With Written on Their Hearts: Writing, Worship, and Spiritual Formation in the Life of the Mind, Dr. Royce Francis began a new series on writing with a new format for the ESN blog, i.e., Masterclass. Like a Masterclass in music or performance, it provides the opportunity to learn skills from an expert, as well as exercises designed by that expert to help you deepen those skills in your own academic life. In this series, which will run for the length of the spring semester, Royce will weave together theological reflection and practical suggestions on becoming a skilled writer in general and within your field. He will also provide exercises each week to give readers a way to put the ideas in the series into practice. Join ESN for a Masterclass in writing. Questions and conversation are welcome—feel free to use the Comments section to express them, or email them to http://www.intervarsity.org/contact/emerging-scholars-network.
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. — John 12:24, NRSV
Now that you have established some daily disciplines over the past 5 weeks, it is time to start locating your disciplines within your academic community. In my own writing instruction, I like to emphasize 3 A’s of writing: audience awareness, authority, and attention span. The goal of writing is to communicate your message with authority to your intended audience in the form they expect and the limited time they have. This post addresses the first of these A’s: audience awareness.
John 12:24 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It is a concise encapsulation of the Biblical command to love God and others. In the verse’s context, we see Jesus preparing to die for the glory of the Father, then to be resurrected as the risen Messiah seated at the Father’s right hand. In your professional context, this verse provides a model for your heart to follow. If you seek to serve yourself and show your knowledge and technical achievements—your work will come to nothing. If you will learn how to serve your community of practice in ways it can recognize and understand, you will receive a new identity empowered to make contributions within it.
In short: you and your work is the seed. Your community of practice is the earth. Just as Jesus took on the form of human nature—including slavery to death and mortal limitations—in order to be resurrected and empowered to give life, you must intentionally take on the mind of your audience. It is time for you to understand where you have been planted.
As academics, we have been placed into a community of practice. This community is not necessarily identified by the title of your department, e.g., computer science, mechanical engineering, English, etc. Instead, your community of practice is the group of people who pursue a shared meaning and negotiate that shared meaning through reification and participation. In other words, your community of practice is identified through the set of social relationships through which you participate in the negotiation of shared meaning.
As writers, our works contribute both to reification and participation. More formal, peer-reviewed work are ways that new ideas are contributed to the community through participation. Speeches, symposia presentations, conference conversations, and briefs, blogs, or trade publication contributions are also ways in which we participate in the negotiation of meaning. As ideas move from state of the art to accepted standards of practice, these ideas become reified in codes, policies, educational works, and systematic reviews. There is always a tension between participation and reification, as elements of both are always present. This tension is important for us to grasp as academics, because the memory of our communities of practice consists in the artifacts produced at these points of tension.
What does all of this mean? Since we are being integrated into a community of practice, and have been initiated into the process shaping community memory, we must also learn how to speak through our writing to those who are shaping—and have been shaped by—that community memory. The community of practice and its memory are the soil, and we are the seeds—“we” referring to the identities we create for ourselves through our writing.
As an engineer teaching writing to undergraduate engineers, one of the biggest challenges I observe is learning how to look past oneself to their audience. Undergraduates, and even graduate students have considerable difficulty getting beyond all of the work they have done and efforts they have made. They want all of their sweat to be glorified. Unfortunately, in keeping the focus on themselves and their work, they fail to serve the community by communicating in ways the community memory can assimilate. The writer’s hard work remains fruitless because the writer refuses to die to himself and construct an identity recognized by the community.
God has placed you into a community. Have you taken the time to study it and acknowledge it? Have you taken the time to learn how its members speak to one another? Share or negotiate power among one another? Reify or construct its ideas?
God is calling you to give your work over to Him so that you can truly serve your community of practice. He is asking you to become aware of your audience and its needs. He wants you to sacrifice your pride so that you are not tempted to gratify your desire for your efforts to be honored. He is calling you to die to pride so that you can be resurrected within the community with a new, fruitful identity within that context. Here are two things I want you to do this week:
- Become intentionally aware of your audiences. For your current important writing projects, who is your audience? If you can, put a specific individual in your mind. Profile them. Identify what they are expecting in your work, and think carefully about the problems you are solving for them in your work. How would they recognize their own problem framing in your problem framing?
- Become intentionally aware of your community’s rhetorical practices. As a new writing instructor—with no formal training—I was shocked by the amount of rhetorical research available to help scientific writers. Whatever your community of practice, spend some time this week to learn the major rhetorical features of the types of projects you are working on.
What are your communities of practice? How successful have you been in seeking to serve its needs in your prior projects? Can you see how you could become a better communicator to your intended audiences? Would you mind sharing your thoughts in the comments section below?
Peace and Blessings.
Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).