professional writing and disciplinary identity

One of the things my colleagues and I have been discussing is how we can communicate to our students what it means to be a professional writing major. If you’re in traditional English or History and so on, that identity is quite familiar. On the flipside if you’re in a more distinctly professionalizing major in new media or design or business or education, then you can identify with that professional direction.

Professional writing is a little different though. There are such a wide range of professions to enter. Besides, at least with our particular curriculum, which includes creative writing, we have many students who do not have firm professional goals but rather a more general interest in creative writing. So this mixture makes it hard for our students to see what it means to be part of our curriculum, and this problem is exacerbated by the typical, sophomoric notion of creative writing as simply being yourself or speaking with your voice. Still I suppose this could work if we were a community of creative writers, but that’s not what we are.

To complicate matters, in the six years since we started doing this, a number of other writing majors have cropped out, not only near us, but around the nation. That means there’s an emerging sense of professional writing as a major.

In my view, professional writing is a major with four components:

  • rhetorical analysis: understanding methods for studying
    rhetorical situations both in the sense of analyzing existing
    communications and developing strategies for future practices.
  • poetics/creativity: in the emerging sense of the creative
    economy, professional writers need to understand how creativity
    functions and how to tap into their own creative potential.
  • compositional theory and practice: an understanding of one’s
    own default writing practices, as well as an understanding of the
    relationship between practices and writing contexts.
  • digital media theory and design: an ability to compose and
    communicate in networked environments, with mobile technologies, and in
    a range of media, including an understanding of design as it applies
    both to visual and information design. Though the technologies evolve,
    right now this means a facility with social media, audio/video
    podcasting, web design, and document design.

If English majors draw their identities from reciting the authors
that they have read, in professional writing we draw our identities
from our own compositions. Yes, I’ve built a website. Yes, I can design
an interesting slide presentation. Yes I’ve put together a brochure or

magazine. Yes I’ve worked with blogs and a wikis. So you can see an
important trend here. The first three components have to be expressed
through the final component. The other alternative is that they have
been demonstrated on 8 1/2 X 11 inch paper, likely in double-spaced
lines of text.

I’m not saying that we need to abandon those old forms. In fact,
it’s important that we carry over our traditional emphasis on
intellectual work and writing. But I think we can enrich them by
thinking more about that final stage of classical rhetoric: delivery.