Why didn’t anyone teach me this when I was nineteen?

A reflection on “Coming to Terms” – the first chapter from Joe Harris’s book Rewriting.

Harris’s overall project for this book is to offer students an insight into what he understands as the fundamental textual “moves” necessary for effective academic writing. The first chapter works to explain it means to come to terms with another author’s text. Generally, Harris posits that coming to terms with a text is more than just understanding the author’s ideas. Academic writers must also learn recognize their own response to that text. This self-awareness in the face of academic conversation is essential to a responsible engagement with a text. Harris writes that “In coming to terms, you need both to give a text its due and to show what uses you want to make of it” (15). I find this position quite useful as I work through it with my students. More often than not, a student arrives at my classroom door with the perception that academic writing means argument. The perspective often result in research and quotation practices where students feel like they need to go hunting for texts that support their positions, or for text with which they can disagree. In light of the simplified Greek model so often taught as the foundation of argumentation, it’s easy to understand this position.

What’s great about Harris’s first chapter is that it asks students to work towards a thorough understanding of a text before they put it into play in their own work. The sense of responsibility toward a “generous reading” is essential for the sorts of open-minded discussions and texts I hope my students generate throughout the semester.

Here’s a note in another direction, though. I encountered this book this past summer. After my first year as a PhD student in a good program. In all honesty, reading this book was a revelation. Over the course of so many years as a student, a scholar, and a teacher, no one had ever put forth such a simple and coherent view of how academic writing works. I had certainly gone looking for it. Mostly I had looked in handbook/textbooks, but they most often they stuck to the structures of rhetorical tropes. Comparison and contrast. Five paragraph essays. Categorizations. The list is long. However, what was missing (at least this is my perception) was a coherent view of what holds these strategies together. Instead, each strategy seemed to have its own foundation. Most often these texts posited that certain structures were appropriate for certain purposes. I agree. But there’s a meta-conversation available in which these particular purposes can be situated: What does it mean to write in relationship to other texts? For me, this was always a question floating around out there as I wrote seminar papers and presentations. But I always suspected that the answer would eventually make itself clear as I became a better writer. Now I think that attitude was a little backward. Become a better writer to understand what good writing means? In hindsight, now it seems so much more efficient to start with a preliminary definition of good writing and investigate it while trying to accomplish it.

That’s what I’m hoping to offer my students as we work through Harris’s book this semester. Some simple terms that work together to form a powerful and flexible approach to truly engaged and engaging writing.

1. I see connection here to genre analyses such as those of John Swales. Both he and Harris try to understand the structure and approaches of academic writing in terms of the goals that have produced these genres.

2. Min-zhan Lu’s work also is relevant to Harris’s book, as both author’s emphasize a self awareness on the part of the quoting writer as necessary to a responsible treatment of the quoted text as well as a richer understanding of the self as positioned scholar. Though I’m

3. Though my knowledge is very cursory, I am guessing that Harris has been influenced to some degree by Reader Response Criticism, though the goals of that scholarship and Harris’s book are somewhat divergent.

(I’m working through a teacher’s reading of Joseph Harris’s book, Rewriting, over the next few days because it’s the primary text I’ve assigned for the section of Comp II I’ll be teaching this semester. Clarification: Comp II here at the U of Louisville is the second half of the standard first-year composition sequence.)

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