Academic Writing(s) from 19th to 21st century America (#4)

Utilitarian writing, or ‘writing and the ideal of utility’ (Russell 2002: 101 – 132)

A man’s writing reflects his habits of thought and it is simply impossible to give him a cultivated style by any other method than by making a cultivated man

(Russell quoting Aydelotte, p. 119)

Having looked at how the research report embodied an ideal of research (precise, objective, scholarly), Russell turns his attention to how writing became discipline-specific. In this chapter, he specifically deals with Engineering and Business.

Of interest to me, is why academic writing began to specialise (because of the demands of industry, employability) and how this specialisation didn’t lead to an enduring integration of writing instruction into the disciplines – it sounds like a contradiction, but here is what Russell says:

technical writing teachers ordinarily had little contact with practicing engineers, the language and product approaches were more accessible than the rhetorical or process approach, which required a familiarity with the activities of the profession (p.123)

the impetus for (writing) coordination came almost exclusively from the writing teachers (p.123)

writing was thought of too often as “little more than grammar and punctuation” (p. 124)

as in engineering schools, the business schools tended to segregate writing courses from the rest of the curriculum … faculty did not feel they were qualified, or they had no interest in teaching writing (p. 127)

As happened to technical writing instruction, the specialisation and marginalisation of business writing courses tended to isolate business writing instructions from the activity of business (p. 129)

If the ideals of research and utility helped to destroy the old curriculum’s single, undifferentiated approach to language instruction through unrelenting specialisation and professionalisation of knowledge and work, the ideals of research and utility nevertheless offered to academia several new options for teaching writing through engagement with the social and materials worlds (…). But their advocates accepted the demands of specialisation, and stayed politely within their respective corners of academia. As a result of the pattered isolation, proponents of these pedagogical traditions rarely became aware that they were options for teaching writing in the disciplines (p. 132)

Russell dedicates much of this chapter to an MIT writing instructor called Robert Grosenver Valentine who influenced MIT’s attitude to scientific and technical writing by introducing the guiding principles of ‘subject’ (aka the focus), ‘reader’ (aka audience), and ‘point of view’ (aka perspective, eg, political, personal, economic) into written composition because it was his belief that writing was a powerful tool that could influence decisions at managerial and political levels. Valentine later became employed by trade unions and by business because of his writing abilities:

Valentine (…) translated human relationships into written form, where his version attained the status of objective fact through the authority vested in him as a professional (p. 114)

This reminds of the themes in Barton and Papen’s Anthropology of Writing where writing is framed as a social practice that makes things happen. Writing is a form of social action. Overall, the historical portrait that Russell is painting of late 19th and early 20th century academic writing instruction seems to go against the theory of writing as social action, with the notable exception of Valentine and a few others (eg on p. 130 with the case method genre in business which adopted an integrated approach to writing but this abandoned because it was too time-consuming).

Around the turn of the 19th century, American employers were lamenting the quality of writing of engineers coming out of specialised schools. As a result, the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering hired an English Professor in 1895 and the college began offering courses in literature, history, report writing (1914) and other genres. However, technical forms had become absolute by the 1930s (p. 123).

Overall, though, utilitarian writing, or discipline-specific writing, never really took off:

this frankly utilitarian approach never prevailed, except in a very limited way in business and technical writing courses. Academic disciplines were organised to further the other great interests within the academy, culture and research, which held up differing ideals of academic community and different notions of writing instruction (p. 106)


differing ideals of higher education prevented utilitarian writing instruction from finding a secure place either outside or within composition courses (p. 107-8)

I’m always grateful for reactions to these and other ideas I post, especially if any of this resonates with you.

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