On Proficiency

‘Proficiency,’ like ‘mastery’ and ‘effective writing,’ are terms born out of compositions studies’ relentless mission to address what George Pullman asserts is the “perceived exigence” underpinning all composition classrooms: “ill-literacy, an ignorance of important conventions” and a conviction that “those who have been granted the opportunity for an education apparently cannot obtain that education” (27). What results as a means to resolve this rhetorical problem, he asserts, is the FYW course and an agreement among the various stakeholders, administrators, faculty and students, that FYW is first and foremost, a “safe space” to practice new conventions (27). Out of this peculiar institutional history persists a singular and autonomous view of literacy, a proficiency born out of context, and the unremitting assumption that a focus on precision, accuracy and resemblance is at the heart of what it means to teach and learn in the FYW classroom.

To imagine otherwise is to upset what is for many, the obvious purpose of FYW—to help students use writing to communicate more effectively. Yet, as I hope to demonstrate today an insistence on reducing writing to its function as merely a vehicle for representing ideas and to suggest that what is important about student writing is the capacity to demonstrate mastery, is an opportunity lost both for the student and the instructor. While certainly writing includes representation, it is problematic to approach the study of writing in this way. As Raul Sanchez reminds us in his 2012 text, The Function of Theory in Composition Studies, “Writing does something different and altogether more important than transmit information.” Meaning and concepts are not merely expressed through writing but are themselves a function of writing, not merely representative of a culture but the assembling of culture itself (4). To regard writing in this way is to recognize that what happens in the writing space is complex, dynamic, and an all-together risky endeavor. To assume otherwise is to orient students to writing in such a way as to ignore what is most important about writing, that is its relevancy.

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