminded me about
one of the research interests of a professor in my MA program.  He
contended that one of the first orders of business in teaching composition was
to come to terms with the thing that governs students’ sense of essayism.
He supposed a kind of accumulation of essayistic force compelled many students
to write mechanically, guided by their overpowering sense of what an essay is
(often conditioned by years of Thou Shall Not’s) rather than what the specific
language in the prompt asks them to do.  In these terms, students’ choices
aren’t always affected by consciousness, choices aren’t always
easy to articulate, decisions aren’t always precise or simple.  And
I wonder if the same is true for more experienced, even professional
writers.  Must we always be able to explain choices?  Is every
articulation governed by a choice?  Is it possible for unchosen (free,
unrestrained, accidental) articulations to achieve a desired aim or must the
entire writing process be underscored by choice after choice in pursuit of an
explicit aim?

Along these lines, Odell’s essay sent me reminiscing about a hard camp-line
in my MA program.  The line basically divided those who held that, in
fairness, instructors must account for the entire semester’s plan at the outset
of the term of study.  Students should be able to look ahead;  proper
planning by the instructor ensures a more organized semester and, as a result,
the course will come off as more polished, more coherent.  Over on the
other side (Me? Oh, back then I straddled.  Good MA students
avoid the wrangling, stick to the middle.) were folks who contended that we
cannot know where what the next assignment should be until we’ve read the one
before it.  It was more in line with responsive pedagogy–the kind that
accepts that we need to improvise, bend the curricula to our students who vary
from term to term, and allow for contextual factors to steer the course rather
than proceeding from an inflexible master plan.  How does this connect with
Odell?  I think his work here supports a version of the second approach,
the loose and responsive plan.  After all, he argues that we must get to
know our students and, in doing so, realize that effective pedagogies are
fine-tuned to specific students.  

It makes sense that composition instructors should care about un-assigned
student writing.  Digital media have given us greater access to unsolicited
writing done by students; we can read weblogs and participate in chats without
getting wrapped up in institutional dynamics.  But what other sources of
un-assigned writing are there?  Where might we look harder at writing done
by students outside of academia?  Why are they writing?  How might our
writing curricula navigate the assigned-un-assigned binary for the betterment of
everyone involved (including the assessors, accreditors–who unfortunately matter)?

Notably, several of Odell’s methods for getting to know the choices students
make when writing strike me as incredibly laborious.  Tape-recording? 
Reading multiple drafts and attempting comparative readings of multiple drafts
is challenging, but listening to students’ voice-recordings explaining the
choices they’ve made in a particular essay draft seems impossible.  Could
be my own sense of appropriate pace and workload, but I can’t imagine attempting
more than two essays in a sixteen-week semester if multiple stages and careful
interrogations of choices were part of the plan.  At times, I have used MS
Word’s document comparison feature to read revised essays against their
predecessor, and although it doesn’t come with a student narrative about
specific choices, it does reveal patterns and lend insight to the scope of
changes being applied between drafts.  I can also see the use of a
discussion of choices when conferencing with students.  I’ve never tried
it, but I am curious about the experiences of folks who have used voice-clip
inserts to comment on student writing (in the mix of text-based comments,
perhaps).  And I suppose this comes close to one of the recent discussions
on the WPA list about the writing assessments used by UPhoenix where, because of
the burden of responding to student writing, human readers are teaming up with
machine readers–layering computer and teacher–toward a two-part rendering of
response to student writing.  It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I
wrote about collaborative
a few months ago, but it churns up some interesting (disturbing,
exciting) possibilities.   

"One basic assumption in current discourse theory is expressed in James
Kinneavy’s claim that purpose in discourse is all important" (85).

"A second major assumption in current discourse theory is that different
writing tasks make quite different demands on writers" (86).

"The writing of our students represents a kind of information that is
almost impossible to obtain in any context other than a course that is primarily
concerned with students’ writing" (84).

"Whereas we once could use a single, widely-agreed-upon procedure for
evaluating all the writing done in a given mode, we may now have to use a
variety of evaluation procedures, most of which we have to create for
ourselves" (88).

"When our colleagues complain to us that we’re not teaching students to
write, they often mean that they’re tired of seeing misspelled words and
sentence fragments" (89).

"If it is true that students are likely to be more successful with one
sort of writing task than with others and if it is true that we must vary our
evaluation procedures according to the specific writing task at hand, we may
have to make substantial changes in the way we assign and evaluate writing"


  1. Recently, I heard Peter Elbow speak, and one of the suggestions he had was to assign the students to write an explanation of how they went about revising an essay. He didn’t suggest every essay, just one or maybe two. He suggested it as something to include in a writing portfolio, but I think it would be better to do earlier in the semester to take advantage of the conversation- or perhaps two one earlier and one later to be included in a writing portfolio which addresses how the student’s process has changed.

    I hear you about the workload- and in my world it is just increasing the number of students and the number of sections of composition we are expected to teach. 🙂

  2. Scaling this self-reflective choice analysis back to one or two essays in a semester would make the scheme more palatable, Sam. Reading Odell, I got a bit caught up in the suggestion that we should use tape recorders to moderate those analyses. With some of the text-comparison tools it’s easier than ever to make every change stand out from one version of an essay to the next, and while I suppose there are some pedagogical purposes in making changes visible, there are also writerly reasons for preferring smooth infusion and seamlessness (comparison tools aside). That said, I have caught myself over-emphasizing change for change’s sake when urging revision rather than contextualizing changes. Odell’s right, I guess, that we should consider the factors affecting choices in revision, and you’re right that we must do it in ways that don’t pile anyone with an unbearable workload. I’m still a little fuzzy on how this propels us toward new, needed research in discourse theory; my sense is that it comes back to Odell’s elaborate research project centered on variations in essay assignments, how students do *differently* what they’re asked to do, and how evaluation systems accomodate such variables. Reading this in light of the twenty-four years that have passed since it was printed, I wonder how much of this “needed research” has been put to rest. -DM

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