Academic journal article College English

Para-Expertise, Tacit Knowledge, and Writing Problems

Academic journal article College English

Para-Expertise, Tacit Knowledge, and Writing Problems

Article excerpt

My office is on the thirteenth floor of an eighteen-story concrete tower that sits in the heart of campus. The building is so massively disproportionate to other buildings that it looms over the entire campus. Inside, the hallways are long and narrow, with no windows or natural light. A bank of six large elevators takes up the center space of each floor. Perhaps it is not surprising that this office tower has become the source of campus lore and legends among students and faculty. During my first semester on campus, a student asked if I knew the history of my office tower. "It was designed like a prison so that students in the 1960s wouldn't cause riots," he said with great earnestness. "Do you believe that story?" I asked. "Sure," he replied. "Just look at it."

This was not the first time I had heard the narrative of "riot-proof" campus architecture. Campuses across the country seem to have some version of this tale. On certain campuses, the riot-proof buildings are said to be libraries or administrative buildings. For example, on the Southern Illinois University campus, Faner Hall is rumored to have been constructed in order to quash student demonstrations during the 1970s. Other campuses have longstanding stories about dorms built on prison designs or structured to resemble a prison. I first heard the "dorm as prison" tale as an undergraduate student at the University of Texas in Austin, while living in Jester dormitory, a massive fourteen-story brick complex. The small rooms and concrete walls certainly did not look like the home I had just left behind. So, when a friend told me that my dorm had been built by the same architect who designed the Texas state penitentiary in Huntsville, I believed him.

Decades later, I still hear students repeating the very same claims about their dorms built on prison designs.1 But now, as a teacher of rhetoric and writing, I hear this tale as an interesting problem of expertise. It goes without saying that students who circulate this ersatz history are "nonexperts" in the fields of design, architecture, and spatial engineering. Yet, at the same time, the fact that these urban legends persist on multiple campuses across the country suggests that something coherent is being articulated about the experience of bodies in spaces. According to urban legend researchers Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi, urban legends like these persist because they articulate certain kinds of social experience (492). Best and Horiuchi examine the longstanding legend of tainted Halloween candy and razor-filled candy apples, any real evidence of which seems to be nonexistent. However, they explain, this narrative remains so powerful because it allows the tellers to express a wider social fear of strangers and a sense of lost community (490). Urban legends are thus allegorical narratives for the "public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation," as Kathleen Stewart has written about our experiences of everyday life (2). They allow us to share experiences and feelings that cannot easily be articulated in other words.

Similarly, ongoing narratives of "riot-proof" campus buildings and "prison dorms" may reflect a larger experience born from embodied interactions students have with campus architecture. While the history of my office tower is not accurately reflected in the "riot-proof" narrative students repeat, there is nevertheless something very real and accurate being articulated by that urban legend's circulation. Specifically, what gets articulated is a particular kind of knowledge born from the encounter between bodies and material sites. In the words of Michael Polanyi, the knowledge that students are articulating in these stories is a "tacit knowledge" of aesthetics, design, space, and bodies. Students may not be experts in a disciplinary sense, yet at the same time, they know more than they can tell (4).

If we think of expertise as either the acquisition of skills or the acquisition of ethos-two common ways expertise has been discussed in rhetoric and composition-then students who circulate these campus urban legends certainly qualify as novices. …

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