Academic journal article College English

The Good Writer: Virtue Ethics and the Teaching of Writing

Academic journal article College English

The Good Writer: Virtue Ethics and the Teaching of Writing

Article excerpt

To write is to make choices, and to teach writing is to teach rationales for making such choices. We tend to think of these choices, those of us who write and teach writing, as belonging to certain categories, or domains, such as the rhetorical, the linguistic, or the aesthetic.1 These are not airtight compartments, independent of one another, but mutually informing, each having a part in the development of a given text. For example, the writer makes rhetorical decisions about topic, evidence, and organization in response to the constraints and opportunities of particular audiences, purposes, and occasions. The writer's linguistic choices, which are also rhetorical, may involve the degree of formality or informality in the text, or what sociolinguists call the linguistic register (Fairclough, 70). The aesthetic choices of the writer, both linguistic and rhetorical in their own right, may call for decisions about sentence variation or word choice, with one word selected over another based on the writer's ear for patterns of rhythm and sound.

We understand these categories, the rhetorical, linguistic, and aesthetic, and we are skilled at teaching them. However, there is another category, another domain, one that is perhaps less often discussed in our classes but nonetheless calls for decisions on the part of the writer. I am referring to the domain of ethics and the ethical decisions writers make in the process of composing. Writing involves ethical decisions because every time we write, as I have argued elsewhere ("Writing"), we propose a relationship with others, our readers. In proposing such relationships, we raise those questions moral philosophers attach to the ethical: What kind of person do I want to be? How should I live my life? What does it mean to be a good person? "At the point when you begin to write," James E. Porter has written, "you begin to define yourself ethically. You make a choice about what is the right thing to do-even if that choice is a tentative and contingent one" (Rhetorical 150).

I do not mean to suggest by this that we should teach ethics or that we ought to teach practices of ethical communication. Rather, I am suggesting that as teachers of writing we are always already engaged in the teaching of rhetorical ethics and that the teaching of writing necessarily and inevitably moves us into ethical reflections and decision-making. Should I use this inflammatory metaphor? Shall I include this questionable source found on the Internet? How do I address this provocative counterargument? And when we discuss these choices with students, when we engage students in conversations about why they make some choices over others, we are in effect teaching ethics; more accurately, we are exploring with our students what it means to be, in an ethical sense, a "good writer."

But if this is true-that the teaching of writing involves the teaching of ethics and ethical language practices-what kind of ethics are we teaching? What traditions, norms, or values inform the ethics we offer students? Indeed, how do we, as teachers of writing, define "ethics"? Traditionally, answers to such questions were to be found in one of the two preeminent moral theories in Western moral philosophy, the so-called "Big Two"-deontology, the ethics of rules and obligations, and consequentialism, the ethics of outcomes and results. In recent decades, these moral theories have been challenged by the emergence of postmodern ethics, which has arguably become the dominant ethical paradigm throughout much of the humanities, including writing studies (Porter, Rhetorical; Berlin, "Postmodernism").2 Each of these theories offers students and teachers of writing a framework, or a set of principles, norms, and values, for guiding ethical decision-making in the writing class, And yet none of these frameworks, or so I shall argue, provides an adequate account of how writers define themselves ethically as they make choices, recalling James Porter, about "the right thing to do. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.