Although Robert R. Johnson’s “Audience Involved: Toward a Participatory Model of Writing” calls for a more user-friendly text, I found Thomas Kent’s “Paralogic Hermeneutics and the Possibilities of Rhetoric” to be more open to my own participation as a meaning-making reader of an essay. The other readings this week offer much in the discussion of rhetoric: Johnson furthers our understanding of technical writing as a practical profession, as an art, demonstrated through “real world” classroom activities. Carolyn R. Rude’s “Report for Decision Making” makes wonderful points about maintaining human values in sets of criteria for feasibility reports. And Tania Smith’s essay about the connection of rhetorical theory and technical communication is an extremely helpful guide that defines terms like heuristics and hermeneutics in ways I can agree with and return to.
But there’s something different about Kent’s writing style. First, he often says the same thing in varying ways throughout the essay, which at first might seem like a poor rhetorical move, but what I believe Kent to be doing is exposing the process of his analysis, allowing readers to build his argument by thinking/reading like him. I am often attracted to scholarship that shifts perception, is a little antagonistic about the current state of things, but this essay goes beyond playing devil’s advocate. Kent breaks down communication to its guesswork.
He also doesn’t practice the kind of research-paper formula the others do, marking off sections with overwhelming headings that sometimes eliminate the need for content. Through one fluid format, Kent expresses plainly the truths we often feel: teaching the acts of reading and writing are perhaps impossible; teaching is a collaboration in which we must provide “optimum conditions for communication” instead of teaching a “body of knowledge” (Donald Davidson qtd. in Kent 31; 35). He says that communication is ultimately unstable because it relies on the “paralogical elements of language use, elements like skills, intuition, taste, and sympathy” but also advocates language as a truth we can believe in because it’s how we structure the world (29).
As a creative writer who is often required to rely on intuition as the basis for crafting lines and images to be interpreted clearly by readers, I see the value of viewing communication as educated guesswork (or intuition): I often find that my teaching improves when I forget about creating a science for it and focus instead on guessing in-the-moment what my listeners can grasp. Kent reminds me that communication is guided by our sensibilities about people, not our ability to say exactly what we mean as it might make sense to ourselves.
The only place where Kent’s argument seems to fold in on itself is in his discussion of know-how vs. process, which sounds a lot like last week’s binary: knowledge vs. practice. I consider this a trip-up by Kent because he is calling for the deconstruction of binaries for ultimate knowledge, but in this case, he’s establishing one for us, one that many essays in many fields put forth and then offer the solution of balance.
Of course, Kent soon redeems himself when he concludes that reading and writing teachers could be modern-day Sophists: the real teaching moments take place when the instructor talks about “her own hermeneutic strategy for interpreting the discourse employed in her course” (40). This truth—that the less conscious things I say, that my reactions to the material I provide in class are the most instructive—was the most difficult for me to grasp when I began teaching.
For instance, last Wednesday, I drew the story arc on the board for my students, but when examining a reading, we discovered, of course, that there’s overlap between the parts—that the arc is a mere tool to help us understand stories and is not universally applicable. In my first year of teaching, I would have gotten nervous that my teaching tool didn’t work perfectly with the example. But now I realize these moments of instability are the best chances for students to really learn something. The students who catch those subtleties during lessons—who understand frameworks as merely knowledge-structuring tools that can later be abandoned once enough skill is achieved—are the ones who really learn. If students choose to be passive observers in class, good writers will stay good, bad ones bad. But regardless of talent, the students who participate improve because they pick up on the subtle, unintentional lessons of how to engage with knowledge structures, how to react to material presented to them in the context of writing, and how to become confident in their intuitive impulses in communicating.
Kent, Thomas. “Paralogic Hermeneutics and the Possibilities of Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review 8.1 (1989): 24-42. JSTOR. Web. 27 Aug. 2012.