Writing beyond Borders: Rethinking the Relationship between Composition Studies and Professional Writing

By Bay, Jennifer | Composition Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Writing beyond Borders: Rethinking the Relationship between Composition Studies and Professional Writing


Bay, Jennifer, Composition Studies


This essay attempts to forge connections between the fields of Composition Studies and professional writing. I argue that a stronger relationship would foster more sustainable ties in light of the corporate university and global capitalism. I point to three of what Dale Jacobs calls threshold spaces, sites where we can foster a culture of hospitality between professional writing and Composition Studies. These three spaces-emerging technologies, work, and service learning-provide new avenues for thinking about how both professional writing and Composition Studies can foster adaptability within the changing university and the larger world.

Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is a citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.

- Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality (77)

Cynthia Haynes's Kinneavy award -winning essay, "Writing Offshore: The Disappearing Coastline of Composition Theory," invokes a Derridean call for "forms of solidarity yet to be invented" (705). In reconsidering the state of composition theory, Haynes asks us to move away from the ground on which we have cemented our theories about writing - which Haynes identifies as argument - instead promoting a conception of "writing offshore." Writing offshore would leave behind argument as a grounding theory for composition and teach students to "think in the abstract, in writing" (677). "Learning to abstract," Haynes explains, "would involve learning the alluring nature of language, how it draws you away, how it seduces you" (715). An offshore approach would force Composition Studies to (re) think itself in sophistic ways, a call that many have made but to which few have responded.1

This essay seeks to respond to the call for offshore futures, visions of what Composition Studies might become or invent for itself, by rethinking the relationship between Composition Studies and professional writing.2 Pursuing such a future would involve moving away from the safe foundation(s) on which Composition Studies is firmly planted, much like it once pushed off from the beaches of current-traditional rhetoric; similarly, professional writing would need to do the same, to move out into the open, away from the safely built shorelines of institution and organization. Abandoning these grounds in favor of movement might forge a new relation between two fields of study that have much more in common than often discussed.

As already noted by professional writing scholars, Composition Studies and professional writing share various commonalities,3 including a strong rhetorical heritage. But that rhetorical heritage often manifests itself as the ground of argument. Some might argue that reason and argument form the basis of writing in business and industry, and as such, we must teach argumentative logic to our professional writing students.4 But incidents such as the Enron scandal, the dot com bust, and the Microsoft antitrust case prove that traditional logic does not always hold in professional writing situations; "so much defies reason" (Haynes 669). The Challenger shuttle disaster is taught and often held as an exemplar of why argument is important to professional writing situations.5 If those engineers had been more effective communicators, the argument goes - more persuasive - then the accident might have been prevented. But more persuasive doesn't always mean logical or ethical.6 Similarly, many strands of composition either embrace argument outright, or in various pedagogical modes, and critique culture and capitalism from the same argumentative well. In both instances, argument becomes problem-solving.

What is missing from analyses of such situations is an understanding that the logic driving these professional decisions is not the same logic that grounds traditional argument. …

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