A Claim by Any Other Name

By Jennifer Fletcher

In an outstanding webinar I recently attended on rhetorical modes, the presenters explained that “modes” are text structures, text types, or organizational patterns.

“Why do we do that?” one participant asked, “Why do we have so many different names for the same thing in English language arts? Wouldn’t it be easier if we all agreed on the same language?” The answer to this thoughtful question has a lot to do with the history of intellectual conversations in our discipline. Because the study and practice of human communication extends back over two thousand years, we have centuries of other scholars’ terms and definitions to contend with in arriving at our understanding of a concept. And I don’t think we’d want it any other way.

Getting everyone on the same page when it comes to the language students use for their academic work can interfere with students’ ability to notice differences in disciplinary contexts. Differences in terminology are not superficial. In Learning that Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World–a rich and wonderfully actionable resource for helping students to be flexible and adaptable learners–the authors explain that “the major differences among academic disciplines are differences in ways of knowing” (Stern et al. 58). Disciplinary literacies are thus “the unique ways each field constructs knowledge about the world” (Stern et al. 58).

Even within a single discipline such as English studies, we can see how different terms represent the different epistemologies and perspectives that have shaped the development of the field. Disciplines don’t stay frozen in time. We’re not serving students’ long-term interest by smoothing over the intellectual disagreements that characterize the history of a field.

This is why it doesn’t bother me that students learn to “defend a position with reasons” in one class while they learn to “support an opinion with evidence” or “draw a conclusion” in another class. The skills and the language we use to teach those skills shift from class to class, discipline to discipline, grade to grade, and institution to institution (and even, to a certain extent, from generation to generation). Navigating such diverse contexts successfully requires an astounding degree of mental agility. To transfer their learning from one task or setting to another, students need to be able to do the following:

  • Compare and contrast contexts
  • Analyze similarities and differences
  • Make relevant connections
  • Adapt their approach as needed

Teaching for transfer means we don’t try to hide intellectual and disciplinary differences. One content area’s vocabulary or way of thinking will never become the default approach for all content areas, and indeed it would be detrimental to the academic work performed in different disciplines to try to impose a one-size-fits-all approach. Scientists think, work, and communicate in ways that are distinctly different from how historians or literary critics think, work, and communicate (at least in the context of their professional lives). What’s more, the way scientists do their work and talk about their work today is likely to be significantly different from what they’ll be doing twenty years from now.

Calling for a common language for all students works against the goal of transfer of learning and can actually impair students’ rhetorical sensitivity and adaptability. It also erases the historical, cultural, scholarly, and ideological contexts from which language differences emerge—including the many ongoing academic conversations in which the definition of a term is itself the question at issue. Rather than teaching students to use the same terms in all their classes, we can teach them how to discern whose terms and definitions are valued in a given context—and why—and how to engage, affirm, or challenge those terms as critical thinkers.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at jfletcher@csumb.edu or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Work Cited

Stern, Julie, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo. Learning that Transfer: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World. Corwin, 2021.

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